The Mosaic Approach

In defense of a nonlinear film criticism
by Jonathan Rosenbaum  posted August 18, 2010
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"Having provided over 30 audio commentaries for DVD releases," Australian film critic Adrian Martin wrote recently in his column for the Dutch film magazine Filmkrant, "I feel I have earned the right to criticize the format. These voice-over commentaries provided by filmmakers, critics and historians are decidedly a mixed blessing. I sometimes wonder whether anybody, except the most dedicated and/or masochistic researcher, ever listens to them all the way through. No one can doubt that these voice-tracks sometimes give us splendid insight or information that we cannot obtain elsewhere in print. But are they really the best we can do in the quest to marry film criticism with the film-object itself?"

Martin is hardly alone in articulating this position. Many of my friends who collect DVDs, maybe even most of them, avow that they tend to skip audio commentaries entirely, and it's difficult not to share their bias. In most of these run-on spiels, the remarks rarely coincide with what one is seeing (or hearing), and one often feels that the commentator, whether it's a critic or a participant in the filmmaking, is simply taking the easy way out—doing a free-form improv rather than bothering to write a carefully considered text. For my own part, I've so far agreed to furnish audio commentaries only when I'm having a dialogue with someone else—James Naremore (about Orson Welles's Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil), Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa (about Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up), or David Kalat (about the recent longer cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis). The prospect of doing a single-voice commentary has always struck me as intrusive, at least if one agrees with my premise that a film critic's job is basically to facilitate (rather than monopolize) the discussion that takes place around a film.

Perhaps an even bigger problem is the compulsive linearity and artificial continuity of the form itself—the necessity of having something cohesive to impart for the entire length of a feature. This suggests, like much else in contemporary film culture, that we're hampered by clinging to outdated discursive habits that no longer apply with the same validity. Compared with theatrical viewings of films, DVD watching tends to be a more fragmented experience, which suggests that a more fragmented form of film commentary might also be appropriate, whether this is in a spoken or printed form—and not in order to be lazy in a different fashion but in order to organize the material differently. Even though one could also argue that declining literacy and shortened attention spans have made extended analyses and arguments less desirable, it might make more sense to concede that there are also certain advantages and even gains in aiming for a mosaic approach.

These thoughts were provoked in part by the recent DVD releases of five Russian classics—two by Lev Kuleshov, Engineer Prite's Project (1918) and The Great Consoler (1933); two by Sergei Eisenstein, Strike (1925) and October (1927); and Alexander Medvedkin's Happiness (1934)—on a new label called Academia being distributed by Ruscico (short for Russian Cinema Council). According to Ruscico's website, additional titles by Boris Barnet, Mark Donskoi, Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Yakov Protazanov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin are also in the works. Each release is a two-disc PAL set priced at $40, and I've so far been able to spend time with three of them: October, Engineer Prite's Project, and The Great Consoler.

None of these, I hasten to add, has an audio commentary. But all three, in an innovative manner that is dubbed "Hyperkino," provide printed onscreen commentaries with various illustrations (stills, photographs, clippings, and/or film clips), and all these commentaries are on disparate topics—"matters arising," as the late Raymond Durgnat liked to put it. This means, of course, that one can interactively decide which topics to access and in what order. Each of the Kuleshov films is given 30 separate topics, while October is accorded no less than 44.

It might be argued that one reason why Kuleshov and Eisenstein are the first Russian filmmakers to receive this sort of treatment is that their importance as film theorists may actually exceed their achievements as filmmakers—a distinction that to my mind is far more supportable in Kuleshov's case. (Indeed, one might argue that Kuleshov remained, for better and for worse, an inspired amateur throughout his career.) Whether or not one accepts this premise, the need for historical annotation to properly understand their films and their theories is hard to deny, and the fact that theory and practice need to be treated separately as well as in relation to one another already suggests that more than one route into their lives and careers is clearly desirable. Even if it can't account for everything—there are peculiarities in The Great Consoler that are unexplained in Kuleshov's theorizing, such as his decision to keep the heroine's best friend perpetually offscreen while laughing abrasively—a multifaceted approach winds up clarifying a great deal.

