Notes on The Man With the Movie Camera: Readymade or Not

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Notes on The Man With the Movie Camera: Readymade or Not*

Seth Feldman
When asked to participate in this conference, I assumed it was because of my work on Vertov—as in, who else did I know from the early twentieth century avant-garde? Had I thought more about Bruce Elder’s thesis in Harmony and Dissent I would have said, “wait a minute, what about Robert Flaherty?” Flaherty’s entire career was a deployment of self-sacrificial cinema rituals meant to bring forth spirit men from hyper-aestheticized landscapes. Flaherty had to be among cinema’s most instinctive shamans. The picture to go with the dictionary definition of the word “pneumatic” in Elder’s sense of the word would be the blowing snows into which Allukariallak disappears at the end of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. Allukariallak, whom Flaherty conjurs as Nanook the Bear or Bear Spirit, with whom he nearly dies on a midwinter bear hunt, becomes the power of winter itself to which he (Flaherty) and we (his viewers) expose our helplessness. Flaherty evokes the spirit world so well that we still call it documentary. Too bad I didn’t think of Flaherty in time. Instead, as promised, I will talk about Vertov and, to some degree, why Vertov’s materialism is of the more orthodox Enlightenment cum Marxist mode.
Vertov, more than most of the artists quoted in Harmony and Dissent, bears out the first part of Bruce’s thesis. In his various polemics Vertov perennially cited Lenin’s dictum (which we get, I should point out, second hand): “Of all the arts, cinema is for us the most important.” Then, Vertov ruins the link to Bruce’s avant gardistes by following up with his insistence on a so-called “Leninist proportion;” Lenin’s caveat was that the cinema was mostly meant for the instructional film, newsreel and documentary. What we are left with is Vertov’s reminder that his boss (Lenin) who was the embodiment of one of the least avant-garde sensibilities of the twentieth century, could also see cinema as the ottima arte for his pragmatic uses.

Vertov compares the filmmaker to the magician in Man With the Movie Camera. But then he goes to some lengths to reveal the stuff from which the magic is made. For Vertov, the act of magic is work in the Marxist sense. And, indeed, the same magician we see in Man With the Movie Camera has an earlier incarnation in Kinoglaz along with a title card telling us that this is how a magician earns his bread. Among magicians Vertov’s most apt contemporary was Houdini who spent much of his later career discrediting spiritualists and their parlour tricks. Houdini’s own magic was his physical materiality: his ability to push the limits of human performance.

My hunch is that Elder also found Vertov to be counterproductive to Harmony and Dissent’s brave and brilliant strategy of illustrating its argument with the least likely pneumatic aesthetic: Soviet Constructivism. Eisenstein proved a much more agreeable shaman. It was Eisenstein who could boast a personal familiarity with the very artists and filmmakers Bruce cites. In his hugely eclectic writings and eclectic practice, Eisenstein demonstrated an ability to not just create, but to conjure meaning. The same is true of his montage and mise-en-scene—on either side of the Socialist Realism divide. Among the images one could point to is the death by umbrella in October or that of Ivan the Terrible skulking along in dark colors like some shamanistic image on a cave wall. For Eisenstein, like Elder, the cinematic apparatus was the solution to materialist reality. For Vertov it was a ticket out of the pneutmatic.
Vertov, the more I think about him, is probably less of an avant-gardiste, less of a modernist, than we give him credit for. This is actually rather hard to say for my own introduction to Vertov was grounded in his appreciation by avant-gardiste’s at Anthology Film Archives and in writings like Michelson’s, “From Magician to Epistomologist.” That much quoted essay aligns him in a general sense with the task Elder assigns to the avant-garde. More specifically it connects him to the mentality that led Rene Clair to make Paris qui dort; if not a release of the spirit world at least a sense of play with reality that could be conjured by the cinematic apparatus.
At the same time, I resist Godard’s evocation of Vertov as the model for Maoist semioticians in some cultural revolution against the easy target of absolute signification. And of course, to continue our liberation of Vertov from his postmortem interpretations, he was more than just an inspiration for cinéma vérité or some embodiment of flanerie on steroids.
Vertov, as I have understood him for some time, is important for revealing the creative tension between seeing only the world as it is (his “Life Caught Unawares”) and seeing that world through the eyes of a machine (“Kino Glaz”). If difficult, contradictory, and often mutually exclusive, these two pursuits are both materialist—the material world as it is and only is—the process for recording it as it is and only is the product of machines. The prize is a kind of benevolent Fordism: “We make peace between man and machine,” as Vertov wrote. To me, the difficulty in conceiving of just how this would work is the attraction Vertov has held out for scholars and filmmakers alike over so many decades. Take for instance my favorite Vertov quotation:

