What Is Hyperkino? Ruscico’s Academia DVD series and the historical-critical film edition

The post below is a translation of a post which was originally published on my old blog in danish, arkivfeber, on august 26, 2012 as “Hvad er Hyperkino? Ruscicos Academia DVD series and the historical-critical DVD edition”.

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I have wanted to write a blog post on the large variety of DVD formats which have appeared in later years in the European film archive world in the slipstream of the numerous digitization projects in especially the past decade. There exist several DVD formats today which represent quite sophisticated digital forms of dissemination developed by individual film archives and museums which conceptualize new ways of analyzing archival films making use of the DVD format’s database structure from new angles. Two projects in particular which have caught my attention in these last couple of years are the editions of respectively Dziga Vertov’s film’ Sestaja Cast’ Mira (A Sixth Part of the World, USSR, 1926) og Oddinnadcatyj (The Eleventh Year, USSR, 1928) published by the Austrian Filmmuseum, which was the result of a three-year research project called Digital Formalism, carried out between 2007-2010 in a collaboration between the Technical University of Vienna and media theorist and Lev Manovich. This project was particularly interesting because of its theoretical underpinnings which explored one of the most significant, if not the most significant – Vertov collections in the world which the Austrian Filmmuseum holds – taking as its point of departure the software developed by the research team of Lev Manovich at UCLA in San Diego. One of the interesting tools which the Digital Formalism-project developed was a visualization software which could track the reuse of film material in Vertov’s films to demonstrate, to a much larger degree than it had been possible before, how Vertov used his own image archive to incorporate his own and other’s footage in different filmic contexts. That Vertov, which plays such a crucial part in Manovich new media theory for the conceptualization of what he names the “database logic” of digital meida in his early and widely influential foray into digital media The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2001), should become the very object of analysis for a research and dissemination project was partially conceptualized by Manovich was a quite interesting turn for Vertov fans.

The other project, which has caught my attention and which takes a quite different theoretical position with regard to the use of DVDs as a presentation format is the Hyperkino format developed by RUSCICO (abbreviation for the Russian Cinema Council) developed by theorists and film historians Nikolai Izvolov and Natascha Drubek. It is this format which this blog post will focus on.

Hyperkino, an introduction

Where Manovich’ method and the Digital Formalism project is more visually driven and relies on the use of multiple windows and frames as the basis of comparative analyses of film clips and stills, Hyperkino takes its point of departure in a literary tradition of historical-critical book editions. That means editions of a work with footnotes which places it in a historical-critical perspective by situating it in relation to other works within the oeuvre of the same author or to explain it in the historical and geographical context the work was created in. In 2006 Drubek and Izvolov penned an article together that formulated this vision, Critical Editions of Films on Digital Formats, which was published in the eighth edition of the international film studies review Cinema & Cie. in the fall of 2006.

The article departed from a critique of current presentations in academic and contextualizing analyses of films on DVD  to conceptualize a new way of DVD editorship relying on annotations and a more extensive and effective use of the hyperlinked structure of the DVD format. One of the points of critique was that existing DVD editions much too often overburdened the works in question with information by inserting explanatory texts or references to other films in the form of boxes or film clips placed within a screen space which was too small. For this reason, Drubek and Izvolov instead advocated for a use of annotations which could appearh in conjunction with the film but also exist independently of it. As the basis of this proposition they proposed a distinction betwen the film in itself as textus, which should be able to stand alone and be viewed independently of an analytical interpretive layer, and on the other hand an apparatus including all that which is not part of the filmic text itself: notes on the film’s historical context, script, stills or for example correspondences or business documents related to the film’s production. As they point out, the DVD format opens for a much wider range of possibilities than simultaneous commentaries as for example the mentiond forms of multiple frama analysis or commentary tracks. Instead, the authors point out, that it is possible to use the DVD’s database structure to explore the film as a form of hypertext, while not regarding the film as a text in a literary sense. Instead of adhering exclusively to literary text-centric notions, they propose to regard digitized films on DVD format as Hyperkino.

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Hyperkino’s logo

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In practice this means that as in hypertext where words can contain links which will send the reader to another page within or outside of the the text it finds itself in, it is possible to mark off specific areas in a digital film edition to contain a link, indicated by a specific symbol on the screen, which the viewer can click on to obtain access to a new page which contains contextualizing information on the clip.

