A dizzying flight of fancy into the future of the Soviet film industry lights up the pages of Mikhail Levidov's 1927 exercise in “sociological aesthetics,” Man and the Cinema. In the new phase of film production envisioned by Levidov, each new uplifting Soviet film would be psychometrically tested during debut screenings at Palaces of Culture across the country and the results fed into the production of the next Soviet crowd-pleaser.Footnote 1 Levidov's fantasy exemplifies the push for a more precise and “scientific” account of spectator behavior in the years following the October Revolution. No longer left to cultural producers to “sense,” “guess” or “intuit,” audience response became the target of sociological, medical, physiological and psychological investigation. By the mid-1920s, scientific enquiries into “the viewer question,” underway at research cells within state agencies, research institutes, theaters, film studios, and cultural organizations, had begun to produce new forms of knowledge about Soviet cinema, theater, and their audiences.Footnote 2
Interest in the question of cultural reception in the early Soviet period was by no means limited to the fields of theater and cinema. The fixation on the “sphere of reception” (vosprinimaiushchaia sreda) prevailed across a range of cultural platforms including literature, print media, music, and visual culture. “There is nothing more mistaken,” one early Soviet cultural critic mused, “than holding that the reception of a work of art is of secondary importance … art is a two-sided enterprise which presupposes a certain interpenetration of the “creative” and the “receptive.”’Footnote 3 Symptomatic of the shift to a materialist and functionalist conception of art, research into the question of reception was framed as an antithesis to the theory of “art for art's sake.”Footnote 4 It advanced a vision of aesthetic practice built not on the shaky grounds of personal intuition and inspiration, but on “rational,” “objective,” and “scientific” foundations.Footnote 5 Just as their counterparts in the United States, Soviet cultural producers saw the transition from “guess work” to empirical certitude as an important marker of modernity, rationality, and progress.Footnote 6
While still an emerging area of scholarly investigation, Soviet reception research has received growing attention in recent years. The work of Joshua First, Simon Huxtable, and Stephen Lovell has spotlighted the “sociological turn” within late Soviet cinema, print media, and radio.Footnote 7 New scholarship on early Soviet viewer research has supplemented Jeffrey Brooks's, Matthew Lenoe's and Evgeny Dobrenko's pivotal work on the reader reception studies of the 1920s.Footnote 8 The rich variety of early Soviet research on film and theater spectators has begun to be brought to light by new document collections, as well as Ana Olenina's comparative analysis of the viewer experiments that were conducted by Soviet and American researchers in the 1920s.Footnote 9 Despite these important advances, however, scholarly understanding of the cross-institutional dialogue between the arts and the sciences in the early Soviet period still remains partial.
It has been largely assumed that the science of the viewer that blossomed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s declined rapidly after the cultural revolution of 1928–1931, re-emerging only after Stalin's death. The Stalin era has thereby been framed as a period in which experimental research agendas were steadily crushed by the weight of suspicion.Footnote 10 Examining the shift in the theory and practice of research on the theater and film viewer between the 1920s and 1930s, this article seeks to challenge this narrative. As I seek to show, the cultural revolution only spelled the end of one specific strand of investigation. From its beginnings, Soviet film and theater research took two distinct directions. The first branch of enquiry sought to study audience tastes and particularities in order to identify the wants and needs of the Soviet viewer; the second looked to better understand the psycho-physiological effects of theater and film “stimuli” with the view of optimizing their effectiveness and intelligibility. Looking closely at the research conducted at the Higher State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), this article argues that while studies of audience tastes and predispositions were curtailed in the early 1930s, scientific experts continued to be enlisted into the battle to make Soviet cinema more “effective” until the end of 1936. The untold story of how attempts to use science to manage audience response lived on beyond the 1920s allows a better understanding of Stalinist culture's place within the project of twentieth-century modernity. In light of the studies conducted at VGIK, Soviet cinema's eschewal of avant-garde aesthetics for classical forms in the 1930s looks less like the product of a “turn to tradition” than of a modern attempt to optimally manage the viewer's activity.
Research Path 1: The Typology of the Soviet Audience
The first branch of research dedicated to acquiring knowledge about the theater and film viewer concentrated on differentiating the Soviet audience and determining the tastes and modes of perception of distinct audience groups. Early Soviet film and theater professionals increasingly recognized that they knew very little about the demographic makeup of their audience.Footnote 11 Press reports published in the 1920s lamented that the people who flooded Soviet theaters night after night remained a “faceless” and “indistinguishable mass.”Footnote 12 The gathering of demographic information about the viewer—described as a “mysterious stranger” and a “distant foreign land”—became coded as a mission civilisatrice.Footnote 13 The drive to “know the audience” represented the conquest of an unruly and elusive entity by the forces of reason and rationality.Footnote 14
Probings into the composition of the theater and film-going public began in the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s. Unsurprisingly, class distinctions were of particular interest to Soviet researchers. It was imperative to find out, one article claimed, whether Moscow cinemas provided a space for petit bourgeois ladies to gather after their daily errands or for workers to relax after a long day.Footnote 15 Techniques used to lay bare the social makeup of the Soviet audience included monitoring the attendance figures of different social stratas. One study, conducted by the Moscow City Council of Trade Unions’ department of culture in 1928, documented the number of customers that produced their trade union membership cards on offer of a discount in ten Moscow cinemas over the course of three days.Footnote 16 The most widespread means used to obtain information about audience demographics in the 1920s, however, was the audience survey—the anketa. The Theater Research Workshop established within Glavpolitprosvet (The Chief Committee on Political Education), a key driving force in film and theater sociology, distributed surveys across the cinemas, circuses and theaters of Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Tula, and Armavir to determine the age, gender, profession, education level, family circumstances, and party membership of their audiences. Targeting multiple establishments across different cities, and distributing tens of thousands of questionnaires, the Theater Research Workshop's information gathering constituted one of the most comprehensive efforts to “get to know” the Soviet audience.Footnote 17
Surveys of audience demographics were frequently coupled with attempts to categorize the tastes, preferences and viewing practices of cinema and theatergoers. Viewers were asked to identify the genres and actors they favored, the plays and films that they liked the most, and the local theaters and cinemas they frequented.Footnote 18 The anketa was also used to divulge the popularity of a specific film or theatrical production among different audience groups; surveys used for this purpose required viewers to indicate their assessment of the play or film on the whole (expressed via a choice of set answers to indicate approval, dislike or neutrality), as well as to rate its specific components.Footnote 19
Indications of audience preference were sourced in other ways—researchers also trialed methods such as counting viewer votes “for” or “against” the production through a show of hands or ballot collections.Footnote 20 The anketa, however, was by far the most widely deployed means of identifying the tastes of the Soviet audience in the 1920s. The anketa method's ostensible effacement of the investigator that oral information-gathering required assured many researchers of its “objectivity.” The opinion survey's capacity to translate the complexity of viewers’ experiences and preferences into unambiguous numbers and figures was equally appealing to researchers striving for scientific legitimacy.Footnote 21 Designed for distribution among large swathes of the population, the “massovost΄” (mass reach) of the anketa was also frequently held up as a badge of empirical accuracy. After a trial run of 2000 copies, the Sociological Sector of the Association of Revolutionary Cinematography (ARK) articulated intentions to print half a million questionnaires for distribution across the entire Soviet Union.Footnote 22 The push to collect and process large data sets even saw the emergence of the “pencil-less” (bez karandashnaia) anketa—a single-sheet questionnaire that only required the respondent to tear out a pre-given answer.
