JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

“Attentive automobles,” Stride, Soviet: Vertov was in trouble by 1926: Stride, Soviet (aka Forward, Soviet) indicates why. One sequence documents an election rally in terms of machines, e.g. “attentive automobiles,” which are seen apparently “listening” and responding to each other. No citizens. No politicians. The commissars were not very pleased.

The Great War: In Russia, the return to the norms of realism can be marked by Vertov’s sacking from Goskino in 1926 and the release of Esfir Shub’s pioneering historical compilation, Fall of the House of Romanov in 1927. It is much to Malitsky’s credit to here bring in Esfir Shub as the dominant figure in the short third post-revolution phase of ’27 -’28. University-educated and a figure in Moscow’s avant-garde circles, she had been Myerhold’s private secretary. She joined Goskino in 1922 to re-edit imported foreign films for the Soviet audience. By the time of Vertov’s dismissal, newsreel production had fallen by 66% but Shub was already at work in the archive engineering the return of accessible realism.

Their highnesses danced with their excellencies in Fall of the House of Romanov: Shub herself was under no illusions as to the referential integrity of the images with which she worked. In her autobiography she wrote: “The intention was not so much to provide the facts but to evaluate them from the vantage point of the revolutionary class.”

Shooting up the wedding cake – LBJ: Despite the foreign accolades, Alvarez's films, especially LBJ (1968), came to be seen in Cuba as going a little too far—as Malitsky puts it: “too personally, too complexly, too rapidly, too kaleidoscopically.”

A dissolve from a Vertov newsreel: radical roots and heterogeneous forms, our documentary inheritance today.

Nonfiction

But what of the term “non-fiction’?

Just as he avoids “revolutionary” in his title in favor of “post-revolution,” Malitsky eschews “documentary” in favor of “nonfiction”—and with equally good reason. His three-part temporal division of post-revolutionary nonfiction film in both countries replaces the usual binary divide between documentary and newsreel. For him, Vertov, Alvarez and Shub are not documentarists per se as much as nonfiction filmmakers for whom the documentary/newsreel divide mattered little and is of limited use in understanding them.

I would want to go further and suggest the distinctions commonly drawn between newsreel and documentaries are pretty superficial given the common claim on the real. Both newsreel and documentary scholarship has paid insufficient attention to the reality of what constitutes “news” in the culture. For all that news is popularly and professionally defined as being objectively reflexive, truthful and timely, these attributes are more in the nature of branding devices to sell the news product than a description of what is being delivered. Objectivity in news media is obviously more a matter of ideological obfuscation than a guarantee of truth. It is, anyway, not required of the publication of opinion. And with reporting, objectivity—however defined—is as much about ambition as accomplishment. It cannot characterize journalism’s constant interferences with reality from interviews to investigations to, say, the base of the Statue of Liberty (built with money raised by a campaign in Pulitzer’s [New York] World). As for truth itself, let’s not forget that the news-book reporting the appearance of a dragon in the skies over Paris in 1567 sold itself as being “veritable” and news-processors have been trading under the same kite-mark ever since. And as for timeliness, this too is more a function of competition and technology than anything intrinsic to the concept “news.” Something is “news” whenever you hear about it for the first time, after all. “Late intelligences” are rarer now than once they were, but even today, despite the hype, instantaneity does not characterize the entire contents of the news media. None of this, however, much informs the concept of news in play in newsreel scholarship. In consequence the distinction between the reels and documentaries is, shall we say, befuddled.

There is a hint of this in Post-Revolution Nonfiction film when Malitsky reports debates in Cuba which denied the newsreels were news—and when he reminds us:

“None of the distinctions now familiar to producers and viewers of documentaries were in place at the time Vertov began to make films.”[18] [open endnotes in new window]

So, without prejudice to the fact that these “familiar” “distinctions” scarce hold up, Malitsky more specifically rejects that received opinion which sees the newsreel work of Vertov and Alvarez as being merely a preparation for their documentaries. This is a needed corrective.

