ELENA VOGMAN / Politics of Rhythm Effect and Affect in Ukrainian Avantgarde Cinema1
to rrrecord it
Thrrree ‘rrri’ - ‘rrri’
So the Hurrricane
from the arrrbourrrs
and the windstorrrms shrrriek.
Revolution is an aesthetic event.
This was the perspective developed by cultural and political agents around 1917, during the early Soviet period: the event of the Revolution as a seismic shift in the dominating material and symbolic order. In his speech delivered on May 5th 1918—an important reference text for such directors as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov—Lenin described this period not as one of a total renovation but as one of transition: a state of a radical heterogeneity. The revolutionary situation, he said, is one in which “elements”, “particles”, “fragments” of both capitalism and socialism are present. As equal and constitutive elements of this transitional period he identifies the “patriarchal agrarian economy” alongside with “small scale industrial production”, “private property capitalism” alongside with the “emerging socialism” and “state capitalism”. The coexistence of disparate elements that in Lenin’s political economy defines the revolution is also central for a new aesthetic principle. Material shifts that became tangible in everyday existence were gradually transformed into a new horizon of aesthetic production.
In an article published July the 6th in the newspaper Pravda, Eisenstein revealed his plans for his future film The General Line and quoted Lenin in the title of his programmatic statement. In Five Epochs he writes: «In our cinemas was shown an American picture called The Three Ages2. Simultaneously interlaced. And that is funny. Approaching the question of practicing agriculture we have Lenin’s ‘five epochs’. Simultaneously interlaced. And that is sublime3».
The interlacing of the disparate economical and social formations requires a simultaneous coexistence of different temporalities. The nonsynchronous architectonics of time was one of the fundamental points in Trotsky’s late History of the Russian Revolution. In Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution he puts this coexistence of archaic and modern into a paradoxical formula on “the development of Russia” which “is characterized first of all by backwardness”:
Historical backwardness does not, however, signify a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries, with merely a delay of one or two centuries. It engenders an entirely new ‘combined’ social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into the relations of feudal and pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating a peculiar interrelationship of classes4.
This vision of social and temporal heterogeneity brought a new foundational principle of aesthetic and political activity into being. Aesthetic works weave these experiences of contemporaneity into a new rhythmic distribution of fragmented material. In other words, they incorporate the historical signature of their own epoch, forming it and acting within it. This allows us to view the politics of rhythm as more than a mere metaphor, why the political efficacy of these cinematic productions cannot be found in a mere sequence of historical events. It derives neither from the films’ position within a specific political context nor from the institutional practices of early Soviet film production, but rather from montage as a constructive principle: the rhythmical distribution of image and affect.
Thus the question is, how the gaze is constructed within the aesthetic spaces of these films: how do things become visible? With what other objects, faces and gestures do they come into contact? How do the relations of individuals and of masses of people enter into view? What gestures emerge when one operates new machinery or puts on a pair of headphones? How does a cameraman match his movements to the wobbling of a staggering drunk or the jerky reflexes of a pious believer crossing herself?
This was precisely Vertov’s cameraman choreographed the cultural memory of gestures and bodily movements. Like so many rhythmic refrains, bodies become evoked and transformed throughout Enthusiasm: Donbass Symphony: in the glowing metal rods in the plants of Dneprilstan, the hammer blows of workers in the coal mines of Donbass, in the white dresses of dancing peasant women on the harvesting field. Vertov confronts these gestic metamorphoses with the acoustic cacophony of his extensively-archived songs, sounds and noises: an aesthetic element that quickly banished his first sound film from cinemas throughout the Soviet Union.
The rhythmical work on image and sound in a process of constant interlacing and conflict, created new body images in a sequence devoted to work gestures in coalmines of the Donbass. Vertov reused his own footage produced for The Eleventh Year inserting in into a biomechanical ballet of workers from the Central Institute of Labour performing gymnastic exercises. Concerning the representation of these work rhythms, Pudovkin wrote in a commentary on Vertov’s film:
All his [Vertov’s] work was aimed at exploring the rhythmic nature of montage. […] For his trials of different rhythmic arrangements of film sequences, he needed material that he could cut as he liked. […] Mainly it was footage of identical repeated processes: the work of human beings, the work of machines, the movement of the masses etc. […] Machines provided, because of their regular periodic movement, the ideal material for rhythmic montage. It is, therefore, totally absurd to regard Vertov as a documentary filmmaker5.
