Overview of the Soviet Avant-Garde
Overview of the Soviet Avant-Garde
Special Feature──Research on the development of Pre-War Japanese Avant-garde Cinema: Discussing Avant-garde Cinema in Germany, France, and Soviet Union (III)

Translated by Tung Yung-Wei (童詠瑋)

The Soviet school would definitely not be ashamed of the term “avant-garde”. Of course, if we follow the suggestion from Theoretical and Critical Dictionary of Cinema (Dictionnaire théorique et critique du cinema, 2002) that the term “always contains the militant intention and controversial qualities”, the controversies seem to  exist between Soviet auteurs, instead between the films and  the audience or  the critics. It could not be said that there are no exceptions for sure. For example, in Aleksandr Dovzhenko (also Alexander Dovzhenko)’s Land (Земля, 1930), there was an inserted scene of a naked woman’s struggling at home (and appeared more than once) when the Basilian father ignored the family’s objection, holding an exceptional and vital funeral co-host by the young people in the village without the chanting of the priests or pastors. It did seem to cause a lot of controversies back then. After all,  because they were submissive to communist ideas, they also shoulder the mission of educating the masses as elites with knowledge. Therefore, their works naturally strive to convey “knowledge” to the audience with the greatest possible clarity.

[Click here] Land (Земля, 1930)

This is why Dziga Vertov took the lead in Kino-Pravda (КиноПравда, newsletters of  “Film Truth”), whose name was taken from the official Pravda (Truth). In October (Октябрь, 1928), we could see a group of bourgeois threw the Pravda into the river in declaration of victory when July Revolution failed in 1918. Vertov introduced “kino-eye” (kinoglaz) with “perception and glimpse”, the eye of the camera to respond to the following question: Does reality contain truth? How does the film capture and convey truth?

Eisenstein would not use the term “mis-en-scene”, which had not yet been introduced into the cinema discourses. However, “mis-en-scene” itself already considered the connection and the structural role of the lens. For instance, The End of St. Petersburg (Конец СанктПетербурга, 1927) is criticism against bourgeois. Vsevolod Pudovkin added scenes of fierce gunfire on the front lines, which had been seen earlier of the film about the front line of World War I in between a scene of watching the performances in theater (marked as 1920).

[Click here] The End of St. Petersburg (Конец Санкт-Петербурга, 1927)

In Arsenal (Арсенал, 1929), every time when the protagonist was asked of his name,  he always insisted on answering “a Ukrainian worker”. In most of the film, he only appeared when he had to take the critical moment, so it is difficult to see his inner activity or grasp the progress and qualitative changes of his consciousness. Sergei Eisenstein almost lacked of fixed characters in his silent films, except for Old and New (Старое и новое, 1929). But the filming would go back and forth, and he even turned off halfway to shoot October. We would not know whether Old and New was intervened by his peers and got revised. In addition, almost all his films tend to weaken individuality. As for Vitov, since he refused theatrical production and adopt real shooting, there is no so-called plot and characters, and the hierarchy of human and objects does not exist.

[Click here] Arsenal (Арсенал, 1929)

Aleksandr Dovzhenko also presented a train accident in Arsenal, but it is different from the result of the accelerated (impression) montage which too Abel Gance‘s three years to create. In consideration of cost (including money and time), Dovzhenko did not (perhaps unable to) really derail the train, so when the train that was destined to stall (because the conductor was driven off) hit the road, he brought an accordion (demobilized) soldier. The accordion added a leisurely taste to this journey which was yet dangerous in the beginning, and we even felt that we had listened to the music. Even if the speed of the car became faster and the screen time became shorter (similar to the Gance’s techniques here), the accordion still guaranteed the joyful atmosphere, and Dovzhenko had no intention to play suspenseful and fearful games with the audience. However, little by little, the soldiers became worried, but most of them still did not care, until someone said, “The car can’t stop because no one can drive the train.” Then the train really had an accident, but we did not see the crashing scene in the instant instead of the accordion’s rolling down. The accordion even closed itself after it fell to the ground. The male protagonist who had never wanted to tell his  name (he was also the one who drove away the train conductor to force the train to depart as usual, ignoring his suggestion that the construction of the railway ahead was interrupted) was unharmed at all, stood up and said, “I want to learn to drive a train.” He is not a superman, but he is indeed Dovzhenko’s typical image of superman.

Dovzhenko’s films always contain a surreal and magical realism in the narrative. For example, shortly after Arsenal began, the old farmer with a broken arm pulled his horse and vent his dissatisfaction, hitting it a few times. Meanwhile, an inter-title was inserted, “Do you miss your arm, Ivan?”. It seemed to be what the horse said. The audience could only have certain psychological preparation instead of prediction for what fantasy elements Dovzhenko would add to the film.

Near the end of The End of St. Petersburg, the Tsar’s officer came to dispatch the soldiers, and the two workers who came to advocate the revolution faced a row of soldiers who followed the officer’s instructions and raised their guns. The workers did not know whether the soldiers were willing to surrender. At the same time, the scenes of three factory chimney horns were inserted, and then, with an order of “shoot” (presented by inter-title), the soldier fired at the Czar’s officer instead. So the three jet chimneys seemed to symbolize the inner awakening of people (soldiers). In fact, the “shooting” scene was played in between the factory scene with unclear time (where shareholders were prepared to escape from the factory which was like a war fled under the workers’ uprising, but blocked by the leading workers).

