24 February 2011

ENTHUSIASM: A film by Dziga Vertov (1931)

Originally published in Cineaste magazine, 2007.

In so many contexts a pivotal film, Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the less celebrated works of the Soviet avant-garde. Vertov’s next project after Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Enthusiasm was Vertov’s first sound film, in which he attempted to enhance his distinctive style with music and noise. However, its subject matter – the Don coal miners’ attempts to fulfil their Five Year Plan quota in just four years – hinted that the economic changes engineered by the Plan would affect the style and scale of Soviet filmmaking just as much as the introduction of sound.

Largely unaware of the cultural implications of Stalin’s assumption of absolute power, the Soviet filmmakers, like their Western counterparts, were primarily concerned with exploring the formal possibilities of sound. Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s manifesto demanding that ‘the first experiments with sound must be directed towards its pronounced non-coincidence with the visual images’, subsequently ridiculed (not least because Eisenstein’s practical attempt at this, Romance sentimentale, was received disastrously) briefly inspired Russian directors before they were obliged to conform to the official aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism.

Enthusiasm was perhaps the most radical experiment in contrapuntal sound. Original music composed by Shostakovich and Timofeev was combined with the rhythmic sounds of Stalinist industry, and synchronised with images regarding the Five Year Plan, and the bourgeois lifestyles, which flourished under the New Economic Policy, that it intended to obliterate.

Vertov himself placed massive emphasis upon Enthusiasm’s sound. Western screenings were notorious for Vertov’s insistence on raising the soundtrack to intolerable levels, having blocked the exits to prevent escape. Since the Thirties, Enthusiasm has rarely been screened – its complexity confounded Soviet audiences and Stalinist censors, who rigorously controlled its exportation as questions of form became as ideologically charged as those of content.

Long neglected, Enthusiasm’s image/sound synchronisation was eventually lost. An accompanying documentary explains that its visuals and soundtrack were contained on separate reels, with a mistake in duplication and the loss of visual material (contemporary screenings ran longer than the 65 minutes presented here) accounting for the incongruence. Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka corrected this by inserting black leader into the filmstrip and empty soundtrack without affecting Vertov’s images, coming as close as possible to recapturing the fascinating disorientation of Enthusiasm’s synchronicity.

Because Enthusiasm’s use of sound was so innovative (Kubelka boldly asserts that in finding musicality in industrial noises, Vertov prefigured John Cage by thirty years), its deft imagery, laden with symbolism, has received little critical attention. Although the relative unavailability of Enthusiasm must be considered, perhaps this is also because Western critics found his Twenties works more ideologically palatable: these films presented an exuberant but not inescapably politicised view of Soviet life, which allowed critics to concentrate solely on their strident formal experimentation.

Unlike Kino-Eye (1924) or Man with a Movie Camera, Enthusiasm’s images are unavoidably propagandistic. Their synchronisation with sound, however, is crucial to this effect: an early sequence in which Vertov sardonically combines shots of churchgoers crossing themselves with black clouds, sounds of Church bells and satirical music, with barbed epithets such as ‘The Pope is chained to the capital’s money’ carry little venom when the aggressive images are not reinforced by Vertov’s very deliberately constructed soundscapes.

Enthusiasm is almost overburdened by rhetoric, which, if it were not for the technical qualities of the film, would hold little interest for contemporary viewers. Exclamations such as ‘The country needs to be given coal’ and slogans such as ‘Endue new generations with socialism!’ (often backed by cheers or the Soviet anthem) frequently punctuate both image and sound.

However, Vertov’s presentation of coal mining and other Soviet industry is never dry propaganda. Often, Vertov lets simple shots of machinery seem as if the mechanisms themselves are doing the aesthetic work, in accordance with the Kinoki manifesto’s famous intention of showing life ‘as it is’. However, it becomes clear that Vertov’s aim for Enthusiasm is to radically transform life, using his camera to infuse his industrial subjects with the magic that the Russian Futurist poets also discovered in them. Developing the use of dizzying angles and fast cutting that characterised his earlier works, Vertov makes the modernisation of Russia intensely invigorating: a shot of an iron block moving unassisted, almost dancing in a welding machine delightfully showcases Vertov’s thrilling sense of intimacy with the mechanised world he captures.

