Not concrete posts, not metaphors
Having conceived of the prologue to Alexander Nevksy as a panorama of fields, strewn with the 'mortal remains' of those who died fighting the Tartars for Russian land, I was bound to remember the battlefied outside Dvinsk.
I ordered a consignment of skeletons, human and horse and carefully arranged their component parts on the grass: a fresco of a battle, frozen... Hell, none of it worked!
It was revoltingly 'stagy' to look at and not at all convincing on screen.
I scrapped them.
- Sergei Eisenstein, Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein
The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure.
- J.G. Ballard, High-Rise
Ballard has never been a proper modernist or postmodernist, and this is perhaps a damn good thing. Like his fellow "horrors of this world and the one beyond" travelers Lovecraft and Malaparte, Céline and Vian, his work doesn't seem to rest stably in the more recognizable forms of high modernism. Or in its less-loved cousin, the recombinatory cut-up salvage of Ernst or Burroughs. Or, for that matter, the pulp underbelly of either sci-fi that Ballard's work supposedly belonged in at first or the nihilistic noir and dusty mean sex of Jim Thompson. Ballard is one of those constitutive exceptions, a chrome mirror that, in standing askance, catches anamorphotically the blur of modernism's real concerns and sharpens the image.
This looking-from-the-side glance in Ballard reveals a constant question, in almost all of his writing until the perhaps epistemic but certainly historical shatter point that is The Atrocity Exhibition. (Although, appropriately for one of the great writers of off-kilter development, the break is not clean: particularly in his short fiction, the earlier tendency persists through the 70's.) From his devolving airplanes and jungles, dead astronauts and freeze-frame birds, it is univocally a working through of time, circling back on itself to ask again and again what it would be to stand outside of time, or alongside it, to step out of its river. From pockets of other-time to momentary eternity, to Cape Canaveral and the crystal forest, these are the phantasms of the end of time.
The temptation here is of course to read time here as history. Again, though we should stress the side-long position of Ballard in regard to this and take it as symptomatic. For it is not until the lineage of writings inaugurated in by The Atrocity Exhibition that history begins to appear more potently as a category, at the very moment that it is becoming increasingly unthinkable. In other words, Ballard thinks history when capitalism begins its march toward the declaration of the end of history.
Although Ballard writes perhaps the sharpest "historical" novels of late capitalism, they are not designated, generically or by reception, as historical. It is rather their negotiation through, tarrying with, and ceaseless emptying out of the very possibility of the historical that makes them such. According to one narrative, that offered primarily by Jameson, we might think of this period - the ascendancy of the postmodern as a self-perpetuating logic - as that in which time is superseded by space. And in many ways, the Ballardian turn is exactly this: the off-historical is seen as a site, from the lost underpass of The Concrete Island to the tower of High-Rise. (Interesting here to notice the shift from the "world" in the earlier titles - The Drowned World, The Burning World, The Crystal World - to these markers of distinct sites.) And, as such, Ballard seems to be the definitive postmodern writer.
Emphasis here on "seems," for I think we need to assert very much the opposite: there is no jubilation here about the new spatial logics of the world order or the flattening "waning of affect" or "hyperspace" or any of the rest of the usual suspect tendencies. It is about the unbearable lightness of not being historical any more and the basic ethical question of what you are to do when there is no longer the task of trying to decouple yourself from the forward progression of historical time. Unmoored, we no longer get the existential satisfaction of striving against the ceaseless march ahead.
Ballard's distinction from a more common postmodern logic comes in the fact that his characters mourn this loss very oddly, namely, in a movement toward perversion as a structure of obsessive repetition futilely trying to resuture meaning to things. One need only recall Ballard's emblematic figure of this, the car crash. Beyond the rather banal reading about the desensitization of the bourgeoisie and the need to "shock" oneself out of erotic apathy, the restaging of famous car crashes has far more to do with the realization that we are in a world in which new events no longer happen. Contingency, and the cunning of reason with it, has fallen victim to the logic of "non-rational administered life", the supposed chaos of competition and the market, the heterogeneous identities and the multitude all moving along the same grooves etched by flows of capital circulation.
