Forwared Soviet!

B O O K   R E V I E W   B Y   C R A I G   F I S C H E R

In his book Making Meaning, David Bordwell makes distinctions between journalistic, essayistic, and scholarly film criticism. According to Bordwell, journalistic criticism consists of the reviews designed for a general readership published in such daily and weekly periodicals as the Chicago Sun-Times, Time and the Village Voice; essayistic criticism, in contrast, appears in "specialized or intellectual monthlies or quarterlies" (Cahiers du Cinema, Artforum, Film Comment) and is longer and more in-depth than journalistic reviews. And then there's academic film criticism: long, footnoted, peppered with jargon that limit its audience to professors and would-be professors, and published in scholarly journals like Cinema Journal, Screen and Camera Obscura.

To anyone familiar with film criticism, these distinctions are yawningly obvious. Yet lately I've become a fan of writing that, unconsciously or consciously, tears down the metaphoric fences among the journalistic, essayistic and scholarly realms. My favorite journalistic writers, J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, are a couple of eggheads who bring academic ideas and high erudition to their movie reviews, and there are plenty of books written for the masses that tell us more about the movies than any 20 academic-press tomes. (One that instantly comes to mind is Julie Salomon's The Devil's Candy.) Conversely, certain academics entertain me because their writing is anecdotal and gossipy and "unprofessional." B. Ruby Rich's recent Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement is a fascinating read, both for its excellent articles on major directors (Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Sally Potter) and for its tidbits about people Rich doesn't like. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic (and thus the most entertaining) academic writer is Robin Wood, whose work I adore for both its superb close readings and its long, strident digressions about revolutionary social reform.

Transgressing the lines between journalism, opinion and scholarship, however, isn't always enlightening or entertaining. Sometimes it just creates confusion, as in Graham Roberts' new book Forward Soviet!: History and Non-Fiction Film In The USSR (I.B. Tauris, 1999). On the surface, and in much of its content, Forward Soviet! is a level-headed survey of what the Soviets called "unplayed" film (with special emphasis on the careers of Dziga Vertov and Esfir Shub), but in various strange ways Roberts fiddles with the distinctions between opinion and scholarship as extensively as Rich or Wood. True, Roberts doesn't gossip about Alexander Medvedkin's monkey lust or present his own version of sexual utopia, but he does combine wildly disparate approaches--impressionistic opinions, long (and in many cases unnecessary) synopses of key Soviet documentaries, and scrupulous research from Soviet archives--into a book that can't decide if its target audience is Joe and Alice Sixpack or, more narrowly, academics who study Soviet cinema.

This confusion is particularly apparent in Roberts' insistence on giving prose summaries of many of the films he discusses. In his introduction, he explains the rationale behind what he calls the "lengthy reportage of the films under investigation":

This method has been chosen (1.) because readers will not---and cannot---see many of the films I have discussed and (2.) to stress the need to look at the pictures. This close textural study is necessary in order to get to grips with what the film-makers were trying to achieve and their cinematographic means of doing so. (5)

The fact that Roberts italicizes "to look at the pictures" suggests that he is fed up with film history that leaves textual analysis behind and flies off into overly-abstract assumptions about ideology, spectatorship, etc. Perhaps Roberts got up on the wrong side of a stack of old issues of Screen the morning he wrote that sentence, but it should be noted that the best contemporary work on silent films---Charles Musser's The Emergence of Cinema, Richard Abel's The Ciné Goes to Town, Lauren Rabinovitz's for the Love of Pleasure---is scrupulous and intelligent in the ways it combines close reading (and film summaries) with theoretical analysis. Roberts' belief that his readers "will not---and cannot--see many of the films I have discussed" also seems wrongheaded. Who does he imagine his readers to be? Surely Forward Soviet! (currently available only as an expensive hardcover) won't attract casual readers who think to themselves, "I will now read a very detailed book about Soviet non-fiction film, but I absolutely, positively will not see any of the movies the author discusses."

I suspect that readers interested in Forward Soviet! have already seen examples of 1920s Soviet non-fiction work, and I'd also bet that these readers have watched these films on video. It's weird, then, that Roberts feels the need to summarize films that he can safely assume that his readership has seen. Roberts notes, for instance, that he can only give Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), a "cursory analysis," but then he spends four pages unnecessarily summarizing much of the action in this widely seen and highly regarded film. He likewise summarizes a later Vertov work, Three Songs of Lenin (1934), but this film is also readily available; it's on video (courtesy of the valiant folks at Kino) and it has aired on Turner Classic Movies. One of the great strengths of Roberts' book is the government reports and primary statements by filmmakers he discovered in his research. Roberts should devote more time to primary material like this and abandon the goofy hope that his book might attract a general reader who hasn't yet seen Man With the Movie Camera.

Another way that Roberts blurs the line between academic scholarship and mass appeal is through the personal opinions he periodically interjects into his analyses. He criticizes Vertov's Enthusiasm (1931)--"The first half is a repetition of Cine-Eye tricks; the second half is repetitive and becomes rather boring" (99)---and is similarly harsh on Esfir Shub's Komsomol--Patron of Electrification (1932; "a disappointing film but a fascinating historical document" [104]). I find Roberts' evaluative judgments stimulating for two reasons. First, most scholars try to remain "objective" about their object of study, so it comes as a bracing little shock when Roberts describes a film as "boring" or "repetitive." And second, Roberts usually gives good reasons for the judgments he makes, as in his description of the chilling historical context surrounding the images presented in Enthusiasm:

It is also somewhat disturbing to watch, and be unmoved by, lengthy shots of happy peasants dancing in what purports to be an area we now know was experiencing one of the worst famines in the history of the human race [the Donbas]. However disappointing in quality and based on a lie as it may be, this film is most definitely part of the building of the Soviet Union. The audience is simply confronted with an impossible fiction and told to believe it. As a rather poor fiction, the film is a symbol of the situation it purports to portray. This film is part of the mythologising project so central to the Stalinist political and cultural hegemony. (99-100)

Roberts quite rightly defines Stalinism as both atrocity and farce here, while expressing a disdain for "impossible fictions" that masquerade as documentary. Curiously enough, though, his hatred of Stalin and documentary lies leads to the biggest problem with Forward Soviet!: its marginalization of the Socialist Realist documentaries made from the mid '30s to the mid '80s. The subtitle of Forward Soviet! promises a survey of "History and Non-Fiction Film in the Ussr," but the book focuses almost exclusively on the experimental work of the '20s and early '30s. Chapter 7, "The Not So Strange Death of Soviet Documentary," charts the careers of Vertov and Shub as they plummeted out of Stalinist favor, and Roberts discusses other '30s Soviet filmmakers only when relevant to the Vertov-Shub tragedies (or relevant to the making of WWII documentaries).

But I can't help but think that Forward Soviet! might be more fun and valuable if Roberts had told us more about Yakov Bliokh, Vladimir Erofeev, Roman Karmen, and other directors unknown in the West. Chapter 8, "By Way of Conclusion," creates an even more profound gap in Roberts' survey of Soviet non-fiction film, The chapter begins by describing the documentary film production possible in post-war Stalinist Russia:

Sofia Prituliak---Medvedkin's editor--reminds us that: "[Stalin] watched every documentary, every newsreel...every single one. He loved documentaries." Under this kind of scrutiny, allied to the leader's unreasonable expectations of film, the pressurised film-makers would almost certainly fail. At best they could try to keep some integrity for the documentary form (which would bring them violent criticism and / or unemployment) or at worst churn out uninspiring bland product (which perversely would also as often as not be unacceptable). While "mistakes" could still be made in the 1930s (witness Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin), by the time of the post-war years total self-censorship had triumphed. (141)

This description is followed by a chronicle of what happened to the '20s and '30s filmmakers after WWII that reminded me of movies that use captions and voice-over narration to tell us characters' futures. At the end of Animal House (1978) a caption tells us that Bluto will become a U.S. senator; in Roberts' final chapter, we find out that "[Shub's] involvement in film making ended in 1953. She contented herself in her final years with writing her memoirs" (141) and "[Medvedkin] remained a committed communist until his death in 1989" (141). After these updates, Roberts finishes his book by discussing what he calls a "renaissance" in documentary production during Glasnost and Perestroika.

Absent from Forward Soviet!, then, is any serious consideration of the non-fiction films made in Russia between 1945 and 1985. Roberts' hatred of Stalin and deceptive documentaries, in other words, leads him to ignore 40 years of film production, and this is a gap that undermines the usefulness and narrows the scope of Forward Soviet! I can understand why Roberts dislikes post-war Russian documentaries, but he has an obligation to engage with these films in ways beyond almost total dismissal. (Consider as an alternative J. Hoberman's The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism, which thoughtfully reads Soviet socialist realist art as symptoms of Russian culture and international geopolitics.) I appreciate how Roberts isn't afraid to call a Shub film "disappointing" or "boring," but he crossed the lines between personal taste and academic research too much when he decided, "Ah, I don't like those Stalinist propaganda flicks, so I just won't write about 'em." Forward Soviet! would be a much stronger book if, at that moment, Roberts the scholar had ignored his own opinions, and dutifully taken on the responsibility to give us a comprehensive book on Soviet non-fiction film.


Forward Soviet!: History and Non-fiction Film in the USSR by Graham Roberts is currently available in hardcover from I.B. Tauris. 195 pages. Suggested list price: $59.50.