Long recognised as the pioneer of the “Kuleshov effect”, teacher of future cinematic talents such as Sergei Eisenstein (who attended Kuleshov’s Film Workshop for three months during 1922-1923), Vsevolod Pudovkin, Boris Barnet and Sergei Komarov, and the inspiration for Soviet theories of montage, it is not until fairly recently that the extant works of Lev Kuleshov have been widely screened at film festivals. Although Kuleshov’s Velikiy uteshitel (The Great Consoler, 1933) Neobychainye priklyucheniya mistera Vesta v strane bolshevikov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924), and Po zakonu (By the Law, 1926) are now finally accessible on DVD, the vast majority of his work still remains generally unavailable. It is essential that the remainder of his work now become widely available, especially in a very different post-Soviet capitalist era eager to disavow many of the achievements of the past (as the early Soviet “New Wave” did to the works of Evgeni Bauer and Yakov Protazanov) during that relatively brief artistic spring soon to be blighted by the wintry blasts of rigid Socialist Realist demands. Appropriate recognition of his contemporary cultural context is also extremely important rather than being rejected by those yearning for the “good old days” of Tsar Nicholas II.
Unlike Eisenstein and Pudovkin, but like Protazanov, Kuleshov worked within both traditions of Russian cinema, managed to survive the harsh decades of Stalinist mandates, and achieved international recognition before his death in 1970. His well-known Mr. West is not only an accessible comedy poking fun at an America that had attempted to invade the Soviet Union after 1918, but also a film incorporating the techniques of contemporary American silent cinema, Delsartian acting techniques, and the bio-mechanical performance experiments of Meyerhold that exercised a key influence on all facets of revolutionary art until their suppression in the late 1920s (1). What makes Mr. West of interest today is not only its fluid and diverse forms of artistic representation but also its engagement with American silent comedy and action cinema designed to integrate those levels of fantasy and reality that cinema constantly explores.
According to one of the essential texts on silent comedy, The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr, early cinema contained a structural dialectical tension between the realms of fact and fantasy, with the latter element predominating in what generally became known as “harmless entertainment”. But entertainment is not always harmless. It can be ideologically influenced as well as related to a reality it may seek escape from (2). Mr. West combines both levels. It operates as a satire on Western misperceptions of the Soviet Union appropriating the techniques of the “enemy”, while at the same time depicting a new nation where economic problems and the presence of reactionary elements still linger, even if depicted in bizarre fantasies of the grotesque. The final segment of the film lacks the vitality of preceding scenes in its attempt to impose its Soviet version of a Hollywood happy ending, attempting to erase contradictions in a cohesive manner. Fantasy collides with the harsh world of reality as in the endings of Buster Keaton’s Cops (co-directed by Edward F. Cline, 1922) and College (James W. Horne, 1927), where the failure of romantic love and lifelong domestic penal servitude leading to the grave become grim realistic conclusions. The real Russia in the climax of Mr. West does not contain such dismal implications. But, like those two Keaton films, comic fantasy leaves the stage and a different form of narrative depiction occurs suggesting that the joke is over and contemporary reality will now take centre stage.
It is by no means accidental that Harold Lloyd is the model for Mr. West rather than Chaplin or Keaton. As Kerr notes, the Lloyd persona is as much a mask as those worn by Chaplin and Keaton but one more related to contemporary social reality:
The glasses were, after all, the saving grace. They masked and justified, the nakedness of the aggression. America did understand, in the 1920’s that it was both callously ambitious and naïve. It had already begun to sense that, in making the world safe for democracy, it had fumbled the beautiful dream at the conference table, had been no match for wilier men. But its intentions had been pure, hadn’t they? Which was worse, naiveté or old world craftiness? Naiveté, after all, went arm in arm with innocence […] Democracy might make mistakes but at least they would not be innocent mistakes. Better to be naïve than nasty. (3)
Kuleshov began his career in 1916 working as a set designer and actor with Evgeni Bauer, a director associated with pre-Revolutionary decadent bourgeois melodramas such as Za schast’em (In Pursuit of Happiness, 1917), in which Kuleshov played an upper-class artist. Like Eisenstein, the Revolution radicalised him artistically and politically. Attracted by the challenges of American cinema, a new technological era, and a different type of actor, he designed and directed Proekt inzhenera Prayta (Engineer Prite’s Project, 1918) before continuing his artistic development in formulating an early theory of montage that would influence Eisenstein and Pudovkin in different ways (4). By the time he directed Mr. West, Kuleshov was ready to begin a film combining the appropriation of American cinematic techniques and a mechanised theory of screen acting that owed much to Constructivism. This technique had several links with contemporary discoveries of hysteria and psychosis that also influenced early vaudeville and film comedy, so it is not surprising that Jug’s gang members display facial features and grotesque postures that not only deliberately mimic the photos of savage Bolsheviks in American newspapers but also respond to the insecure fantasies of Mr. West himself, fantasies Jug and his gang intend to take full economic advantage of. They are also grotesque versions of the neurasthenic behaviour of the young heroine of In Pursuit of Happiness who clings to an illusory fantasy.
