Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999
K I N O E Y E:|
"Your heart is beating too loudly"
Levels of narrative and meaning in Kuleshov's Velikii uteshitel'
Andrew J Horton
Kuleshov's Velikii uteshitel' has a curious place in film history. On the one hand, it is always mentioned in accounts of Russian film on the 1930s and praised as a brave stand against Stalinism. On the other hand, it is almost universally criticised and has received little detailed analysis beyond a perfunctory synopsis. This article analyses the film's "weaknesses" and shows that Kuleshov engaged in an adventurous, and ultimately misunderstood, experiment, which used the overlapping plots and sentimental slush as means of satirical and subversive comment on Stalin's brutal brand of Communism.
In the introduction to Lev Kuleshov's first collection of essays on cinematic theory, a group of his former students, which included such distinguished names as Vsevolod Pudovkin, declared "We make films, Kuleshov made cinematography." Indeed, much of the innovation that brought Soviet cinema of the 1920s its fame can be traced back to work done by Kuleshov. Born in 1899, he belonged to the first generation to grow up with cinema. The Lumiere brothers' cinematograph came to Russia in 1896 and the first film studio in Russia was founded in 1907, when Kuleshov was eight.With this perspective he was able to see the "cinemaness" of cinema and create a film language that transformed the medium from a mere extension of the theatrical tradition into an art form in its own independent right.
Kuleshov entered film through the studios of Alexandr Khazonkov, where he started as a set designer for the director, Evgeni Bauer, and he later played a role in one of Bauer’s films, Za schast'em (In Pursuit of Happiness, 1917). Although Kuleshov later repudiated "the Bauer method," he learnt much from Bauer's approach, which demanded that the director have total control over all aspects of the film, such as sets, lighting and costume. Previously, the overall effect these elements had had on the feel of the film was not clearly thought through, and was very much a matter of chance. The director's role had been more that of artisan than artist.
Another major influence on him was American cinema. He believed that the films of America embodied the true essence of cinema. In a celebrated article of 1922 entitled "Americanism," Kuleshov argued the need for an "organic link with contemporary life," "the maximum amount of movement," shorter scenes and therefore more rapid cutting, close-ups and attention to how individual shots worked when combined together - montage. All this added up to what Kuleshov considered an essential "dynamism of construction." Two years later Kuleshov was able to claim that Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol'shevikov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924) was a "verification of [his workshop's] working methods."
Kuleshov's admiration of "Americanism" went beyond technique. He adored American themes and his most famous films contained American characters or locations. He also borrowed heavily from popular American genres, especially the detective story and the western.
His debut as a director, Proekt inzhenera Praita (The Project of Engineer Prite, 1917), already revealed his interest in "Americanism." The film is densely plotted and contains chase sequences and series of stunts and gags. Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol'shevikovwas his attempt to combine his ideas about cinema with Communist ideology. The frantic pace and the madcap adventures remain, but held within a story about the true character of a good Bolshevik. Kuleshov used an American hero and his cowboy sidekick as an excuse to show American cinematic idioms in the context of Soviet Moscow.
His next film, Luch smerti (The Death Ray, 1924), showed that he was trying to create a more serious work. Although stunts in the style of his previous film are still very much present, they are played much more seriously. The film tries to create an atmosphere of psychological tension and shows parallels with Sergei Eizenshtein's Stachka (Strike, 1924). The ideological framework of the story line, though, is flimsy, and it is clear that Kuleshov was more interested in producing art than propaganda.
If Kuleshov was searching for a more mature language, he found it in Po zakonu (By the Law, 1926). Here his experiments in montage and lighting were utilised to create a grippingly intense portrayal of the claustrophobic world of an isolated prospectors' cabin on the Yukon River. Although it depicted greed and the hypocrisy of bourgeois values, Soviet critics denounced it as being both not relevant to Soviet reality and too gloomy.
Kuleshov's career then temporarily slid backwards. His workshop disolved, but he continued to make films, although they have received little praise. Kuleshov was eventually forced to abandon his adoration of America to make films like Sorok serdets (Forty Hearts, 1930), a documentary about the electrification of the Soviet Union. The introduction of sound cinema in Russia led to Gorizont (1933), with which Kuleshov showed himself keen to experiment with sound and use it to create a cinematic effect, just as he had used other elements of film-making.), The film also saw Kuleshov return to America as a setting.
