State of the Field: Film Studies

Russian Film Studies Today: Common Blessings, Common Woes?
(Two Comments from the UK)

In the pieces offered below, two leading UK scholars of Russian cinema, Birgit Beumers and Julian Graffy, comment on the state-of-the-field on their side of the Atlantic. Their views provide opinions and information on the field’s key markers: its monograph series, English-language journals on Russian cinema, fluctuating enrolments, uneven subtitled films, and research lacunae. Are we “separated by a common lan¬guage” or do they struggle with the same challenges that Russian-cinema specialists face here in the US? Their assessments provide a snapshot of the profession today.

The State of Russian film studies today
Birgit Beumers,Bristol University (UK)

The state of the arts in general, and arts faculties in particular, is sooner or later going to feel the effect of the credit crunch as we still call it in the UK, or the recession as some bolder Europeans call is. So say our university managers. For the time being, let us look at what we have rather than indulge in the study of chernukha – the bleak future that might not be that bleak at all.

Film studies has been an established discipline for many years, but has made its way into language departments in the last decade as we teach less and less literature and find students engage more with cultural studies, of which film is extremely popular with students (yes, for the reason that they’d rather watch a film than read War and Peace, Lev Nikolaevich, forgive me…). Does it matter? My answer is no. As long as the students are capable of engaging with cultural texts – songs, films, paintings, novels, performances – they learn to un¬derstand a different culture and engage intellectually with it. Indeed, the same is true for historians who have intro¬duced visual sources increasingly into their syllabi, and we can see a growing number of historians engage in research on cinema. This has also had the effect of broadening and widening cinema studies, moving it out of the niche of film theories and placing it into a larger context.

In terms of publications, we are looking at the bright side: publishers are increasingly keen to publish on film. In the UK alone, there is IB Tauris with its Kino series, edited by Richard Taylor; there is Intellect Books with some 30 journal titles in visual arts and cinema, as well as a book publishing arm with titles in media and performing arts; and Wallflower press with the series of Director’s Cuts, 24 Frames and others. Routledge have a strong list of publica¬tions on the media – even if these books are terrifically expensive, they are of high standard and quality.

Where do we go from here? – A major issue remains the training of film critics. Sight and Sound recently carried a feature on the ‘death of the profes¬sion’: we need to enable students in all subject areas – history, film, modern lan¬guages – to be able to write film reviews and engage in a challenging way with the films they watch. I would also very much like to see an exchange in teaching film programmes between US and UK universities, with scholars and teachers from a range of departments looking at one and the same film from a variety of angles: what does the historian, the film scholar, the Russian scholar get out of a Sokurov film, for example. Suggestion for the next AATSEEL conference: three panels on a single film, respectively from the pre-Revolutionary, the So¬viet, and the post-Soviet era, with three scholars from history, film, and Russian studies delivering papers.

Another area of concern is the dearth of proper training for film crit¬ics and historians in Russia and the former CIS. The Cinema University, as VGIK now calls itself, has its courses focused on Russia: young critics do not engage with scholarship in foreign languages. Critics in the former CIS are isolated, especially in Central Asia. The Confederation of Filmmakers’ Unions (and its administrator, Daria Borisova, in particular) has established a young critics’ jury and a film school for critics and filmmakers, both of which should be promoted; ideally critics should be given the opportunity for exchange.

As I write, Bristol University has notified its staff that all DVDs of films, which have no British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) certificate, have been removed from the library shelves (including Aelita, The Cranes are Fly¬ing, The Commissar and other Russian classics) as it would be illegal to loan these to students. And here I write about the future of film studies…. Tell me: what shall I teach next year?

Russian Film Studies Today
Julian Graffy,University College London (UK)

The study of Russian film has never been more popular in the Slavonic De¬partments of British universities. In my own department, at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in University College London, we current¬ly teach four courses to undergraduates and a further four to MA students, with about half a dozen students currently engaged in PhD research. Altogether around a hundred students are study¬ing Russian film at UCL at any one time. Film is used widely in a range of other courses on culture, history and society. We also have a thriving Rus¬sian Cinema Research Group. All of this is a cause for optimism about the continuing importance of Russian film in understanding Russian experience of the last century, and it has been made possible by technological innovation – by the vastly increased accessibility in recent years of the primary materials, the films themselves.

