The Review/Interview/

"There's no slut-shaming in Soviet film"

Guy Maddin on the bizarre beauties and progressive (sexual) politics of Soviet silent cinema

Lev Kuleshov's THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF MR. WEST IN THE LAND OF THE BOLSHEVIKS

by James Quandt
Sep 29, 2017

As we launch our retrospective The Heart of the World: Masterpieces of Soviet Silent Cinema, TIFF Cinematheque Senior Programmer James Quandt spoke with Guy Maddin — whose celebrated, Soviet agitprop-aping short film gave the series its title — about his personal connection to Soviet silent film, the blind spots that come from contemporary culture's teleological views of film history, and why early Soviet culture was in some ways more progressive in its sexual politics than our present cultural moment.

[When preparing this series] I was shocked to register that while the Cinematheque, which is now 27 years old, has done retrospectives of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, and Boris Barnet, previous to this we’ve never done a survey of Soviet silents. I was wondering if you can remember the first Soviet silent film that you saw, and what your reaction was.

I guess when I was sneaking into film classes in my early twenties, I watched an excerpt of the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, and it was so alien to me I didn’t know what to make of it. This will be hard for you to believe, coming from me, but I felt that it was kind of old, and that cinema had come a long way. So I understand how my students feel — I teach at Harvard now — when they face this stuff for the first time, there’s often an initial resistance. [So for me] it wasn’t love at first sight, and I kind of resisted Soviet cinema for a little while. (This is leading someplace good, by the way.) So I was slow to come around to it, but finally, enough years had gone by where I felt that I just had to take Soviet cinema, like so much cod liver oil, that it was good for me. But I watched it then — maybe in my late twenties or early thirties — and I just, I don’t know… all my chakras lined up or something, and it was glorious.

The Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin

I find it kind of fascinating, and maybe a bit shocking, that students still resist it, because in the intervening century Soviet montage has been taken up by visual culture in so many ways — not just in cinema, but also in advertising and other media — that [I am surprised that] students still would have difficulty with it. Is it purely the propagandistic nature of it, or is it the form itself that they resist? I’ve never spent a moment in my entire life as a student or as a teacher in a film class, so it’s totally terra incognita for me.

I think it’s just a resistance to something new. This is the beauty of film as an art form: everyone feels they’re an expert. And when they see something that’s in black and white and from a hundred years ago, and where the acting is organized along different vocabularies, there’s a resistance. But you’re right, two things have been completely incorporated into modern [visual culture from older artistic traditions], to the point where you don’t even notice they’re there: Surrealism (especially in advertising), and montage (especially in advertising). [Laughs]

As for the propaganda aspect, I think I finally figured out that all film is propaganda. It’s sort of like the realization that no documentary can be objective, and it’s up to you as a viewer to sort through the various points of view projected on the screen, and that part is delightful. Sometimes it’s depressing to see and to speculate about the artists working in Soviet cinema and wonder what they would have made [without the restrictions placed on them by the state], but I’ve been making films long enough to know that restrictions and limitations and rules are often very liberating for filmmakers, and things that you have to work around produce unbelievable creative effects sometimes. So I just see these films as… Well, all the ones in the programme are masterpieces, made in the situation in which they’re made. Just the way when you’re watching Hollywood films from the ’30s or ’40s — when they weren’t allowed to mention pregnancy or depict [a married couple in the same bed], or a person getting away with a crime — and [you see how these] really good artists came up with psychologically plausible ways around these limitations and came up with masterpieces. So it’s the same situation [with these Soviet filmmakers].

Thank you, you just gave us our pullquote for social media: “Every single film in this series is a masterpiece.” [Laughter] So, I nabbed the title of your film The Heart of the World for the name of this series. It’s a short film that pays fulsome homage to silent montage and imagery, and I’m just wondering if that tradition has influenced your aesthetic in any other ways, other than that one film?

Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World

You know, when [TIFF CEO] Piers [Handling] commissioned me [to make this film as part of] a tribute to TIFF’s 25th anniversary, it put me, lightheartedly, in mind of when Joe Stalin used to commission filmmakers to pay tribute to him. And I thought, jeez, here’s TIFF, the most important film in my realm, in the Western hemisphere, maybe in the world, for a filmmaker like me, and I’ve been commissioned to pay tribute to it — I can only make a Soviet agitprop film in response. I can’t think of any other way. And my producer, Jody Shapiro, and I laughed about [how] maybe Piers should even appear in [the film] wearing a Joe Stalin moustache. And Piers caught wind of it, and, God bless him, he volunteered to don that moustache and appear in the film. The only thing that prevented him from showing up in the film as Joe Stalin was probably some good judgment on his part, but also, I was shooting in Winnipeg and he was in Toronto, and we only had so much money to shoot. [Laughs]