The communication of survey findings also played a crucial role in endowing audience research with an air of empirical certitude and exactitude. Audience preferences were typically quantified in percentages and visualized scientifically in tables and charts. The catalogues of audience success ratings drawn up by organizations like the Theater Research Workshop presented an image of measurable and predictable audience behavior.Footnote 23 The conviction that viewer demand could be “rationalized” was premised on the vision of a stratified audience composed of distinct types of viewers, whose specific characteristics only needed to be made known.
Audience researchers fervently declared that there was “no such thing as a uniform spectator.”Footnote 24 They saw the audience as set apart by various bio-social markers of difference, ranging from occupation and place of residence to gender and age.Footnote 25 Study after study pointed to the stark differences in opinion between audience groups on a whole range of issues: workers preferred Soviet productions while traders favored foreign imports; young people were attracted to adventure and stunt films while older viewers preferred drama.Footnote 26 Investigations into the preferences of specific categories of viewers (namely workers, peasants, and young adults) pointed to the variations within these distinct audience groups. A conference devoted to unearthing the specific demands of the worker-cinema viewer, held in July 1929 under the auspices of the Moscow City Council of Trade Unions and Sovkino, highlighted the importance of factors such as family background, age, and type of employment in creating “taste distinctions” among workers. “The demands of a seasonal worker,” announced a conference delegate, “vary considerably from the needs of a qualified metal worker … the interests of young [workers] are not the same as those of adults.”Footnote 27 Anketa investigations into the cinema-going habits of schoolchildren similarly found that the regularity with which young viewers frequented the cinema, the motivations driving their visits and the types of films they favored varied according to age, gender, parental occupation, and Young Pioneer or Komsomol membership. “The various subgroups of every social group,” one audience researcher concluded, are “endowed with distinct aesthetic tastes, habits, and levels of cultural development.”Footnote 28
Probings into the psychological and physiological particularities of different audience categories corroborated the vision of a stratified viewing public. Anatoli Terskoi's studies of the peasant viewer practiced capturing audience reactions on photographic film in the aim of illuminating how viewers’ perceptive capacities varied across the diverse regions of the Soviet Union.Footnote 29 This photographic record of regional variation was to enable film producers to gauge which parts of the country would struggle to digest complex narrative structures and which would be receptive to fast-paced editing. “The type of film required in the distant outskirts of the north is completely different from the one needed in the central commercial districts,” concluded Terskoi. “That which suits an Eskimo or a Zyrian is not likely to please a craftsman from the Tverskoi province,” he warned.Footnote 30
The psycho-physiological constitution of children and young adults proved particularly fascinating to investigators. The Young People's Theater in Leningrad (TIuZ) studied viewers’ letters and monitored select audience members during performances in order to “diagnose” its young audience members as “introverts or extroverts,” “moralists or aesthetes,” “cultivated or uncultivated,” and “normal or defective.”Footnote 31 The theater's investigators also insisted on stark differentiations according to gender: “a predisposition towards the sentimental and the beautiful can be observed in female viewers,” they concluded, “just as a predisposition towards the heroic is notable in boys.”Footnote 32 Studies of young viewers incorporated the techniques for measuring and categorizing human capabilities deployed in disciplines such as labor psychology (psychotechnics) and the “science of the child” (pedology) in the 1920s.Footnote 33 At the pedology department at the Institute of Pedagogical Methodology (IMShR), investigators embarked on a series of psychological tests to determine the different tastes, imaginative capacities, and modes of spectatorship pertaining to children from different social backgrounds and age groups. Based on these experiments, IMShR researchers identified three distinct categories of child viewers—the “passive viewer,” “the active viewer,” and the “excitable viewer.” Each type of spectator, the institute asserted, responded to stimuli “in accordance with his/her distinct temperament,” interpreting “what is shown on screen in a unique way.”Footnote 34
Research Path 2: The Spectator-Text Relationship
The attempt to map a typology of the Soviet viewer was underwritten by the vision of a fragmented audience made up of selective consumers whose tastes, demands, and mental and physical capabilities fluctuated in correlation with socio-demographic variables. This conception of the culture-consumer relationship was challenged by a competing line of enquiry advanced in the 1920s. Rather than studying audience characteristics, this body of research fixed attention on the impact of specific aspects of a film or play on the reception process. Instead of attributing the viewer to a “fixed” group or category, it understood the spectator as a malleable entity, shaped by the characteristics of the cultural text.
