Thursday, 14 January 2021

Eisenstein and the Russian Avant-garde - Film

Release date Spring 2021

Eisenstein and the Russian Avant-garde  - Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible and overtones of the Renaissance

The main thesis of the film is the connection and influence of the Russian avant-garde on Eisenstein and his work. I believe this is a much neglected  theme of Eisenstein's work. It has been dealt with by Vacheslav Ivanov in his book The Aesthetics of Eisenstein and to some extent by Dassia N. Posner in her book The Directors Prism.  The film will explore the idea that Eisenstein was influenced by the experiments of the avant-garde both visually and in and those in literature and that these influences show up in his work over and over again. They are almost inescapable once you begin to think along these lines.

I am working on a sequence which will illustrate this point. Below are two photographs, A still from Ivan the Terrible and a photograph of one of Alexander Rodchenko's constructivist sculpture with Rodchenko standing in the background.  At first glance It may seem an implausible and superficial connection  i.e. that Eisenstein may have used such an image or had it mind when he shot this scene. However Eisenstein's own theories and practice make   supports such an idea. Eisenstein  in his texts often discusses how art progresses. In his view  there is a process where an image in a second painting for example of a given artist might  leap out of a previous painting in a ecstatic sequence of movement where paintings and objects stretch  out of one image on a given canvas into another in the painters next canvas giving the impression of movement and dynamism if  ones attention is focused on this process. He illustrates this in his famous article about Piranesi  and his two drawings the Dark Dungeon and the Dungeon.

As I began working on the film it struck me that this idea can be applied in many different ways in reference to Eisenstein and the Russian Avant-garde.  That is that this process not just appeared as a process within his films but we can perceive this process of Eisenstein borrowing from many sources including the avant-garde. It is not inconceivable that  we ourselves can make such connections in a process of reverse engineering. 

However before I go into this I should make a brief comment about overtones in Eisenstein's work and how he conceived of them in Cinema. It was not a new idea but what was new was how Eisenstein applied it to film.
An overtone is additional  aural or visual phenomena which are part of the dominant tone but reverberate through the dominant tone colliding and echoing and pulsating  within it and emanating from it creating an additional sensation of complex physiological and emotional responses in an audience.
As Eisenstein tells us; "all sorts of aberrations, distortions and other defects can appear in a film but  can conceivably  be rectified but at the same time they can also be taken into account and included compositionally  providing a whole range of compositional effects and possibilities in combinations which exploit their collective vibrations - which is nothing less than the filmed material itself. Essentially we can achieve, completely analogously to music, the visual overtonal complex of the shot.
"In this way behind the general indication of the shot, the psychological compendium of its vibrations as a whole, as a complex unity of the manifestations of all its stimuli, is present. This is the peculiar "feeling" of the shot produced by the shot as a whole".As we have seen, in the power of the very genetics of these methods, they must be accompanied  by an extraordinary physiological quality. As in that music which builds on works on a two fold use of overtones. Not the Classicism of Beethoven but the physiological quality of Debussy and Scriabin".

A further element which might be considered in the film is that Eisenstein wanted to show Ivan as a progressive figure following progressive reforms and illustrate the dilemmas this posed for him in medieval Russian society and the lengths he was prepared to go to to achieve his goal of founding a unified Russian state.  Again it was a dilemma  Rodchenko and the constructivists, futurists and avant-garde artists, were facing as they attempted a type of renaissance albeit wrapped up in the revolution. In the series of films about the avant-garde which I have called The Russian Avant-garde - Renaissance or Revolution, I allude to this specifically and it may be another example where an artist, in this case Eisenstein, refers to the past in order to point out something in his own time or visa versa.
Bearing this in mind it is worth mentioning that the theme of the  renaissance was very much at the forefront of Russian artists who were often at pains to show Russian history was not excluded from European history but somehow connected to it through the European Renaissance despite Russia having its own unique historical context. In fact many Italian architects came to Russia and built fortifications and churches, the bell tower of Ivan the Great was itself designed by an Italian Architect. There is even one theory that Leonardo da Vinci himself may have come to Russia and designed the Kremlin in Novgorod. Merezhkovsky, a contemporary of  Eisenstein wrote a book called Resurrection of  the Gods. Leonardo da Vinci (book 2 of the Christ and Antichrist trilogy . In this book Merezhkovsky links the development of Russian history to that of the Italian renaissance and hints at a shared history. The debate relates to the idea that Russian history developed outside European history and pursued a different path.   Merezhovsky brings the Renaissance closer to Russia than people might think.

In her book This Thing of Darkness about the film Ivan the Terrible Joan Neuberger looks to Machiavelli in a similar context  associating Ivan with a European equivalent in this case Machiavelli, (extensively referenced in  Merezhkovsky's novel) who she understands as advocating despots and rulers to pursue statecraft using any methods required including cruelty  of any kind to maintain power. It would seem Ivan fits the bill nicely and is up there with the Medici rulers and anyone else who engaged in cruel mass murder. However referencing Machiavelli as an exhortation to  rule by evil means and at all costs is fraught with difficulty as Neuberger points out in her book.  The idea comes from Machiavelli's well known work The Prince, an ambiguous and controversial work for all kinds of reasons both politically and textually. Most rulers of that time needed little instruction on the niceties of statecraft from a Florentine diplomat, however erudite and far sighted. The idea is too neat, a little too pat maybe. Both Eisenstein and Ivan are far too complex and multidimensional to be easily typecast. One of Neuberger's main concerns is Eisenstein's relationship with Stalin whose political ambitions and actions are refracted through the figure of Ivan in Eisenstein's film. Certainly this is true, however what is interesting is  how Neuberger in her book observes the links between Russia and the renaissance.  The reference, however oblique or unintentional, is worth noting and brings us back to the place of images and symbols in cinema and film.