Dovzhenko takes a different approach to body memory in his Arsenal. The film begins with harrowing images of a sower in a field. The footsteps of the old woman split the screen diagonally, becoming ever slower and smaller until the woman shrivels up and falls to the ground. Dovzhenko bases this episode on a motif from a traditional Ukrainian lamentation (dumy). Daniil Dimunskij, the no less brilliant cameraman of Dovzhenko’s silent film trilogy (Zvenygora, Arsenal, Earth) recounts the construction of this scene:
Arsenal’s opening episode was thought of by Dovzhenko as the introductory canto or introductory verse of the film. Like the lyric intonation of the ancient Ukrainian dumy, it served as an epic introduction. For his imagined embodiment, it was absolutely indispensable to know the rhythm of the women’s movements and correspond those rhythms with that of the duma. . . .more than once Dovzhenko compelled the aged woman to sow the grain in front of the camera, and I, at this time, quietly sung to myself the measures of a duma which I knew looking through the viewfinder so the woman’s movements were choreographed with the duma’s rhythm.
In this way, Dovzhenko brings about a concrete corporealization of the traditional mourning songs: in the rhythmic movement and gestures of his protagonists, as well as in the movements of Dimnuskij’s camera.
These are simply two examples of the manifold aesthetic moments in these films which bear an intrinsic historical and political value at many levels. This is achieved first of all through cutting: montage is the fundamental principle both of construction and cognition in Soviet film. The film theoretician and screenwriter Sergei Tretiakov saw montage at once as a symptom and as an instrument of a new historical situation. It was on the one hand a new element in a world that, in the wake of both a World War and a civil war, lay in shambles; on the other, Tretiakov conceived this procedure as an attempt to reassembling that shattered world.
Montage produces rhythm, and in this capacity it also actualizes a politics immanent to the work itself. The relation between the revolution and the principle of montage lies in the necessity of metabolizing those fragments passed down from the old world into a new order. An important school of art and cultural theory, the Formalist circle around Shklovsky, Tynianov and Eichenbaum, described this work as the effect of estrangement. Estrangement—ostranenie—is a formally realized interrogation of received ideological reflexes that aims to incite a renewal of perception.
How does one view a world in tatters, a world in which everything has run aground? Alexander Rodchenko, artist and theoretician of the “New Vision”, proposed a “revolutionarization” of the gaze. In this neologism Rodchenko grappled with a phenomenon of visual illiteracy in the new epoch: «We don’t see what we look at» he writes. «We don’t see the unusual perspectives and contraction of objects. We who have been taught to see the ordinary and familiar must rediscover the world of the visible. We must revolutionarize our optical recognition.We must tear the veil from our eyes»6.
But that revelatory tearing is not supposed to bring to light some transcendent truth hidden in the depths, but rather the concrete figurations that open new spacetimes of action through displacement on the level of sensuous forms. It was in this manner that the Cubist sculptor and director Ivan Kavaleridze set the visible world in motion by producing a series of tectonic figures to execute a demontage of conventional spaces.
Made in 1929, Kavaleridze’s film Perekop refers to the eponymous city on the landbridge to the Crimean peninsula where the Bolsheviks defeated the White Army. Here were thus proclaimed both the ultimate victory of the Red Army and the announcement of the Soviet Union. In Russian, “perekop” also has the double meaning of “burrow” or “trench”. Kavaleridze plays on this double entendre when speaking of the aesthetic and “social mission” of his film: «With Perekop I did not want [to produce] some velvety or animate sculpture», writes Kavaleridze. «Much more [my interest lay in representing] the heroic achievements of our people, “the Taking of Perekop” … and in ‘perekops’ in general: the trenches (perekope) of our century. In the future our life will be one single “perekop”, which we must skillfully aim towards and conquer, that is our life». A few lines later he adds: «The character of the Soviet thematic, the scales and measures of socialistic construction do not fit into conventional cinematic forms».
