Sunday, March 31, 2013

The House on Trubnaya

Ah, Soviet film in the 1920s.  It is truly the best of all worlds: an art form coming of age in one of the most fascinating places in the world in perhaps one of the wildest and creative decades in world history.

In keeping with the 1920s Soviet film kick, I've decided this month to discuss Boris Barnet's The House on Trubnaya from 1928.  This film is a fine example of a classic Soviet comedy.  However, Trubnaya work is just as much about social commentary as it is laughter.  The mistreatment of Pitunova (Vera Maretskaya) and the almost tacked-on ending trial of the hairdresser Golikov (Vladimir Fogel) are very much testaments to this.

Trubnaya, then, is a work that not only exemplifies the USSR in the NEP era but is also a work that is very much representative of it.  On one level are the film's comedic elements, its cinematic experimentation, and its buoyancy, all seemingly manifesting the relative cultural freedom and economic liberalism of this era.  On another level, there is the film's social consciousness and, at times, its rather moralistic "law and order" tone that seem to allude to the uneasiness or even outright hostility of committed Bolsheviks toward the permitted excesses of this era.  In short, it is the ultimate NEP film because its very structure reveals the major cleavages of Soviet society during this era.  Indeed, the film's very NEPness is reflected in the number of writers involved.  The credits list five, including the great playwright Nikolai Erdman, the poets Anatoli Marienhof and Vadim Shershenevich, the writer/critic Viktor Shklovsky, and the screenwriter Bella Zorich.

Another outstanding characteristic of Trubnaya is Barnet's employment of montage.  Instead of utilizing montage as a means of emphasizing an idea, Barnet instead uses it to set the tone of the film.  Editing can be used either in a very slow, deliberate manner or in a very rapid, frantic manner, depending on what the plot of the work calls for.

In the opening, Barnet opts for slower, more deliberate editing and it works beautifully.  In truth, I really love the opening shots of this film, showing the house and the city sleeping and then waking up.  There is such a naturalness to this and it truly sets the stage for what happens next.  Most importantly of all, it captures the attention of the audience and entices them into the story.

The House on Trubnaya sleeps...

The city sleeps...

Moscow awakes... slowly...

As the city wakes, we are gradually treated to a glimpse of the House on Trubnaya as it wakes.  The best part of this is watching the compacted house "come alive" with its various denizens, all hailing from different backgrounds and occupations and all concentrated into a single location.  I find this sequence just as amusing as it is fascinating because it betrays so many truths about what life was like in Soviet-era housing.  This comedy of truth also reveals a certain degree of cynicism and almost subversiveness that one could only truly get away with in the NEP-era (and perhaps, later, glasnost-era) USSR.

We are introduced to, among others, the hairdresser Golikov played by Vladimir Fogel.  I'm not sure how many films I've seen Fogel in, but I must say that he is quite a versatile actor, going from a role as serious as Dennin in Kuleshov's By the Law to someone like the hairdresser in this film who, though giving some serious parts, almost comes off as a foolish or even comic character throughout.

Monday, February 25, 2013

By the Law

In December, I blogged about Lev Kuleshov's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.  As entertaining as this work is, it must be noted that it was used as a means for Kuleshov to experiment with previously used techniques (as seen in popular American films) and to forge and devise a language of cinema all his own.

This month, I'm writing about a very different Kuleshov film, the third produced with the actors from his Experimental Cine-Laboratory.  This is By the Law, a film whose plot is based on the short story The Unexpected by Jack London and adapted for the screen by Kuleshov and Viktor Shklovsky.  Though story is all London's, the film's essence, delivery, and character appear more reflective of the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  But then again, this is a Russian film, directed by a Russian director, and adapted by Russian writers, so would one expect much less?

By the Law is a major achievement of economic film production, proving that a truly great film can indeed be produced on a limited budget.  By the time of its production, Kuleshov has clearly come into his own, utilizing more poetic techniques to illustrate his narratives.  Consequently, the action and high tension of Mr. West are hardly apparent in this film.  The pacing is much more restrained and deliberate, slowly bringing the viewer into the story.  Though some film analysts have likened certain images in this work to the fundamentally abstract and anguished settings of German Expressionist films, its overall character appears more reflective of French Impressionism, though even this is problematic as there is no total consensus on what precisely constitutes French Impressionism as a unified style.

The plot of By the Law involves a gold digging expedition in Canada.  The characters include the Irishman Michael Dennin (Vladimir Fogel), the Swede Hans Nelson (Sergei Komarov), Hans' English wife Edith (Aleksandra Khokhlova), the Dutchy (Porfiri Podobed), and Harky (Pyotr Galadzhev).

