The man with the movie camera. Speed of vision,
speed of truth? by MARKO DANIEL
However, I believe that it is also a film that speaks directly to contemporary audiences about specific issues of our time. What interests me here, in particular, is what I consider to be the crux of Vertov's programme, that is to say not just his use of actuality footage, i.e. images recorded from real life, but especially his use of montage/editing to turn fragments of celluloid into meaningful duration. The Man with a Movie Camera shows Vertov in love with the power of film to control and compose realities. For the spectator, the experience of viewing film is conditioned by the fact that we watch a single flat screen for a continuous period of time. This is the film object's necessary, inevitable singularity of space and time. But almost all film breaks the Aristotelian Unities of action, time and place and Hollywood and the advertising industry are no doubt more efficient at this game than most alternative films or video art. The popular and commercial success of mediated image streams in general (film, TV, video) is precisely their ability to package everything into coherent, single narratives that the public want and pay to experience.
Cinema can use the whole bag of tricks from stunts and flashbacks to whatever special effects digital editing suites and postproduction facilities allow, and yet even the most dramatically manipulated, chopped up and rearranged spatialities and temporalities are served up for ease of consumption at cinema's steady speed of vision, twenty-four frames per second. Over 75 years ago, Vertov argued that the narrative coherence of Western cinema needed to be supplanted by a new language that directly represented lived reality and believed that the film maker's essential tool was the use of actuality footage. However, this was at best a disingenuous attack on the popular movies of his day and pretended to deny that film always tells a story that goes beyond whatever the camera captures. I argue that the very title of the film, The Man with a Movie Camera, is misleading: the film itself demonstrates that cinema is not about capturing truth but creating a mediated reality that is not least made in the generative processes of editing and viewing. The Man with a Movie Camera is a film that is radically about film making in so far as it tackles head on the processes that constitute filmic representation. Its extreme accelerations and decelerations of the image flow and the presence on screen of the editor at work attempt to show the gap between recording and viewing, or between the (innocent) speed of vision and the (anything but innocent) speed of truth. Mediated images do not represent the truth of external reality, they create truths.
Narratives: city/film making
These diverse activities performed by the inhabitants and the functions discharged by the machinery and technologies of the city are torn out of their temporal-spatial contexts and wrought into the fabric of the movie. The film imposes its own structure on the material. On one level, this serves to divide the various activities into chapters (awakening, work, leisure) that roughly correspond to the course of time, from dawn to dusk. Of course this division above all provides a logical structure and represents one level of analysis performed by the film. In the film, leisure activities come after work, no matter at what time of day a particular shot of people on the beach was taken. To Vertov, this is no big deal, it simply does not matter. But to us, this restructuring of reality is a key dimension: Vertov's anti-narrative convictions notwithstanding, his rearrangements of time and space are a key way in which film disects its raw material and creates a readable coherence of vision. Thus, the film most strongly structures its material by choreographing social activities. Choreography here must not be understood in the Busby Berkeley sense of performances rehearsed for the camera. Instead, Vertov selects from his library of actuality footage to achieve choreography through the composition and juxtaposition of images in the editing suite. The film pays great attention to the formal aspects of the edited image stream by ensuring that dynamic tension is developed through the rhythms of motion within each shot and between consecutive shots, as well as through the duration of shots relative to each other. In one of his manifestos Vertov defined this as the key to understanding the essence of film making: "The meter, tempo, and type of movement, as well as its precise location with respect to the axes of a shot's coordinates and perhaps to the axes of universal coordinates (the three dimensions + the fourth, time), should be studied and taken into account by each creator in the field of cinema." However, unlike the more purely formalist filmic experiment by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy in their Ballet Mécanique of 1924, Vertov's juxtapositions are codetermined by their social contents: industrial machines repeat the patterns of work found in the service sector, humans move like machines, machines like humans; the frantic establishment of connections in a manual telephone exchange is compared with workers packing cigarettes in a factory; a barber sharpens his razor much like a worker his ax; the spinning wheels of a textile factory are echoed in the turning of a mechanical traffic sign, tram wheels, the handle of a shop's cash register or the cogs and pistons of huge machines. Vertov came under attack for the 'bourgeois formalism' of his film even though, to us, these images represent such a relentless and even uncritical celebration of the soviet workers' state.