In its place, then, are no longer atrocities as the markers of historical tectonic shifts. There are exhibitions, stagings, willful false contingency, the play-acting of an event in the desperate frisson of clinical compulsion to do over, to dig out some remaining kernel of meaning in, say, the car crash of James Dean, that hasn't been fully cannibalized and repackaged. In other words, the historical becomes a task, a trying to get over its own unthinkability by the work of theatricality, of staginess, of the ringing hollow of that which is too overdetermined to ever become simply kitsch.
However, I don't want to claim that there is something singular in this Ballardian gesture: it is, instead, a tactic that appears elsewhere, an unsettling effect that is the consequence of a political aesthetics crashing, over and over in an obscene loop, against an end - not "the end" - of a historical project.
And so we turn to Eisenstein's 1938 Alexander Nevsky, which is, at least superficially, a quite un-Ballardian film. More importantly, it is an exceedingly odd film, not in the sense of the oddball dialectical pathos of The General Line but in the apparent disconnect between the gravity of its material and its knowingly Disneyfied aesthetic choices. It is a consummate film of bad style.
Nevsky has to be thought in the specificity of the moment of its production and, in spite of my wariness toward psychologizing biographical explanation, the specificty of Eisenstein's position at that moment. Following the dual incompletions of Que Viva Mexico! and Bezhin Meadow, Nevsky was a last chance effort for Eisenstein, and the film is of course marked by its toeing the party line and its explicit ramping-up-to-war-with-the-Germans nature. Eisenstein saving his hide by making a "straight" film...
But there's more going on here, particularly if we ask the question, that I am not alone in asking: why does Nevsky feel so off? Why at the moment of its horrors of war, its calling to arms, its coming together of the peasants, its fields of the dead, its frenzy of battle, does it all ring so hollow? Why do we laugh when the German leader drops a toddler into the fire?
There are at least a couple answers. The first to highlight here, and one that is utterly incapable of being represented in prose or film stills, has to do with the intersections of sound and image, the alarming disconnect between Prokofiev's remarkable score and Eisenstein's editing. (Famously, this film employs the Disney method of recording the music first and then editing to match it rhythms.) I don't want to discount this distinct affective sensation of the kind of non-productive collision that would seem to be opposed to Eisenstein's desired form of dialectical collision that is the force and task of montage.
However, as anticipated by the Ballardian beginning to all this, we might look elsewhere, to how the film situates itself, to the particular negotiation of a national history - mapped onto a personal trajectory - undoing both its own success or escape route, and understand the "bad style" as the productive symptom and unsettling registration of that.
For Eisenstein did not ultimately scrap the "stagy" bones.
What is scrapped is the figurative arrangement of them as a battle frozen, the freeze-frame x-ray of death. Instead, what is chosen is the equally conscious attempt to have them look not-arranged. The death-scape becomes a constructed facsimile of the anarchic leftovers of battle.
But this raises a serious question: what would have been the effect of the frozen battle plan, a plan rejected because it is somehow in bad taste? Bad taste here might be thought of in its corporal metaphor ("leaves a bad taste in your mouth"), of something unwanted that sticks around and lingers past its time.
In his brief essay on the historical backdrop of the film ( "Alexander Nevsky and the Rout of the Germans"), Eisenstein begins:
Bones. Skulls. Scorched earth. The charred remains of human habitation. People led away to slavery in a distant land. Ruined towns. Human dignity trampled underfoot.
Against such a vision of apocalyptic carnage, then, what would be so wrong about its representation being "revoltingly stagy"? This is a harder question than it appears, at least if we get past the absurd notion that the force of historical suffering should only be conveyed in a "realistic" manner. I want to argue against this that the crucial gesture in Nevsky, that which Eisenstein could not make then but would essentially pull-off in Ivan the Terrible, is to fully accept, occupy, and dialectically employ that staginess, to make productive the awful gap between the cartoonish and the necrological, a dancing on the graves of history. Willfully becoming a film of bad style that refuses to let bad taste be rinsed away. Instead, Eisenstein worries that an opening sequence would produce a detrimental effect, but this is the very effect that marks the entire film and is its structuring principle.
Nevsky again and again approaches this point of taking on and mobilizing its bad style, only to swerve back toward a sincerity that leaves behind a sort of Volk kitsch of the theatrical dispensation of personages - this is a film of literal "posers" - as opposed to what I see as the potential negative dialectics of bad style that might have resulted from the intersection of the bone tableau and the pathetic materialism (see my earlier post on "Eisenstein avec Meatloaf") of objects colliding with expressive modes.
