Tag Archives: Sergei Eisenstein

Literature in the metro, Moscow

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One encounters the tool of literature in the Moscow metro relatively frequently. Even when it’s not used as a club, you come away feeling as though someone is trying really hard to make an impression on you.
I immediately think of two examples of this more benign, latter, approach that I encountered in recent years. I would guess one occurred 4 or 5 years ago – this was on the circle line – the other 3 or 4 years ago, on the light blue, Filyovskaya line.
In the former case, almost every single car traveling the circle line for a month or more was completely wallpapered with children’s poetry and colorful kid-like drawings. Stepping into a car on that line at that time felt like stepping into the hermetic set of a children’s theater show. As one might imagine, there were a lot of poems by Alexander Pushkin and the great fabulist Ivan Krylov, but there were also excerpts of short stories by various writers from Pushkin’s time up to the middle of the 20th century. I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and I don’t think there were any contemporary authors, but the scope of writers included was impressive.
This was actually the second time I had seen the space of the metro turned into a platform for literature. The first incident, maybe a year before that, was when official stickers of mostly patriotic poetry were pasted above the windows and doors of the metro cars – this method proved to be more long-lasting, for we still come upon it today, as can be seen in the photo following immediately below – which I took yesterday. It shows a portrait of the Slavophile essayist and poet Ivan Aksakov next to a phrase he once wrote:
If a hue and cry arises about Russia’s lust for power and lust for expansionism, you should know that some Western European regime is preparing a most conscienceless seizure of someone else’s territory.”
Frankly, as often as I have seen this kind of crude utilitarianism in my 28 years in Moscow, I continue to be astonished when I encounter it. It reaches the kind of low-blow propaganda – rather on the level one hears in the U.S. these days from, say, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin and their ilk – that is so blatant and transparent, that you can’t believe anyone would actually resort to it. For the record, this particular quote is offered up as part of a program called Russia, My History, which is now underway at the Historical Park of the All-National Exhibition of Economic Achievements.
But, back now to that literary campaign I encountered on the Filyovskaya Line.  (Unfortunately, I did not get photos of it or of the kids’ literary paradise on the circle line – I was not yet doing this blog; it didn’t occur to me to photograph them.) This one was extremely short-lived. In fact, I saw it just once, even though I then traveled that line with some regularity. I don’t know if it was just a try-out on a single train, or if it was a larger program that was abandoned quickly, but it was gone virtually as soon as it began. It was also my favorite of them all. You see, the interior of every car in the train I rode was painted deep red, and every free centimeter of space was covered in photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were all manners of photos of him reciting poetry, making drawings, talking to friends, reading books, sitting in chairs, standing at podiums. You name it, it was there. I, Nikolai Erdman’s biographer, was especially gratified when I noticed right before my face, a photo of Mayakovsky standing next to Vsevelod Meyerhold and Erdman. Other photos had him with other greats – Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Eisenstein – and it was then, even then, right there in that metro car, that I began to wonder seriously about this curious exhibit. If you think about it, every individual I mention here was, to one extent or another, at serious odds with the Soviet cause – at least at some point in their lives. Meyerhold was executed. Erdman and Pasternak’s literary output was seriously curtailed. Shostakovich and Eisenstein found themselves doing the bidding of the state against their will. At least to anyone who knew, there was something downright seditious about this whole thing, which, of course, made it especially delicious. What a shame I never saw it again, nor had the opportunity to photograph it…

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Far more common, of course, is the use of art to buck up the patriotism of the lumpen proletariat. The Aksakov quote, appearing as Russia continues to pursue military objectives in Syria and Ukraine, is, perhaps, extreme. But I was not the least surprised to see patriotic, war-themed poems by Mikhail Lermontov suddenly appear in metro cars shortly after Russia went to war with Ukraine. The last photo above and the three following were all taken in June 2014. They show a series of Lermontov’s war poems plastered just above the eye-level of any standing passenger, though banked conveniently to point them toward anyone seated as well. (One photo shows a woman in a red jacket looking at a biographical text about Lermontov affixed next to the door.) The poem pictured in the last photo below reads,

And he said, his eyes a-flashing,
“Men! Isn’t Moscow behind us?
     Then let’s die near Moscow,
As our brothers died!”
And we promised to die
And we kept our oath of honor
     During the Battle of Borodino.

Perhaps my favorite photo is the one immediately above. Click on it to enlarge it and then look it over well. That’s what a subway car in a time of “petty,” “dirty” wars looks like.
Finally, there is the photo I offer at the top. It was taken in May of 2013, before this blog began, although I was apparently beginning to suspect I might one day need photos like this. A whole series of texts bearing patriotically religious messages went up over metro escalators at this time. I remember seeing quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the one I photographed of Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaiming, “Christianity is the Russian land’s only refuge from all of its evils.”
I don’t recall now if the Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy quotes were as provocative (or as double-edged) as this one, but this clearly made me want to save it for posterity.
There is something of the train wreck in these things. Something lurid, distasteful, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The problem is that when art is turned into a weapon it can only be a weapon. There is no room then left for art.

