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We owe a good amount of the visual language we use in cinema and television today to the work of Soviet filmmakers who experimented with the medium when the art form was still in its advent. In the 1910s and 20s, Lev Kuleshov demonstrated how audiences derive more meaning from successive shots than they do from shots in isolation. From Sergei Eisenstein, director of Battleship Potemkin, we inherited montage theory – a method of editing that condenses space, time, and information, pulling emotions out of the audience by having shots collide.
Soviet director Dziga Vertov is considered a pioneer of filmmaking and cinema theory – and lucky for us, his experimental silent documentary, Man with a Movie Camera, will be screening at The Frida with a live score by indie chamber music group Montopolis. Vertov was born David Kaufman in 1896 in Poland, then a part of the Russian Empire, and eventually adopted the name “Dziga Vertov,” which loosely translates from Ukrainian as “spinning top.” Through the course of his career, Vertov directed documentary films and newsreels, and the influence of his work resounds through the decades. Through a series of newsreels, Kino-Pravda (which translates to “film-truth”), Vertov espoused his philosophy of capturing actualities and organizing them in such a way that reveals deeper truths than can be perceived with the naked eye. This technique inspired what would come to be called cinéma vérité (literally, “truthful cinema”) – a documentary filmmaking style that openly acknowledges the presence of the camera and, therefore, of the filmmaker(s). Consequently, cinéma vérité takes on a dimension of self-reflexivity, bringing to the fore the social and political implications of who and what is being captured on film and why. Filmmakers associated with the cinéma vérité style include D.A. Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, and John Cassavetes.
Man with a Movie Camera was shot by cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman and edited by Yelizaveta Svilova, Vertov’s brother and wife, respectively. The film has no actors, strictly speaking, but Kaufman appears as the film’s eponymous Man and Svilova as the editor working on the very film she’s helping bring to life. To an extent, it can be said that the modern Soviet Union is the film’s main character in that it and the daily lives of its many citizens are the primary subject matter. However, Man with a Movie Camera’s “story,” if it can even be called that, is a far cry from the typical beginning-middle-end, three-act plot structure we expect to see in visual storytelling. The Man travels to diverse locations in the Soviet Union to gather shots. These visuals range from a superimposed shot of the Man and his Movie Camera on top of another, massive-looking camera (see image below) to a stop-motion sequence of the unmanned Camera walking around on its tripod legs to Svilova editing this very film.
For a documentary film, it might come as something of a surprise that Man with a Movie Camera sometimes emphasizes form over content. Of the many cinematic techniques demonstrated in the film – superimposition, stop motion, multiple exposure, Dutch angles, multiple exposure, etc. – some were further developed and some innovated by Vertov, Svilova, and Kaufman. Vertov worked in pursuit of using a purely cinematic visual language to portray truth. Thus, while many of the film’s shots and sequences can hardly be said to be objectively realistic portrayals of life in the Soviet Union of the early 20th century, Man with a Movie Camera is an artistic depiction of its subject matter. And as a piece of art, it invites our engagement, our active participation in the creation of meaning.
Though Vertov felt rather strongly about divorcing the language of cinema from reliance on literary and theatrical techniques like dialogue, actors, and sets, I feel that his philosophy is very relevant to a lot of our storytelling nowadays. As striking as Man with a Movie Camera’s visuals are, it takes some chewing to arrive at the (presumed) meaning of all these shots. Lately, it seems as though storytelling seems to lack that sense of ambiguity. I’m hesitant to pin that entirely on either audience demands or filmmaking practices, but there’s been such a high expectation of realism in films lately that feels symptomatic of a lack of willingness to engage. Everything needs to have a diegetic explanation, and if something doesn’t, it needs to be nitpicked to death. Not to point fingers, but Disney in particular seems to have a problem with this, from the needlessly photorealistic CGI of 2019’s The Lion King to the more recent and…frankly somewhat bizarre explanation behind why Tinker Bell doesn’t glow in the live-action Peter Pan and Wendy. Beyond a condescending view of the audience’s capacity for understanding, this explanation seems to (unintentionally) speak to an expectation that filmmakers spoon-feed and hand-hold their audiences. The spirit of artistic experimentation, wonder, and suspension of disbelief seem as though they’ve fallen to the wayside – especially disheartening considering the young target audience. Is the criterion for quality now inextricably linked to things seeming “real”?
In the pursuit of increasingly more photorealistic portrayals, we run the risk of forgetting that cameras do so much more than simply capture and portray objective reality. Yes, I’ll allow that CGI and VFX technology are capable of some very impressive imagery. But the CinemaSins-esque fussing over minutiae and the expectation of fidelity to a sense of “objective” reality gets in the way of both enjoying films and more serious engagement and criticism of cinema as an art. What happens in film and television is inevitably going to deviate from objective reality, even if a work’s goal is to be strictly informative. Vertov’s visual metaphor of the camera ambling about on its own like a sentient creature is extremely apt – real life and cinema are entirely different beasts, to be perceived and engaged with in entirely different ways. It’s well and good to veg out in front of the screen, but at some point, we need to be aware that what we’re seeing is fabrication. Not fabrication in the sense of “lies” but rather that everything is constructed, more or less deliberately, for a purpose. Even documentaries and biographies have angles, biases, and intentions. Otherwise, we might as well be watching CCTV footage, and there’s artistry even there, arguably. The second we aim our lens at something, reality has been mediated by virtue of the frame’s boundaries. What’s important enough that it gets to be the focal point? What gets left out? These are only a few of the myriad questions we ask when we engage with cinema, questions that probe deeper into meaning and significance. My concern is that we as audiences become inured to passivity, imperceptive of nuance. Art is a conversation, not a lecture. We actively discard opportunities for discussion and connection when we disregard ambiguities and lack of explanation as mere “plot holes.”
I’m reminded of an anecdote told by Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin. On a set with a light that had no diegetic source, he asked the cinematographer, the late Andrew Lesnie, where the light came from. “The same place as the music,” replied Lesnie. If we spend all our time picking at trivialities, the whole experience of cinema will pass us by. We are sitting in dark rooms together, willingly giving up hours of our finite time. Is it so much to ask to recognize what links us together and maybe strengthen those bonds a bit? So, enough wondering where the light comes from. We’re missing the film.
Man with a Movie Camera screens Saturday, May 13th.