A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
In 1904, Lenin once wrote a monograph, “One Step Forward, two Steps Back” (1) that later appeared in Volume 7 of his Collected Works. Despite the relevance of an appropriate historical context, the name of a former Bolshevik leader will obviously raise hackles from those ill-informed internet flame warriors who would immediately and superficially compare him to that later notorious “Great Leader” Uncle Joe Stalin himself, if not Der Fuhrer. However, it may be far safer to use the more neutral Cambridge Dictionary definition itself that provides a parallel description: “If you take two steps forward, one step back, you make progress, but then experience events that cause you to be further behind than you were when you made the progress” (2). Such thoughts came to my mind when I witnessed a documentary by a DACA student a year ago that contained contrasting shots of a glowering Donald Trump juxtaposed with young harmless, smiling victims of his proposed policy. It was reminiscent of a bad Griffith melodrama reworked into a binary oppositional mode contrasting “good and bad.” At its worst, it resembled the type of banal simplistic production evoking the “good old (non- and non- complex) days” of Dr. Goebbels and Zhdanov. Fortunately, the sound did not operate and the projector expired to the thankful relief of at least one person in the audience.
That department once contained a 16mm copy of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and today we have many other Vertov films available on the internet with added subtitles and good musical accompaniment. Naturally, one can expect today’s ignorance of past achievements, but surely a different type of documentary technique could have been expected on that evening rather than one displaying a “touchy-feely” approach that superfluously appealed to emotions alone? A proper balance could have been combining a more mature intellectual and political consciousness with a more achieved effect on the audience, akin to the ambitions of early Soviet documentary cinema. In an age of accessibility to archive material, one expects better rather than witnessing the ignorance of a very important tradition.
That is why the first volume of John MacKay’s study Dziga Vertov: Life and Work (Volume 1: 1896–1921) (Academic Studies Press, 2018), is so welcome. Benefitting from the opening of former Soviet archives and material, both cinematic and written, that has survived over the years, this book is a worthy successor to Annette Michelson’s pioneering 1973 essay “Man with a Movie Camera: From Magician to Epistemologist”, Kevin 0’Brien’s 1984 translation, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, Vlada Petric’s 1987 Constructivism in Film: The Man with a Movie Camera, A Cinematic Analysis, and many other books and articles listed in the bibliography. Dziga Vertov has been studied for some time by those who recognize his enduring legacy that can be further understood, thanks to texts like this new book and, hopefully, others to follow.
Covering the years from Vertov’s birth to his formative activities on agit-trains, this first volume contains an essential 90-page introduction, “How did it Begin?” dealing with relevant cultural, historical, and political issues affecting the director, his international legacy in the 60s and 70s, and certain examples of post-Soviet backlash. With carefully selected quotations from Walt Whitman, with whom Vertov had much in common creatively despite their generational and technical backgrounds, the book contains four key chapters that deal with the formative years of Vertov prior to World War I: Vertov’s pre-cinematic studies at the Psychoneurological Institute during 1914-16; the cultural influence of Marxism, Futurism, Music, and Non-Fiction that would characterize his later work; and his significant movement from refugee to propagandist during 1918-22. This is a deep, and fully informed investigation long overdue in the challenging era of the twenty-first century, which achieves much in its first volume. Opening with a passage from Walt Whitman’s 1871 “Song of the Exposition,” MacKay sees Vertov as a fellow creative and cultural force in his own society, championing the discarding of old obsolete forms, moving towards a celebration of human potential in everyday life and work leading towards a new form of society. It is not the fault of either talent that these goals were not reached in America and Russian, but the importance of both lies in offering certain resources of hope from the past, which we may learn from and use towards building a much better future artistically and humanistically.
Was Vertov’s well-known antagonism to fictional film totally “intransigent” (xiii), or was it a form of public role-playing to move documentary cinema from the background to the foreground? (xiv) Analyzing the opening scenes of Man with a Movie Camera, MacKay suggests the director performs a necessary cinematic rescue of both his chosen subjects as well as the spectators themselves. It is an intriguing premise, but MacKay also notes the creative costs to Vertov later, despite the fact that he remained virtually physically unscathed from The Great Leader’s wrath (xxiv). MacKay analyzes various critical approaches to the director over the decades and how his legacy may appear in the most unusual places. He suggests that the actual date of a definition of “Kino-Eye “may not be 1924 or 1934 but 1934, around the time of Three Songs about Lenin.
