M. Dumančić: Men Out of Focus

Men Out of Focus. The Soviet Masculinity Crisis in the Long Sixties

Dumančić, Marko
Anzahl Seiten
376 S.
$ 56.25
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jess Jensen Mitchell, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University

Scholarship on Soviet film typically examines the auteur canon through the lens of critical theory.1 Marko Dumančić’s Men Out of Focus, however, offers a different perspective. Informed by historical and sociological research, Dumančić asks how Soviet filmmaking of the 1960s reflected and shaped a public discussion on post-war male identity. Dumančić grounds his research in the “long sixties,” defined in the book as the period between Stalin’s death in 1953 and the Invasion of Prague in 1968. Thus, the author rejects the term the “Thaw” (1953–1964), suggesting that the most widely accepted periodization of the Soviet sixties obscures “the era’s global and international dimensions” (p. 14).

Men Out of Focus argues that “the most popular and controversial” (p. 11) films of the long sixties replaced the rigid archetypes of Stalinist masculinity with a more varied cast of protagonists in order to engage with domestic and international social concerns linked to widespread perceptions of post-war male vulnerability. Further, Dumančić writes, the shared conditions of modernization resulted in parallel depictions of masculinity in Soviet and Western cinemas.

In the first of six thematic chapters, Dumančić acquaints the reader with the historic specificities of Soviet filmmaking, arguing that industry conditions – more than Khrushchev’s discourse of increased freedom and popular participation – allowed directors to abandon the “lacquered reality” of the Socialist Realist genre and confront post-war life, as it was experienced by the average Soviet citizen. When Stalin’s rule ended, so too did a byzantine, costly system of censorship, a change that eased film production and prompted more films to be made each year. In an intriguing modification of more idealistic narratives of the period, Dumančić reminds the reader that films made in the long sixties drew from sociological research on audience preferences and an emerging fan culture.

The playfully titled second chapter, “Being a Dad Is Not for Sissies” (“sissy” meaning here a babyish, effete man) elaborates on the emergence of films centred on loving relationships between young boys and non-biological father figures. Examining these films alongside weak child support laws, statistics on astronomically high rates of illegitimate birth and abortion, and cultural sources bemoaning a scourge of deadbeat fathers, Dumančić proposes that Soviet films of the long sixties constructed a domestically oriented, non-biological ideal of fatherhood to relieve the social stigma of non-traditional families.

Dumančić calls for a more international approach to Soviet film in the subsequent four chapters of the book, tackling a global crisis of youth in chapter three. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, wartime experience cleaved older men from subsequent generations. This rift was exacerbated in the Soviet context by the political slogan of the “generational relay,” a discourse founded on the rather naive belief that people of all ages were united by socialist ideology and their shared efforts to build a communist society. Soviet directors, Dumančić argues, responded to these imminent tensions by portraying introspective young men who longed for answers that neither their veteran fathers nor Stalinist archetypes could provide.

Shifting to depictions of femininity in the West and the Soviet Union, chapter four focuses most acutely on prevalent cinematic tropes of self-sacrificing angels, overbearing mothers, and femme fatales, stating that female characters serve as scapegoats for the loss of homosocial simplicity and ensuing male decay. As a counter example, Dumančić turns to Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 drama, The Cranes are Flying; claiming that the public debate generated by the film’s psychologically complex heroine – a young woman grieving her fiancé’s death against the backdrop of the Second World War – Dumančić underscores a social fixation with female morality, as well as collective reckoning with the recent past. A generalized ambivalence towards science and progress comes to the fore in chapter five, “Our Friend the Atom,” as Dumančić tracks the brief rise of the maverick scientist as a celluloid hero.

The book’s various thematic angles meet in chapter six, “De-Heroization and the Pan-European Masculinity Crisis,” a comparison of four films of the Soviet New Wave alongside equivalent examples from Italian, Polish, British, and Czech cinema. Dumančić contends that both European and Soviet films produced parallel “cinemas of searching” (p. 217) that exemplify wounded masculinity. Here, Dumančić echoes – but does not deploy – “the cinema of the seer,” a theoretical term conceived by Gilles Deleuze in his writings on Italian neorealism in Cinema 2.2 Briefly, Deleuze explains that Italian directors Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini developed novel audio-visual techniques – anathematic to pre-war, realist film and later appropriated by directors of the global New Wave – which convey the (male) protagonist’s alienation and inability to respond to the world around him. Finally, Dumančić’s epilogue hints that the fragile male prototype of the long sixties wrought a profound, if difficult to perceive, impact on later Soviet cultural output.

Dumančić makes skilful use of oblique evidence throughout Men Out of Focus. Rather than limit himself to an exclusive study of film, Dumančić references a wealth of outside sources, including demographic information, polemic op-eds published in Literaturnaia gazeta , and political cartoons from the satirical magazine Krokodil. These materials situate cinematic tropes of masculinity within a larger context to impressive effect.

Aside from a cursory reference to Ivan’s Childhood, Dumančić sidesteps the works of internationally celebrated Soviet filmmakers such as Kira Muratova, Larisa Shepitko, Alexei German Sr., and Andrei Tarkovsky. The near-total absence of the critical canon is marked, given that many of these films do reflect the tropes of masculinity that Dumančić articulates so precisely. For example, Tarkovsky’s student film, The Steamroller and the Violin (Katok i skripka 1960) warns against domineering, consumerist mothers, just as it celebrates the redemptive potential of the child-protagonist’s relationship with a surrogate father figure. The catalogue of auteur Soviet film has already been well explored by scholars, but an analysis of the critical canon within the context of popular films and the sociological phenomena described by Dumančić would prove both novel and informative.3 Similarly, Dumančić chooses not to engage with idea of the male auteur director; a deconstruction of this trope – which rose to prominence in the sixties – ought to be included.

Men Out of Focus presents a diverse range of films and other cultural materials to provide a snapshot of Soviet cultural history with global implications. Written in a lively style, it is accessible to the general reader, just as the inclusion of numerous translated political cartoons prove quite enjoyable. The specialist, too, will appreciate Dumančić’s heterogeneous selection of films.

1 Lida Oukaderova, The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw. Space, Materiality, Movement, Bloomington, Indiana 2017; Marina Rojavin / Tim Harte, Women in Soviet Film, Milton 2018; Nariman Skakov, The Cinema of Tarkovsky, KINO, London 2012.
2 Gilles Deleuze, L’image-temps Cinéma 2, Paris 1985.
3 Scott MacKenzie, Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures. A Critical Anthology, Berkeley 2014; Claire E. McCallum, The Fate of the New Man. Representing & Reconstructing Masculinity in Soviet Visual Culture, 1945–1965, DeKalb, Illinois 2018; Isa Willinger / Kira Muratov, Kino und Subversion, Konstanz 2013.

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