It corrects the marginalization of the advances these filmmakers made with the newsreel form itself. For example, I am in John Mackay’s debt for drawing attention to the riches of the undeservedly ignored 57 issues of Vertov’s Goskino Kalandar/State Kino Calendar series. Although more constrained than Kino-Pravda with its time-reverses, etc., this series too exhibits considerable sophistication. Compare the average newsreel of the time in the West: a typical Topical Budget story, say, produced in 1922, the first year of the Kalandar, covering a British Royal Wedding. This essays nothing more than limited pans, fails to produce any close-ups and is replete with intertitles, almost between every shot.[19] By contrast, with Kalandar, Vertov was already exploring a range of possibilities: dissolves instead of cuts, a full range of angles and changing points of view, masking and rhythmic cutting and eschewing of the titles that were so flamboyantly a part of Kino-Pravda.[20] And, with Kino-Pravda, special effects, dynamic intertitles and shots of the film-editor apart, he also consciously expanded the newsreels” scope and tone. This is especially true of the subtitled issues: e.g.,

  • Kino Pradva #13: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: A Film Poem Dedicated to the October Celebrations (1922);
  • #16 Spring Kino-Pravda: A picturesque lyrical newsreel (1923);
  • #19 Black Sea-Arctic Ocean-Moscow: A Movie Camera Race from Moscow to the Arctic Ocean (1924).

Similarly with Alvarez’s newsreel work such refinements can be found, especially, again, in the special editions. As Malitsky points out, Ciclón, one of the films that made Alvarez’s reputation, winning him his first Golden Dove award at Leipzig, is far from straightforward. The elements—reportage of the storm on the ground, aerial footage, animated graphics of its progress, archival materials—are all untoward; but Alvarez adds a few techniques unexpected in a newsreel. These include freeze frames, rhythmic editing and a carefully structured sound-track diametrically opposed to the newsreel traditions of wall-to-wall music. Overall, the materials are made to carry far greater weight than their content would suggest. Because of his choices and editing, the revolutionary messages is embedded: Fidel and the leadership are seen to be

“above the landscape, above the storm, and part of the heavens, but at the same time on the ground, in the muck, and with the people…. This metonymic relationship articulates the film’s address to a united collectivity in the throws of a national experience.”[21]

It is received opinion that the documentaries of the second period of experimentation reveal in these filmmakers what Malitsky calls “a reflexive awareness of their own discursive authority.”[22] But is it not also the case that—at least to a certain extent—this can be seen running through their parallel newsreel work as well? The question is one of judgment—is there enough of experimentation in the newsreels to support a reevaluation of them so that they are seen as more than just a seedbed for the documentaries? Current work such as this book and John Mackay’s research suggest that there is. The thought that there was a “Vertov before Vertov” or an Alvarez before Alvarez is harder to hold onto the more the newsreel archives are explored—especially the double and/or subtitled editions.

What cannot be gainsaid, though, is these newsreels vigorously rebut John Grierson’s critique of their commercial opposites in the west: “actualities” which in his words exhibit nothing but “purely journalistic skills”—“just a speedy snip-snap.”[23] Grierson’s easy dismissal of the commercial reels is largely spurious—they were not, for the most part, produced by journalistic organizations but by the film industry. Their “series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show” format had little journalism about it. The slowness of their appearance ensured the staleness of the stories they ran, even as features. And the static conservatism of their style could scarcely be described as “speedy snip-snap.” Anyway, as was clear at the time, the commercial Western newsreel’s

“object is not to present news, but to breed a race of society gossipers, sport-maniacs, lickspittles and jingoes.”[24]

The use of the element “news” in the title “newreel” is, as was the use of “veritable” in a 16th century candard, as much a branding device as a descriptor.

Nevertheless Grierson’s assertion, however ill-grounded, underpins the newsreel/documentary divide in Anglophone thinking. It should not be forgotten, though, that Grierson’s motivation in insisting on a distinction between his documentary project and the commercial newsreels was more a question of money than anything else. Grierson needed to convince his funding prospects in government and commerce that his was a unique enterprise when, at the level of the claim being made on the real, it was of a piece with a variety of other nonfiction genres—“interests,” “travelogues,” “nature films”—as well as newsreels. All these but newsreels were to be subsumed into documentary. It is time, in my view, to interrogate the value of continuing to leave newsreels out. Be that as it may, that is not part of Malitsky’s agenda. By insisting on the importance of the newsreel work of these filmmakers, though, he assembles valuable evidence as to why this issue must be addressed.