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Sergei Eisenstein base, Los Angeles

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I must explain the odd, even misleading, title to today’s post. This home at 614 North Arden Drive in Beverly Hills was not Sergei Eisenstein’s home. It is, however, one of the physical locations closely connected to his Hollywood sojourn in 1930. (He traveled from New York to the West Coast in the second half of 1930 and left for Mexico in December of that same year). The house belonged to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who may or may not have said to Eisenstein at one point, ‘mi casa es su casa.’ In any case, the two at this time were just beginning their short-lived collaboration on the ill-fated Que Viva, Mexico! project – Sinclair producing, with Eisenstein directing and overseeing the writing of the script (attributed to Grigory Alexandrov). To round out the Russian team, all of whom were in L.A. together, the cinematography was the work of the great Eduard Tisse.
According to Lionel Rolfe’s Literary L.A., during the Great Depression Sinclair “was able to lease a genuine Beverly Hills mansion at 614 North Arden Drive; it was cheap, he pointed out, because there was no market then for big houses. Sinclair was doing very well financially – so much so that his old friend Charlie Chaplin got him both financially and creatively involved with the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein spent several months and a pile of Sinclair’s money working on his Que Viva, Mexico! – later Thunder Over Mexico, which remained uncompleted.”
It was a confusing time. Sinclair was a leftist writer who dabbled in politics (running unsuccessfully for the office of governor of California in 1934). Eisenstein was an artist doing his best to stay out of the way of politics, but not doing a sufficiently good job of that.
Joseph Stalin’s name runs in and out of the thread of the story. Ronald Bergan’s book Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, tells us that Sinclair wrote to Stalin on Oct. 26, 1931:
You may have heard that I have taken the job of financing a moving picture which the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is making in Mexico. It is going to be an extraordinary work, and I think will be a revelation of the moving-picture art… Some day you will see the picture which Eisenstein is making, and realise that Soviet technique has advanced another step and been crowned with fresh laurels.”
It’s easy for us to laugh now. Appealing to Stalin on the assumption that he will value artistic achievement! But Sinclair was just following what, at that time, was becoming a tradition – artists appealing to Stalin’s aesthetic taste and/or pride in Russian/Soviet artistic accomplishments. Pasternak did it. Gorky did it. Stanislavsky did it. Only the lazy, it would seem, didn’t do it. Not that it did any good. And it surely didn’t do Sinclair or Eisenstein any good. Just one month later, on Nov. 21, 1931, Sinclair received a cable from Stalin. As quoted in Bergan’s book, it read:
EISENSTEIN LOOSE [sic] HIS COMRADES CONFIDENCE IN SOVIET UNION STOP HE IS THOUGHT TO BE DESERTER WHO BROKE OFF WITH HIS OWN COUNTRY STOP AM AFRAID THE PEOPLE HERE WOULD HAVE NO INTEREST IN HIM STOP AM VERY SORRY BUT ALL ASSERT IT IS THE FACT STOP MY REGARDS STOP STALIN.”

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Eisenstein wasn’t the only one under scrutiny, however. Sinclair ran into some serious bad publicity precisely for acquiring this Beverly Hills home which was the site of much of the planning for Que Viva, Mexico! He positioned himself as the champion of the poor and downtrodden – leading the EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement – yet was snapping up choice real estate while the economy was tanking. The L.A. Times, by way of owner Harry Chandler and star attack-dog columnist Henry Carr, went after Sinclair publicly for making big profits on real estate in Long Beach and for acquiring the Beverly Hills mansion from a financially strapped owner. As reported by Kevin Starr, in Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Sinclair and his wife Mary “picked up the forclosed Beverly Hills property for a song… and with no down payment demanded by the distressed owners.”
So there we have it – the leftist writer/producer/politician is making a killing off of real estate deals, and the Communist film director is squandering both the capitalist’s money and his Communist leader’s confidence. All of that happening in the short time that the two men were brought together, in part, by the structure you see pictured here today.
In fact, this building, to a certain extent, was witness to the failure of both men’s big projects at the time. In order to continue running for governor in 1934, Sinclair was forced politically to unload the Beverly Hills home, but it was too late. His candidacy failed. Meanwhile, Eisenstein had been compelled to return to Moscow, leaving New York by ship on April 19, 1932, and arriving in the Soviet capital in May 1932, because Stalin was already beginning to move against the director by targeting his family. (The secret police had made several visits to Eisenstein’s mother, and had confiscated the family jewels.)
To make the whole story messier, a cache of beautiful drawings by Eisenstein, many erotic and homosexual in nature, had been confiscated by U.S. customs agents when Eisenstein was on the way out of the country. Again, according to Bergan’s book, Sinclair learned of this and acquired some copies. And then this fine man who so often tried to do the right thing, committed a fateful and heinous act. He denounced Eisenstein to the Soviet authorities, writing on March 19, 1032, “It appears that Eisenstein spends all his leisure time in making very elaborate obscene drawings. I have a specimen of his work brought from Mexico. It is identified as Eisenstein’s by his handwriting on it. Believe me, it is not an anatomy study nor a work of art or anything of that sort; it is plain smut. Hunter [Kimbrough, Sinclair’s brother-in-law] tells me that Eisenstein presented a series of such drawings to the young owner of the hacienda, and they were so bad that this educated young Mexican refused to put them up in his den.”
Perhaps angered by the photos, certainly unhappy about dumping a huge amount of money into the now-defunct Que Viva, Mexico! project, Sinclair tried to minimize losses by releasing his own film Thunder Over Mexico (1933) using a small amount of Eisenstein’s footage. This all made the once-friends and collaborators into enemies forever. The house at 614 North Arden Drive stands as a monument to their brief friendship and all the bright hopes they both harbored for future success.

