Monday, 4 February 2008

Elective Affinities

Liquid Sky and the Soviet fantasy of Amerika

The person seeing Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky for the first time would have every right to ask – where on earth does this come from? It all takes place in some kind of New York City, but hardly one you might recognise. The clothes resemble something worn in Blitz or Club for Heroes circa 1980, a Neuromantic, Bowiephile fastidiousness; the conversations are rhetorical and stilted; the music, meanwhile, resembles little else made before or since, an idea of synthpop created by someone who can’t possibly have heard any. And by all accounts, this was its (alienation) effect on New Yorkers at the time – that isn’t what the scene looks like! Who dresses like that, who talks like that, what music sounds like that? Accordingly, its only in the late 90s, when the film briefly became an electroclash cliché (Adult. covering ‘Me and My Rhythm Box’ etc) that it started to be assimilated back into pop culture. Regardless of whatever Tsukerman and his co-conspirators – fellow Soviet emigres Yuri Neyman, Nina Kerova, Anatole Gerasimov, and American collaborator Anna Carlisle (writer and actor as both Jimmy and Margaret) – thought they were doing, their version of early 80s New York presented a strange and intense fantasy, not an American reality, although it derives from a warped version of it. In doing so, they were recapitulating a move that was as old as the USSR they had fled from.

There was always an intense elective affinity between the Soviet Union and the United States, one that the residue of the Cold War continues to obscure. That is, what was generally called Amerikanizm. This we could define as the critical, alienating use of American cultural, technological and formal tropes in order to create a distinctively Soviet and Socialist aesthetic. The history of Amerikanizm has yet to be written, and it encompasses everything from skyscraper design, scientific management, assembly-line production (all those quintessentially socialist realist tractors were spawn of Ford’s heavy investment in the Five Year Plans), and perhaps most famously, film. In film Amerikanizm takes on its own particular name – Eksentrizm. While Godard’s 60s youth in Masculin Feminin were torn between their mother and father ‘Marx and Coca-Cola’, Eccentrists were the result of a three way love triangle between Alexander Bogdanov, Frederick Wilmslow Taylor and Charlie Chaplin. We may never know which was the true father.

Their fantasy Amerika, encapsulated in the 1922 Manifesto of the Eccentric Actor, signed by the future film directors Gregori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg and Sergei Yutkevich, was a meld of the mechanised movement of Taylorism (and in that, they were concomitant with Meyerhold’s contemporary experiments in theatrical ‘Biomechanics’) and the similarly unnatural stilted movements of Chaplin. As Walter Benjamin (a fan of the Eccentrists) pointed out on the release of Modern Times, Chaplin’s walking, dancing, and poetry of gesture was an immanent response to the very nature of film, which pivots on a dialectic between the Fordist, assembly-line continuity of image succeeding image; and the interruptive, discontinuous motion of montage, the edit, the cut and splice of entirely separate phenomena to create a ‘whole’. So his movement is jerky, yet fluid: balletic and awkward, smooth and graceless. The Eccentrist’s Manifesto spliced all these elements together along with a call for the total destruction of the old image order in favour of some combination of Hollywood’s slapstick disruptiveness and technological flair, Futurism’s iconoclasm, and the impossible movement of the onscreen comedian with Socialism’s promise of a world turned upside down.

Perhaps the most well known exponent of Amerikanizm and Eksentrizm (aside from Sergei Eisenstein…) was Lev Kuleshov, with a series of films beginning with The Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, in which a flag waving Yankee is baffled and overwhelmed by the vibrancy and excitement of the proletarian state. At this early stage the passage to the future and the attendant journey was always assumed to be in that direction. The Formalist critic Marietta Shaginyan created a sensation in the early 20s with Mess-Mend: Yankees in Petrograd, in which she and the head of the Soviet state publishers concocted an imaginary author, ‘Jim Dollar’, a hero straight out of the pages of the crime thriller, for serialised stories of solidarity, derring-do and fantasy technology. The baton of the future would be passing inevitably from the USA to the USSR, which would in turn create a socialist America on the vast steppe. Every pole of the USSR, from Eccentrist, Anarchistic currents to Trotskyists and Stalinists believed in this until the mid-30s, when the dead generations completed their strangulation of the revolution. In 1924 Stalin defined ‘Leninism’ as ‘the combination of Russian revolutionary sweep and American efficiency’, while his enemy wrote that ‘the Soviet system shod with American technology will be socialism,’ a conjunction that would define the form of the new society: ‘it will transform our order, liberating it from the heritage of backwardness, primitiveness and barbarism.’ This desire, common to the revolutionaries and the earlier Thermidorians, was dismissed later by Boris Groys as a soft-headed desire to create a ‘better America’, replaced by Stalinism’s so much more serious expression of naked power (as with many ostensible critics of Stalinism, Groys seems incapable of writing about it without his admiration showing through).

