It’s 1924 and the kindly, well-meaning Mr. West, a director of the YMCA, decides to undertake an international mission to civilize the Bolsheviks whom he has been told are a pack of wild savages who dress up in animal skins and arm themselves with hammers and sickles. For protection, he brings along his faithful companion, the chaps-wearing cowboy Jeddy and his trusty six-gun.
The noble Christian will win the war against Bolshevism with kindness and a gentle spirit. Upon arriving in Moscow, Mr. West has his valuables stolen by a mysterious gang. The evil leader Zhban declares, “We’ll squeeze every last dollar out of him!” Joining in the shakedown are the One-Eyed Man, the Dandy, the Countess, and a few unsavory toughs-for-hire.
Lev Kuleshov took as his point of departure for Mr. West the over-the-top calumnies that appeared in the newspapers of Western countries at the time calling the Bolsheviks “savages.” Like Jon Stewart watching Fox News for comic inspiration, Kuleshov had the newspapers of the Western powers to draw on. Considering the nature of the source, exaggeration for comic effect seems unnecessary.
A dispatch from the London Times published in 1919 quotes a British officer as saying that the Bolsheviks are performing unspeakable tortures on their victims, rounding up young girls to place them “at the mercy of the soldiery” and are on the verge of “letting loose the Chinese.” “They have declared war on Christianity,” he said and, by way of explanation, adds, “Eighty to 90 percent of the commissaries [commissars] are Jews.”
In addition to taking a dig at the counterrevolutionaries, Kuleshov used Mr. West as an opportunity to implement the cinematic ideas that he had been preparing for years. Kuleshov was one of many young artists inspired by radical art movements like constructivism and Futurism who threw their lot in with the revolution, seeing it as the way for Russia to climb out of centuries of backwardness and oppression.
For this tongue-in-cheek action film, Kuleshov cleverly used the techniques he first saw in the American films he so admired, especially the quick cutting of Mack Sennett’s comedies and the cross-cutting of D.W. Griffith’s adventures. The character of Mr. West himself, with his nerdy glasses and five pens in his suit pocket, seems to have been inspired by the screen persona created by Harold Lloyd.
But Kuleshov also sought to invent a new film language with his daring brand of montage, as he cut between different threads in the story often on close-ups, rather than the traditional use of an establishing shot. “It was one of the first Soviet films shot on a level with foreign ones,” wrote Kuleshov. “It owed them nothing in terms of its technical and artistic expressiveness.”
The Bolsheviks called for cinema to become revolutionary in both form and content. Cameras in hand, youth answered the call. In 1917, Kuleshov was 18, Sergei Eisenstein 19, Dziga Vertov 21, Alexander Dovzhenko 23, Esfir Shub 23, Vsevolod Pudovkin 24. Their aim was nothing less than to change the world.
Although he was among the youngest of the group, Kuleshov proved to be a leading thinker and he became a mentor to the others. Shortly after the 1917 revolution, Kuleshov set up an experimental film workshop at the State Film School. With little film stock to do actual filming, they instead took old film prints and recut them to test different effects.
In the most famous of his experiments, which has become known as the Kuleshov Effect, Kuleshov took a shot of the famous actor Ivan Mosjoukine wearing a blank expression. He then cut this shot with an image of a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a woman on a divan. Audiences marveled at the subtle changes in the actor’s face as Mosjoukine reacted with different emotions to the diverse images. In fact, Mosjoukine’s expression never changed, it was actually the same shot of him, repeated three times. The Kuleshov Effect demonstrates that the audience draws meaning from any given film image by subconsciously comparing it with the images that come before and after it. The theory of montage was born.
By being able to provide a somewhat scientific basis to explain this aspect of perception, Kuleshov’s ideas about montage profoundly influenced Soviet and world cinema, reaching far beyond the influence of his films. The pragmatic Americans used montage instinctively to obtain results; Kuleshov, the Russian theorist, explained how montage works and how the audience participates in the creation of a film’s meaning. He concluded, “Film art begins the moment the director begins to combine and join together the various pieces of film.”
Kuleshov was born in 1899 in the town of Tambov southeast of Moscow. After his father’s death in 1910, he and his mother moved to Moscow where he studied at the School of Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture and began designing sets for the Khanzhonkov Film Studio. In his first film, The Project of Engineer Prite (1917), he experimented with editing and the use of the close-up. In 1920, he continued his experiments by combining documentary footage he took in war zones with acted sequences for On the Red Front.
In 1920, Kuleshov also formed his Cinema Workshop, which became the group of collaborators with whom he made Mr. West. The workshop included Vsevelod Pudovkin, Leonid Obolensky, and Aleksandra Khokhlova (whom Kuleshov later married), all of whom play major roles in Mr. West, as did another great Soviet director, Boris Barnet.
When Mr. West was released, the young Soviet republic was still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War (1918–20) piled upon the catastrophe of World War I (1914–18). Mr. West, with its farcical humor and its lampooning of the capitalist world, seemed an appropriate pain reliever for the times.
The leader of the revolution, Vladimir Lenin, died in January of that year, and subsequent changes to the government were to have a profound effect on Soviet films as a growing conservatism led to the rise of Stalin. State organs of cinema constantly criticized the innovations of Kuleshov and other filmmakers in order to restrain the artistic freedom that had previously been allowed to flourish.
Kuleshov’s next film after Mr. West, Death Ray (1925), was a science-fiction thriller with a screenplay by Pudovkin, based on a story by Tolstoy. Predictably, it, too, was attacked for not being political enough. After Death Ray came By the Law (1926), a gritty drama of fortune seekers in the Klondike Gold Rush, from a story by Jack London. It was criticized as reflecting a negative view of human nature.
By the early 1930s, Stalin’s bureaucracy, now in full control, officially declared all forms of avant-garde art to be bourgeois. Filmmakers like Pudovkin, Vertov, Eisenstein, and Dovzhenko played along with the demands of the new art paradigm that became known as socialist realism, so they could continue to work. But the excitement and innovation of the early days was gone forever.
Kuleshov was able to make another 15 or so films in spite of falling into official disfavor. After being censured in 1935, he stopped directing for several years to devote himself exclusively to teaching and writing. His final film, We the Urals, a documentary codirected with Khokhlova, came out in 1943. At this point Kuleshov had made his peace with the bureaucracy as well, and he was trusted enough to be appointed academic rector of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. In 1969, only months before his death, he was awarded the highest honor in the Soviet Union, the Order of Lenin.
Kuleshov was well aware of what he had accomplished in his career, and so were his colleagues and comrades. In a foreword to one of their mentor’s early writings, members of his experimental workshop wrote, “We make films. Kuleshov made cinematography.”
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble