Soviet Comedy: The Kuleshov Effect in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

The first Kuleshov Workshop film, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks hit theaters in 1924 (Thompson 124). Mr. West stands as a prime example of early Soviet montage cinema, influential to contemporaries and later Soviet directors. Its use of the Kuleshov effect signaled a new trend in filmmaking. Today, moviegoers take Soviet montage film techniques for granted, but Mr. West’s formappeared new and different in the 1920s.

Director Lev Kuleshov worked in cinema before the Communist Revolution and joined the State Film School staff in 1920. At the time, very little film stock circulated due to the government’s demand that all private owners of film register their holdings publicly. People hoarded their remaining film stock so that the government would not be able to collect it. Thus, in attempts to waste as little film as possible, Kuleshov’s actors put on theatrical versions of their movies before filming. Kuleshov also experimented by re-editing old films until 1921, when his acquisition of raw film stock from the government enabled him to shoot the Kuleshov Experiments (Thompson 123).

Kuleshov’s struggle to make films eased after Lenin recognized filmmaking’s importance as a propagandizing agent, stating that “Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important” (Thompson 123). Moving pictures spoke to the illiterate masses in the Russian countryside in ways written literature could not. In 1921, Lenin instated the New Economic Policy as a response to famine borne from the hardships of civil war and regime transition. Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell write that the NEP caused a “limited and temporary reintroduction of private ownership and capitalist-style dealings” (123). The hidden film stock surfaced, and movie production increased under Goskino, the USSR’s central distribution monopoly.

Shortly thereafter, Kuleshov completed The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. Mr. West is a comedy concerned with exploring stereotypes of Russians and Americans. In the beginning, the uninformed, fur coat-wearing, rich American capitalist title character travels to Russia on business. Due to his fear of Bolsheviks, who he envisions as barbaric savages, he brings his cowboy friend and bodyguard, Jeddie. Jeddie quickly gets himself jailed for lassoing innocent bystanders just for being Russian. Mr. West soon meets up with Zhban and his comrades One Eye, The Dandy, and The Countess, a gang that panders to West’s view of Russians as brutes in order to gain West’s trust—and his money. Another band of criminals elbows its way into the situation by dressing up with old-fashioned Russian attire, complete with puffy black hats and puffy black mustaches. Their plot to horrify West into giving them his money, as well as Zhban’s plan to win West’s trust, crumbles when Bolshevik police invade Zhban’s lair and make arrests. The film concludes with Jeddie (who learned to trust Russians after an American acquaintance, Ellie, freed him from jail) demonstrating to Mr. West what “real Bolsheviks” are like by taking him to see the Soviet army march. Afterwards, West writes to his wife, asking her to “Burn those New York magazines and hang a portrait of Lenin on the wall,” declaring “Long live the Bolsheviks!”

One can, however, look past the general plot of the movie and discover more meaning by examining the film’s style. Yet before focusing on specific shot sequences in Mr. West, one must understand the techniques at work in Kuleshov’s films. Kuleshov writes in Art of the Cinema that “Cinematography is a specific thing, a photographic device that gives the illusion of movement,” and “In order to determine the main strength of the cinematographic effect, we took one strip of film, cut it apart into its separate shots, and then discussed where the very ‘filmness’ which is the essence of the filmic construction lay” (44). Kuleshov claims here that cinematography amounts to more than just an illusion to be viewed passively; films demand contemplation and close study. He chooses to conduct this study in a scientific manner, literally dissecting the material at hand in order to understand its essence. Kuleshov, therefore, undermines the magical rhetoric of terms like “illusion” and “essence” by proposing to take a magnifying glass to films, understanding each of their component parts. He believes that the allure of film can be explained logically and understood concretely.

According to Kuleshov, the inner workings of cinematography could not be explained in a high-class movie theater because wealthy audiences suppressed their emotional reactions. Lower class establishments, however, illustrated more about what films accomplish. People there would not hesitate to shout or applaud during good movies and whistle at bad ones. Kuleshov discovered from attending many, many movies, both domestic and foreign, that lower class audiences enjoyed American films the most. He theorized that U.S. films received more crowd approval due to the large number of short, quick shots in Hollywood movies. On the other hand, Russian films tended to contain fewer shots, which lasted longer than American takes on average (Kuleshov 46). Kuleshov reacted against the prevalent Russian style of cinematography, using the American montage techniques of D.W. Griffith to produce films with fast cutting, frequent close-ups, and parallel lines of action (Kuleshov 4).

In mimicking American styles of American filmmaking, Kuleshov discovered the Kuleshov Effect. He found that a film viewer did not necessarily need a large establishing shot to understand the action. He created a whole new space by cutting from characters looking off-screen to different footage of what the characters see, “leading the spectator to infer spatial or temporal continuity from the shots of separate elements” (Thompson 122). The characters appeared in a space that did not really exist, in locations the actors had never actually seen. Kuleshov termed the new screen spaces, which he used in all of his experiments, “artificial landscape” (Kuleshov 5). The eyeline match enabled Kuleshov to save time on filming on-location, and also spurned a new style of films with quick cutting—montage—which Kuleshov believed was more exciting and detailed than previous Russian long takes. Kuleshov seemed to take a lot of pride in inventing the Kuleshov Effect, since the creation of a living and moving artificial landscape was not possible in previous forms of art—only in cinema (Kuleshov 53).

