Sunday, September 28, 2008

Highest Praise: Vertov's Man With the Movie Camera

Since I'm not really interested in deconstructing the body language of presidential candidates, or celebrating the stupidity of an opposing party, I'm going to keep away from overtly political commentary for the moment. It's a sad day when reasoned analysis seems like folly in the face of strategic absurdity, which is currently having an undue influence over public opinion, and I think, for the moment, I'd rather talk about something from 1920 than I would about what's going on right now.

So I saw The Man With The Movie Camera, which is one of the greatest films you've never heard of. It clocked in at number 95 on the 1000 greatest films ever made, which I think shortchanges it a bit... among the silent films I've seen, it's been by far the most interesting. Battleship Potemkin was ranked at number 49, a full fifty places ahead, and it seems to me that Potemkin, made only four years earlier, had hardly an iota of the formal and artistic complexity of Man With the Movie Camera.

Part of the reason Man With the Movie Camera is such an artistic feat is that it seems formally and semantically deliberate, right down to the core. Its complexity never seems like the accident of experimentation, perhaps because it was created within a very clear conceptual framework. This framework is what you might call the theory of pure montage, the attempt to use juxtaposition and parallel alone to create meaning, rather than using narrative continuity and the invisible cut. Battleship Potemkin's experiments with montage were within a framework of telling a story, which was itself in service to reinforcing an ideology. Eisenstein's montage was conceived as a means to an end, and thus it wasn't able to reach its full potential as a craft in itself.

Vertov's stated mission, to purge film of the conventions of literature and theater, is evident in practice in Man With the Movie Camera, and this allows the film to act as a complex, 75-minute wireframe that can in turn be analyzed in parts, as a series of sub-montages, and together, as a meta-montage. The levels of parallelism are almost limitless... the parallel between the mechanisms of the city and the engineering of the human body, the association between the window, the eye, and the lens, the parallel drawn between narrative fiction and slumber (i.e. bourgeousie laziness), the references to the substructure of labor and the superstructure of urban life, the stories of awareness of the camera, both ours as the audience and the citizens' as the subject of the lens, the flocking and unfolding of urban populations, including both birds and humans, and the comparison of sewing of clothes and sealing of fingernails to the stitiching and developing of the director's film. These are just the first observations I can think of, a few isolated cases in a wellspring of concepts.

It's strange that this film came so long before those theories that seem to describe it. Postmodernism is so often cited as a post-World War II phenomenon, but this film is a shining predecessor to the postmodern obsession with spectacle and representation. Man With the Movie Camera makes a compelling attempt to contain and represent itself, and in its tentative success, it prefigures all those partial successes of postmodern ideas to bring recursive framing to culture. This is an ideologically-specific film depicting the construction of its own substance, which is a pseudo-narrative of a cameraman making a film whose subject is an ideological culture struggling to free itself from the anesthetisizing conventions of narrative... the signifiers can be drawn out almost ad infinitum. Why hasn't Derrida written about this? He's much better at creating clever grammatical sequences than I am.

This film also predates Marshall McLuhan by about a lifetime and a half, and yet it seems to speak directly to McLuhan's ideas about the power of media and the nature of content. The sequence with the seamstresses, carrying out their craft on the human body, is shown in parallel with a sequence on the film developing and editing process, which shows the craft behind the scenes of film, preparing images for mass consumption. Vertov seems to realize that a cosmetic procedure, carried out on the body, is no less a "medium" than a film, whose content is those unrefined images captured on journeys through Soviet Russia. At the same time, he seems to be making the reverse connection, as well: just as clothing and cosmetic services are forms of production, so the information-refining processes of capturing and editing images are forms of intellectual production, and this film, contained within its metafilm, is the product whose value is to be found in its refinement.

I have the urge to claim that the film is about man and his relationship with technology, which defines his culture and his ideology from the bottom up. However, that would be an unfair reduction of an infinitely complex, ambiguous film. The hypnotic rhythm, and intuitive order, and the deceptively complex conceptual framework... these all fit together to create one of the most important films in history, and one of my favorites among all the cinema I've seen.

So you should check it out.


Garreth said...


I'm going to have to check this film out. I'm sure I won't find it at Blockbuster, but TLA films in Philly probably has a copy.

Just focusing on your final paragraph, and I know your distancing yourself from the "urge" to say it's about man and technology...but on that note...I wonder if you've seen Fritz Lang''s Metropolisi? There's a good deal in that about the city, technology, and man's place. Perhaps more distantly removed would be Terry Gilliam's Brazil...maybe a different kind of architecture--the dystopian architecture of bureaucracy--but an architecture nonetheless. Oh, and what about Tron? The computer chip as a type of architecture.

I know those sort of ignore the majority of your post, so let me ask a question about the Postmodern turn you sense in this film. So this is a naive question, and I've probably asked it before, but to what extent is the recursive framing you speak of different from, say, Shakespeare's "plays within plays", or even from the invention of the mirror? I guess what I mean is this? Is this a Postmodern trope, this reflexive nature of the film, or is it a human trait? We like to watch ourselves doing the things we do, to understand the stories we create each and every day. So perhaps the camera was a new tool with which to do this, but is that then a postmodern turn, or is it simply a recurrance of this human fascination with the self?

You know, this year in my eighth grade classes I've really freaked them out by telling them that the eighth grade version of my class differs from the seventh-grade version because it's all about stories. I start them with a freewriting where I ask them to divine a meaning in this quote: "The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world." Vikram Chandra. I wonder if that quote has some light to shine on the question I've asked you.

All the Best,


Jesse M said...

Gary -

I'll respond directly to the "Postmodern" question for now, because it's a tough one, and I think it sheds light on some sloppy referencing on my part. You're right, the framing isn't postmodern per se, except in so far as postmodernism is an extension of modernism (and Shakespeare was a distant precursor to it). I think what's more postmodern is the complexity of Vertov's use of his devices... non-linear, non-narrative exposition, framing without continuity, and the fact that all these devices are disjunctive and don't fit into a form. The film doesn't just have recursive framing... from the opening scene to the final one, it's obsessed with representing itself on multiple levels, so much so that it can't simply be described as a formal device. It's formal, semantic, and comprehensive, almost to the point of being pathological. There's also no clear demarcation between a "framing" story and a "contained" story, which is a postmodern turn on the formalism of modernism and traditional aesthetics.

If I get a chance, I'll give you a better answer... something with some citations (Frederic Jameson is the authority on this subject, I think). Till then, though, thanks for asking... it's easy for me to make these kind of bald assertions about culture and periodization without ever really bothering to investigate my assumptions.