UNDERRATED / Class of his own

The case for Kuleshov
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The Independent Culture
"Quick, class, no peeking at your reference books: name the major Soviet film directors of the post-revolutionary period. Yes, Eisenstein, of course, everyone saw Potemkin at the end of last term; Dovzhenko, good, and that's right, you can buy Earth on video nowadays; Pudovkin, very good, and I hope you know his text book, too. Did I hear Dziga Vertov from the back? Well done; you must be a Godard fan. Any more? No? No one? Is there really not a single member of this class who has heard of Lev Kuleshov?..."

Tough luck, teacher. The chances are that few will have, and fewer still will have seen so much as an extract from any of his films. (Even the terrifyingly well-viewed critic David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, confesses his innocence of Kuleshov's work.) Outside the former USSR, the director's name survives among the non-specialist movie audience only by a half-remembered formula. He was, you may recall, the man who formulated the so-called "Kuleshov effect", an observation of the curious fact that, on film, the utterly expressionless face of an actor (name of Mosjukhin) would appear to be invested with an almost infinite range of expressions - rage, joy, pity, lust, remorse - depending on the content of the shots which preceded and/or followed that of his motionless features.

Despite this obscurity, Kuleshov still has his Western admirers - the British director Patrick Keiller, for example, who in this week's Time Out century-of-cinema poll nominates Kuleshov as Best Director. And there are those who think that Kuleshov deserves to be better known than either Eisenstein or Pudovkin, not least because he taught both of them. Indeed, though it's Eisenstein who usually reaps the credit for inventing montage, there are grounds for thinking that the real father of the art is Kuleshov.

The story goes something like this. Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970) had originally intended to make his career as a painter, and it was only by fluke that he landed a job as a set designer on a film. Inspired by the new medium (which Lenin was to describe as "the most important of the arts" for the new order), he managed to direct his first movie when he was just 18: Engineer Prite's Project. In the course of cutting it together, it dawned on him that the shot of a man looking out of frame, followed by a shot of another person, tended to give the impression to the audience that the man was looking at the person. In other words, he had happened upon one of the basic elements of film grammar.

Fired up by his discovery, Kuleshov set about investigating the laws of cinema in what amounted to a scientific spirit, with the help of his students at the State Film School in Moscow. Since they were too poor to afford much film stock, this largely involved cutting and recutting library footage, and staging little plays. The long-term results of this research can be seen in the films of his famous pupils, and in the films Kuleshov himself made before he was denounced by the Stalinists in the early 1930s. (One of them, a charming Mack Sennett-style comedy entitled The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, can be seen at the NFT on Saturday.) With the rise of Stalin, Kuleshov was confined to making children's films; but after 1944 he returned to the film school where he taught new and sometimes remarkable generations of directors, including that ideologically unsound visionary Paradjanov. It was one of his early pupils, though, who gave Kuleshov his best epitaph. "We, his students, made films," said Pudovkin. "But Kuleshov made cinema."