That Kuleshov should then set his second sound film, Velikii uteshitel' (The Great Consoler, 1933), in America should therefore not surprise us. Rather more puzzling is that Kuleshov rejected the narrative simplicity and psychological realism that he had employed to such startling effect in Po zakonu and created a film with confusing intertwining subplots, an anaemic realism and passages that gush with almost unbearable sentimentality.
The film's "weaknesses" have seemed evident to audiences and critics alike. Amongst contemporary Russian writers: V Rosolovskaia thought there was "no organic link between people and their settings" found the links between the plots "artificial" and considered the Dulcie subplot to be "irrelevant;" O Brik wrote that "Kuleshov deprives reality of its reality" and I Popov judged the film to be "a failure" because of the "gap between the plot and the situations." However, these opinions are not just held by Soviet critics toeing the Party line, and Western writers have been similarly critical.
Few critics, though, have stopped to consider to what extent this confusion might have been an intentional aim and thus an integral part of the film. Although Velikii uteshitel creates an unconvincing picture of a real situation, it is nevertheless a highly intense and challenging film. Despite the thematic similarities, Velikii uteshitel' remains a very different work from Po zakonu and Kuleshov must have been aware of this. The critical question is why Kuleshov rejected the proven formula that he had used to create the earlier film. By considering the contradictions between the intellectual sophistication of the plot and its bewildering execution, and between the apparent immaturity of the realism and Kuleshov's maturity as a filmmaker, the true heart of Velikii uteshitel' can be divined.
The Sources of Velikii uteshitel'
The film takes place in America in 1899, and in its principal plot depicts Bill Porter, who is the great consoler of the title, in prison. His writing skills earn him privileges from the governor and he is spared the inhumane treatment meted out to other prisoners. Porter is very much aware of the brutality around him but, mindful of his better conditions, refuses to write about prison life. He prefers to console his less-well-treated friends, and indeed all his readers, with excessively romantic fantasies in which good invariably triumphs.
One of these stories, "The Metamorphosis of James Valentine," creates an alter-ego for a wrongly imprisoned convict friend, who suffers the worst injustices of the prison and is dying of tuberculosis. The story flatters Valentine with an unrealistic degree of attractiveness, charm and intelligence. With his endless optimism, Porter tries to make this story come true by brokering a deal between the governor and Valentine, which will give the latter a pardon. The governor, however, deceives Valentine, who dies in prison. Furious, Valentine's friend, Al, starts a riot and the film closes with Porter's admission that his artistic philosophy has failed.
The film is nominally based on three text sources: a biography of the American author O Henry by his fellow prisoner, Al Jennings, Beating Back: Through the Shadows with O Henry, and two works by O Henry himself, "A Retrieved Reformation" and "An Unfinished Story." O Henry was the nom de plume of William Porter and there is a character who appears under both names in the film. Al Jennings also plays a role in the character of Al.
There is a significant difference between O Henry/Porter, the real-life author and his fictional counterpart in the film. Porter was indeed jailed, as in the film, although the real-life Porter could hardly claim to be totally innocent of the crime, as is claimed in the film's opening titles. Wrongly charged with embezzlement from the bank he worked at, Porter rejected the opportunity to clear his name at a trial and instead left the country in the company of a group of outlaws, including Jennings. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to five years in prison when he returned to visit his seriously ill wife.
It was in Ohio State Penitentiary that his writing career was transformed from that of a humorous newspaper columnist to a mature writer of short stories. He is still noted, if not famous, for his ability as a raconteur of ordinary tales of New York people, told in a simple street-wise style. Despite his mechanically simple plots, modern critics of American literature can still credit him with being "a master of the surprise ending." In Russia, his works were widely read in the 1920s and such eminent Russians as the formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum and the writer Evgeni Zamiatin wrote on O Henry's works. By the 1930s, when the film was made, his popularity everywhere was in decline, and in Russia he was heavily criticised.
The real O Henry, whilst hardly a towering pillar of morality and social justice in modern literature, has nevertheless survived with a reputation that exceeds that of Kuleshov's fictionalisation of him. He certainly has a good deal more rogueish a personality than the film character. O Henry in the film is portrayed as a spineless coward whose stories, although popular, are of negligible artistic merit.
The film is essentially just as concerned with what the real O Henry did not write about as with what he did write about. Eikhenbaum, in discussing the work of the real-life author O Henry, quotes two examples of where O Henry refused to write about the reality of a situation. The first is where O Henry chose to represent James Valentine in his story as having opened a safe with a set of tools when the real-life Valentine opened it using the gruesome method of filing his fingernails off. In the second case, O Henry refused to write about a girl who shot a banker who had seduced her. Asked by Al Jennings why he would not use the story when it had "a great throb to it," O Henry yawned that "the pulse beats too loud [...] it's very commonplace."
