copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a constructivist: Perry Bard’s The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake
by Seth Feldman
Dziga Vertov has always had trouble remaining an historical figure. Having died in 1954, he became a participant in: Soviet cultural politics of the Khrushchev era; the founding of cinéma vérité; the American experimental cinema; Godard’s Groupe Dziga Vertov; and, more recently, Lev Manovich’s illustration of the language of new media. The DVDs of his signature work, The Man With the Movie Camera, have contributed to a revival of Soviet Constructivist music as at least two different versions of a soundtrack have attempted to counterpoint the silent images. In a recent unpublished paper, Vlada Petric has suggested that there is a third, definitive, soundtrack waiting to be recorded. Perry Bard, for her Internet project, The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake (http://dziga.perrybard.net/) has commissioned yet another neo-constructivist score from the composer Steven Baun.
It is Perry Bard’s work that I would like to discuss as a demonstration of how and why Vertov continues to be so productive. My thesis is that Vertov’s writing and The Man With the Movie Camera in particular are less historical texts than they are generative forces or perhaps, more accurately, generative grammars for the pure language of cinema that Vertov envisioned.
Bard herself is a Canadian artist who spends much of her time in Britain and New York. Her work includes public art, installations and video. In 1999, she collaborated with the Bulgarian artist, Boyan Dobrav on a public art project entitled Pulse (http://perrybard.net/portfolio.html). In it, they re-shot six minutes of The Man With the Movie Camera to “create a visual essay where information age images of wiring and construction mingle with retro sounds of music boxes and industrial noise.” [open endnotes in new window] A “performative aspect” (a person with a movie camera) was shot in New York and superimposed over the Bulgarian footage. In the finished work, this was shown on one of two monitors, the second of which was a live feed from the street on which the footage was originally shot.
In 2006, Bard proposed The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake as a much expanded exercise in remaking Vertov’s film. Simply put, the idea was to design a website on which contributors could upload individual shots corresponding to those in Vertov’s original work. The site would also provide an opportunity to screen the remake in tandem with the original.
The idea was funded as a project for the BBC’s Bigger Screen Initiative, whose aim it is to place large digital screens in British town squares. This, in itself is an initiative worth noting in that it has attempted to reinvent television as a communal event. In so doing, it replaces (even if somewhat marginally) the industrial notion of television as a commodity to be owned by the individual within the larger project of owning—and thus commodifying—individuality. Collective television, as for instance practiced in villages in India, not only associates the medium with collectivity but also with the utilitarian purpose of serving that collective (in this case, as an educational and informational tool). Watching television this way exposes its social utility, lack thereof or potential for same.
The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake premiered (as 2008: Man With a Movie Camera) at the Urban Screens Festival in Manchester on October 11, 2007 and has since been shown in public spaces and galleries in Britain, Ireland, China, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States, including a four screen version in Seattle. Bard has also given workshops on how to contribute to the project. She has been told that the work was denied a prize at the Moscow International Film Festival because the jury could not decide whether or not they were watching a film.
In all of these instances, the acknowledgement of the democratizing power of communal viewing would not have surprised Vertov—just as the problems in Moscow would have seemed all too familiar. Communal viewing is part of Vertov’s cinema language—as indeed no cinema language could be complete without taking exhibition into account. This is true in a literal sense. The Kinopravda compilation reel that Jay Leyda produced for the Museum of Modern Art ends with a sequence taken from Kinopravda No. 9 that shows a portable generator and projector pulling into a public square, a sheet being thrown across overhead wires and a crowd gathering. There’s even a title card giving the contact information for ordering one of these open air screenings. The Man With the Movie Camera is framed with the audience watching The Man With the Movie Camera, just as Vertov’s next film Enthusiasm: Simfonia Donbassa, begins with a radio listener choosing to hear the soundtrack of the film, Enthusiasm. That soundtrack consists of the destruction of the soundtrack our listener rejected—church music—a process then visualized in the film’s first sequence.
Bard offers both the communal viewing experience and a similar counterpoint in her public screenings of The Man With the Movie Camera remake. The viewer sees two concurrent sets of images on a single screen: Vertov’s original film and the remake of it that has been constructed on the Internet. The viewer’s visual experience also includes a third set of images, i.e. comprised of a counterpoint between the first two. What we are watching then is the 1929 work, already a masterpiece of dialectical montage, in juxtaposition to a stream of images responding to it. The effect is a kind of second layer montage, somewhat akin to Roland Barthes’ second layer of semiotic meaning.