Male and female workers share equal importance. Contrast this with what I consider to be the epitome of female-machine interaction in Hollywood: the classic shot of an invariably beautiful female character coming to the rescue of her male colleagues by using her stockings to replace the broken fan belt of a stranded car, plane or other machine. By relinquishing her tights the beautiful woman does not change her objectified status (no matter whether she passively hands over her clothes to a more capable male or performs the repair herself). In Hollywood, she is essentially an object for contemplation; all the more fitting, then, that the garment that sheaths her legs, perhaps the part of her anatomy most fetishized by movies, is put to such mechanical, non-aesthetic use. However, her temporary interaction with the messy sphere of mechanics only functions as a carnivalesque moment of humour that consolidates the validity of dominant, gendered reality as normal by laughing at its temporary reversal.
In The Man with a Movie Camera, visual celebrations of the movements
of humans and machines make up the bulk of the narrative dimension, but
not all of it, nor do they necessarily carry the main weight. As far as
the intended message of the film is concerned, one need look no further
than the opening credits. The title sequence is in fact a manifesto on
celluloid. The title of the film and its subtitle, An excerpt from the
diary of a cameraman, are followed by a direct appeal to the audience:
This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events
without the aid of intertitles (A film without intertitles)
without the aid of a scenario (A film without a scenario).
This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.
While today this may sound charmingly if not quaintly radical, Vertov meant it seriously. If the subtitle could still be said to belong to the conventions of the 1920s "city symphony", like Walter Ruttmann's Berlin - Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) or Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heurs (1926), the manifesto distances this film from that genre, most notably through the ambitious sweep of its universalist claims and the emphasis on its experimental nature.
It also is a fervent expression of Vertov's pronounced dislike of Western cinema's narrative conventions, be they, in his terms, the "psychological Russo-German film-drama" or the "American adventure film". To him they represented no more than a passive immersive experience; he wanted the active participation of the spectator in the creation of the film's meaning. They were based on narrative conventions inherited from literature and theater; like the Futurists, he wanted to destroy those staid and stale conventions and replace them with cinema's own, new language. As the Futurists had already found out, such nihilism was an empty gesture.
If we compare Vertov's film with some of the other city films of the 1920s they do all share a remarkable similarity, not least in the fact that they all tell stories about their subjects -- the cities and their inhabitants, the changes wrought on social interaction through the relatively new and still infinitely fascinating phenomenon of the modern metropolis. A film like Murnau's Sunrise of 1927 in fact represents a highly relevant reference point for the very reason that it is a melodramatic piece of fiction from the escapist "dream factory" of Hollywood, i.e. the very antithesis of Vertov's apparent project. It is not only based around a romantic love story but uses its sequences of city life to represent the evil of modern society in contrast to the endangered beauty and purity of the country. While its message about the city is the opposite of Vertov's dizzy celebration of modernity and progress, it often uses equally inventive technical means to construct its very different point of view. Thus any differences of meaning cannot be reduced to the fact that one used the full machinery of studio film production and one actuality footage. Nor do they make a statement about the truth or untruth of either vision. While Vertov set out to challenge the make-belief of film fiction his film equally creates a narrative and tells a story.
As such, The Man with a Movie Camera does not neutrally depict social interaction in its composite city but itself engages in social discourse about what modern life is and should be; furthermore, its relatively straightforward social and political message stands in a problematic relationship to the other or meta narrative, the story about the nature of film making. That is to say, where the former depends on narrative focus and coherence, the latter interrupts and challenges the comfortable immersion in the social utopia presented on screen. Vertov attempts to reconcile these conflicting demands by integrating the making and viewing of film in society. While this draws the spectator into the film, it also essentially fictionalizes the metanarrative and its comments about the nature of film.
