History and Aesthetics of Cinema Term Paper

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¶ … Man With a Movie Camera

Introduction and Themes

The classic film by Dziga Vertov, "The Man with a Movie Camera," is a compelling and aesthetically marvelous exploration of the life and situation of a cameraman in the Soviet Union during America's roaring '20s.

Vertov's skills are on display from the opening shot. The superimposed shot depicts a miniscule cameraman climbing atop an oversized camera, Vertov here aquaints his audience with the ability the omnipresent camera has in our day and age to manipulate any type of image.

To that end, critic Vlada Petric writes, "Whether it is lighting, montage, camera angle, fast or slow motion, freeze-frame, flicker effect, or any other technique, the manifestation of the actual filmmaking forces the viewer to acknowledge the motion picture as reconstructed reality rather than its representational reflection" (Petric, 1987: 9).

Film critic Erik Barnouw goes a step further and locates Vertov's reflexivity in a historical perspective: "Since much of the film shows Mikhail Kaufman in action...The Man with a Movie Camera involves staging and contrivance to an extent previously rejected by Vertov. But the artificiality is deliberate: an avant-garde determination to suppress illusion in favor of a heightened awareness" (Barnouw, 1993: 63).

In the 1920s, both still photography and cinema were comparatively nascient art forms, and uneducated viewers tended (incredulously) to believe that both cinema and photography depicted unaltered reality, sometimes even feeling that the images were more real than the physical object.

Laying open the workings of the camera and the editor in turned uncovered a truth about film; viz., that film can be every bit as fictionalized as fiction itself and must be viewed with a critical and educated eye. As critic Richard M. Barsam notes, Vertov's film can be seen as an extension of how "[d]evelopments in nineteenth-century French art and photography renewed a new version of the oldest conflict in art: whether art should represent beauty or truth, the ideal or the real" (Barsam, 1973: 13).

Even from the opening sequences, the cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman, who in actuality is Vertov's brother) is shown by Vertov as absolutely brave and sans fear. The cameraman is shown traipsing on high bridges, repelling from the side of a train, climbing a smokestack and crawling underground with miners.

Indeed, Vertov's cameraman will conquer absolutely everything in order to get the shot. The shots of Kaufman shooting the train are interwoven with sequences of a bourgeoisie woman waking up in the morning. The dichotomy between the active and busy cameraman and the late-rising woman further inscribes him as a member of the proletariat. As the critic Petric points out, "...the Cameraman appears on the screen in a double 'role': he is a worker (who makes a film) as well as a citizen participating in daily life, whether by shooting on location or by posing for another camera" (Petric: 51).

Additionally, the numerous scenes of the editor deliberately undermine Kaufman's role as individual and sole parent of Vertov's film and indeed demonstrates the collective nature of film. As critic Graham Roberts writes, "These final moments remind us that this film is as much an editor's tour de force as a record of the cameraman's life" (Roberts, 1999: 89).

And of course, we cannot forget that socialist values are absolutely indistinguishable from the medium as well, and as critic William Guynn notes in "A Cinema of Nonfiction," "[Vertov] asserts...that the coherence of any discourse is the work of an agency, here not the bourgeois filmmaker as individual but a collectivity of filmworkers who create in the progressive stages of production a representation of the visible world" (Guynn, 1990: 24).

All film, after all, represents a hugely collaborative effort between director, cameraman and editor. It always constitutes a form of are that is collective, or socialist, to adapt the observation from the previous paragraph.

In "The Man with a Movie Camera," the viewer views the cameraman on the screen and understands that there must be other cameramen filming him as he films. Also, the editor is demonstrated with the reels of film the viewer just saw the cameraman shoot.

In Vertov's film, reflexive images like these render it impossible for the viewer to forget how the work of many goes into a single film. In "Dziga Vertov and the Film of Money" Jonathan Beller observes that, from a Marxist viewpoint of work/use value, "What we learn from Vertov is that the image is constituted like an object - it is assembled piece by piece like a commodity moving through the intervals of production - and it is a (technological and economic) development of the relations of production" (Beller, 1999: 162).

The Film as Metafiction - through Montage

The Man with a Movie Camera" is the quintessential film about film. Vertov attempted to make a universal film, the everyfilm if you will, one which leaned exclusively on film terminology to get its message across. As it mentions in the foreword to the film, "this experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theatre and literature." (Vertov)

Film language in Vertov's case signifies that there exist no intertitles and no use of theatric conventions in relaying the message. To the contrary, the shots are structured in a classic montage style and format in order to put forth a concrete theme, in this case the daily life of Soviet citizens and the role of the cameraman in that life.

In motion picture terminology, a montage (literally "putting together") is a form of movie collage consisting of a series of short shots which are edited into a coherent sequence. Viewers infer meaning based on context; Lev Kuleshov, in his Kuleshov Experiment established that montage is one way of leading the viewer to reach certain conclusions about the action in a film. David Griffith was one of the early proponents of montage, introducing cross-cutting to show parallel action in different locations, and codifying film grammar in other ways as well.

In his earlier works Sergei Eisenstein regarded montage as a dialectical means of creating notions. By contrasting unrelated shots he tried to provoke associations in the viewer, which were induced by shocks. In effect the film was aimed at transcending the level of mere presentation of realities and at explaining the conflict character of reality and the reasons underlying this conflict. This form of editing is known as Intellectual montage.

Very recently, for instance, the use of montages were humourously popularised to viewers in the movie Team America: World Police with the song from its soundtrack 'Montage'.

The critic Petric interprets Vertov's inclusion of the camera itself in the film both as a way of mechanizing humans and humanizing machines: "by comparing industrial movements with those of athletes, Vertov suggests that machines also possess an expressive visual beauty. Similarly, the motion picture apparatus is equated with the human being as it suddenly begins to 'walk' on its own accord..." (Petric: 7).

Interestingly, Vsevolod Meyerhold's biomechanics theory in acting also applies to Vertov's work. Essentially, biomechanics draws down all human movement to machine movement by categorizing and defining that human movement.

For instance, just as a person's movements can be reduced down to their itinerant parts, the anthropomorphic camera sequence was made using stop-action filming. The movement of the camera was actually hundreds of separate movements recorded individually by the camera.

Solely due to the specific era and place Vertov lived, viz., communist Russia, all of his films were forced to serve a propagandistic purpose. His inclusion of the elements of filmmaking in The Man with a Movie Camera is his attempt to place his passion and his occupation in a role supportive of the communist regime.

The Man with a Movie Camera" paints the "everyman" daily life of citizens of Russia, contrasting bourgeois luxury with worker industriousness. Basically, Vertov gives us "everyfilm" within "everyman."

Vertov does this by ensuring, as mentioned above, that the cameraman is clearly identified with the workers rather than the bourgeoisie from the way he rises early to begin his work, as do the women sweeping the streets, and also by his constant movement throughout the film, which contrasts with the leisurely haircuts and manicures of the upper class.

In significant manners, Vertov almost appears to prefigure Laura Mulvey's 1975 observations in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" that "[a]lthough the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world" (Mulvey, 1999: 836). Mulvey's essay centers around a psychoanalytic analysis of how film exemplifies sexual instincts, explaining that Freud "...associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze" (Mulvey: 835).

However, where Mulvey's observations are linked only with fictional Hollywood cinema, there exists a feeling of voyeuristic inequality in "The Man with a Movie Camera." Indeed, Vertov equates the camera with an eye, in that that particular eye… [END OF PREVIEW]

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