If there is doubt about the direction the film will go (for there is a certain somberness to the fields of bones), the next sequence assures the direction.
As the song details the pseudo-heroics of "spilling our blood like water," we witness a pastoral wet dream, the plenitude of good sun and sturdy friends, fishing in a world in which spilling blood can be detailed in song precisely because it is no longer the daily task. Even as we later detect Nevsky's desire to return to such a task, the film is haunted by this non-urgency of seeming leisure, of a task that emerges in the wake of the end of nation-defending.
Then there is our hero:
I have never once seen a film where somebody assumed the same damn pose so many times. If we are to signal staginess as the fundamental gesture of this film, as I think we should, it lies in equal parts on the formal construction of the film (as it stands at odds with the diagetic content) and on the goofy semi-expressionism of the actors (as it stands at odds with the supposed historical burden of their time). Again, it is in Ivan that we see the full coming-to-be of this expressionism. Here, though, the Mongol emissary's question rings true:
So what are you doing here?
This question has at least four audiences.
1. Nevsky himself (what are you, the prince and great warrior, doing here fishing - are you not a warrior and a leader?)
2. Eisenstein himself (what are you, the great director caught between your totemic out-of-time Mexican fantasies, where you see the eternal short-circuiting of history while you see also the march toward socialism, and the failure of Bezhin Meadow, called back from abroad because you couldn't finish your sprawling projects and your comrades were "worried" you were drifting from the Russian project, what you doing here?)
3. Russia in 1938 (what are you, the very nation whose revolutionary historical project is going off the rails, from the failure of the NEP to Five Year plans, the people in a position that Eisenstein, after his time aborad, can hardly recognize, you people watching the utter collapse of the radical egalitarianism of the Bolshevik Revolution, what are you now, what are you doing here, your pratical Utopianism ground down beneath Stalinist paranoia and the crushing task of rapid industrialization?)
4. The film itself (what are you, you odd hybrid of Hollywood star style, Disney techniques of assemblage and structuring, Soviet historical film, pre-war propaganda, sound film technology with a style that hearkens back to the kind of silent films that Eisenstein never made, and the remnants and mutations of the true dialectical montage of collisions, the overtonal composition of The General Line in which the dominant is not single theme or pattern or rhythm but the stimili as a whole, full-blooded, loopy, erotic, hilarious, militant dialectics of the pathos of collectivity, what are you now?)
The answer Nevsky gives is "fishing" (which has its own metaphorical valences we might track out), but the real interest is the next question:
Couldn't you find anything better to do?
Against all the hollow posing, the empty gesture of the triumphant who has receded from the historical stage, this question cuts deep. And the answer given?
For the coded-as-Communist-hero Nevsky to give this answer is a somewhat unfathomable blow. Of course, you can read the film in part as the story of his coming toward proper consciousness, but that doesn't accurately map the terrain of the film, in which he is portrayed from day one as a unifier, as the hero, as the one who has never given up thinking about the pride of Russia. And read in the particular moment in which the film was produced, we see here a double rejection of the Bolshevik past: with the shift to commerce and giving up on the production of the new Communist human animal, the dream is now either of commerrce or of war. The construction of a national life is ignored, as the unifier and defender will either be a bourgeois trader or a soldier. Read as such, the continual posing, chest puffing and empty citations of "old Russian sayings" come across as deeply cynical. Shortly after his declared plan to trade abroad, Nevsky offers just such a saying:
It's hard not to see a self-castigating Eisenstein here, who left his homeland while its historical project ran into the ground. But note that it is received wisdom, set off as an "old saying", one that jars rudely with the fact that Nevsky just stated a moment ago that he was indeed going to leave his homeland to trade. Isn't this the very figure of Stalinist rhetoric, the incommensurable space between the modernizing projects of newly rationalized, beyond capitalist life and the hearkening back to the nostalgic affect of "as we Russians have long said...".
So while Nevsky is busy posing and asking himself
"is there a will for the fight?", (a serious question, but one deflected here onto war preparations, not onto the continued fight for the Bolshevik transformation of everyday life), while he is standing and looking determined...
