- Engineering Performance: Lev Kuleshov, Soviet Reflexology, and Labor Efficiency Studies
The film actor performs not in front of an audience but in front of an apparatus. The film director occupies exactly the same position as the examiner in an aptitude test. . . . To accomplish it [this test] is to preserve one’s humanity in the face of the apparatus. . . . For the majority of city dwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of the apparatus. In the evening these same masses fill the cinemas, to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf not only by asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in service of his triumph.—Walter Benjamin, December 1935–February 1936 [End Page 297]
In his discussion of “the apparatus,” Walter Benjamin draws a parallel between the actor and the filmgoer as subjects of modernity, each coming to terms with emerging technologies. By highlighting their respective “performances”—their interaction with complex machinery at their work sites—Benjamin contemplates the vicissitudes of the socioeconomic regime, which seeks to reduce personhood to function, to turn man into a cog in a vast mechanism of industrial production and consumption. Alarmed by these tendencies, Benjamin insists on a tactic for regaining one’s individual creativity and capacity for critical reflection, one’s humanity. Like Theodor Adorno and Siegfried Kracauer, Benjamin considers the movie theater to be the milieu where one can develop awareness of the modern condition. Since the 1990s, one of the most productive trends in film scholarship has been driven by the idea of recuperating the Benjaminian spectator. The works of Tom Gunning, Thomas Elsaesser, Giuliana Bruno, and other scholars have refuted an earlier universalized model of the film viewer who passively digests the codes of the dominant culture and realigns her or his desires with its calls. The prisoners of Plato’s cave have been supplanted by modern-day flâneurs, who are free to zoom in and out of the film spectacle much in the same way that they navigate the metropolitan environment. The experience of cinema in this model is far from passive submission; rather, it is an interpretative act geared toward articulating one’s place within the fabric of “vernacular modernism.”1 Media archaeologists working in the vein of Friedrich Kittler’s and Jonathan Crary’s tradition have also proposed more sophisticated ways of assessing the spectator’s interaction with “the apparatus” on a physical level.2 If we are to place cinema in the context of other modern technologies that regulate the users’ attention spans and emotional investments, we must also reflect on the ways in which human sensorium adjusts and defends itself against overstimulation. Thus, the efforts of recent scholarship have resulted in a more complex, historically grounded vision of the spectator’s experience—a view that acknowledges the subject’s integration in a technology-driven commercial world but at the same time resists the idea of her or his complete subjugation.
Yet what about the first element of Benjamin’s statement: the actor? Although much has been written about diverse schools of acting, individual performers, and star systems developed by various film industries, there are as of yet no sustained efforts to historicize the experience of early film acting, its material history and discursive configurations. This essay aims to initiate a novel path of inquiry that takes inspiration from recent scholarship on the [End Page 298] spectator but shifts attention to the site of production. My focus is local—the acting workshop of the Soviet director Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s—but I hope to raise questions that would be crucial to investigate in other international milieus as well. Kuleshov’s ideas about expressive movement have emerged at the juncture of neurophysiology, reflexology, studies of labor efficiency, and experimental endeavors of the Russian avant-garde encountering mass media. In this context, Benjamin’s notion of the “aptitude test” for the actor is not just an empty metaphor. Consequently, the issue of the actor’s humanity acquires a concrete significance in Kuleshov’s case, and my discussion highlights multiple dimensions of...