Yet, it must be noted clearly from the outset that perhaps the greatest character of the film is one not played by any actor.  This is nature, whose presence and influence can be felt in every scene and image.  A central theme of the film is the unpredictable and seemingly uncontrollable character of nature, a fact that distinguishes Kuleshov's film markedly from London's original short story.

Within the title alone one can see the difference.  While London's original story is entitled The Unexpected and focus on an "unexpected" situation that brings out "unexpected" behaviors in the characters, Kuleshov chose to call his film By the Law.  This is significant as it highlights the basic tension of the entire film: the conflict between the law of civilization on one hand and the law of nature on the other.

Edith Nelson, portrayed by Kuleshov's wife and muse, Aleksandra Khokhlova.

The film's story begins when Dennin manages to find a spot where there is gold much to the group's delight.  Subsequently, the company experiences "good fortune all winter long."

Edith searches for gold in a gold pan.

Unfortunately, as time goes on, Dennin reaps little of the benefit of this discovery.  Instead, he is relegated to menial tasks (like washing clothes), which he deeply resents.  One day, when returning to the cabin, Dennin perceives his fellow explorers as making fun of him.  In a burst of anger, he turns his shotgun against them and shoots, killing the Dutchy and Harky.  The Nelson couple manage to wrestle Dennin to the ground and grab the gun.  They then tie him up, bury the two killed men, and resolve to try Dennin by Victorian law, despite their being located in a total wilderness.

It is here where the basic conflict of the film exists: the tension between nature on one side and the human being on the other.  Edith and Hans are both work to protect themselves against becoming part of the savage "wilderness" while Dennin, by his acts, has already one foot in the "uncivilized" world.   The characters here are very much "on the edge," both in a physical and psychological sense.  They turn to the "law" as a stabilizing force, with Victorian law presented as a means of "civilizing" the nature that surrounds them and Christian law as a means of interpreting it.

Yet, while both Hans and Edith are very much in agreement on trying Dennin based on the law, there are differences even between them.  Edith is horrified by the thought of any killing and informed by her Christian ethic, is compassionate and forgiving toward Dennin.  Hans, by contrast, is filled with unforgiving rage and seeks to kill Dennin no matter what.   In this regard, Hans is much closer to "uncivilized" nature than Edith and it is often up to Edith to keep him from becoming totally "barbaric" and "uncivilized."

Hans (Sergei Komarov)

Edith (Aleksandra Khokhlova)

Dennin (Vladimir Fogel)
Edith guards Dennin.

Edith on edge.

Hans, Edith, and Dennin celebrate Edith's birthday.

In the end, despite Edith's strong religious and ethical convictions, Dennin is sentenced to death, according to Victorian law.

Dennin pictures his execution.

In the subsequent execution sequence, Edith struggles to deliver her "last rites" sermon.  She becomes totally bereaved and her religiosity, apparent throughout the film, becomes more fanatical.  It is here where we are treated to perhaps one of Khokhlova's finest acting performances.

Edith performs the "last rites."

Just as the Dennin is about to be finally hanged for his crimes, Edith declares, sobbing, "may God accept you into His kingdom."  Subsequently, Dennin looks toward the sky to see an entanglement of tree branches, illustrating the incongruency between Edith's received morals and the actual situation of the characters.  It also illustrates the much greater incongruency between Edith's interpretation of nature via her literal devotion to the Bible and the actual nature that surrounds (and arguably envelops) the characters.

Then there is the film's twist ending.  This departure from the original story makes the film uniquely Kuleshov's own.  In London's original, Dennin is hanged as a group of Native Americans watch.  In Kuleshov's version, Dennin does not die but instead returns to Nelsons (in a truly Dostoyevsky-esque manner). Significantly, he does not take any retribution on his executors, just his share of the gold.  He then gives them his noose for "good luck" before trudging off into the rain.  The effort by Hans and Edith to "civilize" nature and live according to the law has been undermined by the course of nature itself!

Dennin survives

The twist ending is significant as it says a lot about the role of nature in the film.  Whereas in London's original, it appears as though "civilized law" has triumphed over nature, Kuleshov illustrates that the course of nature is entirely unpredictable and that nature can never be entirely defeated or reigned in by any laws, save for its own.

This unique take is in and of itself a very Russian view of nature.  In the Russian cultural context, nature can be both bountiful and harsh and is regarded as so vast and powerful that no human could even hope to control it.  The Nelsons, therefore, are attempting the impossible.  Notably, in London's original story their ultimate implementation of Victorian law represents a small "conquest" of sorts over nature.  This very Anglo-American view casts nature as the victim of the human law that claims to be "civilizing" it.

