Thursday, July 24, 2008

Greatest Russians?

LA Times has an editorial about a Russian popularity poll which is trying to decide the greatest Russian of all time. It is also lamenting the fact that two leading contenders for the prize right now are Stalin and Czar Nicholas II...

The site for the poll is in Russian but for those who don't know Russian it will be interesting to find out the names just from the picture..

I could figure out only the following (in order):

Alexander Blok
Mikhail Bulgakov
Yuri Gagarin
Nikolai Gogol
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Catherine the Great
Boris Yeltsin
Ivan the Terrible
Mikhail Lermontov
Czar Nicholas II
Peter the Great
Alexander Pushkin
Leo Tolstoy
Ivan Turgenev
Nikita Khrushchev
Anton Chekhov

I guess I shouldn't be calling myself a Russophile anymore!

Anyway I was looking for Trotsky or Gorbachev but can't find them anywhere! Also Nabokov is certainly not there.


Sunil said...

It's incredible how world regards murderers, drunkards and deads as great when the best is still alive.

My vote has to go to Kalashnikov for designing the most revolutionary piece of machinery known to man. (After iphone of course.

Alok said...

We probably just need to get our definition of "great" straightened out...

Agree with your second point, two things which seem to capture the essence of our world now - militarism and consumerism.

puccinio said...

Are there any film-makers in that list. Of course Eisenstein is from Riga which is in the Ukraine as is Dovzhenko. Kuleshov, Vertov, Pudovkin are more Russian I guess. Then there's always Andrei Tarkovsky.

And let's not forget Nikolai Cherkassov, one of the towering actors of all time.

In any case greatest "insert Nationality" is a pretty lousy idea for a poll. The only ones who have a chance to make it are priests, saints, scientists, politicians, soldiers, artists and businessmen. Not some farmer who's a pillar to his community or any good, respected teacher or a doctor who looks after his patients. It's another history written by and for "winners" and so pretty boring to me.

Alok said...

Eisenstein doesn't seem to be there, which makes the possibility of others being present even more remote. More question marks on my Russophilia... I haven't seen anything yet by Pudovkin or Dovzhenko and Kuleshov's name reminds me only of the famous "experiment"... Even with Eisenstein and Vertov, I somehow seem to prefer reading about them to actually watching their films. Heretical, I know...

These polls may be ridiculous but they may have a few things to say about the state of national culture and current politics ... like the way Stalin has received so many votes. It is not unrelated to what is happening with Putin.

I totally agree about the history of winners bit. In fact there has been a relatively recent trend in history writing which tries to correct this bias by focussing on actual experiences of ordinary people, rather than speeches of the leaders and their ideological debates with each other. Orlando Figes' history of Russian revolution A People's Tragedy (have read only parts of it) follows this model.

Alok said...

Also I don't think the nationality question matters. Stalin himself was a Georgian!

Cheshire Cat said...

I'm disappointed that there's never a poll for greatest mollusc...

Alok said...


puccinio said...

Eisenstein himself opposed the idea. In ''October'' for instance, athough Lenin and Trotsky make their presences felt, his focus is on the ordinary Russians who struck it down. Of course eventuall Eisenstein under Stalin, had his career systematically sabotaged and with his sound films had to do propaganda. Of course ''Ivan The Terrible'' is the Eisenstein's great revenge against Stalin and which allowed him to indulge in the camp sensibility he was forced to hide under Uncle Joe(Eisenstein was gay).

I've actually only gotten into the Ruskies recently. I had seen Eisenstein's ''Potemkin'' and Dovzhenko's ''Earth'' years ago but while I admired it, I wasn't really interested in it then(Hitchcock, Lang, Ford were what I gravitated to). Last two years I've been seeing their films or as much that is available and they are really great artists. One of the reasons for it is the general neglect in recent critical history of the Russians outside of their theories and since no one was seeing them I went after them.

One major revelation is Pudovkin's ''Storm Over Asia'', it's out on DVD and it's a really stunning film, inspiring, beautiful and earth-shaking(literally in the last scene). His ''Dezertir'' is one of the major sound films of the early 30's as well.

