Becoming Robots: Technocracy in Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera”
In May 1891, one hundred spectators packed themselves in a small New York laboratory for what was billed as a “magical” demonstration. Accounts of the event describe murmurs in the audience as a man removed a small pine box from his satchel. The New York Sun reported:
“In the top of the box was a hole perhaps an inch in diameter [displaying] a picture of a man. It was a most marvelous picture. It bowed and smiled and waved its hands and took off its hat with the most perfect naturalness and grace. Every motion was perfect.”
These motions were wholly consumed by one Dziga Vertov, a man who would — for the rest of his life — aspire for that same grade of perfection. Thirty-eight years later, Vertov carried audiences back to said theater in his infamous 1929 manifesto, “Man with a Movie Camera.” With Vertov, we amble into the cinematic cathedral as its seats effortlessly open for us. We gaze in awe as the projectionist sparks the film to life. Much like the laboratory demonstration, this post-revolutionary chapel is one where the wires are held by “perfect” machines: mechanisms that function as effortlessly as a divine creation. In this world, no factory ever breaks, no car ever sputters, and no camera fails to capture. As a man who idealized industry, Vertov believed mechanically-reproducible art could catalyze the evolution of humankind “from a bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man.”
It is through this lens that “Man with a Movie Camera” transforms from a rote “city symphony” to a complex, if not sinister, aria to Bolshevik industrialism. In a succinct sixty-five minutes, the film quite literally transforms Russia’s human population into seamless machines. We see the conflation of man and mechanism leading up to the genesis of an all-important übermensch — a sentient camera. It is, with apologies to Marshall McLuhan, merely an extension of the man. The mechanical eye and celluloid brain expand both the filmmaker’s reach and diaphragm. Precisely for this reason, “Man with a Movie Camera” can read like propaganda, claiming filmic automation can make up for a workforce’s shortcomings. Despite its initial promise, the work is not devoid of plot or character, but a solipsistic collage that narrates Vertov’s factory-processed conception of humankind.
By 1917, Vertov had become transfixed with the notion that a newly industrial Russia needed an industrial artistic medium for which to self-express. He began experiments in his homemade sound studio, attempting to develop “machine music” through the recording and editing of natural sounds. Decades before its surge to prominence, Vertov was composing musique concrete: reinterpretations of the sonic world made possible by recording techniques. In 1919, Vertov begin applying this same ideology to his filmmaking. His philosophy of kino-glaz, or “cine eye,” posited that film’s emotional power could teach humans to be more precise in their physical actions. Films could condition audiences to emulate machines — dollies, cameras, and projectors. In fact, he was famous for trying to abolish all non-documentary films, believing them to corrupt and stand against a notion of constructivism.
Much of this ideology is rumored to come from his distaste for his own body — “In the face of the machine we are ashamed of man’s inability to control himself, but what are we to do if we find the unerring ways of electricity more exciting than the disorderly haste of active people?” The robotic eye of the camera illuminates an objective world that is captured by, and only by, a mechanical device. Looking through our monoscopic kino-glaz, a film seeks not to present an object as traditionally viewed, but to draw attention to its own industrially-aided system of image capture. This system lets a viewer see the world through the eyes of a machine, giving one the good faith to understand and potentially sympathize with industry itself. A teleological argument would posit that a film is us seeing the world through the perspective of our aspirational being, that of a reliable, automated machine.
Our mechanical aspirations demand a new God; a new church. Vertov’s sanctum, unsurprisingly, is the cinema. We first witness the sterile, lifeless theater as it is seeded with people. The projectionist provides a godlike bolt of lightning that pushes the orchestra into kinetics. The diegetic film, which ambiguously the film we are watching, appears in front of us. Its first image is a man and his superior, a movie camera. Rapid cross cuts between the auteur himself and the product of his efforts position the unnamed “man” as our dictator who limits our line and subject of vision. As the film progresses, the importance of said dictator diminishes dramatically. We see less and less of his person and more and more images of the machinery that surrounds him in the modern Bolshevik state. Even the humans we see in the latter half of the film have a bias to those behaving like machines — note the automaton-esque athletes and people aboard cyclic transportation. Vertov goes as far as to present these segments in slow motion, drawing our attention to their motorized actions and flawless bodies. In the words of the director, “We bring joy to mechanical labor. We make peace between man and machine.” The hard labor indeed begins to appear simpler and simpler as we progress through the film. Just as the camera facilitates many of the communicative gaps Vertov speaks of bridging, the almighty power of decentralized Soviet government seems to make workers hyper efficient — Soviet politics, in the words of Simone Weil, “made living cogs out of skilled workers with freedom, intelligence and initiative.”