By contrast, in Kuleshov's interpretation, their implementation of Victorian law collapses against the overwhelming will of nature, like a twig attempting to prevent the total collapse of a dilapidated building.  It is truly a narrative that the Russian or Ukrainian peasant living in the harsh and cruel Siberian wilderness could readily identify with, especially those who had any memory of being forced to live off the land as serfs.

Tragically, it was this deep-seated desire in Russian culture to control and "conquer" the seemingly unconquerable course of nature that most brutally expressed itself in Stalin's heavy-handed industrialization of the 1930s.  Its cost were the lives of millions of innocents and a legacy of environmental destruction and decay throughout the former USSR.

Perhaps not surprisingly, By the Law was enthusiastically received by the Soviet public at the time of its release.  Even less surprisingly, it was less-than enthusiastically received by Soviet authorities.  Given its apolitical character, poetic storytelling, moral complexity, and focus on individual characters, it is not difficult to see why.  However, perhaps most alarming for Soviet authorities was the film's depiction of nature as an unknowable, unpredictable, and ultimately unconquerable force.  This would only contradict and potentially throw into question Soviet efforts to reign in and change the course of nature for the benefit of the narod.

Though the film is currently not available online in full, it is available on DVD as part of the four-disc Landmarks of Early Soviet Cinema set with a new score by the acclaimed silent film composer Robert Israel.  Unfortunately, it appears to have been mastered from a VHS copy, not an actual film print.  Fortunately, Soviet film historian Dr. Ana Olenina of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has recommended a much cleaner DVD version of the film that can be purchased here.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Journey to Soviet Armenia:
The Red Flag at Ararat

The Red Flag at Ararat book cover.
Yes, this is another non-film-related post.  However, it is Soviet-related and is totally worth reading – I promise!

On the shelves now is the new republication of the 1932 book The Red Flag at Ararat.  Printed by the London-based Gomidas Institute as part of its Sterndale Classics series, it features a new introduction, written by me, that contextualizes the work for students, scholars, and contemporary readers.  It also includes all the illustrations from the original work as well as a new glossary of place names.

The Red Flag at Ararat is the account of a young Armenian-American woman's experiences traveling from her home in New York City to Soviet Armenia in the early 1930s.  The work was the first English-language account ever written exclusively about the Soviet Armenian republic.  Notably, the original cover art, preserved in the new republication, was illustrated by the architect Zareh M. Sourian who designed St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in Manhattan.

The author, Aghavnie "Ave" Yeghenian (1895-1963), was a highly distinguished member of the Armenian-American community.  A committed New Deal Democrat, a practicing Armenian Christian, and a social activist, she was a graduate of Yale Law School (in 1937!) and a founding member of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in Belmont, Massachusetts.  A specialist in immigration issues, she also served the YWCA, the AGBU, the New York City government, the Federal government, and the American Red Cross.

Newspaper photograph of the author,
Aghavnie "Ave" Yeghenian from 1933.

Her account is an eye-opening text, a portrait of Soviet life in the early 1930s filled with plenty of fascinating observations and insights.  Outside of Soviet Armenia, she also visits Leningrad, Moscow, Baku, and Tbilisi, the latter of which she enjoys the most.  She also recounts discussions with several locals as well as Soviet Armenian officials, including the head of the Armenian GPU (predecessor to the KGB)!  A fluent speaker of Armenian, she had little communication difficulty.  Significantly, many of the officials with whom she meets (including Sahak Ter-Gabrielyan and Aghasi Khanjian) would later become victims of Stalin's Purges later in the 1930s.

Ms. Yeghenian's account serves not only as a work of major historical interest, but also as an entertaining read as well.  Her prose is witty, charming, fun, and always insightful.  It is a work long overdue for republication.

This is not all, however.  The year 2013, in general, appears to be an exceptionally good year for new Armenia- and Caucasus-related books.  On 1 February, Gomidas will be publishing another Soviet Armenian-related work, Unmailed Letters, the memoirs of the Armenian dissident-activist Hambardzum Galstyan. An advocate for Armenian cultural and political rights, Galstyan was a member of the Karabakh Committee and a leader in the Armenian national democratic movement during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost. He then became the first post-independence mayor of Yerevan before being assassinated in 1993. The book is translated from Armenian to English with an introduction and annotation by Agop J. Hacikyan.

