Glass Harmonica

The short surrealistic film Glass Harmonica (1968) is, according to Open Culture the only animated film ever censored by the Soviet Union. This is interesting since the film itself can easily be seen as an attack on capitalism and bourgeois greed. The European Film Philharmonic Institute suggests that the film was controversial in the USSR because of its display between governmental authority and the artistic population. In this post I provide an alternative to this understanding of the censorship through an analysis of the film from a theoretical perspective.

Rhythm/meter

“Meter is dogmatic, but rhythm is critical” -Deleuze and Guattari [1]

This narrative of this film can be viewed as a conflict between rhythm and meter. The meter of the despotic bankers drum against the rhythm and melody of the harmonica. Chronologically, it is the drum that appears first – though its initial appearance gives only a single beat. The drum is the second major territory that is seen, after the clock tower (we’ll return to the clock tower later), but it is only given a single initial beat at the beginning of the film before being overcome by the harmonica. After the breaking of the harmonica the viewer is granted a full understanding of the drum, as it draws the surrealistic animal people in towards itself. When we hear the drum the second time in the film – just after the people have become animals – we see the true nature of its power. The repetitive, singular rhythm of the drum draws the people in towards it. This rhythm, which belongs to the despotic banker figure – the figure who signifies the greed of the bourgeois and capitalism – is able to affect the people in order to shape their desire for the image of the coin/capital. This meter reflects the meter of fascism. As Deleuze and Guattari write that meter is the tool of dogmatism. Meter is the affective force behind the fascist authoritarian – it is through the fascist meter that the people desire fascism. And it is this meter, the meter of the despotic authoritarian drum which draws the people in. It is the second instance of the drum which makes sense of the first. In the second instance the drum plays and the ‘people’ travel towards its noise; they are drawn into the meter of the drum. They have come because they desire capital. But, why do they come to the drum initially? It is a single beat of the drum which repeats inside of them. Their desire has already, to some degree been shaped (as can be seen in some of their appearances). The sameness of the despotic meter has already taken hold of their desire.

In contrast to the meter of the drum is the rhythm of the harmonica. The harmonica appears early in the film as the people surround the drum, after its initial beat. When the rhythm of the harmonic plays the people begin to change. The rhythm of the harmonica is a critical deterritorializing rhythm. It pulls the people out of the desire for capital and towards a desire for beauty. The harmonica’s rhythm fights against the meter of the drum. Each time the harmonica arrives, it is treated with fear from the despot. In an interesting move, the despot is able to travel throughout this world as if he is teleporting. This suggests that the despot, like capital, is an omnipresent force who circumnavigates everything. In each case the despot destroys the harmonica, attempting to destroy the rhythm which was overcoming the meter of his drum.

It should be noted that both of these rhythms are deterritorializing. The drum deterritorializes the current socius – the initial image given is of the landscape with the clock tower at the centre. The drum is able to shape the people’s desire in such a way that the clock tower – that which used to function as the centre – is stripped down because of desire for the coin/capital. The drum functions like capitalism – it decodes all, and recodes with capital as the only code. Everything in the tower is stripped for money; no meaning remains outside of monetary value for the people. They desire nothing but the coin. The harmonica, too, functions as a deterritorailzing force. The harmonica serves as a refrain which undoes the despotic desire of the drum to a new desire for beauty. The harmonica’s creation of the Rose is the result of the desire for beauty that comes with the refrain of the harmonica. This creation suggests something key – the harmonica does not simply deterritorialize, it reterritorializes as well.

Rhythm and Image

The relationship of these rhythms to image is prominent throughout the film. This is enforced in the reshaping of the people. Each figure is shaped in their relationship to rhythm. As the meter of capital travels through the people their physical appearance shifts until they become as animals, objects or monsters. The most notable of these figures is a short man who betrays a lover of the harmonica who is holding a rose. In exchange for this betrayal, the despot gives the man a coin. This man is portrayed as short, and as the rhythms of capital deterritorialize his body, he begins to shift into a more monstrous being. Yet, when the harmonica’s rhythm later deterritorilizes him and he gives away his wealth, he begins to appear more and more like a man. Furthermore, he becomes a tall man rather than short. The rhythm has affected the body of this person in ways that shape his image. With the harmonica he becomes a less surreal, and more normative human figure.

