The Russian avant-garde of the 1920s was born after the revolution, in the context of the October of the arts. It is one of the most interesting and radical avant-gardes in the history of cinema. The Bolshevik Communist Party allows artists great freedom to experiment, while remaining within the scope of the October Revolution.
The October of the Arts becomes a very profitable season for dozens of artists who oppose the traditional approach: telling reality in a non-trivial and ideological way.
In the October of the Arts, the experiences of cubofuturism, experimental theater and balagan converge. The biomechanical experiences of constructivism that associate man with the machine and the dynamics of factory workers. The theories of Proletkult, of which Eisenstein belongs, which will seek the spectacularity of culture linked to the proletariat.
Finally, there is also the current of formalism that conceives the artistic work as a structure in which the meaning of everything can be found. In all this ferment, the common intentions were to bring art closer to the man of the street and the popular masses.
The cinema thus comes into contact with the soldiers of the revolution and with the entire proletariat. Dziga Vertov comes from a musical background and is influenced by Italian Futurism and Constructivism. Kulesov wants to apply the principles of constructivism to cinema and creates a film laboratory.
The Russian avant-garde and experiments on editing
Cinema begins to influence the other arts as well. The directors who establish themselves as a reference point for the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s are Dziga Vertov and Sergej Eisenstein. They are also prolific film theorists. With Stalin’s rise to power between 1929 and 1930, the experimentation and freedom of artistic creativity drastically decreased and production was confined within the confines of Socialist realism.
State production houses such as Goskino create a cinema of propaganda education. However, there is also a research cinema, linked to the October program of the Arts. The pioneer of this artistic revolution is Kulesov . His experiments on editing have marked the history of cinema and discovered new horizons.
The experiment in which he mounted the face of Mozzuchin, a star of the Tsarist cinema, is famous in a scene, with different objects: a plate of soup, a coffin or a child playing. He clearly demonstrated that the power of cinema and the meanings of images lay in film editing. He combined shots shot in Moscow and Washington within the same scene, achieving an effect of continuity. His conception of cinema was an engineering one.
One of the most important directors of the Russian avant-garde was a pupil of Kulesov and his name was Pudovkin . Initially an actor and then a director of royal socialism faithful to the party line. Pudovkin also deals with film theory. Especially the editing and its ability to insert homogeneous elements in the filmic narrative like so many bricks. Films such as The mother , from 1926, develop an ideological and political message by resorting to analog editing and the conceptual association of images.
The Russian avant-garde and Sergej Eisenstein
The opposite of Pudovkin’s realistic line works instead Sergej Eisenstein . He represents the pinnacle of the experience of Soviet cinema and the deepest affirmation of the theory of cinema and revolutionary art. Eisenstein brings together research on biomechanics, the cubofuturism of Mayakovskij , the school of formalism, the revolutionary commitment of Proletkult. Eisenstein also deals with 19th and 20th century literature, studies Joyce, psychoanalysis and works on the analysis of Marxism.
For Eisenstein, the October of cinema implies a formal practice inspired by the point of view of the factory and the proletariat and is capable of erasing bourgeois art. Art is a social practice capable of conveying stimuli, emotions, ideas and ways of thinking. And ideologically influence the public.
In contrast to Vertov’s cineocchio Eisenstein states the Cine-punch . He considers the work of art “a tractor that deeply plows the viewer’s psyche”. In his writing about him The montage of attractions hypothesizes theatrical and cinematographic performances built on a combination of attractions intended as aggressive moments of the show. These elements are capable of provoking a psychosensory reaction in the viewer in view of a final ideological conclusion.
The Eisenstein conflict
Eisenstein wants to get the viewer out of his passive state, shake him with an emotional shock and take him outside of himself to become aware. He aims at a highly innovative visual communication full of aggression and intellectual components. He is able to communicate ideas and provoke strong emotions at the same time. For him too, editing is the fundamental aspect of cinematographic creation. Assembly is the moment in which heterogeneous materials take their final shape. Eisenstein’s 1929 essays on film editing are the most important of all the experience of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s.
Eisenstein theorizes that juxtaposing two different images does not result in their sum but a third entity of meaning. The juxtaposition of two shots must not take place by accumulation and homogeneity as Pudovkin thinks. It must take place through contrast, confrontation and inhomogeneity. Editing is conflict. Editing is a thought that originates from the collision of two independent pieces against each other, and is the key to the dramatic principle.
The dialectic of images builds counterpoint, complex articulations, graphic, spatial and volume conflicts. This multiplicity of conflicts develops between the individual shots, between the individual levels, conceived as dynamic structures that collide. The shot is the fundamental cell of the montage. But it is an element that is overcome in the process. The intellectual process, according to Einstein, is the highest potential of cinema. Intellectual montage , in its 1929 theorization, is a vast typology of montage that can be metric-rhythmic, tonal, harmonic or intellectual.
