The Other History of Soviet Cinema.
Emma Widdis, Socialist Senses: Film, Feeling, and the Soviet Subject, 1917-1940. 418 pp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. ISBN-13 978-0253026941. $80.00.
Since the discovery of a Soviet subjectivity by historians working on the Stalin era, film historians have begun to feel the pressure. The "must" of reconceptualization is in the air. As early as 2000, the Locarno Film Festival delved into revision, calling its retrospective "The Other History of Soviet Cinema" and presenting some rarely seen treasures from Gosfilmofond. In 2018, the archive film festival "II Cinema Ritrovato" billed well-known Soviet films from 1930 to 1937 as a second Utopia and a "pre-Thaw."
Emma Widdis and Maria Belodubrovskaya have now rewritten the history of Soviet film under Stalin. Widdis explores the Soviet culture of sensuality, emotionality, and subjectivity in the period of transition from the 1920s to the 1930s. She defines this development as a shift from the external to the inner life, from the body and its sensations to consciousness, emotion, and imagination. The appeal to the haptic sense in the films of the 1920s is seen as an education of the socialist proletarian senses; the 1930s are concerned with the emotional education that shapes the new subjectivity.
Widdis inscribes this movement into a very broad sociopolitical, scientific, and philosophical context. Soviet cinema, usually analyzed within the model of a "new vision" (from Shklovskii to Vertov) or "dialectic montage" (Eisenstein), is understood as a means of reflecting the relationship between the human body and the material world in the new reality. This operates particularly in the sensory experience of surfaces, textures, and objects, to the human hand, skin, handcraft, and labor. Each chapter offers a survey of Soviet discourse on these interconnected topics, such as the psychological debates on sensuality and emotionality; the concept of labor and the division between Homo faber and Homo ludens-, the understanding of factura in art theory and in the practice of Constructivism; the place of embroidery in the context of debates on female emancipation and self-expression; the reevaluation of haptic senses in avant-garde aesthetics (Alois Riegl, E T. Marinetti) and new film phenomenology; gender politics in the Soviet Orient; the concept of childhood within Soviet culture; the history of Soviet set designs in film, and so on. Widdis consistently attempts to correlate Soviet concepts of this time with current Western discourses: Igal Halfin's and Jochen Hellbeck's concepts of Soviet subjectivity in the 1930s, (1) interdisciplinary children studies and Catriona Kelly's history of Soviet childhood, (2) the exploration of emotions by neuroscience, the understanding of labor in the modern world, the debate on Homo ludens in games studies. Haptic and bodily experience has been discussed widely within the new phenomenology of film studies (Laura Marx, Vivian Sobchack), but to this point nobody has endeavored to think about the Soviet film within this frame. (3) Widdis applies these models to the Soviet material and illuminates her theses with a selection of Soviet films (using a good mix of familiar and lesser-known works). The scientific narrative of the book weaves back and forth from generalized theory to filmic specificity and closely read case studies.
By discussing early Soviet Marxist-phenomenological materialism in the 1920s, Widdis shows how scholars anticipated many concerns of contemporary theory that emphasize the body as the locus of a new kind of knowledge of the world. The exploration of the 1930s questions what might have happened to Soviet culture and Socialist Realism had the proletarian sensual revolution been successfully accomplished and had the new, emergent culture overturned control, rationalization, and technology in favor of spontaneity and feeling. But this alternative history, in which sensation is seen as a force of resistance against the consolidating norms of the Soviet ideology, is not so persuasive. The idea of emotionality is not sufficiently grounded in the idea of subjectivity--at least not in the analyzed films. I do not mean their plot material but the actual means of expression, which Widdis does not include in her analysis. The films of the 1930s rejected any connotation of the subjectivity that had been accepted in the 1920s (camera angles, lights, montage, filmic self-reflexivity, etc.) without suggesting anything new. The historical shift that Widdis explores is inscribed in the structure of her own investigation. The film analyses of the later chapters become more and more oriented toward plot and are lacking the precision of the early chapters. The "oriental" chapter analyzes emancipation from the perspective of gender studies, but Widdis does not successfully connect it to the book's general topic (haptic experience, emotionality, the sensual revolution that would overturn rationalization). The attempt to include Grigorii Aleksandrov's comedies into the modern debates on Homo ludens is an interesting suggestion but is lost amid many other topics (exoticism, orientalism, gender). A fascinating discussion on new toys delays the attempt to conceptualize a child's subjectivity. The transposition of a modern understating of film as a multisensorial experience from today to the 1920s seems sometimes problematic. Ernst Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer, for example, saw the film as a reduced sensual experience that could produce the destabilization of personality. (4) The idea of subjectivity in connection to film was repeatedly questioned in numerous early and recent theories of film. Nevertheless, Widdis's rich and fascinating book has opened a new perspective from which to think about the Soviet cinema.
