What if? That is a question many historians at one time or another grapple with. Film historians are no exception: the production histories of a lot of famous movies contain episodes that suggest things might have turned out very differently. What if Tom Selleck had played Indiana Jones? What if Rainer Werner Fassbinder hadn’t overdosed and had got to make his film about Rosa Luxemburg? Questions like these can only be answered speculatively, and such speculation is often frowned upon within academic circles that prize rigorously documented research and factual evidence. The essayistic mode however offers an alternative.
At the end of 2019 the Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies [in]Transition devoted an entire special issue to the Russian montage school with Sergei Eisenstein as its polestar. In it, four video essays examined the origins and the legacy of the Russian avant-garde in cinema using very different strategies. This piece by artist and filmmaker Zoe Beloff was a standout contribution to that special issue. It starts from a speculative question: what if Sergei Eisenstein had succeeded in bringing his vision for a movie called Glass House to the screen? Glass House was a film the Russian director planned to make while he was under contract to Paramount Studios (in the year 1930). It would have been a satire of bourgeois society and of omnipresent surveillance via an architectural metaphor. The film was never made and the only thing that is left are his notes and drawings about the abandoned project.
Zoe Beloff uses those notes and sketches as her inspiration for a speculative video essay that brilliantly combines animation, live action and even burlesque. As she herself states very clearly, her film is “neither a pastiche of the film that Eisenstein might have made, nor a documentary about a project that failed”. What it does is use the (formal and factual) freedom that the essayistic mode provides to hypothesize how the movie might have turned out, what influences Eisenstein may have been subjected to, what his artistic and thematic motives may have been and so forth. Beloff enthusiastically employs all the opportunities that the audiovisual essay provides. She stages absurd yet telling tableaux, reuses archival footage, and adds animations to visualize a vision that never materialized. The result is a vibrant vertical video (the piece was conceived to be shown in an installation setting) that turns speculation into an artistic exercise.