Eisenstein and Cartoon Sound

by Douglas Kahn

Douglas Kahn is an artist and writer, and associate professor in Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University West, USA

Developing out of Soviet cinema's hothouse theoretical debates, Sergei Eisenstein's ideas on sound and cinema are a remarkable encounter of the visual cut with the suture and mix of sound, the speed at which the visual world could be comprehended with a l aggard aurality not yet accelerated by the auditive mass media, the international visualist language of montage with the nationalising effects of the sound of language, the desire for an ongoing development of cinema as an independent art with the inertia of "photographed presentations of a theatrical order",1 and a materialist experiment intent upon anti-illusionism with the increasing stultification of the Stalinist cultural order. This much is either well-known or self-evident. But what of Mickey, Bambi and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit? 

These and other cartoon characters were ushered into the Russian avant-garde through its early fascination with 'American eccentrism', an appetite expressed across the entire European avant-garde for ragtime and jazz, cowboys and Indians, cops-and-robbers and Chicago gangsters, Salvation Army, for slapstick pratfalls and sight gags, Charlie Chaplin, for all that was fast, funny, irreverent and overflowing with artifice. Eccentrism was discursively linked to sound film through the Russian avant-garde theat re's reaction to the simple prospects of sound cinema. In 1913 Vladimir Mayakovsky said that theatre, in the face of cinema, should give up its naturalistic copying of nature in the same way that painting had given up copying with the advent of photograph y. Otherwise, theatre would be "...merely the three-dimensional photography of real life".2 The kinetophone made this especially true because "The only distinction between [theatre] and cinema-silence has been removed by Edison with his latest invention". 3 Naturalistic theatre reproduced through sound cinema was a copy of a copy of nature, twice the reason to develop a new theatre, an 'anti-illusionist' theatre, and this is what eccentrism provided, the performances of music hall, clowning and the circus, and the spectacle of eccentrism in general. 

It was this theatre where Eisenstein cut his artistic teeth and first sent forth his theories of cinema. In 1922 Eisenstein co-wrote an essay with FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) cohort Sergei Yutkevich that pitted 'eccentrism' against cinematic ill usionism and more specifically against synchronised sound cinema circa 1905 (The Jazz Singer was late 1927). The essay quoted the French critic Claude Blanchard who remarked, "People who visited the darkened halls in 1905-6 will of course remember the pri mitive imitation sounds that invariably accompanied the showing of a film (the crashing of waves, the roar of an engine, the sound of breaking crockery, etc. etc.)."4 Blanchard himself thought little of such synchronisation because the technical imperfect ions were too evident: "The illusion did not work!"5 Eisenstein and Yutkevich questioned the desire for illusion in the first place. In addition, they were puzzled why America, the wellspring of "eccentrism" had itself not overcome "the temptations of ill usion"6 in its own films. America had not only given in to temptation but it now housed the supreme trompe l'oeil artists, constructing the slums of Rio, Hindu temples or the back-alleys of San Francisco out of papier mache, in Hollywood studios. 

Later in the decade, American cartoon characters were accommodated in the space opened up by Chaplin - all of them offspring of the bioscope who had the allegiances of both children and intellectuals. The late 1920s gave birth to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit ( September 1927), Mickey Mouse (May 1928) and the 'Statement on Sound' (August 1928), written collectively by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov. The 'Statement' rehashed earlier Soviet arguments about cinema as an art form separate from theatre and went on to propose that sound montage be developed along the lines of visual montage and that the two be asynchronous to one another. The 'Statement' posed this relationship through the metaphor of music: "Only the contrapuntal use of sound vis-a-vis th e visual fragment of montage will open up new possibilities for the development and perfection of montage". The developmental process will be marked initially by "...a sharp discord" and ultimately lead to "...the creation of a new orchestral counterpo int" between sound and visual image.7 This play of music would diminish the role of speech enough to avoid the reduction of cinema to a 'filmed play' and to mitigate against the language-based national markets that so threatened the international posi tion and internationalist disposition enjoyed by Soviet cinema. 