A totally different approach to the same history is suggested by Maria Belodubrovskaya, a film scholar from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This school was shaped by David Bordwell, who rejected the model of writing film history as a narrative of auteurs and suggested instead the search for connections between economic, technological, organizational, and production histories and the concurrent developments in film style. His seminal Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production constitutes a shadow frame for Belodubrovskaya's exploration. (5) But Bordwell's book is now history. Modern film studies has discovered a new field--production studies, an emerging interdisciplinary method focusing on practices, sites, and communities in screen media industries which uses models such as the ethnography of media production, the political economy of media, the sociology of cultural production, and organizational studies. (6) Different from Widdis's attempt to connect distant history with modern models, Belodubrovskaya keeps strictly within the 1930s as she applies Bordwell's model--with some modification--to the Soviet film industry. In the book, she manages to approach the production history of Soviet film without any references to technique, finances, and technology. She looks at the production structure and the organizational system, the hierarchy--but not in the Hollywood understanding of the vertical integration of production, distribution, and exhibition (in her analysis, the latter two components are excluded). The Soviet model that she describes is a pyramid (studio, Main Administration of Cinematic-Photographic Production [GUFK], State Repertoire Committee [Glavrepertkom], Central Committee, Stalin).
She writes the history of Soviet cinema as stories of failure on all levels: production organization, institutions, even censorship. The study surprises with some unexpected conclusions: that the conception of an organized and controlled system of thematic plans, severe censorship, and hierarchical structures is false. The studios were much more independent in their decision making; thematic plans existed only on paper and were not applied; instead of a rigid censorship apparatus, we are met on one side with production chaos and on the other with the chaos attending the censors' decisions.
The Stalinist cinema industry failed to develop professional management and professional screenwriters (despite many attempts). The industry was based instead on a director-oriented model; within the entire crew, this rather independent, minor dictator held control in his hands. This director-centered (and not writer-, producer-, or censor-centered) production model and the old, familiar Russian disorder are made responsible for the failure of the imported Hollywood model (production units led by specialized producers; connection of stars and genres; the concept of A and B pictures, here modified slightly by Stalin toward the exclusive production of masterpieces), which resulted ultimately in an abortive Red Hollywood. Mass cinema failed because of the dysfunctional industry, the industry failed because of its misguided orientation, and even Stalinist censorship failed because of human error. When Stalin loved the films, Litovskii and his colleagues from Glavrepertkom found them ideologically questionable, as in the case of A Chance Encounter (Sluchainaia vstrecha, 1936) and Convicts (Zakliuchennye, 1936). Stalin criticized The Generation of Victors (Pokolenie pobeditelei, 1936), while Litovskii considered it ideologically perfect. In the mid-1930s, "the iron boss" Boris Shumiatskii tried to create a vertical integration of production, distribution, and exhibition (as in Hollywood), but the Central Committee then decided to decentralize film production. Yet Belodubrovskaya fails to observe that this occurred in 1946, just two years before the US Supreme Court's antitrust decision initiated the beginning of the end of the Hollywood system.
The study confirms that the plans for a film industry and the reality that ensued were vastly divergent. But not all the author's conclusions are convincing, since the attempt to rewrite the history of film as a history of failed production while entirely ignoring the material base (money and technology, the necessity of building factories to produce film machinery and stock, the transitions to sound and color, experiments with 3D, etc.) cannot work.
Statements such as that The Battleship Potemkin was largely unpopular with the Soviet audience because it ran for only four weeks in Moscow, while Robin Hood ran for a month in eleven movie theaters, rings untrue when it is not checked against the number of prints of The Battleship Potemkin that were made available for exhibitors. This number was, in fact, so low (due to a shortage of film stock) that the film could not be shown in Odessa until 1927, and the negative had to be sold to Germany in order to produce the necessary number of copies for distribution.
Belodubrovskaya's short study attempts to embrace a long period (193051) and to look into the organs of censorship at its differentiated levels (from industry censorship to the censorship committee to the inner control of a filmmaker, etc.). But she has to restrict her sample size to only a few cases. The fate of Alexander Medvedkin's Miracle Worker (Chudesnitsa, 1936) is remarkable, but can it be generalized into a conclusion about the whole system? Only with an argument that there was no system.
Institut fur Film-, Theater- und empirische Kulturwissenschaft
Johannes Gutenberg-Universitat Mainz
55122 Mainz, Germany
(1) Igal Halfin, From Darkness to Light: Class, Consciousness, and Salvation in Revolutionary Russia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000); Halfin, Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
(2) Catriona Kelly, Children's World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
(3) Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991); Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Laura Marx, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
(4) Siegfried Kracauer, "Cult of Distraction: On Berlin's Picture Palaces," trans. Thomas Y. Levin, in "Weimar Film Theory," special issue of New German Critique, no. 40 (1987): 91-96; Ernst Bloch, "Melodie im Kino oder immanente und transzendente Musik" (1914), in Kein Tag ohne Kino: Schriftsteller uber den Stummfilm, ed. Fritz Giittinger (Frankfurt am Main: Deutsches Filmmuseums, 1984), 315.
(5) David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger, Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production (New York: Routledge, 1985).
(6) Vicki Mayer, Miranda J. Banks, and John T. Caldwell, eds., Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries (New York: Routledge, 2009).
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|Title Annotation:||Not According to Plan: Filmmaking Under Stalin; Socialist Senses: Film, Feeling, and the Soviet Subject, 1917-1940|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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