Monday, January 10, 2011

Vertov's Perspective

Dziga Vertov was the quintessential Soviet artist, or would have been if the Communist Party didn't morph into the very antithesis of artistic expression when Stalin consolidated his grip on political power in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, released in 1929, is an international masterpiece, much better, perhaps even much more important, than Eisenstein's more famous Battleship Potemkin example.

Man with a Movie Camera is relentlessly creative and equally intelligent. The film, edited by Vertov's wife according to the film historian who narrates Criterion's edition of the film, is the result of a marriage between sophisticated artistic theory and extremely capable technical experimentation. According to the director's introductory "inter-titles," Man with a Movie Camera is a film produced in opposition to theatrical aesthetics. As such, it purports to contain no plot, no set, and no actors.

Like Berlin Symphony, which borrowed from Vertov's earlier films in the same vein, Man with a Move Camera tells the story of the beehive as opposed to that of the bee. In other words, Vertov takes his viewer on a non-linear but spectacularly revealing tour of wide of swaths of Russian life in the late 1920s. With the insertion of a brilliant modern soundtrack--that Wikipedia says was added in 1996--the film is always engaging, dynamic, and provocative.

Movie Camera's only protagonist, apart of urban modernity, is the artist, the cinematographer. This "man with a movie camera" appears sporatically but repeatedly, and in dozens of unexpected contexts. At one moment he's in a mine shaft filming workers, at another he's on top of a building or a bridge, at another he's setting up shop at the bottom of a glass of beer--with the aid of one of Vertov's many ingenius camera tricks.

The point? Perhaps Vertov wanted to demonstrate that the artist's job is to be everywhere, film everything. Perhaps Vertov's point is that the artist is omnipotent, capable of recording every aspect of modern human endeavor, no matter how complex, how subtle, how secretive.

Of course, with the benefit of historical perspective, the visual metaphor of the man with a movie camera seems to indite modern authoritarianism as well. For the modern viewer isn't only amazed to see that the cameraman is able to capture live births, bloody accidents, and grooming women. He or she also realizes that the camera's eye eliminates the very possibility of privacy in the modern nation-date. Thus Vertov's tour de horizon depicts the poetry of everyday life, including the visual magic of tall buildings, massing crowds, moving trolleys, and speeding trains and ambulances. But it also lays bare the panopticon of modern life, in which every citizen is a part of a whole, for better or worse.

In many ways, Vertov's cinematic language fits perfectly with a socialist paradise. By eliminating sequence and plot, Vertov reveals the collective soul of society, as well its natural ties to the inorganic components of modern life, including, above all, productive machines. Man with a Movie Camera does displace the bourgeois mythology of individualism. In its wake, we see a massive social organism made up of thousands upon thousands of small, beautiful but inconsequential, moving parts--both human and mechanical.

There is no cast of characters in this film; there is a people on the move, inspired by Marx, Lenin, and the first five-year plan. The camera captures everything, and is especially interested in how the parts of the whole move. Accordingly, the camera notes how people shave, get manicures, get washed, shine shoes, wash clothes, sew, dress, recline, work (on assembly lines), jump, run, swim, play basketball, shoot (at Nazi targets), take trolleys, et cetera and so on.

Vertov's aesthetic vision, a vision that may have reflected the best of the Soviet Union's social theory, is, paradoxically, both supremely empathetic and supremely cold and detached. On the one hand, Man with a Movie Camera is profoundly interested in almost every intimate detail of the life of the people. On the other hand, the camera sees everything, marriage and divorce, health and sickness, without prejudice.

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