Part I of this story appeared on June 18th and can be found at: http://www.artesmagazine.com/2012/06/20th-c-documentarian-seeks-film-truth-in-early-revolutionary-soviet-union/
In all his films, the presence of sound, either implied or field-recorded played a role. In his first, and most faouus, The Man withthe Movie Camera (1929), the film bears the sub-title, ‘A Visual Symphony.’ Later, his visual eulogy to Lenin would contain the reference, Three Songs to Lenin. This commitment to sound as a real or imagined part of the film experience was the thread that tied together all of his important work, from his days as a silent film editor for the new, post-revolution Soviet state, to his years as an independent film maker, before ultimately being discredited by Stalin’s political apparatus.
In his continuing battle with critics, Vertov sets out with Symphony of the Donbas (Enthusiasm), 1930, to challenge the shared resistance to the use of sound by silent film-makers and theorists of the time, and enraging those who doubted “that sounds captured at random could ever become expressive components of cinematic structure and even function as ‘music’ of a differ sort” [Fisher: 59]. artes fine arts magazine
In a 1931 article, Vertov mocked his one-time critic, ippolit Sokolov, by explaining:
The beginning of work on Enthusiasm was preceded by the ‘theory of the feline caterwaulling,’ as defined by Ippolit Sokolov. It was also motivated by some foreign and domestic authorities who rejected the possibility of recording sound for the newsreel. Hence, Enthusiasm resulted from the negation of this negation [Petrić: 59].
Vertov’s achievement in sound-in-cinema was driven by his long-standing experimentation with auditory precepts as an integral part of the “montage way of seeing and hearing.” With the arrival of asynchronous sound in Enthusiasm, Vertov had realized a twelve-year long effort to incorporate visual cognates of sound in his newsreels and “unplayed” films, in the transition from silent to sound cinema.
But, Enthusiasm was not a wholly successful exercise in visual/auditory integration. “Shot as a silent film, Vertov and his sound engineers then spent months developing a musical score that wove various audio samples which distinguished between the ‘music of nature’ and the ‘music of objects’ (music, sound [zvuk] and noise [shum] into the video sequences. Portable recording devices allowed for capturing a broad range of sounds, including harbor noises, trains and railroad stations, church services and public rallies. The score incorporated variations of these audio signals (sped up, slowed down) into the film soundtrack” [Bulgakowa; 146].
In an ironic twist, and as evidence of the novelty and public fascination with the new technology of recorded sound, these sound mixes were screened without images at a movie theater in Leningrad in 1930. Audience response included:
“The screening was unusual. In the dark room the rectangle of the screen was shining in its white virginity. But nobody was interested in the screen. The bells sounded, a choir sang a religious choral, a glass was broken, somebody was beaten, and when, in this symphony of drunken scandal, a traditional Russian word of insult was heard clearly, nobody doubted the documentary nature of the filmed material. We saw a recording of authentic sound” .
“In Vertov’s Enthusiasm, sound was used programmatically to structure a four-movement symphony, tempered leitmotivs and modulated refrains celebrating Soviet life in the church, coal mines, foundry and countryside during harvest time. Formal relationships exist between musical tempo (quick-slow) and image luminosity (light-dark) as the visual narrative plays out. He explores the difference between readily-perceived sounds (clock, heartbeat, piano); noise in the public square (bells, whistles, siren, crowds) and sounds of the sacred and profane (church bell, piano melody)” .
Enthusiasm was criticized for offering uneven sound quality; but as a nascent effort, it finally allowed Vertov to create a long-dreamed-of Constructionist noise montage to support the visual mix that was his signature style. His effective use of sound-mix-as-symphony flouted critical opinion, allowing him to enter the realm of sound/image equivalents with the asynchronous overlay of sound with his visual narrative. Vertov’s realization of the semantic potential of film to convey a complex message—depending on one’s perspective—was either unapologetically political, boldly avant-garde, or both.
Vertov viewed the introduction of sound in Enthusiasm as a major technical victory, though he later complained that the physical effort involved in moving sound equipment and not knowing what they had captured until they reached the studio, was frustrating. “While critics were divided on Vertov’s success as a sound technician (striking the ‘golden mean’ of frequency averaging) for theater use meant that certain sounds were clear, others muddled—‘an undifferentiated clatter of noise’” [Tode: 119]. With experience in the broadcast booth over the next several months, though, the balance of criticism shifted in a positive direction, with some calling it a “brilliant collaboration of sound and image” .
Emboldened by this success, Vertov set out to realize his next major objective: to memorialize the life and times of his muse and idol, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). Much of Vertov’s professional life was spend working under the political influence and indirect gaze of Lenin, and he felt his career success linked to Lenin’s name. Beginning in his expanded role as a Pravda propagandist, under the banner, ‘Leninist Proportion for Film Programs,’ to a series of awards and recognitions, while laboring as a low-level technician within the Soviet apparachuk, Vertov long believed he needed to make a statement in return.
Three Songs About Lenin (1934) was the result of Vertov’s boundless admiration for the man whose very image symbolized future victory of the oppressed masses of the world in the face of the capitalist enemy. With newly designed sound equipment, Vertov functioned as screen writer, director, technician and principle editor of the project. At the heart of the effort was his vision of ‘The One’—Lenin—as the very embodiment of the Russian people, a man whose voice was now silenced in death, but through Vertov’s film could now ‘speak.’
