A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood
Through November 21, 2015
Upon opening the door to my apartment in Saint Petersburg, I am suddenly and completely blinded by golden light. An instant later, the bright rectangle dashes away from my face and, in a quick jolt, describes the edges of the bare hallway with its peeling stucco and an oval of a mirror. To investigate where this beam came from, I walk from the dark depth of the narrow hallway towards the balcony, as if from inside the camera towards the lens opening. I discover that the light signal was sent by a woman washing a window on the twelfth floor of the similar concrete-block mass apartment building across the courtyard, which is about half a kilometer away—generous by Saint Petersburg measures. There was a simple material magic to this transmission: a golden-ray annunciation, an unexpected gift of connection brought through the sheer magnanimousness of mass housing optics.
There is something just as majestic and humble to the manner in which Zoe Beloff establishes an intimate connection between the people of the past and our lives today. In her exhibition A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood, currently on view at the James Gallery, the two great Marxist directors are conjured as if they were our neighbors in the collective dwelling house of imagination. “Brecht and Eisenstein are our comrades,” says Beloff. In a gesture of solidarity, she revisits their two unrealized film projects conceived in and for Hollywood, and examines them to see if a living line can be stretched from these “failures” to visualizations of present-day struggles: from the housing crisis of 2008 to the Occupy movement. Beloff’s three video works dedicated to the history of these never-made films are presented alongside display cases of archival materials (some collected in the archives in Moscow): models, drawings, and paintings.
Brecht and Eisenstein came to live, work, and ultimately suffer rejection in the Hollywood factory of mass-produced dreams under very different circumstances. Eisenstein arrived in 1930, a celebrated guest from the East invited by Paramount Pictures—full of energy and boundless curiosity, his criticism of America was mixed with admiration. (In the languid grace of Mickey Mouse, he saw the promise of the protean plasticity and chaotic primal energy that would be unleashed by future socialism.) While Eisenstein’s trip from Europe was a series of meetings with talented friends and negotiations with possible collaborators on future projects, Brecht’s arrival to Hollywood in 1941 had none of this celebratory flair. He was fleeing from a Germany overtaken by Hitler, many of his friends dead or in imminent danger, his native tongue traded for English, a language that he felt was all too polite and insipid. However, both of their Hollywood projects—Eisenstein’s Glass House and Brecht’s A Model Family in a Model Home—share an anxious preoccupation with what it means to inhabit a place where spectral powers of illusion, surveillance, and make-believe have a real impact on human lives.
In her short video Two Marxists in Hollywood, Zoe Beloff has Brecht and Eisenstein tell their Hollywood stories. The “masters” are played by two boys, delivering their lines with nervous enthusiasm. They are shown in front of the places where Brecht and Eisenstein lived and worked, a black-and-white backdrop with Beloff’s paintings of the same locations, mediating between memories and present-day Hollywood. Its desolate sun-drenched streets appear as an eerie decoration in their own right, more unheimlich and lonely than their paint-rendered doubles. “Almost nowhere has my life been harder than in this mausoleum of easy-going,” reads Brecht from his diary.
The vertiginous discrepancy between the luscious celluloid visions produced in Hollywood and the real hardships and alienation that went into their material production was not lost on either Eisenstein or Brecht. In his “Hollywood Elegies,” set to music by long-term collaborator and fellow exile Hanns Eisler, Brecht wrote: “By the sea stand the oil derricks. Up the canyons / The gold prospectors’ bones lie bleaching. Their sons / Built the dream factories of Hollywood. / The four cities / Are filled with the oily smell / Of films.” Dreams predicated on indifference to concrete lives stink.
Eisenstein’s critique of the society of the spectacle in Glass House came at a different angle. The idea of the film occurred to Eisenstein in 1927 in Berlin, while he was looking out of the window of Hauss Hotel onto the modern city, but dreaming simultaneously of the America that was to greet him after a journey across the ocean. This project was to be an ironic commentary on the American hunger for exposure, paradoxically accompanied by a studied ability to disregard the suffering of others that goes on in plain view. “A comedy for and of the eye,” it was to be a grotesque extravaganza of eroticism, violence, and optical effects.
