Man with a Movie Camera Found the Mechanical Heartbeat of the Modern World

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Man with a Movie Camera Found the Mechanical Heartbeat of the Modern World

“Cinematography” must die so that the art of cinema may live. WE call for its death to be hastened.—Dziga Vertov, 1922 “WE: VARIANT OF A MANIFESTO”

When the Bolsheviks overthrew the old order in those “10 days that shook the world” in 1917, they aimed for the revolution to be in all aspects of social life. Two years later, Vladimir Lenin declared, “The cinema is for us the most important of the arts.” Indeed, the Soviets replaced the Lumière travelogues that went from town to town with agit-trains, running the rails of a war-torn Russia armed with communist libraries and movie theater cars playing propaganda newsreels. It was in these agit-prop newsreels that one of cinema’s greatest revolutionary soldiers, one of the truest ideologues and believers in a holistic cinematic revolution came of age.

In 1918, the journalist Mikhail Koltsov invited a 22 year-old Denis Kaufman to join the Moscow Committee for Cinematography to make newsreels for the party. Kaufman had previously run an experimental sound studio, and taken a keen interest in emerging technology and its relationships to avant-garde art. Kaufman would act as a principal collaborator on the Kino-Nedelya (Film-Week) series that ran on Mikhail Kalinin’s famed agit-train October Revolution, before himself directing his own non-fiction works. Kaufman’s futurist and constructivist inspirations led to extraordinary avant-garde resolve in his works, both in filmmaking and writing. In 1922 he’d seek to spread his influence by founding a monthly magazine Kino-Pravda (Film-Truth named after the Communist Party’s primary publication Pravda), and he became most well-known by his nom-de-plume: Dziga Vertov, a name that roughly translates to “Spinning Top,” onomatopoeically referencing the motion of film running through a camera or projector.

Vertov and his Council of Three (made up of himself, his brother/cameraman Mikhail Kaufman, and his wife/editor Elizaveta Svilova) turned out to be too formally radical for the incredibly radical moment they found themselves trying to shape, and by the time they premiered their masterpiece in Moscow during April 1929, they had started to alienate their revolutionary peers. Yet 95 years later, Man with a Movie Camera persists as one of the definitive statements on non-fiction filmmaking in all of cinema history, still as stunning as the day it was released.

Before even the city sleeps, the movie theater does. A projectionist enters and awakens the world. Chairs fold themselves down and invite the masses to sit on them. The people shuffle in. The projectionist pushes the two carbon rods in the projector together, shooting light through the film and onto the screen as they arc with electricity. Cinema is a crude and beautiful modern machine. We now see the somnolent city, not one particular city, but a few (Odessa, Kharkiv, Kiev) threaded together to make up the idea of “city.” Just as film compelled the people to enter the theater, its manipulation of time compels the city to come to life. It is a kind of destiny the camera presents that is often more subtly alluded to, like how John Ford’s camera in the opening shot of The Searchers gently pushes Martha out the door and into the western landscape, or how Jean-Luc Godard’s panning gives way to tracking Fritz Lang as he approaches the image that will cause the marriage at the center of Contempt to fall apart—the motion, the movement inherent to cinema and the machine behind it, is its ultimate power. Man with a Movie Camera is one the most overt explorations of this concept in the medium’s history. 

Under the perfect gaze of Vertov’s mechanical kino-eye, the world is revealed rather than created. There is nothing in front of the camera that the human eye theoretically could not catch, but the movie camera captures it all, trapping time and space for eternity, to be paused and played back again and again. In this sense, Man with a Movie Camera is found as much as it is created—the kinok (“kino-eye man,” Vertov’s alternative to the idea of a “cinematographer”) fossilizes the world in silver nitrate for another to construct a new reality out of it in the editing room. Images of machines are gathered, and then the editor puts them together to reveal the pattern of their rhythm. Man with a Movie Camera is as much a symphony of machines as it is of a city, itself becoming a machine through the observation of Kaufman’s camera and Svilova’s editing. The patterns of images repeat themselves, revealing the many connections of modern life through their speed and motion: The carouseling of motorcycles around a banked curve mirrors the literal carouseling of a person at a carnival. The world spins from a new view by way of the machines we’ve created. 

