Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book Review: Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov

Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov is a quite interesting, yet ultimately unsatisfying book.  If you come to it, as I did, expecting a series of essays on film theory, you will be sorely disappointed.  It is mainly letters, journal entries, a few movie proposals and other mundane things.  The points it makes, because of its format, become repetitive, but are worthy of addressing nonetheless.  Dziga Vertov is of course a Soviet Union film director and film theorist who was a contemporary of Sergei Eisenstein.  Unlike Eisenstein, he was a strong believer in pure documentary film.  This book shows some neat insight into his modus operandi.  He also makes some great statements on the expansion of the art of film and faces some of the same problems that creative types face today.  I think his writings also show some contradictory thought and a disconnect of ideas especially when it comes to cinema aesthetics and the communist system.  Nevertheless, Dziga Vertov is a man of neat insights into cinema.

Vertov is a strong believer in Kino-Pravda (film truth), a word which comes up often in his writings.  The documentarian aesthetics of Kino-Eye lead us to find truth.  Instantly, he is for a cinema that looks beyond cinema towards deeper truth.  Truths of science, philosophy, etc.  The camera, the kino-eye, is able to capture truth more fully, more objectively, than the human eye.  Towards this end, all types of camera "tricks" are acceptable if they lead to a deeper knowledge of reality.  Slow motion, for example, allows us to show what an animal looks like when it is running, thus offering us facts that we would not realize if we were merely watching it.  He also believes in the images ability to show us people's thoughts.  The face gives up the secrets of the soul.  The most important element of Kino-eye is that there be no actors, no sets, hidden camera when possible, no scripts etc.  It is the drama of life.

Vertov's works begin with a theme, not a story.  The theme is followed through various shots and could potentially have some level of narrative continuity.  He was also a strong believer in different montage techniques that were popular in the Soviet Union at the time.  His writings show him as especially into metric montage.  Metric montage is used to create an aesthetic flow.  A movie should move like a machine and all aesthetics that help to better bring out the movie's theme are useable. In shooting reality, this means having a camera ready at all times so you can be sure to cover the interesting stuff. 

Vertov is very much against traditional narrative cinema which was as popular in the Soviet Union as it was anywhere else.  In his writings, he promotes the Leninist ratio of film distribution which includes 45% kino-eye (everyday life), 30% scientific/ educational, and 25% artistic drama.  Apparently Lenin himself called for something similar before his death.  Vertov constantly railed against a bureaucracy that had no respect for the type of work he was doing despite that when his movies did come out, even though they were different, audiences responded very positively to them.  He held to the correct notion that movies could expand to different horizons and still have an audience that understands and appreciates them.  He was also right in his ideas of film as a record of reality and time.  On the other hand, his disdain for narrative cinema feels like ideological stubbornness.

The description of Vertov's ideal production situation is one of the more interesting parts of the book.  To sum it up very briefly, he wants a film laboratory all his own.  He wants only workers who follow his ideals and are versed in doing his type of movie.  He wants light, noiseless equipment for shooting sound footage at the drop of a hat.  Lastly, he keeps all shot footage in an archive to be potentially used later on another project.  Anything shot at any time could be used at any other time.

The biggest contradiction in Vertov's work is he seems to have this obsession with realism and truth, stating that only reality, without actors or sets, should be shot, that anything less is phony or bad, yet at the same time, he completely ignores the propensity for falsehood in montage editing.  While all the elements of the production phase must be geared towards documentary realism, the editor can lie as much as he wants to in post-production.  In working on a theme, the editor is allowed to put together pieces any way he wants so while the individual snippets are largely "film-truth," the final product could be anything but.  He's even fine with cutting together things that did not happen at the same time as if they did.  The snippets in his films are merely anecdotal evidence towards the thesis of whatever theme the director is working on but they are not necessarily full truth, especially when they are used towards communist propaganda, attacking a Western democratic ideal that he does not truly know.  He compares the best elements of communist society to the worst elements of the West. 

This brings us to another strange disconnect.  Vertov loves communism and the communist ideal, but at the same time, for years complains that the system is destroying his career and leaving him to languish in inactivity.  In his situation, living in a broad authoritarian state, how can he do anything but blame the system that has full control over his career?  How can he not see the problems with communism?

Kino-Eye is and interesting, yet dragging, book that, in my opinion, is only for those truly interested in its subject matter, although I would hope to see more movies in Vertov's vein.

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