»By the Bluest of Seas« (»U Samogo Sinego Morya«) was released in the Soviet Union in 1936. Made by Soviet actor and director Boris Barnet, it was his second sound feature film after »Outskirts« (1933). As such it is routinely identified with the new instrumentalisation of the ›Socialist Realism‹ mode of film-making and with Barnet’s own location within popular (and with sound, musical) comedy, which as Beumers (2003) has pointed out, had become the dominant film genre of the later 1930s in the Soviet Union, »reinforcing the function of cinema under the pressure of ideology … within the popular form of the musical and the predictability of the fairy tale«. And yet responses to the film at the time criticized »By the Bluest of Seas« for being ›overly emotional‹, the script derided for its emotional nature and the director chided for cutting up Sergey Potosky’s score and for continuing to rely on montage forms that were seen as increasingly antithetical to Socialist Realism modes. It is what we might call this anomaly between the film’s designated political mode (by time and place as officially made in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s under Socialist Realism) and its contrary ›emotional‹ content that we wish to reflect on and through which we will prompt our own feelings of both fidelity and desire for its significance and worth.
This anomaly also has contemporary relevance. Current reviews (of »By the Bluest of Seas« recent DVD format release) echo the view of the film as being a musical comedy, describing it as a ›cinematic fairytale‹, as a ›buddy rom-com‹ (romantic comedy) and as a comedy melodrama. Others, almost predictably from within this inherited discursive placing, refer to it as reflecting a ›fairly lightweight‹ or ›whimsical‹ tale, often connected with a ›thin plotline‹ and showing ›pure frivolity‹, and ending up most tellingly describing it as a … »sweet film and ephemeral. Much like the two sailors, it arrives, stirs the waters and then recedes, slipping easily from your mind but leaving behind a sense of warmth« (Close-Up, Film website). At the same time the film is lauded, given worth, and the reading of it as cinematic fairytale enabled by simultaneously pointing to its apparent apolitical nature. While this is primarily read back through an uncritically inherited critique of Socialist Realism and communism – through such claims as that it is ›lacking any particular propaganda‹, that it is ›completely removed from politics‹, and that it is ›astounding that Barnet was able to make such an apolitical film‹ – a bigger, larger, more pervasive articulation resides within these formulations. This is to deny ›emotions‹ a political frame, to simultaneously read the political as beyond affect and to devalue and reduce in importance, along strongly formed gender lines, the relatedness between the political and the personal, between politics, emotion, feeling and desire. Against this we wish to propose that »By the Bluest of Seas« enables such lines of flight.
In this regard, for us there is also a third frame. We have both recently been centrally involved in a Southern African focused research project under the broad, provoking title of Love & Revolution. What is meant by this and how this can be connected to our discussion of »By the Bluest of Seas« is well articulated in the following: »Love & Revolution widens the frame through which studies of liberation struggles, nationalism and political cultures have been understood, by insisting on the parallel treatment of ›the personal‹, be it the forces of desire, affiliation or emotion. In southern Africa for instance, popular cultural expressions since the 1960s suggest the transformation of individual subjectivities in the midst of nationalist political struggle and social change, especially in urban areas and exile camps. Love & Revolution seeks to co-examine the social and the subjective, the political and the unconscious. There is the potential to explore the way these, and the forms and hierarchies of knowledge produced around them, have often obscured one another despite possible inter-connections. In discursive terms there are deployments of revolutionary language to express the personal, and narratives of affect with the mobilization of powerful symbols to lay claim to the political and the economic. By the same token, Love & Revolution instates the political at the heart of enquiries about gender, sexuality, aesthetics and creativity. The platform provides opportunities to question the dominant categories and archives of analysis, within the subcontinent and beyond. The thematic conjuncture of Love & Revolution interrogates the underpinnings of the nation and shifts in consciousness of the self and the other, and more philosophically, it raises questions about the humanities and humanity itself.«