Moments of montage and the Kuleshov Effect signify important moments in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. One scene in Zhban’s lair shows two planes of simultaneous action, flashing between a room and an adjacent hallway producing 16 shots in a total of 40 seconds:

    • In the first shot, we see a hallway scuffle between One Eye and The Dandy. One of the hooligans knocks the other into a wall.
    • Shot 2: The camera shows that the outside action has broken up a conversation between Mr. West and The Countess, and the two look in the direction of the wall impact.
    • Shot 3: Props in Mr. West’s room fall to the floor and shatter due to the commotion.
    • Shot 4: The Countess tries to distract Mr. West by continuing to talk to him.
    • Shot 5: Zhban juts out his chin, concerned that Mr. West will not trust him if he finds out that his gang is just a pack of ruffians. He stands up to leave the room.
    • Shot 6: The Countess and West are engrossed in conversation again.
    • Shot 7: The hallway fight continues in a medium shot that shows both of the men in a narrow corridor.
    • Shot 8: One Eye leans down and picks up a vase to use as a weapon.
    • Shot 9: He throws the vase in The Dandy’s direction.
    • Shot 10: The Dandy ducks.
    • Shot 11: Zhban emerges onscreen and gets hit with the vase instead of The Dandy. A jump cut acts as a transition between Shot 10 and 11, as The Dandy seems to magically disappear with Zhban’s face appearing exactly where The Dandy stood using the same camera angle.
    • Shot 12: In a close-up, One Eye covers his agape mouth in shock.
    • Shot 13: Zhban staggers backward, visibly angered.
    • Shot 14: The Dandy’s distraught face appears in close-up as he anticipates Zhban’s reaction.
    • Shot 15: Zhban’s face fills the screen as he yells at The Dandy and One Eye.
    • Shot 16 nearly repeats Shot 12, showing another close-up of One Eye with his mouth wide open.

This sequence demonstrates the Kuleshov Effect because they did not all need to be filmed at the same place and time. Shots 12, 14, 15, and 16 could have been shot almost anywhere, as they are close-ups of characters, but when placed in sequence they create the illusion of the actors reacting to the situation. In addition, there is no evidence that the fight hallway and the room were right next to each other on the studio set, but because West and The Countess look at the wall dividing the room and the hallway just after One Eye and The Dandy crash into it, we understand that the two planes of action occur next to each other. The quick cutting in those 16 shots enhances the sense of excitement and suspense.

In the closing segment of Mr. West, when Jeddie demonstrates to his friend the honor and civility of the feared Bolsheviks, we see another sequence of quick cuts:

    • Shot 1: Jeddie and Mr. West ride in a car, having just seen several national monuments in Moscow.
    • Shot 2: Jeddie and Mr. West stand on a ledge from a high vantage point, pointing offscreen.
    • Shot 3: Stock footage of Soviet soldiers marching away from the camera in stately columns plays.
    • Shot 4: West and Jeddie continue to gawk and appear to approve of the military display.
    • Shot 5: We see more stock footage—this time zoomed in on soldiers advancing toward the camera carrying rifles with bayonets.
    • Shot 6: Mr. West looks at the action with a pair of binoculars.
    • Shot 7: A zoomed-out high angle shot looks down on soldiers, again marching away from the camera.
    • Shot 8: Mr. West appears again with the binoculars.
    • Shot 9: Masses of civilian Bolsheviks chatter amongst themselves excitedly—ostensibly because they enjoy the soldiers’ march.
    • Shot 10: A medium close-up shows one Soviet official from torso-up giving a speech.
    • Shot 11: Mr. West and Jeddie shake hands in approval.

Again we see a created space, an artificial landscape generated by the Kuleshov Effect. The actors in shots 2, 4, 6, 8, and 11, do not really see the action in shots 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, but the skillful editing creates the illusion that Mr. West and Jeddie are present during the show of military might. The quick cutting to different angles of stock soldier footage heightens the spectacle. Because we see shots of an excited Mr. West juxtaposed with newsreel military footage, we assume that the Soviet army impresses West, which also causes the movie’s audience to be impressed. Suppose that shots 2, 4, 6, 8, and 11 showed Mr. West sulking and crying instead of eagerly watching through binoculars. In that situation, audiences would view the military footage in a negative light, perceiving the army as a violent and oppressive instead of invigorating.

Thompson and Bordwell write that Mr. West “brought the Soviet cinema to the verge of a truly avant-garde movement, as a new generation of directors interested in more radical stylistic exploration began working” (124). Kuleshov’s cinematic experimentation in Mr. West proved to other Soviet directors the power of montage style, and other directors followed Kuleshov’s example almost immediately. Although later directors took montage style further and in more experimental directions than Lev, Kuleshov’s oeuvre stood as the prototype—the cornerstone of early Soviet cinema that others built upon.

Works Cited

Kuleshov, Lev. Kuleshov on Film. Ed. Ronald Levaco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.