The technique and the principle is in no way revolutionary one could add. It has been seen in many DVD edtions since the mid-1990s as for example easter eggs appearing in the form of hyperlinked icons placed within a picture frame in a film or in a DVD menu to give access to hidden extra material. However, the fundamental difference from this common use and Drubek’s and Izvolov’s principle is that the hyperlinks are systematized with the objective of adhering to academic standards for film analysis and to historical-critical principles of annotation. Therefore, in the Hyperkino-format the hyperlinks are each assigned an individual number, which indicates the link’s function as a footnote commentary to a film on for example its style, history and conception.

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Example of a note as it appears in a Hyperkino edition. This is a screen capture taken from the first KinoAcademia edition: Lev Kuleshov’s debut feature Engineer Prite’s Project (1918)

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As an actual DVD format Hyperkino materialized itself only in 2008, two years after the programmatic article by Drubek and Izvolov. First in the fold of the German DVD publisher Absolutmedien and later as the series KinoAcademia published by RUSCICO. The film to launch the format was Lev Kuleshov’s debut feature Proekt inzhenera Prayta (Engineer Prite’s Project), USSR, 1918). Not only was it the first time the film was made available digitally, it had also, as pointed out by film historian Kristin Thompson, for a long time only existed in a version without intertitles, which left the impression that the film was incomplete.

In line with the proclamation in Drubek’s and Izvolov’s article, the DVD edtion consists of respectively a textus and an apparatus separated on two discs. On disc two, one finds the film subtitled in russian, english, french, german, spanish, italian and portuguese. Disc 1 contains the annotated version, with footnotes appearing during playback in the upper right corner. This is the basic setup for all the series’ releases which at this time of writing counts thirteen titles.

What follows here are my impressions of the edition of Aleksandr Medvedkin’s classic Schastye (Happiness, USSR, 1934), the fifth release in the series.

KinoAcademia 5: Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Happiness/Schastye (1934)

Medvedkin’s silent film Happiness is a film which I have already had for a couple of years as it is included on a separate disc as a part of the DVD edition of Chris Marker’s portrait of the director Aleksandre Medvedkin Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1993) which was released in 2005 by French Arte. As curious coincidence film historian Nikolai Izvolov who is behind Hyperkino plays a very large part in this film, giving both a passionate and insightful introduction to Medvedkin and his time. The DVD’s extra material for example includes an interview with Izvolov which was not included in the final edition of the film with a detailed and highly interesting explanation of why, according to Izvolov, Medvedkin and Vertov as two prominent directors working in the same period never became more conscious about each other’s works and theories. And that Medvedkin’s film holds a very special place in the cinephile memory of Izvolov is something which becomes clear in a place in Marker’s film, when he proclaims that the explicit nature of the scene in which nuns are seen in transparent black dresses which have later become iconic for the film appeared so strong and enigmatic to him – how could it avoid censorship in that period!? – that this film is the reason why he chose to dedicate his life to film history.

This was one of the main reasons why, without hesitation, chose to get hold of this title in the series to test the format and to experience Izvolov’s notes on the film.

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A young Nikolai Izvolov explains the relation, or rather lack of, between Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin in the 1930s USSR. The screen capture is taken from the extra material to Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1993).

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Aleksandr Medvedkin’s comedy about the loafer Khmyr (Khmyr means something like a man without great merits) is about a man who has great difficulties finding his place within traditional as well as modern ways of living. He is not a great success as a farmer and he is not capable of, or interested in for that matter, to dutifully take care of the tasks assigned to him by the church nor the army. It is only when he accidentally finds a wallet full of money a day where he has parted on a trip in a search for luck in his life that he begins to get a sense of what the good life consists of.

The money allows him to create a base for him and his wife, but even with his newly achieved social status Khmyr has to face after a short while that happiness in life is fragile and that the money he has found is not a ticket to a better destiny nor the happiness he wished for. It actually reaches the point where Khmyr considers death the only proper solution and begins to prepare a coffin for himself. But typical of the absurd tone in which the film is told, the church presents itself at Khmyr’s house with great pomp to avoid him taking his own life as a blasphemous act against the church.

