"You're walking down a Chicago street today in 1923, but I make you greet Comrade Volodarsky, walking down a Petrograd street in 1918, and he returns your greeting," wrote Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, extolling the possibilities of editing in the early, heady days of the Soviet Union.
Shortly after the 1917 revolution, Vertov put his faith in the power of film to unite far-flung Soviet citizens. Calling dramatic movies "opiates," he advocated a documentary style as an antidote. He experimented with camera angles, crosscutting, freeze-frames, superimpositions, and rhythmic editing in order to demystify the movies, offering radical newsreels that integrated new and old footage.
Vertov, who had changed his name from Denis Kaufman to a nom de cinema that loosely translates as "spinning top," saw the camera as an extension of his own being. Intoxicated by futurist and constructivist tenets, he penned manifestos aplenty, adopting the voice of a cyborg communist cinematographer: "I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you."
The apotheosis of Vertov's point of view was his 1929 silent film, The Man With the Movie Camera, a 68-minute essay deconstructing the illusion of cinema. The movie begins and ends in a movie theater. We see the projectionist spark his lamp, the cameraman dart around city streets, and the editor, Vertov's wife, Elizaveta Svilova, cut and splice film.
Vertov was considered too much of a poet for Stalinist Russia. Film director Sergei Eisenstein mocked The Man With the Movie Camera as "mere formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief" and branded Vertov's circle as "Talmudists of pure film form." Stalinist critics found Vertov's films to be "unrealistic" and "fruitless play." One critic, Alexei Fedorov-Davydov, faulted Vertov for loving the celluloid more than the imagery on it.
"I find that very true," says Yuri Tsivian, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Chicago. "At one point I was sure that Vertov had some in-jokes about this film which you can only read when you watch it on an editing table." The tip-off came when he cued the scene of editor Svilova and noticed that the reel on his editing table contained the same amount of film as the reel on her table.
Tsivian, who grew up in Riga, Latvia, first saw The Man With the Movie Camera in 1973 at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. The film had been rediscovered in the late 1960s by Western cineastes, especially advocates of cinema verite. "There was an aura about this film since it had created the most sensation in the West," he says. He began researching overlooked films from Russia's prerevolutionary era and got a doctorate at the Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema in Leningrad in 1984. His thesis on "Russian Film Criticism Before 1917" led to his book Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception, published by the University of Chicago Press. Among the curiosities Tsivian uncovered was one Russian critic's theory that American movie directors used close-ups of actors' faces to make up for "the lifelessness of the decor" in the background. Uncrumpled pillows in the bedroom scenes of westerns supposedly proved his point.
While working for the Moscow Film Archive, Tsivian came upon Vertov's handwritten notes for a "music scenario" for The Man With the Movie Camera and a typescript of cues for its "musical conspectus." His discovery was quite a coup, as the movie had typically been shown in silence after its short original run. At various junctures in this silent "visual symphony," Vertov specifies "ceaseless alarm signals," "a universally familiar intimate melody," "unbelievable din and noise in the orchestra," and the Chinese dance from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Tsivian was most intrigued by Vertov's notes for Svilova's editing scene, when "the music unexpectedly freezes" and the pianist is instructed to accompany freeze-frames with "separate muffled sounds, like drops of water falling into a void."
"It never occurred to me that you could actually use it to give the movie a second chance," said Tsivian, who repremiered the film at the 1995 Telluride film festival. "It suddenly occurred to me it can change our perception of the film itself."
On Monday night at 7, silent-film musician Dennis James and his Filmharmonia ensemble--piano, cello, phonoviolin, and period sound effects--will accompany a screening of a 35-millimeter print of The Man With the Movie Camera, which will be shown at the original 24-frames-per-second speed, along with the pauses between reels Vertov indicated. The screening will take place in the U. of C.'s Max Palevsky Cinema, 1212 E. 59th Street; admission is $9. For more information, call 773-702-8575.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.