The spontaneous effects of cinema and theater were most commonly investigated via the “observational method.” First used to record the dominant mood of the auditorium at the Moscow Children's Theater and the Leningrad TIuZ, mass observations were later adopted at Meyerhold's theater and the Theater Research Workshop. Investigators recorded the number of times that a given audience burst into laughter, fell into concentrated silence, or clapped excitedly during the performance.Footnote 35 With the help of a predevised scale of reactions (typically ranging from raucous applause or concentrated attention to exit from the theater) and a chart dividing the performance into intervals, researchers also sought to correlate audience reactions with specific segments of the play. Quantifying the process of reception, the “cardiographs” produced by these investigations mapped the peaks and troughs of viewer concentration and traced the fluctuation of percentages of laughter, applause or silence over the course of a performance.Footnote 36
These visualizations appeared to provide concrete, scientific verification of how well a cultural production had succeeded in its aims. Audience observation was thereby seen by many researchers as a means to eliminate subjective errors from the creative process. The study of audience reactions elicited by TIuZ's production of the comedy Twins (Bliznetsy, Tarvid and Zon, 1926), for example, reassured its creators that they had succeeded in provoking laughter throughout—the first act was found to compel thirty-five bouts of laughter on average, with forty-seven and forty-two counts recorded in the second and third acts. The conversations and coughing observed during the play's prologue and dramatization of a political meeting, however, indicated a need for revisions.Footnote 37 Similarly striving to achieve a “scientific understanding of the theater,” Meyerhold's laboratory endeavored to establish a set of objectively verified aesthetic “laws.” “Laughter,” its investigators concluded with solemnity, “should not occupy less than 70% of overall audience reactions (otherwise the performance will be boring), providing that the overall number of moments of laughter is not less than thirty per hour and that the total number of audience reactions is not less than fifty per hour.”Footnote 38
The inclusion of recording instruments in the process of observation promised to make this method of information gathering even more “objective.” Alongside the capture of audience members’ bodily expressions on photographic film, widely practiced in the 1920s, institutions like TIuZ recorded the precise duration of audience reactions in minutes and seconds using a chronometer.Footnote 39
Many research centers also sought to acquire devices for measuring audience blood pressure, respiratory rate, pulse, and motor response. Both the Theater Research Workshop and the State Academy of the Artistic Sciences (GAKhN) drew up detailed plans for film research laboratories and special theater loges that would be stocked with a wide array of clinical equipment to scientifically record “stimulations, physiological processes, and reactions.”Footnote 40 The use of biomedical examining equipment to study the viewer's internal physiological changes was underway by the end of the 1920s. The “laboratory for the study of mass psychology,” founded in 1929 at the Russian Theatrical Society (RTO), acquired a galvanometer (used to measure skin conductance) as well as a kymograph and a pneumograph to study levels of affective arousal.Footnote 41 At the IMShR's cinema laboratory headed by Abram Gel΄mont, the viewer's response to a range of “film stimuli” was tested via a specially designed viewing chair that was hooked up to a kymograph. Changes in respiration rate were monitored by a pneumograph attached to the child's chest, while any quickening of heartbeat was captured by a sphygmograph attached to the child's left arm. The right hand of the viewing chair was fitted with a finger-tapping device to record disruptions in motor control.Footnote 42
Reflecting the preeminence that reflexology enjoyed during the 1920s, many studies on the effects of film and theater conducted during this decade displayed a bias towards physiological explanations. In his plans to measure the “physical contagiousness” of different film stimuli at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum's “laboratory for the study of mass behavior and mass psychotechnics,” Sergei Eisenstein sought to put William James's and Jean D'Udine's physiological accounts of emotional and aesthetic response into practice by enlisting reflexologists to study viewers’ facial expressions.Footnote 43 Making clear the hold of Ivan Pavlov's and Vladimir Bekhterev's ideas over spectator research, the commissions for the study of the viewer at Glavpolitprosvet and Gubpolitprosvet (the Provincial Department of Political Enlightenment) similarly conceived audience response in terms of conditioned and unconditioned reflexes, associative and sensory reactions, cerebral and subcortical processes.Footnote 44
Nevertheless, the question of film and theater's psychological impact was never abandoned completely. At TIuZ and the Institute for the Methods of Extracurricular Educational Activity (IMVR), researchers sought to develop ways of grasping a fuller understanding of the spectator's thoughts and feelings. Registering viewers’ verbal responses rather than physical reactions, the film screening observations held by the IMVR prioritized uncovering patterns of mental interpretation and cognition.Footnote 45 Both institutes also looked to children's drawings, letters, and compositions to glean information about the “trace” left by the screening or performance on the viewer's psyche.Footnote 46
Whether psychological or physiological in inflection, however, all such studies sought to establish a precise link between theatrical and cinematic “causes” and spectatorial “effects.” If research on audience typology had sought to ascertain the sociological or psycho-physiological reasons why a particular type of viewer perceived a production in a specific way, this branch of research concentrated on identifying the attributes of the spectacle that spurred a specific response in the observer. Studies on the effects of cinematic and theatrical productions definitively shifted the seat of audience reactions from the viewer to the stimulus. It was not the audience that was subject to scrupulous dissection in this body of research but the spectacle.
In order to attribute each audience reaction to a given stimulus, investigators would break down plays and films into sequences and shot units before conducting their observations.Footnote 47 Theater researchers were known to time the duration of every performed scene, to note the action occurring on stage at 30-second or minute intervals (in a “khronometrazh”), as well as to monitor actors’ performances.Footnote 48 Organizations like the State Institute of the History of Art in Leningrad attempted to isolate the effects upon audiences of different theatrical variables by introducing specific alterations to a performance.Footnote 49 Film researchers were similarly focused on establishing “iron rules of cause-and-effect.”Footnote 50 The plans for a Scientific Research Institute in Cinema and Photography, approved by the state in December 1928, included costings for a laboratory where the impact of aspects of film art such as lighting, framing, and editing on the viewer's physiology, levels of mental concentration, emotional excitement, and comprehension could be rigorously tested.Footnote 51 In the same year, Eisenstein, in his capacity as the head of the film section at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, also drew up plans to experimentally test the psycho-physiological effects of contrasting sound techniques, editing tempos, and types of montage (particularly motivated and abstract editing), as well as different levels of “eroticism” pertaining to film images.Footnote 52 The filmmaker's goal of joining audience reactions to set cinematic “causes” was exemplified in his proposal to film the face of the spectator in close-up and to subsequently project this “response” footage side by side with the “film-stimulus.”Footnote 53
At research organizations such as the IMVR, this type of experimental investigation went far beyond the planning stages.Footnote 54 The institute practiced testing different edits of films on select groups of viewers as a means to isolate the causes of spectators’ emotional engagement or boredom and their attentiveness or miscomprehension.Footnote 55 The eminent Soviet director, Mikhail Romm, began his career in cinema by conducting such experiments. Taking up a post at the IMVR's cinema commission in 1926, Romm spent four years testing different cinematic variants on child audiences to determine the effectiveness of different narrative forms and stylistic devices.Footnote 56
The tying of specific audience effects to specific cinematic and theatrical properties promised to enable cultural producers to take charge of the reception process. As Ana Olenina has shown, studies of psycho-physiological effects were underwritten by the vision of a spectator whose mind and body could be brought into harmonious coordination with the spectacle.Footnote 57 Promising the attainment of an “as comprehensive as possible understanding of the method of film-stimuli construction,” cause-and-effect mapping was envisaged as a path to a cinema of “maximal audience impact.”Footnote 58
Both research strands identified in this article sought to use scientific principles to make audience response knowable and thereby manageable. Each research strand, however, was underwritten by a distinct conception of its object of investigation. While the first branch of research sought to study the social audience, or “people who can be surveyed, counted, and categorized according to age, sex, and socio-economic status,” the second branch of research fixed its attention on the spectator—the subject determined by the properties of the text.Footnote 59 As well as holding contrasting understandings of the viewer, these two research strands were distinguished by different institutional aims. If audience research aimed to help cultural institutions target products to the “right” groups of viewers, investigations into spectatorship sought to help cultural producers craft films and plays that elicited the “right” response.