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Sergei Eisenstein plaque and building, Moscow

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This is quite a place on Moscow’s cultural map. First of all, it’s a nice building. It could use a touch-up of paint and plaster, but we can look past those things. We’re not all about appearances. I like the green. I love Moscow’s, and Russia’s, colored buildings – pink, yellow, green, blue. They’re a great antidote for those who suffer long, gray Russian winters. (I’m not one of them – I love the cold and ice and snow every bit as much as I love the rainbow buildings.)
But I digress.
Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) lived here. One of the fathers – if not the father – of modern cinema. For all those poor souls suffering through the withering drought in Russian film that is known as the period running unbroken from the late 1980s to the present, Eisenstein stands as both a rebuke – where are you, new Eisensteins? – and a beacon of hope – yes, it can be done.
Eisenstein lived in Apt. 2 in this building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard. It’s right across from the south end of the pond that, for some reason, is named in the plural in Russian – Chistye prudy, or, Clean Ponds.
Another digression, sorry about this. But in the spirit that, with the internet at our fingertips, there is no longer any reason for anyone ever again to claim that they don’t know something, I went to Russian Wikipedia to find out just why this single pond has a name in the plural. And I learned that back in the 17th century there were a series of bogs here known as Foul Swamps! This is where the city dumped its waste from nearby slaughterhouses and meat markets. Wiki doesn’t say it out loud, but the hint is that when folks quit dumping blood and guts into the water here, it came to be known as a place that was clean. And, I’m also assuming, the many swamps, bogs and ponds over time were narrowed into the one we now have.
But back to Eisenstein.
He lived here on Clean Ponds/Chistye prudy from 1920 until 1934. In other words, he regularly pounded the pavement in these environs at that very time that he was doing all of his great early work. That includes his experimental theater pieces done under the influence and tutelage of Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as his monstrously influential films Strike (1925), The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927). We see that it was also right here that the great artist’s career suffered its first setbacks. He lived here when he made The General Line (1929), a film that was hindered badly by rapidly changing politics in the Soviet Union. This was also his address when he traveled to Mexico and planned his grandiose, but unfinished ¡Que viva México! (1930). It wasn’t until 1937, three years after leaving the apartment at Clean Ponds, that he made another film (Bezhin Meadow). But it was destroyed, leaving us only with several hundred stills that the great Naum Kleiman and film director Sergei Yutkevich salvaged by collecting into a kind of slide show in the 1960s.

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Eisenstein’s influence on everything cinematic was total. He wasn’t the only film artist pushing the envelope in those early days, but there were few discoveries made that he wasn’t a part of in some way. When my high school and early college girlfriend Laura Greenwood began taking film lessons she had the top of her head sheared off by Eisenstein. “Forget your Fellini!” she used to say. “Eisenstein already did it all!” I have no desire to forget my Fellini, let alone my Kurosawa, Antonioni or Woody Allen. But one gets Laura’s drift. I mean, let’s take it to the level of kitsch and absurd. Remember Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands? Nobody will ever convince me that Edward’s ‘do wasn’t taken hair-for-hair from Eisenstein. If you don’t believe me, check out Depp and check out Eisenstein. I rest my case. Or, if you want to take that further, check out this somewhat later Eisenstein and check out Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein. He’s just Eisenstein without the hair. I’m tellin’ ya – Eisenstein is everywhere.
The building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard was built in the year 1900 by architect Sergei Barkov for Nikolai Teleshov, who rented out rooms as a way to generate income. (It was originally a four-story building; the three top floors were added in 1947.) Teleshov was a pretty interesting figure himself. He was a poet and prose writer who was the organizing figure behind the famous “Wednesday” literary salon in Moscow from 1899 to 1916. His guests included Maxim Gorky, Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin, Valery Bryusov,  Alexander Kuprin, Ivan Bunin, Vikenty Veresaev, Fyodor Chaliapin, Leonid Andreev, Boris Pilnyak and many others. Teleshov was the director of the museum of the Moscow Art Theater in the late 1920s and 1930s. I don’t know whether he lived in the building when Eisenstein did (look it up yourself if you gotta have it), although if so, he would not have been the director’s landlord. By 1920 everybody’s landlord in Russia was the Soviet State.

