Sunday, 10 June 2012

Early Soviet Cinema - an unfulfilled promise to women


Women of the Revolution


[an article commissioned by Sight & Sound June 2011, never made its way to the webiste. I written on sound in Soviet film here]

The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize women’s role in public life after their large participation in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. And although for the Party the liberation of the working class was no doubt a priority, the outcome was granting women, at least in theory, equal rights to men, at the workplace, in social life or at home. This meant establishing the right to maternity leave, eight-hour work day, legal abortion, state-supported care, access to higher education and an easy divorce. Still, the old sexual prejudices resisted. And how respecting women’s lib looked in the practice, was closely examined by the cinema. And the real scope of those new freedoms was actively and interestingly explored by the early Soviet cinema, where womens new role in the society was closely examined. Among the profound social and cultural changes brought by the Revolution, cinema played a crucial role. The authorities quickly discovered its powers of influencing and agitating society and supported the filmmakers as heralds of the new regime. Lenin impressed this fact on Anatoliy Lunacharskii, Commissar of Education, by saying: Of all the arts for us the cinema is the most important. And it was not only a handy form of propaganda for the new system, but a conscious politics of modeling the newly emerged post-revolutionary self. Despite the widespread interest in the early Soviet cinema among film scholars, there has been little discussion of the role of women or the transformation of Russian society. But many of the films included in the currently running Russian Film Pioneers section of the British Film Institute's KINO season explore how the “womens question” acted as a trigger in a lot of the crucial new avant-garde art and cinema. Were directors really addressing womens problems and helped creating a new woman figure in contrast to the pre-revolutionary obliqueness and patriarchy? Were women an important part of the development of cinema?




We discover actually a handful of women who really participated in the process of filmmaking. There were couple of important women-collaborators to their life partners, such as Alexandra Khokhlova, wife of Lev Kuleshov, an eccentric beauty starring in his early films such as the charming, Chaplinesque comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of Bolsheviks (1924) or By the Law (1926). It was an era when eccentric, weird-looking actresses, like her and Elena Kusmina (who starred in Kozintsev and Trauberg's astonishing The New Babylon and Boris Barnets Outskirts), skinny, awkward and forthright, were highly criticized by the mainstream press for being too strange for the screen, which at the time was full of submissive, swooning or vampish sex-objects from Mary Pickford to Marlene Dietrich.


Russian cinema was not, unlike Hollywood or German cinema. More rarely, but tellingly, women were editors, such as Elizaveta Svilova, professional collaborator of her husband Dziga Vertov. Even more rarely, they were filmmakers, like Esfir Shub, pioneering documentary maker and experimenter with sound possibilities in film, author of the amazing Komsomol: Patron of Electrification (1930) showed during the season (I recommend a specialist in the field of Soviet documentary Michael Chanan's essay).


Women played prominent role in Constructivist avant-garde, like Varvara Stepanova, Rodchenko’s artistic and life partner. And Lilya Brik, controversial muse of Mayakovsky, was also involved in films - she acted in The Young Lady and the Hooligan, based on poet’s scenario and produced an Abram Room’s documentary about Jewish collective farms (kolkhozes) in USSR, The Jew and the Land (1926) again, co-scripted by Mayakovsky and Victor Shklovsky,. But women were definitely seen more often in front of, not behind the camera. Closer examination reveals that Soviet and Western women were in the end confronted with similar problems, as if patriarchy was something transcending political systems and cultural patterns. Lets also not forget, that post-revolutionary cinema in Russia, as everywhere else, grew in the shadow of Hollywood. As on other grounds, here a competition between two Empires was taking place. And although Soviets realized the power of mass entertainment very quickly, even the most obviously entertaining Russian films were never meant to be entertainment as understood within a capitalist economy.



The earliest soviet masterpieces, such as Pudovkins Mother (1926), an adaptation of Gorky's classic Socialist Realist novel, gave a pattern of a heroic, even saintly woman character, played poignantly by Vera Baranovskaya, who, unconsciously revealing her sons conspiratorial activity and strike involvement, which sees him sent to Siberia, joins the revolutionary fight. With time, the depiction of women gets more complicated.



In many films we see women enjoying their work: on the factory line, packing boxes, plugging telephones on the switchboard, ringing, typing, make-upping, all in such a joyful manner that its hard to tell whether its work or fun. Especially Dziga Vertov was keen on exploring proletarian women's jouissance: women in The Man With a Movie Camera (1929) are just as well workers as they're machines, their progress is entangled with the progress of the industry. Apart from moments of fetishistic scopophilia: women un/zipping, un/dressing, laughing seductively, sitting in cafes, there's also an attempt to release women from this simple being-looked-at-ness, when women appear as agents: not only working, but also using the gains of emancipation to their advantage. But they're definitely women of different social classes as well: women in beauty salons are not the same women who worked earlier in a factory. It is not clear though, whether the juxtaposed factory lines and makeupping are to be counteralternatives, when Vertov is simply saying "you shouldn't like it", or his making a much more subtle ideological point. The ultimate question is about labour and the gender of labour: what is work, what is the value of work and how does various type of work differ (idle makeupping vs productivity). At the same time message is clear: women are not afraid of modernity, women are approaching it with enthusiasm, they like being able to support themselves (also: women are the greatest propagandists to the splendid progress of the USSR). This is quite different than his ideologically straightforward other films.



