The Subject Objects: Five Montages for Man With a Movie Camera (III/IV)

David Phelps


“And this is the liberating discovery… the man-made alone can be made, whereas whatever else the environment has to show is only imitable by make-believe… A crucial problem of twentieth-century art—how to make the painting a firsthand reality—resolves itself when the subject matter shifts from nature to culture.” —Leo Steinberg

Recap: Man and machine, life and art, documentary/fiction, idealism and reality collapsed. Yet Vertov shows things as things, images as images, equal and radiant in their thingness. No longer is the soccer ball the service of stories and the tool of man: now we see how it directs men's gestures. But to see the thing, it must be seen in relativities of movement, reoriented and re-placed. Abstract the principles and forms by seeing its relations: it takes two bricks to see the form of one. Life's design is the film's design, an electrified Arcadia the camera and its subjects stage in communist collaboration. No longer, says Vertov, are we projections in God's vanity mirror. Man invents himself in his own image, in the image of his dolls sewing and biking in storefront windows. It is the image of his film.



In forging the connections everything in modern life has to everything else, not as material relations but formal intersections, Vertov’s montage contends—

1)   That the architecture of modern life is not a machine with a determined relation between the parts; Vertov’s films is not hard habit performed passively, but continual, active process, a jazz-waltz of elements changing partners, whose rhythm, caught by all, is the city’s pulse,

2)   That this architecture upends the spatial relations of things to synchronize them in time across the airwaves,

3)   That the structural principles of the architecture only can be seen through examples, through two buildings, events, or images sharing the same formal paradigms

3)   Or rather, that these paradigms can only be seen between the images, in abstract principles to be decoded as they’re renewed in time and across each successive image.

Each of these contentions emphasizes a dynamic process that unfolds through time through the repurposing of materials. If the process is a ball game, each image becomes a new variation of the player’s contact with the ball. The principle may be extended: musicians and dancers may be cut with the ball game so that they become a chorus—a visual soundtrack—also responding, seemingly, to the ball. If the process is the back-and-forth movement of the trams, this movement may be extended to the back-and-forth movements of couples marrying and divorcing. Trams having little to do with divorces, the lack of material insight in this connection accents the formal force unfolding through time.

Vertov’s montage accounts for the image as a new form of capital, whose value is in its exchange, in the speed of its circulation and the shape of its circulating form. Like capital, like the technology he documents, Vertov’s montage allows relationships to be spatially disconnected; the relation between things no longer passes in a continuous space but in a continuous time: the architecture is a score, not a blueprint.


Vertov’s montage can enable relations, setting them into harmonies (the ballplayer who moves with the dancer; the doll that becomes a human half a film later), or decode relations, exposing latent harmonies of the mechanized age (the kinoc and the driver with their mechanical appendages; or that cycle of life, births and deaths, weddings and divorces, as seen in the revolving door of a government office and the certificates administered within). Whether these harmonies are the product of Vertov’s imagination or the patterns of mechanized society doesn’t matter; either way, they’re manmade.

Equally, either way is to see the dullest lineaments of a modern, daily grind—shades, trams, sewing machines—as a new iconography whose use-value is not inherent but has to be released by its relationship to other objects and man. Yet each element still stands in independence, the tram and the divorce relatable as parallel movements but bearing separate, historical existences. Neither is subordinate in Vertov’s circular movement, and the measure of how closely the images are linked to each other is how easily they shape-shift into one other. This, too, is a factor of montage and time: how rapidly interlaced they are together. The film follows elements being more and more quickly exchanged, until, in a sequence of a kinoc and a wheel trading frames, the two seem to exist simultaneously, as if each happens in conjunction with the other.

 Leo Steinberg, 1953: “Modern painting inures us to the aspect of a world housing not discrete forms but trajectories and vectors, lines of tension and strain. Form in the sense of solid substance melts away and resolves itself into dynamic process.”


Already by 1929, the Soviet Suprematist painter Klazimir Malevich was reaching similar considerations:

“Dziga Vertov is moving inexorably toward a new form of expression for contemporary content—for we shouldn’t forget that the content of our era cannot be reduced to showing pigs being fattened on a Soviet farm or ‘golden cornfields’ being harvested. There is yet another content—that of pure form and dynamics.