Both these stories appear in Velikii uteshitel': James Valentine is shown breaking into a safe using both methods and the shop assistant Dulcie in the film is obviously the girl Jennings asked Porter about. Kuleshov's Porter even says to her "Your heart is beating too loudly, Dulcie," one of several significant uses of the heart motif in the film and a clear reference to the real-life O Henry's refusal to write about her. Given that Kuleshov would undoubtedly have read Eikhenbaum's work on O Henry while planning the film, if not before, it would seem reasonable to suggest that Eikhenbaum's juxtaposition of these two scenarios played a direct role in inspiring the plot of Velikii uteshitel'.
Although Kuleshov uses O Henry's stories as a source, he is obviously using them to make his own point, even when he sticks faithfully to O Henry's original plot and dialogue. The exact nature of Kuleshov's point will emerge as we continue to discuss the film.
How realism and "Americanism" fail
Beyond the central story of Porter, lies a complex series of levels of reality or subplots, which make any detailed description of the story-line difficult. These subplots roughly correspond to the three different text sources and also to the three corners of the triangle of art production: artist, viewer or reader, and art. The divisions are not completely sharp and characters frequently appear in more than one of these subplots, with differing personalities in each; Ben Price, the detective, is presented in all three subplots and Valentine, the Governor and the prison guard appear in two. Other less direct forms of crossing-over occur; the banker Adams appears in only one subplot but is mentioned in another and several actors play more than one role. This is further confused by the fact that Kuleshov's characters were based on figures who were both real people and characters from O Henry's fiction. Events also appear in different forms in different subplots, particularly those surrounding Valentine.
Moreover, the relationship between the action in the subplot of the reader, Dulcie, is unclear in relation to the action surrounding Porter. There is a suggested physical proximity of the two strands of action by virtue of the shared character of Ben Price, but the temporal and causal relationship is totally ambiguous: in the film, Porter seems at times to be commenting on action that is happening in Dulcie's parallel world; Sadie suggests to Dulcie that she should sleep with Porter; and later Porter, despite being in a completely different physical location, seems even to be addressing her directly. The implication is that Dulcie's adoring readership of O Henry books is a wish-fulfilment fantasy constructed by the author himself. It is interesting to note in this respect that Porter is played by Konstantin Khokhlov, while his wife Alexandra Khokhlova plays the part of Dulcie.
The film cuts back and forth between these levels of narrative without giving the viewer the chance to settle and become accustomed to any one level and to start thinking of it as the main frame of action. This effect is further confused by different levels having different textural feels and different styles of narration. This particularly comes out in the short story that Porter writes to console Valentine. This is told in the form of a silent movie. Porter narrates part of it in a voice-over and the rest of it is told through inter-titles, occasionally with both duplicating each other's message. Cliched pictures, such as hearts, roses and birds on the inter-titles comment on the action. The actors take on a more comic caricatured style of acting, in keeping with a sugary story of adventure and romance.
The story is told initially in a single block, whose ending we find perfectly satisfactory. Later, though, Porter returns to the story and, worrying about how to finish it, unnecessarily extends it further. It is interesting to note that this is the first time in the film that a musical score overlays the action. Furthemore, in some special versions of the film, certain parts of "The Metamorphosis of James Valentine" were shot in colour, the first time this had been done in the Soviet Union. The colour would have further stressed the artificiality of the sequence in comparison with the harsher black and white world of the film's "real life."
The hammed up acting style in "The Metamorphosis of James Valentine" contrasts sharply with the histrionic seriousness of Konstantin Khokhlov's playing of Porter based on the Stanislavskii method. Kholkhov seems somewhat out of place with his ponderous performance in the film, especially given that Kuleshov was an advocate of the naturshchik (natural actor). Khokhlova by this stage had long been Kuleshov's partner, but she never divorced Khokhlov and never married Kuleshov. Khokhlova retained her name from her first marriage and also passed it on to her children. Richard Taylor has consequently suggested that this conflict in acting styles illustrates the tension between principal actor and the director, with Kuleshov "getting at" the cuckolded Khokhlov.
The film is not just disorientating on a structural level. Kuleshov persistently destroys our perception of the film as the reality of America in the 1890s. What attempts there are to recreate America seem either laughably cliched or half-hearted. The costumes are all archetypal, with wide-brimmed Stetsons, sharply cut waistcoats, outsized bow-ties and striped prison uniforms. The most serious effort at depicting America is the entire recreation of a stereotypical small-town main street. It is a mixture of fine detail and glaring errors; the stage-coach is labelled "omnibus" and Spencer is spelt in two different ways on the front of the shop which Jimmy Valentine establishes.