The fish are escaping! In the flowering of bureaucracy and talk and recodings, the fish are escaping, the securing of what collective participation to ensure collective life should look like has been allowed to fall apart.
One could analyze a number of scenes in the film along the lines modelled above. For the sake of space, two more examples before considering what the link is between these unanswerable questions of "so, what are you doing here?"
There is the subplot of the two men competing for the hand of the woman who decides she will choose based on their valor in battle.
On the surface, there is the playing-out of a new condition for devotion, in which devotion to country should top who would make the cuter husband. But as with so many situations Eisenstein deploys (and here I see this as a willful move, analogous to the Ballardian production of the false problem that persists alongside its false solutions), this undoes its very point. For the take home message of this? History happens because of contingency, a cunning of reason that cannot but help make the ending seem hollow, both are brave, both get the girl, albeit different ones better suited to each. Everyone wins and supposedly learns a valuable lesson, although the lesson seems to be more that appearing patriotic is a great getting laid tactic during times of national emergency.
Another relevant sequence here is that of the discussion of whether to fight or buy off the Germans. It goes roughly as follows:
We know which side will win this argument (as what follows is the quite accurate invective that to the rich, a mother or stepmother is the same thing). But here again is a question that cuts deeper than its supposed answer: What Russia? Where have you seen it last? This is a remarkable move, the recognition that the call is to protect a nation that will ultimately only emerge through the act of protecting it. In short, a sort of military speech act: around the empty core of battling territories and boyars that we see drawn together in the Ivan the Terrible films, here we get the stagy hollowness of an appeal to "Russia."
I won't wind through these other examples, but one of the most unintentionall funny scenes is that of Nevsky looking like a petulant child waiting for Novgorod to come ask for his help, a sort of sulking that we see in Ivan the Terrible Pt. 1: "I know my skills are needed and that I want to go fight again, but I'm not crawling back, they will have to ask me before I work on a task of real historical urgency." Images below, with the especially funny transition from his excitement at the chance to wear his official costume again bumping up against the false casual, "oh, I didn't see you come in. Just hanging out being princely."
If Nevsky remained a film purely about the theatrics and performances of political power (and a film shot accordingly, in its odd bastardized combination of techniques), such a hollowness would not seem so off. Yet it is in the instances of Eisenstein returning to form, of the inconstancy between the posing of Nevsky and the emergent pathos of crowds, objects, and nature, that this wrongness surfaces uneasily.
From the call...
... to the response, the quite literal "arising" of the peasants from the ground, like subterranean barrel dwelling lumpenproletariat in Strike!.
In here, as well as in the crowd scenes...
and the landscapes...
there remains vestiges and flittings of what Eisenstein can do so well, an eccentric version of what I've called, in another context, "affective realism," works that lack a realism effect - insofar as that denotes a certain grounding in what looks like realism and, moreover, the centrality of normal human vision as the principle of selction - yet which produce and unfold the affects of instances, like the ecstatic spray of the milk separator in The General Line. And Eisenstein himself, in a lecture given in relation to his late historical films, seems aware of this, calling for both the capacity to grasp the totality of the present as if historical in film and, more vitally for the context here, the distinction between historical truth and historical naturalism. This latter distinction is perhaps that raised to a near antinomy in Nevsky, which tries to play it both ways, resulting in theatrical naturalism (that which cannot bury its obvious authorial manipulations) and historical pseudo-truth (which we feel in the cramps and strugglings against of the Real of a moment, the ground of history, to escape its representations that, in showing it, conceal it further).
As such, we have the coexistence here of that which is the historical pathos struggling through, but not in the parts that "look like" they're about history. It is, above all, in the ice, the very image of accident leading to decimation, of circumstances unforeseen stepping into the non-course of human events and irrevocably altering not just how things went but how they could have gone alternately.
This is a minor moment in the film, the part that doesn't belong to its major tones. What rules instead is the hollow circuits of bad style. Of course, the goofy disjunction of affect and content is nothing new in Eisenstein, and in fact, in other films, it forms the crucial bedrock for our joy and fidelity toward the politics sketched. (Think again of The General Line, arguably my favorite film ever made and certainly one of the funniest.) But here, it is off. Not off in the normal productive way. Perhaps we might call it off-off, a reinsertion into the shallow grave of official discourse and rules of representation, that reburies the pathos and longing raised before.