It would be three years before Vertov’s next sound film, Three Songs of Lenin (1934). Vertov could, it seems, tolerate a level of political obligation regarding his content, something that the Soviet avant-garde had accepted during the Twenties (although few could tolerate the level of governmental involvement that followed Stalin’s accession). For all of Enthusiasm’s shots of agricultural collectivisation, industrialisation and statues of Lenin, one senses that Vertov enjoyed constructing the film. It was the pressure to curb his technical experimentation that eventually destroyed Vertov: a pressure that is hinted towards not by Enthusiasm’s form, only its content.

Ultimately, Enthusiasm is fascinating as a historical record of Soviet economic policy, and tantalising as an indication of how the avant-garde (and, of course, Vertov in particular) might have further explored the possibilities of sound film, or the complex relationship between modernity, modern art and propaganda had the influence of Socialist Realism not been so deadening. It is not mere historical artefact, though: it is a relentlessly challenging, constantly fascinating film, offering viewers an entirely unique visual, aural and ideological experience.

13 February 2011

Two films by Jean-Luc Godard

These reviews were originally published in Filmwaves, 2005-2006.

Weekend (1967)

More than forty years on, Jean-Luc Godard’s incendiary critique of consumer capitalism retains the power to jolt the viewer out of complacency. Perhaps the most savage road movie ever made, Weekend follows a scheming bourgeois couple (Corinne and Roland) who drive from Paris to the countryside in the hope of illicitly procuring an inheritance. The drive sucks them into the brutal world that lies just beneath the façade of middle-class respectability, where consumer goods mean more to people than other human beings and interpersonal relations are determined by exchange-value.

This dystopian voyage through rape, pillage, murder and cannibalism is by turns playful and sickening, never losing its satirical edge. Nouvelle vague hero Jean-Pierre Léaud‘s appearance exemplifies the sharp turns of mood: when the central couple interrupt a telephone conversation conducted through light-hearted song, he attempts to kidnap Corinne, with the intention of owning her.

This objectification forms Weekend’s core; the many philosophical and sociological asides offered to characters or direct to the camera affirm this. Asked about her surname, Corinne can only offer her father’s or her husband’s: she is told, “Christianity is the refusal of self-knowledge; it is the death of language”. Corinne herself is a commodity, like the Hermès handbag she loudly laments as several people die in a motorway accident.

Raoul Coutard’s cinematography is typically brilliant: Godard’s nightmares are alive with colour, and the ten-minute car pile-up shot stands up to its heady reputation. Weekend combines acute analysis of post-war society, with its ideological dislocation (which becomes Weekend’s formal disunity) and shallow virtues, with provocative imagery and, crucially, a sophisticated Brechtian sense of its own status as a film – that is, as a marketable artistic commodity that owes its existence to a system of labour exchange.

Slow Motion (1980)

Slow Motion marked Godard’s return to ‘commercial’ filmmaking: it was an all-star cast of Isabelle Huppert, Nathalie Baye and Jacques Dutronc, rather than conventional narrative construction, that made it in any sense ‘commercial’. Employing the episodic structure that characterised Vivre sa vie (1962), Slow Motion features Huppert as a country girl (Isabelle) working in the city as a prostitute, Baye as a city woman who decides to relocate to the countryside, and Dutronc as a thoroughly disillusioned television director (named Paul Godard), separated from his wife and daughter. The voice of nouveau roman heroine Marguerite Duras is also heard, on the telephone and as voice-over.

Slow Motion incorporates Godard’s typically overt economic and political self-awareness, combining this with a wry explication of the power relations inherent in human sexuality. These are by turns hilarious – notably in an elaborate scene involving Isabelle and another man and woman in a scenario dictated by a company executive – and immensely disturbing, particularly when Paul demands to see his 12-year-old daughter’s developing breasts.

The prostitution metaphor, a Godard favourite, is employed with little subtlety, except in one brilliant moment. A football coach, about to pleasure himself with Isabelle, explains how AS Saint-Étienne should never have sold Dominique Rocheteau, suggesting that both international superstars and sex traders alike are trapped within an economic superstructure that demands sale of the self.

Slow Motion, fundamentally, is about dissatisfaction, and much of the film deliberately disappoints. Godard’s characters are intentionally disengaging, until the growing absurdity of Isabelle’s predicament finally demands sympathy, but above all interpretation as a consequence of social relations. However, it is an interpretation that Godard demanded with more verve, more intellectual rigour and more adventurous construction earlier in his career.