Man with a Movie Camera

Week 5 – Movement – Russian Montage (1923-1934)

Russian montage is possibly the most intimidating topic on the whole FSDO curriculum. As difficult as the other subjects can be, they mostly fall within the bounds of commercial cinema. Sure, No Wave and French New Wave filmmakers may attempt to confound viewers and subvert their expectations, but many of them still wouldn’t be classified as outright avant-gardists.

Directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov are a different story. Their films reject the very ways in which modern viewers are taught to watch movies. Representational images take a backseat to outright signification. Wild, rhythmic edits and bizarre camera angles reign. Real people replace spectators as the objects of focus.

This movement represents a cornerstone of film theory, and it would be irresponsible to make broad statements about it. So consider this a comparative analysis between two works: Eisenstein’s Strike and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. This tactic is partially the result of a brief snippet from Eisenstein’s landmark essay “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram.” In it, the theorist describes slow motion as a means “for formal trifles and pointless mischief with the camera, as in Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera.

This insult might not stem from ideological differences alone. As Anette Michelson writes, Eisenstein later came to resent Strike for its “aesthetic formalism borrowed from Leninist polemics.” The tonal and technical elements of each film are even relatively similar. Both use non-professional actors, both represent Russian workers in some capacity, and both string discrete shots together to create a new network of signification.

The two filmmakers branch off from there, though. Strike fixates wholly on class conflict. The proletariat are front and centre, even if they’re denied status as individuals or characters. In Man with a Movie Camera, the mechanical overwhelms all else. Vertov blurs the line between humankind and machine through juxtaposition. Even filmmaking represents a mechanical act, one that can be compared to the way a sewing machine stitches a garment or a piston powers a wheel.

The political gulf between these directors is on full display here. While Eisenstein flouted Leninist doctrine later in his career, Strike’s subject matter still reads as communist. Vertov, on the other hand, examines human perception in the wake of industrialization and finds a new way to look at the world in this technology. To Marxists, Vertov is merely glorifying the means of production above the workers who invest their labour in them. On the other end, Eisenstein could be seen to ignore the liberating potential of this new machinery.

In this way, Vertov’s work aligns less with communism and more with the Futurist art movement. This branch of poetry, literature and art stemmed from F.T. Marinetti and “The Manifesto of Futurism,” but a Russian contingent formed in the early 1910s. Michelson even names the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a key figure in the movement, as crucial to interpreting Vertov’s work. Russian Futurism had long withered by 1929, but the resemblance between its tenets and Vertov’s are striking.

Man with a Movie Camera emphasizes speed. Like Futurist poetry, it is alive with motion. Cuts happen so quickly that the eye can barely behold them. Trams, industrial machines and other mechanical items race through the frame, bisecting one another or converging through split-screen. In contrast, human bodies feel almost inert. Indeed, Vertov slows down athletes feats of physical prowess so that, as Michelson notes, the mechanics of their movement becomes visible. This, combined with the previously mentioned allusions to filmmaking as a mechanical process itself, blurs the line between human and technology.

Indeed, the film ends with a shot of a human eye superimposed a camera lens. This represents the kino-eye, which, as Michelson writes, represents “a belief in social transformation as the means for producing a transformation of consciousness.” The path to human perfection lies in the technical processes of the camera.

This idea rings of utopianism, yet there’s a dark undercurrent to it. The Futurists fetishized the speed and efficiency of modern industrial society, but this fascination led many of them down the road to fascism. Even Man with a Movie Camera features eerie overhead shots of isolated cars on city streets, or crowds coalescing in a public square. It’s hard to tell what they resembled back then, but today, they almost resemble surveillance footage. Human concerns rarely transcend the technology they birth. In the end, the camera is just as fallible as the human eye.

Thank you for reading this entry in the 2017 Film School Drop Outs challenge. For additional essays, information and a list of works cited, please click here

NEXT WEEK: We regroup (and regain focus) for the screwball comedy and Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait

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