There is a strange tension between the lack of naturalism in the prison sets (supposedly the highest level of reality of the film) and the near faithful reproduction of the town (supposedly an invented level of reality in the film). The lighting in the prison is extremely uneven, sometimes even varying between shots in the same scene. There is a strong distinction between Porter's cell and that of his friends. The former is generally lit with softer, brighter lighting with few directional shadows. Dramatic lighting is only used at night when Porter is depicted as drunk. In his friends' cell the lighting serves to reinforce the concept of the location but not necessarily its atmosphere. Kuleshov achieves this by casting non-naturalistic shadows of bars across the cell floor. The overall visual effect is one of a light musical comedy rather than expressionist drama.
Nothing could be less true in the scenes of Dulcie's apartment. Here the lighting scheme is more consistent and reverts to one more reminiscent of Po zakonu. The light is oppressive and sharp shadows play on Dulcie's walls: Ben Price's as he shouts at her from the staircase and Sadie's cast from an adjacent room. The effect here is far more unnerving and conjures up the atmosphere of film noir.
The set of Porter's cell is another reflection of the lack of seriousness. As a favoured prisoner, the real-life Porter was allowed such luxuries as being let out at night to wander the streets and sleeping in the dispensary instead of a cell. Kuleshov, instead of placing Porter in the dispensary, absurdly places the dispensary in with Porter in his cell.
Undoubtedly, however, the least American set of the film is the alley outside the prison. Looking more as if it has been plucked straight out of a Dostoevskii novel, it is another scene which Kuleshov presents with expressionist harsh lighting. The scene shows the arrival at the prison of Valentine's mother, who, almost comically, has been coming there every day for the last sixteen years without yet being granted permission to see her son. The implicit weakness of her persistence in this futile action is contradicted by the frenzy with which she attacks the guard who denies her entry. The loyalty to her son and the ferocity of her attack seem entirely consistent with her babushka-like appearance.
A certain flavour of Russia, or at least a lack of American flavour, also creeps over in Porter's behaviour. There is something very Russian in the intensity of the mid-conversation handshake which Porter gives Al to show he agrees that a Colt 45 makes everyone equal. When he later pours himself a shot of liquor, the quantity, the glass and the method of drinking look distinctly un-American. It also looks suspiciously like vodka.
Dulcie's attic apartment is, in many ways, another prison, and if anything a harsher one. With only a small window looking out over the rooftops, her room creates a far more disturbing effect than anything Kuleshov does visually with the prison. The sloping roof, which acts as the left wall, and the spartan furniture give the room a very unnatural feel, as if it is not a room for living in. The window seems much smaller and more restricting than the windows of the prison, with their pathetically spindly bars which are easily filed through. Her moonlit view over the rooftops resonates with the plaintive quality of her feelings and contrasts with the bright exterior through the prison windows, which the inmates never think to gaze out at, or pine for.
The theme of imprisonment is reflected in Dulcie's day-to-day life. She starts the film trapped in a dull job working in a menswear shop. There are no customers to validate her work and her position is as static as the pace of her life. She spends her time dreaming about the world she reads of in O Henry's books, idly chatting with Sadie, avoiding the admonishing stares of the shop inspector and repelling the advances of Ben Price. In her heart she dreams of the arrival of "a noble prince," which Porter, from his cell, promises he will send to Dulcie. The prince, however, only exists in the form of a porcelain statuette which Dulcie possesses, and in Dulcie's fantasies, when she projects the arrival of the prince onto the arrival of the somewhat-less-desireable Price.
Eventually, Price's attentions cause her to be fired. Dulcie becomes deeply despondent at her poverty and heart-broken at the realisation that she is just a plain and skinny girl who will never be employed again and, implicitly, will never find her Prince Charming. Sadie first encourages her to sleep with Porter and then with Price. When Sadie urges "Go on, sleep with him," it is a chilling moment in the film. It is all the more disturbing in relation to the flowery and innocuous world of Porter's writings, where Valentine coyly hides his kiss with Anabel from the viewer behind his hat and they dare not even peck each other on the lips in the presence of Anabel's father.
