On Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera, 1928
T. Kaori Kitao, Swarthmore College - Presented at Penn, 3 February 1989

1. Year1921: Remember that. . .

In 1921, James Joyce completed his Ulysses on which he was working from 1914; he wrote it in three cities, Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, and it described a day in the life of his native city, Dublin; the book was published in Paris, in 1922.

In that same year, 1922, Mies van der Rohe developed his glass skyscraper prototype; And Erich Mendelsohn was sketching out the streamlined mass of his Einstein Tower.

It was also in 1922 that some 300 designs from all over the world reached Chicago for the Chicago Tribune's International Competition. The winning design was the one by Hood and Howells, realized in 1925; but Eliel Saarinen won the second prize, something of a megastructure by the standards of the time along the line of Sant'Elia's futurist city from 1914.

It was in 1922 that Joseph Stella painted yet another variation on the Brooklyn Bridge in the fractured futurist style, also familiar in the representation of a City by Fernand Léger from a few years earlier, 1919.

By 1922, Charles Sheeler, painter and photographer, was already known for paintings of skyscraper Offices (1922) and other elements of the modern cityscape (Church Street El, 1920); and Paul Strand was photographing New York since 1916, Under the El and Wall Street.

In 1921, Sheeler and Strand got together and made the film, Manhatta, a photographic evocation of New York, the title of which draws from Whitman's poem, in which he praises

The down-town streets, the jobbers' houses of business, the houses of business of the ship-merchants and money brokers, the river-streets,
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,
The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors, etc.

The film was seen by only a few people in this country when it was released, and left little imediate effect. But but it was a great success at one of the DADA programs in Paris, which included music by Erik Satie and poems by Guillaume Apollinaire.

Between 1921 and 1929, American literature explored the subject of the city in the same vein, notably by Dos Passos. In his Manhattan Transfer, 1925 (and later in the USA Trilogy from 1930) Dos Passos tried to pack in what Cecilia Tichi characterized as the rapid-transit pace of urban settings, as did William Carlos Williams in poetry a little later.

But American cinema in 1920's was more into historical narrative; and it was Europeans who made films directly treating contemporary cities, above all, their industrial and mechanical aspects:
Alberto Cavalcanti, Rien que les heures (1926)
Walter Ruttman, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
Joris Ivens, The Bridge (1927) and Rain (1929)
Boris Kaufmann and Jean Vigo, A Propos de Nice (1929 Mikhail Kaufman and Ilya Kopalin, Moscow (1927)
and, preceding these,
Fernand Léger, Ballet Mecanique (1924),
Léger who, as we saw, also painted cities in its full dizzying forms.

2. Dziga Vertov (1896-1954)
was born Denis Kaufman, brother of Mikhail and Boris Kaufmann; and he is undoubatedly one of the three leading early Soviet filmmakers in 1920's, with
Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893-1953), and
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898-1948),
but probably most daringly experimental of all, if also the most formidably formalist (as he was accused of being even by Eisenstein).

Vertov started his film career during the Revolution, as a volunteer worker, editing docuomentary footage of the revolution; soon he started making his own short documentaries (1919-21).
From 1922, he started making his Kino Pravda, documentary newsreels (23 altogether from 1922-25) under the auspices of the Revolutionary Government, with Mikhail Kaufmann as his cameraman. These captured actualities without scenarios, a sort of action camera newsreels, fragmentary but spontaneous.

3. The Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom)
filmed in 1928 and released in 1929, is Vertov's major work, with Mikhail Kaufmann as the cameraman of the film's title, filming.

It is, historically, a monument in several respects:
a. as a raw Documentary, of a sort, in that it is a portrait of "life as it is lived" on a typical day in Moscow from dawn to dusk (though a part of it was shot in Odessa), with the strong sense of immediacy and realism;
b. as a technical Experiment, in which he assembled imaginatively a vast range of film devices, may of which were well in use by 1928 but used by Vertov in rapid-transit pace;
fast and slow motion, rapid cutting, stop action freeze, double exposure, split screen, and pixillation,
giving the film the character of futurist and cubist fragmentation as in the paintings of Joseph Stella and Fernand Léger; and
c. as an innovative work of Self-reflexivity, for the film, ultimately, is not so much a portrayal of the city as a demonstration of the process of that portrayal, i.e., filming, editing and screening, an aspect that has a special appeal in this post-modern era; the film opens with the theater and the lighting of the projector's arc lamp (as in Bergman's Persona later), and is interspersed with the view of Mikhail and his camera shooting and interrupted, too, by the editing process as the film proceeds; finally,
d. as a symphonic reflection on the nature of the CITY and urban life as it was perceived and felt in 1920's, on which more after the film.

4. Cautionary Notes
This is not an easy film to watch if you are not familiar with it; and some cautionary notes are in order:

First, it is silent; and it is well to remember that no silent film was shown silent in the silent era; early in the film, in fact, we are shown an orchestra as it begins to play for the film; it makes us wonder what music Vertov had in mind as an accompaniment to his film.
Second, the film is slow at first, especially in silence; later it is dizzying in pace, a problem sometimes compounded by the fact silent films are sometimes shown in sound speed.
Third, the symphony of this film is more in the nature of Creative Cacophony, which assaults our senses both in fast-paced fragments of scenes and the sound-evoking images that abound and contribute to the sense of urban chaos and excitement.


5. The Film's Special Characteristics

Of special relevance to the art of representing city on film, Vertov's work demonstrates these characteristics of note:

1. Excietement of Speed:
in the frenetic pace of the film as well as in the emphasis on moving machines and vehicles;
2. Image of Labyrinth:
in the complexity of the film, especially in the effect of cubist simultaneity achieved by rapid montage editing, and in the images of the chaotic life of the city;
3. Effect of Kaleidoscope:
in its fragmentation but also in its ultimate synthesis into a symphonic form;
4. Emphasis on Actuality:
in that the film has no scenario, as it is stated in the introduction, all shot in situ, therefore, accurately recording, not unlike old photographs, what Moscow looked like in 1920's;
5. Theory of the Camera-Eye:
in Vertov belief in the Kino-Glaz, that the Camera can see more than the eye -- as he wrote in his manifesto on film: I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.

6. Vertov's Dual Achievement in Documentary
In his experimentalism, Vertov achieved two effects unknown to more conventional documentarists:

1. As a documentary, his is particularly full in recorded images because of fragmentation and cubist synthesis; and we have a more complete catalog, so to speak of the city as it was (say, in comparison with Manhatta from earlier in the decade): It is profuse in details;
minute in observation of both buildings and people;
emphatic on movements and therefore on activities; and thus on the breath of the city life as it was lived.
2. Secondly, it is best likened to the American literature of 1920's, like Dos Passos in that Vertov captures the sense of what city life meant to his contemporaries in his days, a place of visual and auditory tension and excitement, and he does so not only by the images he recorded but also, and especially, in the mode of presentation, in his editing that has the same pulse as that of a metropolis of 1920's



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