Yet paradoxically it is the state of those primary materials that currently offers one of the main challenges for students and teachers of Russian film, a challenge not faced by teachers of literature. Almost alone among great European film-making nations, Rus¬sia has not proved very attractive to the most prestigious producers of high quality subtitled DVDs in Britain or the USA. Leading DVD publishers, notably Criterion and Image in the USA, and Artificial Eye in Britain have, in recent years, issued good quality versions of most of the films of Sergei Eizenshtein; some works by Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and Vertov; a handful of key works of the Thaw period; all of Tarkovskii and Paradzhanov; Sokurov’s documentaries and his most recent feature films; and, looking at the work of the last twenty years, a random selection of Russian films that have achieved either festival prizes or box office success, films as dif¬ferent as Zviagintsev’s The Return and Bekmambetov’s Nightwatch and Day¬watch. But a list of the important films that are not commercially available in subtitled versions would include Kule-shov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks; many of the key works of Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and Vertov; Kozintsev and Trauberg’s Maxim trilogy; the musicals of Aleksandrov (in this case even the subtitled video versions are no longer in print; though they are widely agreed to be of lamentable quality, without them we would not have been able to teach the Stalinist musical at all); the musi¬cals of Aleksandrov’s rival Ivan Pyr´ev (none of which have ever been released in subtitled versions, making it hard to show students that he is just as worthy of their interest as is Aleksandrov); any of the films of Aleksei German; almost all the key films of Kira Muratova … the list could be endlessly extended. The enterprising Ruscico company, in Rus¬sia, does issue a large number of films in good subtitled editions, but their list is limited to films from particular stu¬dios, and it has so far been unusual for them to release a film which appeared before 1950.

Of course most of the films men¬tioned in my list are available on Rus¬sian DVDs, but these editions are of extremely variable quality – Russian companies, thus far, have shown almost no interest in their silent film heritage, or (with the exception of Krupnyi plan, whose recent editions of the early films of Andrei Konchalovskii, for example, show just what can be done in this area) in re-mastering the films they do release. Thus the versions of older films we can get hold of are far too often of very poor visual quality and presented in the wrong aspect ratio. Films of the Stalin period that were ‘re-edited’ in the 1960s continue to be released only in these sanitised versions, skewing the historical record. Russian companies have not, so far, ventured to issue films with audio-commentaries – one has only to think of the brilliance of Yuri Tsiv¬ian’s commentaries on the versions of The Man with the Movie Camera and Strike issued in Britain and the USA to see what an opportunity is being missed here. And to cap it all, when Russian companies do issue interesting older films they are notoriously difficult to get hold of – Russian internet companies (apart from Ruscico, which has a Euro¬pean and North American presence) are not allowed to send them abroad and Western internet companies concentrate on contemporary films.

So the first challenge that faces us is to do everything we can to encourage companies, in the USA, in Britain, in Russia itself, to conclude that it would be commercially viable to sink more money into the restoration and release of more of the great Russian cinematic heritage. The Ruscico Academy series, curated by Nikolai Izvolov, which is apparently about to issue its first DVDs of classic Russian films in the next few months, is an exciting development.

But to teach our undergraduate students (and any other students without a good knowledge of Russian), we need subtitled versions of films on DVD – I myself still have to rely on videos I made in the late 1980s from British tele¬vision for subtitled versions of such key works as The Asthenic Syndrome and My Friend Ivan Lapshin. These films are not best shown in this way, interrupted as they often are by advertisements for pasta sauce and lavatory paper…

If the first issue is to make the films themselves available in acceptable edi¬tions, then the other key challenge is to get more good writing about Russian film into print. As my colleague Dr Birgit Beumers writes in her companion essay, huge strides have recently been made in this area. Both in Britain and the USA several serious monographs and collections of articles about Rus¬sian film have appeared over the last few years. Dr Beumers herself is the author of the first history of Russian film for many decades, which has just been published, and another such his¬tory is imminent. There are also now two English language journals about Russian film, the online KinoKultura (which concentrates on contemporary releases) and the print journal Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, journals which the indefatigable Dr Beumers modestly does not mention since in both cases she is the editor. (A not entirely frivolous suggestion for the further amelioration of the state of Russian film studies would be to find more people with the knowledge, drive and enthusi¬asm of Dr Beumers).

All of these developments are very welcome, and they encourage teachers to broaden the range of films they in¬clude on their courses. But it is often the case that when my students are studying a recent film they can read about it in KinoKultura and nowhere else. When they are studying older films, particu-larly of the period from 1964 to the fall of the Soviet Union, there is sometimes nothing for them to read in English at all. Once again, comparison with our colleagues teaching Russian literature shows that their students can consider a far broader range of critical sources when forming their own readings of the books they study. So we need more studies of individual films and directors; more studies of periods which have so far been neglected – the Second World War and Late Stalinism; the Brezhnev years, which emphatically did not just produce cinematic also-rans; and the 1990s, already described in Russia as The Cinema Which We Lost; and more themed studies, looking at Russian film through a particular prism, of which Professor Nancy Condee’s imminent The Imperial Trace is an excellent example.

There are other causes for concern, ably articulated here by Dr Beumers. I myself have concentrated on two issues – the availability of the primary sources and the availability of good quality criti¬cism with which scholars and students can engage. In both cases there have been real improvements in recent years, and these challenges are in a sense the result of the continuing success of our studies. But I am writing this piece in the city of Charles Dickens, so perhaps it will not be considered churlish of me to end with the famous words “Please, sir, I want some more.”