If you can film a wooden apple to make it look like a real apple you have not succeeded, you have failed. You are an incompetent. The idea is to film a real apple in a way that only a real apple can be filmed.

Yes, there is a bit of Zen to that concept. But that bit is Zen’s respect for the transcendence of the material. “What is the purpose of the tea ceremony?” the great tea master is asked. “It is to make tea.” This is why I don’t find magic in Vertov – in the very best sense of the phrase, “don’t find magic.” His work points away from wonder and toward the non-mystery of quotidian process.

I also do not think Vertov is ultimately compatible with an avant-garde looking for a reality based in chance, the sub-conscious, or the spiritual. When he calls for a cinema made everywhere by everyone, the product he has in mind bears only a superficial similarity to conversation poems, exquisite corpses, or even the Mass Observation movement. For Vertov believed a universal input would lead to a progressive materialist order—because, and I think this is the crux of it, a universal input, cognizant of the nature of the machine, was itself a progressive materialist order.

It is from here that I would like to segue into Perry Bard’s remake of Man with the Movie Camera. Bard’s Man With the Movie Camera is predicated exactly on Vertov’s notion of universal input—that is, his plan to train an army of kinoks across the Soviet Union to continuously shoot footage to be collectively edited by and distributed to its other makers/audience members. Bard, the author-supervisor of her own Vertov experiment, creates a platform upon which the remake of the original film is self-generated. She begins, like Svilova (the editor we see in Vertov’s film), by breaking the original work into its parts. Bard then goes further to create a handy database cross-referencing the material. Her thesis is that the first Man With the Movie Camera was not only a mechanical creation creating itself but that it contained the algorithms that would allow it to generate its own remake. i
In what sense is Bard’s experiment a reconstruction? Having stepped in this river more than once, I think we can start by saying that the juxtaposition of Vertov’s and Bard’s creations, that is to say the single entity of the work, reveals its own set of dialectics.

In Bard’s experimentii, we see Vertov’s shots appear on one side of the screen and on the other side are attempts to copy it exactly, even to the point of trying to avoid anachronism. But this is a minority practice. More commonly, on one side of the screen is Vertov’s shot and on the other is a contemporary update. Sometimes, on one side Vertov and on the other a formal quotation of a shape that Vertov evokes. There are also contributor’s shots that, in one way or another, deliberately contradict or question Vertov’s original. More rarely, on one side Vertov’s camera effect and on the other, a contributor’s attempt at a similar—or any—camera effect. We should not forget the shots from the original Man With the Movie Camera to which no one has contributed a correlate. This too is a comment on the original. Among other things, this absence suggests the difficulty in matching shots that may be fundamental to the film’s algorithm, the plus in A+B. The shots, for instance, to match the shots of Svilova’s editing are among these absences. The variance in input here is not simply in content as Vertov would have imagined it in his manifestos. Rather it is a variance in intent. On the internet nobody knows you’re a constructivist—or at least what kind of constructivist you are.