Boris Barnet, then, clearly occupies an ambiguous position within the canon of Soviet film-makers. Born in 1902 to a family that owned a typographical business, he studied as an architect and painter and then worked as a set designer at the Moscow Art Theatre. In 1919 he enlisted in the Red Army and then, after being discharged due to ill-health, learned boxing in the Main Military School for Physical Education of Workers (Glavvosh). Lev Kuleshov persuaded Barnet to join his collective as an actor in »The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks« (»Cowboy Jeddie«) one of the Soviet cinema’s first great comedies, joining a cast that included future directors Pudovkin, Obolensky and Komarov (Vivaldi, 2011). He then worked as a scriptwriter and then director with Fedur Otsep in the serial adventure ›red detective‹ film »Miss Mend« (aka »The Adventures of the Three Reporters«) released in 1926. Becoming part of the Mezhrabpom Studio collective, Barnet directed his ›Keatonesque‹ first silent feature, »The Girl with the Hatbox« (»Devushka s korobkoy«) in 1927 and »Moscow in October« a state commissioned 10th anniversary film also in 1927, followed by »The House on Trubnaya Square« (»Dom na Trubnoi«) in 1928. This was followed by »Living Things« (1930), »The Ghost« (1931), »The Thaw« (»Lyodolom«) (1931) and Outskirts« (aka »Patriots«/ »Okraina«), his first sound film, in 1933. »By the Bluest of Seas« followed in 1936 as a joint production between Mezhrabpon and Azerbaizhan Film Studios and was shot in the region of the Caspian Sea.
Importantly, although interrupted by features such as »Moscow in October« and »Thaw«, Barnet is firmly located within the Mezhrabphon Studio collective and as such, within what has been located as a more popular and comedic tradition. However, as a number of commentators have pointed out, Barnet has been seen to have straddled the more traditionalist (Protazanov)/ innovator (as in maintaining Kuleshov’s montage influences) divide (as proposed by Nikolai Lebedev, one of the first significant historians of 1920s silent Soviet cinema). More significantly though, in positioning Barnet as a comedy director, and in the rather simplistic associations of him as a director of ›popular comedy‹ and with the advent of sound, ›musical comedy‹, he falls between what Anderson (2008) has called the two ›golden ages‹ of Soviet cinema: the heroic age of Soviet silent cinema with its montage filmmaker theorists (Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Vertov), and the later ›Russian Thaw‹ (Kalatozov, Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Iosseliani). Rather, as he points out, his ›complex disposition‹ within Soviet film history seems to map him more closely onto the far less esteemed ›Socialist Realism‹ period and brand of film practice, and in his association with Mezhrabphon, with its more popular, comedic and lightweight disposition – he was called the ›Peter Pan of Soviet cinema‹ (Margolit, 168) and ›infantile‹. (Vivaldi, 2011) Against this we might want to register Bela Balasz, the Hungarian born film theorist, critic and writer: »In your films there is an explosion of laughter in the saddest of scenes. A tragic moment is at one and the same time comic … you don’t give a caricature of serious things. You show them in a serious manner … but you simply don’t sift them, you don’t cleanse them of the grotesque and comic details which may stick to the most serious of things …. Tragedy and comedy are no longer in your films two different categories and thanks to this you have overcome that dualism which forces people to see life as either tragic or comic«. (Bela Balasz in Vivaldi (2011))
Our purpose here, though, is not to enter some form of canonical rescue of Barnet. Many have done so, from calling him the ›father of Soviet comedy‹ (Anderson, 2008), to various recent authors calling him the ›forgotten master‹, arguing that he is ›unjustly unknown‹ and ›long overlooked‹ and that he has still ›not been accorded the central place that he deserves in the appreciation of the first half century of Soviet cinema‹ (Vivaldi, 2011). Rather, our purpose in rehearsing Barnet’s genealogy of location and production is twofold: first to suggest the ways that the very categories attached to him limit possibilities of reading and viewing Barnet and »By the Bluest of Seas« beyond the imposed biographic as deterministic; but also secondly that, while he does fit within the parameters of Socialist Realism, this is not just an uncomfortable, or incongruous fit which, while mostly read as determining the ›superior quality of his art‹ might also enable a talking back, if not to Socialist Realism, then to the political ›without shores‹ (to plunder the title of a recent edited collection of essays entitled Socialist Realism without Shores, 1997). Put somewhat differently, we want to hold Barnet’s »By the Bluest of Seas« up against Brody’s (2013) observations that he had »the misfortune of being a lyricist in a time and a place of mandatory declamation, an ironist under a regime of deadly earnestness, a discerning psychologist in a reign of subordinated individuality« and couple this with Vivaldi’s (2011) observation that his »lyrical voice … in which life ›seeped into and washed away‹ all the stereotypes he was directed to shoot« enable a re-seeing and a re:working (following John Mowitt) of the political as affect. In the process, we may further see how ›Soviet man was (un)made‹ (following Lilya Kaganovsky, 2008) and how ›socialist senses‹ (following Widdis 2012) can be brought into critical view.