The anti-traditional funeral procession of Land inserted the scenes of the mournful look of the conservative grandmother in Basili, the painful childbirth of the imminent mother, and the curse of the priest who did not want to preside over the funeral in the empty room. They are all relatively understandable. In addition to becoming a conflicting element in the funeral procession (but childbirth may be harmony rather than opposition), they also increased the rhythm of the movement. But it is hard to understand the meaning of the naked girl coming from nowhere. Of course, we might be able to explain that to welcome new ideas, we have to strip off all the constraints of ethics, knowledge, and frameworks as well. However, such association with too many possibilities is basically like saying nothing. However, Dovzhenko’s film still aimed to convey the political propaganda of the benefits of the new rural policy to farmers.

In fact, according to the current narrative requirements, even Pudovkin could not meet our standard for “smooth” narrative. In spite of the fact that the genealogy in Storm over Asia (Потомок Чингизхана, 1928) which made the male protagonist misidentified as  “Genghis Khan’s descendants” is rather clearly explained, echoing back and forth, whether the real descendant would be the fake lama who had left the genealogy remains unknown. The later madness of the protagonist is somehow difficult to understand. The silver fox skin he had snatched before was later hung on the neck of a lady might still make sense. However, when he led his donated two thousand cavalry to chase the Tsarist army in the end, the strong wind which blew down all the enemy seems a little bit out there. Although we could still fully understand its metaphor, it does not fit in the principles of general drama.

We could thus find out that the pursuit of authenticity was not what the Soviets were most concerned about. It is also the reason why Vitov would film people going to the market and buying meat with butchers as usual while promoting the cooperative in one of the Kino-Pravda. The inter-title then asked questions to the audience, and the main point was to suggest that they buy meat from the cooperative. So after a promotional advertisement of “Don’t purchase from the private, but from the cooperative”, the film began to play in reverse just to “prove” to the audience that the cooperative’s meat was all delivered directly from the slaughterhouse. As a result, the audience was asked to see the cattle which were still alive 20 minutes ago.

When we think about the essence of the earliest experiments of Lev Kuleshov, one thing to be put in mind is how expressionless actors were link to different images such as a plate of soup, a male body lying on the floor, a semi-naked woman lying and posing pornographically and seductively on the sofa, and later left different impressions for the audience. The reason why we might be somewhat doubtful towards the experiment itself is because firstly, the experimenter might have exaggerated the effect of it, and secondly, it depended on the subject’s film-watching experience and even life experience (for example, young children may not be able to see the actors performing sexual desires from the one with the semi-naked girl). Thirdly, if this kind of over-simple element could stimulate certain (the audience’s own) emotional expression, considering that there are so many elements put in the film, it could be said that what information and how they tried to provide when they might overload the audience with information (not to mention the problem of aesthetic fatigue). Therefore, we would see that Kuleshov bring the results of the experiment into his feature films, such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Необычайные приключения мистера Веста в стране большевиков, 1924), which is a completely different experiment. The same person tried to look at the same thing with different expression, which led to the different effects the object had (usually comedy ones). It is of course the premise of taking the plot and other paragraph information into account.

Eisenstein suggested a more effective and more specific operation method for montage, the logarithmic spiral. Because it is not just about the two connected lenses, but also about how to master all aspects of an object.

[Click here] October (Октябрь, 1928)

Eisenstein intended to find the organicity between the images by the so-called spiral, which is (from the perspective of metaphor) cutting the object into golden ratio, and it could be presented at different angles. Then, cut in again (and change the angle again) and so on. There is a scene in October, where the bridge raised (in order to isolate the insurgents from affecting the bourgeois), following a series of shots of a woman dead body. First, we saw her lying in the middle interface of the bridge from a long shot, and then she was shot from another angle, closer, another angle, even closer, and another angle. If such strength is not enough, then he would add other elements (such as the dead horse of the carriage suspended from the fracture of the bridge and then falling into the sea) to join the organically dynamic spiral sequence. It seems to re-end the static state to the dynamic with such approach of gradually getting closer. No wonder some people would associate Eisenstein with futurism.

The Soviet montage, which started quite early but lasted for a long time, undoubtedly gathered the characteristics of different schools of avant-garde: lines and contrasts, racing and its dynamics, and the sensationalism of American parallel montage. Eisenstein continued to experiment with new creative methods and effects under the name of “vertical montage” to the age of sound films.

  • This article is an inviting article from ET@T’s criticism project “Archive Eyes: Taiwan’s Avant-Garde Culture and Its International Perspective” (2018-2020), which was subsidized from “Visual Arts Criticism” project in 2018, by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF).
  • Sponsors of “Visual Arts Criticism” project: The National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), Winsing Arts Foundation, and Ms. So Mei-Chi.

Editor: Yeh Hsing-Jou
Proofreading: Yizai Seah

作者 Author
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin