Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 7:30pm
The Death Ray

The Death Ray
Lev Kuleshov (1925)
Introduced by Keith Sanborn

Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov is the Janus Face of early Russian Cinema. Having begun his career under the tutelage of Evgenii Bauer, Kuleshov became one of the few Russian Filmmakers to remain in the country after the 1917 Revolution. He became a leading theorist and teacher of cinema in the early Soviet period. His theory of editing, which rests on notions such as “creative geography” and what has come to be called “the Kuleshov effect” remains a cornerstone of film editing. His theoretical understanding of montage was strongly critiqued by his student Eisenstein as “brick by brick” instead of “the collision of the shots” preferred by Eisenstein. Vertov attacked Kuleshov for remaining tied to film drama, “the opium of the masses.” Both Vertov and Eisenstein singled out The Death Ray for attack in print, nor does it seem to have been particularly popular with Soviet audiences of the period.

The Death Ray was Kuleshov’s second feature length project; he had previously directed several newsreels and short fiction films as well as the justly celebrated Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). The Death Ray is an attempt to turn cartoonlike American adventure, science fiction and detective films to propagandistic purposes. It features a secret laboratory, secret passage ways, secret codes, secret compartments, labor unrest, car and airplane chases, as well as a mysterious American “fascist” organization, a lady sharpshooter (played by Khokhlova, Kuleshov’s wife) who travels back and forth between Russia and “the West,” a mysterious American Revolutionary named Lamm (who also travels back forth between Russia and the West), and of course the Death Ray itself. It is said, that in the Soviet Union, the film was seen as not propagandistic enough. Perhaps. In any case, it reveals the profound influence of contemporary American cinema on the early Soviet period and the aggressive attempt to create a Soviet reading of the essentials of the genres dominating American Cinema at the time.

The Death Ray has been, at best, infrequently screened in the United States. I could find only one record of a screening in the 1970s at the PFA, who holds a 35mm print with Russian subtitles. I had never seen the film, nor had anyone I asked, until I came across what seems to be a PAL vhs dub digitized at moderate resolution and posted online, but without English subtitles. The film will be presented this evening with English subtitles (my translation) superimposed on the original Russian intertitles. My translation diverges slightly from the translation of the subtitles held by the PFA. A final note: since the climactic final reel is missing from all known prints, we will see the death ray device only briefly in action. - KS

Keith Sanborn is a media artist, theorist, and translator based in New York. He teaches at Princeton University and Bard College, and has translated into English the work of Guy Debord, René Viénet, Gil Wolman, Georges Bataille, and Napoleon.

Tickets - $7, available at door.