Let us begin by considering the film's prologue, a sequence of approximately
two minutes and forty-five seconds between the opening titles and the
start of the main narrative. It starts with a trick shot of a cameraman,
played by Dziga Vertov's brother Mikhail Kaufman (who was also the film's
main cinematographer) climbing onto a giant camera, setting up his tripod
and taking a few shots before climbing down. It then cuts to the cameraman
walking into an empty cinema and through the curtains in front of the
screen. In stop-motion animation shots we see the cinema magically preparing
itself for an as yet absent audience; we see the audience arriving, the
musicians in the orchestra pit getting ready and the projectionist setting
up. Again, this prologue is itself directly indebted to a convention of
early cinema that derived from theater, i.e. showing the theater's proscenium
arch and curtain, as a reminder that this is fiction, not reality, to
help the audience settle into the movie's dreamworld. What sets this version
apart from standard prologues is not only the fact that we saw the cameraman,
the film's protagonist, in action before the film takes us into the empty
cinema but also the detailed attention given to the start of the main
feature. It is, we suspect, a virtual and a real beginning. On the one
hand, it is part of the narrative, on the other hand, it will signal a
second start of The Man with a Movie Camera. The musicians raise their
instruments, bows hover over strings, trombones inches away from lips,
the projectionist slowly brings the two electrodes of the arc light closer
until the spark lights up and the action begins. As the musicians begin
to play, we see the celluloid strip feeding through the projector and
we start watching this movie. This degree of self-referentiality is astonishing
and keeps the spectators on their toes. From this point on, throughout
the film, the audience is reminded that they are watching a movie about
a cameraman shooting a movie and that it is this very movie they are watching.
This is the cinematic equivalent of the magician who first pulls the wool over his audience's eyes only to reveal how the trick was done immediately afterwards. Vertov celebrates the potential of cinema to create tension while at the same time deconstructing the artifice of it all within the narrative itself.
Shots of the inside of the cinema, which frequently recur, similarly draw our attention to the fact that we are watching a movie. In addition to the scenes of the prologue in which the cinema was readied for entertainment, Vertov uses several shots of the projector's light beam cutting through the dark auditorium and audience reaction shots. In particular, there is an interesting sequence consisting of five shots, jumping from a view of an audience in a cinema to Kaufman readying a tele-lens cameragun. Here there is an eyeline-matching cut to three planes flying in formation across the sky, back to the cameraman, only to jump back to the cinema where the just filmed planes now magically swoop across the screen. Vertov's use of these cuts is remarkable for the elegance of the motion and the economy of means with which he both fools the audience and draws attention to artifice.
The third major aspect of movie-making, editing, is equally represented in The Man with a Movie Camera as an interruption of the narrative flow, even an excursus on the art of movie making. For example, one of the most beautiful sequences of the film has Kaufman filming passengers riding in open cars and carriages through sunny city streets. These images exude a light and easy atmosphere as we see Kaufman standing in the back of a car, winding away at his camera as he chases families and courting lovers in their horse-drawn carriages. In one shot, one of the passengers smilingly acknowledges the presence of the camera with a quite intimate gesture, gently mocking the cameraman's action with a rolling wave. This sequence comes to a quiet, poetic ending with a series of freeze frames, first of the galloping horse, then the occupants of the coaches, a long shot of the crowded streets and finally a close-up of an old woman's withered face. This is immediately followed by a shot of a celluloid strip showing three frames depicting a young, smiling girl, intercut with a close-up of another woman. The film then cuts to a sequence of shots of the inside of an editing suite, showing film clips hanging in front of a light wall, reel upon reel of film filed by subject, the editing table and then pulls back to show the film editor, Elizaveta Svilova, at work. We see her scissors hovering over a strip of a crying, newborn baby, as if she were about to cut a second umbilical cord and set it free in the world. Again, Vertov both plays with the deconstructive power of showing us the means by which the film images are produced and celebrates the magical power of the film maker as the small celluloid strip on the editing table, a representation of the film-object in its raw state, suddenly fills the screen, alive with motion.
These shots, I said, are interruptions of the narrative flow and serve as distancing devices, in the Brechtian sense, by forcing the audience not just to remember the fact that they are watching a film, but by spelling out how cinema is made; and by emphasizing that it is made out of still images and therefore that the beauty of film, movement, is based on artifice and illusion.
