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Alexander Medvedkin: cinema, train and communism – XX. century
(Theses on Feuerbach-Materialist Cinema)
1. Intro: I will try to answer on a core questions of the Conference: how is Medvedkin’s cinema related tot he Marxist theory and practice? Following Badiou and Godard we can argue that considering the history of 20th century cannot be done without two signifiers: cinema and communism, which both speak about certain emancipatory promise, passion of the Real. This class coalition becomes very clear in times of Russian revolution, strengthened under the slogan of Lenin that names film as the most important art of revolution. For Medvedkin’s particular contribution in this “transformative” period, I would like to add another signifier to the 20th century chain – TRAIN, or what can be named communist cinema-train.
I will make some observations on the work of Medvedkin that will be approached via the lenses from the most visionary text of Marx, Theses on Feuerbach. I argue that Medvedkin’s work can be understood only when divided into Two, M1 and M2, which I relate to the 10th and 11th Thesis on Feuerbach /materialist cinema/. I don’t want to claim that Medvedkin’s work is simply an application of central ideas of Marx on the screen (it pertains to a particular cinematic practice); also, I will not search for philological evidence, how Medvedkin read texts of Marx (Theses were translated into Russian in 1924). Much more I wish to work on the thesis that Medvedkin invented a new cinematic form, political cinema, which stepped into a critical dialogue and re-appropriation of communist ideas in the Soviet avant-garde context, in convergence and at times in a radical opposition to some famous figures, such as Eisenstein and Vertov, who both engage in the process of conceiving the cinema along the words of Marx. In the first part I touch upon relevance of his political experiment, politics of aesthetics – cinema-train (11th Thesis: not just representing the world, but CHANGING IT); while in second part I will touch his masterwork Happiness –– and provide some hints on the 10th Thesis (standpoint of old and new materialism; propaganda/genre).
2.) Notes on Cinema-train – what kind of synthesis?
Speaking about the perspective of the TRAIN it is known how important the train was for industrial revolution connecting the territory and market, flows of goods (-distribution of commodities), BUT for my purpose more important, the TRAIN became perhaps THE central IMAGE of the industrial revolution. Train as MOVING IMAGE with its steam engine and noise bringing the light to distant and forgotten places. Wasn’t the beginning of the cinema, one of the very first MOVING IMAGES in the history from Brothers Lumiere embodied by the shooting of the train, the arrival of a train to a small village Ciotat (1896). You may recall the urban-cinema legend that when the film was first shown, the audiences were so overwhelmed by the moving image of a life-sized train coming directly at them that they began screaming and running to the back of the room. This arrival of cinema and train already registered the difference of film and photography. It seems that train and cinema started the journey very early and the episode of the Russian Revolution even sharpens this relationship.
Not only in terms of later socialist industrialization, but already in the times of civil war we should recall that the first decree for PLAN-ned economy and constituting of socialist state as a central instance of power was done in 1921. Trotsky’s order 1042 that proclaimed central railroad agency in the fractured civil war was there to impose a reliability, continuity and central administrative control (planning of a big network, timetables, single mechanism of unity etc.). Secondly, most of you heard about the agitational trains – propaganda units that travelled all around the fronts in war (after) to mobilize soldiers/workers and educate/propagate new ideas; and Medvedkin himself was involved in the propaganda units (theater). After and apart from the agitational trains in the Civil War by the mid 1920s there were around 1000 “travelling cinemas” –by train – showing mostly documentaries, “educating the masses” and then bringing Revolution to the most distant places of the Soviet Union.
But the NEW cinema-train of Medvedkin did not only want to “distribute” films or repeat agitational train. The idea came during the walk with his friend Mikhail Guindine. Let us make a film laboratory from the train wagon – basically transform the cinema wagons into the unit of production of films (montage) and “habitus” for people. Apart from being aware of the central(technological) feature of the cinematic apparatus that enables MOVING IMAGE, Medvedkin felt that perhaps there should be a corresponding movement in the historical reality, a MOVING CINEMA – a mobile film laboratory, a production unit that would travel all along the Soviet Union, shoot the images of transformation on location and show them, immediately so to speak, without a delay. Cinema had to again step in revolutionary time, not only produce new images of changes, but to participate in the revolutionary process. For Medvedkin, the historical task for cinema was to bring it closer to the political agenda and to the People.
Some theorists might dismiss this experience as a STATE experiment, as a simple state propaganda. And perhaps, if measuring this experiment idealistically, in the initial intention of Medvedkin/Guindine this would be a valid thesis. It is true that Medvedkin, without pressure from Stalin, got engaged into thinking of different propaganda of the Plan. First 5-year plan was under way 1928-1933, and in 1930 Medvedkin came up with the idea of cinema-train, finally getting the support (after being rejected). The mission of the train seems “Taylorist”, a spontaneous ideology of the PLAN (derivative of economic base). The train would take a team of 30 people to different locations, to workers in big factories and peasants in kouhozes. Collectivisation and industrialization were in full swing and the central task was to “liquidate the delays” (explore and see where are the problems).
