Viktor Shklovsky: The Film Factory (Extracts)

House_on_Trubyna

The House on Trubyna Square (1928), Directed by Boris Barnet, Script by Viktor Shklovsky, Nikolai Erdman, Anatoli Marienhof, Vadim Shershenevichand Bella Zorich

Source: Originally published V. B. Shklovskii, Motalka (Moscow, 1927). English translation from Ian Christie & Richard Taylor, The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939, London: Routledge, 2003.

The Soviet Film Factory in General

The Soviet film factory is better than other film factories. But it suffers from many ailments and more than anything else it suffers from a lack of skill. Technically it is still weak. It is disorganised in its professional attitude.

The fault in cinema’s disposition and in its poor labour protection lies first and foremost with film-makers.

The film-maker is often a dilettante. The film factory is full of philistines.

If you want to come to cinema’s aid do not rush to the screen.

Pause to think a hundred times, a thousand times, on the doorstep of the film factory.

Best of all: stay in the audience. A conscious, exacting audience.

Cinema needs that more than anything: an audience that does not succumb to cinema psychosis.

Filming in General

Compared with nature, the film camera enjoys certain liberties: it has freedom to adjust the speed of movement, to begin and end it, and it is free to transpose sequences and to juxtapose two sequences shot at different times.

People are often surprised when they notice that, as cinema has developed, the number of filming expeditions has declined. We have begun to do location shooting in the film factory or on the set: this is not so much because cinema has become careless as because directors have learned to reconstitute nature.

In his film By the Law Kuleshov filmed the Yukon on the Moscow River and it looked very convincing. In the film Lena Gold the locations were similar to the Moscow region and the reasons for sending an expedition to the Lena are obscure.

A film is a composite work, collected together and edited and that is why in cinema the actor almost never makes himself seen or felt. Bits of him are taken away as specimens. Perhaps it would be better to let the actor act for a long time because the audience, knowing its own psyche, will react quite precisely to the slightest manifestation of an alien psyche and may follow it over a long period. But for location shooting collective and selective work are practically the rule.

Cinema nature is created in the cutting room: they say that in America the left-over mountains, forests, sunrises and sunsets are later sold off separately. This is not happening here yet although we have already had a request from America to buy the mountains in the Caucasus.

The Film Actor in the Factory

The rules of a brass band hold sway in our studios. Since we do not for the time being rely on the actor, we use him as a single note as if he were in a serf orchestra. He pipes something of his own on a single note at intervals, interrupted by other actors. The explanation for this is that we have still not appreciated the varying values of cinema’s raw materials or that each of them requires quite different treatment and has its own laws of influence. In addition, our work is full of cheap directorial devilry, of failure to take people into account. The actor, especially the bit-part actor who comes in and out, suffers the fate of the streetcleaner or the itinerant negro worker in the tropics. I do not know the negro’s fate but I imagine it is abominable.

Directorial improvisation – devising new details, chopping scenes – occupies a large place in our studios. The actor suffers the fate of a thread on the wrong side of a carpet, he walks along the corridor, drinks tea in the canteen and sits all day in his make-up worrying that his make-up will not come off. He pays more for his tea in the canteen than a regular employee, he cannot leave and he does not know what is in the script. But on the screen it is usually precisely the actor’s acting that comes across to the audience. It almost always comes across and a particular scene may spoil the whole picture. A cinema film consists of drops. The actor is filmed for one minute of pure time, at most five minutes, and only samples of all this are taken. In the average film he is a mere cipher although he has worked for months. Our manpower, which is first-rate and works hard and selflessly, should demand that it be treated in the same way as horses are treated,1 that it be given jobs, food and the right care. At the basis of the alternative attitude lies a failure to understand the role of raw material, a lack of respect for it and the supposition that you can film what you want and whom you want and not proceed from the real tasks, the real constraints set by raw material and time.

How are Scripts Produced in the Factory and How Should They be Produced?