Vertov’s cinema also had associations with managerial aspects of the Soviet economy but, far from being instrumental and reductive, it had more significant nuances, as MacKay notes when referring to Robert Linhart’s 1976 book, Lenin, the Peasants, Taylor, stating that “Vertov’s ‘ultra-Taylorist’ interest in the cinematic microanalysis, though montage and slow-motion, of working bodies was not intended for application to top-down practices of labor management, but instead was meant to offer a critical knowledge of labor processes and bodily discipline to workers themselves…’to deliver to each workers a vision of the ensemble’ thereby rendering the ‘productive system’ transparent.” MacKay cites one scene in Enthusiasm (1930) that Linhart uses to illustrate this little-known facet of Vertov’s documentary industrialism. MacKay also relates this not to Godard’s Dziga-Vertov practices but a film the director planned later with Anne-Marie Mieville. Was this his attempt to link creativity with everyday work? We will have to await the next volumes in this series to find out.
Debate on Vertov’s work began in academic circles in 1972 and not only raised many questions concerning his artistry and compliance with the Soviet regime (damned especially by Hungarian documentarian Peter Forgacs in 1999 as mentioned on pp. xci-xcii), but also offered other findings, due to the emergence of new digital technologies that “have already revealed large and small formal patterns previously hard to see, and promise to reveal many more” (lxxxvii).
As a result of the accessibility of both Vertov’s archives and other sources, “it is possible to paint a more detailed and nuanced picture of Vertov’s work on the films, his decisions and revisions, his relationship to studio administrators and coworker, and much more” (xciii). Cultural, historical, personal, and political associations are now more immediately available than before, so MacKay outlines both the necessity for his current trilogy as well as the rational for material covered in his significant four chapters in this copiously footnoted and documented initial volume.
“Province of Universality: David Kaufman Before the War (1896-1914)” contains fascinating material about the birth of family life, and cultural associations of the future concerning Vertov’s upbringing in Bialystok, especially regarding his father’s running a circulating reading library (6-25), young David’s energetic early interests in music and art, and possible early exposure to his father’s diverse fictional and philosophical material, including works by Darwin, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kautsky, and Engels in an era of official Tsarist approved anti-semitism. MacKay is not slow to draw relevant conclusions concerning potential early interests, in suggesting the addition of “the modest circulating library to the array of media forms – like museums, exhibition, traveling lectures and the like – in relation to which emergent cinema, in its ‘public-building’ role, ought to be considered” (34) in this well-documented 67-page introductory chapter. The potential role of Vertov’s educated and socially conscious aunt Masha Gal’pern, “the family’s spiritual helmswoman” (66) in terms of historical awareness and feminism, is hinted at towards the end of this chapter to anticipate elements that will also occur in more fully realized forms during the period of his most intense creativity.
Chapter Two covers Vertov’s brief but formative years of study at the progressive Psychoneurological Institute during 1914-16. Headed by the innovative M. Bekhterev (1857-197), the contacts made and influences discovered during his probable introduction to scientific filmmaking “gave him both some concrete preparation for his later work and a stake in cinema itself as a means of exploring the world (rather than of staging fictions),” as MacKay aptly states (69). He also points out we know relatively little about young David’s relationship to the turbulent outside events affecting him at the time, but at least three are probable: the connections he would make in view of his later career, his developing interest in a rational type of cinema, and his fascination with issues of energy and rhythm that would characterize his later achievements. Three fellow students, such as Abram Room (1894-1976), G.N. Tasin (1895-1956) and G. Boltianskij (1998-1953), would also become key figures in Soviet cinema, and it may have been the third who inspired Vertov towards his creative goal of a proletarian non-fiction cinema (96-97). Also, certain pre-revolutionary educational films uniting “science, whimsy, and lyricism” (103), sometimes characteristic of Vertov’s post 1922 criticism and films, may also have been influential. By virtue of his thorough archive work and documented arguments, MacKay is able to trace the various influences that went into the director’s future work to compare parallels from later writings with what previously existed before, awaiting its refinement into more developed concepts.