Indeed, Perekop appears as a bold confrontation of static blocks with dynamic ruptures produced through unexpected perspectives and internalmontage. Kavaleridze traces this visual intensity back to the historical ruptures and delays that for him represent the symptomatic experience of the violence of the civil war and the revolution. “Hunger, typhus, destruction,” he writes, “the collision [styk] of two epochs. The conflict between two worlds. Strong, profound images came into conflict. On the farthest frontlines of the war, in the blood-chilling waters of the Syvash the warriors used their own half-dead bodies to construct a trembling bridge. Thus did the Red Army open the way for the artillery over the stormy gulf.” The director here recounts a central episode of his film: the battle of Perekop. This relatively brief sequence was filmed in the old well of the Odessa cinema studios. Kavaleridze describes the risky endeavor, in which lay actors under an undulating spotlight built the fragile bridge out of their own bodies, over which the cavalrymen crossed. In the sleet and snow their bodies appear stylized like statues: between sculptures and phantoms, between living and dead in a transitional moment of contingency and danger. But this was not enough for Kavaleridze: he intensifies the tension through scenic contrasts, by juxtaposing the nocturnal battle with expressionistic images of the bourgeoisie’s downfall. These sequences foster a film- and genre-historical estrangement in their citations of German expressionism, with its overacted gestures and suggestive grimaces, as aestheticized expression of a doomed and declining class.
In their brutal plasticity these scenes approach a kind of filmic cubism – a tectonic hallucination such as Carl Einstein would describe in the same years in the Parisian journal Documents. Kavalerdize conceived of his cinematic cubism as the construction of a tectonic figure that emerges from the rhythmical demontage of sculpture. In the filmic layering one thus obtains an inner and outer relation with architecture.
It’s all the more astonishing, then, how starkly the approach to visual atmosphere in his next film, Storm Nights (Sturmovi Notschi), differs from Perekop. The primary elements of Storm Nights are not statuesque scenes, but images of time. The factory atmosphere of the gigantic hydroelectric stations on the Dnepr was already established as a filmic topos by Vertov’s Eleventh Year. In contrast to that rhythmic hymn to labor and the construction of socialism, Storm Nights appears as a contemplative fresco in motion. The workers traverse the construction site with an accordion, eating, dancing, talking and laughing. Kavaleridze writes that here he wanted to capture the “poetics of labor” itself. The harnessing of the waterpower of the great Dnepr is not depicted as a teleological struggle with the (ultimately victorious) working men but as a lyric and contemplative chant. “What am I seeing?” asks the intertitle put between the river’s explosive water masses and the strolling accordionist within the deserted zone of the Dneprelstan. Vision becomes a rhythmical dialectic of polarities, pressing forward in a poetic confrontation of the singular and the general, the silent voice and the hydraulic pulsation of the eternal return.
Photography and film are thus themselves tools of the revolution, enabling a new sensuous experience of visible forms through novel perspectives and rhythms. The revolutionary Urphänomen is of an aesthetic nature: it is the realization of that shift in relation to the traditional or imposed conditions of existence. The politics of rhythm organizes and structures aesthetic spaces in which the heterogeneous “elements”, “particles” and “fragments” of the material world enter into new associations and connections: the momentary glance of a market woman with the perspective of an airplane; the dance of two children in rags with the epic power of the Dnepr river. The politics of rhythm dehierarchizes the order of things, lends a new memory to nameless places and invisible objects – and by transforming them, preserves them for the future.
1 The films discussed in this article were shown in Berlin’s cinema Arsenal within the retrospective “Politics of Rhythm” curated and organized by Georg Witte, Stas Mendzelevskyi and Elena Vogman.
2The Three Ages, a comedy by Buster Keaton and Edward Cline, 1923 was in a certain way a parody on Griffiths’ Intolerance which interrelated a tragedy of four different ages and events, beginning with the Bartolommeo’s Night and ending in contemporary capitalist America. The cinematic collision of these scenarios of intolerance deeply impressed various Soviet filmmakers.
3 Sergei Eisenstein: “Five Epochs” in: Kinovedceskie Sapiski Nr. 89, Moscow, p. 120.
4Leon Trotsky, “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, ed. Naomi Allen, 13 vols. New York, Pathfinder Press, 1973, Vol. 12, p. 56.
5 Vsevolod Pudovkin, Collected works in three volumes, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1974, vol. I, p. 145.
6 Alexander Rodchenko, “Puti sovremennoi fotografii” (Paths in contemporary photography), in: Novii lef, Nr. 9. Moscow 1928, p. 38-39.