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

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

We Want to Be Modern - Polish design exhibition

[unedited version of an article that appeared in ICON 094 April 2011here]

more photos

“We are aiming at a beautiful future, but we cannot see its shape yet, we cannot imagine the form and the scope of the life we are aspiring to. Which is why we want and we demand that visual arts show us this good, just and happy future life” – so said Jerzy Hryniewiecki, designer and theorist in the 1st issue of the “Projekt” magazine from 1956, heralding the new commandments of life after the 'Thaw' in People’s Poland. Modernity became a fetish for the society. The exhibition We Want To be Modern. Polish Design 1955-1968 from the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw shows a flamboyant, glamorous and complicated face to the oft cited, but frequently misunderstood socialist-era Polish design. This period proved to be the most interesting in the vast collection of the Museum, which still has no permanent exhibiting space and seeks for a new one to store over 24,000 objects, now hidden in magazines. This show seeks to change it.

In post-war Poland there was a general necessity of restoration. It was not only a dream, but rather a dramatic necessity in a country left in total destruction after the war. The break was Warsaw's World Festival of Youth in 1955, a mass event typical of the People's Republics. Carnivalesque street decorations were designed by the students from the city’s Fine Arts Academy. Before the 'Thaw' Polish designers couldn’t refer to the 20s and 30s avant-garde, because Socialist Realism did not permit any steps outside its canon. The liberation from sotsrealism brought enormous hunger for everything new. That included also not purely decorative arts: literature, theatre, music. This time saw the formation of the Polish schools of poster design (Tomaszewski, Cieślewicz, Młodożeniec) and cinema (Wajda, Polański, Munk). In other words, it was the most original culture Poland had in the 20th century. Lots of formerly forbidden experimental art from the West was available, the new generation of artists, who started their education after the war left the academies, and there was a chance that the promises of the failed avant-garde projects of the interwar period could be introduced into life.

Many Polish artists of the period were devoted socialists, believing they were building the new Poland, but designers were apparently less subjugated to the power apparatus and much less controlled. It seems that decorative arts were freer than so-called pure art. Their call was to make the life under socialism finally beautiful, and polymaths, like architect Oskar Hansen, author of the famous “open form” theory with wife Zofia, film-maker Jan Lenica, Jerzy Sołtan, Wojciech Fangor, Wojciech Zamecznik, were designing everything from film posters or book covers, to cars, a pioneer shawl or a lipstick advertisement, at the same time being painters and sculptors. There were no barriers between artistic/commercial.

Among the most popular features of the new aesthetics were soft lines, vivid colors, natural, light materials, asymmetrical, slanted forms taken from biology or science, made possible by the use of plywood, fiberglass, or textile printing techniques. Art was supposed to parallel the exploration of the world on a micro as well as a macro scale. Hence Polish designers were taking from such giants as Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen or abstract high art as well: there’s an influence from Henry Moore, Picasso, Matisse, but also Klee, Arp, Brancusi, Pollock or Informel painting. The Warsaw’s Institute of Industrial Design was the queen bee’s cell of the Polish design of that era - there the artists were preparing the prototypes, which were then presented on exhibitions and sold to factories. This way an average Polish family could afford a fragment of the futuristic dream of luxury in their houses. The then very popular and now rare and sought after Ćmielów ceramic figures are a perfect example of the more mass produced but stylistically unique design of the time.

The question lurking in the exhibition space is whether it was possible to develop a specter of a luxurious consumption when there was no real possibility of consumption. Many of the projects were never actually introduced into life, unacceptable to government officials. But the main elements of the style remained in every Polish house and they were truly showing the nation the importance of material culture again after the war.

We Want To be Modern. Polish Design 1955-1968 from the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw February 4th – April 17th 2011

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Wielkanoc, "Girlscarbines"

[first published in The Wire #330 August 2011]

Dziewczyny Karabiny
Manufaktura Legenda

Virgin Mary does the splits – the world falls in!/The communion of holy white wafers of snow covers her eyes and face/ The world of white altars – cemeteries of paradise. This is not, surprisingly, from any Norwegian Black Metal band, but a song called Snow Queen by the Polish new wave group Wielkanoc (Easter, or Great Night, to render its double meaning) from a small Polish industrial town of Lubin, in Lower Silesia, who lasted less than 3 years and were killed, alongside with so much of what was interesting in the Polish alternative scene, just after the collapse of communism around 1990.

