From the Cine-Train to Harold Lloyd: Towards the Notion of Satirical Avant-Garde in Soviet Cinema

Andrei Khrenov, Independent Scholar

The brief historical period following the 1917 Revolution was exemplary for the radical concepts of the artistic avant-garde, concepts which coincided, mirrored, and fit in with the challenging social experiment. Revolutionary artistic practices (especially those of Lef and Proletcult) effectively appropriated a wide range of expressive means pertaining to such established genres as satire; in their carnivalesque mass pageants, agit-prop stage and street performances, or agit-trains of the Civil War, artists were searching for an appropriate mode of relating political work and aesthetic activities.

Since the formation of the "New Man", the ideal Communist citizen and liberated worker, for whom art would blend with the production process, constituted the development of a new, alternative vision, several filmmakers adopted the strategy of rendering satirical content with subversive visual codes and tropes which strove to transcend the conventions of the commercially-oriented mainstream cinema and its naturalistic aesthetic - both on the level of representation and narrative construction. Providing an intertextual analysis of two comedies - Tit, or Tale of a Big Spoon (1932) by Alexander Medvedkin and Chemi Bebia (My Grandmother) (1929) by Kote Mikaberidze, my paper demonstrates how by the end of the period this avant-gardist approach to visual organization of the material resulted in abortive attempts "to raise form once more to the level of ideological content" (Eisenstein) and therefore became one of the reasons for the eventual censorial restrictions of both films. The experimental techniques/codes were perceived by the target audience as an obstacle, and not as an aid for their "educational entertainment."

An almost Brechtian effort to develop the spectator's critical, scrutinizing activity through the playful use of film language - allegorical distortion, hyperbolic use of objects, metaphorical sight gags or gestic acting in theatrical mis-en-scenes - became a part of an "anti-illusionist" technique in Medvedkin's recently restored 20-min. folklore satire. Produced by his cine-train, a film studio on wheels, the unique agitational enterprise offered a very specific and localized audience (mostly rural proletariat) abrasive satirical shorts on local bureaucracy, protectionism, inefficiency, etc.

A similar reinforcement of the material articulations of filmic discourse is manifested in Mikaberidze's surrealistic comic romp that spoofs the "bourgeois" living of a Georgian bureaucrat, modeled after Harold Lloyd. The film, based on the screenplay of Siko Dolidze, a member of Transcaucasian Lef, presented a mixed metaphor where the State bureaucratic system was a roundtable defended by benighted stooges within Constructivist sets alongside with puppetry, animation, stop-motion and twisted camera-angles.

This initial attempt to read both films in the context of the cultural production/perception of the late twenties - early thirties with visual references (video and DVD clips) offer a new cross-cultural perspective for analyzing the theoretical and practical affinities of the Soviet avant-garde and satire.