Man with a Movie Camera (1929): Movies, Machines, Modernity

On November 29, 2012, we will be screening Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), the second film in our series “M: Movies, Machines, Modernity.” (See here for a flyer with more details about our film series, and here for a short video introduction that frames it conceptually.)

In his discussion of Man with a Movie Camera, Roger Ebert begins with the following observation:

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds. The ASL of Michael Bay‘s “Armageddon” was — also 2.3 seconds.

If, as I have argued, Michael Bay’s post-cinematic filmmaking captures something of the nonhuman processing of contemporary life by algorithmic means, then Dziga Vertov’s captured something of the machinic materiality of the modern age — a similarly nonhuman view emphasized in the Kinoks movement (from “kino-oki” or kino-eyes) to which Vertov belonged. From the Wikipedia article on “Kinoks”:

The Kinoks rejected “staged” cinema with its stars, plots, props and studio shooting. They insisted that the cinema of the future be the cinema of fact: newsreels recording the real world, “life caught unawares.” Vertov proclaimed the primacy of camera (“Kino-Eye”) over the human eye. The camera lens was a machine that could be perfected infinitely to grasp the world in its entirety and organize visual chaos into a coherent, objective picture.

But perhaps coherence is in the eye (or kino-eye) of the beholder. As Ebert remarks,

There is a temptation to review the film simply by listing what you will see in it. Machinery, crowds, boats, buildings, production line workers, streets, beaches, crowds, hundreds of individual faces, planes, trains, automobiles, and so on.

In many ways, the film resembles what the object-oriented ontologists, following Ian Bogost, call the “Latour litany“: a rhetorical device, consisting in a list of apparently unrelated things, which peppers the writings of Bruno Latour and is employed extensively in OOO to emphasize the plurality of things or objects populating the world and to encourage a break with our normal tendencies to view them anthropocentrically. Bogost recommends the device in his Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, and perhaps it’s fair to see Vertov’s general project of the Kino-Eye, and its specific expression in Man with a Movie Camera, as precisely an alien-phenomenological undertaking, designed to help us feel “what it’s like to be a thing” in the modern age.

As for the connection with Michael Bay-style “chaos cinema” and the post-cinematic discorrelation of digital images from the human subject, a recent project, the “Global Participatory Remake” of Man with a Movie Camera, brings the two types of alien phenomenologies — the contemporary algorithmic/database-driven and Vertov’s filmic kino-eye — together in an exciting way. At the same time, this project might be seen to raise some rather unsettling questions. What is the relation of contemporary “participatory culture” to the ideals of socialism, when the empowerment experienced by the participants is grounded in the same informatic infrastructure that turns our own entertainment into “immaterial labor” exploitable by corporations wielding algorithms incommensurable with our human concerns, values, perspectives? While the “Global Remake” is hardly guilty, I think, of such exploitation, it enjoins us materially to attend to media-historical and political changes, and to recall that while Vertov’s project was undertaken in the cause of the Revolution, we still have to assess what the revolutionary potential might be — if any, either historical or contemporary — of an alien phenomenology…

As always, the screening (6:00pm on Thursday, Nov. 29, in room 615, Conti-Hochhaus) is free and open to all, so spread the word to anyone who might be interested in joining us. Feel free also to bring along snacks and refreshments. More info here and here.

M: Movies, Machines, Modernity — An Introduction

Above, a somewhat streamlined and re-focused version of the talk I gave last Thursday at the first screening in our film series “M: Movies, Machines, Modernity.” Text and video: Shane Denson. Music: Jared C. Balogh, “Break in the Action,” licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike License.

Film & TV Reading Group (Winter 2012/13)

(Click on the image for a larger view)

As indicated on the flyer above, the Film & TV Reading Group will have its first meeting of the semester on Wednesday, November 14 (4:00 pm in room 613, Conti-Hochaus), where we will discuss Walter Benjamin’s famous “Artwork” essay. The topics for the following meetings have not been determined yet, so if there is anything you would like to discuss, please let me know. Tentatively, the following dates have also been reserved: December 5 and January 16 (also 4:00 – 6:00 pm in room 613). New participants are always welcome!

M: Movies, Machines, Modernity. A Film Series

This semester the Initiative for Interdisciplinary Media Research at the Leibniz Universität Hannover will again be organizing a series of film screenings. We have decided to show public domain versions of the films so that we can make the screenings free and open to all. (Feel free also to bring along snacks and refreshments.)

