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Yuri Tynianov’s “Film — Word — Music” (1924)

ALONG WITH the somewhat better-known Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, the writer and literary theorist Yuri Tynianov was a central figure of the revolutionary-era school of literary and cultural criticism that came to be known as Russian Formalism. The Formalists were contemporaries and advocates of Futurist poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov, as well as early Soviet film pioneers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. In keeping with the mood of avant-garde experimentation that held sway in the early years of Soviet rule, Formalist ideas about literature and art were radical and stark, especially in comparison with the mystical impressionism of pre-revolutionary Russian writers and critics. Like Shklovsky, Jakobson, and their colleague Boris Eikhenbaum, Tynianov was first and foremost a scholar of literature, but the creative explosions of the new Soviet film industry demanded the Formalists’ attention. Tynianov, like Shklovsky, dove in as both a theorist and practitioner; he began penning screenplays and working directly with actors and filmmakers, most notably with the wacky and inventive “Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEKS) group. He also wrote a series of articles on film, like the one below, which were published in daily newspapers, and in 1927 released a substantial volume of Formalist essays on cinema. Tynianov’s writings on film are valuable for their insider’s perspective and the sense of palpable, physical immediacy they convey (even as he insists on the fundamentally abstract quality of film as an art form). He applies his formidable skills as a literary theorist to this material, teasing out fascinating parallels between the way words and images can be shaped and altered by their place in a work. But Tynianov is also unique among the Formalists, in that he argues for film’s essential difference from all other art forms.

This brief, even aphoristic essay, translated by Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, anticipates many foundational statements on film made by major theorists like Eisenstein, André Bazin, and Rudolf Arnheim later in the 20th century. In its early days, cinema was often praised as a synthesis of the arts (visual, literary, and musical). By asserting the uniqueness of cinema and insisting that it be treated according to its own criteria, rather than defined in relation to the other arts, Tynianov’s essay follows the essay-manifesto of the Cine-Eyes group, “We. A Version of a Manifesto.” Led by Vertov, the Cine-Eyes sought to purge cinema of its “hangers-on” — theater, literature, and music. Echoing the Russian Futurists, this group wanted to foreground machines (the camera/cinematic apparatus) as the essence of film and the model for film as art. Tynianov, by contrast, is less concerned with technology than with film’s unparalleled capacity for abstraction, which was exploited so productively by the early Soviet avant-garde. 

To explain what he means by abstraction, Tynianov takes his guiding metaphor from poetry, his primary area of expertise. In this and other essays, he suggests that film can be broken down into component parts similar to those that make up a line of verse or a poem (though Tynianov warns sharply against applying the tools or standards of literary narrative to film). He sees a productive parallel between the idea of a montage sequence in film and his theory of the “density and unity of the verse line,” where the significance of individual words and sounds (and, by extension, of the entire line) is wholly dependent on their place in sequence and the interrelations between them. There is indeed an organic connection here. In developing his theory of “vertical” or audio-visual montage, Eisenstein himself had drawn on Tynianov’s writings on verse language.

Speaking of language, the “word” of the essay’s title requires some explanation. Slovo in Russian has a primary meaning of “word,” with derivative adjective “verbal” (slovesnyi) and noun “verbal art” or “literature” (slovesnost’). But in the Russian tradition, slovo also has a much broader and more general meaning that can evoke both the religious depth of “the Word” (Logos) and the poetic experiments with the “self-sufficient word” (samovitoe slovo) of the Russian Futurists. In these contexts, slovo comes much closer to the standard anglophone use of “language”; accordingly, in the text below, it is rendered as either “word” or “language,” depending on the context. — Vera Koshkina and Ainsley Morse

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1.

Film and theater are not competing with one another. Film and theater are refining one another, showing each other the way forward as they mark out their own boundaries. [1] This younger art has preserved the easy freedom of youth (“maybe we should go to the movies?”), but has also acquired a forbidding power. In terms of the power of its impressions, film has overtaken theater. In terms of complexity it will never overtake it. They are on different paths.

First and foremost: space. No matter how much you deepen stage perspective, there’s no escaping the facts: the boxes like matchboxes and the stage under a bell-jar. The actor is bound by this bell-jar. He keeps running into the walls. (It’s so dreadful that in operas they even have people riding in on horseback! The horse stamps its feet and shakes its mane. Everyone is so relieved when they finally lead the unhappy animal out again. Otherwise it might have leapt off of the stage and fallen into the orchestra pit.) The theater gives you a close-up, a bas-relief. If the actor turns his back to you, all that exists for you is his back.

