TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: A collection of Mayakovsky’s writing on film, KINO, appeared posthumously in the USSR in 1937, and the constructivist influence of film on the structure of his own poems is evident throughout, as in his major work “Cloud in Trousers” (1915) which incorporates elements of film narrative suh as dissolves, ellipses, and parallel plots. In his earliest known writings on film, we find Mayakovsky attacking the influence of the naturalist theater of Vsevolod Meyehold (with whom in 1918 he would collaborate on his play, Mystery Bouffe) as mere photographic reproduction of reality, proposing as an alternative a modernist, highly-stylized poetic film language that he, with a Futurist/Cubist perspective, calls “fixing the movements of the real.” Particularly notable in the productions of his nine extant film treatments (only one of his films survives,) is the seminal incorporation of documentary-style footage commingled with the fictional elements, a technique that would be fully developed during the 1920s by Sergei Eisentein and Dziga Vertov. In his own words, “The verse of Mystery Bouffe is found in the slogans of meetings, the cries of street vendors, the language of the newspapers.” Also prominent in his treatments are elements that would shortly become associated with Surrealism, effects that would of course cause much of his later film work to be rejected out-of-hand by the state-sponsored apparatus as “ideologically weak” and “sheer nonsense.”
In his theater work, Mayakovsky insists that characters have “no biographies,” presenting his own mythic self as the Everyman, a persona that would also become the trademark of his poetry. “Everything must be understandable. No psychologizing,” he writes. The actor’s performances are to be generated improvisationally, through the solving of physical problems and within the awareness of other popular stage media, their style derived from the “little genres” of circus, variety, and music hall. Mayakovsky relates his typically frustrating first experience with the film scenario for The Pursuit of Glory (1913,) when long after tearing it up, in response to being told “It’s Rubbish,” in the remote provinces on the Volga he sees a film made from that very typescript. Maykovsky acknowledged that his earliest efforts were “sentimental commissioned rubbish” but that, though “the production made a shameful bungle of it,” Shackled by Film was, in his own words, “on a par with our more innovative literary work….” Is what we have here no less than evidence of a plagiarist in our midst (a la Crimes and Misdemeanors) or had Woody Allen acknowledged this as the source of his The Purple Rose of Cairo? We will just have to take Woody’s word for it when he acknowledges Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., Hellzapoppin’, and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author as his inspirations.
After a hiatus, Mayakovsky returns to film in his 1922 propaganda poem, “Cinema and Cinema,” urging a Communist and futurist demolition of the capitalist domination of film. In 1923, his establishment of, manifesto for, and editorship of the journal LEF incorporated Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s theoretical contributions. His love affair with film seems an extension of the futurist cult of the machine also evident in Mayakovsky’s poetry, perhaps most prominently in his famous ode to the Brooklyn Bridge. Upon Mayakovsky’s visit to America in 1925, he rewrote and, the following year, produced a new version of Shackled by Film, in which Mephistopheles is replaced by an American film executive, and the “land of film” referred to in this original is made explicit: of course, it is America. Upon his return to Russia, Mayakovsky’s work as scenarist (only two of the nine were ever filmed) has been interpreted as attempts to apply the lessons of America to the socialist reality, the primary source being the work of Charlie Chaplin whom Mayakovsky greatly admired. One of Mayakovsky’s best known plays (along with The Bedbug,) The Bathhouse, was re-purposed from an un-produced film script, when it became obvious that his creative work would find no outlet in Soviet film, and this shortly followed by his last work, his now famous suicide note: “The love boat has smashed up against the rocks of life.”
SHACKLED BY FILM
An artist is pinning. He wanders the streets searching for something—he knows not what. On the boulevard, he sits down on a bench next to a woman and engages her in conversation, but the woman suddenly becomes transparent: in place of her heart she appears to have a hat, necklace, and hat-pins. He arrives home, and the artist’s wife likewise appears transparent: instead of a heart—kitchen pots. The artist meets a friend, and in place of his heart—a bottle and playing cards.