There are other aspects of Bard’s work that cause it to help extract Vertov from the world of the early twentieth century avant-garde. One aspect is simply the appearance of her work in the wake of Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media. Manovich has a simple thesis: that New Media has less to do with digital technology than with a set of creative principles: open-endedness, modularity, and what he calls “transcoding,” that is, the characteristic of a unit of expression to exist simultaneously as its cultural meaning and as a uniform code (in the case of digital technologies, as digital ones and zeros, for Vertov, as spools of film). And, of course, Manovich makes his case by using The Man With the Movie Camera as his sole illustration,.iii
In this sense, Vertov cannot be quoted, only evoked. Let me illustrate this, if I may, with one other aspect of Bard’s work. Her project was not intended to be seen on a small scale. Originally, it was commissioned for The Bigger Screen, a BBC initiated project to place large LED screens in town squares around England and Wales. Most of the time, those screens would be showing the BBC. But there was always the potential for artistic intervention.
If we were to roll back our juxtaposed images to some time prior to the opening credits of Man With the Movie Camera we would find on Vertov’s side of the screen last shots in Kinopravda #9. The Kinopravda team throws a sheet over a telephone wire and projects its newsreels from a portable projector connected to a portable generator. That action itself is only part of the effort to send cinema trains (and at least one cinema riverboat) around the new Soviet Union during the civil war period). The other side of the screen, I think, would show us the SONY cathode ray screen Jumbotron debuted at the 1985 Expo in Tsukuba, Japan—the largest of which is at the Toronto Skydome, standing 10m x 34m. It was opened in 1989 and erased the border between large and small—the closeup in real time and space. This was the first instance in which one could watch a continuous closeup of the players on a space equivalent to the playing field—a materialization of the cinematic language that had incorporated closeup into narrative cinema 90 years before. In the field below you had the aura of the real, while above, one found the visual confirmation of the drama that could only be imagined at that distance—all appearing simultaneously.
The “live action” reality, that life taken unawares, is to Vertov the site to to be reiterated at a second level of understanding. In Kinopravda #9 the street became the site of its understanding. In both that Moscow street and in the Skydome we have an identical expression of a melding between the private and public, the detail and the larger picture.

But these common origins are only half the story; the other half is a common fate. And that has come about because of a fluidity of the frame that would aid in the capitulation of modernism and the avant-garde. For the fixed frame is the essence of modernism. Over the history of the avant garde, the artist makes strange—makes readymades—makes pop art, engages in quotation—by fixing or re-fixing a frame. Artistic experimentation is artistic precisely because it is framed. It is essential that John Cage’s “Silence” be played in a concert hall or that uni-colored canvases be hung in galleries. The frame is an extension of the field—the academic field of inquiry or the well-ploughed field surrounded by fences and walls that formed the smallest unit of territory, hence society and nation, in feudal times.

Fields are being replaced by the collective—just as the Oedipal avant-garde has fallen to the Oceanic media sphere. And now we speak of the common space: the commons. These are the technological commons pioneered by kinoks, theatre chains, and broadcasting. They are the frames of convergence that unthinkingly stretch to fit audio, visual media and data. Bard’s Man With the Movie Camera is simultaneously an event in the agora and a perpetual flow on the internet—as is Vertov’s. For as Manovich has argued, and Vertov demonstrated in 1929, New Media takes place in a continuous present: a democracy of recombinant elements that makes quotation impossible.
The same may be said of the time frame. The fixed length of performance—be it the length of a sleep cycle, the limits of actors’ memories, a dancers’ stamina, or a commercial film theatre’s need to screen two shows a night—is increasingly flexible. Performance lengths range from years-long television soap operas to the shots in either version of Man With the Movie Camera.
So, to conclude, is the frame more or less important as it becomes increasingly malleable? Or does its malleability become its importance? It is not a trivial or an impersonal question. For the reflection of the frame is the artist—the individual who is self-identified (framed) as such—in relation to non-artistic discourse. The artist is his own readymade. Where is he or she left when the gallery wall, the concert hall, and the film screen—like Heraclitus’ river and Vertov’s cinema—refuse the finality of their frames?
* To soon be published as "On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're A Constructivist." on the

online journal Jump Cut

i Please note: I’m using “algorithms” to include not only the software Bard uses for the project but the more accessible printed rules: rules that allow the universal input to find a path toward the work, though not the final work itself for contributions keep arriving at Bard’s website. If duplicate shots are contributed, they are rotated on a daily basis.

ii Please refer to Bard’s website at

iii Again, please note, I am not trying to say, “Eureka, Vertov has at last found his correct iteration – not as avant gardiste or Maoist or the father of cinéma vérité or of flaneurie, but as digital artist”. Rather, my point, Manovich’s point, and Bard’s point in evoking Vertov is to say that his importance is generative and that his constructivism is a framework around which the dialectic and, who knows, eventual peace between man and machine can continue to be formulated.

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