Inspired in part by the utopian architecture of Bruno Taut, as well as by conversations with Fritz Lang, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe, the film was to be set in a skyscraper whose walls, ceiling, and floors were to be made entirely of transparent glass. (Eisenstein even negotiated with glass factories in Pittsburgh about manufacturing the props.) Such a set was to present endless possibilities for optical effects (rooms filled with smoke, rooms filled with water, etc.), and simultaneous “dialectical” montages worthy of the most schizophrenic Facebook newsfeed: people starving from hunger were to be juxtaposed with the rich having a sumptuous meal across the glass wall; a prophetic idealist was to commit suicide in plain view of the onlookers, eager to collect his rope as a souvenir, and to go dancing in the rooftop cabaret called À l’idéaliste pendu; naked girls were to swim along with sea lions in rooms outfitted as swimming pools.
The plot was never entirely finalized, but the main dramatic and farcical arch is initiated by the Idealist/Poet who “scandalizes” the residents by loudly proclaiming what everyone knows but is busy suppressing: that the walls are transparent and everyone can see each other. This “revelation” triggers a crime wave, a breakdown of morals, and a factionalizing of the residents between the party of nudists and the party of tailors. A Robot is sent to investigate the multiple intrigues of the house, only to become overwhelmed by its contradictions, leading it to destroy the entire building so that a new and more harmonious commune can appear on its foundations.
As Eisenstein worked on the script and sketches (copies of many of them presented by Beloff), his focus shifted from criticizing the willfully “blind” lack of solidarity in the capitalist society, to bringing “into the clear” all the forces at play in his own psyche. The glass house became a structure for a total analysis of his inner life, in which transparency and Cartesian organization are combined with vibrant forces of cruelty, untamed eroticism, and violence. The destruction of the glass house came to be a metaphor for not only political, but also psychological liberation.
Brecht’s project, which Beloff “creatively excavates,” also deals with the nightmare of the total visibility. Reading Life magazine, he had stumbled over a report about the Ohio State Fair, where a model Ohio farmer family won an opportunity to live in a modern model home, equipped with all the state-of-the-art amenities, in exchange for spending this week on display from ten in the morning until ten at night. Brecht’s film was to be a story of the unbearableness of living in this industrial paradise, where a cruel price tag is attached to every object, and where the intimacy of family life is presented as yet another mass-produced item. Like Eisenstein’s film, it was to end in destruction.
The themes of psychological displacement and censorship feature in the story of the model home as well. Beloff’s installation includes a large-size reproduction of a page from the Columbus Sunday Display, in which this story about the model home was reproduced right next to a report about occupied Leningrad. The disturbing montage of the two stories of life under siege—the American farmer family, whose private life has been put on public display as yet another commodity, with that of the entire city cut off and left to starve by the German forces—was censored by the editor, who partially stamped out the article about the blockade with the image of a horn of plenty.
Zoe Beloff’s approach to establishing a rapport with the artists she admires is profoundly generous. She conjures their ghosts with elegant intimacy and humor, acknowledging the vulnerability of these “masters” to the censoring forces of industry, along with their historical struggles and their own depression. Combining the presentation of archival research with the facts, dreams, and failures of monumental heroes of 20th-century leftist art in a playful staging that uses animation, dolls, set models, painted backdrops, and child actors, she opens up a veritable analytic theatre, or, rather, an analytic cabaret. The result is as much a meditation on the concrete history of these radical artists’ attempt to subvert the powers of Hollywood to serve the socialist cause as an invitation to establish a sympathetic connection between them and today’s struggle to find a way to be at home while negotiating the powers of surveillance, market speculation, and spectacle.
ANASTASIYA OSIPOVA is completing her Ph.D. at the Comparative Literature Department at NYU and teaches at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.