Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

"The centre is getting moving." -- Viktor Shklovskii

Ask people what they associate with the Soviet Union today and you'll get a few stock responses: "Communism"; "Cold War"; "Iron Curtain." If you add "Film" to that question, you'll usually get a comment about "Propaganda", which isn't surprising. Growing up, I assumed "they" were watching films about evil capitalists in much the same way that we western kids were consuming our own objective historical masterworks, like Rambo II and Red Dawn. Such kitsch has entered the dustbin of pop culture, detached from the newscasts where talking heads warned us of "continued aggression" with grainy satellite images of Soviet jets under camouflage in Nicaraguan jungles, where they would soon depart to kill capitalism and/or my family. Today, the Soviet Union is spun as a failed state, an experiment in Marxism that collapsed due to its inability to keep pace with U.S. tech-capitalism; or, as Reagan liked to pitch it, as being defeated by U.S. tech-capitalism.

Regardless of its later direction and the causes of its demise, in 1917, the collapse of the traditional Tzarist dynasties and the formation of the Soviet Union was a watershed moment that struck fear into the industrialized North and gave the impoverished South hope for a path out of its 19th-century colonial subjugation. The changes permeated all levels of Russian society, including the arts. Once-respected Impressionists associated with the aristocratic class now found their Parisian training of little use as the revolutionary avant garde exploded onto the scene. There were several competing or complimentary schools, but it was the Constructivists that would ultimately make the biggest impact on the world of design, with their modernity, social progress, and activism. Above all, this new Socialist art would be an art by, and for, the Russian masses.

Therein lies the catch. These "masses" were spread across thousands of miles and encompassed Russian ethnic groups that shared almost nothing in common apart from this new (and vague) sense of "Sovietness." It would be one of the greatest challenges posed by the nascent state, to link this disparate plurality together--urban and rural, Tartars and Muscovites--into an experience singular and shared. The plan, undertaken immediately, was to network the vast expanse with electricity and rail. Once the infrastructure was done, they could then set their sights on modernizing Soviet industry and agriculture, which was well behind the standards of the West.

Cinema, a medium still in its infancy, was to have a key role in all of this. It would be an ideological tool used to strengthen and coalesce a new Soviet national identity. The U.S. had recently redefined film narrative with Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and many Soviet filmmakers studied its techniques closely, mimicking it to their own ends. The best of these early features is the debut film by Lev Kuleshov, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which satirizes and plays upon stereotypes of Americans and Russians (see Kuleshov's "constructivist western" By The Law for his finest moment). While he and others sought to use existing comedic tropes, others abandoned traditional narrative completely and began writing and thinking about film in ways that they believed more accurately reflected their revolutionary ideals about the role of art in society.

One of these was David Kaufman, soon reborn as Dziga Vertov ("Spinning Top"). He is often described as the first documentary filmmaker, an inaccurate title that undermines his greatest gift: the blending of non-fiction and fiction forms into something disorienting and overtly meta, somehow both staged and entirely of the "street." Vertov believed passionately in his own concept of the "Camera Eye", which he wrote about extensively (Soviets were ahead of their time with film theory, intellectualizing it in a manner uncommon until the French New Wave, who rediscovered Vertov). He believed that a deeper level of truth, or "kino pravda" ("film truth"), could be arrived at through the editing process. Thus, "reality" or "truth" was not simply shown by pointing a camera and filming. There was no objective reality, only the subjective world created and fleshed out via juxtapositions and conflicts, cinematic chaos and carefully-controlled order, and the role of director as revolutionary anthropologist. His early shorts and first films reflect this worldview, being neither strict narratives nor newsreels.

All of Vertov's ideas about what constituted cinema culminated in his one perfect statement, Man With A Movie Camera, his chaotic meta-analysis of Soviet life, shot by himself and his Kino-Pravda  collective over 1927-28, and released in 1929 to confusion and indifference. Vertov said that it embodied "the 100% language of cinema, designed to be perceived visually, to be thought about visually." Its structure was revolutionary: no intertitle cards, no plot, no dialogue, not even a location is given to ground the viewer in a particular city. We are adrift, following the camera eye as it establishes its own civic boundaries through cuts and montage, the line between viewer/camera/filmmaker often blurred or obliterated. Rarely does Vertov ever let the audience consciously slip away from the fact that they are watching a constructed reality of this "revolutionary space" of modernity and motion, of a new sense of "Sovietness"--the film's real star. Images of the modern Soviet woman, now (theoretically) emancipated from child-rearing and the oppression of the domestic realm, figure heavily throughout; and although this emancipation proved more figurative than literal, women like Lyubov Popova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, and Varvara Stepanova were artists at the forefront of Constructivism.

Man With A Movie Camera was the Soviet avant garde's swan song and Vertov's final film before the dominance of sound, although, unlike his peers, he welcomed the invention and saw its potential. In fact, his subsequent sound film, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1930) has been restored from its original failed state, when sound synching issues killed its premier. Like many of his peers, Vertov fell in and out of favor with the Party but mostly out towards the end. With more centralized state control came dwindling artistic risk. By the time of Stalin's purges in the 1930s, and definitely by the German invasion of 1941, Soviet film was in a sad state from which it would not fully recover until the "cultural thaw" of the early 1960s and the coming of Parajanov, Tarkovsky, and Larisa Shepitko.

Jim Bunnelle
Watzek Library
Lewis & Clark College