Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly Restored Works

| June 2, 2015

Humans understand time through narrative. Our ability to organize events into a logical cause/effect order allows us to view time as moving ever forward with purpose. Our penchant for narrativization doesn’t end there though. We look at the motionless image of a painting and we narrativize it. We find an old photograph of someone we’ve never met and we attempt to fill in the blanks of the narrative of their lives. Narrativizing allows us to process vast amounts of information efficiently and expediently. Moreover, it prevents us from having to spend hours upon hours of our live ruminating on the true abstractions of time itself, the nature of humans’ subjective perceptions, and so forth. So natural and intrinsic is narrative to our understanding of the world around us that we saturate our long-form media with narrative.

In film, though, Soviet cinema pioneer Dziga Vertov saw narrative as an impediment. Namely, he saw it impeding film from inspiring people to action. Narrative in film compelled people to sit and absorb, rather than stand and work. Including narrative in film, to Vertov, was little more than a financial consideration standing in stark contrast to true Soviet progress (to focus on the drama of the individual diminished the broader goals of the Soviet nation state, after all). Narrative, this thing that comes so naturally to us, made for easy cinema and therefore constituted an astounding waste of the cinematic apparatus.

Instead, Vertov’s philosophy of film, dubbed Kino-Eye, held the movie camera as a mechanical extension of our own eyes, not as a bourgeois tool for instilling passivity in audiences through narrative. The film form, he declared, required its own language. And as the intertitles announce at the opening of Vertov’s seminal The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), the language of cinema should be completely separate from the languages of other media such theatre and literature. And why not? Film is its own medium, after all!

The language of a Vertov film is hypnotic and thought-provoking, far more akin to classical music than cinema as we now know it. But narrative won, and so Vertov’s Kino-Eye philosophy continues to be as radical today as it must have seemed then. His is a style that would now be considered avant-garde or pretentious by the masses, something only fringe filmmakers deal in and solely for the benefit of niche audiences at that. As such, Vertov’s work continues to be formally revolutionary, and is still taught to wide-eyed, bewildered film students who may have previously assumption that Quentin Tarantino was as radical as film could get (this is to say they were still teaching Vertov when I was in film school, at least).

That we’ve still so much to learn from Vertov as filmmakers and filmgoers alike makes the recent Flicker Alley release of Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly Restored Works on Blu-ray all the more significant. In association with Lobster Films, the Blackhawk Films Collection, the Cinémathèque de Toulouse, and EYE Film Institute, Flicker Alley offers up four beautifully restored films by Dziga Vertov including his cinematic treatise Kino-Eye (1924); his most celebrated work, The Man with the Movie Camera; Enthusiasm: The Symphony of the Donbass (1931), one of the earliest Soviet sound films; and Three Songs of Lenin (1934). In addition, the collection includes a Vertov-compiled Kino-Pravda newreel circa 1925 commemorating the successes of the Soviet revolution on the first anniversary of Lenin’s death.

These films serve not only to introduce viewers to a film form they are unlikely to have encountered, much less imagined possible, but also serve as an incredible time capsule of sorts, chronicling the minutiae of Soviet life in the 1920s and 1930s. The world of Vertov’s films is the real world filled with real people—albeit visually augmented through the mechanisms of cinema by no shortage of cinematic trick shots and superimpositions to a variety of agitprop ends. Many of the people Vertov captured on film clearly were unaware they were being filmed, while others try their damnedest to ignore the camera or occasionally excitedly wave the camera out of their faces.

The Man with the Movie Camera adds an exploration of the film form to Vertov’s typical celebration of the Soviet people. The picture declares itself “an experiment in the cinematic transmission of visual phenomena” and indeed, even as it ruminates on the day-to-day grind of the people from birth to death, it never lets us forget the intrusion of the cinematic apparatus into these affairs. It’s this celebration of the possibilities of film beyond the mere transmission of narrative that makes The Man with the Movie Camera his most revisited and perhaps most significant work, and why it’s only fitting that it’s the one film named in the title of Flicker Alley’s phenomenally important Dziga Vertov release.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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