Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Videojournalism Eye -hommage to Dziga Vertov

To cineaist and documentary makers, Vertov is synonymous with Shakespeare for film.

His Kino-eye Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is an epochal piece of work,  a ten commandments with Vertov pre-empting Chartlon Heston many years in advance.

Except Vertov's grandisoseness exists behind the lens, than in front of it.

We know much of what Vertov has done for film and docs, but what about videojournalism or meta-video? I'm increasingly substituting meta-video for videojournalism, which is disappearing into tautology.

Why? Because everything in video delivering factivity can inherit videojournalism as a category. What started off as a nouvelle language for some has been subsumed into the fold of video-everything.

This isn't a criticism, but an observation that elides videojournalism a grand theory approach - a conversation for another time perhaps.

Vertov today
So back to Vertov. The film starts with the bold title, this is an experiment and the statement it will be free of the use of inter titles, which held cinema together in the soundless days, adopted by photography later as captions in photo essays.

The film is many things, but for me it's an Encyclopedia in the language of (meda-video) videojournalism revealing a number of processes.
  • Filming technique
  • Film language
  • Position of the cameraman, Vertov's brother, whilst shooting. 
  • Effects
  • A compendium for modern films.
In Man with a Movie Camera, there are the obvious motifs, scene settings lifted by other films, such as
  • 24
  • The Matrix
  • King Kong
  • Mr Fox
  • Gladiator 
  • And any film with a train
Though free of narrative, it's possible to construct one, but really that's no bother. The films shows up somewhat embarrassingly for our videojouralism times what was achieved in 1929.

Claymation effects, Freeze-frame film as photos; symbolism in video making as a merry go round and wall of death rider interchange shots.

The inter cut between mechanisation, against the ordinariness of daily life (shaving and washing) a baby pushing out from his mothers; and a fair smattering of nudity - soft flesh -Vertov knew what sells.

Vertov knew what was going to sell: films of social purpose. In those days the expense of it all meant docs were reserved for big themed subjects. Housing Problems - Griersonian docs came 6 years later.

The cascading score (not the one playing but the notes he left for composers) set against a game of football is mesmerizing. We get the obligatory behind-the-lines shots, though much cleaner than today's in-the-heavens depiction, and then some tantalising images on the pitch.

Why can't videojournalism's be allowed to film on the field of play whilst Manchester United play Arsenal? Yes it's an absurd thought you might ask, but then why not fix the ref with a head cam, which gives the viewer access to the pitch.

Vertov videojournalism next
That's what Vertov's film is begging us to think.

Then there is the pure poetry of the athletes, high jumping; hurdling, hammer throwing. Women in full grace, men exuding brute strength.

The shots have been slowed down in superslowmo. 1000 frames a second, who knows, but its genius to watch.

Vertov or Kaufman tags his shots ala 24; he hollywoodises his language: shot/reverse/shot.

He hangs off a moving train, and captures the belly of a fast-moving one. You see the mound Kaufman builds to provide the shot. All the while having to handcrank the camera, which in those days lacked electronic motors and was barely entertaining spring-based wound up mechanisms.

Its superb because if you follow the timeline of what he achieved back then working under strenuous conditions (Directors thought him pretentious etc) it deserves to be shown to all vjs, with the caveat - now what would you do?

A favourite repetitive scene for me is watching Kaufman lug his camera and sticks around. The weight of that camera and tripod, hardly mobile, must have been something.

This zoo- approach to film making, which often unveils the artifacts of film making, with the cameraman, soundman in shot, is much used today. Back then he would have been further criticised for dispelling the illusion of film making, much as  News makers continue that three-card trick today.

BTW I was watching an entertaining film on billionaire Donald Trump on BBC two days ago, where the director went Vertov - showing a full three-person crew in shot with Trump. One camera at play with no director would have caused its own visual fuss.

Man with a Movie Camera continues its relevance, but for a new generation.

Perhaps it's not so much aping the compendium of his shot list, but providing a new lingua-aesthetic. One in which the psychology of shot juxtaposition, rather than sequence - which often gets lost in translation - is given priority -  if not in affective experimental film but also visual narrative driven videojournalism (meta-video) essays.

Find out what the reverential Mark Cousins, writing partner with Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void Director) Author of  Imagining Reality says about digital film and David's work on www.viewmagazine.tv, which starts with a trailer with intelligence chiefs talking about closed and open secrets.