Then, on 18 February, Matthew Karanian and Robert Kurkjian will be publishing the third edition of their Stone Garden Travel Guide on Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh.  If you enjoyed the last edition of their book, then this new one promises to be even better yet.  If you have never heard of the Stone Garden Guide before, then be sure to purchase it as soon as possible!  Packed with useful information, detailed maps, and beautiful color photographs, it is a must for anyone interested in visiting the region.

Next, literally a day after the publication of the Stone Garden Guide on 19 February, NYRB Classics will be publishing Robert and Elizabeth's Chandler's English-language translation of An Armenian Sketchbook, Vasily Grossman's account of Soviet Armenia in the 1960s.   It is noted for being Grossman's most intimate work, characterized by "its tenderness, warmth, and sense of fun."  However, it was also partially censored by Soviet authorities and, consequently, the author never saw a complete version published during his lifetime.  This translation (the first in English) is derived from an unedited text and will no doubt prove to be an invaluable resource for historians and literary analysts alike.

Finally, on 18 June, the Yale University Press will be publishing Nora Seligman Favorov's English translation of Arthur Tsutsiev's Atlas of the Ethno-Political History of the Caucasus.  A stunning geographic resource with full-colored maps and detailed analyses, Tsutsiev's Atlas is rivaled only by Robert H. Hewsen's Armenia: A Historical Atlas as a major geographic resource on the Caucasus.  The original Russian edition was published in 2006 by the Europa Publishing House and proved to be an indispensable resource to scholars, historians, and area specialists seeking a clearer, objective understanding of the Caucasus free from the thicket of rival nationalist narratives.  Therefore, Mrs. Seligman Favorov's translation will be a major contribution to the field of Russian and Soviet studies.  It is a must-have for anyone seeking to better comprehend that mountainous stretch of territory between the Black and Caspian Seas.

So be sure to pick up a copy of The Red Flag at Ararat today and keep your eyes on these three other upcoming books!   All are essential for any Russian/Soviet library.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

Lev Kuleshov
Every student of film is no doubt familiar with the name Lev Kuleshov and his famous Kuleshov effect.  Less well known among film students, however, are Kuleshov's actual films.  When many think of 1920s Soviet cinema, the great Eisensteinian classics, like the Battleship Potemkin, immediately come to mind.  Yet, despite the significance of such works, silent Soviet film was much more than revolutionary epics.

Kulsheov's 1924 comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks is a prime example of this.  The first feature produced by Kulsheov with the actors who attended his Experimental Cine-Laboratory, it is enjoyable, funny, visually captivating, and (for its time) technically sophisticated.  It is also an underrated work that justifiably deserves greater attention.  It is here where Kuleshov puts his theories of montage, editing, and acting together with an exciting and humorous plot to form something truly entertaining.

The film, co-written by Nikolai Aseyev and Vsevolod Pudovkin, begins in the Cleveland suburb of Brecksville, Ohio, a quaint Midwestern locale where Mr. John S. West (played by Porfiri Podobed), the Harold Lloyd-esque president of the YMCA, prepares to journey to the Soviet Union with his trusty cowboy sidekick Jeddy (future Soviet filmmaker Boris Barnet).

Mr. John S. West

The cowboy Jeddy

His wife, Madge, is devastated over her husband's departure.

Mrs. Madge West

Her concern for his safety is only intensified when the mail arrives and he receives a note and some magazines from a G. L. Collagan in New York warning him about the "barbarous state of Russia today."

The postal worker.

The archetypal Bolshevik as seen in a New York magazine.

Mrs. West expressing her concern.

However, Mr. West casts aside such fears and heads to Moscow with Jeddy as his bodyguard.

Mr. West goes to Moscow... in his very 1920s-style raccoon coat.

However, one of his bags is stolen and ends up in the hands of some less-than-friendly characters, including the sinister Shban (Vsevolod Pudovkin), the One-Eyed Man (Sergei Komarov), the Dandy (Leonid Obolensky), and the Countess von Saks (played by Aleksandra Khokhlova, Kuleshov's wife and muse).


The One-Eyed Man

The Countess von Saks

The Dandy with Countess von Saks in the background.

As they scheme and resolve to "squeeze  every last dollar" out of Mr. West, the cowboy Jeddy becomes separated from his friend and soon finds himself being pursued by the Moscow police in a madcap Wild West-style chase sequence that involves fast editing, daring stunts, and stunning high-wire acts.  It also includes a beautiful shot of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (prior to its 1931 demolition by Stalin).  In the end, Jeddy ends up literally falling into the company of his old friend, Ellie (Vera Lopatina), an American girl (now living in Moscow) who he recused from a mugging.


Jeddy flees as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior stands proudly in the background.