From the peasant Marfa, who brings a cream separator (in a famous, peculiarly erotic scene), and in consequence modernity to her village-turned-kolkhoz in Eisensteins General Line (started in 1927, finished as The Old and the New in 1929), to Udarnitse (female shock-workers) from all over the USSR effecting the Five Year Plan in Vertovs Enthusiasm (1931) and Three Songs of Lenin (1934), we see women enjoying all kinds of sometimes extremely hard work. The conviction women can do jobs as hard as men seems common in that era, but let us remember, that apart from the day job, unlike men, most of those women were raising kids and taking care of the house, which was making their situation even more difficult.


If we are talking about women, we have to talk about love. What happens to sex and various other social relations, if we strip them bare of conventional romantic gestures on one side and of Christian morality on the other? Are people in the kolkhozes or Kommunalkas still falling in love with each other or maybe we need a wholly different take on it? The most fascinating film challenging the traditional love drama was Abram Rooms Bed and Sofa (1927), scripted by Shklovsky, one of the best presentations of the split between the public and the private in Soviet Russia, bringing uneasy answers to alleged womens lib. Film depicts Lyuda, trapped in a small room, where she lives with her husband Kolya, but unlike him, a construction worker, she's bound to spend all her days at home, doing housework. When Kolya invites an old friend, Volodia, to join them because of a room shortage in Moscow, their relative compromise dramatically falls. Left to the confines of private life, and the strong interest of another man, Lyuda becomes a mistress of both and becomes pregnant, but what she faces is the old jealousy, and the homosocial bond. The old patriarchy still haunts the Novy Byt (byt meaning in Russian living in the most basic sense), and the free love under socialism cannot be realized. In the end Lyuda chooses escape and single motherhood, perhaps in contrary to both the patriarchal and modern approach of the Communist state, which, until Stalinism allowed abortion.



The director who was the most actively interested in women and their new role in the society was Boris Barnet, arguably the most talented comedy maker in the early period, a master of the satirical comedy of manners. His first effort, an attempt at an action serial, the three part Miss Mend (1926) was based on a series of stories by a woman, Marieta Shaginyan, who tellingly wrote under the pseudonym Jim Dollar, won the love of the public, giving him 1.7 million spectators during the first six months. The critics were more skeptical, accusing the film of a blind following of American patterns. And yet the film, with its fearless female hero, a militant union leader played with amazing panache by Natalya Glan, who nearly single-handedly manages to save the Soviet nation from the evil attempts of American capitalists to spread lethal gas over the land (sic!), is one of the most empowering female portrayals from that era. Barnet's work is one of the most interesting examples of Americanism in Soviet art, where official anti-imperialist propaganda met with genuine fascination.


In Barnets subsequent undertakings, it was always women who were the ambassadors or actors of whats new or exciting about the new Soviet society, or who had to face backwardness and conservativism. Here, being anti-feminist is not only against the official policy of a state which supports womens emancipation, but is simply stupid. In both The Girl with a Hat Box (1927) or House on Trubnaya (1928), probably his best comedy, young women have to face the caricaturically inept, patronizing, complacent and dull petty-bourgeois, who see them only as objects to exploit for sexual or physical work. We also have an interesting clash of the countryside and the city seen especially acutely in the girl/womans innocence conflicting with the citys ruthlessness and chaos, on the one hand, giving them a unique chance for emancipation and self-fulfillment on the other. In the House, the charmingly natural amateur Vera Maretskaya as the 19 year old Parasha, comes to Moscow by mistake she was supposed to stay at her stepfather, but they accidentally pass each other on the train. Left to herself, she becomes somewhat a “slave” to the pair of New Economic Policy beneficiaries, barber Golikov and his pretentious lazy wife, who fear she might join the union and learn about her rights. The disorder of their life is best portrayed by the disorder of the eponymous “house”, which is only being organized, after Parashka is allegedly chosen to the Soviets. Here, the fight for the “Novy Byt” was taking place quite literally.


Theres no mistaking the blatant propagandist overtones of Barnet's work. One can ask the question - to what extent did the screen image accord with the reality? At least until Stalinism, which consolidated its power gradually and inconspicuously throughout the second half of the 20s, women in the USSR really were experiencing enormous progress in their emancipation. Maybe the most significant moment of the backlash was the rise of Lyubov Orlova, the most significant Stalinist female superstar, the Leader and nations favorite, star of her husbands Grigori Alexandrovs hits, Happy Folks (1934), Circus (1936) and Volga, Volga (1938), films that had nothing to do with the reality of the USSR and were intended as replicas of Hollywood. A Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin in one, she usually played the role of ordinary girls, elevated to stardom by their talent and innocence. She was a mass entertainer and her sexuality was less important than vis comica. Awarded  honorable actor of USSR and Stalins prize laureate, she was supposed to be the living advertisement of Stalinist happiness.



The subsequent erasure of social problems in Soviet films had more to do with the abrupt change within the political system, but one cannot stop thinking of the unfulfilled promise the Soviet cinema made to women – first making them social and political subject with full rights, but then showing them always more as archetypes than individuals, and even if they were rewarded for their hard work, they could exist only as giants – deprived of their gender or individuality.

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