Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dziga Vertov

      I recently read Dziga Vertov's "Film Directors: A Revolution", and have been reflecting on how this work interacts with the history and contemporary atmosphere during the time in which Vertov was writing. Vertov expresses a fetishization and obsession with the new technology, more perfect than the human eye, while Benjamin seems abivalant towards the new world of technological reproduction. It’s surprising how the themes of technology and modernization are mirrored throughout the cinema of the 20s, and Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov) resounds in many ways with Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Ruttmann), which had been released two years earlier, in 1927. Both are shining examples of the “city symphony” genre, and similarly manipulate technology to reveal modern, mechanized cities. Man with a Movie Camera makes the use of filming technology even more explicit, placing the camera high above the city, and demonstrating filmic abilities in ways that recall the “Cinema of Attractions”.
The film quote intentionally shows the editing process taking place, mixing still images and moving, which gives the camera a magical or god-like quality, despite the fact that the film is largely concerned with portraying  modern, mechanized city. Vertov’s love affair with the camera comes through in his directorial choices, as well as in his writing. “Film Directors: A Revolution” is a remarkable essay, and I find the underlying thread of technological superiority absolutely fascating. The essay frequently addresses the reader from the point of view of the camera, the reoccurring “I”. This “I”, which is also an “eye”, represents a more perfect waying of looking and seeing: “I am the cinema eye. I create man more perfect than Adam was created, I creat thousands of different people from various preliminary sketches and places. I am the cinema-eye. I take from one person the strongest and deftest hands, from another I take the strongerst and swiftest legs, from a third the most beautiful and expressive head and I create a new, perfect man in montage…” (260). The camera not only represents man as he is, but creates the perfect man. This concept shares ideology with the Machine Cult of the 1920s. The proponents of Neue Sachlichkeit embraced technology, a distinction from the Expressionists, who linked the machine with the destruction of World War I. Fantasies of robots or machine-men are a part of the landscape of the early 20th century, and represent a surrender or enveloping of the human being by the metropolis. The evil Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or, a later example, Charlie Chaplin sucked into the huge machine in Modern Times, represent the dual fears and fantasies sourrouding the technology age. As early as 1748, Julien Offray de La Mettrie described the idea of a mechanized human in “Man a Machine”. The human is simply a machine he argued, composed of organs that function as mechanical parts. He denied the emotional and subjective, seeing the world rather as a larger machine-system, functioning outside human understanding or control. Interestingly, an android/robot craze began around the same time, as a response to the labor saving devices of the Industrial Revolution.
            Vertov’s philosophical views regarding filmmaking and his active practices hint at a similar idea of perfected, mechanized humans. These new people will be constructed through the cinema-eye, which divides and reassembles to create the perfect being. The stop-motion sequence at the end of the film suggests a robotic human, an all seeing eye that can roam where it please. This new eye will go beyond mere human abilities, it will be liberated, working “in the opposition direction, furthest away from copying” (259). The new mode of looking will teach humans how to see, improve their ability to create impressions: “the film-camera drags the eyes of the audience from hands to feet, from feet to eyes, and so on in the best order pssible, and organizes details into a regular montage-study” (259). Such organization allows the machine to teach the human eye how better to see, but it also gives an incredible boost to the ideological task of the filmmaker.
            Vertov is approaching the material in Man with a Movie Camera from a Marxist ideology, and combines this with his concept of “kino-pravda”.  The “Film Directors” essay is largely silent on the role and intention of the director, and instead gives voice to an all-powerful camera, which sees “in the best possible order” (259). The montage style, especially as described by Eisenstein, uses signifiers to create a message that is larger than the sum of its parts. The danger in this system, however, is the element of audience reception. To create an effective Marxist message, the audience must receive and interpret the montage as the director intends. There was some difficulty in interpreting the imags in Old and New, as some students expressed in their Blackboard posts. Vertov’s assertion that the camera is unlike the human eye, which yields “a series of incoherent impressions, different for each singe spectator” leaps over the question of audience reception (259). He states that “the unusual flexibility of montage-construction permits any political, economic, or other motifs be brought into cinema-study,” which only half-addresses the question of interpreation (262). Ideally, for a selected ideology to be viewed, decoded, and accepted by the viewing, the director would need to present images in such a way as to eliminate surplus meanings. Although Vertov champions montage as the most capable form to tackle this problem, I still feel that the question of audience reception is overlooked in favor of the technological capabilities and strengths of the camera.

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