Comrade, Life Does Not Have to be So Gray

The film Карнавал цветов (“Carnival of Colors”) is a technical and historical curiosity, produced in 1935 in the U.S.S.R. for the purpose of demonstrating a domestically developed color film process and promoting its use. Like a number of other experimental processes of the time, it differs from contemporary color methods because it uses only two color elements. (By contrast, more recent and familiar color film processes use three.) The color dyes selected for the Soviet system consist of a brilliant vermillion red and a turquoise green, as shown in these stills.

Being a “demo,” as it were, Карнавал цветов shoves aside narrative concerns and focuses mostly on showing the new process in a way that communicates its strengths, and minimizes its weaknesses. But it also probes the possibilities of a fresh technique within the context of Soviet film production. In exchange for our attention, we are treated to four опыты (“tests”) that include documentary footage of May 1 parades on Red Square circa 1935, a species of amateur “folk dancing” primped for the sound stage, and newsreel footage of record citrus harvests in Soviet Georgia.

The project was directed by Nikolai Ekk ( Ivakin), who four years earlier gave us Путевка в жизнь (“Road to Life”), which stands as another technical advance: It was the first Soviet talkie. This remarkable film is, by turns, a winsome and tragic drama that lays out the story of a 1930s Soviet-era social project to turn homeless teenage boys into model Soviet citizens, by means of a labor commune housed in a remote former monastery. A central character in the story is the Mari-El boy Mustafa who is plucked from the streets of Moscow, his life a series of petty thefts, mischief, and violence. He is transformed in the course of the narrative from a young street hooligan into an upstanding role model of Soviet ideals — and by the time the film ends, into a martyr to those ideals. The film neatly sidesteps its potentially stultifying ideological content by counterbalancing it with brilliant and effective characters, whose triumphs and missteps are ably and credibly portrayed by a cast of young non-professional actors, prefiguring Italian Neorealism by more than a decade. The film was widely admired, both in the U.S.S.R. and abroad.

During the course of the film, Mustafa is transformed from a dirty-faced street urchin …

… into a defender of socialist ideals.

In the west at least, the coming of synchronized sound to motion pictures in the late 1920s seemed to engender a thirst for the next “big thing” after talkies, and early experiments in color, widescreen and stereoscopy (3D) all took place in this era. Color films had been already produced in the silent era, but the advent of talkies seemed to stoke an interest in new technical approaches generally. Any effort to add vividness and “realism” to motion picture entertainment — even the impoverished realism of these often charming but primitive artifices — was probably seen as good for ticket sales. It was during this era that the French director Abel Gance made his acclaimed widescreen “polyvision” spectacular Napoléon vu par Abel Gance. More isolated examples, randomly selected, of color experimentation follow.

The 1922 film The Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin) is an early example of the two-color process in the U.S., starring the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong.

In 1926, British audiences were treated to series of short travelogue films extolling the virtues of the English countryside, called The Open Road (Claude Friese-Greene), also using a two-color process.

And, during the time when he worked for a U.S. studio, Hungarian director Pál Fejős included a brief two-color musical sequence in his 1929 talkie Broadway.

Please keep in mind that color dyes are notorious for changing over time, even when movie prints are stored properly. In addition, the faithfulness of the color model in the transfer from print to video, and then to avi rip (the source of most of these images) is very much an open question. The audiences of the time would have seen images that were much sharper and clearer than these, and certainly with more pleasing color renditions.

In Карнавал цветов one role of ideology is clear enough — a practical color film process this early represents a technical advance, another paving stone on the road to advancing Russia and turning it into a modern world state. And, like nearly all Soviet film production at the time, part of its role was to flatter power. Look at these images from the May 1 celebrations in Red Square:

It’s a bit hard to see, but the horses are wearing red leggings!

Do you start to see a theme? We see that the selection of dyes was at least ideologically convenient!

Here are some more pictures. The strains of Все выше (“Ever Higher”) are heard in the soundtrack during some of this sequence of images.

Авиамарш (Авиационный марш военно-воздушных сил РККА) “Все выше!” (“Ever Higher!” March of the air forces of the Red Army). Music: Yu. Khayt. Lyrics: P. German (1926). Singer: Evgeny Kibkalo, 1958

The Soviet two-color process was capable of rendering a decent brown …

… and a pleasing green …

… and look at those skin tones!

While re-watching the film I noticed something odd. For most of this shot, the man in the lower left corner just watches the parade; I assumed he was only part of the crowd.

But then we see him turn abruptly to the cameraman and gesture with his hand, apparently to stop filming.

In this shot, he seems to issue a verbal command, with the same effect. The shot very quickly ends.

This image from a Russian biography site seems to confirm that the man in the corner of the frame is the director Nikolai Ekk himself, letting his cameraman know when to start and stop filming.

Here are some more examples to enjoy from the other “опыты”. There is a kind of joy in the nostalgia of these images, as if the world at the time was as simple as this color model. As the following images show, even if these pictures fail to give accurate color, they often succeed in producing a pleasing effect.

From the “Folk dance” section:

From “Autumn in the South”:

1 comentario:

MOCKBA dijo...

"Ever Higher!" ... 1926
Very convincingly this song, a.k.a. The Aviamarch dated to 1923, with the roots perhaps as early as in the 1920 Polish occupation of Kiev (and often thought to originated from a dance tune of a Warsaw cabaret, where the dancers' legs were rising higher, and higher, and higher.

Apparently the Aviamarch is very unpalatable in Western Europe, where its motif is better recalled as a Nazi propaganda song, Das Berliner Jungarbeiterlied (apparently still performed, after a minor text clean-up, by the neo-Nazi crooners) (more details at the same website which has many other "dissolving music" stories very much in the mold of rio Wang)

Street urchine turned socialist is a real theme of my family thread; great-grandfather Wolf Pruss went to Russia, and succeeded, in exactly this sort of undertaking: turning street children into highly qualified watchmakers.

... and lastly, you didn't receive my email about Aviamarch, and also Prague, did you?