Class Three: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929, USSR)

On Vertov

For an overview of Vertov’s life and career, I’d recommend this short article by Dennis Lim in the New York Times, written in 2011 in anticipation of a Vertov season at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Man with a Movie Camera finished atop Sight and Sound’s recent poll of best documentaries. You can see the poll in full here and read an excerpt of Brian Winston’s take on why Vertov’s film ranks so highly. More recently on the Sight and Sound website, Ben Nicholson catalogues 5 wonderful effects in Vertov’s film.

Vertov’s wrote extensively about his own film practice in the 1920s, in a bracing and manifestary-type way. His writings are collected in Kino-Eye, which is edited by and feature a great Introduction by Annette Michelson, who you will remember, in an everything connecting type way, as the person Fred Jameson sat by when going to movies in the morning.

In terms of repeat viewing, the Michael Nyman-scored version is available on YouTube, but you can, for a different take, watch the The Cinematic Orchestra version. The Alloy Orchestra has also recorded a score. And for a very different take, check out the portions of the film that Norwegian electronic artist Geir Jenssen (who also records as Biosphere) scored for a special presentation at the Tromso International Film Festival in 1996.

Other Film Connections

The actual man with the movie camera in Vertov’s film was his brother, Boris Kaufman, who, quickly after shooting wrapped, traveled to France and worked on another classic city film, À propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930).

If you are interested in the city film or city symphony, the classic is Walter Ruttman’s 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which has none of the socialist zeal or formal intensity of Vertov’s film, but is still a powerful representation of modern city life. Alberto Calvacanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) is another vision of the panorama of modern urban life.

A Note on Readings

As you’ll have already witnessed from our first few classes, we will most often gestures toward the readings rather than actively working through them on the page. Bring them up and bring them in when you can during our conversations, but also think of them as a resource for your papers and responses. Always do the readings and we’ll do our best to fold them into our class discussion, but if we don’t manage, all is not lost: use that material in your assignments!

Likewise, the course invites connections and elaborations that may occasionally take us beyond the films and readings that are officially part of the course. If you haven’t read or haven’t seen the film, book, or article we stray on to in our conversation, don’t panic! Note down the name, the title, and look it up or track it down afterwards. We’ll spend the majority of our time in class talking about the films and readings we all are doing together, but other references are a hazard of scholarly conversation. A significant portion of scholarly inquiry is flagging things for follow-up and tracking down references mentioned in passing for further exploration. This is true at every level. I spend a huge portion of my research time, trying to piece things together and tracking down interesting things that other people have mentioned in passing!

To that end, here are a few links to start you on your way:

Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” is a hugely important work in critical theory and cultural studies as well as having an immense impact on film studies as well. You should, at some point in your academic life, read it, ideally in the new translation provided in the Harvard UP collected works of Benjamin, or alternately, in the older translation which is available online. This Guardian article provides a good, short overview of Benjamin’s life and intellectual influence. There is a mountain of scholarly work on Benjamin, if you want to learn more.

Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part Olympia (1938, Germany) is her film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The film was commissioned and financed by the Nazi party. It is impossible to watch without the sense that it is in every way infused with Nazi ideals and ideologies, even though, after the war, Riefenstahl would try to reframe it as a mere celebration of athletic achievement. Many of the images in her film echo images from Vertov’s celebration of socialist athletics in Man with a Movie Camera. Even though Vertov’s images are to a totally different ideological end, it is a good lesson is (a) the way that later images can haunt ones that come before and (b) the way in which a specific signifier, such as the “athlete’s body” can be “the arena of class struggle” as differing and competing ideological positions try to claim it as their own: for fascism, it was a sign of racial superiority; for socialism, of the benefits of collectivism; for capitalism, the healthiness of independent free market self-governance. For a good overview of Olympia as a complex aesthetic and political text, compromised by its complicity with Nazism, but still retaining some measure of cinematic power, see this piece by Axel von Tunzelmann in the Guardian.

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