Then we have the actor’s body. From the upper balcony of the Bolshoi Theatre, even an actor playing Wotan looks like a little doll. [2] (This is the connection between theater and marionette theater.) From the upper balcony Hamlet looks like a fly. The Itinerants, meanwhile, put the actor right up in your face. [3] Also unpleasant.

The actor is bound by his body.

The actor’s speech is bound to his body, to his voice and to space.

Film is an abstract art. [4]

Experiments with space — unprecedented heights, leaps from Mars to Earth — are achieved using the most elementary, insultingly simple methods. [5]

The space of film is, in and of itself, abstract — two-dimensional. The actor turns away from the viewer — but look, here’s his face: he’s whispering and smiling. The viewer sees more than any participant in a play would see.

In the theater, time is broken up into pieces, but it moves in a straight line — not backward or to the side. This is why there can be no Vorgeschichte [back-story — trans.] in a drama (it can only be provided through language). (In fact, this is what gave rise to the specificity of drama as a literary genre.) In film, time is fluid; it has been untethered from a specific place. This fluid time fills the screen with an unheard-of variety of things and objects. It allows for forays both backward and to the side. This is a path for a new literary genre: the broad “epic” time of film suggests a cine-novel.

The actor’s body in film is abstract. Watch him shrink down to a dot — and now watch his enormous hands shuffling cards, grown to fill the entire screen. Watch him grow and change. The film protagonist will never be a fly. This is why film has such intense interest in the actor. The names of film actors mean something completely different from the names of theater actors. There is new interest every time: how will Conrad Veidt transform this time, what will Werner Krauss’s “abstraction” be like today? [6] The [actor’s] body is light, it can be stretched and compressed. (And in theater? Remember all those ponderous theatrical “deaths”: when the actor falls, you can’t help worrying that he has hurt himself.) All of the props of film are abstract: close the door in front of the fakir and he will walk through the wall.

Finally, language [slovo] …

But this is the most important part.

 

2.

They used to call film the Great Silent. It would make more sense to call the gramophone the “great strangled.”

Film is not silent. Pantomime is silent, but film has nothing in common with pantomime.

Film uses speech, but it is abstracted speech, broken down into its component parts.

You are looking at the face of a speaking actor — his lips are moving, his facial expressions are dramatically strained. You cannot make out the words (and this is good — you are not meant to be able to make them out), but you have been given a certain element of speech.

Then an intertitle is trotted out — you know what the actor said, but you know it after (or before) he said it. The meaning of the words is abstracted, divorced from their pronunciation. They are separated out in time.

But where is the sound? The sound comes from the music.

The music in film is internalized — you barely hear it and don’t pay much attention to it. (And rightly so — music that is interesting on its own distracts you from the action; it barges into film like an outside force.)

The music is internalized, but not for nothing: it gives actors’ speech the final element they were missing — sound.

In this abstract art, speech is broken down into component parts. Rather than in its unsullied, real-life coherence, speech appears as a [new] combination of its elements. And each element can therefore be developed to the ultimate limit of expressiveness: the actor is not obligated to say what is expected of him, he can say whatever words provide the greatest abundance of facial expressions.

The intertitle is free to choose words with the most appropriate meaning.

Music provides an abundance and subtlety of sound unknown to human speech. It makes it possible to reduce the characters’ speech to a tense, trenchant minimum. Music allows film to do away with all of its lubricants, all of the extra “packaging” of speech.

Film is the art of abstract language[7]

 

3.

In film, as soon as the music stops, a tense silence ensues. It buzzes (even if the projector is not buzzing) and hampers the viewing. This is not because we are simply used to music in the cinema. If you remove the music from film, it will empty out and become a defective, inadequate art form. When there is no music, the pits of the gaping, speaking mouths are excruciating.

Look closely at the movement onscreen: how heavily the horses are leaping in that emptiness! You can’t keep watching them running. Movements lose their lightness and the escalation of the action weighs on you like a stone.

When you take music out of film, you make film truly mute; deprived of one of its elements, the characters’ speech becomes a hindrance, an abomination. You lay waste to the action. This is an important second point: music in film gives rhythm to the action.

 

4.

