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Sound, Speech, Music in Soviet and Post-Soviet Cinema

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This innovative volume challenges the ways we look at both cinema and cultural history by shifting the focus from the centrality of the visual and the literary toward the recognition of acoustic culture as formative of the Soviet and post-Soviet experience. Leading experts and emerging scholars from film studies, musicology, music theory, history, and cultural studies examine the importance of sound in Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet cinema from a wide range of interdisciplinary perspectives. Addressing the little-known theoretical and artistic experimentation with sound in Soviet cinema, changing practices of voice delivery and translation, and issues of aesthetic ideology and music theory, this book explores the cultural and historical factors that influenced the use of voice, music, and sound on Soviet and post-Soviet screens.

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1 From the History of Graphic Sound in the Soviet Union; or, Media without a Medium

ePub

Nikolai Izvolov

Translated from the Russian by Sergei Levchin

TYPICALLY, THE TERM cinema is reserved exclusively for moving images captured on a filmstrip by means of a photographic (i.e., positive-negative) process, capable of reproducing physical reality. Until now very little has been written about another, equally expressive and significant cinematic technique of the “optical period,” designed to synthesize a new and wholly novel audiovisual environment.1 Perhaps the most widely recognized name in this field of drawn animation is that of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, though he was neither the originator of this technique nor its sole practitioner.2

Notably, the possibility of this technique was never discussed in early theoretical writings on cinema. In 1945, one of the most insightful theorists of film, Béla Balázs, wrote: “Sound cannot be represented. We see an actor’s likeness on the screen, but never his voice. Sound is reproduced, rather than represented; it may be manipulated in some manner, but even then it retains the same reality.”3 Thus, the ontology of sound was equated with that of the voice or of music; no distinction was made between its acoustic and communicative aspects. One wonders whether Balázs’s actor was actually represented on film or merely reproduced there. This attitude seems especially perplexing when we take into account that Balázs collaborated on at least two films that made use of drawn sound.

 

2 Silents, Sound, and Modernism in Dmitry Shostakovich’s Score to The New Babylon

ePub

Joan Titus

ALTHOUGH WIDELY REGARDED by scholars and general audiences as one of the greatest of the last “silent” films, Novyi Vavilon (New Babylon, dir. Kozintsev and Trauberg, 1929) was initially a surprising failure. Even with its original score by the celebrated composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the film failed to fully satisfy audiences and critics at the time of its premiere. Since then, the musical score has been blamed for this initial failure, even though it was intended to be a significant contribution to a work that was designed to be innovative, properly socialist, and entertaining. This narrative, still spun in recent writings about the score, rarely acknowledges that this failure involved intertwining cultural and political issues related to the restructuring of the Soviet film industry and the establishment of a new relationship between sound and image.1 The score to New Babylon was created to explore this new relationship, which signaled the reevaluation of the musician’s role in music for cinema. Since New Babylon was the first Soviet film to have a full original score written by a professional Russian composer, Shostakovich’s compositional process was closely observed and necessarily required a collaborative effort between the composer and the directors Grigory Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. The composer’s process was therefore a central issue during the film’s production.2 Examining this collaborative process, through the directors’ and composer’s writings about the music for New Babylon and the film’s reception, reveals much about perceptions of modernism and socialism in the whole work.

 

3 To Catch Up and Overtake Hollywood: Early Talking Pictures in the Soviet Union

ePub

Valérie Pozner

Translated from the French by
Andrée Lafontaine

ONE GENERALLY ASSOCIATES Hollywood’s influence on Soviet cinema with the musical comedies directed by Grigori Alexandrov after 1934, or with the grandiose plans conceived in 1935—following Boris Shumyatsky’s trip to Hollywood—of a studio built in the Crimea, entirely outfitted with American equipment (e.g., lighting, recording, mixing), with the potential to produce six hundred films per year. Hollywood’s influence on Soviet cinema, however, did not begin in the 1930s; it goes back to the mid-1920s, when American films dominated Soviet screens. For the Soviet film industry during the second half of the 1920s, Hollywood represented, above all, a competitive branch of the industry: a modern unit bringing together all aspects of production, synonymous with efficiency and productivity. When Sovkino launched its grand project to build a new studio (at the time, still referred to as a “factory”) in 1927, the press labeled it “Red Hollywood” and “Soviet Hollywood.”1

