Friday, December 30, 2016

The Kuleshov effect

Необычайные приключения мистера Веста в стране Большевиков (Neobychainye priklyucheniya mistera Vesta v strane Bol’shevikov— The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks) 1924 U.S.S.R. Goskino (78 minutes) directed by Lev Kuleshov; written by Nikolai Aseev and Vsevolod Pudovkin; cinematography and editing by Aleksandr Levitsky.

An American naïf overcomes dire media perceptions and his wife’s fears to visit the new Soviet Union, fortified by high ideals and protected by a faithful cowboy companion in this ‘comedy about a Yankee’s curiosity, and his rewards.’ 
Round-bespectacled Mr. John West (Porfiry Podobed) of Brecksville, president of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), tells his wife Madge that he plans to visit the Soviet Union. Madge shows him ‘New York magazine’ illustrations that portray ‘Russian Bolshevik types’ as wild-eyed, hairy men in furs wielding hammers and sickles. She implores her husband to take along the faithful Cowboy Jeddie (Boris Barnet) to protect him. Jeddie is a stereotypical fresh-faced American movie cowboy in a checked shirt and a bandanna, with a lasso, six-shot revolver and spurs, a bearskin vest and chaps.  
This silent film by director Lev Kuleshov, the first produced in his famous Film Workshop, reinterprets and employs dynamic conventions pioneered by US film directors such as D.W. Griffith. Kuleshov wanted to parody what he referred to as the ‘maximum movement and primitive heroism’ of the American ‘detective’ film, as well as to lampoon presumed American attitudes toward Soviet Russia. It was the second film to be shot in the newly-organized state-run Goskino Film Studios.

Mr. West also is a ringer for the US silent film star Harold Lloyd. In numerous films, Lloyd played an early twentieth century American Everyman, often saving the day with his own death-defying stunts. Lloyd may be best remembered now for a scene in which he hung from the hands of a large clock over downtown Los Angeles.
In Kuleshov’s view, montage, the process of actually assembling the shots, is what renders the entire power of cinematic effect. In broad outline, Kuleshov wanted in film to replace the stage theatricality popular at the time with a scientific vocabulary of ‘signs’ depicting gestures, emotions and expressions, which could be shot and assembled into narratives which are sequences of changing scenes. He had been involved with early Formalists such as Viktor Shklovskii and Osip Brik, who also had collaborated with him on screenplays.  

An 11-minute madcap chase scene involving automobiles and horse-drawn sleighs, motorcycles, high building fire escapes and rooftops, is a good early showcase of Kuleshov’s theories and the ability of his Film Workshop. Soon after Mr. West and Jeddie arrive in Moscow, a street urchin lights off with Mr. West’s soft leather briefcase. Later, Jeddie, riding on the roof of Mr. West’s car as though it were a stagecoach, jumps off to recover a suitcase that falls off and gets separated from his boss. The chase scene shows Jeddie’s energetic high-speed but ultimately unsuccessful effort to catch up to Mr. West.
Chased by the police, Jeddie ends up crashing into a private institution where he meets Ellie (Valya Lopatina), a young American woman he knows who happens to be living in Moscow. Ellie is able to explain things to the police. But Mr. West ends up in the clutches of a band of ‘counter-revolutionaries,’ a criminal gang led by Count Zhban (Vsevolod Pudovkin), ‘once a fop, now just a small time criminal,’ Countess von Saks (Aleksandra Khokhlova), One Eye (Sergei Komarov) and others.
The ‘counter-revolutionaries’ tell Mr. West that he can be safe only with them. The Bolsheviks tore down Moscow University and the Bolshoi Theater, they say. And the gang exploits the New York magazine images of ‘Bolshevik types’ in a nutty convoluted plot to extort money from him.
A notable detail here is that the action passes numerous times by the former Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Stalin’s government razed in 1931. (The post-Soviets rebuilt this in the 2000s.) 
In the end, Mr. West is rescued by the Bolshevik police. A senior official in a leather coat gives Mr. West a sightseeing tour of Moscow, showing him that Moscow University and the Bolshoi Theater still stand.
The film culminates in the official pointing out ‘typical Bolsheviks,’ starting with a military parade, panning to men-in-the-streets and concluding, surprisingly, with an image of Leon Trotsky. At the time, Trotsky, hated and soon eclipsed by Stalin, would have been the ailing Lenin’s heir apparent.
Mr. West admits that Americans have the wrong idea about of the Soviet Union. He even radiograms Madge, instructing her to ‘burn those New York magazines, and hang a portrait of Lenin on the wall. Long live the Bolsheviks!’

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