Having slept with Price and receiving only a couple of dollars for it, Dulcie shoots him. With her fall and the subsequent murder of Price she is suddenly flung into an uncomfortable reality. All her dreams are shattered and this is reflected in the crumpled O Henry book on the floor. Even Porter himself is able to admonish her for her excessive belief in romance: "Your heart is beating too loudly, Dulcie."
Sadie's bluntness makes her one of the most real characters of the film. Her suggestion has a pragmatism and down-to-earthness about it lacking in the dialogue of the other characters, who are caught up in fantasy and idealism on at least one level of the film. We see her engaged in simple everyday chores - washing, dressing, hanging up her washing and applying make-up - while the other characters seem to have no contact with the day-to-day functions of living. It is all the more interesting that we never see Sadie directly; we only catch a glimpse of her hands arranging ties in the shop and her shadow projected onto Dulcie’s wall from the next room. The implication is that reality is totally lacking on all levels of the film and is for the protagonists just a shadow from another world.
If the character of Sadie has an analogue in the Porter sub-plot, it is Al. He has a persistent scepticism of O Henry's stories that roots him firmly in the real world of practicalities. His strength is shown by the fact he is able to stand up to the bullying of the governor and ultimately starts the riot at the end of the film. This is a reflection of the real-life Al Jennings's qualities as a questioner of Porter and his art, as he appears in the anecdote which Eikhanbaum chose to quote.
The film is, therefore, driven not by realism, or even a lack of realism, but by the tension between the two. This tension is further heightened by the fact that "real" and "unreal" are not clearly delineated in the film. Reality is constantly under suspicion and is something which constrains and imprisons rather than liberates. So thoroughly are real and unreal elements mixed and played off against each other that this becomes a dominant feature of the film. To understand why this is so, we need to consider the relationship between the three subplots.
Reception theory and the work of art in society
When Kuleshov considers the artist, the viewer and the art, he does not envisage them as being isolated components in some three-part process of art production. He sees them as highly interdependent and acting reciprocally in a unified process. The blurred edges between the three "parts" of the process are depicted in the overlapping ambiguities of the subplots in Velikii uteshitel'.
Kuleshov's interest in the art/observer relationship can be traced to his earlier work. From the very beginning of his experiments into the nature of film he was fascinated by what is now known as "reception theory." His workshop frequented cinemas to view not the films but the audiences' reaction to them. In another famous experiment, they asked viewers to comment on the acting ability of Ivan Mozzhukhin after having seen a single shot of him into which were spliced shots of a plate of soup, a body in a coffin and a little girl. In spite of the fact that the clip showed only the actor's same blank expression, the viewers praised Mozzhukin for the range of responses to the different stimuli. In this light it is interesting to note that the first scene we see in the film is of "the reader."
The film, though, goes beyond the artist/viewer/art triangle and also explores the interaction of the author and his work with society as a whole. His fellow prisoners implore Porter to write something about inhumane conditions within the prison that will "pick the conscience of the world outside." Porter, after a weak-willed attempt to confront the system, refuses to carry out this role. He believes it not to be his responsibility and says that "you mustn't write with the blood of your own heart." When he does resist, Porter is threatened with removal of his considerable privileges and is bought off with alcohol.
Although he rejects the possibility of standing up to the barbarity that surrounds him, Porter still feels he is playing a useful function in writing consoling stories. Indeed, his works considerably cheer up both Valentine and Dulcie and do something in the short term to alleviate the hopelessness of their differing situations: Valentine in his cell and Dulcie imprisoned in her room and her dull day job.
Porter does not just peddle these stories, he seriously believes in them. However, his stories do not match reality on any level. He has a naive faith in the inherent and boundless good of people who actually are evil, corrupt, manipulative, or, alternatively, just pathetic. If the film creates the impression of disorientation, it is a reflection of this tenous grip which Porter has on what constitutes fact.
His world is dominated by the idea of the "gentleman," and the word itself that is used on six occasions throughout the film. For instance, after a short struggle, Valentine gallantly accepts arrest by Price when he has been symbolically defeated by the handcuff being closed around his wrist. To show how ageeable the situation is, he even lights Price's cigarette for him. Price reciprocates this cooperation when he refuses to arrest Valentine for safe-breaking when he rescues the trapped child. The governor is painted in similar terms: a jovial bon vivant who is more than happy to release Valentine when he realises that in court he - Valentine - was unwilling to prove his innocence because it would compromise the integrity of a society lady.