In general, the 'Statement' sought a continuous line of development out of the silent cinema, instead of the dramatic disjuncture that appeared to be occurring. There is similarity here with what Disney did in the early cartoons, successfully extending th e elements of silent cinema into sound under the actuality, not the metaphoricity, of music. Take, for instance, the exaggerated gestures and actions of silent film acting: they disappeared with the advent of the talkies but lived on in the cartoons. Mary Ann Doane has stated that these exaggerations were produced as a compensatory voice: "The absent voice re-emerges in gestures and the contortions of the face - it is spread over the body of the actor".8 In early sound cartoons, voices were re/introduced along with sounds, although both had been implied through a variety of techniques. As with all silent films, music had always been there; it had just been on the outside looking in. In cartoons, the music that structured the visual dominion of gestures an d actions provided the sonic device to introduce voices and sounds to any and every latency that could be heard. Thus, voices, sounds and music were spread out over the bodies of both characters and objects, whether it be a squeaking elbow joint, fly foot steps or flesh ripped off to play a rib-cage xylophone, everything that could make a sound or speak through any means did so. Any implied or compensatory sound, and many more, made themselves heard with a vengeance. Disney, in fact, ran into trouble when he tried to add sound after the fact to two unreleased silent cartoons: "The finished products reveal their origins; because the animation was not done to a specific beat, and gags were not geared to particular sound effects or songs, there is no fusion b etween sound and picture".9 

In 1935, the British filmmaker John Grierson singled out the precedence of sound as the basis for Disney's success: 

Out of the possibilities of sound synchronisation a world of sound must be created, as refined in abstraction as the old silent art, if great figures like Chaplin are to come again. It is no accident that of all the comedy workers of the new r egime the most attractive, by far, is the cartoonist Disney. The nature of his material forced upon him something like the right solution. Making his sound strip first and working his animated figures in distortion and counterpoint to the beat of the sound, he has begun to discover those ingenious combinations which will carry on the true tradition of film comedy.10 [my emphasis] 

That Grierson echoed the contrapuntal principle of the 'Statement on Sound', was no accident for he was quite familiar with Russian film and only a year earlier he had written favorably on Pudovkin's use of sound.11 Eisenstein's first move toward applied sound cinema ran counter to giving sound precedence; it was a plan to add sound after-the-fact to The General Line (1929), renamed Old and New. Unfortunately, financing for the project promised by a London firm was withdrawn,12 his first use coming years later with the banned Bezhin Meadow (1935-37) and then finally in Alexander Nevsky (1937-38),13 but by that time his approach and the times had become conservative. The sound script for Old and New, on the other hand, wa s very adventurous despite the fact that the story - the efforts of a peasant woman, Marfa, to collectivise and technologise farming in her community - might seem like an unlikely vehicle for major experimentation. Eisenstein's lack of experience apparent ly sanctioned a wish-list freed from practicality - just as well, many ideas would have been technically difficult or impossible to realise at the time - or perhaps he was intent with his very first sound project to establish a cinematic practice commensu rate in sophistication with visual montage. For whatever reasons, the script demonstrates a systematic attempt to achieve an auditive montage very much along the lines proposed in the 'Statement'. The very fact that he chose to retroactively add sound ass ured, again, a diminution of language. Likewise, the autonomy of the sound montage was established. In fact, there could be little other response; if the quickness of the visual cutting had been paralleled with like speed in sound cutting the result would have fallen on laggard ears. Historically, there had not yet been the cumulative decades of auditive mass media needed to produce a properly accelerated comprehension of code, such as television channel switching. Instead, Eisenstein was still relying on the cumbersome Wagnerian leitmotiv, i.e., a cliched music or an internal construction of code. 