So – the film. »By the Bluest of Seas« features Nikolai Kryuchkov (Aliosha/ Alyoshka), Lev Sverdin (Yussuf/ Youssouf) and Yelena Kuzmina (Maria aka Misha/Masha/Mashenka). Kuzmina was also Barnet’s wife at the time. Filmed by cinematographer Mikhail Kirilov, written by Klimenti Mints and scored by Sergei Pototski(y) the film is routinely described in terms of its light, lyrical tone, for its depictions of joy, for its ›unfettered enjoyment in visual delight‹ and as an ›uplifting and intelligent comic exploration of love, friendship and humanity‹. It is relatedly stated that it is ›one of the most inspiring, poetic and harmonious cinematic achievements to come out of that great Soviet era of filmmaking‹ and that it is ›in its uncluttered, lyrical and emotional simplicity that the film excels‹. Not surprisingly, the film itself is as routinely, described as ›beautifully crafted‹, as a ›visual poem‹ and the cinematography and score equally praised (albeit that Barnet chopped up Pototsky’s score without his agreement). Perhaps this is best summarized by Anderson (2008): »the evidence is on the screen. That is, whether one cites the filmmakers’ land and seascape photography, the bodily and performative representation of desire and feeling or the emotional stakes for which the protagonists are playing, the unadulterated pleasures of Barnet’s film are there for those with eyes to see and hearts to feel. This is a film with which to fall in love«.
The film opens (and closes) with a montage of the Caspian Sea. Often depicted as some of the ›most beautifully-shot seascapes in the history of cinema‹, this bluest of seas (albeit in black and white) features as the ›emotional scenario‹ for the film as a whole. Actor Lev Sverdin (Yussuf) suggested that Barnet and cinematographer Mikhail Kirilov’s sublime long-lensed filming ›captured the sea’s emotions on film‹. After at least twenty edits, montaging a humanless sea as a central character, two shipwreck survivors enter the scene (Alyoshka and Yussuf). For two days and nights they are pushed southwards and end up being rescued and taken to the island that was their original destination. They are engineers/mechanics dispatched, in the adventure narrative Stalinist mode of the aviator figure to the island where the fishing kolkhoz (collective farm) named ›The Flames of Communism‹ (Lights of Communism) requires intervention. This is so because the majority of the men are away in the East, involved in the Sino-Chinese-Japanese conflict of the 1930s, and Barnet reconstructs a tension between an idyllic island of predominantly women residents (and thus the fulfillment of the shipwrecked sailors’ desires) and the island as a working fishing commune about to encounter the fishing season. This collective soviet Socialist Realism backdrop, though, is about as much as we get to see in this mode. Rather, the majority of the story involves the two engineer shipwrecked friends caught in a love triangle with Masha, who is also an outsider, but the president/chairwoman/farm manager of the kolkhoz. Much of the film is taken up with their friendship, with romantic antagonism and with the rivalry for Masha’s heart where their mutual affections for her threaten both their relationship and their positions within the collective. However, she is, in turn, in love with a soldier fighting in the East. She remains faithful to him and they depart. The sea returns.
