Sunday, 25 September 2011

Sound in the Early Soviet Cinema

[unedited version of an article appeared in The Wire in #329 July 2011 issue]

KINO: Russian Film Pioneers 1909–57
BFI, London, UK

For everyone not acquainted with the early works of Soviet cinema seeing the early, experimental pieces of the 1920s must be a striking experience. It is a succession of groundbreaking masterpieces that transformed the 10th muse. How was that possible in the basically state controlled cinematography, nearly uniquely devoted to propaganda of new Soviet order, with no nods towards mass culture, to maintain its initial innovation and experiment, while remaining also entertaining, joyous watch? The Russian Film Pioneers section of the British Film Institute's KINO season, running until 30 June tries to capture this phenomenon, with all its tensions, eruptions of brilliance and ideas. One of them was the introduction of the sound at the end of 1920s and the transition from the silent – where so much had to be suggested by editing, acting and expression of the visual material to the explosive opportunities of sound. Introduction of the sound techniques left many of the most forerunning artists, including Eisenstein, initially skeptical. The first, who adopted the sound among the avant-garde luminaries, was the one who most vivaciously was denying himself an artist: the pioneer of camerawork, documentary and heartbreakingly beautiful propaganda, Dziga Vertov or the authors of Eccentric Theatre manifesto (1922), Kozintsev/Trauberg’s directorial tandem in their various Shostakovich collaborations. Shostakovich, still in early 20s, after completing his great Gogol-inspired operettas, becomes filmscore author, only to cause a massive scandal: in The New Babylon (1929), bold, astonishing rendering of Paris Commune days by the duo of directors, he masterfully captures the psychological and political nuances of any scene, juxtaposing Offenbach and Tchaikovsky’s grandiose operatic sound with more mundane sound of cancan, and above all things, importing the new, wildly modern sounds of jazz - in a truly postmodern, yet invigoratingly original manner.

No wonder that his satirical approach met instant opposition from the censorship. One can compare watching (and listening!) experience of Vertov’s Enthusiasm to eg. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, but only on the base of oppositions. Whereas Riefenstahl insists on her artistry and sublimity and what she gains is kitsch and rather dull apotheosis of Nazism, Vertov’s apotheosis of shock-workers in Donbass during the realisation of 5 Year Plan (and Symphony of Donbass was the film’s alternative title) remains as striking a masterpiece as it was on the day it was made, pushing the art of sound galaxies ahead. Vertov amassed the scenes of dismantling the old order (iconoclastic looting of the monasteries) with the New: striking images of 'Udarniki' in Ukraine, undergoing mechanization of labour. The New is also expressed by power of the Radio – here scenes of a radio transmission are interwoven with the images of glory of Soviet achievements. The soundtrack, recorded by Vertov himself in situ and then synchronized, was a depiction of mechanization itself, being an aural attack consisting of industrial sounds of steelworks and furnaces working at full temperature and speed, put together with compositions by Shostakovich and Timofeev – here epitomizing the New Economic Policy, that rhythmic sledge hammering of steelworks were to obliterate. The use of sound by Vertov was contrapunctual, or, risking a cliché – dialectical in its construction. The emphasis was on work, how things are made, how the film itself is being made. Sound was supposed to be as tough and heavy as the work itself. The workers liked the final result, because it was showing the work as it really was: shockingly hard, the authorities not so much – the attention to human labour to build communism was not in the political climate of the late 20s.

Another fascinating use of sound happened during the festival screening of Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia (1928), a tremendous first attempt on an alternative western, or rather an “Eastern”, with the congenial soundtrack of Yat-Kha, a contemporary traditional Tuvan band. The musicians sadly couldn’t play it live, stopped by the lack of visas, so soundtrack was played from a dvd. Film is striking in combining the breathtaking visuals from the Republic of Mongolia, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist message and a revolutionary agitation. Tuvan musicians approached it with a similar playful eclectism, combining traditional drones and throat singing with nods to Western pop-culture, guitars and traditional rock, ironically quoting even The House of the Rising Sun, to a successful comic effect.

Cinema was a crucial, highly theorized art for the Constructivist avant-garde. Their writings remind us how popular metaphor of abstraction musical composition was. “There’s nothing else in musical composition, than relation of pitches to one another” wrote literature theorist Victor Shklovsky. The play of a disciplined form and arbitrariness happens in the early Soviet films in its fascination with the rhythm, which equated the modernity, the reality of speed, of mechanized life. Rhythmization was also preventing an easy fulfillment of the mimetic powers of cinema, a strange Verfremdungeffekt. Soviet filmmaker wanted to melt various features of an artwork as a Gesamtkunstwerk. In their films Vertov dreamed of becoming a seeing machine, while Pudovkin presented human brain as a machine.

In the end, sound contributed to all that, but, just as its appearing intersected with the consolidation of a Stalinist power, it couldn’t fulfill its revolutionary promises. Still, even in Stalinist era musicals, such as Alexandrov’s Happy Folks, Circus, Volga, Volga were not just simply russified Chaplinesque or Hollywodian forms. Watched after the years they seem strangely Brechtian vaudevilles. Soviet avantgardists were seeing a filmwork as a dense multilevel whole, equally a montage of attractions or the disruption of an artificial visual spectacle, and the sound acted like a final storm, sending the filmwork the final revolutionary shivers.

Kino: Russian Film Pioneers 1909-1957, BFI Southbank, London, 1st pt until June 30

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