Dziewczyny Karabiny (Girlscarbines) was never actually released, and compiles live recordings from the festivals where the group wowed the public and critics, such as Jarocin in 1988, or from the Rozgłośnia Harcerska radio (known for its support of progressive groups in People's Poland) the same year. No wonder they did – live Wielkanoc was a knockdown combination of the moody and the unpolished. Even today it is amazing, how such sophisticated groups were possible in the suicidally grey Poland of the 1980s. As young people from a small industrial town, they knew they had to invent a world around them to have anything on their own. Pretty much, you could say, as did the post punk bands of British industrial areas, but they certainly didn’t have the Citizen Militia running at them with truncheons after the gigs.

What is greatest in Wielkanoc is probably the originality and real provocation in the lyrics. Kasia Jarosz was a truly charismatic vocalist and lyricist, introducing to the nearly all-male Polish scene a rare, assured yet raw female presence, and giving the censors lots of work. Regular meals/Warm checked blankets/Speedy sidewalks/Slit-eyed spiders/Rainy alleys/Train station open/public toilets/female male copulate/The promised protein/no-mans protein. Nobody at that point dared to sing about grim sexuality in communist Poland like this, and there’s definitely no sadder elegy for a spared sperm on the toilet door in any music.

The album’s publication after so many years comes as a part of a wider retrieving of the lost legacy of the Polish punk scene by the same people who were engaged in the volume Generacja (The Wire Feb ‘11). Along with the booklet (sadly, only in Polish) which gathers unique pictures of the band and festivals and (translated) lyrics, Dziewczyny Karabiny tells a fascinating story of the functioning of the new music under the decaying socialist regime. Mainstream and alternative meant something completely different in this economy, where every small dom kultury had a certain budget they had to spend, and frequently supported young rock bands, running alongside the first attempts to capitalize on the music by the more commercial bands of the era. And the fact 1990 destroyed such a rich musical culture only adds another fascinatingly ambivalent layer

Generation - book on Polish punk

[first appeared in: The Wire #324 Feb '11]

Michał Wasążnik/Robert Jarosz
Ha!art (paperback/336 PP)

In the 1983 BBC adaptation of Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, when a Shakespearian actress on a guest appearance in Moscow asks the spy Alan Bates, “What else is there?” (ie apart from ugly clothes and dull people), he responds with a smile, “the system”. That all-pervasive system, too, was a constant presence in the Polish experience, most explicitly after 1945. It dictated the shape of Poland’s art and determined the way Poles felt about the state and themselves: always infiltrated by the system. The common Western view of Poland under communism must have been like the one represented in The Style Council’s “Walls Come Tumbling Down” video from 1985 Warsaw: grey, devastated streets, grim Soviet monuments and the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from Stalin, towering above it all; but nevertheless some enthusiastic small crowd gettng carried away in a nightclub.

But that was the 1980s. Generacja, a photo album now printed in both Polish and English by the renowned Cracow niche publisher Ha!art, is trying to break with precisely this stereotype. Apart from the usual assemblage of associations – drabness, poverty, grim architecture, the shops’ empty shelves, the sense of claustrophobia stifling the breath of the citizens, preventing them from any form of more liberated expression – there was also a place for fun, joy, being young, irresponsible and crazy. During the late 1970s, particularly the few years between approximately 1976 and General Wojciech Jaruzelski proclaiming martial law on TV on 13 December 1981, there was a colourful, unique punk attitude across Poland, expressed in legendary cult clubs like Warsaw Riviera-Remont or later, in the 80s, on youth music festivals such as Jarocin.

The large A4 format book can properly expose the both colour and black & white Michał Wasążnik’s marvellous pictures, perfectly documenting the era’s nervous, angular glamour. This fantastically talented photographer was never properly appreciated in Poland, and has lived in Norway for more than 20 years. Robert Jarosz’s narrative is constructed in rock journalism’s most popular format: an oral history. The text is based on a large number of interviews with the scene’s vital participants, such as Robert Brylewski, Maciej ‘Magura’ Goralski, or Tomek Świtalski (all of whom played in probably the scene’s most influential group, Kryzys), with some strangely perverse nods towards such ambivalent creatures as Jerzy Urban, the communist government’s PR man – an especially nasty but fascinating figure.

Typical group names – Kryzys, Tilt, Brygada Kryzys, TZN Xenna, Deuter, Dezerter, Izrael – tell their own story about Polish punk attitude. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. The most interesting thing about Generacja is the way it unveils the genuine originality and vitality of the Polish counterculture of these times, its carnivalesque ability to have fun. There were soft drugs everywhere, distributed without many problems; there were also secret police infiltrating the musicians and concerts. Parties were organised for epileptics, schizophrenics and erotic experimentation. Yes, even in the darkest times under the communist regime, there was the possibility of genuine fun, and plenty of Polish young folks were willing to have it.