Back on the boulevard, a Gypsy woman begins to pester him, offering to read his fortune. The artist finds her interesting and brings her to his workshop. He begins to paint her portrait with great enthusiasm, but the brush, resisting, begins moving slower and slower. The Gypsy starts to flash diaphanously: in place of her heart are coins. The artist pays her and pushes her out of the studio. The wife tries to calm down the agitated artist, but is unsuccessful. He leaves his home.
A large cinematography studio. Its business is failing; they don’t make action movies here. An elegantly dressed, bearded man enters. He resembles either one of E. T. Hoffman’s characters or Mephistopheles. The man with the beard has brought with him a film canister labeled The Heart of the Screen. The film studio owners are ecstatic. They offer to rent the film for distribution.
The hype of advertising. The whole city is covered with posters, The Heart of the Screen (a ballerina holding in her hands a heart.) Men wearing sandwich boards bearing the poster are handing out advertising leaflets to passersby. All the movie houses are showing The Heart of the Screen.
The lonesome artist enters a movie house and watches The Heart of the Screen. The film’s contents—the entire world of cinema: the ballerina (The Heart of the Screen) is surrounded by Max Linder, Asta Nielsen, and the rest of movie stardom, cowboys, detectives, and other stock film figures, predominantly from American detective movies. The showing is over and the movie-going public streams out. The artist struggles through them toward the screen and applauds passionately.
Remaining alone in the dark hall he continues to applaud. The screen lights up. The ballerina appears on the screen and, descending from it, approaches the artist. He hugs her around the shoulders and leads her to the exit. The night-guard locks the door behind them. On the street; it is rainy, overcast, noisy. The ballerina winces, steps back and vanishes through the locked door. The artist is in despair; he knocks at the door madly, but to no avail: it remains shut.
The artist walks home. He collapses on his bed; he has become sick. The doctor arrives, listens to him with a stethoscope, writes out a prescription, and leaves. Outside the doors of the house where the artist lives, the doctor meets up with the Gypsy who has now fallen in love with the artist. They are standing near a poster of The Heart of the Screen; the Gypsy asks about the artist’s health. The eyes of the ballerina on the poster turn towards them—the ballerina is listening in on them.
The artist’s servant is buying medicine at a pharmacy. Walking home along the street, she stops to gaze at the sandwich boards. The paper bag tears and the medicine she was carrying spills out. The woman servant picks up a discarded flyer and wraps the medicine in it. She brings the artist his medicine. He ushers out his wife who has been hovering over him out of the room. He unwraps the flyer and notices the ad. Smoothing it out, he places it against the bedside table. The ballerina on the flyer comes to life, and appears to be sitting on the small table. She rises and approaches the artist. He is terribly overjoyed and is immediately healed.
In the moment of coming to life, the ballerina disappears from all the posters everywhere: from walls, the sandwich boards, from the flyers in the hands of readers. She disappears also from the film itself. In the cinema studio there is complete pandemonium. The gentleman with the beard is particularly agitated.
The artist proposes to the ballerina that they leave together for his house in the suburbs. He lays her down on his bed, rolls her up into the shape of a pipe, like a poster, ties her up with a ribbon, carefully picks her up in his arms, and with her in his hand gets into his car and drives off. The artist arrives at his suburban home with the ballerina, tries hard to entertain her, but she pines for the big screen, throws herself at anything white that reminds her of the screen: she caresses the whitewashed brick oven, the tablecloth. Finally, she pulls the tablecloth off along with the food, hangs it up on the wall, and with it for a background stands and poses. She begs the artist to get her a screen. He bids her farewell and for the duration of the night goes to the empty movie theater. There, he cuts down the screen with a knife.
While the artist is stealing the screen, the ballerina wanders in the garden. The Gypsy, in her jealousy for the ballerina, has found her way to the suburban house. She accosts the ballerina in the garden, creates a scene, and ends up stabbing her with a knife. Pinned to the tree on which the ballerina was leaning is a poster, stabbed through with a knife. The Gypsy, in horror over what she has done, runs off to the bearded gentleman to tell him where to find the ballerina. Just as the Gypsy woman has ran off, the ballerina once again appears on the garden path.
The ballerina awaits the artist in one of the rooms of the suburban house. The bearded man enters, accompanied by the characters from The Heart of the Screen film and the Gypsy who has brought them there. The ballerina is happy to see them—she has been missing them. The bearded man wraps her in a long ribbon of celluloid; she dissolves into the film. They all leave; the Gypsy, who has fainted, is the only one left behind.
