So, the last few months I have been busy working on the research side of my portfolio. First, there has been the cascade of end of the year conferences. Actually, April has really been a Conference-palooza, starting with Howard University’s Women Ambassador Conference , where I got to do an extemporaneous presentation on Capitol Hill – that was cool. Then I attended Georgetown University’s The Soviet Gulag: New Research and New Interpretations, where I hung out with about two dozen scholars for three days of fellowship and discussion of the best way to scientifically exterminate you political opposition. That was cool, in a nerdy sort of way, if you get into the topic of highly efficient concentration camps.
Meantime, back at the ranch, I have been completing a research paper on Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, this completely stunning Soviet film from 1964-1965, filmed on site in Cuba, co-authored by Evgenii Evtshenko, and filmed by Sergei Urusevskii. The thing is a thing of visual beauty. The opening sequence features this fly-over over coastal Cuba that is just spectacular. Then it moves from the shore to Habana, where you see the decadent capitalists hanging out by the side of a hotel pool. The camera literally goes from the side of the pool into the water and up and above.
English language critics have had a hard time figuring out what to say about this film. Rotten Tomatoes, one of the most widely read popular film review sites, gives it a 100 rating, describing it as “an unabashed exercise in cinema stylistics.” Cuban critics generally ignored it.
Harshest of all, however, were the Soviet critics. The highly respected granddaddy of Soviet film journal, Ikusstvo Kino, [i]dedicated a long article in its March 1965 issue – 13 pages to be exact, which by Soviet standards for this journal was monumental. The critics were simply ruthless in their review of this movie. The article describes how the public had awaited the release of the film with “great interest” this film about the Cuban people, the Cuban revolution, the Cuban heroism. Yes, hyperbole about Cuba was the order of the day in this article. A. Golovnia, a professor in VGIK, the leading Soviet film school, talks about how Kaltozov and his cinematographer, Uruevskii, used the film as a means to explore new forms and means to represent revolutionary pathos, revolutionary poetics. Now, for those not initiated into Soviet official speak of the 1960s, being accused of innovation was, well, bad. Golovnia describes how the film is harmed by an excess of virtuosity.
Iu. Kun, a producer, accuses the film of “poetic estrangement,” directly making a reference to Eikhenbaum’s and Shklovsky’s formalist theory – again, a bad thing for 1960s Soviet Russia. S. Poluianov, a camera operator, found the form overbearing. “I had the feeling that clarity, cleanliness, and simplicity had gotten lost somewhere… I learned nothing about the people of Cuba”[ii] One has to keep in mind the Soviet art had a really really strong explicit didactic streak in it – if one did not find an explicit historic – read Marxist – storyline, as defined by the standards of Soviet socialist realism, the work was seen as unfit and valueless. As if that was not enough, he gave the ultimate negative review: he found the film “boring.” Because sitting through a dozen sittings of Pudovkin’s a Mother’s water dripping scene was not enough to drive one to the nearest bottle of vodka.
G. Krapalov, a critic, accused the film of being a hybrid of naturalism and formalism – again, cloaked negative reviews in the highly ideological Marxist-Leninist canon. Saddest of all, however, was G. Chukhrai’s review. Grigorii Chukhrai directed the other great Soviet war film, Ballad of a Soldier. If anyone should have an understanding of the use of cinematography, it should be the director who gave us probably the most famous upside down tank scene in film history. Instead, he described how the film left him with a feeling of disappointment, offense, and exhaustion, a feeling of complete “protest against the film.”
As Slavists, we tend to avoid the extremely extreme pieces of party propaganda, except in small amounts. Soviet propaganda is well constructed, consistent, constant in its guiding principles, and extremely repetitive. Your eyes can just glaze over with the consistent repetition of the same slogans and clichés. This article, however, populated by the voices of some of the best respected members of the 1960s film community, really makes it clear how the members of the cultural elite were so finely attuned to the demands of the party to present an ideologically consistent image of the regime. These highly negative reviews shows how homogenous and monotonous accepted visual interpretations of the revolution abroad had become by the Khrushchev period. The Marxist-Leninist approach to visual representation had become so ingrained by that point in that, in spite of the fact that a lot of these directors had survived the Stalinist period and understood how lucky they were to simply survive that period alive, let alone with an influential job in the cultural field, they would turn immediately against a work that did not feature one easily identifiable socialist realist protagonist for the length of the film. Most importantly, it shows how what we could term the middle layer of party operatives worked almost independently to perpetuate totalitarian practices within the cultural sphere, and that is a sad sight to behold.