In my time in the film factory this is how a script was written. Various people came from all directions bringing their scripts with them. There were women, men, old women and generally people of all sorts. You should not write a script suddenly and by chance: the person writing a script should know about the relationship between the script outline and the film outline, the techniques of film production, the transition from one kind of shot to another. The writer should understand the problems of budgeting and of utilising the resources of a particular factory. That is why scripts received from outside are only read because of a fear of public opinion. Strictly speaking, you should only accept a libretto from outside, not a script. You should use the idea, the indication of different relationships between people and of a different perception of the world, of the possibility of filming other material: i.e. you should try to teach people to jot down tasks for cinema.

A libretto should consist of plot and dénouement, furnish the actor with an opportunity to act and provide interesting material to film. The task might be based on raw material with the actor in an auxiliary role, the hero serving just as the thread that links the material. It might be arranged around one particular actor with the others playing up to him.

The action should not be weighed down with minutiae, with an accumulation of horrors, because death does not frighten the audience because of the actual fact of death and, generally speaking, if the audience does not know the person they will not be sorry if he dies. The scope of the film script is less than that of a literary work.

Almost every Russian script accepted at the factory in the last year was not one script but two or three scripts in one.

In the end only the third reel of the script for The Wind was filmed: the film did not creep on to the screen – it was a great success. In the script by Tarich and Shildkred for The Wings of a Serf two or three reels were not included in full and in the course of editing whole scenes were dropped. The Battleship Potemkin is one episode from the script for The Year 1905. The script for Café Fanconi was not all filmed: some sequences and whole acts were omitted that could be turned into another film.

The script for Nikulin’s The Traitor (in my re-working) also left a weighty legacy in the editor’s bins. In part this is because of the extravagant style of contemporary Russian cinema. The director’s powers of expression are spent on episodes. The whole picture is completely reworked under constant pressure: there are no breaks you could squeeze a conversation into.

The Script Should Make Use of an Interesting Location, But This Does Not Always Work

The film factory that I worked in was a small brick building on the outskirts of Moscow. During the Moscow floods the water reached the factory; the courtyard and the windows on the lower floor were piled up with bricks on cement. They were getting the boats ready in the yards: the overflowing Moscow River was already swishing all around.

The Leningrad floods have a much greater effect than the Moscow ones. There the floods are always accompanied by storms. Signboards fly around in the air, they launched a barge full of pottery into the great flood on Sergius Street, there was a hurricane on the Field of Mars and the artist Tatlin sat it out on top of the memorial to those who fell in the Revolution.

In Moscow the flood was more like a flat that has flooded because someone forgot to turn off the bath tap – quiet, calm water. Ice in the water is swift but not serious – as if it is rushing to the bazaar.

When the factory was flooded I immediately suggested making a comedy, Moscow Under Water, utilising this unusual setting and the fine sunny days. But in order to make a film like that we had to pass the script through three or four commissions and receive their amendments. In the meantime the water subsided.

That is how the Soviet cinema has been deprived of one film. Everybody was on a salary and the cameramen were sitting there flooded. It was no special loss, just an ordinary one.

The Work of Re-Editing

In cinema films are frequently made with alterations for particular customers. The Anglo-Saxon countries will not take films with unhappy endings. In the past different endings have been made for Russian buyers and European ones. In addition, the conditions in which the picture is shown and the

length of the performance differ in different countries and so films are made shorter. It seems that no one has ever made one longer. Two hundred metres were cut from Poli-kushka in Germany.

The Russian audience often sees an American or European film after it has been re-edited. It is the accepted thing to criticise the editors for this. But the fact is that, apart from the terms of the censorship, there are different conditions of audience perception.

I have worked in the Goskino editing room. The film got all tangled up in my hands and I got angry, but my fellow editors explained to me that the material does not like it when you get angry with it. It turned out that you could alter the film endlessly and, of course, not just through the titles alone.

