Reviews

Odes in Praise of the Industrial Worker: 'The Soviet Influence: From Turksib to Night Mail'

Still from Night Mail (1936)

These films of the Soviet and British documentary makers depict iconic images of man within nature, and man taming nature.


Night Mail

Director: Various artists (Viktor Turin, Henry Watt, et al)
Distributor: BFI
Rated: PG
Release date: 2011-09-19
Website

Turksib (1929) directed by Soviet filmmaker Viktor Turin is about the construction of the Turkestan-Siberian railway. It's a silent film documentary of contrasting visions. The land of the central plains and deserts of Soviet Asia being ‘torn asunder by the labour of man’ was intended as a positive image by the propaganda machine of the Communists. It was meant, at the outset of a time of global depression, to demonstrate the upgrading of the means of transportation across continental Europe to one of efficiency and uniformity.

The first half of the film shows the slow existence of the labourers of the South. The cotton and wool produced by the peoples of the fields and plains is transported by camel and packhorse. Then, a switch occurs. The film transitions unashamedly to a glorification of industry as conceived of by Stalin’s government. It shows the gaping jaws of mechanical diggers and men blasting and drilling through rock and the construction of mile after mile of track. These images are purposeful, to depict the taming of the wilderness of Central Europe; collectively subdued to the will of the Soviet Union.

This image-making struck both a sentimental chord as well as a political and aesthetic one. The retrieval of a lost humanity was seen as being made possible by modern industry. People of the land could look to the liberating effect of modernisation and find more time for culture and other pursuits, it was believed. The poets WH Auden and Stephen Spender in the UK, as well as producer John Grierson, welcomed the release of films by Soviet documentary makers as a means of honouring the achievements and teamwork of the labouring classes, the backbone of the economy.

These films can be read as odes in praise of the worker. Sentimentality is even more in evidence when the landscape is celebrated: flocks of sheep herded across downlands and moors and the visual sumptuousness of English rural scenery in Paul Rotha’s The Face of Britain (1935).

These films, the Soviet originals and the British imitators, have a considered and meticulous quality to them. They produce images that are meant to easily embed themselves in the minds of the viewer. Iconic images of man within nature, and man taming nature. One of the biggest debts we can acknowledge Soviet cinema as giving us was the aesthetic that enabled the simple and the humble to be seen as epic. The politics behind them (British Socialism was far removed from Communism) might have differed but the effect was very similar. They also provided the initial vocabulary, of fast edits and lingering shots that have entered the language of advertising. This is shown in Paul Rotha’s short film, Australian Wines (1931) that clearly foreshadows modern commercials.

Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936) is the British counterpart to Turksib in that it shows the country bound together by resourcefulness, organisation and the new technology of the age. Now it reads as a quaint period piece, a tale of the steam age, which appeals to enthusiasts; but at the time it was a fusion of industrialisation and culture embodied by the scenes of the railways and postal services accompanied by the score from Benjamin Britten and the verse by WH Auden.

The BFI manage to contextualise and clarify what might be obscure and difficult films, short as they are, for the audience. The literature that accompanies the DVD places the works of the filmmakers in context and aids understanding of agitprop cinema of various kinds.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image