Sunday, January 28, 2007

Realize the Full Potential of the Kino-Eye!

Dziga Vertov's 1929 Man with a Movie Camera is unlike any film I've ever seen. What sensation is Vertov trying to evoke in his audience with the unrelenting, rapid-fire cross-cutting? Uninterrupted shots range in length from an average of one to two seconds down to a frantic barrage of intermixed scenes lasting maybe a frame or two each. The film left me mentally exhausted and physically queasy.

Vertov's shot choices and editing techniques must have seemed pioneering and experimental at the time. I had the feeling more than once during the screening that I was part of the experiment, a lab rat being presented with stimuli simply to see how I would react.

Most films aim to immerse their audience in a story or subject, and great effort is made not to disrupt the experience. What sets this film apart is that its aim is quite the opposite. Creative shots are cross-cut with shots of the cameraman filming that shot, cross-cut again with footage of the editing room where a woman is hard at work cutting together the film. No doubt she is cursing Vertov for making a film with literally thousands more cuts than a typical feature.

A whole segment of the movie is devoted to the strips of film themselves, as Vertov delights in pummeling us with self-reference. Our focus is turned and turned and turned again, pulled in briefly to consider subject after subject and given little time to fit storyline to subject.

This is perhaps because the real subject of Man with a Movie Camera is filmmaking itself. All other content is secondary and fleeting, and present only for its value as example of this or that technique. The dramatic shot of an oncoming train is sandwiched by footage showing how the shot was set up, and footage of the crew packing up and heading away. The "transportation" and "industrialization" theme suggested by the train is overshadowed by the story of "hey, look what we can do with these cameras!"


The film lacked the cohesive storyline that we have come to expect, even from documentaries. Having said that, Man with a Movie Camera did contain an awkward structure. After the campy cinema house intro, the first hour or so has a documentary flavor, presenting a day in the life of a city (St. Petersburg?). We see the abandoned city streets in the early morning, and we return to the same intersections and places throughout the day to see the squares flush with people, cars, trams, buses, horse-drawn chariots, hustle and bustle. Finally, we are treated to a montage of workers cleaning up, wiping down, and turning off their industrial assembly line machines. One of the longest shots of the film, a gentle 10-second (which by then seems an eternity, after being subjected to frantic cut after cut) calming view of a dim sky which presumably is conveying dusk, sets the stage for the city to go back to sleep.

Abruptly, a new chapter begins at the beach. The man with the movie camera, having documented humans at work, now turns the lens on humans at play. Beach play transitions to sport, and again we are made to focus less on the putative subject (humans at play) and more on the techniques used in filming them: slow motion, innovative camera angles.


Several subjects seem to get enough attention cumulatively to eventually allow the audience to string together their individual stories.

While Vertov obsesses with avant-garde camera work and creative editing, his fictional filmmaker addresses various issues with a heavy hand. He makes us consider:
  • life and death, juxtaposing a funeral procession with the birth of a child.
  • industrialization, cross-cutting assembly line workers with machines.
  • city-as-machine, packing people into trams and buses and shuffling them around with great efficiency through intersections with motorized precision.
  • glorification of the worker (he may have had to include this theme to get the film past the censors) - from the steel worker to the miner, the seamstress to the cashier, the cigarette packager to the phone exchange operator, and don't forget the woman toiling away in the cutting room! Workers of the world unite!

The film overall suffered from Vertov's obsession with cross-cutting. His demonstration of other techniques was I think hampered by the constant flitting from subject to subject. The film-within-a-film lacked cohesion as a result, but was distracting enough that it obscured and diluted what I suspect was Vertov's message: realize the full potential of the Kino-Eye!



Blogger Miriam said...

A queasy, exhausted, lab rat is a very accurate summary of how I felt as well. I do agree that Vertov uses a collage of images; each filled with fast-paced motion, but what does this motion mean? What is he trying to show? Other than making us feel like we were in a roller coaster, what is he saying about life, about the Cine-Eye?

1/28/2007 11:56 AM  
Blogger Valerie C said...

The opposition of this film to setting up a story and stickign with it definitely threw me off and made me feel like I was watchign an experiment. I like how you pointed out that Vertov uses film techniques and the content of the film as self-reference to his overall experiment. Every single aspect of the film basically leads to the fact that he wants to revolutionize how documentaries are made. The fleeting images threw me off in modern times like now so I cannot even begin to wonder how an audience during this movie's release reacted.

1/28/2007 5:49 PM  
Blogger Akshay said...

I completely agree with the assertion that the whole film was about the process and art of filmmaking. However, I felt less like a manipulated lab rat than an interested spectator at the static center of a fast-moving city. The film's rapid intercuts, which you mentioned, definitely contributed to that feeling. Also, I agree that Vertov subjugated everything else to the ideal of making a film about filmmaking; I thought this was not a movie that audiences of any period would pay to view for entertainment en masse. In the end, conventional elements like plot sell tickets.

1/28/2007 6:38 PM  
Blogger Frank Song said...

Honestly, I did not really get what the film is trying to say. I agree with your idea that the structure is quite awkward. I did not really know where the movie is leading the audience to, not sure of where the film is supposed to end. As you mentioned, I also got a sense that the director tried to show "the potential of Kinoeye." I guess the movie showed the power of Kinoeye to deliver the world as it sees; however, what is Vertov trying to show other than that power? or what kind of world is he trying to show with the Kino-Eye?

1/28/2007 9:36 PM  
Blogger Dan Ben-Nun said...

While I understood the experimental nature of the film and the emphasis on the “Kino-Eye” as a new structure for filmmaking, I felt like the film itself was painful to watch. I am always hesitant to watch films that overemphasize cinematography and underemphasize the actual substance of the film; and Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera is a perfect example of this genre. Needless to say I was not entertained at all by the film, but I do understand how he was trying to revolutionize the theory of film. Whether or not I agree with his revolution is another story.

1/28/2007 11:32 PM  
Blogger kalphonso said...

I agree with what a lot of people have been saying. There were times in the film where I felt manipulated into seeing things from a specific standpoint. This is kind of what we were talking about in class when we discussed the 'Kino-eye' article. The camera can only show/'see' so much of what is going on around it. It is the human eye that can get a more expansive view of things. The images were quite interesting though. I liked the shots where the film-maker would be in the if there was someone else filming him (yet another comment on how the camera can only see so much). I also liked the music that went along with the images. It felt like one of the oldest stomp performances I've ever seen! =)

1/29/2007 2:03 AM  
Blogger Eddie Nguyen said...

I really like how you mention that "[m]ost films aim to immerse their audience... not to disrupt the experience" and that this film seeks an opposite frame. I think it is a very profound observation.

However, I disagree that the "constant flitting from subject to subject" hampered his film. It was only hampered under the more traditional terms of filmaking as a means to tell a story. Because his purpose for this film was experimental and, as you mentioned, to make us aware of the "full potential of the kino-eye" and its effect on audiences, it is important NOT to allow the audience to be too ummersed in the subject matter; he wants us to walk away feeling somewhat exhausted and disconnected from the subject matter so that we can observe it from the outside.

1/29/2007 8:59 AM  
Blogger Tim McNally said...

I agree that the movie suffered from too much cross framing. It was interesting to see this technique pioneered in such an old movie but after a while, it just got too exhausting to watch. I agree with you on the fact that this film showed great techniques of the kinko-eye but lacked any type of cohesion due to excessive use of cross framing and other techniques.

1/29/2007 9:57 AM  

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