The Constructivist principle of not trusting the “soul” and equating the body with a mechanism is – in an unexpected way – reminiscent of certain types of psychosis that began to attract the attention of psychiatrists and psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. It is as if psychoanalysis was discovering the Constructivist man in the paranoiac and schizophrenic almost simultaneously with the theorists and practitioners of art. (5)
The same may be said of comedic performance. Mr. West is full of grotesque comedic acting whether embodied in Alexsandra Khokhlova’s Countess, the Bolsheviks roasting a Meyerhold-type of actress on a spit in a fantasy sequence, circus acrobatic performances by two fighting members of Jug’s gang, the wayward facial distortions and stomach extensions performed for Mr. West’s benefit, Pudovkin’s version of a villainous Max Linder complete with top hat, as well as other elements derived from Mack Sennett comedies such as the Keystone Kops style chase of Jeddy (Boris Barnet) by the Soviet police (6).
Mr. West combines the appropriation of the techniques of American silent film, an ongoing process of early Soviet cinema, with a new type of biomechanical acting aiming at a satire of American prejudices against the Soviet Union following the 1919 Palmer “Red” Raids. As Kevin Brownlow points out, several anti-Bolshevik films appeared in this period such as Bolshevism on Trial (Harley Knoles, 1919), adapted from Comrades (1909) and written by the author of the original novelistic source for The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915), The New Moon (1919), The Burning Question (Chester Withey, 1919), The Road to Happiness (1919), Dangerous Hours (Fred Niblo, 1920), the Herbert Hoover inspired documentary Starvation, the Camera Drama of a Hungry World (1920), and the pro-Mussolini, fascist The Eternal City (George Fitzmaurice, 1923). Although this cycle had died out by the early 1920s, “some were still in circulation in Europe, representing the tip of an iceberg of propaganda freezing the waters between Russia and the United States” (7). 1924 was also the third year of the New Economic Policy that restored a limited measure of capitalism to Russia, as well as promoting economic and touristic relations with the USA. Under these changed circumstances, Mr. West chooses to engage in a gentle satire against not only the “ugly American” but also the naïve American personified by Harold Lloyd and his Western bodyguard Jeddy. Barnet’s Jeddy represents a satirical version of Broncho Billy Anderson, as well as Clint Eastwood’s title character in Coogan’s Bluff (Don Siegel, 1968), who causes havoc in Moscow – similar to Cheyenne Harry’s (Harry Carey) journey to New York in John Ford’s Bucking Broadway (1917) – until arrested by the local police. By contrast, Jug and his gang embody displaced elements from the old regime representing past artistic values (the subtitles mention that Jug is a “former aesthete now an adventurer”), anachronistic decadent and aristocratic (the “Dandy”, the “Countess”) versions of the old regime lurking in the shadows and out to exploit gullible Americans. They also represent the “return of the repressed”: Kuleshov’s indirect attempt at making a Soviet horror film, a genre as taboo then as it would be in the Stalinist era and Maoist China. The majority of the film engages in a dynamic mixture of American film techniques and Soviet avant-garde performances until its final sequences. It even anticipates the lying flashback that Alfred Hitchcock perfected in Stage Fright (1950), but letting the audience into the secret when Jug tells Mr. West how he retrieved his valise. The unfortunate American’s later trial before savage Bolsheviks may reflect a fear concerning the Bolshevik legal system, as Petric (8) suggests, but it is portrayed on such a level of fantasy that the images (especially Khokhlova’s mugging for the camera) cannot be taken as realistic.
