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Slapstick and the Soviet avant-garde: an interview with Owen Hatherley

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet avant-garde looked to Hollywood. We discuss this unlikely story with Owen Hatherley.

Buster Keaton drives away his newly built house in One Week (1920). Owen Hatherley's engaging and provocative The Chaplin Machine, his latest book, is an erudite historical investigation into how, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet avant-garde looked to Hollywood film, including the work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. They saw not just slapstick comedy, but something that spoke to their own sensibilities over work, aesthetics and performance.

At a similar time, they also drew on the writings of industrial theorist Frederick Taylor – attempting to improve workers' performance using scientific principles – and Henry Ford. "As a rule, these are treated as rather separate phenomena," writes Hatherley, of these two cultural themes. Though so ideologically different, the Soviets could see elements of the US that they could admire in both ideas, striving to pull together "Americanism in technology, Bolshevism in politics [and] slapstick in everyday life".  

As with any cultural message, the tale was distorted in the telling. Hatherley's work, adapted from his doctoral thesis, tells how many in the USSR saw the US as a "gigantic act of collective dreaming," more akin to their own ideals than no doubt it was.

By moving through cinema, design, architecture, and politics he succeeds in uniting these two poles, rewriting conventional understanding of both modernism and this unique point in Soviet history. Hatherley explained to openDemocracy some of the book's key ideas. 

Rob Sharp: To what extent did serendipity and miscommunication play a role in Soviet appropriation of US filmmaking aesthetics in the contexts you describe?

Owen Hatherley: I don't know about serendipity, but miscommunication was endemic. This is at the start of a mass media age. But it's still just beginning. You have mass distribution of Hollywood films but other than that the dissemination of American culture was fairly rudimentary.

The most interesting versions of American culture are always those which get it wrong. The Beatles are more interesting than Johnny Halliday. The direct reproduction of the American archetype is always pretty tedious, and you can see that in British music. The ways in which it's endlessly got American music wrong have been interesting. You could make an analogy between that and cinema and theatre in the USSR, and the way they interpreted American cinema.

One thing filmmakers were well aware of was what they did and didn't want from American film. They liked fast cutting, they liked action, special effects, all things which lots of art cinema people think are ghastly. The slow take world that now passes for artistic ambition would have been utter anathema to these people. Eisenstein would have hated Béla Tarr with a fucking passion. They would have thought Michael Bay was better than Béla Tarr, I can say that for certain.

Eisenstein would have hated Béla Tarr with a fucking passion. They would have thought Michael Bay was better than Béla Tarr, I can say that for certain.

They also didn't like the politics, the explicit racist politics of Birth of a Nation or the more subtle confederate politics of Buster Keaton's The General. They saw that and didn't like it. They didn’t like happy endings and didn't like stars. One of the big changes in 1930s Soviet cinema – roughly between 1930 and 1934 – is a shift towards those American things. Big budgets, musicals, happy endings, stars. They are not necessarily bad films, but they accept much more of American cinema.

But if you look at something like at the acceptance of Taylorism, which is really at the heart of the book in many ways, I don't think they knew to what degree they misunderstood it. There's a wonderful anecdote. One of the American painter and engraver Louis Lozowick going to the USSR and Russians asking: "Do you have biomechanics over there?" And him replying: "No, what are you talking about?" All of these things they thought of as American, the actual American was telling them: "No, this is you". There is also a great story about an emissary from the Ford Motor Company being shown a biomechanics troupe and him saying: "This has nothing to do with what we're doing." And they thought it did. People like Meyerhold, Eisenstein, they really thought this was in the continuum of scientific management. And for actual scientific management, it was meaningless.

Soviet artists the Stenberg Brothers' poster for SEP, featuring a "Daily News building-style tower".RS: Was there an equivalent of biomechanics in the west?

OH: Perhaps  athletics, aerobics. The fact that aerobics doesn't happen until the 1970s is probably telling. It's very difficult to explain what biomechanics was. Especially since we don't have any film footage of the Meyerhold theatre. The nearest we have is the acting style in the early Eisenstein films or the films of Kozintsev and Trauberg. It's a very strange thing which on the one hand is circus-like, which aspires to be mechanized and industrial, but also quite aerobic. And of course it had a huge theoretical justification which went into it, which one is at liberty to find convincing or not convincing. I don't find it particularly convincing.

RS: So it was just a form of performance?

OH: You can also link it to Eisenstein's theories about the Montage of Attractions. And people forget that attractions part. This is circus attractions, that's what he's talking about. If you watched people doing these things it was meant to have this shocking affect which Eisentstein reckons the Montage of Attractions has. I don't know if it's plausible.

RS: What would be a good contemporary equivalent of what the Soviets were doing in appropriating these aesthetics?

OH: One of the weird things about Soviet cinema in the 1920s is it's one of the few examples anywhere of the state sponsored avant-garde. The people they were corresponding with were in France and Germany. Hans Richter was trying to scrape the budget together to make a 20-minute short. Eisenstein was given massive resources and a cast of thousands. That ability to do things on that scale is really unique in the twentieth century. Like many things about the Soviet avant-garde it's unique and probably unrepeatable. Or unrepeatable without the kind of political upheaval seen in the aftermath of 1917. But scaling it down somewhat I do think that music has several examples of that kind of misunderstanding.