This is driven home most forcefully in the fact that a film about military decimation and struggle is essentially rendered safe, the violence made cariciatural, from the man above drinking thirstily in the middle of a battle with a shit-eating grin on his face before knocking out a baddie German with the pail, to the general Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles type of violence here, where even though soliders have very sharp deadly things, they mostly use them to "knock people down" or clang the side of helmet, or sort of hurt someone. This isn't, however, claiming that gore would make anything better. It is the joyous pulsing of Prokofiev's score that seemingly pulls away the blades at the last minute, before the death blow, before the inevitable tide of blood that would cover the lake.
Because of this, it is the moment of ice breaking and swallowing that is the solely powerful moment in the battle scene: the sudden opening up and letting loose of the violence that has been sublated throughout the film. In the dark waters below, we see nothing so much as the depths of blood required to make possible the goofy triumphalism of Ivan and his men, set against the real death of this collective, the unmourned nameless:
Even when we see the field of dead Russian soliders, the logic is that of the individual, of the dying crying out the names of their wives while the woman ignores them as she is looking for the "right" dead one, one of the suitors.
To conclude, then, we might think of the film as a whole doubled back through the great scene of strategic thinking, in which Ivan overhears the parable about the fox chasing a rabbit (the fox tries to chase the rabbit through a narrow space between two trees, gets stuck, and the rabbit rapes the fox) and realizes his military strategy of trapping the German fox and encircling it.
What is this if not the film itself, that which does not know itself in the particularity of its situation and gets caught? The style is the fox here. Eisenstein once wrote that, "The shot is a montage cell. Beyond the dialectical jump in the single series: shot - montage." In this film, it is exactly this dialectical jump that misses, never reaching into the heart of the conflict that is supposed to be the very point, the conflict, misfires, and collisions that are the warp and woof of history. At this stage, Eisenstein is still struggling toward the cinematic moment he saw, between when the stimuli (visual, aural, conflicts within each and between the two) becomes the dominant of the film's organization and when cinema approaches intellectual montage, we see it here before it has taken critical shape: like a postmodern moment of the simultaneous scattering and waning of affect, we see here a series of "conflict effects" (or pseudo-dialectics) that get very well what has come unstuck in the Soviet model. So here, in the film, that is precisely about conflict, in the battle scene that poses it explicitly, something comes wrongly and gets caught in this unstuckness, in this not being sure how to answer the question: So, what are you doing here... Like the fox, caught between two tendencies, two historical possibilities, two expressive modes, it gets fucked by the lost chances it was chasing.
Not until we reach Ivan do we see the fox free itself, so to speak, and rediscover the chase at hand, the pathos of objects moving toward intellectual montage via a strange rediscovery of expressionism, echoing here both German expressionism and the idea of superstructual instances as the "expression" of the base. In the next post, I'll tackle the link between these tendencies and the film's tracking out the full move toward "inhuman" thought and misanthropic politics.
Until Ivan, though, it is the bad style of Nevsky that rings truest, the bad taste left by that
voyeuristic flash of which Ballard wrote and with which we started. Watching the collapse of the historical present by casting afar toward Disney and empty heroism, toward the absence of visible violence, capturing a moment from the long past in the hope that it is not simply an excuse for sword-rattling and aesthetic pleasure, pleasure but the recollection, the recalling of the historical truth of an instant bleeding through, the frozen blood thawing out.
Yet what makes this possible is, oddly, the very badness of that style, the hollowness of its gestures that make this a film so particular to its moment and, in this way, a dialectical, critical bad style, in which the non-success of the film as a film is its success as the flash of capture, of seeing in the bones not the bodies that may have been there but the empty allegories, the obscene remainders that can only be shown insofar as we are willing to show them wrongly, seemingly in a wicked grin, in the pose of falsehood.
Eisenstein wrote, in one of his lovely cryptic moments:
Through the descending bands of wire we carefully lower ourselves. What shines whitely there at the foot of the wire spiderweb? Not concrete posts, not metaphors. Bones...
This is what Nevsky is doing, the trees between which it is trying to pass. Not concrete posts, not metaphors: neither fixed guarantors of stable structure nor the ordered point of thought's transition. Just the bad taste of bones, the self violation of bad style as the work of contradiction against one's empty present, the obscene waste of history shining whitely, refusing to get off the stage.