However, these starting intentions (he was a dedicated communist, not a simple dissident) became transformed in the process. From 1932-1934 cinema-train goes on various journeys across the country and produces hundreds of films. Through a series of innovations in CINEMA-TRAIN practice, Id argue to call it in a new cinematic form (politics of cinema).
Let us look closer to their work, their guiding slogan: “today we film; tomorrow we screen it”. Medvedkin and the crew comes to the village –farm or factory-, where they start research and speak to comrades, workers, peasants. Primarily they would be interesting in the conditions of production, but also working and living conditions of the workers. They would ask them: comrade, what is the problem? How do you live? And then basically they had one day to produce the film and next evening they would show the film to the very same people they were shooting.
a.) Cinema-Train did not come only to “educate”, but to be – in the very process – educated; a mission to execute and follow a PLAN was important, but not in a simple formula “director – workers”; firstly, workers&peasants did not remain spectators and there was no simple division of the normal filmic situation (film production, separated from distribution and at the end the film product is consumed). The cinematic experience here is “immediate” and workers&peasants become engaged in the production process, they were the agents and actors; surely, in today’s reality this might not be seen as revolutionary, but at that time, first time in history of cinema, there was an interaction between the film stage and “spectators”. The division between actor/spectator was undermined. This is further strengthened by the experience of screening, where the crew with cooperation of workers would set a temporary cinema, usually for hundred people, sometimes more. The projections were accompanied by long and heated discussions – Cinema-Train was at times satirical, critical/entertaining/educational also inciting shame, done in a way to pressurize any point in the production that did not function. Films would pressurize blindly: the management, engineers, or workers, criticize the emerging bureaucracy. In order to improve the working conditions and execute the plan, the cinema-train enhanced the political language, it got “collective” talking and taking initiative. We cannot see it as a simple tool of Taylorization of the production process, but as politicization of the production. Electrifications YES, but back TO SOVIETS (Lenin).
b.) Let me tell you few features of their film production; in their first trip of less than half year they produced 72 films in different genres (posters, newsreels…). Crazy number. One might say “productivitst” experiment. But again, I should remark already within their own production unit, they practiced 3th Thesis (give fish, or learn to fish). When they started the group, 32 enthusiasts formed its core and who could not keep up, was free to go. It was only Medvedkin and Nikolai Karmazinski that had film experience, all others were there for the first time. The central principle of work was rotation: each film would be directed by another person, and all people were involved in different phases of production: from editing (montage), to filming and directing, to producing cinema-train newspaper (distributed and it would stay with copies to be used by community), talking and setting the projection. The practice of cinema-train targeted one of the central kernel, the natural division of labour, both in terms of art producers and consumers, but also in the production process, among the film crew, experimenting a sort of collective-worker management on a small scale. Surely, there was certain plan that was discussed by the group, but again even in this “orchestrated” experiment a different form of organization developed, inventing different politics of aesthetics/cinema; avant-garde influences.
Medvedkin did not yet give camera to working people, that was Marker’s innovation, but he succeeded in breaking the normal division of labour. He also made visible the tension inherent to cinematic practice, the film being the fish, and cinema being fishing (learning-process). These innovations made CINEMA-TRAIN a revolutionary weapon and not a simple propaganda that would be orchestrated by the state and imposing Taylorist norm (simple productivism). Cinema-train came unexpected with unexpected effects, showing good and bad examples, not hiding the problems of socialist transition. It can be seen as one of the political-revolutionary forms of cinema and as one of the first communist cinema experiences in history. The cinema-train that is one of the most inventive appropriations of Marx 11th Thesis of Feuerbach in the history of cinema: Film-makers have only represented/interpreted the world, it is point to change it! Cinema-train becomes a (perhaps THE) weapon in the revolutionary struggle that moves away from agitational-propaganda train; cinema not film would be then creatively participating in the changes in post-/revolutionary society. Cinema had a task to become a real force in society, telling the truth and not remaining a simple reflection of the world.
3.) Happiness against technological propaganda&socialist realism
10th thesis of Marx/Medvedkin is perhaps more enigmatic (and less commented than 11th), lets repeat it: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity” – ok, translated into more cinematic perspective, the materialist cinema (communist cinema) should not only represent the existing social relations, but should be radically informed by the futurist vision of the coming communist society.
