How to Define "EmigrÈ Film/Theater/Ballet?"

Steven P. Hill, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In 2001 the author has prepared a new college course, "Russian EmigrÈ Film." In such a course, it is necessary to select one or more films to show each week. But defining an "ÈmigrÈ film" is rather more complex than defining an "ÈmigrÈ novel" or an "ÈmigrÈ painting." The latter lend themselves to an easy classification. A novel or a painting, created outside Russia (or any given nation), by a single expatriate (e.g., Nabokov in literature, Chagall in art) acquires the status of a Russian ÈmigrÈ novel or painting. But in the collaborative forms of expression, a ballet or theatre (stage) production will normally involve several participants. A motion-picture film is probably the extreme case here: its creation incorporates the work of numerous professionals--director, writer of literary source material, scenario writer(s), "star" actor(s), producer(s), music composer, supporting actors, cameraman, set designer(s), etc. Some of the foregoing contributors may be ÈmigrÈs, others not.

One easy way to cut through this clutter, and to identify certain films as "ÈmigrÈ films," would be to proceed from a unitary definition: any one individual, behind or before the camera, is sufficient. If just one director, like Tourjansky, alone, or one "star," like Sten, or one producer, like Ermolieff, or one supporting actor, like Tschechowa, or one composer, like Tiomkin, or one choreographer, like Balanchine, came from "Russia" (loosely defined as pre-1917 "Russian Empire" or post-1917 "USSR"), then the related motion picture might qualify as a "Russian ÈmigrÈ film." However, this would tend to underweight the contribution of the other 99%, the non-Russian participants in the same film. And a unitary definition may be further weakened, pragmatically, by the existence of thousands upon thousands of films, made in Western Europe, the Western Hemisphere, and elsewhere, in each of which perhaps just one or two Russian ÈmigrÈs played a minor role. (Try counting the total acting credits of Tamiroff or Mischa Auer!) In such a huge corpus of celluloid, the concept of an "ÈmigrÈ film" may be diluted excessively.

In a collaborative form of expression like motion pictures, there have been few, if any, "purely ÈmigrÈ" creations. (A possible exception would be "Agonizing Adventure," produced by the Ermolieff group as they fled Russia for Turkey and France in 1919-20--and it is probably now lost.) Thus, if it is not a matter of absolutes at all, but rather of degrees, then couldn't one in fact build upon that situation, and approach the matter quantitatively? A very similar dilemma regularly confronts the Writers Guild of America, to which film scenarists belong. The WGA, together with the film studios, has tried to utilize objective, quantitative criteria for assigning shared screen-writing credits, based on an actual count of pages or parts of pages (differentiated by color!), composed by each of several writers on a particular film script. The outcome of these computations, of course, can be significant in a very material way: the writers receive substantial sums of money partly based on these WGA metrics.

We academics, alas, have no such millions awaiting us, as we attempt to ask and answer analogous questions. A crucial one, of course, is how many Russian expatriates must be involved in a film, and in which roles or capacities, to meet a minimum standard? Such a quantitative standard, if it can be devised, should also be objective, i.e., capable of being replicated by other scholars, who arrive at the same outcome. The author's modest efforts in this direction have resulted in a detailed "point system," which assigns various numerical values to the contributions of the various film professionals. For instance, more weight (points) is allotted to the major professions (director, producer, "star," writer), less to other professions. (Litvak's participation in a film deserves more points than Kramarov's.) Further, more weight is allotted to those expatriates who left Russia already as adults, less to those who left as children. (Konchalovsky's contribution to a film deserves more points than Lewton's.) In order to qualify as a Russian ÈmigrÈ film, the film's aggregate "point score" should equal or surpass some minimum number. Fixing a specific arbitrary minimum, be it 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, or whatever total points, is still a work in progress, and may well be less important, in the general scheme of things, than the overall concept of attempting to quantify the "degree of Russianness" of films involving emigres.

Detailed results will be presented at the conference; feedback will be welcomed. The author assumes that this same approach could be applied equally in some of the other collaborative arts (attempting to quantify a ballet or theatre production), but that remains outside the scope of this paper.