Now, were it that simple. For Bard’s remake also has its own generative grammar, corresponding to Vertov’s idea of cinema as a plan for producing cinema. For Vertov, this was a matter of industrial organization. He proposed to enlist the Soviet youth organization, the Komsomol, as scouts for armies of Kinoks who would make, edit, distribute and exhibit film in a continuous stream. Typically, Vertov sketched out his proposal on film, the film Kinoglaz. Typically as well, the film and the idea behind it were part of a far more ambitious project that was never completed.
Bard’s quotation of The Man With the Movie Camera then is also a quotation of Vertov’s definition of cinema as a plan for making cinema. It is more successful. Bard does have the benefit of the Internet, a tool that Vertov could only (and, who knows, did) dream of. The tools for the project were at her fingertips as well as in the hands of the prospective contributors. At last, to use Vertov’s hyperbole, the armies of Kinoks have been armed. Bard’s website gives them their targets, breaking down the original film into its 1,276 individual shots. Bard has created a fabulously useful online shot list cross-referenced by subject and scene—effectively underlining both Vertov’s and Manovich’s point about The Man With the Movie Camera being essentially modular. Even before the first contributor uploaded to it, Bard’s website provided a potent analytic tool for the discussion of Vertov’s original film.
The software that powers this project (written by John Weir—now open source) puts the process of uploading shots entirely in the hands of the contributor, making it, in digital parlance “crowdsourced.” Contributors choose the shots they are matching. Bard refrains from exercising any curatorial power over whether a given uploaded shot is appropriate, or whether it is placed correctly or not next to Vertov’s original. In cases where more than one image is submitted for each shot, the software displays the variants in a daily rotation. The result is a different film every day. (Although Bard has stated that before terminating the project she will do a director’s cut.).
In this way, the Internet has also made it possible for Bard to do something Vertov found quite difficult: to step back and let the process itself manufacture the work in question. Weir’s computer software, in the best constructivist sense, identifies the making of the work as the work. In this way, Weir is to Bard what Elizaveta Svilova, the editor we see in the original film, was to Vertov. Bard is left is something like the same position as Vertov when, in the opening credits of The Man With the Movie Camera, he identifies himself as the “author-supervisor” of the experiment.
Like Vertov’s original Kinoglaz plan, the website production-hub also provides its own distribution mechanism as both Vertov’s and Bard’s film cans be accessed 24/7 on the website. Bard assumes that someday the software will become obsolete and that she will wind the project down, though there are no immediate plans to do so. Until that time, The Man With the Movie Camera—Bard’s and Vertov’s—continues to grow on the website.
The result is that two of the three montages are in flux. The 1929 film is a sort of baseline or, at least, the invocation of a baseline for the project. On the other side of the screen are the multiple images that change day to day, the new images that arrive, the old ones that are not shown in any given iteration. And, of course, there is the third montage, the continually changing juxtaposition between the two sets of images.
Bard’s project makes visible the most ubiquitous outcome of exhibition, the way a work changes thanks to the way in which its audience responds. It does so in detail and on a second to second basis.
The nature of the website presentation of the work also makes possible continual access to both its entirety and its components—and of course, writing such as this article which points to both. That you are reading this in an online journal completes the process by greatly facilitating an interaction between the original and the criticism of it.
Thus, an invitation to a tentative morphology: The following is an attempt to categorize some of the ways contributors’ uploaded shots work in juxtaposition to Vertov’s original film. I would like to think that the morphology is organized around the more common uses of quotation/replication in postmodern aesthetics. In the context of Jump Cut’s own online construction and exhibition, it also provides an opportunity for another level of montage. To that end, I am including both links to the juxtaposed shots on Bard’s site and stills made from screen grabs of those juxtaposed shots.
1. Simple replication.
The ostensibly most straightforward though potentially most challenging class of uploads are those that simply attempt replication and, in so doing, inevitably extract difference. Examples include:
Scene 3, shot 44—a complicated exact replication of a chair swirling. Arseny Sergeyev of Yekaterinburg animates his chair to move in a circle in time to Vertov’s original theatre seat opening itself.
Scene 4, shot 71—a literal quote of a movie poster by Jutta Franzen (Germany)
Scene 20, shot 374—a literal recreation of the couple at the marriage bure. The upload is signed by Zhang Tengwen of China in an untranslated ideogram.
2. Chronological juxtaposition—modern replacement for Vertov’s image:
This is an acknowledgement of the two temporal aspects of quotation: that the original is chronologically distanced from its replicant; and secondly that this chronological nature of quotation is being made apparent by an absence of that distantiation, i.e. that both are being seen simultaneously.
Scene 3, Shot 32—a modern replacement of a film reel with a mini-DV by Christoph Kolar of Vienna.
Scene 12, shot 254—a modern replacement of smokestacks with a wind farm by Craig Nugent of Dundee, Scotland.
