Essential Readings: “The Greatest Filmmaker Ever” or Just “Eye-Candy”?

Tomorrow the Museum of Modern Art kicks off a three month series exploring the work of Dziga Vertov, who is unquestionably one of the great innovators of cinema – though at least one scholar wonders if he should be more.

While Vertov’s greatest work dates back to the high-water mark of silent cinema, his influence on visual culture today is immeasurable. No wonder then that a range of revered figures in art and cinema will appear in person throughout the series to attest to Vertov’s legacy. In addition to appearances from such key avant-garde filmmakers Peter Kubelka, Ken Jacobs and Guy Maddin, graphic artist and animator William Kentridge and composer Michael Nyman will be on hand, giving testament to Vertov’s influence beyond the cinematic sphere. Insight will also be lent by film scholars Yuri Tsivian, John MacKay, Alexander Horvarth and Annette Michelson.

In the New York Times, Dennis Lim makes a compelling case for the eternal spring of inspiration, as well as the downright prophetic qualities of Vertov’s work in anticipating so much of today’s dynamic, screen-dominated culture:

Vertov described his films as bombs. The scholar Annette Michelson, who edited a collection of Vertov writings, calls them “time bombs,” which may be more accurate, given how they spring themselves on viewers of the future. Many have said that Vertov was ahead of his time. Those of us coming to his films today — dazzled and perhaps overwhelmed, discovering new facets with each encounter — may find that he is ahead of ours as well.”

J. Hoberman notches the hosannas even higher, his Village Voice piece topping itself with superlatives for describing Vertov: “The greatest red documentary filmmaker of the 1920s, the greatest documentary filmmaker of the ’20s, the greatest filmmaker . . . ever?” Falling in line with most opinions on Vertov, Hoberman singles out Man With a Movie Camera as the director’s creative apex:

“Designed to destroy habitual movie watching by revealing the ways in which the camera and film editor construct reality, Vertov’s masterpiece had the remarkable effect of encouraging the spectator to identify with the filmmaking process. Indeed, given the density of the editing, this supreme film-object demands to be studied on an editing table to be fully appreciated. Small wonder that it was condemned, by Sergei Eisenstein, among others, for formalist madness and fetishized technique; there had never been anything like it.”

Watch our own tribute to Vertov and the experimental filmmakers of the 1920s, “Do-It-Yourself Auteurs: A Cinematic Blizzard,” produced with Steven Boone and Roger Ebert.

Do It Yourself Auteurs: A Cinematic Blizzard from Kevin Lee on Vimeo.

Ironically, one of the curators of MoMA expresses his misgivings with all the praise lavished on Vertov. In his program notes for his ongoing MoMA series on cinematic auteurs, Charles Silver wonders aloud about the extent to which Vertov earns the “auteur” distinction:

“If we define an ‘auteur’ as a filmmaker with a vision who places the stamp of his personality on his work, that presumes that there is a discernible personality or way of looking at the world. While no one could possibly miss the fact that from a technical standpoint, Vertov was a great innovator and expander of the medium (a rival to D. W. Griffith, F. W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, or Alfred Hitchcock), there is reason to question who this guy really was.

I find myself impressed but wondering, Where does all this innovation lead? Is it eye-candy or spinach? One thing it does not seem to be is emotionally affecting. Who is this man with a camera whose shadow we see and who tells us, ‘I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.’ Critic Sharon Lee put her finger on Vertov’s limitations when she claimed “he has shown us reality; he has expanded our vision of life, but it is a reality that only exists on film.”

At the Moving Image Source, foremost Soviet film scholar Yuri Tsivian offers something of a rebuff to Silver’s doubts, while throwing a a bit of a gauntlet at those casually approaching Vertov. He claims that, while Vertov’s blazing editing techniques were beyond what his contemporary audiences could handle, our modern, hyper-montage-accustomed eyes may still not be sufficient in fully grasping Vertov’s meaning, due to the dense network of signs and references to meanings specific to the era in which it was made. However, he continues, grasping these historic meanings is not a simply to appreciate esoterica, but to deepen our appreciation of Vertov’s purpose behind his techniques. (He gives a lengthy explanation for the famous shot in Man with a Movie Camera, where the Bolshoi Theatre seemingly implodes through a startling camera effect.) Perhaps, in this way, we might be able to discern the thoughts and feelings of the man behind the cinematic machine.

Watch Man with a Movie Camera on Fandor:

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