Kuleshov is a curious character in that Soviet Montage Cult. He actually taught most of them and learnt under Yevgeni Bauer, the only major talent of Tsarist Pre-Soviet Russian Cinema(very short-lived for obvious reasons). Most of his films are like hollywood B-Movie comedies, only with great style and fun. He's the major exception to the stern, gloomy, brooding humourless picture of Russian cinema.

He also loved American pop culture and one of his sound films as O. Henry as the main character. Unfortunately Stalin ruined his career and he had to make children's educational films in his last years. It's a pity, he could have come to Hollywood. He'd be right at home directing films like ''The Girl Can't Help It!''.

There are others. Boris Barnet is another respected if obscure figure whose films I haven't seen yet. I can't help but wonder that Russia being on the losing side of the Cold War is the major reason why this unbelievably influential period of world cinema has been neglected really. But then such things happen time and again. I smell a revival on the horizon.

Alok said...

I have always been partial to the "realist" school. I remember attending a guest lecture in my college in '98-99 which was accompanied by a screening of Bicycle Thieves, probably the single most important event in my film going life (so far). The young documentary film maker who gave the lecture was so convincing and so charismatic and the experience of the film was so powerful and stirring that for a long time I thought things like montage, close-ups, artificial-sets, stylised acting were all hallmarks of decadent and commercial cinema and as a result completely worthless.

I also later realized that much of what he said he took from Andre Bazin, like for example the idea of "respecting" reality in all its complexities. I am still somewhat partial to this school of cinema but I can now appreciate other cinematic forms too. In fact as we talked about in connection to Performance I see montage as a much more powerful device when it comes to capturing human subjectivity and the process of thought - the random association of ideas and images which transcend the continuities of space and time.

On the other hand (viz kuleshov experiment) we need to be extremely careful of the propagandist uses of this Eisenstinian form. Without his precedent it is virtually impossible to think of political propaganda, advertising and indeed much of mass visual culture of modern times.

I also think that the long-take aesthetic that is so beloved to the contemporary art house film makers (Tsai, Haneke, Hou, Tarr etc) is at the risk of being completely commodified. Already many films feel like unintentional parodies of the style. I wont be suprised if the montage style comes back in vogue.

It is true with the end of the cold war interest in Russian studies has dimmed. Rest of the easter Europe has suffered even worse. We rarely get any news from Poland, Hungary, Romania or Czech republic for example... my memories of the time before the berlin wall are very dim but these countries used to be always in the news then.

puccinio said...

The young documentary film maker who gave the lecture was so convincing and so charismatic and the experience of the film was so powerful and stirring that for a long time I thought things like montage, close-ups, artificial-sets, stylised acting were all hallmarks of decadent and commercial cinema and as a result completely worthless.

Well ''The Bicycle Thief'' and other Italian NeoRealist films also had montage(see the last episode of ''Paisan'', considered the peak of NeoRealism), close-up, sets and yes stylized acting. Neo-Realist cinema was all about trying to recreate things as they probably do happen so they refined the plot, made the narrative more detailed and incidental details. And most of the NeoRealist directors ended up changing their style. Well there were only two major directors...Rossellini and Visconti. The other major figure was Cesare Zavattini the auteur of the DeSica directed films.

The central tenet of Andre Bazin's idea of realism is that reality can only be achieved through artifice. To Bazin, Melies was as realistic as Lumiere. The reason...Lumieres were educated as painters and this influenced their composition, bunking all their dreams of cinema being solely a recording instrument. Melies by creating everything in front of the camera, inside the film and the like was a magician and every good magician knows that to make a trick convincing the illusion has to be lifelike and realistic.

Jean Renoir was the chief influence on Bazin for this idea of cinema. Eisenstein's approach to montage as something to directly shape the viewer's emotions stood in contrast to Renoir's constantly changing moods and tones in his films which ended up making the audience confused and so made them more active spectators. Renoir was able to do this because of actors while Eisenstein did it thanks to Eduard Tisse's magnificent, detailed compositions and his editing.

The NeoRealists were children of both Renoir and Eisenstein. Except with a major difference. Renoir was obsessed with direct sound while the Italians made the sound entirely in post-production much to Jean's disapproval.

In any case Eisenstein himself changed much of his ideas for ''Ivan The Terrible'' a highly intellectual film, considered the first significant marriage of Marx and Freud.

puccinio said...