The image of  Ivan contemplating an armillary sphere with its astronomical and cosmological references comes to mind in this instance. It is on the one hand a cliche of medieval wisdom and can be used as a mere stage prop in films and theatre. However Eisenstein uses it as a cinematic image, part of a cinematic lexicon, in fact it looks like an hieroglyph and it seems to me Eisenstein intends this. The shadow created on the wall of Ivan's hall is pure calligraphy projected cinematically and imbued with meaning.

                        Shadow of Tzar Ivan and armillary sphere

In this image Eisenstein draws us into his own contemporary world and Ivan's world as well. Here are examples of Eisenstein's methods coalesced into one image. Here he draws us into Ivan's  dreams for Russia, contemplating Russia's place in the the world and the  Cosmos , world history and the universe. It is both an image of humanism and science as well as an image of power though the chess image. The shadowy forms of Ivan and the armillary are mirrored and doubled to draw attention to these ideas which could not be expressed directly or openly. I do not used the word "openly" as if Eisenstein had to hide something from censors although he did but it is more that these ideas are not easily expressed however open and free the limits of expression. Eisenstein was expressing not just forbidden ideas but difficult ideas, ephemeral and intangible, ideas which are not easily grasped or defined. Even when we read Machiavelli today we are unsure of his meaning and what he is asking us to believe.  Much like Shakespeare in the Tempest,  he is  dealing with intangible thoughts and ideas, Eisenstein is linking his audience to the past. He is inviting us to make an intellectual judgement about a specific idea and to analyse it through his art. 

His image of the armillary sphere is truly an echo of Rodchenko's constructivist and avant-garde culture, whether intentional or not, which expresses the present and a future renaissance of mankind in the twentieth century with which the avant-garde artists considered immanent. By using the shadows in this sequence we can see  a clear example of his idea of overtones as a way of expressing ideas which might be opaque and defy a front on explanation. where the original  dominant image contains an overtone of numerous connotations and secondary images which lead the audiences thought to make there own connections and then Eisenstein "doubles" the impact by creating an image of an  "overtone". The shadow is an overtone of the original "real" image which then in itself is another image independent and autonomous but relating at the same time to the "original" (the shadows are full of overtones and secondary images. Here Eisenstein is playing with images and revealing his techniques openly and deliberately. The shadow overtones are a copy of the original overtones. A shadow is a literal overtone by its very essence. Eisenstein is trying to tell us something more. He is not just talking about Ivan he is talking about cinema and its revelatory character in a new renaissance.  It seems to me that Eisenstein is saying -  this is an image of Ivan's ambitions - it is also an image of how overtones work in art and cinema. 
For instance, Rodchenko's sculpture with its  image of Rodchenko faintly in the background like a ghostly after thought, an overtone of the author, and the linking of them to present artistic and cultural images would have been readily recognisable to a Russian audience with its constructivist overtones and it is perfectly reasonable that they would have made the connection with the avant-garde even if only subconsciously and is also reasonable to speculate that Eisenstein deliberately drew from such images which the avant-garde had supplied. The audience would not need to be told what Eisenstein had in mind, it is there before them and around them . Such themes and ideas I am sure would have been current in the cultural milieu which was early twentieth century Russia.

It is here that Eisenstein associates Russian history with the renaissance. There was an attempt to arrange a marriage between Ivan and Elizabeth the first which is well known and is referred to in the film. Shakespeare, the  renaissance and the link with European history collage and emanate from one image, which without words, without explanation, we  identify and  understand the connotations and links. Moreover Eisenstein has touched on these elements elsewhere in other films. The overtones reverberate through his film Que Viva Mexico which features images of Mayan astronomical and cosmological significance and Egyptian cosmology,(frequently referenced in the architecture of St Petersburg), and which  reminds us of  Eisenstein's interest in anthropology and ethnology.

Eisenstein shows us the ability of an image or symbol to go beyond its own meaning and by making such images collide and combine, to  create new possibilities for "meaning", the understanding of history and our place in it. Ivan the Terrible is not just about an historical figure it is about history itself; how we should regard it, access it and contemplate it, not as a simplistic narrative of cause and effect or of great  historical figures but the interplay of events and epochs which are full of their own overtones and underlying "hidden" laws. These "laws"  can  be further revealed or at any rate explored through the understanding of overtones. The idea of "pictures" as a representation of the world and a bearer of meaning was very much a part of Eisenstein's epoch and can be seen in the philosophy of Wittgenstein and moreover in the theatrical ideas of Meyerhold in particular his experiments in biomechanics. 

In what does this apparent "hiddenness" consist? This is what occupied Eisenstein in his theories about cinema and aesthetics. It is the path from irrationalism to rationalism and the intimate relationship between the two states. This path or journey will be explored in a further blogpost.

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