Scene 14, shot 269—a modern replacement contrasting a woman putting a letter in a mailbox and email on computer screen by Larisa Bulatova of Yekaterinburg, Russia. http://dziga.perrybard.net/contributions/show/1245
3. Quotation of movement:
The quotation of movement, in addition to being among the most popular forms of juxtaposition, also points to the kinetic nature of the medium that is, quite literally, Vertov’s signature (the word “Vertov” usually being translated as “spinning” or “whirling.”) In the larger context, this points to the use of quotation/replication as a means of drawing attention to the medium.
Scene 12, shot 242—Vertov’s cameraman climbing ladder juxtaposed to feet climbing stairs (Adrienne Marks of Kalamazoo, Michigan).
Scene 21, shot 401—Vertov’s streetcar movement by Vincentiu Garbacea of Bucharest.
Scene 53, shot 1197—Federico Passi of Melbourne provides a more precise quotation of Vertov’s streetcar movement.
Scene 13, shot 260—exact formal replication of cameraman walking through marketplace by Ryu Nakagawa of Tokyo.
Scene 13, shot 260—the same shot from camera p.o.v. by Linda Rosenthal Nathanson of Tel-Aviv.
4. Contrasting original movement with stills
The reverse of the quotation of movement, the connotation here is a break from the futurist/constructivist valuing of motion.
Scene 16, shot 293—contrast between Vertov’s moving train and color still image of moving subway by Lisa Looye of Iowa City.
Scene 3, shot 50—statue of trumpeter juxtaposed with Vertov’s live musician by Neil Allen of Iowa City.
For Vertov, one of the announced objectives of The Man With the Movie Camera was to do away with the text of silent film intertitles (as announced in one of the many intertitles seem in the opening credits). However, the film makes some use of street signs and other diegetic print. Moreover, Vertov’s earlier film, Sixth Part of the Earth, had deliberately edited intertitles into the montage while as early as Kinopravda he had used animated titles. The use and contrasting of text in the remake then would seem to point to this concern with text in Vertov’s work as a whole.
Opening Credits - In her juxtaposition to Vertov’s opening titles Phyllis Baldino of New York juxtaposes a collection of shots—including pans and zooms - that appear to be taken from a building above Columbus Circle. The result is a Vertovian cityscape expressed in a language of cinema that, as claimed in Vertov’s original intertitles, works on a purely visual, cinematic basis.
At the end of the Global Remake, the Russian word for “The End” is juxtaposed by “Vertov et al Fim” by Regina Pinto of Rio de Janerio. In this case, text is an appropriation announced by a translation and addition of an end credit. Pinto adds the jerky motion of film going through—or perhaps falling out of—a projector.
6. Expository metaphor
These relatively rare contributions make explicit a metaphor implied by Vertov’s original shot.
Scene 3, shot 63—Vertov’s shot of lighting the projector arc lamp is juxtaposed with a shot of the burning sun by Erika Suderberg of the US.
Scene 14, shot 276—Vertov’s shot of a nipple-like fountain juxtaposed with a breast floating under water as uploaded by Larisa Bulatova of Yekaterinburg.
Scene 24, shot 441—Shot of the eye, juxtaposed by Beijing contributor Chen Hongpei (untranslated ideograms) with shot of puckering lips and tongue. This particular elicited the largest number of uploads: 20 as of June, 2010.
7. Contemporary commentary
These are shots that use Vertov’s original as a jumping off point for commentary, making use of the chronological distantiation to critique or identify the contributor’s concerns with their contemporary world.
Scene 14, shot 274—Vertov’s busy street juxtaposed to a closed street as uploaded by Katharina Gsöllpointner of Vienna.
Scene 15, shot 279—Vertov’s mannequin with sewing machine contrasted to a painted statue holding scales (of justice?) by Zena el Khailil and Ghayan Al Amine of Beirut.
Scene 21, shot 386—Vertov’s shot of a couple applying for a divorce certificate to a shot of two women getting a marriage license. (Kevin Brown of Morgantown, United States).
Scene 21, shot 393. The man arguing for a divorce is parodied by John from “montreal, Cambodia.”
These are shots that call attention to their makers at the expense of Vertov’s film. The parallel to The Man With the Movie Camera is the original film’s inclusion of its own cameraman shooting the film (Vertov’s film is subtitled, “From the Diary of a Film Cameraman.”) Nevertheless, what is quoted is neither the original film nor its cameraman but rather their contemporary replacements.
Scene 23, 423 and others: Doron Golan of Tel Aviv faces us with back projection of Vertov’s trolley scenes behind him.