It would be misleading to claim, as some contemporary critics were wont to do, that studies of a film's impact were completely divorced from the question of viewer particularities.Footnote 60 Cases of overlap between these two research strands were plentiful, not least since many research organizations carried out both types of investigation simultaneously. Nevertheless, two distinct research paths—one targeted at identifying the particularities of specific audience groups, and the other interested in determining a film's effects—remained clearly identifiable. The pre-formed individual addressed by the first strand of research stood apart from the malleable subject postulated by the second. This divergence in approach to the “viewer question” was largely eradicated by the end of the cultural revolution.
The Cultural Revolution: From Audience Research to Studies of Spectatorship
The cultural and social transformations inaugurated at the end of the 1920s gradually pushed Soviet researchers to abort the study of the audience for the study of spectatorship. The abandonment of the New Economic Policy and more militant attempts to bring the cultural sphere into line with the aims of cultural reconstruction decreased the value of audience surveys. As NEP and its gradualist approach to “building socialism” gave way to breakneck industrialization and forced collectivization, Soviet culture was expected to demonstrate a “decisive reorientation towards ideological commitment and the accomplishment of party-appointed tasks.”Footnote 61 Henceforth, it became more pressing to determine whether a film or performance had successfully communicated its ideological message than whether it had satisfied audience expectations. Although the late 1920s did see a variety of enquiries into the distinct needs, demands, and capabilities of different types of audiences, research that presented viewer psychology and behavior as fixed and immutable sat ill at ease with militant calls for the transformation of the natural world and human “remaking.” The cultural revolution not only demanded the restructuring of Soviet theater and cinema, but also the production of a new type of “mindful and discerning viewer.”Footnote 62 Critics had begun to stress that Soviet cultural producers needed not merely to accommodate audience demand but to transform existing patterns of audience behavior.Footnote 63
The priority placed on the cultivation of new modes of film and theater spectatorship during the cultural revolution was demonstrated by the vast expansion of “cultural enlightenment work” at the end of the 1920s. Holding that inaccessibility (nedokhodchivost΄) was the root cause of “passive” viewing habits, cultural enlightenment sought to ensure that no viewer left a film or play without having understood its central message.Footnote 64 Different forms of “work with the viewer” before, during, and after the film screening or theater performance were initiated as measures to eliminate barriers to comprehension and ensure the viewer's correct interpretation.
Methods of theater enlightenment included the organization of group cultural excursions guided by a teacher or cultural enlightenment worker (the kul΄trabotnik), who would introduce and explain the play to the collective and lead post-performance discussions.Footnote 65 Similarly, a variety of film organizations stepped up their efforts to educate viewers and eradicate “cinematic illiteracy.”Footnote 66 Whether delivering introductory remarks before the screening, setting up visual displays in the cinema foyer, or circulating accompanying literature and flyers, the film enlightenment worker strove to maximize the audience's receptiveness to the ideas put forward by the film.Footnote 67
In addition to driving home the message of a given production, preparatory cultural enlightenment work was to pique viewers’ interest and facilitate their emotional engagement in the narrative.Footnote 68 Particularly in screenings directed at peasant audiences, cultural enlightenment work extended into the film showing itself. The kul΄trabotnik was called upon to read subtitles aloud, underscore significant moments, and explain any perplexing content and visual devices.Footnote 69 Discussions, “film trials,” and “film disputes” were held after the screening in order to strengthen the film's effect on the viewer and address any inadequacies in comprehension.Footnote 70
The campaign for film and theater enlightenment that gathered pace during the cultural revolution epitomized the growing pressure on cultural producers to better command the reception process. This obligation saw film and theater research undergo significant revision in the 1930s. The cultural revolution's impact on research agendas can be gleaned from the work of L. M. Skorodumov, a psychologist who worked on the viewer question at NIKFI—the new Research Institute on Cinema and Photography where viewer research relocated to after institutions like the IMShR, the IMVR, and the State Academy of the Artistic Sciences (GAKhN), closed down at the end of the 1920s. In articles published in 1931 and 1932, Skorodumov articulated the new tasks facing film researchers. Criticizing studies that held viewer response to be independent of the designs of the director, Skorodumov called film research to enter a “new phase” targeted at determining how well a filmmaking collective had accomplished its objectives.Footnote 71
Stressing the need for spectator investigations to exert a visible impact on the Soviet film industry, Skorodumov's call for a shift to “effectiveness monitoring” reflected the growing subordination of film and theater research to the practical aims of cultural reconstruction.Footnote 72 Investigators were now expected to participate in making Soviet film and theater more ideologically efficacious and aiding the creation of a new type of spectator. Soviet film researchers, Eisenstein emphasized in 1928, could never be “disinterested” scientific observers for they bore the political task of helping to transform ideological directives into optimally effective chains of “film-stimuli.”Footnote 73 The late 1920s saw the emergence of new, practically-minded research centers, such as the “laboratory for the study of mass psychology” at RTO, whose express purpose was to scrutinize the emotional effectiveness and educational significance of new productions.Footnote 74
The politicization of research practices during this period frequently pushed against the principle of detached observation. At a number of organizations where research into spectatorship was conducted alongside cultural enlightenment work, techniques of viewer observation and methods of kul΄trabota were treated almost interchangeably.Footnote 75 The blurring of the distinction between investigation and instruction was particularly pronounced in Skorodumov's initiatives at NIKFI. In his 1932 draft of a radio broadcast, the researcher invited viewers to send in their observations on recent films at the same time as attempting to educate cinemagoers on the modes of viewing expected from Soviet citizens. “Watching a film properly means watching it actively,” Skorodumov instructed.Footnote 76 Demonstrating how closely the investigation of the viewer became tied to the cultivation of a particular mode of spectatorship, Skorodumov's guidelines encouraged the viewer's identification with the film's protagonists and full emotional investment in the narrative.