The reason why each Hyperkino set contains two discs is to give the viewer a choice—part of the interactive idea. Each disc has the same film, but on the disc with all the commentaries, numbers flash in the upper right corner of the frame corresponding to the relevant commentary that can be accessed with one's remote control. On the second disc, where the film is unencumbered by flashing numbers, there are many more different kinds of optional subtitles available—not just English and Russian, which are already available on the first disc, but also French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

It's commendable that Academia is committed to making these DVDs multilingual, yet ironic (and, alas, characteristic of Russian insularity) that this only becomes apparent once one accesses their menus. The language used on the boxes of all three releases that I have is exclusively Russian. (This is also true of another outstanding Ruscico release, Kira Muratova's madly inspired Chekhovian Motifs, which is accompanied by a fascinating documentary about Muratova and sells for only $26.) And some might also fault both Ruscico's website and its "annotated" Academia editions for not being more user-friendly; both demand a certain amount of patience in figuring out how they can best be navigated. Nevertheless, I think they're onto something potentially groundbreaking and fruitful—and not just for film courses but also, more generally, for educating the general public.

The nonlinear methology employed here isn't entirely unprecedented. For me, the major pioneering work in this vein appeared almost a decade ago, in 2001, by Joan Neuberger and Yuri Tsivian, in their separate "multimedia" essays about Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible on the Criterion DVDs devoted to that film's two parts: "The History of Ivan" by Neuberger on the first disc, with Part I, and "Eisenstein's Visual Vocabulary" by Tsivian on the second, with Part II. Significantly, both scholars published short books about Ivan the Terrible a little later—Tsivian in the BFI Film Classics in 2002, Neuberger in the KinoFile Film Companion series in 2003—but as excellent as these two studies are, and despite the fact that as short books they can include more material than DVD extras, their audiovisual essays are far more impressive to me as criticism, largely because they can demonstrate most of their points immediately and succinctly via sound and image. Together they've transformed my understanding and appreciation of Eisenstein's masterpiece profoundly, far more than anything I've read about it before or since. Among other things, they show conclusively that the two parts of Ivan, far from representing any cowardly retreat on Eisenstein's part (as some early critics maintained), are among the most politically courageous films ever made by anyone.

So it's important to point out that the 44 printed commentaries offered on the Hyperkino October are also by Tsivian, and they provide more of a critical model for how a nonlinear criticism might be developed than those on the two recent Kuleshov releases. It's also pertinent that the Kuleshov commentaries are mostly historical, whereas Tsivian's commentaries about October more often combine historical information with critical insights. To cite just the first half-dozen of the topics broached, these are "The Dismantlement of the Monument," "Right and Left Change Places," "Raised Scythes," "Denarrativization of the Event," "Edouard Tissé as an Actor," and "Visual and Kinesthetic Rhyme."


Sadly, only three of the five reels of Engineer Prite's Project (called simply Engineer Prite on Ruscico's website) have survived, and all of the original intertitles are lost as well, so what remains, even as a half-hour "reconstruction," is necessarily a much more specialized item than either October or The Great Consoler. But its historical importance is enormous, and not only because it was the first Russian film to employ montage as a concept. It was made when Kuleshov was only 18 (and it starred his brother Boris, eight years older, in the title role)—the same year he experienced the Russian Revolution, after having spent much of the previous year directing newsreels and working for the great pre-revolution Russian director Yevgeni Bauer (mainly as a production designer, but also as an actor). The authors of the commentary here, Nikolai Izvolov and Natascha Drubek, have in fact included the surviving fragments of Engineer Prite—running only 15 minutes, without music or intertitles—on the second disc, along with an excellent 1969 documentary, S. Raitburt's The Kuleshov Effect, made about a year before Kuleshov died, and interviewing him at length, both about his filmmaking and his far lengthier career as a teacher (including some fascinating remarks about Bertolt Brecht's Galileo). Also interviewed is the father of Russian Formalism, Viktor Shklovsky, who worked with Kuleshov as a screenwriter on a Jack London adaptation, By the Law, in 1926.

