It can be startling to realize just how many roads lead back to Vertov, who straddled the expressive peak of silent cinema and the inchoate excitement of the early sound era. His genius for rhythmic montage and his interest in perceptual processes mark him as a founding father of experimental film. His fantasy of the camera as an all-seeing panoptic tool anticipates our age of total surveillance. His self-reflexive bent — Man With a Movie Camera is ultimately a film about its own making — foreshadows the postmodern tendencies of what we now call meta-cinema.
In the 1922 manifesto “We” Vertov extolled “the perfect electric man,” and the dream of a man-machine hybrid is encoded in his pseudonym. He was born Denis Kaufman; Vertov translates as “spinning top,” and Dziga is an onomatopoeic coinage, meant to evoke the sound of a turning camera crank. Labor and process are the subjects and the materials of his cinema, which returns time and again to images of furnaces and smokestacks and to the rhythms of cogs and levers. The films themselves seem to have been set in motion by the wheels of industry.
J Hoberman for the Village Voice:
[Vertov’s 1920s films] were ballistic. Their newsreels regularly deployed split screens, multiple exposures, reverse motion, variable-speed photography, prismatic lenses, freeze frames, shock cuts, pixilation, and stroboscopic editing—anything and everything to demonstrate that cinema was not a means to tell a story but a machine art produced with a mechanically improved, all-seeing eye. Vertov’s first feature, Kino Eye (1924), was largely shot with a hidden camera and subtitled Life Off-Guard. Subsequent commissioned works…were tendentious, ecstatic, and never less than controversial in using the brave new world of the motion-picture apparatus to celebrate the brave new world of industrialized Soviet reality.
The work culminated in Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which, evoking the sensory bombardment of 20th-century urban life, employed strategies of visual analogy and associative montage so intricate that they are still yet to be named. At once a Whitman-esque documentary-portrait of the Soviet people, a self-reflexive essay on cinematic representation, and an ode to the transformative power of human labor, this fantastically cross-referenced, cubo-kaleidoscopic city symphony took parallel action to the third—or fourth—dimension. Designed to destroy habitual movie watching by revealing the ways in which the camera and film editor construct reality, Vertov’s masterpiece had the remarkable effect of encouraging the spectator to identify with the filmmaking process. Indeed, given the density of the editing, this supreme film-object demands to be studied on an editing table to be fully appreciated. Small wonder that it was condemned, by Sergei Eisenstein, among others, for formalist madness and fetishized technique; there had never been anything like it.
Michael Joshua Rowin for The L Magazine:
[Vertov] was the most radical of the major Soviet filmmakers of the late 1910s and 20s, the Bolshevik-as-visionary. Where Sergei Eisenstein employed montage for the purposes of historical dramatization, and where Alexander Dovzhenko used similar techniques to convey a sort of environmental lyricism, Vertov was instead concerned with the nature of the cinematic apparatus itself —what it could do as a machine and how it could augment human vision in pursuit of a perception otherwise unavailable to the naked eye.
Like many of his Soviet brethren, Vertov (real name David Kaufman —the pseudonym means “spinning top,” and immediately announces its owner’s interest in man-object hybridizations) proclaimed cinema as the future of art in a series of fiery manifestos. His principle idea was that the camera was an invention that could help man explore and discover uncharted realms of the visual world. The form that would best exploit cinema’s potentialities would combine documentary (what Vertov deemed “life caught unawares”); cinematographic tricks (split-screens, stop-motion animation, and extreme low and high camera angles are par for the course); and rapid and often violent editing techniques.
And here are some stunning Vertov posters courtesy of Adrian Curry, whose kino-eye for movie art never fails to impress. (Read his post and see more here.)