“A Can-Can on the Tightrope of Logic” (Notes on Eccentrism)

by Chris Randle

Most of the radical modernist ideas circulating in 1920s Russia, whether Alexandra Kollontai’s Soviet feminism or extreme forms of artistic abstraction, were snuffed out scant years later by Stalinist repressions. Eccentrism wilted from lack of interest. I came across the short-lived movement’s hyperactive manifesto last week. In the introduction to that republished edition, translator Marek Pytel writes that its original 1922 printing was limited to 1000 copies; many were destroyed in a house fire. The Eccentrists did find some temporary popularity, or at least notoriety: Pytel describes them “disrupting the performances of ‘academic’ theatres with whistles, rattles and catcalls…they astounded guest speakers rash enough to mention the words ‘sentiment’ or ‘emotion’ by smashing every stick of furniture in the place.” Punk rock?

The basic Eccentrist thesis was that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton represented the truest avant-garde yet seen. Slapstick’s physical impossibilities were a model for political aspiration. I imagine this got a lot of contemporary reactions akin to the early gnostic sect which believed that Cain was Christianity’s real martyr. One member of “the Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEKS) wrote: “life requires art that is hyperbolically crude, stupendous, nerve-wracking, openly utilitarian, mechanically-precise, momentary, rapid.” They openly urged “Americanization” of the theatre. The implication was that the masses will be their own vanguard, artistic or otherwise.

The central Eccentric text can be maddening reading – its authors were all young men (a couple still teenagers), and even by manifesto standards their rhetoric sometimes overheats. At one point they declare: “THE 200 VOLUMES OF GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM DO NOT OFFER THE EXPRESSIVITY OF ONE SOLE CIRCUS POSTER!!!” There are several citations of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a like-minded Italian Futurist whose aesthetic fixation on speed, violence and machinery soon led him to stridently support Mussolini. Not long after the FEKS manifesto was published, Marinetti argued that “imposition of [Italian empire] will be an act of faith-force, a defiant youthful improvisation, a work of art miraculously blossoming.”

But the Eccentrists didn’t turn totalitarian, perhaps because they were too playful for that. Their theoretical writings are remarkably sly and self-mocking; they charm rather than bellow. A typical  slogan says: “Charlie’s bum is more precious to us than Eleonora Duse!” They exalted roller skates over ballet pumps, and declared themselves the children of jazz bands, slang, torch singers, cinema, dance crazes and cheap pulp thrillers – might as well throw Marx and Coca-Cola in too. They once distributed their manifesto by randomly tossing it from a moving car. They’re very easy to like.

Although that original Eccentrist document had little immediate influence, several of its main authors continued experimenting with these ideas in the nascent Soviet film industry. Most of their ’20s productions are lost, and I haven’t watched any of the survivors. But I know that affection for mass culture became a broader intellectual trend over the period. Socialist utopias were explored in literally hundreds of SF novels and “Red Pinkerton” detective thrillers (lone Soviet blockbuster Aelita, Queen of Mars posited extraterrestrial revolution amidst Constructivist sets). Shostakovich wrote the score for one Eccentric-directed picture. Eisenstein shook hands with Mickey Mouse. You could place all this near the beginning of a narrative about shifting notions of cultural taste, one extending onwards to Warhol and camp and music-critic “poptimism.”

If that story doesn’t quite have a happy ending, at least it’s a fruitfully confusing one. Whereas the Soviet experiment congealed into a lethal bureaucracy, for art and so much else, after one chaotic decade. You can see it coming onscreen. From what I’ve read, the Eccentrists’ later films were identifiably Marxist, but in tense, ambivalent and even subversive ways that would soon be absolutely verboten. In 1927 director Abram Room, who knew the Eccentrics Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, made Bed and Sofa. It’s about a revolutionary young menage-a-trois who try to love one another as communists before realizing they can’t. The USSR’s film industry devolved into grotesque spectacles like 1949′s The Fall of Berlin, a WWII epic I stared at for three hours in a class last year; in one scene Stalin tells the lovelorn hero “don’t be afraid of poetry.”

There’s a DC Comics outfit called the Doom Patrol, a trashy superhero team that the Eccentrists probably would’ve dug. Each member was a freakish misfit, maimed, traumatized or alienated from society during the same event that gave them bizarre powers. The characters were relaunched multiple times until a new creative team took over in the late ’80s and infected the series with psychedelia, conspiracism and copious Burroughs.

Their new arch-foes were the Brotherhood of Dada, supervillains with a grudge against “consensus reality,” whose totally irrational schemes included transforming Paris into a giant artwork and mounting a surreal presidential campaign via the lysergic resonance of Albert Hofmann’s bicycle. The Brotherhood’s creator has said that he felt forced to kill them off when they became more popular than his ostensible heroes. I mention all this because it sounds like the logic that Stalin applied to actual artistic eccentrics. In 1949 Leonid Trauberg was fired as director of the studio Lenfilm. His offense? Being “a leader of cosmopolitanism.”

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