Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vigo & Vertov

The legendary French filmmaker Jean Vigo, upon introducing his first film À propos de Nice in 1930, made a profile of the ideal social documentarian: "thin enough to slide into a Romanian key-hole and able at the crack of dawn to film Prince Carol in his night-shirt, if such a subject is indeed worthy of our interest" and "sufficiently small to position himself beneath the chair of the croupier, that great god of the Monte Carlo casino." Vigo was positioning the social documentary as a democratizing force, revealing privileged knowledge to viewers who would be in the dark without this access.

The inventions of the camera and the sound recorder brought into the world the first technological eyewitnesses (and "ear witnesses"). Their products' authority could be trusted in a way that the words of a speaker or writer, or the sketches of an artist, each potentially subject to the faults of memory or the embellishment of imagination, could not. Of course a camera (and, in equivalent ways, a sound recording device, though I'll leave these aside since I'm focusing on silent cinema at the moment) and a filmed image can still be manipulated through editing, special effects, tricks of the lens, etc. And of course the image captured is always going to be dependent on the biases of the camera operator, who has control over when to start or stop cranking and at what speed, not to mention control over the direction the camera is pointed. But for all the control she or he has, there are always aspects of a filmed image that are beyond a camera operator's control, (perhaps) unless he or she is filming systematically in a highly-controlled environment like a Hollywood studio. A certain truth will inevitably be contained in the image, no matter how much imagination or bias the filmmaker applies in attempt to manipulate it.

All but the least sophisticated audience understands and can usually recognize, just by viewing, the differences between the two modes: the highly systematic studio style of filming in which each detail can be assumed to have been planned, and the "unbound" style that, though a great deal of planning may be involved, leaves space for randomness to be captured and for some of the truths of the world, apart from filmmaker intention, to be apparent. The former is often tagged with terms like "feature" or "narrative" filmmaking, while the latter is generally called "documentary". The distinction between these two modes is the reason why audiences find value in documentary, and it's also the reason why such films are often held to a different standard of scrutiny.

Which brings me to Dziga Vertov's 1929 masterpiece the Man With the Movie Camera. Surely it informed Vigo's filmmaking; Vertov's younger brother Boris Kaufman was Vigo's cinematographer for the director's entire (mournfully brief) career, and it must also have been the inspiration for Vigo's quote about filming through keyholes and from under chairs. Vertov's film begins with a set of titles listing qualities that pronounce it in the second category: no intertitles, no script, no "theatre" or its accouterments of actors or sets. The film's entire purpose seems to be to demonstrate and argue for the range of uses of the documentarian's camera: to show a process up close; to illustrate the huge scale of an object; to witness a location too dangerous for a crowd; to show using slow-motion how an activity can be performed by a superb athlete; to show through editing juxtapositions the range of beauty found among humans, and much much more.

But it's fascinating that along the way Vertov is constantly reminding the viewer of the other mode and how it can in fact co-mingle with the documentary approach. The very first image seen is a special effect achieved through split-screen. The film also employs highly-systematized techniques like animation and the obvious manipulation of sets, and, contrary to the title-card proclamation, the use of actors. In particular, Vertov and Kaufman's eldest brother Mikhael Kaufman plays the role of a camera operator on the move. By making the melding of the two modes explicit, the Man With the Movie Camera seems to be a warning of the dangers of confusing them, and how this confusion might be seized on by the propagandist.

À propos de Nice and the Man with the Movie Camera play together at the Pacific Film Archive on Thursday, January 29th, with live piano accompaniment provided by Judith Rosenberg. It's part of a series entitled the Way of the Termite: the Essay in Cinema that began last Thursday and runs through April, with titles announced (so far) though February 24th. Other films included in the series are Fernando Birri's revered Tire dié and Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread, playing together with two other short films tonight at 7:30 PM, Humphrey Jennings' stirring a Diary For Timothy February 3, Jean Rouch's the Mad Masters and Jean-Marie Teno's Chief! February 5 (a program also tying in with the African Film Festival), Perfumed Nightmare February 10, and Forough Farrokhzad's masterpiece the House is Black, playing with Trial February 17th. The series was guest-curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin, who was expected to attend this weekend at Thursday's screening as well as on Friday and Saturday with screenings of one of his collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard, Letter to Jane, but "unforeseen circumstances" forced a cancellation of his appearances. The films will go on, however, and deserve to be seen on the big screen.


  1. hi...
    I love that silo image. That is from Man w/? Even more I love love love the fim posters for Man with the Movie Camera.
    "unbound" style...nice.


  2. Indeed, that's from Man With a Movie Camera. And I'm with you on the constructivist posters for that film; they're about the best looking movie ads ever designed.