The priority placed on cultivating specific patterns of response over tailoring films and plays to specific “taste publics” gave new impetus to research on the spectator-text relationship. By the beginning of the 1930s, researchers were being discouraged from studying the recipient in isolation from the cultural product.Footnote 77 Even research centers like the “laboratory for the study of mass behavior,” which had previously taken a keen interest in the typology of the viewer, turned their attention to the study of “on-stage stimuli.” The RTO research cell began to compile detailed psycho-physiological profiles of stage actors using tests and questionnaires, even changing its name to “the laboratory for the study of spectacle” in 1932.Footnote 78 The “scientific organization and rational reconstruction” of Soviet theater, the laboratory insisted, would only be achieved through “an understanding of a theatrical production's factors of effectiveness.”Footnote 79 The need for spectator research to pay due attention to the components of the cultural text was also increasingly insisted upon by producers. In a 1929 meeting with the Society of the Friends of Soviet Cinema on the direction of viewer research, director Abram Room underlined the Soviet film industry's urgent need for comprehensive explorations of how particular aspects of cinematic form and style were received by spectators.Footnote 80 Film researchers, Room asserted, were required to help directors eradicate the frequent discrepancy between viewers’ comprehension of a film and the director's intentions by finding the “language” that was “most easily understood by the film viewer.”Footnote 81 With reference to the research activities of the Higher State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), I will now look closer at the studies of spectatorship that superseded research on audience typology in the 1930s.
The New Phase of Spectatorship Research: The “Scientific Research Sector” at the Higher State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK)
Taking over the work that had begun at NIKFI, the Higher State Institute of Cinematography became the site of extensive psychological research on film spectatorship in the early 1930s.Footnote 82 VGIK's “Scientific Research Sector,” where a subdivision dedicated to “the study of film perception” opened in 1935, became the chief site of these investigations.Footnote 83 The lead film psychologists at VGIK—Petr Antonovich Rudik, Ol΄ga Ivanovna Nikiforova, and Nikolai Ivanovich Zhinkin—had all studied under Georgii Chelpanov at Moscow University.Footnote 84 A former student of the “father of experimental psychology,” Wilhelm Wundt, Chelpanov had played a major role in re-orientating psychological research in Russia towards experimental techniques and laboratory methods. His hostility to materialistic explanations of psychological processes, however, as well as his skepticism towards the application of psychology to practical problems, had led to his being discredited in 1923 as an “idealist.”Footnote 85 Following the research trends of the period, Rudik, Nikiforova, and Zhinkin established themselves in the key fields of applied psychology in the 1920s—education (pedology), labor management (psychotechnics), and physical culture.Footnote 86 All three simultaneously pursued research in the field of aesthetics. Rudik and Nikiforova joined the Psycho-Physical Laboratory at GAKhN where they conducted experimental studies of aesthetic perception.Footnote 87 Zhinkin, in turn, joined GAKhN's Philosophical Section to research the question of aesthetic form.Footnote 88 As well as working together at GAKhN, all three researchers had ties to the IMVR, the institute where Zhinkin had led experimental work into film composition.Footnote 89 Rudik, who had previously headed the cinema laboratory at the Moscow Institute of Experimental Psychology, was also a well-established figure in psycho-physiological film research.Footnote 90 The Scientific Research Sector did not survive the ideological clampdown in Soviet psychology that followed the 1936 decree against “pedological distortions,” being abolished in February 1937.Footnote 91 Although Zhinkin and Nikiforova proceeded to work on the psychology of art and aesthetic perception at the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in the late Stalin period, none of the scholars returned to the problem of film spectatorship.Footnote 92
It is notable that Nikiforova, Rudik, and Zhinkin emphatically framed their work at VGIK as the exploration of a psychological rather than physiological problem—understood as “film perception,” or kinovospriiatie.Footnote 93 Their aim to investigate a film's effects upon the viewer's thought process, imagination, and emotion rather than upon the viewer's physiology was in keeping with the growing recognition in the 1930s of the mental realm's independence from the body. From the late 1920s, Soviet psychology had begun to devote increasing attention to the “higher psychological functions.”Footnote 94 This trend continued into the 1930s, with leading Stalin-era psychologists like Sergei Rubinshtein, Aleksei Leont΄ev, and Boris Teplov focusing on the study of cognitive processes such as perception, memory, emotion, and will.Footnote 95
The shift away from quantitative and physiological approaches in film- viewer research was demonstrated by Skorodumov's early 1930s calls for probings into audience reflexes and reactions to be supplanted by the investigation of a film's impact on “consciousness.”Footnote 96 The measurement of “reaction times, heart rate, and blood pressure,” the psychologist warned, was of no use in determining whether the viewer had watched a film actively and had left with the right ideological conclusions.Footnote 97 Alongside denouncing the observation of mass reactions widely practiced in the 1920s as a form of “behaviorism” and “Enchmenism,” Skorodumov scolded statistical investigations for their “blind pursuit of numbers” and their reduction of qualitative experiences to quantities; the anketa’s standardized questions and pre-given answers, he claimed, had treated viewers as “mechanical sorting machines” rather than conscious individuals.Footnote 98 Skorodumov's call for film research to shift its focus was echoed by the theater research centers of the period, which similarly rallied against the “fetishization” of graphs and charts and directed investigators towards “qualitative questions.”Footnote 99
The VGIK scholars explicitly set their methodology against the deference to physiological explanations and large data sets prevalent in strands of 1920s film research. Mass observations and mass surveys were deployed by these researchers only in combination with methods targeted at unravelling a film's psychological impact. In a 1936 study, Nikiforova went as far as to reject the mass anketa wholesale, asserting that it produced “nothing but the most superficial data on audience behavior.”Footnote 100 The investigations she conducted both independently and in collaboration with Rudik prioritized the observation of small groups of pre-selected spectators who were instructed to express their thoughts and feelings aloud.Footnote 101 To uncover a film's impact on a viewer's thought process, emotion, and imagination (referred to by Nikiforova as the second and third stages of a film's “psychic life”), the psychologists also interviewed their test subjects individually after the screening.Footnote 102 Zhinkin's studies of educational films similarly called on a combination of qualitative methods to capture the multidimensionality of a film's psychological impact. Alongside investigating levels of comprehension through written tests and individual and group discussions, Zhinkin used viewers’ compositions—a method he developed at the IMVR in the 1920s—to determine which aspects of the film had been remembered most vividly.Footnote 103