Without his precedent it is virtually impossible to think of political propaganda, advertising and indeed much of mass visual culture of modern times.

That's unfair. Eisenstein's ideas of montage were far more sophisticated than the cheap advertisements and political propaganda of today's world. They actually follow the pattern set up by Leni Reifenstahl who directed the world's first and only feature length advertisement(which people ridiculously call documentary). Reifenstahl's ideas for editing and sound was as Susan Sontag argued more influenced by Busby Berkeley's erotic extravaganzas made in the early 30's(though without all of Berkeley's wit and political bite).

Eisenstein's films do tend to be simplistic in storyline. The characters are essentially types. But the fact is his films nonetheless remain very forceful and direct in denouncing injustice and in depicting how that injustice worked in society. So much so that Stalin suppressed Eisenstein's work during the 30's realizing that his films being very revolutionary was counterproductive. ''The General Line'', his last silent film also brought in a lot of Eisenstein's very wry sense of humour(it includes a love scene between a cow and a bull...I am not kidding!) and also ambivalence about communist societies.

I wont be suprised if the montage style comes back in vogue.

It's not really a question of style. Eisenstein's films for instance while not having really long takes aren't very cut-up either. His Average Shot Length is much longer than the films made today for instance. He is not the ur-Michael Bay.

Eisenstein's montage theories were created in the age of silent cinema where there was no sound. With sound, the entire aesthetic of film was turned on it's head. Jean Renoir cannot exist in sound cinema for instance. If you read interviews with editors you'll find out that for most of them montage is harder with longer takes than with shorter takes. The reason is that a long take itself is a kind of montage.

Bazin talked about that in detail. A single fixed shot itself is just a fixed shot. A long moving take is an uninterrupted movement of images(people, objects, environment) from on-screen to off-screen and vice-versa. There the images succeed each other in a continuous movement. The best long takes are those where every arriving image either adds to or dialectically opposes the departing imaging. It's as Scorsese says, about what's in the frame and what's out of the frame.

''La Regle du Jeu'' has a famous danse macabre scene, a single unbroken shot which basically describes what I said above.

Alok said...

I wasn't condemning Eisenstein's work by mentioning propaganda and advertisements. Just that this idea of montage and the way it can de-contextualise images makes it a very powerful tool for propaganda. It is also in most cases akin to imposing one's own interpretation on the image or the sequence of images, and as a result the autonomous nature of reality is lost. Deep focus is another aspect of the same. It allows audiences the freedom to focus on every part of the frame and on the background and the foreground both at the same time. Too many close-ups or artificial sets already impose an interpretation over the reality. It is as if the face of the star were more important than the events of the narrative and its reality. I didn't know of Renoir at that time but these neo-realist films to me were great illustrations of these theories. Bazin himself wrote quite a few essays on these films (Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, La Terra Trema etc). Anyway thanks for the comments, which are always full of lot of ideas and information!

seherezada said...

One of the reasons Nabokov is not part of the popular Russian greatness is simply because he was not such a great writer in Russian ...

He was a maestro in enriching the English language with the labyrinthic routes of his thoughts in Russian ...

I could always recognize the splendor of Russian language in his English novels,
but his own translation of Lolita in Russian was a total fiasco.

He also could not translate in English from a Russian text ..., he agonized over Pushkin`s Evgheny Oneghin with no results to meet his own satisfaction.

I guess the secret of his exquisite English was the instant genomic incorporation of his Russian (I have no idea what I am talking about ...).

Alok said...

I don't really agree with you. Many Russian critics and readers believe that "The Gift" is the greatest Russian novel of 2oth century. Alongwith Nabokov other emigre russian writers are also being recognized and being included in the official russian canon.

I have tried reading The Gift a couple of times but couldn't finish it. It is mindblowingly dense and complex. You also need to be totally immersed in russian culture and history to appreciate a lot of what is in the book. I have no doubt that it is a major work of art.

the history of the pushkin translation is also quite interesting. while people generally think it to be misguided, even a disaster but the verse translators who have tried to translate Onegin in recent years, all have acknowledged Nabokov's debt, saying his literal translations helped them a lot.

I don't know what "genomic incorporation of his Russian" really is but it does sound fascinating.