RS: What would be the specific examples?

OH: Any time when British or Jamaican or German pop musicians have done things with American music. What Kraftwerk do with the Beach Boys, what ska did with American R&B. What punk did with American punk. What very strange 1990s rave did to the much more stylistically conservative American techno. I wouldn't push the analogy too far, the budgets are so different.

RS: Why has slapstick always been underevaluated in its appeal to the avant-garde?

OH: I wouldn't suggest I'm the first person to have done this. Ian Christie in the 1970s was doing work on Eccentrism. But a lot of the interpretation went down two distinct cul-de-sacs. One of which was around Godard in the 1960s. Godard had his moments but he was no Vertov. When he went off on his difficult films, these mostly interesting but very hard to watch films, it was as part of the "Dziga Vertov Group".

People assume watching a film by Eistenstein or Vertov is going to be as difficult as watching a structuralist film, or a late 1960s or early 1970s Godard film, and they are really not. They are very watchable. And I think in recent years people have started to realise that. I find the popularity of Man with a Movie Camera very gratifying. The fact that it turns up in people's best of all time lists is good, and 20 years ago, this wouldn't have been the case. People assume this stuff is formidable and arch and cruel and unpleasant which it's not, or at least not always.

And also the reception this stuff was put through in the 1970s has put people off. It was put though an Althusserian filter. People in Screen in the UK. And Screen published lots of this stuff. Screen's version of it was based in French theory and later October was similarly grounded in structuralism, and gave the impression that this stuff was impenetrable. This was not necessarily their intention. And because of that, their interest was often in things like Eisenstein's version of Kapital, Vertov's manifestos, but not in something like Strike or New Babylon, all of these films that are enormously enjoyable. The whole point of them in many ways was to be enjoyable. That was the thing…they were not supposed to be challenging. 

Also, there's the endemic and undying belief on the part of western Europeans and Americans that everything in Russian culture is ponderous and dark and painful and miserable which of course is bullshit. But it is amazingly persistent. You see it now loads. I think it's not really exotic enough in a way.

RS: Why do you think biomechanics is something the west doesn't have an equivalent of?

OH: I suppose you could find something similar in the Weimar Republic. You can find similar stuff in Brecht and also in the various people around Europe ripping off Brecht later on. I've never seen footage of the original Isherwood and Auden's The Ascent of F6 but I bet you they probably did a lot of biomechanic movements. 

One reason for the emphasis on biomechanics in the book is there is quite a lot of literature on Soviet Taylorism. And I think in many ways Soviet labour wasn't particularly Taylorist. I think their scientific management never really caught on.

Miners perform Taylorist exercises in Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas (1931) RS: Do you think they improved upon Taylorism?

OH: I think it depends when we're talking about in the Soviet Union. After Stalin in particular there was very much an unspoken social contract of not pushing workers too hard. In the knowledge that they didn't want the workers to revolt. And I think under Stalin, the point was to rush to the target. Taylorism, brutal as it is, and it still exists, anyone who's ever worked in a call centre can tell you it still exists, it's steady work.

The Soviet system under Stalin was based on setting a target you knew you couldn't hit and then working like fuck to get to that level. Which frequently involved feats of labour, things like construction brigades, shock workers and later the Stakhanovite movement (as well of course as a great deal of forced labour). These things were all about pushing the body as far as it could go. Heroic labours. Taylorism is not about "look how much I can produce", it is "you will produce this amount exactly," it's very different. The incentive for you is, they pay you slightly more. It was probably more influential on cultural circles than on the factory itself. They made attempts at it, for sure, but I think they decided for various reasons that in this particular kind of command economy it wasn't plausible at that point to use it.

RS: Do you agree with Rodchenko's view that Chaplin's work was directly informed by Communism?

OH: It's very hard to say. I think the social forces at work in Chaplin, if you look at what was happening in 1910s America, you have the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), massive scale strikes, the growth of the Socialist Party of America. You could see in the background in one of the early Chaplin films an IWW sign chalked up. The things that are in those early films, property, crime, immigration, homelessness, these are all tied up with America at that time, with this very broad labour force, people who have just come in, often from Eastern Europe or southern Italy or Ireland who are being forced into this machine that they sink or they swim in, and these films are about that.

And that's why they are popular. One could argue that these are the same forces that are behind the weird revolutionary moment at the end of the 1910s which beyond Russia happened in Germany. There were mutinies in France, and America goes through a smaller version of that. So on that level it's plausible. But the idea that Chaplin was consciously a Communist, at that point, it's hard to say. Later on in his life he is a fellow traveller, an explicit fellow traveller. It wasn't tenuous for McCarthy to go after him. He had close links with the Communist Party.

He was an enthusiast of Eisenstein both politically and in terms of the aesthetics. Modern Times is in many ways his own attempt to do his version of something like Vertov's Symphony of the Donbass. So that's interesting. For Chaplin it is reciprocal, for Keaton I don't think it really is. For Keaton I don't think he really knew this stuff or wasn't bothered, which is funny because these days Keaton is the much more hip name to drop. And in many ways he is much more obviously Constructivist but, I don't think it was really his thing. I may be wrong.

