Way back in January, I promised that I would write some further thoughts on 35MM (Sergei Nosgov, 2016). The more I tried to pull my thoughts together, though, it became clear that, as much as I like that game, I was lacking in concrete ideas about it. In place of the concrete, 35MM left me with nebulous impressions, feelings, and half-formed memories. My quest to craft a container for these impressions led to something that is not quite a video essay. The embedded video here is really more of a piece of meditative, impressionistic experimental machinima than it is an analytical work.
This video encapsulates my fascination with the prevalence of abandoned or poorly-maintained railroads and rail stations in post-apocalyptic games coming out of former Eastern Bloc countries. Sometimes, there is a clear lineage on display here, as when the Ukrainian studio 4A Games adapts the Russian science fiction author Dmitri Glukhovsky’s Metro books into the complementary Metro game series. More diffuse influences envelope these games as well, though. Some go back to the Soviet era. In the video, I pick out Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (USSR, 1979) as a distinct visual reference point. Although the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series developed by Ukrainian team GSC Gameworld hews much closer to the atmosphere of the Strugatsky novel Roadside Picnic on which Stalker is based, I think it’s undeniable that Tarkovsky’s film left a visual mark on post-Soviet apocalyptic fiction. (He was doing “ruin porn” before it was cool.)
As to why, exactly, the decaying rail line has become such a staple of former Eastern Bloc post-apocalyptic fiction … I have no answer. But that’s one of the things you can get away with when choosing this sort of video work over the written word.
The idea of montage is heavily explained, and defended by early soviet film-makers such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov. They would discuss theories in the construction and purpose of montage. When the introduction of sound into the cinematic experience, sure enough, the same soviets had much to say about the way sound should exist and interact with the montage.
The Soviets introduce a few possibilities for how sound can serve a purpose in montage, and also how sound could be the detriment of the piece. In attempts to stray away from the theater and grow into the potential film has apart from it use to capture theatrics, rather as a medium of constructing montage, the automatic adherence of sound to film is what is could be the driving detriment of a film. A “backing track”, so to speak, is what these thinkers are referring to: the purpose of adding sound for the sake of adding sound. This addition of a “backing track” to film is curious in early film because, often the music added to a film was being performed by a live orchestra in the cinema. In order to avoid “destroying the culture of the montage” a few applications for sound in film are introduced.
What follows is an essay I wrote in 2007, one of the first things I ever wrote on the topic of videogames. I originally intended it to be an alumni submission to the Bard College Journal of the Moving Image. That publication, however—which I had previously been an editor of—had fallen on some hard times in the 2007–2008 academic year, and so that plan fell through.
For nearly a decade, now, this piece of writing has never seen the light of day. It’s absurdly long for a blog post, but I nonetheless figured I might as well belatedly make it publicly available here (even though its psychoanalytic underpinnings seem quite foreign to me now).
Spending one week on sound in an Introduction to Film course can be a daunting task. So much vocabulary, and so many new issues to discuss, with only a class or two to dwell on them. What to do?
I like to take this week to introduce the concept of synesthesia—the “bleeding” of one sense into another that results in sensations in one sensory modality being interpreted as impressions in another. It’s a phenomenon that has been studied from the era of classical Greek philosophy up through modern neuroscience, and it has provided inspiration to artists for nearly as long. For understandable reasons, it was something that was on a lot of filmmaker’s minds during the transition to sound cinema. Turning to this topic allows us to rope in stalwarts of classical film theory such as Eisenstein and Vertov, and to freely intermingle experiments in feature filmmaking with more radical experiments in the avant-garde.
In this particular lesson, I focus on music. If one’s spending two days on sound, this leaves another class for sound effects, if one so desires. Continue reading →
The Red and the White, a Soviet film released in 1967, depicts the confusion and brutality of the Russian Civil War. At the time of film’s release, war movies, due to their intense popularity, had formed a clearly defined set of tropes and tactics. Director Miklos Jancso could have easily followed these rules to construct a traditional war narrative. Instead, Jancso rejects nearly all the typical elements of a war film. This results in a kind of hybrid film that defies categorization. It is hard to pinpoint exactly which genre The Red and the White belongs in. Can viewers consider a film without a traditional narrative, a drama? Does a piece without archetypal characters count as a fiction film at all? The Red and the White utilizes many techniques that unnerve the viewer in its deviation from the classic war-genre film. These techniques serve to create a depiction of war that falls somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, blurring the lines between art and historical depiction.
The classic film, Pork Chop Hill, exemplifies the traditional Hollywood war drama at its zenith. The Red and the White and Pork Chop Hill, released in 1959, come from different countries, but similar historical contexts. Audiences were used to seeing certain types of film. Pork Chop Hill, with its sweeping music and opening credits, throws the audience into the world of Hollywood cinema. The opening sequence prominently features its star, Gregory Peck. The director, Lewis Milestone, leaves no room for confusion: this is a war movie. As a result, the audience goes into the first scene with a plethora of ideas and expectations for the film that Milestone gladly meets.