Cinema as a visual symphony
It seems clear that for Eisenstein the art that comes closest to cinema is music. His films Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October mark the beginning of a new way of making cinema. Strike is the most complex film in which all the director’s ideas and innovations come together. Eisenstein does not tell individual stories but stories in which the community is the protagonist. Tales of great social clashes with the masters of power.
An eccentric, theatrical and circus cinema, with a great impact on the viewer, influenced by a burlesque style. The analogue montage of Sciopero associates, for example, the images of the tsarist massacre with those of oxen at the slaughterhouse. Ne Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein also uses traditional means. Feelings, lyric, psychology. The sequence of the Odessa staircase is famous for its drama, organization of space and emotional tension created with an extraordinary film montage.
Pathos and Climax
Einstein shows multiple actions with a single ideological point of view. At the same time he shows a large amount of images of the repressors and victims. His points of view multiply, details and dramatic gestures follow one another at increasing speed. The different planes of the images build an explosion of pathos that cannot leave indifferent. The repression of the Cossacks is orchestrated as a series of escalating conflicts. Violent images, of blood, pain and murder, with an epic emotional climax, which has few similar examples in the history of cinema.
In October Eisenstein instead goes into even more experimental territories than previous films. It is the film where he takes his theory of intellectual editing to the extreme. Characters and objects assume symbolic and strongly ideological correlations, to suggest meanings. In 1929, with his film The General Line, Eisenstein met the censorship of Stalin who imposed cuts on the film and changed its title to The old and the new . The freedom of the research season of Soviet intellectual cinema is coming to an end.
The Russian avant-garde in FEEKS
Subsequently the FEEKS group , made up of directors such as Kozincev, Trauberg, Jutkevic and Krizitskij , experimented with the grotesque, burlesque and the absurd both in theater and in cinema. Their shows are a rhythmic percussion on the nerves, an accumulation of tricks. They are a way to meet the people. Shows that take on shades of entertainment without obligation, with the aim of creating a relationship with the mass audience. Eccentric, crazy films, with aggressive gestures, which resort to anomalous sets and bizarre lighting. Radical expressive techniques with particularly strong effects that reject realism.
The Russian avant-garde of Dziga Vertov
Dziga Vertov from the opposite side elaborates the most radical October project of cinema by integrating theory and practice. He writes several avant-garde manifestos inspired by Italian Futurism and Constructivism. His commitment is to document the construction of socialism with the camera. His cinema enhances the camera and the mechanical gaze. The camera is a more perfect cine-eye than the human eye for exploring the chaos of visual phenomena that exist in space.
Says Vertov “I am the cineocchio, I create a man more perfect than the one created by Adam.” Dziga Vertov is inspired by the anti-artistic and anti-traditional program of constructivism and attacks narrative and spectacular cinema. Cine-drama is the opium of the people. Fictional cinema is an instrument of power and enslavement that serves to produce the alienation of the people.
Vertov, on the other hand, wants to make an un-acted cinema, built from factual events, committed to catching life off guard. Events and reality have priority over the construction of the show. A cinema that reflects the point of view of the proletariat. The cine-eye is rational analysis and scientific study of living phenomena.
Vertov’s film editing
It is easy to understand that editing in this perspective becomes the focus of the entire making of a film. Film editing is not a simple assembly of filmed material on the basis of a script. It becomes the organization and vehicle of meaning of the visible world.
The cineocchio starts editing the film as soon as he chooses, during the shooting phase, the subject to be filmed. But Vertov takes into account exactly like Eisenstein the musical aspect of his films: the correlations of planes, glimpses, movements, lights and shooting speeds within the sequences.
In this radically innovative concept of cinema, Vertov begins with newsreels and ends with a documentary on Soviet reality and the dynamics of construction of socialism. Films such as The Sixth Part of the World , from 1926, The Eleventh , from 1928, Symphony of Donbass – enthusiasm , from 1930, are symphonies visuals documenting development, industrialization and work organization.
But the films in which Vertov takes his experimentation to the extreme are Kinoglaz , from 1924, and Man with a movie camera , from 1929. In in these films the complexity of vision multiplies in many aspects of reality with courageous and never-before-seen experiments. Backward projection, slow motion, use of anomalous camera angles, correlations and very special visual tensions.
The man with the camera, in addition to being the pinnacle of Vertov’s work, is one of the most significant works on cinema. It is the day of a reckless cameraman in Moscow, from dawn to dusk, who tries to overcome the limits of film shooting. But it is in the film editing that this work is truly amazing. The film is a complex reflection between object and subject, things filmed and the eye of the camera.
In the 1930s, Vertov was forced to give up his experimental cinema and to make political propaganda for Lenin and Stalin. Before starting to make only newsreels he will produce the last major film: Three Songs about Lenin .