 

4 ARRK and the Soviet Transition to Sound

ePub

Natalie Ryabchikova

IN THE MIDDLE of 1931, four years after The Jazz Singer (dir. Crosland, 1927) premiered in New York and three years after the first public demonstration of Soviet experiments with sound film, an editorial of the Soviet journal Proletarskoe kino (Proletarian Cinema) reproduced a dialogue with an imaginary reader:

Sound cinema is a powerful weapon of the socialist construction. . . .

We have learned this a long time ago—a reader will reasonably say—they’ve talked about this and written about this a thousand times, but we do not feel it; we have not been able to verify the force of sound cinema in practice, because for us, tens of millions of Soviet citizens, sound cinema is a nonexistent thing.

The situation with sound cinema in the Soviet Union is highly unfavorable. We are at least three years behind the capitalist West in this area; we have not been fast enough. . . .

And this we have also heard a thousand times—the reader says—but what is the matter, why have we been going around in circles?1

 

5 Making Sense without Speech: The Use of Silence in Early Soviet Sound Film

ePub

Emma Widdis

ABRAM ROOMS 1936 film Strogii iunosha (A Severe Youth), with a screenplay by Yury Olesha, opens in silence. Its credits run to an entirely silent sound track, as does the first visual sequence, which comprises a succession of filmed objects. The camera eye moves through venetian blinds to a table set with a vase of flowers, viewed through a transparent curtain. The scene changes to a shot of a woman diving into the sea; only then does a musical sound track quietly begin. This music accompanies the scene of the swimming woman until a long still shot of a Dalmatian dog’s head returns the sound track to silence.

This opening sequence is the first of several striking uses of silence in A Severe Youth. In this film, Room exploits what Hungarian critic (and contemporary of Room and Olesha) Béla Balázs identified as the specific and vital power of the sound film: the ability to reproduce silence. For Balázs, this reproduction of silence was “one of the most specific dramatic effects of the sound film.”1 As is well known, A Severe Youth was banned by the censors and criticized for “chasing after external beauty.”2 Film historians have largely followed the censors in blaming the film’s fate on the formalism of its visual style.3 This has obscured full consideration of the film’s use of sound. By the time that Room made A Severe Youth, sound film was well established in the Soviet Union; the second of Grigori Alexandrov’s well-known musicals, Tsirk (Circus, 1936), appeared in the same year. But Room’s use of sound in his film is unusual; in places—and in its frequent recourse to a “dead” (silent) sound track in particular—it can appear clumsy. Yet Room’s creative use of sound and silence can and should be considered part of the film’s broader formal experiment.

 

6 The Problem of Heteroglossia in Early Soviet Sound Cinema (1930–35)

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Evgeny Margolit

LET ME START with a clarification: the problem of heteroglossia or multilingualism (raznoiazychie) in early Soviet sound cinema is a problem for today’s film historians; the filmmakers and film critics of the period did not consider it as such. Indeed, one of the artists who used multiple untranslated languages as a principal device in his early sound films—Ivan Kavaleridze, a prominent figure of the Ukrainian avant-garde—and even coined the term, devoted no more than a few paragraphs to the practice in his memoirs, which were written some thirty years after the fact.1 And yet those first years of sound cinema saw the release of about a dozen films—Soviet film studios produced about twenty sound films a year on average in the first half of the 1930s—that showcased a broad range of heteroglossic strategies.