Reality is very different; the governor reneges on an informal agreement to give Valentine a pardon for opening a safe and when Porter challenges him about this, the governor coldly informs Porter that "There are no gentlemen here;" Adams, who in the story is an honest family man, in reality runs off with two million dollars; the ease with which Valentine opens the safe with a set of tools in Porter's version is contrasted with the agony of the real method used; and Price, whose evil croaking voice conveniently cannot be heard in the silent film version of the story, emerges as a vile and repulsive character when Dulcie sleeps with him.
Porter does not just have the crime of being wrong about reality levelled at him by Kuleshov. Nor does Kuleshov's disapproval stop at Porter's shirking of his moral duty to chronicle the true events of the prison. Porter's fantasies actively lead those who believe them into lethal danger; Jimmy Valentine dies in prison without the pardon Porter persuaded him he would get and Dulcie shoots Ben Price, which, presumably, she will eventually be punished for.
Porter even illustrates the danger of his art himself when he inadvertently compares it to his alcoholism, describing alcohol as "consoling medicine." He dispenses medicinal spirit, intoxicating but harmful, to his fellow prisoners. For Kuleshov, the concept of dispensing is a metaphor for writing and art and his attitude to commonplace writing, like O Henry's, is just as condescending as the real Porter's attitude to the story with the pulse that beat too loudly.
Finally, faced with Valentine's death, the prison riot that rages around him and, possibly, also Dulcie's murder of Ben Price, Porter realises the failure of his art, and his own cowardice. He laments "Never will I be able to write what I know, never will I be able to write what I ought to" - an extraordinary statement in the context of 1930s Soviet Russia. This confession, however, does nothing to redeem him. Kuleshov enigmatically labels this on an inter-title a "happy ending." The irony is enhanced by the use of music again, which links the ending to the escapism of the silent film version of Porter's story.
It is hard to tell exactly what Kuleshov's political intentions were in this ending. Since the inmates will undoubtedly be punished for their rejection of Porter's work, it could be inferred that Kuleshov was rejecting revolution, as well as consolation, as a means of resisting an oppressive society. This critical stance would apply to the Bolshevik revolution against Tsarist Russia as much as to the inmates' one against the Ohio Penitentiary. It could, however, be that he is encouraging revolution as a practical solution as opposed to idealistic fantasy and words. This would be supported by the uprising's initiation by the down-to-earth character of Al. If this is the case, the ending could be an incitement to resist the oppression of any regime, including Stalinism. Either way, it is politically damning of the system Kuleshov lived under and the two negative readings of the ending combine to cast a fatalistic pall over the film.
Confession and subversion in Velikii uteshitel'
It is no coincidence that Kuleshov should choose to consider the role of the artist in society at this time. Art was very heavily directed by the Party, which from the early twenties regularly made declarations on what was or was not an appropriate work of art for the new Soviet society. This led to the Party Central Committee resolution of April 1932, "On the Reorganisation of Literary-Artistic Organisations," which paved the way for the creation of the Union of Writers of the USSR, a body that included film writers as well as critics and novelists. Artists were increasingly required to produce ideologically correct works, and few could have been happy with the high level of state interference in the creative process.
Irony, expressionism and "inner soul drama" were all very much frowned upon, and although films were expected to be political, they could not be philosophical. Films had to be models of mass entertainment and were very much expected to express the ecstatic optimism of the supposedly realisable potential of Stalinism, as later encapsulated in Stalin's dictum "life has become more joyous, comrades, life has become happier." In short, the Party was coercing artists into producing just the sort of vacuous "consoling" works that Kuleshov was condemning so vehemently in Velikii uteshitel'.
Even directors who believed passionately in Communism, such as Sergei Eizenshtein, Dzhiga Vertov and Alexandr Dovzhenko, were heavily criticised and threatened with the removal of the right to make films, because they had independent visions of what communism should bring. Conversely, successful films were rewarded generously and directors who conformed to Party standards were granted much-coveted perks, such as travel abroad or a car. As well as bringing comfort to a director's life in highly uncomfortable times, these material rewards could bring high social status and sexual success to those who wished it. A photograph from 1928 shows Kuleshov sitting proudly in his car.
It must have hurt Kuleshov deeply that he should have to make films like Sorok serdets. Not only was he being forced from the path he wanted to follow but he was also obliged to passively support a regime that he thought was corrupt and dictatorial. Even though Kuleshov's films of the early and mid-1920s have features which are parodic of Communism, Kuleshov must have been aware that he had implicitly collaborated with the Party by becoming its tool and allowing it to shape him and his work and by ignoring the oppression he witnessed around him.