…Ruttmann went junky (“shurum-burum”). Instead of a dynamic, he showed the junk of day-to-day life falling asleep and waking up. And he, like a ‘cine-junk collector,’ used cinematic techniques in order to show all the junk he had collected in ‘the city of Berlin’ to a flea market’s frequenters (audience) ‘in a symphonic perspective.’

The Man with a Movie Camera, essentially, has no such tendency. Rather, its tendency is to de-objectify the city center without linking any of the elements into a single idea that flows through. Everything there results from shifts, everything comes unexpectedly. Here, for the first time, the elements could not be tied together into a whole in order to express the petty gossip of daily living.

Dziga Vertov does not try to analyze or justify the machine by focusing on the fact that it churns out cigarettes or milk cows; rather, he shows motion itself, dynamic itself—the force of which was always concealed by the cigarette holder or the back of Monty Banks.

Having trained our camera lens on the yet-to-be-experienced dynamic of metallic, industrial-socialist life, we will be able to see a new world that has not been mediated until now.” — “Painterly Laws in the Problems of Cinema” ("Zhivopisnye zakony v problemakh kino"), trans. Cathy Young, available in Malevich and Film


Malevich is the pivot point of two chronicle shows currently in New York, one leading to (at the Guggenheim), one from (at the Gagosian) his 1915 breakthrough to “non-objective” art. Donald Judd: “It’s obvious now that the forms and colors in the paintings that Malevich began painting in 1915 are the first instances of form and color.” Form as color or color as form or each separately? Judd’s point is perhaps that color is no longer a quality of an object or a shape, but that, with Malevich, shape is equally a quality of a color, that a certain shade of blue can be shaped as a quadrilateral or a circle of any size. Something similar might be said for Vertov: that Vertov, contrary to every other filmmaker, doesn’t see objects (people and planes) as objective givens, subject to various modalities of lighting, posture, and angles; but that he sees light, postures, and angles as his given objects, reiterated through the montage and assuming different modes as people and planes of similar shapes and movements. Again that Vertov’s real content is his form, his trajectories and vectors, and that the form taken by these vectors, humans and machines, are the “content” of the city and any other film.

Vertov's ghost, casting for “life caught unawares,” could bristle; that shift would come with Michael Snow; Vertov's trajectories all come out of the image and real life anyhow, and he subjects his objects to nothing but their own invented line of motion. Anyway, the modes are those of modern, manufactured life; modern life is already a work of art, the invention of man through a doll’s example in storefront windows. Isn’t that Malevich’s point as he writes on Vertov? “Each form is a world,” and man invents his forms: there are no right angles in nature.

The difference between abstract and figurative becomes a difference not of relativity and idealism, which amount to the same search for a general form (Vertov’s tram, shown from every side, becomes an Ur-Tram), but between the man-made and the natural. The man-made is the force of Malevich and Vertov’s socialism—it is both the machines and art. "Non-objective" is non-natural, and just the fact that Donald Judd, an artist who treated industrial three-dimensional objects as industrialthree-dimensional objects, would praise Malevich becomes a good question of how non-objective Malevich’s non-objective art is as forms and material collapse. As are the easy parallels between Malevich’s non-objective manifesto around 1915—

“color, in its turn, must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at once individual in a collective environment and individually independent”

—and Louis Zukofsky’s objectivist manifesto, opposite in aim, a decade or so later, and almost parallel to Man with a Movie Camera:

“the isolation of each noun so that in itself it is an image, the grouping of nouns so that they partake of the quality of things being together without violence to their individual intact natures, simple sensory adjectives as necessary as the nouns.”

This is aesthetics as communism, conceived by two communist-aesthetes: each accents the arrangement of the whole, a painting or a poem, as an interdependent archway made of the most basic, distinct elements of their trade, whether a colored shape or sounded word. The collective is seen through the contribution and inflection of each independently; together the shapes and sounds are harmonious or dissonant but distinct in their differences. The arrangement, as a fixed crystallization, exists as a relationship through movement: of the eye, the ear, the mind. The painting or poem can be self-sustained, not because it’s sealed from context, but, the opposite, because by breaking through the classical veil of verisimilitude, of imitating “nature,” the quality of each element to signal outside itself, to play against the others in all its potential use-values, can finally be revealed. This self-declaration in art is something like economic freedom.

