Mr. West was the first feature film that Kuleshov made with a team of actors who had attended his Experimental Cine-Laboratory. For four years, this group had been doing preparatory work as they planned to reform the art of cinema with an eye on montage. Yet, for a long time, their ideas remained dry theory, because the workshop lacked resources to make films. The focus of the Cine-Lab’s practice was on acting études. Details of scenes were story-boarded, photographed, or “framed” by special viewfinders in order to visualize how they might look in an edited film sequence. Thanks to these exercises, the notion of montage that Kuleshov developed was inextricably linked to his ideas on acting and shot composition. What he was aiming for was the aesthetics of American action films. he admired them for their fast pace, well-wrought suspense, athletic performances, as well as narratively efficient framing and editing – in short, for everything that was missing from languid boudoir melodramas, which dominated the Russian screen before the Revolution. Kuleshov’s understanding of “American montage” came down to this essential rule: each scene must be composed of brief sequences, filmed in close-ups or medium shots from different angles, so as to draw attention to the key phases of the character’s movement and the most important details of his environment.
In accordance with this principle, Kuleshov made sure that each frame of Mr. West would be stripped of unnecessary and distracting details and serve as an efficient, unequivocal plot-furthering element. In this way, Kuleshov hoped to economize the spectators’ attention and draw them into the rapidly unfolding narrative. Analogously, the work of actors in various scenes is often composed of several distinct moments, which are shown in close-up. Each shot highlights just one particular gesture, movement, or facial expression – this is especially obvious in Mr. West’s and the bandits’ behavior on screen. The director favored simple trajectories and clear geometry, encouraging his actors to produce expressions that would be immediately readable. He insisted that vectors of their movements should create a “rigid linear ornament” in a montage sequence. Almost like a Constructivist artist, Kuleshov conceived of his editing as graphic design in motion.
Kuleshov’s idea that each actor’s movement should be physically impressive and eye-grabbing often resulted in unnatural and grotesque performances, somewhat reminiscent of the avant-garde theater. Following a meticulous outline of the envisaged montage sequences, all actions were rehearsed in advance. For example, the fights were planned, so that each combatant would know when to strike or to receive a blow. Kuleshov’s priority was amplifying action onscreen. Movement, he argued, was the quintessential property of cinema, and therefore had to be exploited to the maximum. Its visual impact could be effectively amplified by editing. Thus Kuleshov’s rapid intercutting between the fleeing cowboy and policemen on motorbikes boosts the energy of the chase scene by endowing it with a frenetic rhythm.
Thinking in terms of editing also impacted the film’s set design. Since Kuleshov planned to cut from one close shot to another, a large, fully fleshed-out set was unnecessary. This idea was a radical departure from the lavish and decadent sets of the pre-Revolutionary director Evgeni Bauer, Kuleshov’s first mentor. In Mr. West, the guiding design principle was an “American” drive for rationalizing and economizing everything: the viewers’ attention span, the actors’ trajectories, precious film stock, and building materials.
Even though Kuleshov had learned a lot from American films and wanted Mr. West to surpass them, the film’s attitude to its source materials is best described as an imaginative parody. Placing a cowboy in fringed chaps on the snow-covered streets of Moscow and having him lasso an unsuspecting Russian coachman is a strategy that bespeaks Kuleshov’s pursuit of comic defamiliarization. Mr. West was first and foremost an experiment intended to reveal whether he had guessed the know-how of American movies correctly. The goal of montage in this film was limited to packing each second with as much action and thrill as possible. It is true that Kuleshov’s ideas on montage helped achieve narrative efficiency, yet as Sergei Eisenstein remarked, the author of Mr. West was still too attached to the idea of step-by-step building, thinking of his shots as “little bricks.” Eisenstein and Barnet would be much more adventurous in their editing experiments.
1.73GB | 1h 16m | 768×578 | mkv