The great Russian writer Boris Pilnyak spent six months in the United States in 1931, and while here took a road trip from California to New York with ‘New Masses’ editor Joseph Freeman. Working briefly as a Hollywood screenwriter, he also traveled across the southern states, writing this remarkable ‘farewell of his impressions of the country. Transcribed online for the first time here.
‘Farewell to America’ by Boris Pilnyak from New Masses. Vol. 7 No. 4. September, 1931.
From ancient ruins archaeologists sometimes unearth primitive stone images of women and marvel at their beauty, the lines of their bodies, the perfection of their appearance. But if, while the archaeologist marvels at his discovery, a tiny ant should begin to crawl across the face of the stone beauty, this ant would see something entirely different from the loveliness which thrilled the scientist. The ant would simply crawl along the stone, from crevice to crevice, from valley to valley, from mountain to mountain. The same would happen if the beautiful woman were not inanimate stone but were walking down Fifth Avenue in the flesh. A man, startled by the beauty of this woman, might stop in the street to admire her; a mosquito crawling down her cheek at this moment, would see hills of face-powder; to the insect this cheek would be the red desert of Arizona, and if by chance it should crawl into her nostril, the insect would feel as if it had fallen into the crater of a live volcano.
This lyrical introduction seeks to show that in order to appreciate beauty we must measure up to it and that everything in this world is relative.
There is a strange land where miracles happen. In this land there are at the same time icy blizzards and burning sandstorms; deserts lie next to oceans; winter and summer, spring and fall flourish simultaneously; arctic and tropical regions lie side by side. In this strange land English, French, African, German and American villages and cities stand next to each other and in the streets of the villages and cities peoples of all races and classes walk about in costumes for every season of the year. Next to a duke walks a Negro, next to a naked Indian walks a man in a fur coat; a Hindu in loin cloth talks to an American aviator.
This strange land is called Hollywood. Behind the high walls of the Hollywood film lots (the walls are carefully guarded — “industrial secrets”) there are certain houses that look like barracks. Inside there are long corridors on each side of which are small rooms which look like solitary confinement cells in a prison. Each of these cells contains a chair, a table, another chair, a typewriter, and a telephone — and nothing else. In these cells, from nine in the morning until five in the evening, there sit people who do nothing; their legs are propped on the table or the window sill or slung over the back of the second chair. Sometimes several of these people get together and talk. These people with their legs in the air are writers working for the film companies of Hollywood.
The writers are collected from various parts of the country. Somewhere a young man or young woman has written a book, which has attracted attention; this young writer received a telegram: “you are to live and work in Hollywood for so many dollars for so many years, handing over all your writings to such and such a firm.” Indeed, Hollywood is the land of unlimited possibilities, the firm argues; the young writer shows some talent; perhaps he will amount to something some day; it is better to buy him now than to pay him three times as much later; and it is better if he works for us rather than for our competitors.
But these writers are not invited to studios to write, to create. Each firm has its own writers and “creators” in addition to the writers in the solitary confinement cells.
A film may be born thus: special readers in the employ of a movie company read the new novels and plays and recommend those which they think are suitable for filming. Summaries of these novels and plays eventually reach the supervisors who have the power to say “O.K.!” and to set the wheels of the movie firm in motion. What appears on the screen bears only the remotest resemblance to the original novel or play.
