THE SOVIET culture commissars gathered the Western press together last week and denounced America's recent cinematic orgies of Red-bashing: "Rambo," "Rocky IV," and "Red Dawn." The apparatchiks said these films were arousing an American "pathology of hatred" against the Soviet Union. Yevgeni Yevtushenko, a deputy minister of culture and a poet famous largely for the decibel level of his readings, described such movies as "warnography."
There is no reason Americans should like hearing their films criticized by a government that doesn't have the guts to produce anything but "agitational-propaganda," or agit-prop, art. But this time we should admit it. The commissars are dead right.
They should know. Ever since 1922 when Lenin called film his regime's "most important art," the Soviets have used movies as an instrument of influence and control.
The technical innovations of early Soviet films were matched only by their obedience to the political dogma of the revolution. The work of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin and Vertov were marked by their lack of individual characters. Instead they were drawn to symbols, masses, types. Alexander Dovzhenko's "Arsenal" features a heroic stereotype who is a kind of Rambo-ski -- Timosh, the Ukranian worker who cannot be killed by the bullets of a counter-revolutionary firing squad.
Western students of the early Soviet cinema still hear the golden age of the 1920s -- the era of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dovzhenko -- described as "revolutionary." Usually the word is used in its formal sense to describe, say, Eisenstein's radical innovations in the use of close-ups and montage in "The Battleship Potemkin" or "Strike" or Vertov's "documentary" footage of triumphant workers in his "Kino-Pravda" series. Their innovations dwarfed cinematic work elsewhere.
But always the force behind all those films was propagandistic. They all served the consolidation of the Bolshevik revolution throughout the republics. The state was the ultimate studio, Lenin the ultimate mogul.
Eisenstein could hire thousands of extras to simulate the storming of the Winter Palace for "Ten Days That Shook The World" because the extras were working for free in service of propaganda. Vertov could travel the Soviet Union in search of footage and audiences because Lenin had ordered, at great expense, a number of agit-prop trains that trailed the Red Army across the mountains and steppes.
Like a Samuel Goldwyn, Lenin wrote his directives: "All movie exhibition programs should include a certain percentage of a) films of amusement, especially for advertising (attracting an audience) and for profit (naturally without obscenity and counter-revolution) and b) under the heading 'from the lives of all people,' pictures of especially propaganda character: such as the colonial policy of England in India, the world of the League of Nations, starving in Berlin, etc. etc. . . . . Films of propaganda character should be given for evaluation to old Marxist and literary people in order to make sure that such unfortunate events in which propaganda has backfired are not repeated."
The Soviets set the standard for all succeeding authoritarian propaganda. Hitler enlisted Leni Riefenstahl to produce films celebrating the Aryan ideal. "Triumph of the Will" was the result. Even today her images of the Nuremberg rallies arouse, at once, a weird appreciation of her sense of fascist geometry and a repulsion at her blindness to evil.
The West has also enlisted talented directors for propaganda. In fact, Frank Capra's World War II series, "Why We Fight," acknowledged the success of Riefenstahl's films by both imitating their forms and attacking their underlying ideology. Capra's propaganda work in "Prelude to War" was so successful that he won the praise of one of the old Russian masters -- Pudovkin called it a prototype of future international films "because it can be fully understood everywhere."
But these days the Soviets are not quite so impressed with American propaganda, especially now that it is directed almost solely against them.
Somehow they find unfair the image in "Rambo" of a Russian army thug carving Sylvester Stallone's pectorals with a red-hot knife.
Somehow they find a tad impolite Stallone's portrayal in Rocky IV of Soviet athletes as mute technological Visigoths.
And somehow they find the scenario of John Milius' "Red Dawn" less than helpful to the cause of rapprochement. The story begins with Soviet paratroopers mowing down a row of Colorado school kids and ends with a few of the surviving adolescents taking to the mountains -- equipped with Wheaties, Coke and shotguns -- and wiping away the Commie invaders.
If only the Soviets were upset because Stallone and Milius aren't Frank Capra. Because they should be upset. But so should we. After seeing these movies one feels diminished, slimy, cheapened, as if one had eaten nothing but spray cheese and Thunderbird for a year or stayed all afternoon at a a peep show.
Stallone and Milius have not created propaganda in the service of a crisis of state. Theirs is not a defense of anything but the profit motive. They have made a shrewd calculation: Americans are both frightened and pugnacious about the Soviet Union. They have made cynical, exploitative films.
Stallone and his like celebrate nothing but themselves. Rocky IV may be the most narcissistic film since, well, Rocky III. Stallone, described once as the "stupido's Orson Welles," is far too dense and self-involved to create propaganda of any artistic or political merit. When World War II was raging, the American government was around to sponsor propaganda films. Without the help of a coherent national crisis and ideology, Stallone finds himself in a situation where propaganda is privatized.
Even if it's for the wrong reasons, the Russians are right. When it comes to movie propaganda, we should learn a little from the masters of the form.