Kuleshov’s America, meanwhile, soon got its own descriptor: Kuleshovism, denoting an editing style indebted to D.W Griffith with a cast of characters taken from the work of Jack London. Kuleshov would live long enough to become the teacher and mentor of one Slava Tsukerman, in the late 1960s. Whether the excitements of his youth carried over into the work of his young student we can only speculate. Yet there is Eccentrist pedigree in Liquid Sky too – the director of photography, Yuri Neyman, who transforms New York so vividly into an alien city, was the cinematographer on the elderly Sergei Yutkevich’s film about his fellow Americanist Mayakovsky Laughs. Tsukerman and Neyman would make the journey that their tutors only dreamed of, although it would be a fallacy to claim that in so doing they discovered the ‘real’ America.

Actually, it’s as strange, and as fascinated by American style as a typical Cold War product. The 1963 Soyuzmultfilm animation Shareholder ridicules the stock-market’s pretence to participation in the economy, but does so via the loving depiction of Eisenhower-era modernity: those extraordinary streamlined cars, the zoot suits, neon lights and jazz that were ostensibly signs of decadence. Style for its own sake was the forbidden, and this is what Liquid Sky luxuriates in, the potlatch of panstick. In this least Americanist phase of the USSR, when Khrushchev would envy Nixon his kitchens and the latter all those rockets, America was still an underlying dream presence. In that most Soviet of works Roadside Picnic, the Strugatsky Brothers’ novel of an alien holiday creating the fascinating, rotting industrial wonderland known as the Zone, the setting had to be transferred to America in order to speak so plainly about the Soviet war on nature, the industrial instrumentalism that Susan Buck-Morss considers the fatal poison of the Amerikanist conjuncture.

In 1920 Trotsky, an ex-New Yorker, claimed that just one NY-style building in Moscow might help shake the poverty and torpor created by the Russian Civil War. Americanism in architectural design was a complex, vexed question, as Cold War politicking obscured the essential interrelatedness and affinity. The Soviet skyscraper designs of the 1920s were strippings and rationalisations of the USA’s huge, atavistic fantasy-palaces. Aware of the mystificatory absurdity of a Woolworth Building, the extension of the Gothic up into the sky, the USSR’s early architects took their cue from the factories behind the facade. In one particularly memorable instance, this centred on the 1922 competition for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper. Bauhaus director Walter Gropius proposed a tower based on the printworks at the back, extending their modules into a futurist vision of cool, precise technology. It was ridiculed, of course, in favour of flying buttresses and Gothicky ornament. So in another act of plunder, the Soviet architects Grigori and Mikhail Barkhin proposed to build a slightly modified version of Gropius’ Chicago in Moscow for the Izvestia newspaper – and got it built, albeit drastically reduced. Yet ten years later, in the contest for the notorious Palace of the Soviets, all the Soviet Modernists would be rejected in favour of a design by an obscure New Yorker, Hector Hamilton. The resultant design, modified by Boris Iofan, was a direct response to the Empire State Building. While it abhorred the art deco smoothness of the latter, it aimed to exceed its already ludicrous height.