Just as the investigators who sought to attribute modes of response to particular aspects of a film's form or content in the 1920s, the VGIK psychologists placed great emphasis on the study of the individual film text. The object of their investigation was not the viewer per se, they insisted, but the viewer and film hybrid (fil΄m-zritel΄) produced during the process of spectatorship.Footnote 104 Before venturing to study spectatorial response, Rudik's research collective would produce a comprehensive, “objective” analysis of a film's stylistic properties, story content, and formal construction. The interrelation between the different narrative lines of a film would be mapped and the readability (obozrimost΄) of each shot calculated based on the number, size, and clarity of objects occupying the field of vision.Footnote 105 The proportion of synthetic shots (in which a narrative element was depicted in the course of a single take) to analytical shots (in which the story content was fragmented into discrete units) would also be diligently recorded.Footnote 106 Consequently, in addition to the familiar “cardiograph” of audience response, Rudik's investigations would produce plot line diagrams, graphs depicting the fluctuation of obozrimost΄ across episodes and bar charts showcasing analytical to synthetic shot ratios.Footnote 107
These filmic dissections aimed to shed light on a question neglected by 1920s investigations into audience typology—the reasons behind audience success or failure. Rudik's study of Lev Kuleshov's The Great Consoler (Velikii uteshitel΄, 1933), a film that a staggering 78% of viewers under investigation had failed to interpret correctly, was typical in mapping a correlation between problems in audience understanding and specific properties of the film text.Footnote 108 Kuleshov's film set out to indict art divorced from social obligation through the portrayal of an imprisoned author (O. Henry) who gradually resolves to use his craft to bear witness to the injustices that surround him rather than to “console” his readers. Rudik's investigation found, however, that this message had eclipsed the vast majority of the viewers studied. Rudik concluded that the main barrier to audience comprehension was not the film's visual aspect (The Great Consoler was found to have a good level of “readability”), but its complex narrative construction. Kuleshov's interspersion of O. Henry's “coming to consciousness” with multiple subplots featuring the heroic safecracker Jimmy Valentine (a fellow prisoner whose exploits O. Henry embellishes in his fiction) and Dulcie, an avid reader of Henry's stories, proved to be deeply confusing. Thirty-nine percent of viewers studied took the extended segment “The Metamorphosis of Jimmy Valentine” to be part of the film's diegesis rather than a parodic story within a story. Rudik also noted that viewers lost sight of the film's central theme due to becoming engrossed in the subsidiary narrative of Jimmy Valentine, who they considered to be a more worthy hero than the weak-willed O. Henry.Footnote 109 In addition to The Great Consoler’s narrative complexities and failure to present the chief protagonist in a heroic light, Rudik's investigation singled out the film's opaque title, stylized costumes, and structural disjointedness as factors that negatively affected its accessibility, and concurrently, its performance at the box office.Footnote 110
Nikiforova's work, which was conducted in consultation with Boris Teplov, probed even deeper into the “viewer-film” synthesis. After completing a series of studies as part of Rudik's research team, the psychologist led an independent enquiry into the narrative construction of Stalin-era cinema, writing her 1936 candidate's thesis on the topic. Nikiforova was particularly interested in unpacking the impact of narrative exposition techniques on the reception process. Examining viewer responses to Fridrikh Ermler's and Sergei Iutkevich's 1932 film Counterplan (Vstrechnyi)—a production drama set in Leningrad during the years of the First Five-Year Plan that stages the battle of an aging factory worker (Semen Ivanovich Babchenko) against alcohol addiction—Nikiforova's study revealed that the vast majority of viewers initially assumed they were watching a romantic drama rather than a film about “reeducation” and the struggle for a counterplan.Footnote 111
Nikiforova attributed the viewer's expectation of a romantic love-triangle plot to the opening's failure to set the film's hero (Babchenko) apart from the other characters, and to clearly indicate the film's central narrative thread. As Nikiforova pointed out, the opening of Counterplan fixes audience attention on the domestic byt (everyday life) of a young couple, Pasha and Katia—both workers at the local factory. The pair's playful exchanges are interrupted by the return of their friend Vasia (the factory committee secretary) from an assignment in Moscow. With only a cursory mention that the purpose of Vasia's trip was to affirm the counterplan, the scene cuts to the Babchenko residence. Sitting across from his wife at the breakfast table, Semen Ivanovich downs his customary glass of vodka as the factory whistle blows, his greedy consumption of the substance conveyed in lingering close-up. Only in a subsequent scene depicting Pasha and Vasia's discussion of recent developments at the factory is it made clear that Babchenko is an accomplished worker who requires the guidance of the collective to get back on track. Nikiforova's analysis of the audience impact of the film's narrative presentation revealed that the opening fixation on the relationship between Katia, Pasha, and Vasia led many spectators to view Babchenko as a secondary character. Many viewers assumed, for example, that he was Katia's father. More importantly, Nikiforova found that a high proportion of viewers actually mistook Babchenko for a saboteur (vreditel΄) who sought to hijack the completion of the counterplan. In addition, Pasha was also commonly mistaken for an antagonist alongside Babchenko.Footnote 112
Mapping miscomprehensions of narrative dynamics onto the particularities of the film's exposition, Nikiforova concluded that the indications of Babchenko's role as a “positive protagonist” had been overridden by the film's emphasis on his drinking. The revelation of Babchenko's alcoholism in his very first on-screen appearance, Nikiforova noted, invited viewers to associate Babchenko exclusively with “unSovietness.”Footnote 113 To be sure, Nikiforova acknowledged that the false impressions created by the opening did not tend to be lasting. The use of close-ups and emotionally charged dialogue to relate narrative information in later scenes ensured that the majority of viewers corrected their false impressions and progressed to what Nikiforova conceptualized as the “second stage” of the film experience—the moment of “full entry” into the film when the viewer comprehended the film's narrative dynamics and became emotionally engrossed in the action.Footnote 114 The psychologist confirmed her thesis that viewers’ confusion over character motivation and narrative dynamics was caused by deficiencies in the film's preliminary exposition via an experiment that harked back to the research conducted at the IMVR in the 1920s. A re-edited version of Counterplan that omitted the first twenty-five shots of the film was shown to a select group of viewers. Nikiforova reported that not a single participant in the experiment had assumed the film to be a romantic drama, or had mistaken Babchenko for a “vreditel΄.”Footnote 115
Jettisoning their earlier interest in differential psychology, the VGIK scholars framed their attention to the spectator-text relationship as a corrective to the errors perpetuated by prior investigations into the typology of the Soviet audience. Describing this body of research as a “left deviation,” Nikiforova argued that the investigators who had embarked on “proving” that blue-collar workers were more intellectually capable of understanding films than white-collar workers, or that collective farmers were not receptive to romantic plots, had overlooked how the different components of a film shaped the perception process.Footnote 116 Response to a film was determined not by the bio-social constitution of the person watching, the VGIK psychologists insisted, but by a film's thematic content, narrative construction, cinematography and acting.Footnote 117 While the studies conducted at VGIK were still mindful to include spectators from a variety of social backgrounds, they did so not with the aim of exposing audience stratification but in the hope of identifying the common features of the film-viewing experience and establishing universal laws.Footnote 118