The topic this semester is “M: Movies, Machines, Modernity”:

From the beginning, movies have presented themselves as the preeminent machines of modernity. On the one hand, they have served as a medium for imagining and envisioning modern landscapes and machinic cities. On the other hand, the movies were involved directly in the making of said modernity. The image of a machine is often a movie’s reflexive image of itself, or of that which it imagines itself to be…

Screenings will take place in the rooms of the English Department / American Studies (room 615, Conti-Hochhaus — all screenings begin at 6:00 pm). The schedule, put together this time by Felix Brinker, Ilka Brasch, and Shane Denson, includes the following four films:

November 8, 2012: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

November 29, 2012: Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

December 13, 2012: M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (Fritz Lang, 1931)

January 17, 2013: Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

[UPDATE: See here for a brief video introduction to the topic of our series.]

Animation and the Delimitation of Cinema

What is cinema? This question has been posed innumerable times, and innumerable answers have been offered in response — some of them good, some less satisfying, but most of them in some way biased, partial, and in any case less than comprehensive. If I wager an answer of my own, it will surely suffer from the same incompleteness — and how could it be otherwise, unless the cinema had ceased evolving, been frozen in time, or superseded and relegated to the junk pile of “dead” media? This is hardly the case, I think, even if the material infrastructure of cinema has been radically transformed in its transition to digital production and playback technologies.

Nevertheless, attendant changes in the cinema, as part of the larger media environment in which we live and breathe, have been momentous enough to warrant discussion of “post-cinematic affect” (in Steven Shaviro‘s term) as the emergent episteme or “structure of feeling” informing life today. And the film historians of the past several decades (chief among them Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen) have demonstrated with sufficient clarity that early cinema, far from being a “primitive” version of “classical” cinema, was indeed a different beast altogether. Together, these perspectives suggest that cinema — classical (and post-classical) cinema: cinema proper as the dominant medium of the twentieth century — can be approached as a (relatively) bounded object, not neatly encapsulated but nevertheless defined by some fuzzy borders near the beginning and the end of “its” century.

In an attempt to understand this object better, we might consider that a wide variety of attempts to define cinema suffer from a common shortcoming: they marginalize or otherwise fail to account for “animation.” But perhaps there is something essential about this marginalization, and maybe we could say — knowing full well that any such categorical pronouncement is surely guilty of a similar selectiveness — that animation provides the frame within which cinema in its dominant form has been defined. In order to serve as such a frame, it would therefore not be by accident but indeed as an enabling condition of “cinema” that animation should be pushed thus to the margins. (In this context it is perhaps important, though, to recall Derrida’s meditations on the frame qua parergon…).

What would it mean, though, and what reason is there to say that cinema is “framed” by animation as a border condition? The idea, in short, is that “cinema” (a normative construct historically instantiated in both discursive and material forms) is bookended, delimited historically and conceptually by an initial and an ultimate indistinction of animation and live-action film — such that cinema is defined not as live-action film, narrowly and in exclusion of animation, but on the grounds of the distinction between, or via the more basic distinguishability of, animation and live-action film. For it is precisely (though not solely) this distinction that is at stake in the transition from early to classical and again from cinematic to post-cinematic forms or regimes.

We must recall that it remained common, until well into the 1910s, to refer to film generally as “animated film” — in distinction to static photographs, which had become associated in the nineteenth century with death (an association that was not purely philosophical but practically instantiated in the Victorian-era memento mori). The movies brought these images back to life — animated them: an idea that motivated corporate names such as Biograph and Vitagraph (while the connection might seem even more palpable to us today in a hand-cranked flip-book machine like the Mutoscope). And it was the camera/projector apparatus itself — the main “attraction” of early cinema — that was the life-giving force: “animation” was thus an apparatic spectacle, something that inhered in the very machinery of the movies, not in a certain type of film (see also Paul Ward’s instructive article, “Defining ‘Animation'”).

This is not to say, of course, that early audiences were so bedazzled by moving pictures that they couldn’t tell the difference between live-action sequences and “animation” in its narrower (and later) sense. Rather, the point is merely that this distinction was relatively unimportant in the “cinema of attractions” — where “enchanted drawings,” trick effects, and stop-motion spectacles were widespread. The meaningfulness of the distinction, which emerges in the transition to classical film, depends on the marginalization of animation, which is no longer seen as the essence of film but as an exceptional kind of it. The trick effect becomes a “special effect.” More generally, “life” is no longer given by the apparatus but is merely recorded, witnessed by it in the case of live-action filmmaking, which it now makes sense to distinguish from animation; life, in other words, is located in front of the camera, as a pro-filmic property of actors that filmmakers can at best harness and pass on to their diegetic characters. The once central operation of film — animation — henceforth occupies a subordinate position as the apparatus of classical cinema undergoes its disenchantment.