Our analysis of the above scenes leads us to another conclusion, namely that, by virtue of its place in diverse chains of signification, and through multiple use and repetition, each frame acquires a semiotic overdetermination. The interruptions of the narrative flow are thus not exhausted by their function as warning signs that this is a film. After all, there are movies about movie-making that remain quite happily within the established conventions of invisible editing and cinematic storytelling. Again, it is the peculiar self-referential nature of these interruptions that sets The Man with a Movie Camera apart. If we now look at the three core types of interruption, dealing as they do with the recoding, editing and projecting of film images, and consider them within the movie's overall narrative structure, they make a clear statement. The sequences that deal with the techniques and processes of cinema both interrupt the flow of narrative and place cinema at the core of this narrative. This is nowhere more apparent than in the editing room sequences that powerfully argue that cinema is indeed more than an assembly of disparate strips of film glued together in the cutting room. The integration of the process of editing in the realm of other social activities takes place through formal means, montage itself. The film juxtaposes close-ups of Elizaveta Svilova's hands carefully cutting film with shots of a manicure in a beauty parlour, the fine brush applying glue to the film strip like one applying varnish to a finger nail. Or it contrasts a seamstress feeding a strip of material through her sewing machine with the editor spooling film stock over a light table.
These montage images serve to dynamically integrate film making in the flow of society, but the very means by which this is achieved also again highlight the contradictions inherent in Vertov's approach and bring out the consequences of integrating the metanarrative in the narrative through its own fictionalization. While The Man with a Movie Camera accords the business of film making a special place in society, that integration is made smooth and invisible by the very process of gendering the film's two protagonists, the cinematographer and the editor, according to entirely conventional social patterns. The male cameraman is invariably juxtaposed with industrial production and high-action, high-drama sequences while the work of the female editor is compared with a seamstress and a manicurist. Here the film maker controls meaning precisely by the kind of continuity editing that depends on playing along with conventions. Through this kind of editing the merging of the metanarrative and the narrative thus becomes a seamless experience for the spectator as the film reinforces the suturing of what was intended as rupture. The question is, does Vertov revel in his power to smooth over these contradictions (rupture/suturing) or does it signal not irony but failure, the impossibility of maintaining a detached metadiscourse within the film itself? The process of film making, the transformation of images, montage and editing create meaning: that is the business in which the film maker is engaged, but the logic of film's narrative progression also exerts its own power and frustrates attempts to deconstruct it.
A symbol of that power is given in the image of the kino-eye , the shot of an eye reflected in the lens of a camera that appears at several points in the film. The kino-eye is the principle underlying all of The Man with a Movie Camera, both by reference to Vertov's various manifestos in which he used the term to differentiate his cinematographic methods from conventional techniques and visually, as an image that fuses the recording glance of the camera with the eye of the spectator. As he had said in his 1923 manifesto Kinoks Revolution, "I am a mechanical eye; I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see. I coordinate any and all the points of the universe wherever I may plot them." Such megalomaniac statements support the reading that Vertov understood film to play a very active role in society, be it for purposes of propaganda or as a tool of social formation, but also as a much more direct way of controlling the world. The enigmatic close-up of a camera gravely nodding on top of a building as it sweeps over a busy street anachronistically anticipates the omnipresent surveillance cameras of contemporary metropolises. Vertov considered the omnipresence of the camera an ideal; in order to create a vision of total surveillance he needed to use split screens and optical printing; we know it as a reality. But I do not wish to dwell on surveillance, though it is considered by many to be one of the key issues of contemporary society. In that debate, The Man with a Movie Camera takes its place in the long tradition that stretches from Plato's parable of the cave via science fiction's classic synthetic world scenarios (be they The Matrix or The Truman Show) to recent reality TV.
However, at least as important is the other side of the coin. The omnipresence of image streams for consumption; the flow of images on television, in the media and on public displays exert their own control on the subject. The Man with a Movie Camera's dual emphasis on the seductive beauty of moving images and their intrinsic artificiality shows us that.