The artist returns with the screen. He can’t find the ballerina and races back and forth from room to room searching for her. He revives the Gypsy and she tells him about what has occurred. He pushes the Gypsy away, throws himself on The Heart of the Screen poster, as though searching in it for an explanation, and suddenly sees on the very bottom of the poster, in the smallest, barely decipherable print, the name of the film’s country of origin.
The artist is at the window of a train car—he is off in search of that country.
NOT FOR THE MONEY BORN
Based on Jack London’s novel, Martin Eden (script and film lost)
A young man from a bourgeoisie family, returning home in a half-drunken state from a restaurant, is saved from street toughs by a working man, Ivan Nov. The young man invites Ivan Nov into his home and introduces him to his family who open-heartedly receive their son’s savior. Ivan Nov falls in love with the young man’s sister but she rejects him. Under the influence of his feelings for this girl from an intellectual milieu, Ivan Nov begins to study. His innate abilities are awakened. He writes poems and finds himself participating in the circle of Futurists. At the Futurist café, with a performance of their poems, appear Ivan Nov (Mayakovsky,) Burliuk, Kamensky, and others. This event initiates Ivan Nov’s renown. He becomes famous and then rich. His external appearance is transformed; he now wears a respectable coat and top-hat.
Ivan Nov decides to visit the girl he loves once again. He buys a skeleton, transports it to his apartment, stands it next to his fireproof wardrobe, puts on it a top-hat and drapes it. Then he invites the girl to come and visit him. Upon entering the room, the girl is frightened by the skeleton. The poet, pointing to the open wardrobe filled with money, tells her that all his wealth is at her disposal. A quarrel ensues. After some time passes, Ivan Nov once again meets the girl; this time she confesses that she also loves him. However, it seems to Ivan Nov that what attracts her to him is only his fortune and renown—and this time it is he who rejects her love. Ivan Nov suffers and considers suicide, but then decides to transform his life completely. He fakes his suicide; places the skeleton wrapped in paper on his bed and sets it on fire. He then puts on his old work clothes and departs.
LADY AND THE TRAMP
A working-class district on the edge of town. The owner of the streets—a young man, a street tough. A new teacher arrives at a school for adults—a pretty-looking girl. The work before her is difficult: the atmosphere of the very first lesson she teaches at the school frightens her. The students are undisciplined; they yell, fight. The hooligan’s mother comes to meet the teacher with a request to positively influence her son so that he straighten himself out. But the young man has already changed; the teacher has made a deep impression on him. He walks through the park and experiences triple-vision: it seems to him that she appears simultaneously from behind three different trees. He is sitting in the hall, and she appears to him as an apparition, moving through the crowd. Agitated, he gets into a fight with one of his pals who had been making a ruckus during the lesson, and throws him out of the schoolroom.
The teacher complains to the principal about the difficulty of working in the school. The hooligan runs into the teacher in the park; he follows behind her to her house. Getting drunk, he spends the entire night under her windows. In the morning, she sees him out of her window and is frightened. He leaves. While the teacher is a reading a book to small children, the hooligan is writing a note in the park in which, faking the signature, he asks her to come meet another teacher, who is supposedly ill. He sends the message to her with a boy. Having received the message, she walks through the park; in the park he stops her and confesses of his love. Frightened, she escapes. The hooligan’s mother comes to see the teacher again and thanks her for her son having changed, having put an end to his wild ways.
At the school, the students are roughhousing and laughing at the teacher. The hooligan defends her. She despairs, turns for help to the other teachers, the principal, prays at the big crucifix in the park. While she is praying, the hooligan approaches her and once again tells her of his love for her. She walks off; the path is muddy; he takes off his jacket and places it under her feet. Because of the teacher, he has broken with his old pals who were laughing at her in class. He meets them in a wasteland—a clash ensues, he wrestles with one, then they all set upon and beat him; during the fight he is seriously wounded with a knife. The hooligan is near death. He asks his mother to fetch the teacher. She comes, he reaches for her. She kisses him on the lips, and he dies, quietly.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.