“Interdisciplinary work is so important. Students and faculty here are lucky to be able to do it.”
“European modernism is very difficult for students—it’s jumpy, scattered and fragmented,” says Melissa Frazier, a member of the Russian faculty since 1995. That’s part of the reason she enjoys teaching it. “In Russian, you have shorter texts that you have to read incredibly intensively, word for word, like poetry; it’s a very dense, rewarding experience.”
The abrupt compositional style of Russian literature in the 1920’s and 30’s had a counterpart in the films of the early Soviet Union, whose directors pioneered techniques of montage and fast editing that are part of popular moviemaking today.
“Hollywood filmmakers didn’t start editing as fast as the Soviets of the 1920’s until the 1990’s,” notes film history faculty member Malcolm Turvey, who joined SLC in 2000.
This spring, Frazier and Turvey combined their disciplines in a team-taught seminar, “Soviet Literature and Film of the 1920s and 1930s.” Covering a period of both artistic breakthrough and material deprivation, in which the role of art in the new Soviet society was debated, the course used film to help illustrate (literally and figuratively) themes and structures locked up inside some knotty literary works: Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal films October and Battleship Potemkin, for example, were studied for insight into Isaac Babel’s collection of stories set during the Russian civil war, Red Cavalry.
“Putting two things together that produce a clash is a technique that both Eisenstein and Babel used,” Turvey says.
Soviet modernism was short-lived; under government pressure, it petered out in the 30’s. Some scriptwriters were exiled or executed; Isaac Babel disappeared into the gulag and his death wasn’t revealed until the 50’s.
Each Wednesday afternoon seminar was devoted to discussion, alternating weeks between film and literature. Turvey and Frazier took turns leading the discussion, spending their non-teaching weeks like a student, often expanding the class’s scope.
“As a teacher herself,” says Turvey, “Melissa could see me trying to steer the conversation in what I hoped were the most productive directions, and she would help. But she sometimes asked questions that I didn’t expect, and that led the discussion into areas that I hadn’t planned, but were well worth it.”
Turvey adds, “I enjoyed reading and studying novels again— looking for repeated symbols and metaphors, thinking about who is narrating. But it reconfirmed for me that literature and film are fundamentally different, and require different skills to understand properly.”
Both agreed that the ease with which they were allowed to put the course together is unusual. “It would be much harder to do this at another institution,” says Frazier. “Interdisciplinary work is so important. Students and faculty here are lucky to be able to do it.”