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The Overheard Record: Five Montages for “Man with a Movie Camera” (I/II)

“Nor is there any ‘figurative’ and ‘nonfigurative’ art… A person, an object, a circle are all ‘figures’; they react on us more or less intensely.” —Pablo Picasso, 1935

“Eikhenbaum says that the main difference of revolutionary life from ordinary life is that now everything is felt. Life has become art.” —Viktor Shklovsky, 1923


"I have untied the knots of wisdom and set free the consciousness of color." — Kasimir Malevich, 1916

At any moment we watch Man with a Movie Camera with the collapsed consciousness of our eyes in a theater, of the traveling cameramen kinocs’ Kino-Eye, of the person in-scene whose embodied perspective the Kino-Eye channels, and of the thing that’s being looked at and looks back. Vertov follows the collective consciousness of a city becoming conscious of itself as the “You” intertitles of One Sixth of the World—pointing towards particulars of social labor on-screen and a general social mass watching off—are replaced by Vertov’s Kino-Eye assuming its subjects’ perspectives as mobile nodes in the city’s nexus. The modern man, here, is already one with machine in the choreographed city: his vision through a moving camera, in Man with a Movie Camera, is no different from through a moving car moving programmatically through the streets. And he’s also one with what he watches: Vertov’s modern city consciousness is no different from that of movie-watching, embodied in shifting positions of relative social perspectives. We watch movies, moving through a world, by moving through perspectives on it, and so we move through a city, constantly taking the outlook of whatever we just looked out upon.

The idea is strange; it seems to depend on Vertov’s double notion of communism that people are what they see, that characters are no more than their interchangeable consciousnesses forged together past the limits of private thought, and that vision is an action, as viable a means of relating to the world as trading Mongolian sheepskins. But they’re ideas that are axioms of movie-watching; Vertov’s proposal is that by watching Man with a Movie Camera his audience can become mutually conscious of the mutual consciousness they already share as plugged-in communists. Except now they can share it together in a unified moment: a spectacle. The audience becomes subject, spectator, and artist, an unsuspecting kinoc. An eye superimposed on a camera-lens stares at the audience in the final shot only if there is an audience to stare back.

Vertov’s cinema is “Kino-Pravda,” cine-truth, because in having us relate to what’s on-screen, he attempts to reveal our real relation to these things off-screen, as cogs in a vast social apparatus.

Jonathan Beller, in a paradigmatic essay, links the circulation of capital to the circulation of images, both means of mediating the world through a sheening unit (dollar, spectacle) that obscures the indexicality of its own content in a sort of pure, seductive form. Beller argues Vertov’s attempt at remediating the commodified image, a coinage that obscures its own content, so that the image reconstitutes itself in its assembly line of historical production: both the historical production of the event, and the historical production of its filming and editing. If the “real” content of an image is its use-value, suggests Beller, its “abstract” form as spectacle is its exchange-value, the means of objectifying reality into 1/24th of a second and setting it falsely into motion as a unit of bourgeois myth.

But Beller never makes a distinction between the two: while money is a form without content, an abstracted, arbitrary unit that in standing for anything stands for nothing, the most abstract image, like the most material, finds its content in its forms and vice-versa. Its form as a spectacle may be a green circle, a ruled loose-leaf sheet, or mustard squeeze bottle, but it is this particular form alone that lets it be related to other particular forms: from experience, from other images. The simplest objectifications of a pretty car and a pretty girl, may be mediated by external notions of commodity fetish or other phrases, but these are notions produced by the images as much as the images have been produced by histories of fetishism. Even the content that has atrophied in its own form as a type of cultural currency has no objective, standardized price-tag, as an image, to relate it quantifiably to other images within the film (though it might in the world of capital); there’s only a subjective, possibly wavering desire for the pretty girl. Their value for the viewer is in themselves, as symbols of themselves.

Their “exchange-value” is only in their use, and the parts snap together, centralized, without having to be traded. The director who recognizes this averts the significance of capital altogether, and no longer are the images charged as status symbols, as they are in commercials collating unrelated, pretty pictures as equivalent glosses over a product and its price tag. Instead, the images reveal and build on each other's forms in a world of images as images.

Science this isn’t. Vertov's images aren't currency but tools; each is exploded, not exploited, for its potential function and inherent use-value as action, photograph, perspective, movement, etc. in its filming and its arrangement in the montage. With the geometric simplicity of logic and spectacle, Man with a Movie Camera is shot and edited according to the forms of images, as if what Vertov’s revealing is his own notion of their form: his camera circles circles, blinks with blinking women, pans and cuts back and forth with trams moving back and forth. But mostly we mark the whirling in one image as a rhythmic notation when it’s cut against the whirling—or stillness—of another. What lets these images be exchanged is not an external mediator, a standardized unit of language, like money, stamped on an object’s use-value according to external considerations. The black interval between images equalizes them as notes to be played, sustained, or suggested in modal synchronizations. As music, as machinery, the parts are interdependent.

But Beller’s point about abstracted spectacles is proven: the magic show of Man with a Movie Camera, contrary to so many Marxist claims on it, obscures its own mode of production entirely, so that the wind-up motions of a soccer game and ballet recital can seem the product of factory gears at an accelerated grind, and so that a kinoc, already one with his camera, can seem to inhabit the eyes of characters. It produces its own history of production. The characters without psychology let the audience enter the film, take a place and assume a rhythm, and become surrogate performers. Pornography? No: the collective consciousness lets us see everything from everyone's perspective. Vertov’s film is the celebration of a mass illusion as the rules of a vast, cooperative game. If the movie fails to show the capitalist modes of its production, that’s because it doesn’t take place in the world of its production at all, but in Vertov’s conglomerate utopia that produces the film as we watch it.

Nothing’s stranger in Man with a Movie Camera than Vertov’s pursuit that art enables life as much as vice-versa, that the city’s prime mover is the director’s wife at an editing table, that the closer we think we are to reality—a reality of moving people in recognizable spaces going about their daily routine—the closer we are to illusion and abstraction—the illusion of movement from still frames, the abstraction of a daily rhythm, sounded through characters as interchangeable instruments, that is the movie’s rhythm. The choreographer is modern life. In Vertov’s city, we live our life by rules and models; it can be just a doll on a stationary bicycle, going nowhere with dynamic force, like the kinoc who hand-cranks a film camera, another two-wheel prosthetic appendage, from one reel to another and back in the ecstasy of movement, circulation.

Dialectical movement Vertov seems to expose everywhere: the back-and-forth of two things set in relation as each exposes the form of the other. And always the organizational principles of film itself, with its tram-equivalent tracks and gear-equivalent crank, are the same as that of the city. As Vertov synchronizes movements—perhaps already synchronized across his city—his own abstract art becomes a material revelation of the architecture of modern life.

The doll on the bike is a paradigm for anyone in Vertov’s city looking to buy a bike. She is what she is: a model. A commodity image? No: the abstract form that waits to be vitalized by individual, subjective force. The soccer players playing later in the film are interchangeable, but it’s their personal effort that matters. And anyway you buy the bike, not the doll.

Vertov’s machines, operated by faceless limbs. Is this still-life of a draped arm a woman or a doll? Either way it’s a paradigm in its particularities:


“Let the images flow faster than money does” —from script for Godard’s L’histoire


To be continued...

Images: Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929); Gold Diggers of 1933 (Berkeley, 1933); Film Socialisme (Godard, 2010)

III/IV | V —>

If the movie fails to show the capitalist modes of its production, that’s because it doesn’t take place in the world of its production at all, but in Vertov’s conglomerate utopia that produces the film as we watch it.
This is interesting.

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