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Men out of Focus

Men Out of Focus: Father Time (Eliot Borenstein)

Eliot Borenstein

Now that I’ve officially embarked on a study of the overall weirdness of temporality in the post -Soviet era , thinking about Men Out of Focus makes me feel strangely unstuck in time. After all, this is the book I really wish I could have cited when I was writing my dissertation thirty years ago.  Perhaps the next frontier in digital humanities could involve rocketing manuscripts into the past. Is that really too much to ask?

Yes. Yes, it is.  And it is the heroes of Marko Dumančić’s wonderful book who could probably explain why. In its chronological framework, Men Out of Focus is the story of the gradual decline of Soviet heroic masculinity, which, by the end, regresses to the Russian mean of superfluous men.  In Chapter Five, he turns to the complicated representation of the Soviet scientist.  Why, he asks, does a culture that puts science on a pedestal have so much trouble with scientists?  Because “filmmakers exploited the popularity of the scientist to promote a subversive masculine model:

While official propaganda idealized the scientific profession and its practitioners, elevating them to cult status, directors utilized physicists, cyberneticists, and mathematicians to challenge uniformity in regard to both science and ideology. Unlike their Stalin-era precursors – explorers, geologists, and aviators – ­sixties scientists questioned the existence of absolute, permanent truths regarding either political dogma or scientific knowledge. In stark contrast to the brawny heroes of the not so distant past, the brainy scientist flaunted his irreverence for authority as well as his intellectual aptitude.

In other words, scientists were less socialist realist heroes than socialist realist antagonists.  They were the sort of people who would try to explain to the protagonist of Valentin Kataev’s Time, Forward! that beating the world’s record in concrete mixes per hour might be detrimental to the equipment. Because, you know, physics.  They would also be quietly (or not so quietly) skeptical of what Stephen Hanson calls the “charismatic model of time” under Stalin: time cannot simply be mastered by enthusiasm. Which means my digital time travel is doomed. And this is why no one really likes this sort of scientist. They’re terrible buzz kills.

If post-Stalinist Soviet cinema turns a jaundiced kino-eye on scientists, isn’t this one of the many ironic ways in which Soviet and American mass culture converge? Marko’s assertion yesterday that the Cold War does not define the story he tells should be familiar to anyone who has tried to teach a comparative Cold War course:  you could spend many an hour watching Soviet films without even realizing that the Cold War was much of an issue. But the two traditions find common ground in the distrust of scientists, in that both portray these men as disruptive outsiders.  As Marko explains, the Sixties-era scientists were too skeptical of received dogma to fit well into this officially collectivist culture. One might expect something different from America with its cult of individualism, but that would require ignoring the powerful postwar forces of conformity against which the counterculture would rebel.  More important, though, is the hubris of the (mad) scientist, whose tunnel vision leaves him blind to the dangerous implications of his own work. 

But scientists are only the focus of Chapter Five, reminding us that they are not Marko’s primary concern. The bulk of the book deals with the issue that was very much on the mind of filmmakers and pundits during the Long Sixties: fatherhood.  Bad fathers, middling fathers, and journeymen fathers (who somehow pick up the their skills by learning from their sons) populate post-Stalinist cinema; even in their absence, they loom large.  Marko reminds us of the great symbolic power held by the father in the Stalin era, a power often abrogated to Stalin himself, and he also devotes the necessary time to the debates in the press over deadbeat dads.  

The focus on fathers makes a great deal of sense when considered as content, but it also serves a crucial discursive role.  Thanks to the War and to the Terror, fathers had a limited set of narrative functions within the family: they had a marked tendency to disappear. In addition to  run-of-the-mill abandonment, fathers were subject to arrest, exile, conscription, and death.  This is certainly a heroic narrative, but one that, domestically at least, is observed from a distance. 

In a 1981 Father’s Day tribute, the American columnist Erma Bombeck wrote about playing with her dolls when she was a girl: “Whenever I played house, the mother doll had a lot to do. I never knew what to do with the daddy doll, so I had him say ‘I’m going off to work now and threw him under the bed.”

Bombeck’s confusion wasn’t because of divorce or death, let alone political repression or military service. In the postwar Soviet Union, the daddy doll would be all the more superfluous.  Thus the return of fatherhood to Sixties cinema is fundamentally about simply finding a way to bring fathers back into the narrative.  Stories about fathers needed to be told, precisely because it was so easy to tell stories without them.

All of which brings me back to one more time travel fantasy.  If only I could have read Marko’s book in the 1980s while watching Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears.  Not only would the sudden time jump from Katya and her newborn baby girl to the now-teenaged daughter dancing around in her bra make some kind of sense, so, too, would the infuriating deference paid to Gosha, Katya’s late-life suitor.  The film’s patriarchal restoration infuriated me and my American friends, but it has its own internal logic. At the end of the movie, Katya tells Gosha, “I’ve been looking for you for such a long time.”  Apparently, she’s not the only one. 

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

One reply on “Men Out of Focus: Father Time (Eliot Borenstein)”

I agree 100% about how Marko’s book would have been so valuable while watching Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears! I had a similar thought myself, recalling the first time I saw the film as a second-year Russian language student. I was aghast at the way Katya was apologetic (apologetic!!!) about the fact that she earned a higher salary that Gosha. I simply didn’t understand the context at the time. It still makes me twitch, but the picture is much, much clearer now. Marko’s book is exceptional in the way that it can help illuminate later Soviet films, as well.

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