Outside of the Soviet Union, we also find the practice of heteroglossia in German cinema of the same period, just prior to Hitler’s rise to power (e.g., in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Kameradschaft [1931]; in Das blaue Licht [The Blue Light, 1932], directed by Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl from a script by Béla Balázs; in Niemandsland [No Man’s Land, 1931], directed by Victor Trivas, himself a Russian émigré), as well as in the experimental work of the Czech novelist, screenwriter, and director Vladislav Vancura (e.g., Marijka Nevernice [1935]). Yet even in the well-known Kameradschaft, in which bilingualism is an integral element of the dramatic plot, a translation of the foreign dialogue appears in subtitles. By contrast, Soviet cinema rejected translation in such cases as a matter of course. This holds true not only for Kavaleridze’s Koliivshchina (By Water and Smoke, 1933) and Prometei (Prometheus, 1936), or Boris Barnet’s classic Okraina (The Outskirts, 1933), but also for a broad range of lesser-known films that share at least one thing in common: typically these are significant works of art, situated (from a modern perspective) in one way or another outside of the contemporaneous cinematic mainstream. I emphasize “modern perspective” because many of these films went unnoticed at the time (e.g., Tommy [1931], the first sound film by the patriarch of Russian cinema, Yakov Protazanov), disappeared from view because they were banned (e.g., Moia rodina [My Native Land, 1933], by Iosif Heifits and Alexander Zarkhi, and, once more, Prometheus), or were never considered in terms of their heteroglossia (e.g., Putevka v zhizn’ [Road to Life, 1931], directed by Nikolai Ekk, the first Soviet “fully talking picture”).

 

7 Challenging the Voice of God in World War II–Era Soviet Documentaries

ePub

Jeremy Hicks

IN 1943, A DOCUMENTARY of the battle of Moscow (Razgrom nemetskikh voisk pod Moskvoi) titled Moscow Strikes Back won the Soviet Union its first Oscar. This version of the film had discarded the original voice-over and added a new one, written by Albert Maltz and read by Edward G. Robinson. This was not an unusual practice, and it has been repeated many times since. Both during and since the war itself, Soviet World War II black-and-white newsreel images have been recycled to illustrate this or that television documentary about the conflict, stripped of the verbal context provided by the voice-over commentary that first accompanied them in the original films. In removing what are assumed to be pompous voice-of-God commentaries encumbered by encomiums to Stalin and the party, historical filmmakers imply that a new voice-over will provide more informative verbal interpretations than the original, with less distortion and to greater effect.

 

8 Vocal Changes: Marlon Brando, Innokenty Smoktunovsky, and the Sound of the 1950s

ePub

Oksana Bulgakowa

Translated from the German by Katrina Sark

THE BEST STUDIES of voice in film—by Michel Chion or Kaja Silverman—have examined disembodied, formless voices, voices as phantoms.1 However, signs of social and temporal anchoring of the electric voice—as part of the medial body—have been neglected by film theory. One does not have to be Professor Higgins to distinguish film voices of the 1930s from those of the 1990s, since the manner of speech depends not only on the quality of an individual voice that reveals the age, gender, appearance, and mood of the speaker but also on the historically, culturally, and socially determined speech patterns, on technical conditions of recording practices, and on artistic conventions. Norms, conventions, and parameters change at certain points in time. The history of technology is concerned with microphones and tape recorders, amplifiers and filters; linguistic studies conduct phonetic and prosodic analyses of speech patterns. Can film studies indicate traces of time in the electric voices and merge the historicity of the voice with the history of recording technology?

 

9 Listening to the Inaudible Foreign: Simultaneous Translators and Soviet Experience of Foreign Cinema

ePub

Elena Razlogova

FOR DECADES, NATALIA RAZLOGOVA had a recurring dream: she enters a film translator’s booth and puts on the headphones. The audience is clamoring outside—they can hear the film, they demand the translation, but she hears nothing. She cannot translate; the foreign film is completely inaudible to her.1 This story conveys translators’ fears of failure: being unable to cope with shoddy technology, failing to relate to an alien culture, confronting an incomprehensible language. But most of all, it shows the fear of failing in their responsibility to their moviegoing public. Between the 1960s and 1980s, Soviet simultaneous translators made foreign-film screenings possible: at international film festivals, specialized theaters such as Moscow’s Illiuzion, and tours of foreign films organized by cultural and propaganda agencies. They simultaneously observed and shaped the Soviet moviegoing experience. The improvised voice of a simultaneous translator was a key element of the foreign-film sound track throughout the Soviet Union.