There is another way in which a film may be born: special inventors on the staff of the film company patch together various ideas; they invent the scenes that are to appear on the screen; they describe the milieu of the action, the country and period in which it takes place; they specify what the villain shall be like. The hero and heroine, of course, are always the same; everybody knows them; they are never more than 25 years old. These inventors convey their ideas directly to the supervisor. When a theme has been approved they begin to write the story, the treatment, the scenario and to prepare for the actual filming. Sometimes advisers are called in from the outside. Suppose a writer is familiar with the life of sailors at sea. He is asked to read certain books, to write out suggestions for improving the scenario. Fear of competing film companies surrounds the whole procedure with an almost childlike secrecy. The tentative drafts of the story are slugged with mysterious titles which are changed as frequently as the secret code of conspirators. The writer called in for advice writes. Will his name appear on the screen? Not necessarily. His suggestions or his story will be corrected by the supervisor and the director. The corrected script will go to a highly-paid well-advertised staff writer whose name has the weight of a trademark. It is this name which will appear on the screen; it will be the name of an “expert” who will take some one else’s knowledge of life at sea and pour it into the standard Hollywood mould. Other experts will do the treatment, the dialogue. Thus the final product is the work of many minds, while the screen carries the name of one writer who, in some cases, may have contributed nothing but the advertising value of his name.
Who is the real boss of the movies? Is it the general manager? the supervisor? the director? the stockholder? The movies are an industry, an extraordinary financial organization. Every night in the week Americans pay a voluntary tax to this industry. If you ask the captains of this industry, they will tell you that the real boss of the screen is the average American, the hero of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. When the supervisor puts his O.K. on a story he often professes to despise the script but excuses himself on the ground that he is compelled, for the sake of the profits which the stockholder demands, to cater to the mythical taste of the “average American.”
What is interesting here, however, is not so much the technique of the film industry as other questions which it affects: art, the role of the writer, individualism. Art is creative only when it produces new forms, new ideas, new emotions: when it awakens, not when it stupefies. In order to create, a writer must believe in his work, he must believe in its necessity, in its significance. This, of course, is much more important than money. Recall how many products of genius have been turned out in garrets and in hunger. The writer must be individual and free in his work — and America is proud of its individualism…
The writer of this article has had his taste of the movies. One day this spring I received a telegram: — so much money, so much work, to act as adviser on a Russian film; leave New York for Hollywood on such and such a date. I agreed, but although I spent a number of weeks in Hollywood, and participated in a dozen conferences, and made a number of speeches, and rewrote other peoples scripts, I did not succeed in being an adviser on the Russian film, in the sense that my advice had little effect. I then began to understand why nearly all the writers I met in Hollywood were ironical about the film industry.
When I arrived in Hollywood I was handed the script of a Russian story. The theme, the characters, the situations were invented on the lot by people who knew nothing about Soviet Russia.
I was asked (in my capacity as adviser) whether certain situations on which the entire action of the film hinged could possibly happen in contemporary Russia. I replied that such situations could not possibly happen. I was told: that is too bad, but we must somehow think up of ways and means to make these situations plausible on the screen because they would appeal to American spectators. Life in the Soviet Union was so falsified to fit a preconceived formula as to what constitutes an exciting movie. I replied: of course, it is possible to show on the screen an orange grove blooming in Greenland, but then Greenland would no longer be Greenland. Besides, I said, what was the use of paying me for advice on a Russian film if my knowledge of conditions in my country was disregarded for the sake of the alleged expectations of American movie fans? I did not know at that time that one movie firm had already produced a “Russian” film in which Siberia was decorated with eucalyptus trees…
My advice was not very useful and the film is being produced without my participation.
In spite of the prevalence of prohibition and the absence of bootleggers, Americans, by some miracle, manage to drink no less than other peoples; and waiters, even when they work in monastic cells, are writers nevertheless and there is something fatal in their destiny. During a farewell party on my last night in Hollywood, a young movie writer said to me during a discussion of American individualism:
“I’ll tell you about individualism: all day I sit in my cell in the writers barracks and write precisely those things which I repudiate at night when I write my novels. At home I have only a sheet of paper, a typewriter and a head which the day’s work has exhausted; while the film industry has a tremendous organization, machinery, millions of dollars, and claims to have 24,000,000 fans. My individualism butts its head in vain against this vast machine, but I must say Hollywood pays me good money and that settles the matter.”