It’s impossible to watch Liquid Sky without noticing the Empire State. Neyman’s camera lingers on it, caresses it, illuminates it as a neon needle or a futuristic phallus, as a correspondent to the queasy drugginess and bleak, loveless sex that pervades the film. The Soviet Empire State never got built, of course – but as Buck-Morss has pointed out, the colossal statue of Lenin at its pinnacle resembled nothing so much as King Kong hanging on to the Empire’s mast, swiping away the fighter planes. Cold War politics meant that when the USSR finally built its skyscrapers in the late 40s, they couldn’t resemble either Empire/Chrysler romantic futurism or Seagram/Lever Sachlichkeit, but instead reached back into the past – to the Gothick cakes that they had rejected as silly in their revolutionary period: ‘they preposterously decorate their fortieth storeys with some Renaissance piece or other, oblivious to the fact that these curlicues and statuettes are good enough at six storeys, but any higher they are completely unnoticeable. Of course, these high-class baubles can’t be placed any lower, or they’ll interfere with advertisements’ wrote Mayakovsky in My Discovery of America. Stripped of these objets d’art, technology might, in theory, have been more sachlich, and more socialist – yet the Soviet state took it on, baubles and all. Tsukerman and Neyman would only have known Americanism in the hidden forms of the 1940s Soviet Woolworth Buildings or in the bastardised Corbusier that surrounded all Soviet cities by the late 70s. Hence the real, original Skycity has a fascination for them, yet one pervaded with decadence and disappointment as much as the old live-wire excitement that their teachers had on the viewing of the latest Harold Lloyd film.

That’s where we find Liquid Sky: at the point where the collision of Soviet socialism and American technoromanticism had long, long since disappeared. Instead the film was made in the context where brutish geriatrics Reagan and Brezhnev waved their missiles at each other in the Cold War’s chilling early 80s sequel. Accordingly, it luxuriates in the glorious end. Though everyone moves through it as if in a trance, goes through their motions of scoring and screwing, it still conveys the sheer electric excitement of popculture, the gleeful destruction of gender boundaries, the transformation of ‘music’ into electronic scree and exhortations, and collectivity survives at least in a sense on the dancefloor. Dreams of equality become an aristocracy of the poor (everyone in Liquid Sky seems elegantly impoverished), where émigrés from the Midwest like Margaret are able to play out their fantasies on their body, via the masquerades and misappropriations of fashion. The world ends with a synthesised chill, but at least not with a whimper. There’s no hope, of course, and the only way out is up – like Bogdanov’s Red Star, the horrors of the terrestrial are transcended in the alien transportation. The logical conclusion of this reappraisal of Soviet Amerikanizm is that both are bankrupt, and the only escape is to disappear along with the aliens that feed on earthly jouissance.


Roger Gathmann said...

What? No pic of Eisenstein shaking hands with mickey mouse? I notice a sort of shifting around the shadow of the mighty Sergei, here.

That's sorta funny, because Eisenstein has certainly come back to America this year, via There will be blood. Hell, the movie is even based on an Upton Sinclair book, who was of course Eisenstein's patron and nemesis for Que viva mexico!

Dejan said...

The logical conclusion of this reappraisal of Soviet Amerikanizm is that both are bankrupt, and the only escape is to disappear along with the aliens that feed on earthly jouissance.

Comrade, I am sorry but I fail to see what's ''logical'' about your conclusion - running off to self-managing Mars together with the little greens - though it may be highly indicative of wishful thinking behind Marxist ideals, as well as the bankruptcy thereof. And Tsukerman I know personally, he sold out to America.

owen hatherley said...

Well obviously, Dejan, although I had my tongue firmly wedged in my cheek writing that paragraph. And sure Tskerman might have sold out, but LS is hardly an attractive picture of the virtues of American civilisation, is it?

Dejan said...

And sure Tskerman might have sold out,

at the dinner table he told me Limonov (who never really gave up on his Bolshevism) was a whiny brat who could never be happy anywhere and that America has opportunity for everyone.

Well obviously, Dejan, although I had my tongue firmly wedged in my cheek writing that paragraph

What I meant is what's the use of concluding that the solution is not on THIS planet and in THIS life?

owen hatherley said...

There isn't any use for that unless one is joking, as I was. Anyway the last of your points is a funny one for a fan of the Orthodox church to be making. Having said that I do envy you your choice of dinner guests.

Adi said...

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