Movies and Film: Avant-Garde Directors and Theorists to Remember

Avant-Garde Directors and Theorists to Remember

Unlike most American directors, most of the following Soviet filmmakers are also famous as film theorists and critics. Most have had a profound effect on the way we think about filmmaking at every level: political, aesthetic, narrative, technical, and so on.

Lev Kuleshov

One of the earliest exponents of editing as the most important component of filmmaking, Lev Kuleshov discovered in the 1920s that meaning in film is determined more by the order of the shots than by what the shots contain. This realization is the precondition for montage effects. Kuleshov discovered the "Kuleshov Effect," or the manipulation of meaning through editing. His greatest example of this effect was the editing together of six shots:

  • Shot 1: A bowl of soup.
  • Shot 2: A still close-up of an actor's neutral expression.
  • Shot 3: A dead woman in a coffin.
  • Shot 4: The same still as in the second shot.
  • Shot 5: A playing child.
  • Shot 6: The same still as in the second shot.

Though shots 2, 4, and 6 of the actor's face are identical, audiences thought that they conveyed a subtle but wide range of emotional responses: hunger on seeing the soup, grief on seeing the dead woman, and joy on seeing the child. The audience was manipulated into believing in the greatness of the performance by the creativity of the editing.

Kuleshov also taught that editing could involve "creative geography" and "creative anatomy." In the former, a film cuts from two subjects walking on a Moscow street to their walking on the Capitol steps in Washington, making it appear as if the two locations are next to each other. Experiments in creative anatomy involved filming various body parts of various women. When the shots are spliced together, the whole conveys the impression that the various parts all belong to one person.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Kino-Eye is the name Vertov gave the camera eye, which is more perfect in recording impressions, and in moving through time and space, than our own eyes. For Vertov, the Kino-Eye is both a perfectly objective recorder and an ideal interpreter of reality.

Dziga Vertov (Denis the Red Menace)

Dziga Vertov was the pseudonym of Denis Kaufman. Poet, essayist, novelist, medical student, and musician, Vertov's interest in film coincides with the Russian Revolution itself, when, in 1917, he became a writer and editor for newsreels. At first working under Lev Kuleshov, Vertov ultimately started making his own documentaries about the war and the Revolution. During this period (between about 1919 and 1922), he also began publishing his ideas about realism in cinema, especially about the Kino-Eye.

Vsevolod I. Pudovkin

Another of Kuleshov's pupils, this brilliant physics and chemistry student became enamored of film after seeing Griffith's Intolerance (1916).

Another filmmaker interested in montage, Pudovkin saw shots as building blocks in which narrative and meaning were built bit by bit. It is probably easiest to think of Pudovkin as closer in style to Hollywood filmmaking than Eisenstein in these respects: While Eisenstein strived the most after an intellectual effect, Pudovkin was most interested in capturing an audience emotionally. Pudovkin's films had heroes, while the people were Eisenstein's main protagonist. Pudovkin's greatest film, Mother, contains characters who represent particular social positions: a son who favors the striking workers, a father on the opposite side. But the appeal of the film also resides in the very real and personal agonies of the title character.

Sergei Eisenstein

Part Jewish in an anti-Semitic culture, homosexual in a homophobic society, Sergei Eisenstein was probably the single most-influential thinker on the subject of film editing, and certainly the most famous Soviet director of the twentieth century.

In opposition to Pudovkin, Eisenstein did not think of individual shots as building blocks, but rather as related through antagonism and difference (despite his calling their relation one of "attractions"). He saw the editing process as dialectical, like the logic underlying Marxism itself. Like other Russian formalist directors, he referred to this special attention to editing as "montage" (defined in "Film Editing").

His best metaphor for this dialectical editing was the idea of the ideogram, a primitive mode of written communication in which you can take the symbol (really stick-drawing) of a man, overlay it with the symbol of a mouth, and you have a new symbol containing a new idea: hunger, or perhaps crying. Two nouns together form a verb, an action. Simple images juxtaposed can form complex ideas.

Several of the best examples of Eisensteinian montage at work occur in Battleship Potemkin. At a simple level a shot of a Cossack plunging his bayonet down is crosscut with a shot of a baby carriage, giving the horrific impression that a baby has just been skewered, when the closest infant was probably playing with kitchen knives somewhere down the street from the shooting location. Not only is infanticide suggested, but the brutality of the Cossacks in general and the callousness of their commander-in-chief, the Czar, is definitively asserted.

When sound came to film, Eisenstein theorized that the relationship between sound and image should also be dialectical. Sound was not simply a commentary on the images, like background music in American films, but brought its own set of meanings to the table.

Iconoclastic in other ways as well, Eisenstein favored nonactors in principle parts, and deemphasized the notion of individual heroes in favor of stories that, like Potemkin, featured the masses as the collective hero.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky is the first internationally recognized Russian director of real note after the death of Stalin. His 1966 Andrei Rublev was banned in Russia until 1971 because its vision of a cruel fifteenth-century Russian society seemed too much like contemporary Soviet society; this kind of critique did not conform to party standards of filmically clich heroic Marxism. It did, however, win a prize at Cannes, and helped catapult Tarkovsky onto the international scene. (His other early festival winner, My Name Is Ivan [1962], did the same.) His next feature, Solaris (1972), is a quiet, thoughtful, uneventful science fiction film that probes the nature and origins of intelligence, memory, emotions, and selfhood.

It makes sense that Tarkovsky's father was a noted poet because his films are often referred to as lyrical. They were certainly personal enough to get him in trouble with Soviet authorities for making films too difficult for the masses (read: the authorities themselves) to understand. As one might expect, technology and uniformity are suspect in most of his films. His films generally condemn the materialism of both east and west, and seem to support the notion of personal and artistic integrity and autonomy.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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