Real life versus dream factory: the status
Film is reality represented; as The Man with a Movie Camera tells us, it is a selection of partial aspects of reality recorded, edited, montaged and projected, viewed and interpreted. The film object represents a single stream of images; a single vision; so what distinguishes it from narrative film, the Hollywood style Vertov presented as the antithesis of his project? Perhaps it can be summed up by saying that, yes, his films, as discrete film objects, necessarily represent a discrete vision. But in the end, the interruptions to the flow of the narrative are more important than the narrative. Along the lines of Gerard Genette's fine-tuning of the concepts of narrative structure, the interest of The Man with a Movie Camera does not so much lie on the level of narrative (yes, it does tell a story) but on the level of diegesis, or the succession of shot sequences and their problematic relations to fictional reality, and on the level of enunciation (spectator-film relations), in so far as the film itself forces the spectator to oscillate between the roles of subject immersed in the film and spectator making sense of the film-object.
The juxtaposition of unrelated activities that are compared by reference to formal parallels in shape or motion brings them together in a celebration of the dynamic coherence of society. However, technical tricks like split screens or freeze frames that are not warranted by the diegesis, and in particular the logical break implied by self-referential statements such as the inclusion of the same scene on several levels (being filmed, being projected to the diegetic audience, being projected to the spectator, and being spliced together in the cutting room), break the diegesis. Do they also undermine the narrative? Well, if by narrative we now mean the fact that the film-object makes a specific statement, then no, they do not. More than that, by drawing attention to the centrality of cinema in society they are essential to the meaning of the film as posited here.Editing creates meaning; the meaning of the film object is not that of the truth of actuality or a raw recording. This determines the responsibility of the film maker, and defines a fundamental problem of Vertov's approach to the use of actuality: for his montage of actuality to work, he required a stock of images; he needed footage of reality; he became a collector of reality, storing images in his celluloid library of truth. With little or no interest in scripting, the process of editing was central to his project. Although we have seen that meaning is created in the editing suite, Vertov was only too aware himself that the process of recording also alters reality. A sequence detailing the social advances under socialism, with easy civil marriages and divorces, is to my mind one of the most haunting and disturbing: the smiling and happy newlyweds stand in such stark contrast to the utter embarrassment of the woman applying for a divorce, who covers her face against the intrusion of the camera.
Despite the grandiose mood of his manifestos, and despite the authoritarian images of control, ultimately I think it is at the level of editing, pacing and rhythm that The Man with a Movie Camera has its greatest impact on us, and makes the most important statement about the truth of images. The slow establishment of settings at the beginning of the film sharply contrasts with the film's ending where the images speed up, blank frames are cut in to disrupt the flow and the cuts jump faster and faster. These final scenes do not introduce any new images at all; everything we see has been shown before. In these recycled images that dominate the last minutes of the film, however, there is a preponderance of the social sphere: we move from images of industrial processes and machines towards urban scenarios. In this final reel, the images of industrial production are chosen for their dynamic intensity and do not focus so much on the aestheticized motion of isolated machines but on human interaction. Thus we get a sequence of shots produced on the optical printer, showing typists in a typing pool multiplied across the frame followed by a close-up of a single typist superimposed on her typewriter or the talking and laughing face of a factory worker inside the spinning wheel of a yarn machine that surrounds her like a halo and the film comes to a close as the controlling gaze of the editor splices together ever shorter fragments, down to single disconnected frames until we see a complete deconstruction of narrative coherence in the double closure of camera lens and eye.
This is also a final attempt to escape the narrative bind by which the merging of narrative and metanarrative seamlessly stitches the spectator into the fabric of the film. The film does not end by resolving this conflict but releases the spectator through a slow fade-out from the accelerated clashes of contrasting narrative threads. If traditional film theory talked of the spectator's jouissance upon encountering the apparently perfect unity of the film image, then here there is its mirror, a pleasure in the release that acknowledges the underlying, unresolvable contradictions. From our perspective, it epitomises Baudrillard's assertion that "today, reality itself is hyperrealistic" and thus affirms the aestheticization of reality.
We know that Vertov's project failed to destroy narrative cinema; it did not even offer a serious threat. Ultimately, The Man with a Movie Camera is anti-narrative and therefore parasitical on narrative cinema. It only managed to integrate its radical statements about the power of mediated images by fictionalizing the very elements that were intended to rupture the narrative. It is itself a narrative, telling a story, making a statement, controlling vision. In today's mediated world, reality is yet another narrative, and measured against narrative.