Mr. West, meanwhile, finds refuge in the offices of an American company in Moscow, where the typists remind him of his wife.

Meanwhile, Shban and his gang manage to track down Mr. West.  Here Shban returns to the briefcase to West and recounts a highly fictionalized version of how he "rescued" it from those "dastardly Bolsheviks."  Then, upon finding the case included a red-white-and-blue sock, Shban claimed to have tipped his hat, realizing it was American.

Shban giving instructions to his cabal near an Expressionist-looking tree.

Shban tipping his hat to America.

Shban then informs West that he is being followed and must escape with him at once.

In the meantime, Jeddy is taken into jail by the Moscow police and Ellie bails him out.  She informs the local police officer of Jeddy's past heroism (presented to the audience as a flashback) and explains how his boss back in America misinformed him that "Russians were savages" (accompanied by a scene illustrating the accompanying stereotype).

Images from the "savage Russian" sequence.

As Ellie works to release Jeddy, Shban takes Mr. West on a "tour of Moscow," passing off a rundown building as a "university" and rubble as the site of the Bolshoi Theatre, all to illustrate the savagery of the Bolsheviks.  An astonished Mr. West is then treated to tea "Soviet style" with Shban and the Countess, who tries to flirt (and even play footsy with) an embarrassed Mr. West.  Podobed, Pudovkin and especially Khokhlova seem to have had a lot of fun performing this sequence.  Khokhlova's facial expressions in this scene and in subsequent others are especially fun to watch, adding to the humor of the scenario and the sinisterly funny character of the criminal clique.

Returning to the American office, meanwhile, Ellie and Jeddy discover that West had left in the "company of a very peculiar gentleman."  The two then decide to enlist the Soviet police to help them find Mr. West.

Back at the criminals' headquarters, Mr. West is asleep but soon receives a surprise when "Bolshevik revolutionaries" storm the run-down building.  In reality, these "revolutionaries" are "played" by extra bandits, but they manage to play on the worst fears of Mr. West who attempts to fight them as a "true American."

After trapping Mr. West in a fur coat, the gang then tie up the countess, making her appear as a "hostage" to "Bolshevik savagery," much to the horror of Mr. West.

The Countess and Mr. West are then put onto a mock trial conducted by "Bolshevik tribunal."  This wild sequence with its editing, acting, and striking use of chiaroscuro lighting call to mind the French crime serials of Louis Feuillade as well as the films of the German Expressionists.

A masked Shban, reminiscent of Feuillade's Fantômas.

In the end, the "Bolsheviks" sentence West and the Countess to death.  The two are then imprisoned in an Expressionist-style cell, with the shadows of the window muntins cast on West like a spider's web, as if to further emphasize the fact that he is ensnared in the criminals' scheme.   He is then instructed that both he and the Countess can only be saved at the cost of thousands of dollars.  Desperately West pays the money and is "rescued" through the chimney of the house, covering his face with soot.

In the end, the criminals' plot is foiled by the Soviet police, Mr. West is recused, and the four thieves are arrested.

"Now this is what a real Bolshevik looks like."

The four criminals behind bars.

Mr. West is then treated on a real tour of Moscow led by the Soviet police chief.  The University is intact as is the Bolshoi Theatre and both are flourishing. The American visitor is so impressed that he immediately telegraphs his wife and informs her to burn all magazines depicting the Russians as "savages" and to instead place a portrait of Lenin in his office.

Mr. West is a fun and entertaining film.  Though it is clearly pro-Soviet, it has also been labeled by some incorrectly as an anti-American work that ironically (and some might even say shamefully) "steals" from American films of the day.  However, such a characterization misses crucial points of Kuleshov's work and his intentions behind it.

None of the American characters depicted in the film are shown in a bad or negative light.  They are all likeable and fun characters to which any audience (whether in New York or Moscow) can easily relate.  Also, the inclusion of elements such as the cowboy, Mr. West's raccoon coat, his Harold Lloyd-esque glasses, and even his red-white-and-blue socks seem to indicate a certain sympathy, even affinity or love, on the part of the filmmaker towards the American people and American culture.  This especially makes sense when one considers the fact that Kuleshov himself was openly pro-American and a self-professed fan of American Westerns.  If anything, the film is more of an anti-stereotype film, created with the intention of dispelling common myths in the West regarding the Soviet Union and its people as a "barbarous, Red horde."

Though the film is currently not available online in full, it is available on DVD as part of the four-disc Landmarks of Early Soviet Cinema set, fully restored with a new score by the acclaimed silent film composer Robert Israel.