Unlike O Henry, Kuleshov refused to remain silent about the reality he saw around him, and his last act of resistance in the role of director was to create a brave work that presented his experiences as an artist and was a bitter comment about a reality that seemed too absurd to be real. Kuleshov, who rarely discussed the content of his work in his writings, unusually gives us a confirmation that the film is an allegory of the artist in the Soviet Union when he states that the issues in the film "deeply concerned" him and the film was "to some extent autobiographical." Kuleshov provides a further marker by setting the film in 1899, the year of his birth.
By placing the action in America and using Aesopian language, Kuleshov reduced the grounds on which he could be attacked. In some ways this was no new trick, the tradition of Aesopian language in Russian literature to circumnavigate censorship had been active since the time of Peter the Great. However, in the words of one critic, Velikii uteshitel' was "the only film of the time [the 1930s] that attempted to use Aesopian language." A shift in location, such as that in Velikii uteshitel' was a common Aesopian device and several books of the era used appalling treatment of workers in capitalist countries, which could be depicted, as allegories for the appalling treatment of workers in Communist Russia, which could not be depicted. Similarly, showing resistance to Western structures of authority could be used as a code for resistance to Stalinism, and a despotic figure in a capitalist country, such as the governor, could be used to make an otherwise ill-advised attack on Stalin.
Even more cunningly, in Velikii uteshitel' the vision of the true function of art coincides perfectly with the Marxist idea of art having a social and didactic function. As Ronald Levaco pointed out
...the film at once parodied and denounced the counterfeit heroics of American films (as in the dream sequence [sic] in which Valentine rescues the child and gets the girl). Neither O Henry's stories nor American films often represented suffering as the degradation of people victimised by social systems. Rather they usually chose to portray suffering as a way-station in the heroes' quest to overcome adversity (often gratuitously) and so affirmed the predominance of "good" over "evil."
While the film is a good parody of American cinema, it is an even better parody of the sort of films Stalin was increasingly expecting his directors to make. Exploiting the contradictions between Marxist theory and the political reality of Soviet Russia, Kuleshov left himself relatively safe in his attack on collaboration and "consolation" in art. Nobody could criticise Velikii uteshitel' without criticising the Marxist theory of art, which was, of course, unthinkable.
Velikii uteshitel' is, therefore, firmly placed in the tradition of Mr West; both films can be read as parodic and subversive in their lack of realism and both films are about how reading and believing an idealised myth, such as Communism, can lead the reader into extreme personal danger.
Whilst Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol'shevikov is a humorous parody of a gullible believer in Communism, Porter is Kuleshov's searing indictment of himself and his colleagues and how they interacted with society. It was not just a criticism of what he had been, but of what he thought he was about to become. His analysis was correct. In 1934, "consolation" became the official style when the concept of Socialist Realism was promulgated at the First Congress of Soviet Writers.
Contemporary Russian critics side-stepped the allegorical issue and the question of the role of the artist in Velikii uteshitel' and preferred to talk about more neutral aspects, such as technical merit or its relevance to Soviet society. Although the film's politics were not mentioned, Kuleshov was heavily criticised for making "formalist errors," and Velikii uteshitel' was quickly banned after a meeting between Stalin and Kuleshov.
Kuleshov was never again to make a film in the same way, and after this he only made "consoling" films. However, his main work after Velikii uteshitel' was that of teacher, a far safer position for an artist who did not want to console. Despite the ambiguous attitude of some of Kuleshov's films towards Communism, his reputation in Soviet Russia did not diminish, and he remained a distinguished figure in the pantheon of Soviet artists.
Kuleshov's experiment in aesthetics
The film's confusing effect, however, did not exist purely to confound potential Stalinist critics. Porter's mental weaknesses are graphically depicted in the disjointed structural features of the overlapping plots and the nauseating whimsy of certain passages. Kuleshov, ever the experimenter, tried to extend the formal devices used in Po zakonu, whereby the psychological states of the main characters were reflected in stylistic features he had learnt from Bauer, such as location, set, costume and lighting. As well as these traditional devices for reflecting on emotions and mental states, he tried to utilise structure, narrative form, and sense of taste in Velikii uteshitel' to express the inner nature of his characters.
The conventional critical judgement is that the experiment was a failure. The incongruities of the film and its sentimental slushiness have persistently been understood by viewers as the weakness of Kuleshov rather than the weakness of Porter. Even Velikii uteshitel''s most faithful supporters, such as Kenez, concede that the film pales beside Po zakonu, which is a far more realistic candidate for being Kuleshov's most slickly produced film.