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We see similar circumstances with a couple who steal the clock’s hands. When the couple first appear, they are in awe of the despot’s rhythm. Their faces appear symmetrical, and they are the first to the top of the tower to steal its machinery in order to fulfil their desire for wealth. Their prominent scene is an interesting one. As they bring the clock’s face to their home, abandoning it on a pile of things, the pile begins to fall over. The man, now treating the woman as an object, leaves her to hold up the things. While this is occurring, the man begins to look through a peep hole – no doubt aligning with the traditional image of the peeping Tom – yet, rather than a woman, the image through the hole in the wall is of the short man, depositing his coin into a box of coins. In this surrealistic world, the sexual perversion has been transformed into a perversion of greed. The man desires not sex, but wealth. As the coin of the short man rolls through the window of the peeping Tom, both the man and woman are transformed into animals. The rhythm of the despot – the rhythm of the coin has fully taken over their being. They have been deterritorailized through the rhythm of the coin, and reterritorialized as animals. Yet, the final image of the couple shows, again, the deterritorializing force of the harmonica, who appear in a more human, rather than a surrealistic form as they return the stolen clock hands to the face of the clock.

As the rhythm of the harmonica travels through the people, one of the most interesting images is that of an egg. The egg begins to crack, revealing a body with an egg for a head. This egg, too, cracks revealing a woman beneath it. This image relates to an interesting use of the egg in the theory of Deleuze and Guattari. The cracks could be seen as the lines of flight along the socius of the egg which is deterritorialized by the rhythm of the harmonica. All of the surreal figures appear to be deterritorialized in the same way. They have been deterritorialized to such an extent that when the despot returns (still omnipresent) to destroy the harmonica a second time, his rhythm has no effect on the people. His fascist meter is beaten by the rhythm of the harmonica which lives on in the rhythm of the people who it has affected.

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Immunological Clock Tower

At the end of the film the harmonica is destroyed by the despot a second time. Yet, when the despot attempts to reassert their drum meter over the people again, the people do not return to their animal forms, but retain their normal human appearance. Even more, the people restore the very clock tower that had been ransacked by their greed at the beginning of the film. As mentioned earlier, the first territory that is seen in the film is the clock tower – not the drum or the harmonica. So, despite the various deterritorializations that occur throughout, the end of the film signals a return to the beginning. The film is circular: it goes clocktower—drum—harmonica—drum—harmonica—drum (failed)—clocktower. I think that the image of the clocktower is one that is central to understanding the censorship of the film in the USSR.

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The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes on immunological spheres. In his book, Globes[2], he writes about ‘macrospheres’. These are large spheres which provide cultures with immunological spaces against the exterior. A chief example of this is the role of God during the middle ages. God functions as the centre who provides immunological resistance against the unknown exterior. The centre, God, helps make the people immune against the outside. I’d suggest that one might read the tower as having a similar role. The tower exists at the centre of the town, and can be read as protective against the outside. When the outside force is able to circumnavigate the defences of the interior, the first thing that it takes out is the clock tower (as we see the clock tower ravaged by the greed of the people). This works similar to the role that capitalism and enlightenment play in the destruction of macrospheres in Sloterdijk’s writing. Capitalism circumnavigates the globe and deterritorializes interior defences and immunological systems, focuses on individuals and recoding everything for capital. The end of the film, then, does not present a deterritorialized body without organs, but rather a return to the old territory – a return to the old immunizing system. The question then becomes: what is the role of the harmonica in all of this.

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Two Interpretations of the Harmonica

As a result of this viewing of the film as a return to the previously deterritorialized immunological space, I think that we can provide two interpretations of the harmonica. Either the harmonica is revolutionary or the harmonica is reactive. I’ll begin with the idea of the harmonica as a revolutionary deterritorializing force. If one views the harmonica as a revolutionary force, we can see it as an extension of the Russian political struggle against the bourgeois. If this is the case, it is clear that with the second destruction of the harmonica, the revolutionary aim of the people is abandoned. If the harmonica is a revolutionary force, any rhythm that it provided the people is abandoned at the end of the film with the return to the immunological clock tower. Revolution pushes forward, not backwards. Thus, if the clock tower is presented in the end, then the revolution has failed. With the defeat of both the force of capitalism and the force of revolution, the people are free to return to their old immunological space. Under this interpretation, the film provides the communism of the USSR as a phase on the road to return to the previous immunological society – before bourgeois and before revolution.

Alternatively, the harmonica’s rhythm can be seen as reactionary. If one views the harmonica’s rhythm as always already signalling a return to the past it could be understood that the despotic meter is not simply a representative of capitalism, but all authoritarian forces. In this case, the reactionary movement of the harmonica’s rhythm can be seen as a signal back towards a time before the USSR. The film would again present a return to an immunological space, but in this case the harmonica is not simply a tool of this return, but the rhythm of its return. This return is not a revolutionary (forward moving) rhythm but a conservative one. Under this interpretation, the film does not attack only capitalism, but all authoritarian rule, which would also be seen as antagonistic from the perspective of the Russian government. In either case, these interpretations give some theoretical motivation of this film’s censorship in the USSR. The film does not provide the viewer with a revolutionary message. It provides message of return – return to the past immunological space – rather than a revolutionary move towards new horizons.

 

[1] Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. 1 edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. p. 313

[2] Sloterdijk, Peter. Globes: Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology. Translated by Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2014.

 

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