It seems contrary to Vertov, if not otherwise erroneous, that something as broad and ever-evolving as Soviet industry could be entirely encapsulated by a movie camera with a singular point of view. Thus, Vertov attempts to reconcile the aesthetics of mechanized society with a simplified camera analogy. Taking a page from Walter Benjamin’s book, the reproducible film inherently offers a standardized experience that can be reconciled with a socialist unity of class. Many early critiques claim Vertov was actually weaving Marxist theory throughout his art, primarily through the construction of a futuristic city that works in counterpoint with existing Soviet social norms. His propaganda lay in the awakening of Soviet citizens and conditioning of truth and action to the people of Russia. The film can be read as the call for the working class to be selectively bred for their job — “breeding a new man by means of eugenics.” The cinema-church stands as an agent of superhuman perfection though the audience’s electrification from the godlike projector.
Outside of the ostentatious number of “eye” images throughout the movie, Vertov’s kino-glaz is perhaps best analogized by the camera’s ability to affix two images to a single “retnal” projection. The film routinely plays with dissolves and split screens, often times to either intentionally distort the image or give the illusion of the passage of time. Double exposure, a rather Socialist-tinged technique, lets the director overlay and thus metonymize two entities. While Vertov classically draws visual matches between people and machines, the double exposure more critically lets us reexamine our relationship to the objective object versus the camera’s iconoclastic deconstruction. This technique, at points, is even comical. Recall the famous scene of the cameraman standing up in a pint of beer. While we understand such an image is a physical implausibility, the camera that mediates the image can only read it as literal. For a machine, such an image is plausible merely because the image of it exists. It questions the level of trust we place in the image. Why do we trust the images of athletes, buildings, and factories, but not the man bathing in alcohol? Where must we draw the line with what we see through our kino-eye? If not the beer stein, then where?
Our answer lies in the film’s 1,775th and final shot — the man’s eye cropped to fill the entire screen. This last trace of humanity is completely swallowed by the cinematic aperture, as it engulfs his iris. Double exposure creates the man-machine chimera before totally destroying it. Such a trajectory affords an interpretation of the camera eventually dominating over the human and revealing the film’s true auteur: the camera itself. I believe the shot indicates that the man might have been, in fact, secondary to the film’s purpose and offer a more fitting title — “Movie Camera with a Man.” While technically simple, this dissolve moves beyond Vertov’s simple juxtapositions and takes a step towards the existential. This is not only that it emphatically announces the domination of human by camera, but that it stimulates the audience to make said association without a traditional Kuleshov-esque montage.
The film’s tipping point, however, arrives only six minutes prior. Following a series of increasingly surreal images, we are shocked to find the camera entirely alone and still. Liberated from its owner, the device stretches and begins to walk. The camera ambles about and we are seemingly encouraged to applaud. The “true auteur” takes its credit as its metamorphosis completes. We cut again to the theater, almost an hour after having last seen it, and watch the audience bemusedly stare at the screen’s awkward pastiche of blurry images and rapid, unintelligible movement. The camera, at this point, has taken over and abolished the human-centric view of the world so dominant in the first thirty minutes. Vertov, in his mission to cleanse the cinema of “all non-documentary films” seems to find solace in the robotic artifacts of camera movement take final prescience over the finished product.
The formalist and futurist re-evolution, fraught with Marxist affordance, always leaves me with an awkward taste in my mouth. The diegetic audience of the (presumed) “Man with a Movie Camera” screening seem just as confused as we do. Three minutes before the aperture shot, we can see the audience squirm in their theater, as if they realize they had just been lied to. They then plunge into Vertov’s dramatic concluding remarks: a conglomeration of on-screen and off-screen audiences and rapid match cuts between industry and humanity. We see flashes of a woman editing the film, spinning wheels, people riding in cars, and typewriters set in motion, all moving in perfect counterpoint with one another. One of these rapid cuts is especially jarring — that of the valiant cameraman standing on the back of a quickly moving vehicle. As the filmmaker soars past the screen, he takes the powerful cine-eye along with him. Man and machine, with mutual understanding, break forth from the screen and towards a bright, optimistic future.
Every move he makes is perfect.