Breaking down audience responses into 105 different categories, Nikiforova asserted that instances of subjective fantasizing were quite atypical for the film-viewing experience.Footnote 119 The spectator's entire thought process, she claimed, was very tightly intertwined with the action on screen. This endowed the director with a great deal of control over the process of reception, making it possible to produce a film that would be received in the same way by different types of viewers.Footnote 120 Rudik similarly dismissed the notion that every viewer interpreted a film in a unique way as “ideological subjectivism.” Why should a film function any differently, he asked, than a party resolution published in Pravda that communicated the same information to all readers unequivocally?Footnote 121 Like his colleagues, Rudik claimed that a film could garner a unified response from diverse viewers if it guided and organized the perception process “in the right way.”Footnote 122
In line with the new objectives set for audience research during the cultural revolution, the VGIK psychologists sought to help directors ensure that their films produced the effects they intended. “Our task,” Rudik explained, “is to determine the means that would allow a filmmaking collective to ensure optimal effectiveness.”Footnote 123 In fixing their gaze on finding practical solutions to the problems facing the film industry, the VGIK scholars partially backtracked from their earlier studies, which had sought to experimentally test the effects of specific formal and stylistic properties. A comprehension of the psychological particularities of film perception “as such,” Nikiforova contended, presented a more expedient path towards “optimally effective” film production than testing the effects of every cinematic variable.Footnote 124 Just as artists had discovered the rules of perspective, Zhinkin noted, so filmmakers needed to acquire a “generalized knowledge” about the mechanics of film perception.Footnote 125
The scholars’ care to orient their investigations around questions that were of direct relevance to film producers reflected the Scientific Research Sector's delimitation as a research institution focused on helping to solve the practical issues facing the film industry.Footnote 126 The results of VGIK's studies of film spectatorship were “keenly awaited” by the Administration for Cinefication (Upravlenie kinofikatsii pri SNK RSFSR), which directly sponsored some of Rudik and Nikiforova's work and sent its representatives to attend the meetings of the “section for the study of film perception.”Footnote 127 Similarly, Zhinkin had been assigned to conduct his research by the trust on educational film (Soiuztekhfil΄m).Footnote 128 It was not uncommon for VGIK researchers to be involved in Soviet film production first hand; in addition to conducting research and teaching at VGIK, Zhinkin was an editor at Souiztekhfil΄m, and the author of a series of educational film screenplays.Footnote 129 The sector's location within an institute responsible for cultivating the next generation of Soviet filmmakers was also indicative of the effort made to facilitate the translation of its findings into industry practice.Footnote 130 The inclusion of Mosfil΄m in the drafting of research plans and the opening of a VGIK research cell at the studio, as well as the dissemination of the sector's outputs through public lectures and informational bulletins targeted at film industry workers, were some of the further measures taken in 1935 to ensure firm ties between VGIK's research sector and Soviet film production.Footnote 131
Chief among the findings that Nikiforova hoped would help to improve Soviet filmmaking practices was her postulation that the film experience was comprised of two parts—a period “before” and “after” the viewer's full emersion into the narrative.Footnote 132 The active character of film perception was another key discovery; the film experience, she asserted, should be understood as a collaborative process in which the viewer pieced together the information provided by the filmmaker into a coherent whole.Footnote 133 Nikiforova also stressed that film viewing was an emotional as well as an intellectual endeavor. Moreover, she warned that films that demanded a concerted intellectual effort from their viewers left little mental energy available for emotional engagement.Footnote 134 Highlighting the viewer's inability to concentrate on a single object for prolonged periods of time, Rudik urged filmmakers to take into account that some (or even most) of the information directed at the viewer would be overlooked.Footnote 135 In addition, both Rudik and Nikiforova pointed to the viewer's longing for familiarity, unity and coherence. When faced by convoluted narrative dynamics, Nikiforova noted, the viewer tended to simplify them into more digestible and familiar narrative tropes.Footnote 136 Rudik and Zhinkin similarly noted the viewer's striving to “straighten out” convoluted narrative constructions and disjointed editing.Footnote 137
The “psychological laws” of film interpretation brought to light by the VGIK psychologists aimed to provide Soviet directors with the scientific foundations necessary to build a more exacting practice, helping them to appreciate potential barriers to accessibility and to find means of compensating for the inadequacies of human perception. Even while claiming that they did not seek to prescribe “set formulas for success,” all three psychologists outlined specific narrative and stylistic techniques through which the viewer's attention could be better guided, the spectator's mental effort economized, and the process of reading a film made easier. Films with linear plot lines centered on the fate of an individual hero and a leisurely pace of editing were better received, Rudik, Nikiforova, and Zhinkin asserted, than films with disjointed structures, multiple narrative lines, and rapid montage.Footnote 138 An action presented via a series of shots required more mental effort to interpret, Rudik and Nikiforova noted, than an action captured in a single take. Both psychologists also pointed to the importance of preliminary exposition, clear indication of the time and place of action, uncluttered shot composition, and the use of close-ups and lighting to highlight narratively-significant characters and objects. Narrative economy, a title accurately reflecting the film's central plot dynamics and restraint in the use of abstraction and symbolism were also encouraged.Footnote 139
The close coincidence between the type of film narrative and style that the VGIK psychologists found to be best suited to the viewer's understanding and the characteristic features of socialist realist cinema raises questions concerning the ideological pressures placed on the Scientific Research Sector. To be sure, disapproving discussions of experimental cinema's “inaccessibility” had become a mainstay of the Soviet film press from the late 1920s.Footnote 140 Upon its foundation in 1933, the Scientific Research Sector promised to tackle the lack of a “strong narrative backbone” in recent films produced by the “masters” of Soviet cinema.Footnote 141 By 1935, the sector was being actively reminded that it was not operating “in the name of pure science” but with the aim of producing findings that would have a direct impact on production.Footnote 142 While the pressure to help the Soviet film industry make more “effective” and more comprehensible films certainly weighed heavy on VGIK's film psychologists, it would be problematic to characterize their work as a “distorted” scientific practice.