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Serafima Birman home, Moscow

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Serafima Birman (1890-1976) is one of the names from the Soviet era of theater and film that invariably attract the epithet of “great.” She was among the first group of actors to study with Stanislavsky, officially a member of the Moscow Art Theater into the mid-1920s. She was also a member of Mikhail Chekhov’s Moscow Art Theater 2. She was a founding member of the Lenkom Theater. She acted, directed and taught both disciplines. Her appearances in film were few and far between, but once seen, she was impossible to forget. A Russian blogger who calls herself Mary Quite Contrary wrote this about Birman’s performance of Yefrosinia Staritskaya in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: “But the real shit hits the fan, of course, with Serafima Birman’s Yefrosinia Staritskaya. She is such a snake in the grass, but is performed so brilliantly that you can’t take your eyes off her massive black silhouette and hissing voice.” You can find this comment as well as a couple of stills of Birman in the film at Contrary Mary’s blogsite. You can see one of Birman’s scenes from the second half of the movie on YouTube.  Birman actually got this role in a backhanded way. It was originally going to be Birman’s great contemporary Faina Ranevskaya who would play Yefrosinia, but the studio decided that they did not like Ranevskaya’s “strong Semitic features.” As a result, the role went to Birman, every bit as much a Jewess as Ranevskaya, but who was listed in her passport as “Moldovan” because she was born in Kishinyov.
A lot is made of Birman’s physical appearance. One female journalist on the Russian Showbiz Daily website goes really overboard by calling Birman “unbelievably ugly” (neveroyatno nekrasivaya), although she does, at least, allow that she was a “genius.” This same post, as well as many others, go into great detail about Birman’s “unusual” visage, her desire to be “beautiful,” etc. It gets pretty damn annoying, I must say. I’d love to ignore this part of Birman lore, but it’s everywhere, and so I mention it in order to call it out. Not only is it bunk, it has nothing to do with anything. Period. Let’s be done with that nonsense.
Birman’s pedigree in Russian acting couldn’t be better. She began studying with Stanislavsky with Mikhail Chekhov, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, and Sofia Giatsintova. I haven’t found a source in English for one great story about Birman, but it’s worth quoting the Russian (Showbiz Daily) just in case it’s true. Arthur Miller was in Moscow and someone took him to see a dramatization of Dostoevsky’s Uncle’s Dream starring Ranevskaya and featuring Birman in a small role. Supposedly, Miller said, “Ranevskaya is a marvelous actress, but what she does is two-times-two-equals-four. What Miss Birman does is two-times-two-equals-five.” (That’s a back-translation from the Russian and doesn’t pretend to be a true quote of Miller.)

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Birman in the late 1920s lived in Apt. 6 at building No. 18 on Vspolny Lane, just a block from the famous Patriarch’s Pond. There’s nothing on the yellow building to indicate she lived here, but I know she did thanks to a wonderful catalogue of theater addresses that I own and which I mentioned in a recent blog about Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. In a couple of years she moved to another address and I rather imagine I will have to show you that place in good time.
Birman had – and still has – the reputation of an extremely demanding artist. As we all know, that means that the label of “hard to work with,” or “difficult personality” has also stuck to her. And, as we all know, that just means that people who don’t know what they’re talking about are writing about her. Still, it makes for some good stories, and good stories are always welcome. Here’s one I have shaved down a bit from a site called So People Will Remember:
Birman once dropped in to see her friend Ivan Bersenev rehearsing a show at the Lenkom Theater where they both worked. Peering in from the wings, she was horrified to see Bersenev, sitting at his director’s table in the hall, munching on a sandwich. Birman was furious. “How could you? You?! In the cathedral of art! And you call yourself a director! This is a cathedral, a holy place!” That evening Birman refused to ride home with Bersenev in his car, as was her custom, choosing to walk instead. Bersenev and the actress Sofia Giatsintova drove slowly alongside her in the car. “Sima! Don’t be silly!” they shouted at her. Birman pretended not to hear them the whole way home.
My wife Oksana Mysina played Birman in a relatively recent TV biopic about the actress Valentina Serova, one of Birman’s best friends. You can see one of their scenes from Yury Kara’s “A Star of the Age” on YouTube.

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