Margarita Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film:

“Vertov, Malevich believed, was involved in ‘show[ing] the object as such,’ creating a ‘pure showing’ that by ‘isolat[ing] [objects] from any ideological or agitational content’ was in accord with the process of painting ‘as such’.”

Like Malevich and Zukofsky, Vertov conceives the force of his movement in the force of his smallest units; for Vertov, his unit is the frame, circumscribed in space and time, and articulated by the “interval,” the black gap between images, without space, or movement, or sight, that’s like the gap between words: “Intervals (the transitions from one movement to another) are the material, the elements of the art of movement, and by no means the movements themselves. It is they (the intervals) which draw the movement to a kinetic resolution,” he writes in 1919. By revealing the interval, Vertov unyokes the image as a site of potential, perpetual inflection. As Vertov freeze-frames sequences and shows his wife editing them, montage no longer appears (falsely) between shots, but (truthfully) between frames; the image can be redeployed within the shot, within its line of production on the editing-table, within a sequence against other shots, or within the film being screened, sometimes all at once. It can be a still-frame, a photo, a film within a film, or the film itself. Like Zukofsky’s words, or Malevich’s quadrilaterals designed to touch points in four dimensions, Vertov’s images are unities of potential forms.

And when the film flickers, Vertov emphasizes the motion of a thing across the these flicker-intervals, and how the interval, in enforcing each image apart and still, brings them together into movement. This movement is a unification, and it becomes a more general pattern of montage as well: instead of editing trams with trams, Vertov edits with an interval of another scene—his wife editing—in-between. Besides matching the city’s second-by-second view, upending relations between things spatially and repurposing them in time, the interval does something else. It turns an entire city into a chorus onto itself. Images of kinocs or dancers in succession would be a repetition of terms, a simple compare-and-contrast. But with an interval of another scene between, they respond in unison to the unit between.

This type of dialectical montage, the opposite of Eisenstein’s, lets an element disappear as if behind a veil and circle back as something new. The movement of Vertov’s trams comes from his wife editing them into movement. But the movement of the reel on her flatbed, with its intervals between frames like tracks on a rail, seems to come from the trams. They’re the man-made mediators of a man-made world.

Vertov’s first and final truth has nothing to do with classical distinctions of objective real life and an artist’s subjective rendering; his truth is the image as an image, seen for all the ways it might be related to other images. But of course the truth of the image is it’s an illusion. The magic trick maintains its appearance. All that’s been revealed is its shape and motion, its design.



“We wish to form ourselves according to a new pattern, plan and system; we wish to build in such a way that all the elements of nature will unite with man and create a single, all-powerful image.

With this aim the economic principle leads us along its path and collects all the lives that have been scattered in the chaos of nature, separate and isolated, uniting them in his path: thus every personality, every individual, formerly isolated, is now incorporated in the system of united action.

…The contemporary being of modern man strives for a unity that will break up the boundaries between national vegetable gardens, summoning all the nations to a single pole, that in unity they might create the image of all humanity…

Now only he—man—as a centre can turn nature into another new image, which will be nothing less than man himself: a completed step on the eternal path.

Formerly art rested on artistic beauty, but now we must embark on the purely creative path of economic movement. This is the only road of development for all humanity and from it stem all the forms which are international: the car, airplane, telephone, machine, etc. The spreading of this conception amongst the people and its introduction to the channel of creative inventions will place it in a world-wide unity. Economy in movement is the same for everyone.

…We already know that every aspect of our life is based on the economics of subsistence and of movement in general, whence stem politics, rights and liberty." — Kasimir Malevich, The Question of Imitative Art

To be continued…



Malevich paintings (all 1915): Suprematism with Blue Triangle and Black Square; Suprematist Painting: Aeroplane Flying; Suprematism; Suprematism (Painter-like Realism of a Football Player); Black Square and Red Square.

Photo: Mikhail Kaufman.

Films: Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929); Camera-Eye (Jean-Luc Godard) from Far From Vietnam (1967);  Les enfants jouent à la russie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1993); Real Life (Albert Brooks, 1979).

<— I/II | V —>


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