Kuleshov's students included Barnet, Eisenstein, and Pudovkin; they often had to work without any film stock at all, which may help to explain how and why their teacher became the most formative of all Russian film theorists, the man who invented montage as a concept. Kuleshov himself credited D.W. Griffith as the inventor of montage as a practice, and one of the more fascinating aspects of his films is the degree to which they use the United States, a country he never visited, as a privileged setting—not only in Engineer Prite's Project and The Great Consoler, but also in By the Law and Horizon (1932), his first sound film, while his best-known comedy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), featured an American title hero. Plainly, America was important not only for the speed and freshness of its silent cinema; it seems that setting so many of his films there also allowed him to speak about Russia without having to worry about censorship. And when it came to The Great Consoler—which film historian Jay Leyda once called "the only impressive Soviet film that has ever been set in the United States"—this allowed Kuleshov to create a complex meditation on the social impact of art as filtered through both the life and storytelling of William Sydney Porter, best known by his pen name, O. Henry.

I wrote about this remarkable film for Moving Image Source two years ago, after it showed at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, and don't want to repeat myself here. But I can't stress too highly the importance of its belated appearance in the West. For all its eccentricities—and it's hard to think of many features that wear so many on its sleeve—it's arguably the most important early Soviet sound feature, along with Alexander Dovzhenko's Ivan, that remains almost completely unknown.

The helpful commentary is provided by Yekaterina Khokhlova—the granddaughter of the great, mannerist White Russian actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, whom Kuleshov met in 1920 and married, and who quickly became his major collaborator, lead actress, and muse. To give some idea of what's annotated, let me briefly outline the ninth, 10th, and 11th commentaries: "Weyland Rodd's film debut" actually has less to say about the black American expatriate who plays one of O. Henry's fellow convicts, sings a song, and speaks fluent Russian (and who would go on to play in several other Soviet films, including an adaptation of Tom Sawyer) than it does about the treatment of interracial themes in '30s Soviet cinema, a fascinating subject in its own right. But Khokhlova has plenty to say about "the principal actor," Konstantin Khokhlov, in her 10th commentary—a well-known stage professional who played O. Henry, and was widely criticized for the theatricality of his performance, which Kuleshov maintained was deliberate and central to his own design. And "the borderline between reality and invention" (No. 11) discusses how Kuleshov filmed O. Henry's story "The Metamorphosis of James Valentine" in the style of silent cinema, complete with intertitles, music, and one brief animated sequence, in contrast to the "talkie" style of the rest of the film, which deals with both O. Henry's imprisonment, where he wrote the story about safecracker Valentine, and the subsequent impact of this story on a shopgirl (played by Khokhlova).

The fact that these commentaries belong to a hybrid form—existing somewhere between reading and watching, like various computer-related activities—is part of what seems forward-looking about them. Developments in fragmented, mosaic forms of print criticism can be spotted elsewhere—e.g., Chris Fujiwara's 800-page anthology Defining Moments in Movies (Cassell, 2007), to which I and Dennis Lim, the editor of Moving Image Source, both contributed—and perhaps belong in a similar category. One might also mention some of the experiments in illustration and layout employed by the online film journal Rouge. What all these forms of criticism suggest is not merely a less linear way of approaching film experience but also a more interactive methodology. The fact that movies are being seen more and more often away from public theaters shouldn't necessarily mean that the way we all experience them and share our experiences is any less social. Perhaps it's more pertinent to note that the very forms of our social interactions in relation to films are changing as well. 


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Jonathan Rosenbaum served as film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 to 2007. His most recent book is Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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