Reality must eventually intrude. A GPU official, representing Soviet forces of law and order, intervenes to free Mr. West and arrest the conspirators. Here the film leaves the fantastic terrains of comedy to move towards mundane reality. But this reality is also ideological and designed to combat the devastated images of the old society that Jug uses to fool Mr. West. The Bolshoi and Moscow University still remain. The official takes Mr. West on a tour of contemporary Moscow with trams, a military parade of “real Bolsheviks” marching in a disciplined manner, and the everyday bustle of a city clearly in evidence. Although Petric mentions that “the insert was not anticipated in the original script”, this is logically the only way the film can end appropriating a Hollywood narrative cinema having an obligatory “happy ending” albeit one influenced by a Vertov “kino-truth” newsreel (9). The real ambiguity of the ending is not Mr. West inserted into the “found footage” of a parade also viewed by President Kalinin but the penultimate shot of the Moscow Broadcasting Station prior to the lap dissolve from the radio mast into Mr. West looking at the camera. Perhaps the spoken word is the real guarantee against misleading ideological visual images in magazines and fantasy seen throughout the film?
- See Vlada Petric, “A Subtextual Reading of Kuleshov’s Satire The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)”, Inside Soviet Film Satire: Laughter with a Lash, ed. Andrew Horton, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 65-74; Mikhail Yampolsky, “Kuleshov’s Experiments and the New Anthropology of the Actor”, Silent Film, ed. Richard Abel, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 1996, pp. 45-67; “Lev Kuleshov and the Metrical-Spatial Web: Postmodern Body Training in Time and Space”, Theatre Topics vol. 10, no. 1, 2000, pp. 65-75; Ian Christie, “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks”, The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, ed. Birgit Beumers, Wallflower Press, London, 2007, pp. 24-34; and Carrie J. Preston, “Posing Modernism”, Theatre Journal vol. 61, no. 2, 2009, pp. 213-233.
- This is the central thesis of Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1975, pp. 9-38, especially p. 14. “That a medium committed to actuality should have embroiled itself in fantasy at all, putting perfectly real objects to such very odd uses – was scarcely to have been expected. That it should have made fantasy its principal product for something like twenty-six years is now, even in retrospect, astonishing.”
- Kerr, p. 191. For a reading of the film seeing Mr. West as a satire on Woodrow Wilson see Nancy Yanoshak, “Mr. West Mimicking ‘Mr. West’: America in the Mirror of the Other”, The Journal of Popular Culture vol. 41, no. 6, 2008, pp. 1051-1068, especially p. 1061. “Arguably, Kuleshov has succeeded in more than making fun of America in the 1920s. Rather, he may have shown us aspects of ourselves in the present that we might like to disavow.” By contrast, Peter G. Christensen emphasises what he sees as the anti-Soviet aspect of this film. See “Contextualizing Kuleshov’s Mr. West”, Film Criticism vol. 18, no. 1, 1993, pp. 3-19.
- See Nikolai Izvolov and Natasha Drubek-Meyer, “Annotations for the Hyperkino Edition of Lev Kuleshov’s Engineer Prite’s Project (1918), Academia Series, RUSCICO, 2010”, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema vol. 4, no. 1, 2010, pp. 65-93.
- Mikhail Yampolsky, “Mask Face and Machine Face”, trans. Larry Joseph, The Drama Review vol. 38, no. 3, 1994, p. 71. See also Rae Beth Gordon, Why the French Love Jerry Lewis: From Cabaret to Early Cinema, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2001. Is Kuleshov’s film a missing link in this tradition?
- According to Christie, p. 27, Kuleshov was familiar with the work of Max Linder.
- Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990, p. 459.
- Petric, p.72.
- Petric, p.72.
Neobychainye priklyucheniya mistera Vesta v strane bolshevikov/The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924 USSR 94 mins)
Prod Co: Goskino Prod, Dir: Lev Kuleshov Scr: Nicolai Aseyev, Vsevolod Pudovkin Phot: Aleksandr Levitskii: Ed: Aleksandr Levitskii Art Dir: Vsevolod Pudovkin
Cast: Porfirii Podobed, Boris Barnet, Aleksandra Khokhlova, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Komarov, Leonid Obolensky, Valentina Lopatina