 

10 Kinomuzyka: Theorizing Soviet Film Music in the 1930s

ePub

Kevin Bartig

IN DECEMBER 1926, a small German crew disembarked in Soviet Russia. There they entertained audiences with the Tri-Ergon system, a technological curiosity that captured both moving images and the accompanying sound on film. Similar Soviet-made systems soon followed, most notably from the workshop of Pavel Tager.1 Pondering these developments, Soviet filmmakers felt both excitement and trepidation. The 1928 “statement” issued by Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Alexandrov is justly famous for capturing this mix of emotions. At best, they reasoned, sound offered untold creative possibilities for film. At worst, it reduced the medium to mere filmed theater.2 These avant-garde directors were not, of course, the only Soviet artists pondering the advent of sound film. Kinomuzyka, an entirely new genre, was also on the minds of Soviet composers. A few had already written original music for silent films, and sound on film seemed to confirm the newfound priority of that endeavor. Yet the rapid development of sound technology also raised a critical question: what exactly was film music?

 

11 Listening to Muzykal’naia istoriia (1940)

ePub

Anna Nisnevich

ON THE DAY of its Moscow premiere, October 18, 1940, the musical comedy Muzykal’naia istoriia (A Musical Story), scripted by Evgeny Petrov and Georgy Munblit, directed by Alexander Ivanovsky and Gerbert Rappoport, and starring Sergei Lemeshev and Zoia Fedorova, had already received warm official welcomes in the leading newspapers Pravda and Izvestiia. The author of the Pravda article, Mikhail Lvov, lauded the film’s culture-promoting plot, describing Muzykal’naia istoriia as “a very simple and uncomplicated story [of] how a taxi driver Petya Govorkov became an opera soloist.”1 Recounting Petya’s meeting with an older, experienced opera singer, Vasily Fomich, his singing of Lensky’s part in the staging of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Club of Auto Transport Workers, his first artistic failure (a consequence of a heartbreak), and his eventual success (the result of hard work), Lvov emphasized the necessity of “propaganda of the best examples of musical art by way of cinema’s lively, accessible means.” The stance of the review in Izvestiia, by A. Alexandrov, was more overtly political. Comparing Muzykal’naia istoriia with Hollywood’s One Hundred Men and a Girl (dir. Koster, 1937), a musical Cinderella story (starring Deanna Durbin) that had charmed Soviet film viewers earlier that year, Alexandrov pointed to a striking discrepancy between the American Cinderella—an adolescent singer whose successes come by way of a string of pure coincidences—and the Soviet one, who is catapulted to stardom by the system itself. “The script-writers of Muzykal’naia istoriia do not imitate the American film, but argue with it,” he contended. “The taxi driver Govorkov has a path entirely different [from that of his American counterpart]: his future is open, he can be the hero of a film in which the joys of life are not merely fruits of the comedic skill of the script-writer or of his experience in creating happy endings, but are informed by the life material, the reality itself.”2 By way of classical music, Alexandrov suggested, the film showcased a specifically Soviet way of life.

 

12 The Music of Landscape: Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and the Uses of Music in Ivan the Terrible

ePub

Joan Neuberger

SERGEI EISENSTEIN WROTE repeatedly about sound and music in cinema, from his contribution to the collective “Statement on Sound,” co-authored with Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov in 1928, through his discussion of audiovisual cinema and “vertical montage” in the montage essays of 1938 to 1940, to his late-1940s articles on Sergei Prokofiev, and color and sound.1 Each of these built on the earlier work and confirmed his original commitment to sound as an active element in film art rather than a naturalistic underpinning for realism or affect. From his initial insistence on sound “as a new element of montage,” Eisenstein developed increasingly complex multimedia, multisensory ideas about the ways sound contributed to producing meaning and experience for film viewers.

