KinoKultura: Issue 52 (2016)
On February 29, 2016 the 20th anniversary “Belye Stolby” festival of archive cinema opened. Against the background of the traditionally extravagant opening ceremony (with red carpets, stars, government representatives and Nikita Mikhalkov himself) a very important gesture was made on the part of the community of critics—the Belyi Slon (the White Elephant, the prize awarded by the Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics of the Union of Cinematographers of the Russian Federation) was presented to the Gosfilmofond team for their research work. The prize was received by the artistic director of the festival, Petr Bagrov, who, after the legendary Vladimir Dmitriev passed away, became the chief custodian of the traditions of this unique festival. In accordance with the festival’s practice it was now the turn of Petr Bagrov to make a gesture, when at the no less extravagant closing ceremony on March 4 he summoned on to the stage all the people who had been involved in the preparation of the festival: the researchers, the program curators, the video engineers, the representatives of the creative workshops—in a word, a vast team, and it was very important that those who had labored for the festival—Tamara Sergeeva, Natal’ia Iakovleva and many more—were on that stage.
Of course the festival was distinguished not just by these new themes, but also by a motif. For the first time this was focused on cinema as a subject for reflection—not by art theorists and historians, but by directors. “Cinema on Cinema” was announced as the main theme of the festival and almost the entire program was devoted to it.
Hence, there were a lot of comedy films in the program and not just because comedy was one of the first genres that made audiences go to the cinema, but also because in comedy the object is found in a situation of “familiar proximity” (Mikhail Bakhtin), cinema examines itself by parodying concepts that are rapidly transformed into clichés. This bloc of self-parody was represented by films like Goodness Gracious (James Young, USA, 1914), Behind the Screen (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1916) and such well-known films as The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton, USA, 1928) and Hellzapoppin (H.C. Potter, USA, 1941). Potter’s film acquaints us with the anatomy and physiology of Hollywood in an original way. Then there was the short film The Film Career of a Bellringer (Kinokar’era zvonaria, dir. Nikolai Verkhovskii, USSR, 1927), which turned out to be a unique find because it was one of the few surviving student works from Boris Chaikovskii’s film school. It is noteworthy that the men in charge of the script and the filming were two of the leading scriptwriters of the 1920s: Valentin Turkin (1887–1958) and Natan Zarkhi (1900–1935). Comedy was to become a unique “anti-manifesto” (P. Bagrov) of typage-montage cinema.
The “Cinema on Cinema” comedy program became not only a textbook of cinematic clichés but also a teaching manual on the history of cinema’s linguistic methods. The film Les Surprises du cinéma parlant (Giulio del Torre, France, 1934) was a unique supplement to The Cameraman’s Revenge (Mest’ kinooperatora, dir. Władysław Starewicz, Russia, 1912), when for treachery you can get revenge not just through the image but also through sound. Giulio del Torre ingeniously demonstrated the potential of sound cinema as a weapon to investigate and thus to expose deception.
The film Kino (Vladimir Ervais, USSR, 1971), a non-played short which completed the program of films devoted to cinema, may be viewed as a declaration of love for the art of the screen. The main subject of the film is once again cinema but now we are talking about its reception. The mobile cinema projectionist Bainazar Tirandazov tells us about his work. In a settlement in the Pamir Mountains he shows films, including Hamlet (Grigorii Kozintsev, USSR, 1964). The faces of the viewers watching the film together are the main heroes of the film. Incredibly the director has managed to show the movement, the alteration of the faces, their spiritual activity, as after eighteen minutes the film changes from documentary sketch to parable.
A recurrent theme of the festival program is restoration. The pride of this year’s festival were two boxes of crumbling film stock that had been restored. These boxes turned out to contain parts of A Spider’s Web (Shelkovaia pautina, aka V kogtiakh germanskogo shpionazha [In the Claws of German Espionage], dir. Iurii Iur’evskii, Russia, 1916), based on a script by Breshko-Breshkovskii and released by Aleksandr Drankov. Even a few reels of the film show us the simplicity of the adventure film genre. The adventure genre may be regarded as the emblem of early cinema because it precisely manages the incredible feat of making convincing what defies any logic—and this is clearly illustrated in the restored film Drifting (Tod Browning, USA, 1923; in its Soviet release the film had a more specific title: Radi opiuma [For the Sake of Opium]). While the story of the adventuress Cassie is simply a curiosity for the Russian viewer, even if he is a film historian, the first visit to the cafeteria by the hero of? Can’t You Leave me Out? (Nel’zia li bez menia, dir. Viktor Shestakov, USSR, 1932) is regarded as our very own story. On the one hand this is a classical variant of agitational propaganda for communal catering [obshchepit], but, on the other it is a brilliant parody of propaganda made by a director, a theatre artist who had worked alongside Meyerhold.
The program of restored films also included three animation films: The First Hunt (Pervaia okhota, Pavel Schmidt and Vitalii Bianki, USSR, 1937), The Golden Coxcomb (Zolotoi grebeshok, Vladimir Mudzhiri, USSR, 1947) and The Tale of the Silly Little Mouse (Skazka o glupom myshonke, Mikhail Tsekhanovskii, USSR, 1940). This last film is a unique, even dramatic, example of what was nevertheless a collaboration between Mikhail Tsekhanovskii, Samuil Marshak and Dmitrii Shostakovich.
