Absolute Language of Cinema
Research Essay on Man with a Movie Camera
With the emergence of photography and filmmaking, emerges a new system of artistic expression that plays a role in shaping a new culture. The nature of this system is bond with the spirit of the Technological Revolution: the era of flourishing factories when machines start superseding men. The change is absorbed by all aspects of human life, including culture. As realistic visual representation can be accomplished just by a click and then reproduced an infinite number of times with the help of technology, the traditional skills required from artists are no longer valid. The following big step in the rapid progress of modernist art is the introduction of collage and montage, which further regresses the old conventions about artistry and remodels the processes of artistic creation.
The long history of classical art has entrenched a concept of form as an integral space, an enclosed plastic body that is in harmony with the microcosms of the human mind. In his 1930s essay, the art critic Walter Benjamin states that “technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes. For the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than the nature of the repercussions that these two different manifestations – the reproduction of works of art and the art of the film – have had on art in its traditional form.” (Benjamin) With the two different manifestations mentioned in Benjamin’s text, reproduction and filmmaking, the prevailing understanding of art as representational and/or harmonic is destroyed. In this context, the early-20th century film director Dziga Vertov is not seeking classical harmony, as his modernistic goal is to achieve an aggressive transformative power instead of traditional beauty.
His film Man with a Movie Camera is firmly abreast with the Constructivist vigor of the epoch. It portrays a prevailing, but still not altogether fathomed crisis: that of the gradual disappearance of techno/organic boundary. The problem is apparent in both the content of the film and the techniques used. Baring the philosophy of the Kino-Eye, Vertov films his surroundings as if he was a machine himself: silently observant. The aperture gives a truly scientific sight of the world that is unaffected by human feelings and scruples. Even though the documentation is executed in an observational style, the work remains expressive as a result of distinctive post-production which turns the footage into a turbulent stream of consciousness. The key to comprehending the optical chaos of Man with a Movie Camera lies in the visual interaction of shots. The visual order of the film is built on rhythmic correlations of plains, lights and shades, shooting speed, angles and movement of volumes and forms. To engage the viewer, Vertov relies on an associative principle that incorporates a variety of editing approaches based on rhythm and interval.
As rapid and non-narrative as the film may be, it has an organic flow that works on a foundation of mental connections derived from a mixture of montage techniques. Vertov exploits all of Eisenshtein’s Methods: attractions, metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal and vertical. The final result is a soothing and natural dynamic that suggests the ways of the subconscious: even though there is not a specific story to follow, what can be followed are chains of mental connections. There is a diverse set of juxtapositions grounded on different bases: movement, details, themes or sensations. Most often these associations are interweaved, enhancing the complexity of their content: for example, the first shots of the film are united by the theme of sleep, but they are also connected on an impressionistic basis as they carry a sway of poetic melancholy. Often a longer scene would be periodically interrupted with a multitude of montage interpolations. This abundance of scenes still conducts to soothe the viewer’s perception by relying on the key categories of Vertov’s aesthetic: rhythm and interval.
By utilizing these categories in an expressive manner, the director rejects the traditional idea of art as an enclosed system and places motion as the leading principle of montage. The short intervals of the shots establish a reality of collected fragments of human existance that enclose a solid vital power due to the seperate signs and symbols woven into them. This fragmented cinematic method is reminiscent of the dadaist collage technique which emerges around the same time. Similarly to a Dadaist collage, even though Man With a Movie Camera consists of scattered fragments, their pattern creates a fluid piece of art.
In conducting the practice-based part of this project, the initial issue was making a film that is inspired by a piece as observational as Man With a Movie Camera and ensure that it has its own conceptual value.
In terms of technique, it is relatively easy to clear out what is required. The main goal would be a rich diversity of film techniques: shots from various angles, distances and motion dynamics that will get manipulated with complex montage and effects. A key aspect is fast pacing induced by the big amount of shots and their quick change. This makes it crucial to collects as much video material as possible: both portraits of individuals and mundane everyday actions.
In terms of content, Man With a Movie Camera is not simply a voyeuristic documentary that aims to portray the environment. Dziga’s film carries an idea behind shots that seem prosaic at first glance, but there are layers of references, symbolism and subtle clues behind them. In the same way, I aimed to discover poetic/universal ideas by exploring my surroundings through a camera lens. I imposed upon myself the main objective of finding out what should the central concepts be.
Dziga’s film is set in Russian cities during the 20s and he skilfully documents and highlights via experimental montage a concrete futuristic aspect of his current reality: the processes of mechanization, industrialization and urbanization. Analogically, to collect relevant footage from Bulgaria in 2016, I had to impose the question of what is the most prevailing feeling in these surroundings. As subjective as this topic may be, there are some universally acknowledged peculiarities about the country, the century and the way they interact with each other.
As this is a complex, multilayered problem, in order to express my personal view, I started with a brainstorm of my impressions from contemporary Bulgaria, focusing on scenes of urban spaces and the people habituating them.
From these images I derived a feeling of a typical Balkan absurdism that interlaces Communism with capitalism, old with new, unhappiness with happiness, gray with green, concrete with nature, nationalism with multiculturalism. These categories served as visual associations for the post-production process.
To enhance the film’s engagement with Vertov’s work, I decided to emphasize on images of socialist constructions, monuments and ruins, as they can serve as a reference to the subtext of Marxist Futurism behind Man With a Movie Camera.
The soundtrack of my project also serves a double purpose. On one hand, it guides the rhythm of the film. The music compositions aided in ordering the shots and their intervals. On another hand, the tracks add to the subtext of the film. The contemporary remix of the socialist Bulgarian song “Our Signal” refers to the socialist past of the country and gives a nostalgic feel to the project. The fact that it is a contemporary remix makes it even more suitable for the film as they are both new pieces with strong remains from the past. Jacques’ “L’Incroyable Vie Des Choses” brings the film closer to current times and makes the content heavier. The two melodies clash in order to represent a realistic and moderate view of the portrayed urban spaces with balanced criticism and enthusiasm. The soundtrack complements the feeling of Balkan absurdism and clashes of oppositions mentioned earlier in this paper.
The current times are the future Vertov looked upon with an idealized Marxist vision. However, the actual reality is in strong opposition to these ideals. The aspect of strong technological advance and mass mechanization is intact, but the ideological side of the imagined future is not realized: the monuments are vandalized, the factories are abandoned and there is a noticeable overabundance of capitalist mass consumption. This is not a dark vision of reality. Happiness is not absent form the contemporary city, but it is not dressed in the communist façade Dziga and his contemporaries strived for.
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