Velikii uteshitel' is nevertheless, according to Levaco, Kuleshov's deepest film, a position I would entirely agree with. The film's failings do not lie in it being too challenging on an intellectual level; there are many more Russian films that use far more opaque and intricate Aesopian language and yet have managed to win universal acclaim. Rather, it fails through being aesthetically avant-garde. Kuleshov's irony and fine sense of kitsch have gone almost completely unappreciated by critics and audiences, who have, on the whole, taken his unadulterated schmaltz at face value and been thoroughly baffled by the erratic fragmentations in the plot. Modern critics should know better.
Kuleshov's true intentions are perhaps best illustrated by a single shot in the middle of the Valentine story sequence. Having conquered the summits of retail success in men's footwear, Valentine is apotheosised in a shot that anticipates the photographs of today's masters of high camp, Pierre et Giles. He stands dressed in a top hat and tails, grinning at us through an oval of flowers embellished at the bottom with a throbbing heart. In either hand he holds a platter on which revolves a prosaic black men's shoe which has flapping white wings at the heel. Meanwhile, streams of circles bounce inwardly towards him and the heart. Kuleshov is clearly aiming at an aesthetic of unashamed and tackily bad taste with a parodic intent. It is a unique shot in Russian film history
Kuleshov's ironic kitsch and fragmented narrative serve several functions in the film. At face value, the kitsch represents the falseness of the world that Porter writes about, as depicted in "The Metamorphosis of James Valentine." In this way, Kuleshov's aesthetics mock those of capitalist America. They also, however, destroy the reality of America and act as a marker to direct the viewer to think of the film in other terms. For a contemporary Russian observer of the film, this would have been the nature of Stalinism. Interestingly, many of Kuleshov's contemporary critics noticed the "markers" which show that Velikii uteshitel' uses aesthetics as a means of subversion, but failed (or were unwilling) to identify and interpret them. For example, the use of oxymoron has been labelled as typical of a satirical style, and several contemporary critics felt the film exhibited oxymoronic qualities: Popov said that Velikii uteshitel' had a "rational romanticism" to it and Brik thought that it was "melodrama" but uninvolving ("You look at the screen and think 'Isn't it well done!'").
The film's refusal to provide the viewer with a stable reality, and its themes of imprisonment, as well as commenting on Porter's confused artistic cowardice, effectively parodied the terrifying absurdity of living under a dictatorial system that forced its population to live out its life on different levels that were by definition impossible to reconcile: a public life with a heart-felt optimism and a private life gripped by fear. Kuleshov is therefore using an Aesopian language not just of symbols and metaphors but also of the very deepest levels of the film: its narrative structure and aesthetics. This is as artistically significant in global terms as it is relevant to the study of resistance to Stalinism.
It would be foolish to suggest that Velikii uteshitel' is without flaws. Many may argue that Kuleshov bit off more than he could chew when he took on all the themes that collide in the film. It is certainly an adventurous film that contains experiments with plot, politics, structure, narrative, ironic aesthetics and Aesopian language, as well as the usual array of technical experiments that are a standard feature of Kuleshov's films. This makes it a difficult film that requires repeated viewing to comprehend fully its multiple facets and to appreciate fully its underlying philosophy. Velikii uteshitel' is also prone to being viewed either on a purely political level, as for instance by Kenez or Levaco, or on a purely technical level, as for instance by Leyda. Further discussions of the film's successes and failures will doubtless continue to add much to our opinion of this unusual contribution to cinema, but only if they consider all aspects of the film and not just superficial ones.
Andrew J Horton, 8 November 1999
This article was originally published in May 1998 in Vol 10 No 1-2 (a double issue) of the journal Slovo under the title "'Your heart is beating too loudly':Levels of meaning and narrative in Kuleshov's The Great Consoler."
In republication, some basic typographical errors have been corrected, film names are given in the original language and some changes have been made to aid readability on a computer screen (smaller paragraphs and information in footnotes inserted into the main text).
More importantly, I have taken the opportunity to add to the text to take into account several valid points made by Prof Richard Taylor made in personal correspondence in reaction to the original article. His contributions are credited in the footnotes. I would also like to reiterate the help and support given to me by Julian Graffy of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University of London and to thank Slovo for giving CER permission to republish this article.
Slovo is an refereed interdisciplinary journal of Central and East European and Eurasian affairs, published by postgraduates of SSEES. For more information on contents, ordering, subscriptions and contributing see their website.
1. "Foreword" to "The Art of Cinema" , in L Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film: The Writings of Lev Kuleshov, (ed R Levaco), Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1974, p 4.
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