Friday, 25 February 2011

Alexander Dovzhenko: Arsenal - Арсенал (1929)

Arsenal (1928)

Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Writer: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
Stars: Semyon Svashenko, Amvrosi Buchma and Georgi Khorkov

The film concerns an episode in the Russian Civil War in 1918 in which the Kiev Arsenal January Uprising of workers aided the besieging Bolshevik army against the Ukrainian nationalist Central Rada who held power within Kiev at the time. Regarded by film scholar Vance Kepley, Jr. as "one of the few Soviet political films which seems even to cast doubt on the morality of violent retribution", Dovzhenko's eye for wartime absurdities (for example, an attack on an empty trench) anticipates later pacifist sentiments in films by Jean Renoir and Stanley Kubrick.

Alexander Dovzhenko is one of the greatest filmmakers, though you’d never know it if all you had to go on was what you can read about him in English. The best things published about him in English are the out-of-print edition of his selected writings (edited by Marco Carynnyk) and a chapter of Gilberto Perez’s superb The Material Ghost. Otherwise, anyone who wants to explore the Ukrainian director’s work practically has to start from scratch. This you can do yourself now that a retrospective that’s been touring the US and Canada is about to reach the MFA.

Dovzhenko is, to be sure, the subject of two books by American academics. Vance Kepley Jr.’s In the Service of the State (University of Wisconsin Press, 1986) reads the director’s films as the expression and the result of impersonal political forces and social contradictions — an analysis to which, as Kepley states, cinematic style is irrelevant. Just off the press is George O. Liber’s Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film (British Film Institute). This biography brings to light much information about Dovzhenko’s political activities and his rocky relationships with Stalin, Khrushchev, and the Soviet filmmaking hierarchies. But Liber, a history professor, has little to say about Dovzhenko’s films.

Such silence is symptomatic. American film criticism of the past quarter-century has witnessed two main trends. The prevalence of historicist or postmodernist approaches born and bred in university film-studies departments has yielded tepid analyses that avoid asking what it’s actually like to watch a film and why one film might provide a more complex experience than another. The second trend is the degeneracy of journalistic film reviewing, which has become almost without exception an unofficial branch of the publicity departments of film distributors or a naively and pointlessly subjectivist chronicle of individual reviewers’ likes and dislikes (actually, for reasons that would take too long to go into here, it’s both these things at once). If English-language writing on Dovzhenko gives almost no indication of why he’s worth attending to at all, he isn’t alone among film artists to suffer such neglect, though he’s one of the most notable cases of it. (Another is Kenji Mizoguchi.)

Dovzhenko’s films present a challenge to viewers and writers, a challenge that won’t be brushed off in the historicist manner by discounting their æsthetic qualities, or in the journalistic manner by paying empty tribute to their beauty. Beauty might not, however, be a bad place to start with Dovzhenko. As Barthélemy Amengual writes in his excellent (French) book on Dovzhenko: "The great films of Soviet cinema attest, for the most part, to the justice of socialism. Dovzhenko’s persuade us first of its beauty." ...

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