Owen Hatherley, author of The Chaplin Machine (2016)RS: How do you think some of the ideas discussed in the book would have developed if the US didn't exist, if they were developing in a vacuum?

OH: I don't know. There would have been France. In many ways it's France before it's America. The first big influence on what would become the Soviet avant-garde is France. It's Cubism, Fauvism and their own version of it. I often get the impression it was acceptable to talk about America, and western technology and not be assumed to support imperialist powers which is ironic given later events. In the 1920s it is everywhere, you can find Le Corbusier doing the same thing.

I mean the PhD from which this book came had loads on this which I took out. For instance the obsession with grain silos. The belief that the Americans created this amazing architecture in their grain silos. And it all basically comes from these photos Alma Mahler collected when she was off touring the US, sent to Walter Gropius who she was shagging at the time. Gropius publishes them and then Le Corbusier publishes them, retouching them to make them look more modern. Some of them had pediments on them, which he retouches to take them off. And then in Soviet architecture magazines they are everywhere. They are considered to be American. Of course you can also find them in Tilbury. It wasn't necessarily a solely American thing.

I think they saw themselves in America. America was also based on an idea, which you could say about the French Republic as well, but America in particular, was this huge thing the size of Europe, with huge contrasts and a large amount of agriculture which of course Russia has as well. And also the frontier mentality of both. So much of Soviet industry in the 1920s is about Central Asia and moving into these distant places. On this, the historian Kate Brown wrote an essay called "Why Kazakhstan and Montana are nearly the same place" and they are. That's no accident why they are. Throughout the twentieth century there is a mirror there. It couldn't really have been anywhere else. You can write a history of the avant–garde in the Soviet Union through its engagement with Germany or France, even Czechoslovakia if you were really focused, but it would be a slightly different story. It's America, it's a whole philosophy of the world almost.

I think they saw themselves in America. America was also based on an idea, which you could say about the French Republic as well, but America in particular, was this huge thing the size of Europe, with huge contrasts and a large amount of agriculture which of course Russia has as well. And also the frontier mentality of both. 

RS: What was the Soviet state's view on this?

OH: One of the things that irritated the avant-garde was that there was an official policy of cultural pluralism. We shouldn't exaggerate this. The 1920s was probably a fantastic time to be alive in Moscow and Leningrad. But it wasn't a period that had either democracy or a free press. It's almost like the phrase Castro came up with: "Within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing". That was the cultural policy of the 1920s and the avant-garde wanted a cultural policy to support them because they were true Communist artists and the others were imposters. And the realists argued the same and they eventually won the argument.

There are specific examples where you can find state involvement.  The example which is most obvious is in literature which was the attempt to create the "Soviet Pinkerton", in reference to the Nat Pinkerton adventure stories, which were distributed widely. The response was that "we" should do our own version.

RS: Could you summarise "component fixation's" influence on later architecture?

OH: That phrase comes from a book called Form follows form by Kestutis Paul Zygas. His argument is that something changes in Soviet architecture around 1927. That before that if you look at the plans of various completed buildings it's all about extrananeous parts, like radio towers, advertising, neon. And under the influence of Le Corbusier and the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart in 1927 Soviet architects shift towards the mainstream and so the major Constructivist projects of the late 1920s, early 1930s, like the first Narkomfin Building, are good taste architecture where all of that is gone. There's not slogans, towers, all of this sort of stuff. And it has all become more smooth and Platonic. In terms of the book it's about the love the Russian avant garde had and gradually lost for spectacle for razzle dazzle which is not part of the modern architectural mainstream. There is more about Platonic form. Which initially was not their interest and then by the end of the 1920s they had come around to that.

RS: How does the modern circus link back to these ideas?

OH: I don't know about the modern circus but the circus is totally key to the avant-garde. One of the books I used was a report compiled by school teachers visiting the Soviet Union in the 1920s and there's a little chapter on theatres. And the entry on the Proletcult theatre is, "This is a circus-like theatre". That's how they saw it. There's people going around doing acrobats, pratfalls and they took the idea from attractions. This is about how people watch the circus and watch tricks. Tricks in terms of special effects, but also about bodies doing impressive things, which is another thing entirely. That person is walking on a trapeze, is different from the picture being manipulated to make it look like they are, and I don't think they really resolved that.

The Chaplin Machine is published by Pluto Press.

About the authors

Rob Sharp is a contributing editor at openDemocracy, and teaches journalism at the London College of Communication and the University of Sussex. He was formerly arts correspondent at the Independent. Follow him on Twitter: @robbiesharp

Owen Hatherley received a PhD in 2011 from Birkbeck College, London, for a thesis on Constructivism and Americanism, which was published in 2016 as The Chaplin Machine (Pluto Press). He is the author of books including Across the Plaza (Strelka, 2012), A New Kind of Bleak – Journeys through Urban Britain (Verso 2012), Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015), The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso, 2016) and the forthcoming Trans-Europe Express (Penguin 2017). 


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