As Vivaldi (2011) has suggested »the structure is symmetrical and tone is one of pure nonchalance – no question of meeting production quotas, fulfilling plans, building communism. The film ignores all the rhetoric of the time, all the mannerism of Socialist Realism; all the drama is based on small misunderstandings without any conceivable importance.« There are also some telling formal Barnet devices: the love triangle, or perhaps more accurately quartet (with the absent soldier figure) related to montage, equally visible elsewhere; the crossing of silent and sound film techniques and tones, and the extension of slapstick humour drawn from its silent antecedents, laughter and the grin and his concerns with the body, the surface, and the acts of looking and of feeling. Similarly the film holds a sense of dialogue and narrative that is improvised and gestural, and Barnet’s use of detail and the minimalism of everyday life, as well as his use of irony are all visible as a collective individuality accretes. As Yelena Kuzmina demonstrates, this meant that he ›never kept to the original scenario‹. Rather »[h]e [Barnet] would write out each shot painstakingly and stick these pieces of paper one after another to make a long scroll. Then he would unroll this on the ground and get down on his knees to search for the shot he was about to do. And in the end he would shoot something quite different, improvising on the spot. This is the reason for the ›freedom‹ in his films«. (quoted in Eisenschitz, 1994)
Particular scenes resonate: the opening (and closing) scenes of the emotional sea as humanless subject; the sacralisation of lives in the shifts from turbulence to calm and the ›saving rebirth‹ of Alyoshka and Yussuf, but more dramatically in the ›rebirth‹ of Masha after being lost at sea, washing up on to the sand in front of the two men; the bitter sweet sensuality of this love triangle (not yet a known quadrant and the desired resurrection of her lover from the East) in the eating of lemons whilst declaring attraction and desire; the suit scene where Yussuf is fitted and tickled into a new suit by the kolkhoz whilst attempting to get to declare his desire for Masha over Alyoshka, who has the advantage; the bead scene when Masha intentionally breaks her pearl necklace and the pearls fall in complete melancholic silence; and the scenes of the two men displaying their bodies and dancing shirtless in erotic acts of performative display (and »By the Bluest of Seas« might be seen as one of the sexiest of Soviet films) – these scenes are all compelling in enabling a complex narration of emotions, feelings and desires that are sacred, intense and meaningful. Life is about labour and love and about the love of life within and beyond the collective and the kolkhoz – beyond Socialist Realism. Emotion, if you like, and sexuality and desire, the body, gesture and laughter, if also hurt and bitterness are its dissenting complex subjectivities coming to presence beyond the ›collective make-believe‹ (Kaganovsky, 2008).
Nicole Brenez has suggested that Barnet’s ethology, in the context of Soviet cinema, that was totally ruled by the Administration and that nevertheless produced this outsider film, is the ›euphoria of the body‹. For her the »joy of the body exuberantly plunged into sensations: sensual editing that displays his love of motifs – the sea, the seagulls, the faces – in place of treating a story, and the empathetic literalism of the music that grabs the emotions with the image as abruptly as an impulse and submerges the sequences like an irresistible wave« define this film and Barnet’s ethology (Brenez, 2008). Brenez proposes, then, that the film’s ›long rebirth‹ delivers characters without a past, without a becoming, without a mission, without psychology – they are as they appear concretely, that is to say a sum of gestures; a poetry of gestural invention that brings the cinema back to its origins of live performance: circus, acrobatics, vaudeville, gymnastics. And it is in these repertoires of conflicting gestures: the dramatic rescue becoming burlesque (Yusuf tickled); the declaration of love in grimaces (the lemons); the joy suspended in terror (resurrection of Masha) that both draw on these performative repertoires and give them life. She says Barnet films in the mode of the ›found gesture‹ that articulates with Bulgakowa’s (2005) notion of a ›factory of gestures‹ where the language of the body – posture, manner of walking or sitting, how one holds one’s head – is a series of signifying codes that shift and change alongside social change. As importantly she asks how does the art of cinema register and construct new bodies?