Let us remember beginning of the 1930s did not see the PLAN surfacing only in economic reality, but also in the realm of art, where the official doctrine became “socialist realism” tendency to romanticize the socialist present, idealize the new Society and represent the heroic new socialist man. Here education came into a secondary plan, behind “entertainment”. Standpoint of the future sutured the present, not any more to engage or educate, but in order to romanticize and mythologize; fascination with technology and the idealization of shock worker /typical situations/. Even when Medvedkin was pressurized to streghten his political message in his “confused new genre”, he would not aknowledge this imperative without at the same time starting a more subtle ideological critique of the topic that he dealt with, that is, he started from the old materialism standpoint in order to proceed towards the future transition (this shift was missing in official norm of typical situations)
Medvedkin detected two troubles in “official” discourse/filmic representation: firstly, the existing propaganda was “too” direct (perhaps even Kino-fist) and linear and most of all without much humour, which fails to yield desired (Pavlov) reflexes. Medvedkin made many notes and scenarios for a different type of agitation, his work became famous for first political satire in film, exploring and re-appropriating the existing literary tradition (Gogol), but also interestingly in terms of peasant question going in a detail to the “folklore” (and fairy tales). Apart from this folkloric touch (rituals, story-narrative), the scenes are informed by Expressionist features, where for example the cultivating of the hill becomes an impossible task, sharpening angles, and the fantastic dreams of different life are juxtaposed to comic sequences propelling the viewer from one chapter to another (moments of Vervremdungs-effekt). At the first glance we could say that the representation of the typical small man, fool qualifies for the socialist realist doctrine, nevertheless as the story progresses one encounters moment of the character trasnfromation and exceptions within the realm of “normality”.
The necessity to agitate and propagate the transformation of the peasant way of life was seen high on the agenda, but also a risky matter, since its beginning much of violence/repression in the forced collectivisation. Medvedkin aksed how to convince peasants and only way – not just to force them – was to develop the ideological critique on their very terrain of story-telling and their major ideological investment attachment to land and private property. Not only forcing the future from the present (soc-r) but the critique of all existing prescribing future perspective, comes close to 10th Thesis.
In my view Medvedkin succeeds to develop this politico-artistic move in his major work Happiness and could be without hesitation called Chaplin of Soviet Union. At some point Eisenstein would exclaim “now I know how Bolshevik laughs”. This film is among other things developing a new genre of political satire (engaged, but also aesthetically interesting), and is directly attacking three established “dealings” with the question of “peasantry” prior to his film. One of the famous was Dovzhenko’s film Earth that paints an organic, idealistic portrayal of peasants (nature, though not completely ideological), but Medvedkin is also set against the technological fascination (tractor and machinery) of Eisenstein’s “General Line” (or last parts of Vertov’s “Enthusiasm”). Medvedkin performs an impressive jump into the peasant world and wittingly discusses major worries and blind spots of (their) spontaneous ideology. Happiness descend from the (industrial) TRAIN to the peasant GARDEN, which presupposes a Voltairian topos of cultivating the Happiness. Medvedkin’s film constructs a typical fairy tale narrative of a couple on the countryside, village life that is marked by a relative scarcity and obvious class hierarchies, where our central anti-hero unwillingly searches for the happiness and is always a bit too small or too big for his shoes. Even when the luck seems to be in his favour, the money he received by blind chance is spent for getting a horse that refuses to work. The hero is a fool, a famous folkloric reference (“Ivan the fool”) and although receiving some sympathy, Medvedkin without reservations attacks – in a witty way – the peasant dream of private property and at the same time problematizes the situation of collectivisation with new class relations (old enemies), but also where some people seem not to fit. Being remains of the past, and not yet being integrated by the present, they seem to be condemned to go on the journey (not to Siberia). Medvedkin masterfully shows that the peasant’s search for happiness is related to the idea of private property, having the piece of land to cultivate. He juxtaposes the old pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary society, where “Revolution” (event) is only present through its effect (and not in immediate terms). It is not so much a film on revolution, or technological progress, but on a socialist transition in the countryside, which opens a range of questions: from the question of sovereignty (old-new), to the question of Happiness that he internally links to the relations of class power and the organisation of production process. Medvedkin’s lesson for socialist transition is clear: the ideological struggle for peasant should not be left out of the picture. And the historical and ideological analysis of the peasantry becomes a major obsession for Medvedkin in his next 50 years, he never gives up the idea to shoot a movie on peasantry, right after Happiness he assembled for 3 years material (Accursed Force), but it was forbidden before started, as the period of Stalinist purges became more and more extreme, it became very risky for anyone to support political satire.
Medvedkin 1 of cinema train took seriously the Thesis 11, transforming cinema into new political form, practicing and integrating workers politics from below, which was related to the plan (first plan, soviet); Medvedkin 2 (of Happines, of film) becomes involved in developing peasant-folkloristic genre, historically evaluating transition and looking into the future, Thesis 10, being courageous enough to speak the Truth about some problems of collectivization project. Medvedkin attempted to produce new genre, Bolshevik comedy addressing in a new way (aesthetically) the most important topic – collectivization (peasant). Thus, developing revolutionary politics of aesthetics and certain different aesthetics of politics. Both Medvedkins had troubles with authorities despite being backed by most of functionaries/intellectuals/film, his faith as film-maker was sealed in late 30s.
“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.” (Benjamin)