Exactly this scene is characteristic of the film’s comedy which unravels in a long series of absurd situations where Khmyr mostly appears as an apathetic character in a fantasy world where the line between life and death, fantasy and reality becomes blurred. One of the features of the mise-en-scène which underlines this aspect is its consequent use of props that are out of proportions compared to the characters, mostly too big and inspired by old folk tales and manners of speeking, giving room to the unexpected. As the story unfolds characters appear and disappear while some even die and reincarnate out of the blue.

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A screen capture from Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Happiness. An example of the characteristic mise-en-scène which throughout the film creates a fantastic universe and tone.

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In the Hyperkino format the film includes forty notes in total of which three thematic tracks seem to dominate the commentaries and observations incuded in them:

– The film’s distribution and censorship history

– The film’s iconography with particular regards to the film’s references to Russian folk tales and sayings

– The film’s place within Medvedkin’s oeuvre and within contemporary Russian film

In exploring the footnotes what appears fascinating initially is not so much the written notes in themselves. Had the format only comprised written notes I would probably been left with the feeling that this format was a bit too static and that very little would distinguish it significantly from a purely written presentation of the work. The aspect in which this format appears to me to show its strength is in its inclusion of a wide variety of documents relating to the film’s production, reception and later scholarly research on it. From the included documents one can for example see how easily the film obtained its distribution visa, and how it was renewed without any problems year after year, until 1938 when it on the basis of a critical review in a provincial newspaper Bolshevik was taken out of distribution for having supposedly ridiculed the relevance of class struggle.

Subsequently the notes bring into play a mutitude of references to Russian culture by explaining in particular the motifs characterizing Medvedkin’s visual style. The visual motifs are often explained as references to orthodox christian art or as explanations of old folk tales. There are several examples in the film of for example sayings used in informal language being used to create specific pictures. In the first part for example, an old man falls dead after which his spirit is seen leaving his body in the from of smoke puff coming out of the man, seemingly playing with a way of a saying on how the spirit leaves the body after death.

The best feature of the format in my opinion, are the film clips included in the footnotes. This is where the visual motifs of Schastye are directly put in relation to Medvedkin’s other films, or to for example the work of other directours such as Lev Kuleshov or Sergei Eisenstein.

One note is particularly interesting. It explores how water and the motif of falling and jumping into water represents a visual trope which was the subject of particularly interesting artistic explorations in Soviet silent cinema. The note illustrates how Medvedkin distinguished himself from contemporary directors by using for example manipulation of playback speed to a comical effect. Where this in for example the work of Kuleshov is usually used as a motif to motivate formalist motion studies, Medvedkin’s Schastye explores it in a comical tone. A woman which falls into the water in one of the film’s early scenes – as it is explained with reference to notes from Medvedkins script – sinks into the water in slow motion as if, the note points out, the water does not want to receive her. In this way the manipulation of speed creates a touch of fantastic absurdism in Medvedkin’s film while, while it in Kuleshov’s use (perhaps) predominantly motivates a stylistic playfulness.

In my experience it is these kind of comparisons which make the Hyperkino format special and really demonstrate that the DVD contains a hitherto unexplored analytical potential for film historical study. It really offers something which writing cannot in terms of comparative analysis, that you are suddenly enabled jump across film clips from the works of different periods and directors.

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Screen captures from the note described above which explains the different uses of speed manipulation in Soviet silent cinema as respectively a formalist and comical effect in Medvedkin’s and Kuleshov’s films.

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The only minus about the information provided in the footnotes to this presentation of Happiness are the commentaries on the music. Several times throughout the film I was wondering what the music’s relation to the film was. The soundtrack which was composed by both music and sound effects created from real recordings clearly had been created to fit a specific version of the film. Only one note, the very last one, explains this aspect of the film’s presentation. It specifies that the soundtrack used for the DVD edition was put together by Chris Marker, who had obtained the distribution rights for the films re-release in France in the 1970s. On this point one misses further explanation supposing that one could assume that Marker probably had many interesting thoughts on this and that Izvolov for could be supposed to be quite knowledgeable on this. But perhaps that will be receive more attention on another occasion.

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