Unlike Vertov’s contemporaries, scenes are not staged, but discovered—the unfolding of the world becoming the stone to carve the film from rather than using stages and actors to mold a picture out of clay. Vertov railed against his contemporaries using motion pictures like “a mere literary skeleton covered with a film-skin” in his 1923 article “On the Significance of Nonacted Cinema:”

…we have no film-objects. We have the cohabitation of film-illustrations with theater, literature, with music, with whomever and whatever, whenever, at any price…We would wholeheartedly welcome the use of cinema in the service of every branch of human knowledge. These cinematic possibilities, however, we define as secondary, illustrative. Not for a moment do we forget that a chair is a chair made of wood and not of the varnish covering it. We’re well aware that a boot is made of leather and not of the wax which makes it shine.

Vertov goes on to proudly recognize himself as “the first shoemaker of Russian cinema. That’s better than ‘artist of Russian cinema.’ That’s better than ‘artistic film director.’ To hell with shoe wax. To hell with boots that are nothing but shine. Give us boots made of leather.” 

While Eisenstein was looking for comparisons to the expressive qualities of motion inherent to cinema by way of old techniques—like the drawn-out emotions of kabuki theater—Vertov wanted the stuff from which cinema was made to be ideas of cinema itself. Where Eisenstein emphasized mise en scène as a necessary building block to montage, Vertov practically said to hell with it: Don’t place anything in the scene except the eye. Here the kinok with a tripod on his shoulder becomes a heroic figure in Man with a Movie Camera—there is no director present telling the subjects where to stand, just a tripod looking for where the subjects already are. This extreme approach did well to make a stunning, never replicated, piece of cinematic experimentation, as well as to alienate Vertov from his contemporaries. 

Man with a Movie Camera came out two years after The Jazz Singer brought one of the biggest creative travesties onto cinema. It was not as if sound was a technology bereft of value—almost 100 subsequent years of filmmaking has completely disproven that—but its implementation was no doubt a disaster. Universally, it meant that a certain world of exploration was over: Scenes were locked down on sticks instead of cranes, actors were framed to stand under their microphones. Those aforementioned filmmaker-theorists immediately saw a certain value to it: Eisenstein called sound a “fourth dimension” to cinema, and Vertov thought its new possibilities endless. His first sound film, Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbas, stunningly incorporated this new dimension into an industrial chorus that would make modern noise musicians jealous. At the time, though, it was too experimental—and too late within the Soviet Union.

One of Vertov’s early goals aligned very well with that of the burgeoning Soviet state: universalism, and, by extension, internationalism. At another point in “On the Significance of Nonacted Cinema,” Vertov writes, “We have not in fact created a single work more incomprehensible to the masses than any given film-drama. On the contrary, by establishing a clear visual link between subjects, we have significantly weakened the importance of intertitles; in so doing we have brought the movie screen closer to the uneducated viewers, which is particularly important at present.” 

Vertov wrote those words in 1923, when the Civil War was freshly over, Lenin was still leading the Soviet people and the brave new world seemed theirs for the building. But the U.S.S.R. as a vanguard state for the overthrow of capitalism failed as the rest of the world’s revolutions never materialized. The dominoes stayed standing, Lenin died and Trotsky’s internationalist goals were shut down in favor of the siege socialism that characterized Stalin’s era. “Socialism in one country” would become the policy: Build communism here first, then worry about all the rest. Every bit of the belt tightened after Stalin’s first five-year plan was initiated in 1928. The same plan that would create a massive urban industrial core also caused widespread famine across the rural parts of the Soviet Union, and the only option became to get with the program. 

The tragedy for someone like Vertov was that he was a true believer. A Marxist through and through, his propaganda is lasting because it is sincere, but after Enthusiasm his form becomes tame. It would seem that Vertov achieved a goal, though. Man with a Movie Camera opens with a statement: “For the attention of the spectator: This film presents an experiment in the cinematic transmission of visible phenomena. Without the aid of intertitles (A film without intertitles).” And for the rest of the runtime, Man with a Movie Camera does move without any crutch of expository or dialogue-based intertitles, just the pure cinematic fantasia of the swirling beauty of images brilliantly strung. Man with a Movie Camera makes itself more lasting than Vertov’s more specific propaganda works, because of its abstraction of cities, factories and anything else it can render into a mechanical process, revealing their most basic forms rather than one city or one factory in one location in time. Man with a Movie Camera is a film about industrialization in the Soviet Union early into the five year plan, and what that specifically meant for the Soviet people. But in filming this, Vertov found something more universal about modern life: His kino-eye found the mechanical heartbeat of the modern world.

Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

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