Towards a New Archaeology of Russian Cinema

Nikolai Izvolov, Fenomen kino: istoriia i teoriia 320 pp. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo EGSI, 2001. Second edition: 164 pp. Moscow: Materik, 2005.

Color frames from the film “Pochta” (”Mail”) (1929) by Mikhail Tsekhanovski. First publication in the second edition of N. Izvolov: The Phenomenon of Cinema Color frames from the film “Pochta” (”Mail”) (1929) by Mikhail Tsekhanovski. First publication in the second edition of N. Izvolov: The Phenomenon of Cinema  Color frames from the film “Pochta” (”Mail”) (1929) by Mikhail Tsekhanovski. First publication in the second edition of N. Izvolov: The Phenomenon of Cinema  Color frames from the film “Pochta” (”Mail”) (1929) by Mikhail Tsekhanovski. First publication in the second edition of N. Izvolov: The Phenomenon of Cinema  Color frames from the film “Pochta” (”Mail”) (1929) by Mikhail Tsekhanovski. First publication in the second edition of N. Izvolov: The Phenomenon of Cinema

Since its initial publication in 2001, Nikolai Izvolov’s The Phenomenon of Cinema: History and TheoryNikolai Izvolov, Fenomen kino: istoriia i teoriia. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo EGSI, 2001. 320. has remained a rarity among contemporary Russian publications in the field of cinema studies. While these publications range from well-researched, often revelatory collections of documents to exercises in political revisionism or metaphysical essayism, they tend to disregard the possibility of a more balanced approach to the problems of cinema. In this idiosyncratic situation, with its prominent lack of systematic academic scholarship and precarious leaning towards popular formats (consequences of the continuing fragmentation and demoralization of Russian culture), any endeavor to restore the normal course of film studies can be seen, with a certain degree of assumption, as a reflection of the Russian intellectuals’ growing need for purposeful but flexible professionalism, a standard which has been too frequently neglected in the course of Russian society’s current reformulation of the mode of its development.

In 2005, I reviewed the first edition of The Phenomenon of Cinema within the context of the latest developments in Russian film historiography,Sergei Kapterev, “Review of Liudmila Dzhulai‘s Dokumental’nyi illiuzion (Moscow, 2001), Roza Kopylova‘s Perechityvaia Poetiku kino (St. Petersburg, 2001), and Nikolai Izvolov‘s Fenomen kino (Moscow, 2001).” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6, 1 (Winter 2005): 231-40. comparing Izvolov’s book with other contemporary Russian studies of film history and emphasizing his imaginative and methodical linking of history and theory, exemplified by the exploration of the relationship between experiment and norm, innovation and archaism; and, more ambitiously, by the effort to establish phenomenological laws pertaining to the historical evolution of cinema. The second edition of the book provides one more opportunity to review its ideological and methodological issues from the perspective of the productivity of its author’s approach to film studies.

Combining an extensive knowledge of film history with a firm phenomenological perspective, Nikolai Izvolov concentrates on the material from Russian and Soviet cinema’s silent and early sound periods. By this, he symbolically reinstates the link with an era when, in the words of Lev Kuleshov, a cinematic innovator par excellence and a protagonist of Izvolov’s study (it analyzes the director’s practically unknown contribution to documentary filmmaking), experiments were, “for an honest cinema worker,… more vital than bread.” Kuleshov’s words, taken by Izvolov as an epigraph to one of the book’s chapters, recall an atmosphere in which the need for experimentalism was perceived as a factor reaching beyond the artistic or technical spheres – and even as a condition for private and public salvation. Arguably, this utopian reliance on universal experimentation is less viable in today’s compartmentalized world. However, there is still hope that Russia will regain – in spite of all its accumulating problems – the status of a chaotic but productive testing ground, and a serious analysis of past experimentation may be considered a step towards this goal.

Despite his apparent predilection for experimenters of Kuleshov’s caliber (the book’s examples of experimental originality also include photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii’s approaches to color cinematography around 1911; the revolutionary poetics of Aleksandr Medvedkin, based on the extension of the “archaic” Russian tradition; music theorist Arsenii Avraamov’s technology of artificial, “drawn” film sound; and the efforts to synthesize and visualize sound undertaken in the early 1930s by Mikhail Tsekhanovskii, an artist whose work in and beyond animation has long been a focus of Izvolov’s studies), the author of The Phenomenon of Cinema adopts an essentially non-nostalgic view of cinema’s formative period. This attitude can be interpreted as an effort to desentimentalize the object and method of film studies, an aspiration that contrasts favorably both with politically determined “objectivism” and with the subjective rhetoric of “non-political” commentators.

Nikolai Izvolov’s investigation of the phenomenon of cinema is evidently based on the conviction that cinema productively interrelates with and logically incorporates film research. Focusing attention on marginal cinematic facts that could specify vague notions, fill historical lacunae, and change stereotypes, Izvolov accentuates the necessity to verify these facts not only by data extracted from contiguous historical fields and by relevant theoretical concepts (among other things, his book discusses the correlation of the organic and the mechanical in the reception of cinema; the perception of time in the process of film projection; and such cinematic fundamentals as frame/shot/take, color, intertitle, and special effect), but also through their close correlation with the historical and contemporary practice of filmmaking. He substantiates his historical and theoretical studies by the experience of restoring and reconstructing incomplete and lost films, among them works by Kuleshov, Medvedkin, and the Workshop of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), all of whom are discussed in his book. In this activity, Izvolov experiments with reconstruction formats depending on the availability of source materials and the study of most diverse historical documentation (in The Phenomenon of Cinema, he has much to say about the relevance of cinema-related documents, stressing that “the process of documentation and attribution of one or another fact is incompatible with methodological purity” – p. 9). His sometimes controversial but always meticuloulsy researched and imaginatively constructed film reconstructions productively expand his interest in the synthetic use of history and theory into the emergent field of applied film studies and denote new potentialities for the archaeology of cinema.

The Phenomenon of Cinema could possibly include a discussion of the positions of such authors as Noël Burch and Paolo Cherchi Usai, both of whom have extensively explored cinema’s early stages,Noël Burch, Life to those Shadows. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990; and Paolo Cherchi Usai, Silent Cinema: An Introduction. London: BFI Publishing, 2000. Burch’s discussion of early alternatives to the “Institutional Mode of Representation” later adopted and disseminated by Hollywood has been inspired, among other things, by the negation of “triumphant empiricism” (Burch., p. 1). which, arguably, dominated Western cinema studies at the moment of the book’s publication. As for Cherchi Usai’s highly practical and warmly nostalgic research guide, it closely explores a number of issues – in particular, the issue of early color and the problem of usable documentation – common with Izvolov’s book and, therefore, provides excellent material for comparisons. as well as benefit from a conceptual summary that would join more tightly its theoretical and historicalaspects, and explicate the appendices: the table of the phases in cinema’s “phenomenological cycle” (p. 153) and the “cyclical table of formative elements of the phenomenon of cinema” (pp. 154-155). Anyway, these omissions cannot diminish the significance of Izvolov’s book, as it certainly adds new impetus to Russian film scholarship and opens it towards interaction with international empirical studies of cinema.

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