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.

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