One way Eisenstein proposed to use sound was similar to how conventional cinema uses music: to bridge the cut/s. For example, in an early scene in Old and New where two brothers cut their hut down the middle and inefficiently partition their fields simply because they are separating (set as an example of irrational peasant behavior), the sound in the script moves from a crosscut saw, to a circular saw, to the "...deformation of the saw sound (Zeitlup [slow-motion]) into sobbing,"14 - the sobbing si gnaling the poverty and suffering such irrationality imposes. This ability to stretch across the cut (of the hut and montage), to meld continuously from one 'object' or entity to another, is a feature intrinsic to sound and it has had little parallel with in the cinema or videography until the recent computer-based capacity for 'morphing'. Yet it was the same nonobject-like stretching that gave Disney an early success with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit just prior to Steamboat Willie. Oswald's selling poin t "...was a rubbery kind of movement that tied into fresh and amusing gags". In Oh, What a Knight, Oswald wrings himself out to dry, and later, when kissing a fair maiden's hand, he pulls an endless length of arm from her sleeve in order to have mo re to kiss! In Trolley Troubles even Oswald's electric car is flexible, "widening and flattening to accommodate the unpredictable changes in the tracks beneath it".15 There was also a phallic fascination, a morphing between flaccid and erect and ba ck again, easily observed in the cartoon cannon and rifle barrels relaxing after each firing; itself well within Eisenstein's own field of fixations, as evidenced by his cock drawings. Eisenstein's essay on Disney has this very elasticity as the main conc ern, finding precedent in Lewis Carroll, the German caricaturist Walter Trier, etchings by Toyohiro, Bokusen and Hokusai, etc.16 He calls it "plasmaticness" and considers Mickey in possession of "...this plasmation par excellence".17 He briefly ent ertains the idea that its secrets are held in a prenatal, even cellular memory, a standard from which to gauge the morphing of growth and shrinkage. To explain the "pre-logical attractiveness" of Disney cartoons in the United States, he says that the plas matic "all-possible diversity of form" finds its ground as a counter to a "...social order with such a mercilessly standardised and mechanically measured existence".18 He then goes on at length to generalise such transformations to fire,19 a fire "...assu ming all possible guises"20 in a aural-like flux where borders dissolve and things are born and die in a moment, and through fire back to music: "...herein also lies the secret of the fascination of music, for its image too is not stable". I n fact: " 'Music' - the element of Disney". But not completely. While Eisenstein revelled in the action in Disney's foreground, he thought that "Disney is amazingly blind when it comes to landscape - to the musicality of landscape and at the same time, to the musicality of color and tone".21 Bambi, for instance, lacked the lyricism of Chinese landscape and painting "...in its treatment of fluffy beings - monkeys or fledglings".22 

At one point in the sound script for Old and New a fanfare is blurted out only to become shrill laughter, then saw sound is distorted into laughter which melds into 'animal laughter'. Eisenstein must have thought his farm animals arthritic in compa rison to the transformative talents of cartoons animals and animal sounds. But the cartoon connection is actually more immediate. As preface to the script, Eisenstein lists among several categories kinds and degrees of sound. The three kinds of sound are (1) musical, (2) natural surroundings and (3) animated cartoon. The three degrees of sound are (1) slow motion, (2) animated cartoon (an exaggeration of number three above), and (3) special types of distortion of a purely acoustic sort (to be found). Eise nstein, faced with the problem of associating certain sounds to rapid visual cutting from shot to shot, uses the quick, often disjunctive sound/visual image relationships of the early sound cartoons as a means to accelerate sounds into at least some proxi mity of association_"Must find ecstatic gradations of timbres, corresponding to the ecstatic gradations of the shots..."23 The difficulty he faced was inherited by his plans to add sound after-the-fact to Old and New. A shot in a cartoon is much lo nger in duration than a flurry of Eisensteinian shots; with a new film he could have geared the shooting to the exigencies of sound. Nevertheless, 'animated cartoon sound', later called 'Mickey Mousing' in filmmaking jargon, served as an example of coordi nating sound and image in rhythmic, contrapuntal and timbral ways. For example, when the collective's baby bull, Fomka, grows to full size in a series of shots constructed much like the awakening stone lion sequence in Battleship Potemkin, then ins eminates his 'bride' in one of cinema history's rare cross-species point-of-view camera shots... 

Wedding - "lyricism" - Negro chorus. Parody on 
Fomka's motif with Hawaiian guitar
Growth of Fomka - crescendo of Fomka's leitmotiv. 
Choppy. With each jump in Fomka's growth the sound 
gets stronger. Without transition. This same figure is 
repeated in Fomka's running. There they fuse 
The "Attack" - terrifying increase
Cow spreads her legs - complete pause. Then sound of
gunfire and an apogee of mooing.24

And perhaps when animated cartoon sound existed in both kind and degree it would result in how the film's harvest time becomes a bountiful occasion for a "...whole gamma of sound effects".25