It’s just a pity it was such a boys’ game. Although the first ever punk gig in Poland was by The Raincoats, sadly women never got into Polish punk, or haven’t played a significant role in it – although this is frequently lamented by the male former participants of the scene. (There was the charismatic Pola Mazur of The White Volcanos, or Pyza, drummer with several groups, or Kora from Maanam, but she’s a part of a different faction of popular music) There’s a note of regret, shame even, over why the scene failed to realise its potential. One could argue that because of the extreme patriarchy of the Catholic and masculine culture in Poland, which has barely changed its face even today, even punk, which was supposed to be as basic, sharp and one-dimensional as possible – didn’t manage to pierce it. Pola disappeared, as did so many others, after 1981, and became a comedian in California. That was basically it: unlike the youth in the Latin America at the same time, the Poles never grasped guns, they didn’t take to the streets, but chose internal or real emigration instead.

There’s a sense of unrealised potential, disaffection with the present, and general frustration here, but with a hint of satisfaction that there was a real energy, a real culture going on, against all the odds. Although some now claim that the festivals were only a safety valve for the youth so that they wouldn’t try to destroy the system, we can see how they started to take on their own life. Polish punk and post-punk was never purely ‘journalistic’, and the will to live a relatively ‘normal’ youth – or to live Western youth’s youth (minus the consumption, which remained a fantasy) – vindicates the power of the music.

Cabaret Cixous

[full version of my review of Maria Minerva's Cabaret Cixous, from The Wire magazine #332, Oct 2011. From now on, I'm going to put here my otherwise not available articles published in British press]

Maria Minerva
Cabaret Cixous
Not Not Fun

Although Maria Juur aka Maria Minerva's debut album Cabaret Cixous starts with a song entitled These Days, it's not a new version of Nico's melancholic confession. But the tormented life of Christa Paffgen seems only at first a completely incongruous element to Minerva's private mythology, as presented on her previous EP releases, especially Tallinn at Dawn, full of complicated allusions to feminine desire, schizophrenic sexuality and various difficult (un)pleasures. Like Nico, Minerva struggles for feminine expression and presence in the music. And Juur's dreamy, oceanic, but uncompromising femininity is not miles away from Nico's astonishing gothic folk solo records. Too easily called “woozy” or “romantic”, she's rather testing out the expectations of a young, sexy girl. She's connected to “chillwave” only via a method of sound as if found after 2 or 3 decades lying full fathom five in a rusty swimming pool somewhere in a villa in Los Angeles. Noble Savage and especially Tallinn at Dawn showcased her production skills, an ability to put rich layers of sound one onto another with incredible charm and beauty.

In her escape or at least problematization of the usual associations of femininity, she was using ironically romantic titles and retro pop and disco hooks, then elegantly disrupting them in her charming sound-cum-psychoanalysis machine. Yet an ambitious title belies how Cabaret Cixous shows the signs of overproduction (her third release in six months!). She goes further than before, risking pretension in citing Helene Cixous, philosopher and guru of ecriture feminine, who gained fame after her 1975 essay The Laugh of Medusa. This text attempts to define woman's writing and her dependence on logocentric language. Freud said that woman always looks at herself in a schizophrenic way, assuming the role of a man. Medusa was supposed to take this view back. “Men haven't changed a thing, they've theorized their desire for reality.” says Cixous. Thing is, here we look at Medusa and discover that she's not only alive, but she's beautiful and she's laughing.

In another self-conscious move, Juur claims here only a Cixous cabaret-making, nothing more than that, neither serious, nor academic. Hence the karaoke pop tunes, cheap new age synth ballads, purposely “bad sound” and, as someone said, “cellphone fidelity”. Yet as we know, cabarets turned out to be the most serious catalyst of any worthwhile art of the 20th century. Here, the cabaret is a young woman in her room, an Estonian on a willing London exile, trying various masks in front of her mirror, looking sometimes grotesque, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes seductive, putting beauty into question. Cabaret is equally about the masquerade in this infinitely narcissistic theatre, as it is about inscribing these private things into some bigger scheme. But then again, it realises it is after all “only pop music” released by the most fashionable label of the season, so it stops somehow in the middle. What makes this record special nevertheless, is its longing for undefined freedom, for means of self-expression, an Easterner questioning the latest Western devices. Who in female pop is still even asking such questions today?