Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Viktor Shklovsky and the Unfilmable

Viktor Shklovsky.
I recently read a book by the Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky.
The book was called The Hunt for Optimism.
It was published in 1931.
Or maybe 1932, I don’t remember and I don’t want to look it up.
Whenever it was published, it came out after Mayakovsky’s suicide, and I’m pretty sure that was in 1930.
Shklovsky writes in short little bursts.  Most of his paragraphs are only one or two sentences long.
I could continue writing in this style—Shklovsky pastiche—but I’m not Michiko Kakutani and I have no desire to limn Mr. Shklovsky.

Now Shklovsky’s a good, all-around critic, and he was deeply engaged with Soviet cinema which, at the time, was some of the best in the world.  It was the early Soviet filmmakers—Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Vertov—who, along with the American D. W. Griffith, invented the grammar for all the films that would come after them (in linguistic terms, they set up the “deep structure” of cinema, upon which all subsequent cinema is based).  Shklovsky was born in 1893, and there probably would have been very little film in his childhood.  The world would have been filtered primarily through literature and static pictorial art.  Imagine the shift in perspective that must have come about through the re-ordering of reality by the great filmmakers of the 1920’s.  Thanks to Eisenstein et al., reality could be chopped up and montaged. 

By 1930 or so, cinema had become a key mediator of reality for Viktor Shklovsky and many of his contemporaries.  He recounts an interesting episode in The Hunt for Optimism; he finds himself in Georgia, gazing at a landscape that Lermontov and Tolstoy would undoubtedly have found quite beautiful when they and the Russian army rampaged through the Caucasus back in the day.  But for Shklovsky, the beauty of the scene is sullied, because he knows that, were it to be filmed, “it wouldn’t come out.” This is one of the fundamental conditions of modernity.  A scene is only as beautiful as it looks when you record it through technological means.  Think of the people who go to a rock concert and spend the whole show trying to film the damn thing on their smart-phones (and it always looks like shit).  Or think of any tourist spectacle; you go to the Taj Mahal and, rather than looking at it, you take a picture of it.  Or the Eiffel Tower, or Alhambra, or what have you.  And this was already the case in Shklovsky’s time.  First photos, then cinema.  And it’s especially remarkable when you consider that in 1930, we had only had good, technically masterful cinema for about fifteen years (I don’t want to denigrate the Lumiéres or Meliés, but the only technical accomplishment in most of their films is that fact that the film exists at all; filming something was a technical feat in its own right).

I also don’t want to denigrate cinema in general.  Reality is generally a bitch, so if we can transform it through cinema, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  Speaking of Georgia, what do I know about Georgia? Only what I’ve seen of it in the films of Tengiz Abuladze and Sergei Parajanov.  And they both knew how to make it “come out.” Or look at Julia Loktev’s Georgia-set The Loneliest Planet, which uses the most crisp and up-to-date filmic technology to record scenes of ravishing beauty.  I can’t image there’s still anything in Georgia that doesn’t come out now.  Who knows, perhaps these filmmakers have even filmed the landscape that Shklovsky declared to be “un-filmable” in 1930.

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