Finally, Eisenstein's own drawing talents must be taken into account, not just in how they might dispose him as an inside admirer of the technical proficiency of the Disney company cartoonists, but how his penchant for graphics corresponded to an inscript ive notion of sound and sound cinema. Eisenstein's interest in things Japanese is well known, and this extended to sound cinema: "If European painting owes the origins of impressionism to the Japanese, if modern sculpture stems from the Negro plastic, the phonetic cinema will be no less indebted to the Japanese..."26 As Harry Potamkin wrote, in an essay that moved topically from Eisenstein and Japan into cartoons: "...graphic sound_the key to the sonorous film".27 He then quotes Eisenstein, "...it is nece ssary to reduce to the same denominator the conceptions visual and phonetic".28 One manifestation of this reduction was the phonographic script, i.e., sound drawn directly on the optical track, scattered throughout Romance Sentimentale (1930), a fi lm attributed to Grigori Alexandrov with arguable collaboration from Eisenstein (the first sound film by Russian/s if not in Russia).29 From this perspective, the orthography of phonographic inscription, and the implications for a universal alphabe tics (making a return to their initial encounter with Far East languages as the biblical lost language), make their true debut in the infantilised bodies of cartoon animals, where bent elbows squeak because they form the proper phonographic letter for a s queaking sound, one that is read as well as heard. Eisenstein's early principle of asynchronicity was criticised as dogmatic by Dziga Vertov, who said that all possible relationships of sound and visual image should be used in the pursuit of 'pravda'. Yet in his dogma, and in his awkward attempt at conceptualising sound after-the-fact for a decidedly silent film, Eisenstein has proven to be more artistically provocative than his fellow Soviet filmmakers of the period. The various trajectories of Eisenstei n's unrealised ideas have only rarely been attempted since. If he had achieved even his initial plans for sound experimentation it might have changed the terrain of subsequent cinema, music and sound arts. 

Footnotes . . .

Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov, 'Statement on Sound', The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939, edited by Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusett s, 1988, pp. 234-35.

ibid., p. 37. Vladimir Mayakovsky, 'The Relationship Between Contemporary Theatre and Cinema and Art'

ibid., p. 37. See also "The Destruction of 'Theatre' by Cinema as a Sign of the Resurrection of Theatrical Art" p. 34-35

Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Yutkevich, 'The Eighth Art. On Expressionism, America and, of course, Chaplin' in S. M. Eisenstein: Selected Works. Volume 1, Writings, 1922-34. Edited and translated by Richard Taylor, BFI Publishing, London, 1988, p. 

ibid., p. 29. 

ibid., p. 30.

'Statement on Sound', op.cit. (note 1), p. 234-35. 

Ann Doane, 'The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space', in Film Sound: Theory and Practice, edited by Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, p. 162. 

Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, New American Library, New York, 1987, p. 35.

Cited in Maltin, p. 35. 

John Grierson, 'Pudovkin on Sound', in Cinema Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 1933-34), pp. 106-8.

Jay Leyda and Zina Voynow, Eisenstein at Work, Pantheon Books with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1982, p. 38. 

The full status of Romance Sentimentale in this respect is outside the scope of this article. 

Eisenstein at Work, op.cit. (note 12), p. 39. 

Maltin, op.cit. (note 9), pp. 32-33. 
Sergei Eisenstein, Eisenstein on Disney, edited by Jay Leyda, translated by Alan Upchurch, Methuen, London, 1988, p. 12ff. 

ibid., p. 69. 

ibid., p. 21. 

ibid., pp. 24-33 and 44-47. 

ibid., p. 41. He arrives finally at Heraclitus, Hegel on Heraclitus, and Lenin on Hegel on Heraclitus. 

Sergei Eisenstein, Nonindifferent Nature, translated by Herbert Marshall, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987, p. 389. 

ibid., p. 391. 

Leyda, op.cit. (note 12), p. 39. 

ibid., p. 40. 

ibid., p. 40. 

Cited in Harry Potamkin, 'The Compound Cinema: Further Notes' (Close Up, April 1929), in The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin, edited by Lewis Jacobs, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, 1977, p. 9. < p> 
ibid., p. 9. 

ibid., p. 9. 

cf. Harry Potamkin, 'Playing with Sound', ibid., pp. 86-88.