Among the archival finds at this festival were the early films of Harold Lloyd from his “Lonesome Luke” period, films starring Monty Banks, and Little Miss Mischief (Arvid Gillstrom, USA, 1922) with Baby Peggy. Little Miss Mischief was thought to have been lost but it has now been found and the auditorium trembled at the irrepressible energy and imagination of the most famous child of the silent film era.
One of the most unexpected parts of the program was the section devoted to “Gelovani before Stalin”. First, we were able to watch one of Gelovani’s first films as director, The Evil Spirit (Zloi dukh, dir. Mikhail Gelovani, USSR, 1927), which dealt with a story of obscurantism and tender tragic love. Second, we had our eyes opened to a brilliant comic writer and actor in the films Youth Conquers (Molodost’ pobezhdaet, dir. Gelovani, USSR, 1926) and A True Man of the Caucasus (Nastoiashchii kavkazets, dir. Gelovani, USSR, 1931). In Gelovani’s own story it was not youth that conquered but the will of the “father of all peoples”, which turned a talented actor and director into an emblem of authority. Having played the father who at some time loses his mind in The Evil Spirit, Gelovani was doomed by his devotion to the glory of the Stalinist epoch, like the hero of his 1927 film, to sink into obscurity. Bakhtin’s concept of author and hero became a real-life tragedy.
The “Degenerate Art” strand about the Fischinger brothers had an educational character and gave us the opportunity to contemplate the unity of the paths along which painting and cinema have developed.
At the festival there are many truths that have already become banal, that find new energy: for instance, nobody will dispute that cinema is “sculpted time” [zapechatlennoe vremia], and you will therefore understand the astonishing ability of the moving image to translate real events, to convey the atmosphere and intonation of an era: here we are talking about Naum Kleiman’s program devoted to Sergei Eisenstein. In the first two fragments of the program, “Our Cinema” (“Nashe kino”, 1940) and “Shooting the film The Dream” (“Na s”emke fil’ma ‘Mechta’”, 1941) Eisenstein is not a director but an actor playing the master who parodies the roles of teacher and director. One more fragment is linked to the master’s death, with footage of Eisenstein’s flat immediately after his death, and the civil funeral at Dom Kino.
The screening of archival finds is yet another necessary condition of the festival. This year witnessed the “reanimation” of several reels of The Cellar of Death (Russian title: Prizrak grobnitsy, Charles Calvert, UK, 1916) and Aina. The Teacher of the Sands (Aina. Peschanaia uchitel’nitsa, dir. Nikolai Tikhonov, USSR, 1931). The first film is a fact in the history of the “horror film” genre, while the second is a unique attempt to adapt Platonov’s prose to the screen, which succeeded thanks to the camerawork of Nikolai Frantsisson, conveying the sandstorm of Platonov’s original language.
The “In Memoriam” program was devoted to El’dar Riazanov—the inspired tale by Riazanov when he was still alive about the film The Great Waltz (Julien Duvivier, USA, 1938) underlined the tragedy of the loss of a favorite director. Another highlight of the program was the retrospective of the films of Viktor Sokolov, one of the leaders of the Leningrad school. Before us was a very varied author—sincere, direct, sensitive and observant in the films A Day of Sunshine and Rain (Den’ solntsa i dozhdia, USSR, 1967) and Friends and Years (Druz’ia i gody, USSR, 1966) and statuesque and monologue-like in I am an Actress (Ia—aktrisa, USSR, 1980).
Lastly, one more theme for the festival—student works in unprecedented numbers and, as Petr Bagrov has promised, this section will become a regular feature from the 20th festival onwards. It was a great program, which was partly presented by people who were once beginners themselves (Nikita Mikhalkov, Nikolai Gubenko, Vladimir Men’shov and Larisa Udovichenko), which gave us not only nostalgic reminiscences but material for the analysis of the future works of masters where we could clearly observe the characteristics of the authorial style of Elem Klimov (Danger: Vulgarity! [Ostorozhno, poshlost’], USSR, 1959), Mikhail Kobakhidze (Caroussel [Karusel’], USSR, 1962), the early Mikhalkov (Things [Veshchi], USSR, 1967) and Dinara Asanova (At the Halt [Na polustanke], 1965).
There was a round table at the festival devoted to the preservation of video materials and the conclusion was the fact that proved the need to return to film as the longest lasting medium, which means that the “Belye Stolby” festival is guaranteed to live on.
Translated and annotated by Richard Taylor
1] Boris V. Chaikovskii (1888–1924) made 50 films for various Russian studios before 1918 when he founded the film school that was later named after him. He also published articles in various film journals and a book, Kino-naturshiki i kino-aktery [Film Naturshchiks and Film Actors].
2] Harold Lloyd (1893–1971) made almost 70 films in the “Lonesome Luke” series in 1915-17. Monty Banks (born Mario Bianchi, 1897-1950) was an Italian-born actor who turned to direction (including Laurel and Hardy) after the advent of sound; he later directed Gracie Fields in four of her films and married her in 1940. Arvid Gillstrom (1889–1935) was a Swedish film director who worked in Hollywood from 1915. Baby Peggy was the screen name of Diana Serra Cary (b. 1918) and she made several silent films with Gillstrom under that name.
3] Oskar (1900–67) and Hans (1909–44) Fischinger were both German abstract animators; Oskar left for Hollywood in 1936; Hans stayed in Germany and showed his abstract film Tanz der Farben/Colour Dance in Hamburg in 1939, remarking of it that “Man must learn to see musically.”
Lilya Nemchenko © 2016
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