Denise Youngblood: ‘The Magic Mirror. Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918.’

Denise Youngblood, The Magic Mirror. Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. xvi+185 pp. (paper).

Cinema is indubitably one of the indices by which modernity has come to be measured Apart from being a technical marvel whose very existence is intrinsically associated with the twentieth century, the act of making and watching movies paved the way for a further phenomenon of the modern age: leveling social and cultural boundaries between the “high” and the “low.” Movies not only synthesized elements of high art and popular culture and democratized the space of public entertainment, but also created a new narrative mode of representing “life” in the process, targeted towards an essentially urban, middle-class audience fascinated with innovations. The way cinema radically reconfigured the interaction between art and life, between screen images and the consciousness of the new public who embraced them, set in motion the dynamics of mutual reflection between the development of an independent aesthetic for this new art form and the moviegoers’ image of self.

Only recently have scholarly considerations of Russian modernism begun to link the brief flowering of urban, consumeristic, middle-class sensibilities at the turn of the century to the cultural phenomenon of the Silver Age. Social and cultural artifacts that accompanied the emergence of what Valentin Bill termed “the forgotten class of the Russian bourgeoisie” are increasingly being examined as determinants of mentality and identity in all spheres of life in turn-of-the-century Russia. Although studies such as Laura Engelstein’s The Keys to Happiness (1992), Louise McReynold’s The News Under Russia’s Old Regime: the Development of a Mass-Circulation Press (1991) and Richard Stites’ Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society Since 1900 (1992) have explored the key role played by the byproducts of middle-class culture in the formation of modernist world views, Russian cinema has not been subjected to such revisionist studies. With the exception of Yuri Tsivian’s seminal work on film reception and the aesthetics of Silver Age high culture (Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception, 1994), the emergence of moving pictures as an integral part of pre-revolutionary life in Russia remains largely unexplored.

Denise Youngblood’s The Magic Mirror is a remarkable exploration of the dialogic relationship between cinema and the new socio-cultural consciousness of an urban “middle” culture in the context of the first decade of moviemaking in Russia. Such an attempt to recount the “parallel history” narrated by cinema (7), produced through the intersecting social and cultural consequences of making and watching movies, adds a valuable piece to the multifaceted kaleidoscope of urban culture in early twentieth-century Russia. Youngblood’s study stands on the fascinating ground where the emergence of cinema culture, epitomizing the synthesis of technology and urbanism at the dawn of the twentieth century, evolved as both indicator and instigator of the fantasies, hopes, reactions and fears of the emergent middle class in Russia.

In a short volume of 185 pages, The Magic Mirror presents a comprehensive picture revealing the matrix of making movies, watching movies and the effect of watching movies in early twentieth-century Russian culture by successfully synthesizing various approaches to film history. Although the book sets its limits within “facts and context” rather than “theory and aesthetics” (15), it nevertheless mediates between histories of film production, reception, and absorption of cinema that resulted in the creation of a new set of social and cultural paradigms.

The organization of Youngblood’s book reflects the spontaneous, unplanned yet essentially interactive process between producers and consumers of films that forged the place of films in modern Russian culture. The two sections of The Magic Mirror, entitled “Scenes from a Film History” and “Fragments from a Film Program,” seek to present the complementary aspects of this process. The first section illuminates the double-edged evolution of producing and consuming films. It examines the rise of entrepreneurial ventures around cinema, the formation of its audience, the construction of native screen celebrities and the acid test of cultural politics through which moviemaking in Russia had to pass in order to emerge as the chief new entertainment of the modern age. The second section explores some of the overarching thematic complexes of early Russian films that shaped the “mood” (17) of this new art form and manifested itself in the changing consciousness of moviegoers.

Through a well-organized series of cross-references between marketing and production on the one hand and audience reaction in the formation of celebrity actors, directors and screenplay writers on the other, the first part of The Magic Mirror conveys the history of early Russian cinema remarkably well. Through an analysis of newly perceptive attitudes towards the technological sensation of cinema and the heated cultural debates in both so-called “serious” and “popular” press, Youngblood examines the metamorphosis of Russian cinema’s cultural status from imported western novelty to native institution. The last chapter in the first section, “Respect and Respectability,” provides excellent insight on the assimilation of cinema into preexisting cultural frameworks as well as the formative stages of an independent aesthetic of Russian film.

The most impressive aspect of this socio-cultural history of early Russian moviemaking is the collation of diverse documentation. Indeed, as Youngblood asserts in her introduction, the bases for constructing the history of early cinema are as ephemeral as its films (7). However, in a reflection of the synthesizing impulses from which early Russian cinema arose, The Magic Mirror successfully captures the mosaic of this history. The seamless narrative in its first part is assembled from an intersection where trade papers, tabloids, the penny press, memoirs, sketches, posters, notices and films themselves make up the text whose commentaries are equally enriched by “thick” journals and luminaries of high culture such as Lev Tolstoi and Leonid Andreev. Youngblood’s thorough overview and effective use of sources successfully conjoins detailed machinations of the emergent film industry with shifting social relations, material ideals, and perceptions of “culture” by its consumers.

The second part of the study provides a thematic overview of film plots divided into complexes of sex, violence, comedy, historical and literary story lines that pervaded early Russian films. Youngblood demonstrates the process in which Russian films developed autonomous modes of representation and narration, produced at first by grafting Russian classic and popular literature or traditional narratives onto stock elements of western popular screen entertainment but rapidly evolving characters, themes and plots corresponding to the profile of their audience.

Class and gender are the two innovative, promising lenses through which Youngblood reexamines the interface between screen representation and real-life perception of public and private space, ethics of consumption, social and sexual mores and cultural hierarchy among Russia’s new urban middle classes. However, the author’s commendable intention to use such interpretive typology in order to map tastes, attitudes and values falls short of the level of clarity and depth of analysis in the first section of the book. Each chapter of the second section, devoted to a particular motif in early Russian cinema, is concluded by an all too brief, succinct paragraph containing general comments on peculiarities of gender roles, depictions of class conflict and cultural stereotyping (such as Orientalism). This cluster of closing comments only hint at a wealth of authorial analysis and potential inferences that remain unarticulated in spite of the chapter entitled “The Guide to Life,” tracing the increasingly blurred line between cinematic “reality” and self-identity of the middle class in Russian cities.

By illustrating the close connections between technology, urbanization and synthetic ethics that provided the sustained impulse for moviemaking, The Magic Mirror points out yet again that the advent of the modern in Russian culture was indeed synergistically connected to modernity in the western world. For the reader interested in viewing Russian filmmaking beyond the traditional dictates of ideology and aesthetics, Youngblood’s study provides sumptuous fare.