April 15-June 4 at MoMA
A cameraman stands precariously atop the door of a roofless automobile as he aims his hand-cranked camera at passengers in a horse-drawn carriage. What we watch involves multiple layers of mediated reality, the footage of the cameraman intertwined at breakneck speed with the footage he is in the process of shooting. Suddenly a shot of the horse freezes, leading to a montage of freeze-frames from earlier shots: the passengers, an elderly woman, a teeming crowd spreading through the streets of a Ukrainian city. A couple of shots of school-age girls are shown not only as freeze-frames, but as selections from a celluloid strip on which infinitesimal still variations of the same moment have been captured. An editor selects, cuts, and views several such strips, soon reconstituted in all their moving image glory.This explosive meta-scene comes a third of the way through Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), the most radical film of its period. Indeed, Vertov, subject of a comprehensive MoMA retro this spring, was the most radical of the major Soviet filmmakers of the late 1910s and 20s, the Bolshevik-as-visionary. Where Sergei Eisenstein employed montage for the purposes of historical dramatization, and where Alexander Dovzhenko used similar techniques to convey a sort of environmental lyricism, Vertov was instead concerned with the nature of the cinematic apparatus itself —what it could do as a machine and how it could augment human vision in pursuit of a perception otherwise unavailable to the naked eye.
Like many of his Soviet brethren, Vertov (real name David Kaufman —the pseudonym means “spinning top,” and immediately announces its owner’s interest in man-object hybridizations) proclaimed cinema as the future of art in a series of fiery manifestos. His principle idea was that the camera was an invention that could help man explore and discover uncharted realms of the visual world. The form that would best exploit cinema’s potentialities would combine documentary (what Vertov deemed “life caught unawares”); cinematographic tricks (split-screens, stop-motion animation, and extreme low and high camera angles are par for the course); and rapid and often violent editing techniques. The beginnings of Vertov’s practice are best seen in Kino-glaz (“camera-eye,” 1924) and his Kino-pravda (“Cinema-truth,” 1925) series of newsreels. Both present and reconfigure daily events and dramatically diverse conditions in the chaotic, newly formed Soviet Union, while displaying Vertov’s experimentation with all variety of montage, none as hilarious and completely unprecedented as the reverse-motion journey of a cow from edible beef to slaughterhouse victim (its butchered entrails put back in place via movie magic) to unwitting farm animal.
Working with a team that included brother Mikhail as cinematographer (the Russo-Polish-Jewish Kaufmans are perhaps the most talented filmmaking family in history: a third brother, Boris, served as D.P. for Jean Vigo, Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet) and wife Elizaveta Svilova as editor, Vertov directed A Sixth of the World (1926) and The Eleventh Year (1928) on the road to his crowning achievement, Man With a Movie Camera. Both are celebrations of Soviet industry —the vast export trade in the first case, hydroelectric power in the second —which forge can-do, proletariat cheerleading with a nearly post-human conception of labor. Vertov’s sense of rhythmic editing is never more seductively visceral than in Eleventh‘s close-ups punctuating every pounding of a hammer on iron; when later on in the same film a palimpsest of machinery superimpositions eventually makes way for a militaristic parade of gas masks and battleships, the effect is downright terrifying.
To champion Man With a Movie Camera as a masterpiece isn’t terribly novel, but it’s worth considering that the film will likely endure as much due to its challenging playfulness as its soaring ambition. While by no means the first meta-film (Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show was made in 1902), Man With a Movie Camera represents a quantum leap for self-aware image-construction: a city symphony in which we get to see each instrument —Elizaveta and her Steenbeck, Mikhail and his omni-present, omni-positioned camera —play each dynamically placed note. The sound metaphor comes straight out of the film itself, and it’s no accident that the complexity of Man With a Movie Camera was applied to the aural dimension in Enthusiasm (1930), in which asynchronous sound collage creates a montage for the ears. Sadly, though not surprisingly, original traces of Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (1934) were largely wiped away when he was forced to re-edit that film four years later for Stalinist purposes. Vertov was always on the fringes of the artistic world of the U.S.S.R. for what was perceived as excessive “formalism,” and this was the last straw. Social realism had arrived, and while it’s fair to say Vertov’s Lenin-worship was no better ideologically than anything Uncle Joe conceived for himself, Stalin’s propagandistic guidelines robbed cinema of one of its masterminds as Vertov was gradually reduced to working as an editing room hack until his death in 1954.
In a sense Vertov remains far ahead of our time even as he appears superficially antiquated. We have, after all, arrived at an advanced cybernetic age of which Vertov could never have dreamed, while the rapid-eye montage he so precisely and marvelously executed is now put to ubiquitously sloppy use in the average Frito-Lay advert. The Soviet Union is, of course, long dead and gone, and the worldwide revolution so fervently championed by Vertov (“To the victory of socialism in our country,” begins a series of subtitles in The Eleventh Year, “To the victory of socialism in every country/ONWARDS!”) exists now only as a lingering nightmare in countries like Cuba and North Korea. Were Vertov’s unparalleled cinematic gifts put in the embarrassing service of a cruel and untenable socio-economic system? In order to reclaim him must we—pardon the clich é—divorce style from substance? Perhaps the most advantageous way of viewing Vertov from a 21st-century standpoint is to understand his lack of balance. Enthusiasm depicts the dismantling of religious statues and icons as a triumph: Vertov frequently emphasized materialism at the cost of a mystical-utopian strain, and often his films inadvertently forecast the human race’s slavish relationship to machines rather than their harmony. But though he was avant of the avant-garde, and though he used his talents in the name of the State that inevitably abused him, many of the filmmakers who have followed in Vertov’s footsteps—Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Craig Baldwin—have extended the directions he only hinted at, taking the psychological and metaphysical repercussions of his practice even further. He is the giant on whose shoulders so many stand. Ultimately we are better—significantly better—for him.