In this regard, it is surprising that more attention has not been paid to his eponymous chapter in Nonindifferent Nature, subtitled “The Music of Landscape and the Fate of Montage Counterpoint at a New Stage.”2 In that chapter, music is less a subject for analysis than it is the reigning metaphor for his current understanding of the structures of artistic composition. Written in 1944 and 1945, while editing part 1 of Ivan Groznyi (Ivan the Terrible, part 1, 1944; part 2, 1958] and finishing part 2, Eisenstein developed his earlier thoughts on montage and the “montage image,” incorporating many of the insights he gained through work on the film.3 The subject matter expanded far beyond the role of film sound and montage counterpoint, however, to explore the structures of artistic composition that make it possible to communicate thought and feeling in art and elicit responses from the audience. In short, Eisenstein argued that for a work of art to achieve universality and immortality, its composition must, first of all, correspond to our physical and psychological structures of feeling and cognition.4 The artist must be able to break down a subject or idea into constitutive parts that are resonant with one another in multiple ways that then allow the viewer to reconstitute the parts into a new, higher, unified emotional and intellectual experience. That synthetic unity, which he called the “montage image,” contained an abstract understanding of the subject at hand that derives from the process of joining disparate elements:

 

13 The Full Illusion of Reality: Repentance, Polystylism, and the Late Soviet Soundscape

ePub

Peter Schmelz

“Both film and contemporary music are united by the idea of a super-polyphony [superpolifoniia] of space and meaning.”

—Alfred Schnittke to Elena Petrushanskaya, “Iz besed o rabote v kino”1

“Which do you think is more important in film, noises or music? For me they play an equally important role. In film, noises and music know their place.”

—Tengiz Abuladze in Margarita Kvasnetskaya, Tengiz Abuladze:

Put’ k ‘Pokaianiiu’ 2

IN A PERESTROIKA-ERA manifesto from 1988 called “Cinema without Cinema,” Russian cultural historian and critic Mikhail Yampolsky decried the focus on language in Soviet film, noting that the “Soviet film mentality” was “essentially logocentric.”3 Yampolsky argued instead for greater recognition of the total film experience, drawing attention to both sight and sound. “No less important,” he wrote, “is the sensual contact with the world on screen created by the richness of sight and sound, the rhythmic structures, and so on.”4 Yampolsky acknowledged that the technological backwardness of the Soviet film industry often led filmmakers to overlook these aspects, especially the synchronization of sight and sound, whose “inadequacy . . . also affects the plausibility of the screen world.” After the breakthrough signaled by Dolby stereo at the end of the 1970s, the mono sound of Soviet films left much to be desired. Yampolsky further excoriated Soviet filmmakers:

 

14 Russian Rock on Soviet Bones

ePub

Lilya Kaganovsky

VALERY TODOROVSKYS 2008 film Stilyagi (The Hipsters) opens with a scene at a local Soviet clinic. A patient has come for a chest X-ray, complaining of a severe cough. We hear the nurse scolding him for excessive smoking, we see the X-rays produced and examined, but it is only when we see the same X-ray plate being cut into the shape of a circle, and a hole being burned in the exact middle with a cigarette, that we understand the relationship of this opening sequence to the rest of film: the X-ray can be used to make a homemade gramophone record, a phenomenon that was referred to in the 1950s and 1960s as “rock on bones” (rok na kostiakh): Western rock recorded onto “Soviet” bones.

Set in 1955 and 1956, just after the death of Stalin but before the Twentieth Party Congress and Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” Stilyagi is a musical (or a musical comedy, or a musical tragicomedy) about a brief, but very vibrant, Soviet counterculture moment when a generation of postwar Soviet youth, exposed for the first time to movies, music, and styles from the West, attempted to reproduce through their clothes, music, dance, and overall attitude a certain kind of international style. The basic plot centers on the romance of Mels and Pol’za, beginning with his conversion from a straight-laced Komsomol member to full-fledged stilyaga, his expulsion from the Komsomol, her pregnancy, and the group’s eventual dispersal. Despite Todorovsky’s disclaimers, the film is a true musical in the Hollywood sense of the genre, where the emotional and narrative weight is given to the song and dance numbers, loosely connected by a minimal plot.

 

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