It was this aspect of American “individualism” which I saw in Hollywood…
From Hollywood I travelled to New York in a Ford. I went through quiet states, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana. The sun was burning, the roads were deserted. Once we approached the little town of G…on the border of Texas and Oklahoma and I beheld the incredible. Traffic was as thick as in New York. It was impossible to walk or ride through it. The cars carried license plates from many states, some even from Canada. Trucks, Packards, Fords, Chryslers, Chevrolets, Buicks were crawling, bounding, flying along the road between the towns of G…and L…
We had come across an oil rush. Whether there was really any oil there I do not know, but oil stock was already being sold, land was being bought from Negro farmers and offered at higher prices. Who knows, today you pay a dollar for a square foot of land, tomorrow it may be worth a hundred (or you may lose your investment!)
And so the automobiles were flying along the roads to buy, sell and organize; they were jammed with people anxious to become millionaires overnight. Everybody was in a hurry; everybody was afraid he might be too late; everybody was bluffing everybody else.
The anxious passengers in the automobiles could see the wells which had already been sunk, the shafts rising to the hot blue sky; they could see the engineers drilling. Houses and shacks were being built rapidly along the road; trucks were rushing supplies to the new town that was to rise over night. Negroes were offering their land for sale in the streets, and some of them, with their derbies pushed back over sweating foreheads, were peddling stock to the occupants of the automobiles dreaming of millions. The grass in the fields of Negro farmers was crushed under the rubber tires of the cars. In one place workers were setting up a merry-go-round, a shooting gallery, and the other trappings of an amusement park. Bootleggers and prostitutes were plying their trades briskly. The earth was opened for gas pipes and electric wires. Men — rich and poor alike — too much in a hurry to wait for the wooden houses to be built had already set up tents in which they had settled for the time being with their wives and children.
The automobiles kept coming, jammed with people who came to make their pile. The oil town was sweltering in the early summer heat of Texas. From various tents came the shrill voice of the radio. Some of the incoming speculators had sold all their belongings back home. They had staked all their possessions in the world on this oil rush; perhaps they would come out of it penniless, perhaps rich.
They came in a terrible hurry to make money, these individualists…
A hundred miles beyond L … we again rode past the silence of Negro fields, Negro poverty, Negro toil.
…From ancient ruins archaeologists sometime unearth primitive stone images of women and marvel at their beauty; but if an ant should begin to crawl across the face of the stone beauty, it would see something entirely different from the loveliness which thrills the scientist; it would simply crawl along a vast expanse of stone, from crevice to crevice, from valley to valley, from mountain to mountain. From the tower of the Empire State Building one sees New York, a beautiful, striking, indescribable city, the only one of its kind in the world, extraordinary in its architecture, overwhelming in its power. To a European looking down at this city, it seems more of a dream than a reality — a dream which cannot be compared with anything except perhaps the fragment of a memory of a childhood fantasy about the biblical city of Babylon. But this mythical Babylon of childhood imagination none of us has ever seen, while here from the roof of a skyscraper we see below us in the world of reality an inhuman city, monstrous, overwhelming and beautiful.
A man standing in the tower of the Empire State is on a level with the beauty, the unique grandeur of New York. But when he walks along the streets (or rides in an automobile, it makes no difference) New York is a terrible city, the most terrible city in the world, whether one looks at it from Park Avenue or the Bowery; a city which inhales not air but gasoline; whose streets are barren, without grass or trees; a city that looms up towards the sky like an enormous smoke stack.
It is impossible for a man to live here, just as it is impossible to ride along the streets of the city in an automobile. Streets of this city are filled with the greatest number of the world’s automobiles riding on top of each other.
The man who, figuratively, stands on top of the skyscraper and looks down on the metropolis where he enjoys wealth and power may indeed feel the grandeur of that individualism, of which one hears so much and which for him, at any rate, must have some meaning; but in this world, where everything is relative, what a different picture the metropolis must present to the millions of ants who crawl from crevice to crevice along its stone body.
The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1931/v07n04-sep-1931-New-Masses.pdf