Extracts from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856) introduce the next chapter of musical, futurist, non-fiction, and Marxist matrices influences on Vertov tentatively foreshadowing this book’s possible project to see Vertov as a cinematic lyricist and poet operating according to a manner parallel to this nineteenth-century American talent. We can only surmise but huge amounts of material from the archives and elsewhere, which suggest that the final volume of this trilogy will reveal this as being more than an educated guess.
Referring to Jay Winter’s 1995 revisionary study of post-war European culture Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great war in European Cultural History, McKay suggests that Vertov also utilized certain traditional “vocabularies of representation” rather than the ironic mode of modernist discourse that Paul Fussell once thought of as definitive in his The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). Since the losses of WW1 produced traumatic instances of mourning, it may not be irrelevant to see Vertov affected by this drastic cultural change, his early work being more heterogeneous at this time than exclusively modernist. The role of music during 1916-1918, especially the influence of Scriabin and Vertov’s first wife pianist-journalist Olga Toom (127-129), occupied a key element in his creative development. Though Vertov rejected the “entire heritage of the work of the past” in 1920, he certainly admired “advanced work in poetry and visual art, and for that of Mayakovsky in particular…” (144), espousing the artistic goals of Futurism and changing his name to the now well-known “Dziga” (spinning toy top) and “Vertov” also stressing movement (see. 154-155), to become a Futurist in all, including name.
The final 100-page plus chapter detailing Vertov’s 1918-1922 movement from Refugee to Propagandist documents his significant beginnings in the Kino-Nedelia Soviet film newsreel movement (194-216) that formed a crucial period of apprentice work and development that would lead to his later achievements. Vertov worked on many films at this time, including the now lost Battle for Tsaritsyn (1919, or 1920), “evidently an effort to convey the intensity of battle by a direct ‘agitation’ of vision via extremely rapid montage” (221). It was temporarily restored and re-edited by his future partner and editor Elizaveta Svilova who would work on most of his key films. Vertov’s role on agit trains is documented on pp. 233-242, as well as a touching poetic tribute to his first partner, pianist Olga Toom in 1920, who was another of his important creative collaborators and with whom he hoped to work again in 1937 (239-240).
The remainder of this final chapter covers Vertov’s crucial contributions to agitation and propaganda, even referring to an “autobiographically inflected script for an elaborate and unproduced agitational fiction film – yes, a fiction film! – written in May 1920, just after his journey to the Donbas on the October Revolution, known as ‘Draft of a Scenario Intended to be filmed During a Journey by the Agit-Train, the Soviet Caucasus’” (267). It seems at this moment that all was fair game for the Revolution, including Vertov’s detested dramatic form of representation! However, Vertov regarded his role as an educator of peasants, seeing the products of such agit-trains no matter how political, as one
of discernment rather than limitation to peasant viewers. It is an acknowledgement of their power as spectators, rather than of the way they lag behind more “modern” subjects, even if, dialectically, it ends up categorizing them in another manner: that is, as well-nigh [and] “Naturally” repulsed by fictions, and accordingly drawn to ‘unplayed’ film. (285-286)
In his concluding pages, MacKay looks forward to material that will appear in his other two volumes involving creativity, contradiction, and a vision that may resemble religion (and here understanding the application of Jay Winter’s work may be crucial). However, these are all components of what will become rather a myth of cinema,
in philosopher Hans Blumenberg’s sense: a device for managing, and even incorporating all those brutally recalcitrant differences – of geography, of culture, of class, and so on – into a single representational frame that will articulate them all (“a visual bond between the workers of the whole world”). (299)
This is an interesting premise, and the book concludes with a cryptic verse from 1921 that combines historical tragedy, past traditional discourses, and an enigmatic reference to “Christ the mechanic gazes Intently, With an electric eyelid” (300). If Eisenstein’s The General Line had the re-title Old and New, what surprises do MacKay’s next books have in store for us?
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.