Finally, there are those many shots in which nothing has been uploaded. There doesn’t appear to be a common denominator for them, much less a statement to be found in a deliberate non-participation. Certainly, the most difficult shots of the original Man With the Movie Camera have been attempted by uploaders, including much seemingly dangerous play among trains and trolleys. There are avatars for Svilova, the editor, and Mikhail Kaufman, the cameraman. Nor do uploaders seem to be dissuaded by those shots lasting for just a few frames.
Part of the reason for the blank space next to Vertov’s original shots may simply be technical. Vertov used the same shots in different ways throughout the film. In individual sequences, a given shot may have been interspersed with other shots, each cut lasting for only a few frames. Using the current software, the uploader can replace only one shot—or fraction of a shot—at a time. This is to say that Bard’s remake would be more densely packed if contributors could, with one click, replace all repetitions or fragments of the single shot they have recreated.
Another reason for the lack of contributions may just be audience attention span. Bard notes that the beginning of the film filled up faster than the end.
At the same time, the medium in which the work is framed—as well as the habits it has encouraged in its habitual users—continue to power Bard’s remake. As she has said:
“I’m struggling to understand why this piece which was almost a whim at the start and then 2 plus years hard labor is doing so well and I think it has more to do with the world of web 2.0 than anything else. It works because there is a structure in place that makes it legible to almost any audience (old film new film) and people can figure that much out even if they’ve never heard of Vertov. But more importantly the world of film (and television is shifting)—in ’98 I was part of a test audience in the UK where they were talking about interactive tv—YouTube has taken over the next generation, film as we know it may be like 78s to music, how many kids have seen a 78?”
Again, this is a far from complete morphology, much less a complete understanding of what Bard has accomplished and continues to accomplish as the project grows. In fact, in the manner of Perry Bard—and Vertov—I would invite this morphology to generate others. And it goes without saying that in aid of the project, I would also invite others to contribute shots either as alternates to those already uploaded or as reflections upon the shots that have so far escaped reflection.
Yet whatever the continued expansion or longevity of the project, it is yet another indication that Vertov is wrongly placed among the modernist avantgarde artists of his age. It is nothing new to say that one of the fundamental tenants of modernism is the idea of reframing, the notion of making strange via recontextualization. Hanging a urinal on an art gallery wall is a two part exercise, equally dependent upon the urinal and the well established function of the art gallery wall. It is an essentially oedipal struggle, destroying the father’s rules and hence power.
Vertov always had a more oceanic intention. In proposing a cinema “made by all” he necessarily abandons the challenge to the frame by abandoning the frame. He is not making strange so much as finding it and in so doing asserting that it is not so strange at all.
In this way, the parallel between what Bard is doing and what Vertov envisioned in his Kinoglaz writings—a nation of collective filmmakers and film viewers—reaches across the modernist/postmodernist divide. Vertov’s cinema works by eradicating the categories upon which modernism depends—conventional vision vs. an attack on those conventions; creator/spectator; ultimately humans and machines.
Further, the engine of Vertov’s generative power is a creative dialectic between his two central ideas—Life Caught Unawares (that is the dedication to an unmediated recording of reality) and the Kino-eye (an equally emphatic commitment to presenting the world through the enhanced vision of machines). It has taken us from his time to ours to appreciate that our actual world has much to do with its mechanical representation. We are then caught in an irresolvable and unending dialogue around the questions of whether the actual produces its representation or representation produces the actual: Baudrilard on one hand and Errol Morris on the other, glad to be living in Cambridge because Baudrillard isn’t in the phone book.
Bard’s work illustrates this by opening The Man With the Movie Camera to the world made possible by instantaneous and instantaneously accessible, interactive global communication.
Secondly, Bard’s work could only be appreciated within our own time’s appreciation of the spectrum stretching from quotation and re-enactment to simulation. (This of course also includes the anti-quotation/simulation movement actively pursued by intellectual property lawyers). Postmodernism values this spectrum of replication as a means of countering the idea of progress, that is to say that the present and the future are both made of the past. The result is a set of behaviours in relation to the past—somewhat reflected in the morphology above—one or all or which may be active in the understanding of Vertov’s creative act.
And what does this say about documentary? A remake is the foregrounding of documentary desire—a desire to avoid the transformation of image into iconography. Documentary asks how an image avoids becoming archetypal and hence “fictional” in the sense of functioning as something with an irrelevant original (hence Morris’s hostility toward Baudrillard).
And this, in the end, is what both Vertov and Bard are about. Documentary is the external world mediated. Their joint venture is to see much of that world and how many forms of mediation can be included within what remains a coherent structure. It really is the Big Bang. For we know that our ultimate reality is an ever expanding universe and an ever more diverse set of tools for perceiving it.
1. All quotation from Perry Bard is from an email, August 12, 2009, written by her after reading an earlier draft of this paper. My thanks to Lucy Xinxin for the translation of Chinese ideograms. [return to text]
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