A meeting with a newsreel cameraman in 1917 sparked Vertov's interest in motion pictures. He was particularly intrigued by the way in which images could be reshaped and reformed through the movie camera and post-production work. New advancements in technology allowed the filmmaker to manipulate and replay the images and sounds in a way that could surpass normal human observation,-cinema could expand and compress time, and allow multiple points of view to be communicated simultaneously. (Fig. 4) For Vertov, the movie camera was a knowledge-finding tool, capable of mechanical perfection, that could be compared to the telescope; it allowed a person to go where no one had gone before due to the actual physical imperfections and limitations that plague all humanity.
In 1918, Mikhail Koltsov, an important Soviet journalist, brought Vertov into the Bolshevik regime's newly established film unit. He learned his craft on the job. He took footage of the Red Army and sequenced it into a powerful propaganda format Vertov rode mobile propaganda studios, on water and rail, across the Bolshevik territories spreading the governmental gospel. Assisting Vertov as movie cameraman on many films, was his brother, Mikhail Kaufman. (Fig. 5) Teamed with an editor Elizaveta Svilova, Vertov and Mikhail formed the "Council of Three." They were involved in the art of controversy directed toward the nature of cinematic reality.Vertov saw himself as a principal player in the political brawl that was taking place over film:
The Council of Three, basing itself politically on the communist program,is striving to instill cinema with the ideas underlying Leninism. With the skillful organization of factual footage, we can create film objects of high propagandistic pressure..In the area of vision: the facts.are organized by film editors according to party instructions...
With the New Economic Policy in place; Vertov began producing Kinopravda, a periodic film that was parallel to Party paper, in a ten to fifteen minute newsreel format. The mixing of images of different fragments of society reveal how they were all connected and supported each other:
The textile worker ought to see the worker in a factory making a machine essential to the textile worker. The worker at the machine tool plant ought to see the miner who gives his factory its essential fuel, coal. The coal mine ought to see the peasant who produces the bread essential to him.
Twenty-three films were produced, but it is not known exactly how or where they were shown. It is speculated that sometimes Vertov and his crew showed the films in the street by hanging the screen from trolley lines. He thought the film screen was a "platform" onto which "soviet reality" was projected. This "soviet reality" was "the communist decoding of the world." Vertov's decoding was achieved through editing which involved a deep search and understanding of the material. It was not enough to show bits of truth on the screen. The frames had to be thematically organized so that the whole is also the truth. This organization process followed a lyrical sequence based on a sheet music model which he began developing in music school.
At the request of the state, he made longer propaganda films. Simultaneously, he clashed with a new style of filmmaker whose subject was fiction; "poison," "film vodka," a "hellish idea" invented by the bourgeoisie "to entertain the masses." (Fig. 7) This was the betrayal of Vertov's belief of the intention of the movie camera- its mission was not to create pictures for fiction and "old literature but to surpass the limitations of the human eye. Vertov saw that peasants didn't trust any graphic translations of reality that the government propaganda trains presented, yet when they saw a motion picture version of the same type of imagery, he believed they showed great interest. It was this experience that he based his belief that the most powerful images should be captured on film. Vertov advocated "life as it is "Contrary to his ideal, Russian audiences loved fiction so much that American and European films were always in high demand.Vertov noted that the sight of a news camera would c cause many bystanders to pretend they were characters in a Western. This meant shooting unscripted scenes in which the people being filmed appear unaware of the filming process. This was the main source of his raw material. These "film facts" were stored away in Vertov's "creative stockpile" and could be used for any project at any time.
One of the features that marked Vertov's work was the manner in which he recycled shots and scenes. It wasn't because he was lazy, but because he built up a reservoir of moving picture icons that were ready to be inserted into any project, depending on the need at the time. His "KIno-Eye" would go anywhere; it meant the conquest of space and time, use of all possible effects and every means of montage, and diving into the chaos of life to find the answers of any theme; it was understood as that which the eye doesn't see. He wanted to show the world the world, unrehearsed. About his technique he says:
The work of the movie camera [he meant the totally hidden video approach to shooting ] is reminiscent of the work of agents of the GPU [forerunners of the KGB].
By 1927, Vertov's clashes within the film community caused state film studio in Moscow to fire him. His difficulties and disappointments continued as the popularity of the Russian documentary films fell sharply in favor of fun, fantasy and escape offered by the American and European fiction film market. Ironically, fictional films like Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925) operates a drama and enjoyed a successful run, but looked like a newsreel of event." Vertov was then hired by the Ukraine's state studio where he produced his best known film The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), and one of the first Soviet films to use sound Enthusiasm, symphony of the Don Basin (1931).
The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) is a completely autonomous meta-cinematic celebration of filmmaking and epistemological Inquiry that seems to bear the burden of a manifesto. It is a film that questions film.