Building the Soviet and Cuban nations

This leaves Maltisky’s subtitle which addresses the underlying purpose behind all the films he discusses: Building the Soviet and Cuban Nations. The leaders of the revolutions of 1917 and 1959, Malitsky states, saw nonfiction

“as a form uniquely capable of aiding the effort to shape the new man and to unify, edify, and modernize the citizenry as a whole.”[25]

In the light of this, the films are necessarily to be seen as persuasive communication —“propaganda” in the initial meaning of the word.

Malitsky’s take on propaganda is to turn the concept of the “social imaginary” as a key. As described by Charles Taylor, this is in essence, “the ways people imagine their social existence” which collectively determine “the repertory of collective action.”[26] These exist as understandings and are made virtual through representations—and so the cinema comes to be a key facilitator of them. Its most important overarching task then is “constructing a new coherent and communicable idea of the nation.”[27] In effect they were attempting to prefigure Benedict Anderson’s modernist concept of the nation as an “imagined political community,” one that is both stable but promotes change. Nonfiction film’s further post-revolutionary task was also to facilitate the coming of “ideology to consciousness.”[28] (This, it can be noted, is an objective directly in contrast to the underlying purpose of “ineffable” bourgeois ideology as described Barthes.[29])

It is, of course, sterile to assess the effectiveness of the films in fulfilling these purposes. I think it is valid to ask about impact as an aspect of documentary ethics when confronting the shibboleths (“giving voice,” “free speech,” etc.) trotted out by Western mainstream documentarists to justify their misfeasances — invasions of privacy, misrepresentations, exploitation, and so on. It is another matter to attempt to assess the impact of such a fundamental attempt at the engineering of souls on such a scale. Certainly at the time, the experimentations of the second phase were seen as failing to provide a “coherent and communicable idea of the nation.” And, certainly, the judgment of history has been harsh: the USSR is no more, and with Cuba the jury must be seen as still being out. So did the films “build” the nation as was their intention? Perhaps the best that can be said is to repeat the Mao Zedong’s (or was it Zhou En-Lai?) comment on the French Revolution (of 1789 or, maybe, 1968): “It’s far too early to tell.”

What is far clearer is the impact on cinema, on documentary. Vertov survived dismissal from Goskino and went to work for the All-Ukrainian Photo-Ciné Directorate (VUKFU) in Kiev where in 1929 he made Man with a Movie-Camera. His filmography does not then cease, any more than does Alvarez’s, who continued to produce films until his death in Havana, aged 79, in 1998. Vertov was prevented from being so prolific although important titles, especially those experimenting with sound, continued to appear. After World War II, though, this ceased as he worked, as did his wife Elizaveta Svilova, more or less anonymously on the daily newsreel Novosti Dyna—on assignments from Esfir Shub, its editor-in-chief.[30] Marina Goldovskaya, who grew-up in the same Moscow apartment block remembered that:

“[Vertov] used to sit on a bench near our entryway, always leaning on a walking stick, always gloomy and reserved. He seemed hopelessly ancient to me.”[31]

He was not, though. He died of untreated cancer, aged 58, in 1954.[32]

Our understanding of Vertov’s importance and, indeed, of the post-revolution nonfiction film in general for the documentary has been, to say the least, slow to develop. While Alvarez’s position as a major cinematic voice was established immediately in the 1960s, Vertov was less fortunate. Decades of neglect and dismissal persisted beyond his death. He was best seen, as Annette Michelson suggested in her introduction to Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, not as the Lenin of the cinema but its Trotsky.[33] But it would now seem that it was perhaps “too soon” for such an epitaph. Since 1960, there has been a slow absorbtion of the lessons of post-revolution nonfiction cinema. This is not merely a matter of Kino-Pravda’s rebirth as Cinéma vérité. Rather it is that the entire effort has demonstrated the possibility of an alternative to the Griersonian hegemony. My copy of Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov is inscribed:

“These [are the] documents of the revolutionary founding moment of a contra-Grierson tradition.”

And, this is, of course, equally the case with the films. It is ever clearer that Annette Michelson, who wrote these words to me (as well the introduction just cited), here spoke nothing but the truth. Josh Maltisky’s Post-Revolutionary Nonfiction Film: Building the Soviet and Cuban Nations further fleshes out the correctness of her claim. Here indeed is the alternative to Grierson, the signposts back to documentary’s radical roots and forward to the present heterogeneity of its forms.

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