It’s funny, a lot of people have told me that my early films reminded them of Soviet cinema, but I hadn’t really been watching it yet when I was starting out. I know why [they think that], though: it was because, at the behest of John Paizs, I kept my camera on a tripod and never moved it, and a lot of Soviet filmmakers cut their pictures together without using a moving camera. Also, my films are black and white, and they had this high-contrast lighting, which the print of a print of a print of a Soviet film [you would see] back in the ’80s and ’90s frequently had, whether or not the film did in the first place… and then maybe the fact that I often had to cobble together movies using cast members who never met each other [laughs] and edit them together in the scene and things like that, so it reminded people of Soviet [montage]. And also, by that time, I was fully delighted by propaganda, unlike now when I get saddened by it. I was just delighted by the obvious propaganda gestures in Soviet cinema, and I naively felt that its evils were so apparent to everybody that they could be derided.

This brings us to a difficult and perhaps dangerous topic, which is that this whole movement in Soviet cinema, in the ’20s especially, was part of a general cultural ferment in the USSR in art and design and photography and architecture — and I’m thinking of great artists like Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Malevich, Popova — but it all ended very badly for most of those artists under Stalin. I’m wondering how we [now] perceive some of the propaganda films in this series, which celebrate the very regime that would turn against these artists and repress and persecute them, send some of them into exile, crush and imprison others.

Well, I choose to see, in films like The General Line or Earth, a celebration of collectivism and of Marxism and of communism, and not of Stalinism. Stalin, of course, forced tributes to himself into these works, or you could feel the trade-offs being made, you know. But [I think you have to read past these things], the way you would read through coded homosexuality in Golden Age Hollywood films — you gotta make a leap past the tacit celebrations of Stalin and just see the pure experience, the pure joy to be had in so much invention, such a rapid development of film vocabulary. There’s so much humour and mischief and creativity [in these films], and then as Eisenstein moves along, he starts to sneak more and more mischief in.

Like in the opening of Battleship Potemkin?

Oh man, yeah! When I decided to make this stupid film of mine Sissy Boy Slap Party, I was just trying to channel the hammock sequence leading to the bad meat sequence in Battleship Potemkin. It’s so glorious! And I really just wanted to copy it, except I couldn’t afford… well, I could afford hammocks, they only cost about a dollar-thirty each [laughs], but I couldn’t afford the support beams to hold up the hammocks with the bare-chested [men in them], so all I could do was sort of drape bare-chested men around [the set]. I don’t even need to watch past that opening sequence in Battleship. Who needs the Odessa Steps when you’ve got that hammock sequence?

Guy Maddin's Sissy Boy Slap Party

This leads me to my next question, which is that it seems to me that the Soviet style of silent filmmaking leads to films that tend to be remembered [for] their most famous sequences — the tractor sequence [in Earth], the Odessa Steps in Potemkin, etc. — rather than as a whole, and I’m wondering why that is.

It’s, you know… each individual frame is amazing. It’s the overwhelming power of the montage that builds and builds and builds, it’s so beautiful. And there’s something about the jarring lack of continuity in montage — in Eisenstein’s montage — that feels so avant-garde. There’s something so bracing and bristling. I’ve always gotten a thrill [from it] — I’m so bored by cutting to continuity. You can just feel all [those kind of] films trying to be “real life,” but there’s something about montage [where] you’re constantly ripped out of one place and put in another, and you make associations, and it’s just so bracing to the eyeball. It’s as exhilarating as the most exciting music you’ve ever listened to. It sort of takes a shortcut to the heart the way music does, and you remember it the way you remember music, and everyone knows that songs stay in the memory as well as anything.

What you’re describing is partly, of course, montage theory, because it leads back to the famous Kuleshov experiment, where [the same] very neutral image was read three different ways according to whatever image flanked it.

Does that experiment actually exist[?] I’ve seen a version of it on YouTube, but I never figured out if it was a fan who constructed it with what’s-his-name, the actor…

[Ivan] Mosjoukine, the guy with the incendiary eyes.

Right, right.

The Kuleshov experiment

I wanted to ask, how would you recreate that experiment?

Well, when you’re editing a movie, you’re thinking about it all the time: “This scene isn’t working as well as it could. What if I rearranged these shots this way? Recontextualizing this shot will actually add meaning to a shot where it didn’t exist before.” You could really improve things.

I’ve spent since 2011 until recently working on my movie The Forbidden Room and my online interactive project Seances with Evan and Galen [Johnson], which is really the most Kuleshov-addled project conceivable. We re-shot a bunch of lost films — films that once existed, made by the canonical greats and not-so-greats — made our own adaptations of them, and then we fractured them into little pieces and rearranged them and uploaded them online and have them play in rearranged versions, so that these little fragments of movies bounce off each other: a sequence that we cut together plays with a different score, or an intertitle will change the relationship between two people from father and daughter to brother and sister or husband and wife. We would sometimes insert different props — different MacGuffins, to use a Hitchcock term — around which [the whole] plot would rotate. We tried to take the Kuleshov effect to the extreme so that everything — not just [some object] that one actor would be beholding — could be swapped out for another thing. So the experience is nothing but one big roiling vat of variables — it’s basically just a Kuleshov orgy.

Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson's Seances

And let’s face it, when you’re now online watching, the way people do… You’re just multitasking so much, coming in and out, you’re forming your own Kuleshov experiments on footage that wasn’t intended to be Kuleshoved. Filmmakers worked hard to fine-tune everything to the last, and then it’s being submitted by each viewer to a Kuleshov experience. Even the context of how comfortable the couch is, whether you’re sitting on the remote or not, how often you press pause and go to the bathroom or check your email or are distracted by updates in the lower corner of your screen… You know, all that stuff is just endless.

To continue with Kuleshov: a personal favourite of yours, because you chose it for a Carte Blanche at our Cinematheque some years ago, is his little-known but totally amazing film By the Law. Could you explain your attraction to the film?

The first thing that struck me about By the Law was that it was a Soviet filmmaker adapting a story by Jack London and setting it in London’s world. I was just struck by how London translated so beautifully to the screen in the hands of this Soviet filmmaker, [and] for once, it didn’t feel like propaganda was present in any way. It was just the great outdoors and human truth. And also, just the presence of a plaid shirt in a Soviet film was astonishing. [Laughs] But then there’s a set piece in there — and talk about a sequence! — where a murder is committed in a log cabin, followed by a flood... They’re just so transcendently beautiful. It’s such great filmmaking. And it’s terrifying. People don’t think of being terrified by silent cinema, but it was terrifying and exhilarating and then gorgeous and surreal…

And the acting style is so bizarre in that film: Kuleshov called it something like “biomechanical acting.” And he cast his wife, this unbelievably intense actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, in the film — her eyes alone are terrifying!

Aleksandra Khokhlova in Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

Yeah, yeah, yeah! If I could just impart one thing to students and the general moviegoing public, it would be that all actors are making choices. They’re extracting their version of honest, real life, and then projecting it back onto the screen somehow. They’re not doing “realistic acting.” Far too many people believe that acting has just gotten better over the years, you know, the way surgery has or something. [Laughs] It’s not like, “Well, they did the best they could considering the technology they had available,” or something like that. These are artistic decisions, and they’re made, in many cases, by filmmakers far greater than are likely to walk the earth again.

What’s really exciting about discovering old films is that, every now and then, you discover a new acting vocabulary. So there’s Kuleshov’s “biomechanical acting,” and then [in The New Babylon by] Kozintsev and Trauberg[,] things are mannered in different ways. Over in Germany, Lupu Pick has this kind of expressionism where the inner landscape is expressed outwardly. And a lot of people find that stuff uncomfortable to watch because they feel it’s hammy, or exaggerated. But it isn’t: it’s expressive, it’s drawing something out that’s in the script, that’s in the psychology of the performance, and it’s expressing it. It’s a couple of steps towards ballet, except it’s in the service of narrative. You can feel the bravura decisions behind deploying such acting styles. It’s not just a desperate attempt to tell a story or get a laugh. It’s like discovering Cubism or impressionism or something — it’s a whole new mode.

Abram Room's Bed and Sofa

I’d like to bring up another lesser-known film, Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa, in terms of the daringness of many of these films and their subject matter, despite the fact that they were [supposed to be] celebrating the Revolution. This film deals not only with the housing shortage, which was a serious problem in [Russian] cities [in the 1920s], but also with polygamy, poverty, abortion — plus it’s about a ménage à trois! And, of course, it was frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, but it was hugely popular.

Yeah, and of course it was unavailable for viewing in North America for decades because of the subject matter. In its purest state, communism — and I’m not talking about Stalinism at all — communism addressed really heartbreaking social problems; its adherents were concerned with social justice and social change as much as Bernie Sanders ever has been. And also, [in terms of] addressing sexism, it’s so common to see women featured in powerful positions in Soviet films: in Bed and Sofa, the ménage à trois occasions no slut-shaming. There’s none of that stuff that persists today in North American pop culture concerning women. And knowing what [we] know now, in retrospect, about how hard it was to make the film you wanted to make in the Soviet Union [at that time], it’s all the more wondrous.

And also, you know… it’s inevitable that you gotta talk about Donald Trump right now. He’s reminded us of how we’re never really more than a couple of tweets away from total chaos, and that all the comfort and social progress we’ve made can all go sliding down the snake to square one very quickly, our world can be destabilized so quickly. So let’s not watch any of these films from any smug position of knowing better.


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