Although Rudik and Nikiforova's studies pointed to the “errors” of more experimental works like Kuleshov's The Great Consoler, they found much canonical Stalin-era filmmaking to be equally wanting. Precisely at the time that films such as Counterplan, Peasants (Krest΄iane, Fridrikh Ermler, 1934) and Flyers (Letchiki, Iulii Raizman, 1935) were held up as great achievements of socialist realist cinema, Nikiforova pointed to their various deficiencies in ensuring audience comprehension. The methods that the psychologists deployed in their 1930s studies, as well as the conclusions they reached, were also largely consistent with the investigations they had conducted years earlier. Zhinkin had first begun to affirm the importance of continuity editing and “siuzhetnost’,” for example, at the IMVR during the late 1920s.Footnote 143 Moreover, if the film techniques advocated by the three scholars (including preliminary exposition and continuity editing) became characteristic features of the mass-oriented cinema promoted under Stalin, they were also hallmarks of the system of narrative and aesthetic conventions that would become known as the “classical” film style. Echoing the claims of the VGIK film psychologists, the US film theorists who later applied the principles of cognitive psychology to the analysis of film, including David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, also conceptualized the cinema of narrative continuity as the most adept at engaging the viewer's “mental structures and perceptual capacities.”Footnote 144
As Miriam Hansen notes, despite its conventional designation as “classical,” the system of aesthetic and narrative codes established in Hollywood and beyond in the late 1920s is best understood as an attempt to establish a cinema commensurate with twentieth-century modernity's demand for efficiency, rationalization, and mass production.Footnote 145 While the VGIK psychologists’ battle against inaccessibility was grounded in ideological objectives that were specific to Stalinism, it was also the product of a transnational search for a cinematic language (or “global sensory vernacular,” to borrow Hansen's phrase) that could most efficiently manage the viewer's activity and ensure optimal intelligibility.Footnote 146 Indeed, the VGIK psychologists perceived their quest for a cinema of maximal effectiveness as a project that transcended the aims of Stalin-era culture. Rudik framed Soviet film production's employment of spectator research as a vital means of bringing the industry up to speed with the standard practices of US and west European “film factories.”Footnote 147 Placing Soviet spectator research on par with initiatives undertaken abroad, the psychologist claimed to have personally discussed his objective of finding the means to effortlessly guide the spectator through the narrative with the great German expressionist filmmaker, Fritz Lang.Footnote 148
In contrast to the battle to optimize cinema’s effectiveness waged during the “Great Break,” which had been wedded to the campaign to cultivate the Soviet audience and bring it “up” to the level of the film, the research conducted by the Scientific Research Sector sought to adjust Soviet film production to the viewer's mode of perception. VGIK scholars no longer looked to extra-cinematic means of optimizing the perceptual process, concentrating their attention on making the film itself more “readerly.”Footnote 149 Largely sidestepping the question of whether the viewer's perception could be “reforged,” Rudik, Nikiforova, and Zhinkin posited that the production of successful films was contingent on directors taking due account of the psychological laws of film interpretation. Each of their studies blamed problems in comprehension on the director's neglect of a wide variety of psychological givens.Footnote 150 The notion that the spectator would understand anything set in front of them was completely mistaken, Rudik professed, “immutable scientific norms” could not just be swept aside.Footnote 151
The growing disjunction between the aims of the VGIK scholars and the objectives of Soviet culture during the era of the “socialist offensive” was made clear by the objections that Kuleshov, the “founder” of Soviet montage cinema, raised at a June 1934 debate on the work of Rudik's collective. Taking the floor to respond to Rudik's report on the inaccessibility of his film The Great Consoler, the veteran director protested: “It wouldn't be right to only make films that are unequivocally accepted and liked by the public. We have an audience of millions and must make films that would aid its cultivation. We must stay a step ahead of the viewer and lead him/her.”Footnote 152 The 1935 book written by the film scholar and founder of the Scientific Research Sector, Nikolai Lebedev, made clear the extent to which Soviet cinema had moved on from the objectives voiced by Kuleshov. Towards the Question of Cinematic Specificity reminded Soviet filmmakers that “films which are intended for an audience of millions and tens of millions must be constructed with thought to the average psycho-physiological requirements of the majority of the people comprising these millions.”Footnote 153
The VGIK scholars’ pursuit of a cinema commensurate with the laws of perception was part of the Stalinist film industry's assault on the wall of “incomprehension” purported to have arisen between film producers and their consumers during the period of the avant-garde's dominance over Soviet cinema.Footnote 154 If the VGIK scholars were participants in the project of bringing art “closer to the masses,” however, they were also successors to the drive to scientifically command spectatorial response that was initiated in the 1920s, as well as respondents to global efforts to establish a mode of representation that could effortlessly guide the viewer's perception.