Lilya Kaganovsky (2008) provides one means. She proposes that Stalinist visual culture (and Socialist Realism) propagated Soviet supermen (›new soviet man‹) of extravagant virility. Another form of masculinity (the wounded, disabled, even paralysed hero) was also present and not at odds with the former, but rather that »the two forms of masculinity exist together, together they create the ideal Stalinist man: hyperbolically strong, yet without arms or legs; committed to the cause, yet permanently chained to his bed; visionary, yet blind«. Here, in the double fantasy of Stalinist subjectivity, discipline and failure, enhancement and disfigurement, heteronormativity and heterosexual panic co-exist and co-constitute each other, as Kuntsman (2009) remarks. »By the Bluest of Seas« offers a different reading – one that both brings ›the relations between cultural fantasies, state power, the body and sexual and political subjectivity‹ (Kuntsman, 2009) into play, but which also, in the ways that the love plot fails to work, and in how his ›euphoria of the body‹ and the conflicting and originary lived ›factory of gestures‹ in the film subverts Stalinist (Socialist Realism) masculinities and exposes them as a ›dominant fiction‹ (Kaganovsky, 2008). At the same time in producing these heterosexual anxieties through body and gesture new ›euphorias of the body‹ that are simultaneously both between desire and fidelity and between heterosexual and homosocial bodies and bonds are revealed. Barnet’s film, then, brings dissenting subjectivities of affect, love, feeling and emotion and the political together as gesturally subversive.
For us then, there is a moment (or two such moments) in the film when this is most powerfully articulated. They evolve around the moments when first Aloyshka and then Yussuf discover that their official instruction and directive to provide necessary labour to the kolkhoz has been erased by the sea. In their exclamation of its disappearance the official collective of Socialist Realism is erased by the emotional sea, replaced by their desiring and desired bodies and with gesture and indeed laughter.
Brenez (2008) has articulated how Barnet reflects the registers of laughter as frank and happy, a laughter that »wakes up sympathy to others, that gives us the assurance of being able to overcome all difficulties, small and large; this laughter that makes more reasonable, that destroys spite, resentment, doubt, jealousy.« This moment, from erased word to seen gesture moves subjectivities beyond the empty pages of ›new soviet man‹, beyond the shores of Socialist Realism and into our imagined blue of Barnet’s seas of life and love.
1 The project has been based at University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) and centrally Patricia Hayes and Premesh Lalu, and includes the University of Minnesota (UM) and its Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) with Helena Pohlandt-McCormick and Karen Brown, the SARChI Chair in Social Change at the University of Fort Hare with Gary Minkley, and also involving Gopinath Arunima, director of the Women’s Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Martina Rieker, Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, American University in Cairo.
Anderson, Michael J. Film in New Haven: Boris Barnet’s »By the Bluest of Seas« (1936), from www.taitivelle.blogspot.com, accessed 7 March 2013.
Beumers, Birgit. »Soviet and Russian Blockbusters: A Question of Genre?« Slavic Review (2003): 441-454.
Brenez, Nicole. By The Bluest of Seas. Youtube video, alsolifelike.com/shooting, uploaded 19 November 2008.
Brody, David. Critics Notebook about Boris Barnet’s Outskirts, from www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies, accessed 13 March 2013.
Bulgakowa, Oksana. »The Factory of Gestures: Body Language in Film«, Potemkin Press, 2008.
Eisenschitz, Bernard. »A Fickle Man, or Portrait of Boris Bamet as a Soviet Director’. « Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema: 151-164.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. »How the Soviet man was unmade: cultural fantasy and male subjectivity under Stalin«. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. »how the Soviet Man was (un) Made.« Slavic Review (2004): 577-596.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. »The Factory of Gestures: Body Language in Film (review)«. Cinema Journal 51.3 (2012): 168-170.
Kuntsman, Adi. Review: Lilya Kaganovsky, »How the Soviet Man was Unmade«, in Europe-Asia Studies, 61, 8 October 2009, 1483-1511.
Lahusen, Thomas, and Evgeny Dobrenko, eds. Socialist Realism without shores. Duke University Press Books, 1997.
Vivaldi, Giuliano. “Boris Barnet The Lyric Voice in Soviet Cinema”. 2011
Widdis, Emma. “Socialist Senses.” Slavic Review 71.3 (2012): 590-618.
first published here: http://www.friedagrafe.net/film-view/78