Theater is built around a cohesive, unified language (encompassing meaning, facial expression, sound). Film is built around the broken-down abstraction of language. Film is not capable of “competing” with theater. But theater should likewise not compete with film. Physical stunts in theater run into the walls, just as dialogue in film runs into the screen.

 

5.

When inventing a poison, it is customary to invent the antidote as well.

The antidote that is capable of killing film is the Kinetophone. [8]

The Kinetophone is an unhappy invention.

The characters will speak “like in a real theater.” But film’s whole power lies in the fact that the characters do not “speak” — “speech” is provided. Provided in the minimal and abstracted way that makes film art.

The Kinetophone is a misbegotten child of film and the theater, a pathetic compromise. It takes the abstraction of film and carefully and awkwardly gathers the parts back together.

 

6.

Film pulled apart speech. Stretched out time. Shifted space. And this is why it is maximalist. It works with very large numbers. “200,000 meters” [of film strip] recalls the abstract exchange rate of our ruble.

We are abstract people. Every day sees us split among 10 different areas of activity. This is why we go to the movies.

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“Film — Word — Music” was originally published under the pseudonym Yu. Van-Vezen in the first issue of the journal Life of Art (Zhizn’ iskusstva, 1924). This text is translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Philip Redko, from Poetika. Istoriia literatury. Kino, ed. Chudakov, Chudakova, Toddes (Moscow: Nauka, 1977), 320–322. It will be published by Academic Studies Press as part of Yuri Tynianov, Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory, and Film. In addition to this essay, Permanent Evolution includes “On the Screenplay,” “On FEKS,” “On Plot and Fabula in Film,” and “The Foundations of Film,” all written between 1924–1927.

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Yuri Tynianov (1894–1943) was a major literary theorist, literary historian, and prose writer associated with the Formalist school of criticism.

Vera Koshkina is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. She received her PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University.

Ainsley Morse is a literary translator and Russian literature scholar specializing in poetry and the 20th century.

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[1] Film versus theater was a topic of especially heated debate from the inception of cinema as a popular entertainment in the late 19th century and into the 1950s. André Bazin’s famous 1951 essay “Theater and Cinema” discusses the body of the actor and the use of space in cinema and film in much the same way as Tynianov does here. Bazin also reaches the same conclusion, that the two art forms help one another rather than stand in competition.

[2] Wotan is another name for the Norse god Odin. Tynianov refers to a performance of Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Bolshoi Theatre is a major ballet and opera theater in downtown Moscow, built in 1825.

[3] Tynianov refers to the Itinerant Theater (Peredvizhnoi teatr), a democratically minded experimental theater (its first iteration was the “Public” or “Generally Accessible Theater”) that operated in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad between 1905–’28. The name of the theater refers to, but should not be confused with, the Itinerant movement in 19th-century Russian painting.

[4] In the seminal essay “Film and Reality” (1933), published in his Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim makes a similar claim about the essence of cinema as an art lying precisely in its abstraction from reality. All the ways in which film deviates from reality, specifically its flatness and the “absence of the nonvisual world of the senses,” are what provide cinema with its greatest expressive potential. Arnheim was coming at cinema via his study of the psychology of visual perception.

[5] Tynianov’s mention of Mars most likely refers to Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) directed by Yakov Protazanov. The film came out after this article was published but was widely advertised in the press for many months before its release. Another possible reference is A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Méliès, considered the first science-fiction film. It is especially famous for its iconic image of a rocket landing in the moon’s eye, as well as the use of “cinematic tricks” or montage, to show people and objects appear and disappear on screen.

[6] Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss were known as the faces of German Expressionist cinema which, along with American films, were much better known and more popular than domestic productions with Soviet cinema audiences in the 1920s.

[7] Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Alexandrov’s famous “Statement on Sound” (1928) is an elaboration on Tynianov’s claim that film is not silent. The directors worried that the advent of sound in film would make film less of an “abstract art” in the sense described here by Tynianov. As an antidote to this they proposed that sound in film should not be synchronous but contrapuntal. (English version of the “Statement” in The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, ed./trans. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie [Cambridge, MA, 1988], 234–235.)

[8] The Kinetophone was an early (1894), largely unsuccessful attempt by Thomas Edison and William Dickson to create a soundtrack synchronized with film. The Kinetophone was first demonstrated in Moscow in 1913, but by the time of Tynianov’s article other, more successful sound-film technologies had been introduced. By 1930, sound had officially conquered Soviet film.

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