The Man with the Movie Camera is, in fact, a study in film truth on an almost philosophical level (The levity of its treatment-the fact that it is argued in the mode of fun-does not disqualify this judgment). On one level, it presents a swirl of everyday happenings in the Soviet Union; many quietly memorable images of type that pop back into your head when you hear the title They laughed, ran, ate, and made things. Consciously included are shots of the cameraman: Mikhail Kaufman, Vertov's brother, climbing smokestacks and bridges, crawling under a road's busy section of traffic, and riding in all forms of transportation. Scenes of the documentary are intercut with the production of the documentary. Through the lens, we see a person walking by and realize he is being photographed. From the opposite angle, his perspective, we see the cam- era with his reflected image on the surface of the lens. In other more subtle sequences the shadow of the camera is permitted to loom into the frame.
In The Man with the Movie Camera Vertov believed that the margin of documentary honesty was not crossed. With this film, Vertov intentionally pries what other filmmakers avoid at all costs: all of its illusions are self destructed. In a pries Constructivist's utilitarian way, the film keep continually reminds us that it is a film. At the same time it tries to prove the Kino-Eye, and it applies the theory of the camera that can go anywhere, see anything, and record everything. Links between people and machines are made apparent along this line of sight.
Because of his obscurity at the time, Vertov was able to travel throughout Europe to screen his films to artists and film buffs as part of a propaganda wave. At one pries point on Vertov's tour, while at a London screening of his film Enthusiasm, his first sound project, he insisted on turning up the volume of the sound- track. (Fig. 16) It got so loud that even his friends began yelling at him, and began leaving. The co-host of the screening had to physically fight Vertov over the volume controls of the cinema. Nevertheless, by the time his trip was over, he gained the support of Moholy-Nagy, Rene Clair, and Chaplin. Other filmmakers involved with the tour included Eisenstein and Pudovkin What was amazing about these filmmakers was that they were all so passionate and fixed in their opposing ways, yet they were able to coexist. Intolerances led Eisenstein and Vertov beyond the point of rivalry, and pushed them to being enemies.
In 1932, Mezhrabpomfilm, a studio that specialized in external Soviet propaganda, hired Vertov on to do what would be his last big film The Three Songs of Lenin (1934). Though he was given the Red Star for this film, it was not only re-edited to include Stalin, but given a new Stalinesque ending. His controversial stands led to his fading professional credibility in the Stalin-forced conformity years of the thirties and forties. Other artists bent to the pressure and drew themselves away from the avant garde in order to salvage their careers. Vertov said that going back on his word was not a part of his physical make up; his type of documentary could not be forced to comply with the preproduction bureaucracy that was required by government censors. To escape the grip of Stalin, Vertov went back to producing newsreels.
Throughout the thirties and forties, his entries often criticized the Soviet apparat's official support for bourgeois fiction films. He was finally collapsed into a third wheel position as a staff editor for soviet newsreels. His modernist flair can not only be linked with Bolshevik constructivism, like Vladimir Tatlin's, but also with non-Marxist modernists like Moholy-Nagy and Jean Epstein; artists who exhibit the world's diversity and suggest interaction at all strata through assemblage or collage. A Vertov montage is a bringing together a form that may appear frenetic, yet was cohesive,but not necessarily understandable for the audience; the visionary is often strangely unseeing Michelson calls him "cInema's Trotsky." His game plan had no chance of actually taking flight, but even after acknowledging its futility his romance continued to burn; he wanted to blow fiction film out of the water with the documentary.
Vertov's reflections reveal the new cultures seven way split between: Utopianism; avant-gardism, which.is bourgeois culture transcending it- self; Marxism-Leninism, then gruesomely crude in its aesthetic and psychology; formalism, sadly lacking a semantic or a sense of collaboration with spectators; psuedo-scientism, with Vertov posing as a scientific experimenter; bureaucratism, with its rigid, yet suddenly changing, party lines; and an audience consisting of peasants and minorities who were surely more ambivalent in their experience of Bolshevism.
He died uncelebrated in 1954 from cancer.
Eight years after his death, the first Soviet book on Vertov was published. In 1966 some of his papers from the 19205 were made public. Jay Leyda authored a book called Kino, the first in depth look at Soviet Cinema. Vertov was credited as a pioneer on the lyrical use of documentary footage. In France, Vertov's jargon Kinopravda was translated into the French cinema verite
In the twenties, his personal journals are loaded with the confidence and the idealism that his stand would be victorious. His vision is grand, but awaiting doom. Of his situation he said, "Give me a fulcrum, and I overturn the world. I could repeat that after the ancient sage. But that's just it. I don't have a fulcrum." Vertov is difficult to conclude because he was synchronously a purist and a propagandist, an avant-gardist and a primitive, a prophet and an android; he was all these things for the same reasons. The grandeur of what he wanted became the gauge of his disappointment
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