January Term Course: Contextualizing Russian Film
By Aaron Richmond-Havel 09F
“When I make a film, I want to make something that can only make sense in a film format. There’s no use in making a movie that can just as easily be a play, or on television,” my friend and mentor James once said. I had studied film in a performing arts high school before coming to Hampshire; however, the reality of James’s quote never made more sense than when I was dissecting the intricate layers of Sergei Eisenstein’s opulent shots or Dziga Vertov’s speeding montage.
A Century of Attractions: Contextualizing Russian Film was a kind of film-study class that made sense to me – we looked for meaning in the images themselves. These images, obsessed with a unique idealism of death, and artful reflections on the living conditions of the Soviet Union, often haunted us to the point of speechlessness.
“We can ask that usual Russian film question,” our professor, Polina Barskova, said after the finale of one film, “what the hell was that?”
Polina, assistant professor of Russian literature, is the kind of professor you want to impress – she rolls off anecdotes and interesting trivia on the subject in a manner that demonstrates her extreme care.
Simultaneously, she is to the point. When talking with her about a subject for a final paper, after a sentence of my explanation, she nodded, ending the conversation with, “Okay. Go to the library. Get to work.”
For my final paper, I relied on the little facts known about Eisenstein’s sexuality and psychology as a guide, and relied on the images themselves for further significance. A reoccurring theme was the eroticism of machinery and weapons, as well as the gendering of these objects, giving a loose interpretation of gender as the objects and symbols a character inhabits. Overall, the process made me realize just how layered, and contradictory, the film medium can be – even propaganda cinema isn’t black and white.