Again, though, it is less this subordination than the sheer separability of animation that I think might be seen as a defining factor, a framing condition, of cinema in its dominant or proper form as the central medium of the twentieth century. And one of the key developments marking our transition to a post-cinematic era is precisely a reversal of this process: most obviously, CGI and digital compositing render the distinction between apparatically animated and pro-filmically animate images again indeterminate. (But surely the anima at stake is not just a narrowly technical agency, but also the life we call our own, the parameters of which are radically revised by global communications technologies, through microtemporal encounters with the digital, and in the imbrication of our affective lives with the algorithms of global finance). Such indeterminacy, the indistinction of animation, therefore constitutes the initial and the ultimate state, while the cinema is defined in/as the space between.

Seen from this (undoubtedly biased, partial, and perhaps even perverse) perspective, Winsor McCay — whose comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland premiered 107 years ago today, on October 15, 1905, in the pages of The New York Herald — was not only a pioneer of animation (as it is more conventional to claim on the basis of his filmic work with Nemo and the later Gertie the Dinosaur), but in fact a pioneer of cinema proper, which he helped to define by wresting it from animation, from an indistinction of life — from an indistinction into which we plunge again today…

Required Reading: Shaviro on Melancholia

I’m not teaching any courses right now, but if I were then Steven Shaviro’s “MELANCHOLIA, or the Romantic Anti-Sublime” would definitely be required reading! This is an important essay, and the new open-access journal in which it appears, Sequence: Serial Studies in Media, Film, and Music, is sure to establish itself as an important site of media research. Founded and co-edited by Catherine Grant (of Film Studies for Free fame), the peer-reviewed journal responds to the medial specificities of its digital environment in an innovative — but nevertheless quite “natural” — way: by structuring itself in terms of seriality. From the “About” page:

SEQUENCE will use its position outside of established academic publishing frameworks to work adaptively and responsively, using a sequential edited-collection format – its publication schedule set by its authors and readers, and their research and concerns. In other words, it will make an open-access virtue of its own low-fi, D.I.Y., modular blog format. It can only do this meaningfully, of course, because of the generous labour and research expertise of its authors, and of the editorial and advisory boards of its publisherREFRAME.

Each new scholarly SEQUENCE will begin with the publication of one valuable contribution to research in the fields of media, film or music – on a particular theme named in the issue title. But the editors of each individual SEQUENCE won’t necessarily know what the next in their series will be, or when exactly it will come. Each SEQUENCE could, theoretically, turn out to be ‘infinite’, or only as long as the first, self-contained contribution – a hopefully interesting and worthy, if possibly melancholic, kind of monograph.

In any case, each contribution to a SEQUENCE, and each evolving SEQUENCE as a whole, will go on to be published in a variety of electronic viewing and reading formats, with the web version only the first in a series of digital iterations.

Instead of regularity, we aim above all for spreadability and engagement. Readers will find out about new SEQUENCES, and new contributions and updates to existing SEQUENCES through the paraphernalia and pullulations of contemporary online serial publication: primarily, the project’s blog, its RSS feeds, and its Twitter and Facebook pages, and, hopefully, sharings on from those.

In this spirit, check out Shaviro’s excellent article, share it, and spread the word about this important new venue for online, peer-reviewed, open-access scholarship!

“…where everything is marginal or contiguous to everything else…”

[UPDATE: You can find the complete text of the roundtable discussion here.]

Currently, I am engaged in a roundtable discussion with Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and Steven Shaviro on the topic of the post-cinematic. The discussion, organized and moderated by Therese, is to appear in the excellent online journal La Furia Umana, where it will follow an earlier discussion of the topic (which focused on the first two Paranormal Activity films). I don’t want to give away too much right now, but I thought I’d offer a short preview here. What follows is the crux — and in this context, “the crux” is synonymous with “some marginal snippets” — of my answer to an excellent question posed by Therese. You’ll have to wait, though, to find out what the question was…


…whereas the characters in classical cinema provided the central focus and occasions for dramatic interest in a story-world that unfolds according to its own internally defined logics, and whereas the camera served alternately to disclose this world in the manner of a transparent window or, more exceptionally, to announce its own presence as an (uncanny or self-reflexive) object of perception, the radically indeterminate cameras of post-cinematic filmmaking serve … to displace the characters, to take them out of the center of perceptual attention and instead situate them marginally with respect to a total environment of inhuman image production, processing, and circulation – and to situate us as viewers accordingly.

…there is a reversible relation between the post-cinematic diegesis and the nondiegetic ecology of our post-cinematic world, and it is occasioned precisely by a camera that no longer situates us as subjects vis-à-vis the film-as-object, but instead institutes a pervasive relation of marginality, where everything is marginal or contiguous to everything else. This corresponds to a specifically post-cinematic mode of address: the camera no longer frames actions, emotions, and events in a given world, but instead provides the color, look, and feel of the film qua material component or aspect of the world – of our world

The post-cinematic camera, in short, modulates the affective character of the wider world; it does not bracket that world out or substitute one of its own making – for it remains indeterminately contiguous to every level of the contemporary real, including the physical, the imaginary, and the virtual.