I have re-worked my wretched Italian film seven times.2 There is a countess in it who has been insulted in front of her fisherman-lover. In the story the insult was of course cinematic. I made this insult true and made the truth the justification for the woman. In the Italian film the woman became a writer and shoved her manuscripts at everyone she spoke to. The manuscripts had to be turned into mortgages. The woman’s character was quite inhuman and had no motivation whatsoever. She had to be made into a hysteric.

In another film I made two identical brothers – one good and the other bad – into one man with a double life. My work, and that of the other editors, was child’s play. Fat and virtuous people were turned into villains as a general rule but they had to have perpetrated some deed and they never did. Then we gave them plots; later they needed crimes and they had to die for them. During the very worst sort of editing work, when there was some kind of catastrophe, smoke was released and then we editors were convinced that everything was going to go up in smoke. But the audience neither accepted nor approved of this kind of work.

I think one of G. Vasiliev’s inventions is a masterpiece of cinema. He needed a man to die but he did not die. He chose a moment when the proposed victim was yawning, duplicated the shot and the action stopped. The man was paralysed with his mouth open: it just had to be signed ‘death from heart attack’. This device was so unexpected that nobody protested.

Almost every Russian director engaged in re-editing work before he started filming and it is a very good school for a film-maker. Later I had to re-edit and re-work the plots of Russian films and now I know in cinema how loosely the precise meaning of an action is anchored in that action.

Kuleshov once said that a man with a plate of soup in front of him and a man mourning have almost exactly the same facial expression. In order to give a specific meaning to the external influence of the emotion, you have to know the precise set of emotional circumstances in which the particular person finds themselves.3

In the Song of Roland Roland blows his horn so hard that the blood rushes out of his ears and in the distance Charlemagne hears the sound of the horn but he is reassured by the thought that Roland is out hunting.

There is another story that is more cinematic. During a ball a duke brings a glass bottle into the room: there is a clown wriggling in the bottle. He is extremely witty and makes unusual movements. It is only then that people realise that the bottle is hermetically sealed and that the man in the bottle was suffocating and pleading for help. The old fable about the fish dancing in the red-hot pan is for cinema completely real.

The variety of human movements is not that large. The variety of facial expressions is even smaller. Intertitles and plot structure can completely rearrange our perception of the hero. This is new proof of the approximate quality of cinema, of our perception of it as convention.

I think that audiences are wrong to resent the re-editing of films and, on the other hand, I think that editors play too professionally with films. But the fact is that for the professional the man in the shot does not laugh or cry or mourn, he only opens and shuts his eyes and his mouth in a specific way. He is raw material. The meaning of a word depends on the phrase I place it in. If I place the word properly in another phrase it will have a different meaning, and the audience is searching for some kind of true meaning for the word, a lexical meaning for its experiences.

Intertitles

Intertitles in cinema have not yet been given the recognition they deserve. This is not a necessary evil but it is the necessary raw material for work. You may relinquish it, as you may relinquish any raw material – but why?

The intertitle alters the shot. The title indicates a way of looking at the shot, it unravels it all over again and once more links individual and widely separated shots. In cinema the title is often as important as a change in camera angle.

In James Cruze’s The Fighting Coward the famous ‘Sit down!’ title links widely separated situations and each new situation makes it more comic. The title becomes a sort of invocation, the audience immediately recalling all the previous situations accompanied by the same title.

The title in The Battleship Potemkin when the mother is carrying her child: ‘Let me through. My boy is very ill,’ introduces a conversational tone into a film of pathos and heightens our perception of the mechanical step of the soldiers who hear nothing and march forward.

Titles that correspond to the shot and repeat it are bad. Shots that illustrate the titles and titles that narrate the shots are bad.

Titles that produce a new and different consciousness of the shot are good. They are titles that change the shot… .

Footnotes

1A play on the ironic title of Mayakovsky’s poem‘A Humane Attitude to Horses’. The poem wasturned into a play by Vladimir Mass andproduced by Foregger, with Eisenstein as designer in 1921

2i.e. The Gadfly.

3A reference to the so-called ‘Kuleshov effect’.

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