In Three Songs, Vertov relied on many of the same sound-signifying tropes he had incorporated into previous productions. These were images of trumpets and the marching rhythms of impromptu parades, people gathered around a radio, apparently listening to Lenin speak, tower bells, cannon fire, trains-on-rails, machinery running, dance sequences, truck wheels turning and an explosion. His montages could now capture the actual sounds of daily life in the Soviet state, though much of the sound mix consisted of ponderous patriotic music and seemingly-endless choruses of peasant work songs. But, all of this was intended to serve as a celebratory auditory backdrop for the principle motif of the film: the eternal place of Lenin in the hearts and minds of the Russian people.
Vertov quixotically declared in an inter-title near the beginning of Three Songs about Lenin, “But we have never heard his voice!” Aware that recordings of Lenin’s voice did exist, Vertov believed that incorporating this additional layer of film “Truth” would be essential to realize his ultimate political goal as a film-maker. With the adoption of new sound technology, combined with the broad distribution of his films, for a few tantalizing seconds, he enabled his audiences to simultaneously see on the screen and hear the departed Lenin (d. 1924) speak—an experience that Vertov hoped would help mobilize oppressed workers and ordinary citizens to join the Communist cause.
And so, with the appropriate narrative build-up, at a point just beyond the halfway point in the film (in Part II, The Dirge), he allowed for a 15-second, empowering low-angle shot of Lenin standing on an outdoor podium, enthusiastically addressing a contingent of the Red Army. A vocal segment from an asynchronous recorded speech was cleverly sync’d over the action, bringing a resurrected, audibly-expressive Lenin before the people, once again.
* * *
In his seminal 1925 article, Film-Truth and Radio-Truth, Dziga Vertov urged “the kinoks to ‘campaign with facts not only in terms of seeing but also in terms of hearing.’ In a 1928 monograph, Film has Begun to Shout, he introduced the idea of applying the principle of “Film-Truth” to the recording of natural sound. In 1929, he anticipated the principle of synch-sound shooting at a time when it was considered impossible; and in 1931-33, after sound technology was being employed in film, he advocated for principles of direct sound recording, or sight-and-sound counterpoint and the development of portable sound equipment (in the face of skepticism by sound engineers), capable of ‘instantly capturing the sound in the street simultaneously with photographing the image of the event.’ [Petrić: 58]” In contrast to this visionary zeal, In a lecture, On the Principles of the New Russian Film delivered at the Sorbonne, in 1930, Vertov critic and rival, Sergi Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), declared: “I believe that the one-hundred percent talking film is nonsense, and I hope that everyone agrees with me” [Petrić: 59].
While The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Three Songs about Lenin (1934) earned Vertov an international reputation as a leading Soviet avant-garde artist, his reputation at home was faltering. Much like the plight, two decades later, of artists, screen writers and film-makers targeted by the McCarthy hearings in the U.S., “Vertov and other experimental artists found themselves censored and expelled by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), a communist party-supported organization, in brief existence from 1928-32” [Roberts: 36]. Founded to provide direction in the face of the Stalinist impulse to centralize and control all aspects of Soviet society, Vertov and other proponents eventually became victims of repressive policies by the very organization they had helped to create.
Vertov had been tolerated at home because of his prominence on the international stage, but “his exclusion of any mention of ‘The Great Leader,’ Stalin in his 1934 production about Lenin resulted in his eventual ouster from preferred inner circles of political operatives with influence in the film industry. While he continued to invest his time in experimental film technique and sound montage, and in spite of several more films in the 1930s glorifying the socialist hegemony, he was never trusted again” . He spent the balance of his career in relative obscurity, editing newsreel footage, as he once had, two decades earlier. He died in 1954, his worked consigned to film archives, until re-discovered in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Dziga Vertov viewed the art of film through a unique lens. A product of his time, both politically and artistically, his intuition and eclecticism gave him the freedom to take up the movie camera and ask, “What is possible here?” From the beginning of his film career in 1918, he chose to work differently, challenging traditions fictional film-making and story-telling. His kino-eye cast a unique, highly theoretical gaze over the world, much like Cubist artists of the same period. Each, using his own formulation, saw the deconstruction of images of people, places and events into their component parts, followed by reconstruction of these same elements in revolutionary ways. For Vertov, his ‘canvas’ was a movie screen—his medium: film stock, the camera’s view finder and the editing-room cutting table.
“Vertov used inter-titles as a ‘contrapuntal construction of a wordradio-theme’. The inter-titles, rather than naming and identifying the images, are part of a constant stream of imagery built from word and picture alike, varying in implied ‘ decibel level,’ as font size changed . His films dispensed with the old hierarchy, where inter-titles created a meaning confirmed by the images. Vertov went even further in his final silent film, Eleventh Year (1930). In it, he creates a sense of sound in its images of a bugler, a bell, a loud-hailer, rushing water, hammers and explosions. The implicit noise of the hammers and explosions comes at climactic points in its structure, and is intended to make it ‘a film-object of sight and sound, edited to be heard as well as seen’. Similarly, Man with a Movie Camera contains sequences that have a powerful sound concomitant. The orchestra heard on the radio in the workers’ club would be a good example. Vertov’s ‘musical scenario’ for the film requires the freeze-frames near the end to be accompanied by sudden silence, before being contrasted with the pendulum swinging, itself illustrated with a muffled ticking clock. Enthusiasm uses recorded sound to create such images” [Hicks: 71].
Yet, while others also created images of sound in their films, Vertov unambiguously welcomed sound itself. His anticipations of sound enabled him to respond to the end of the silent era better than fiction film-makers. Certainly, Vertov was one of the first Soviet directors to write about sound, and his experiments with it pre-date his sound film debut in 1931. Vertov’s openness to this new dimension of film not only differed from the attitudes of other radical directors but also contrasted with wider expectations that sound would put an end to documentary, since all sounds would have to be reconstructed in the studio. Vertov insisted upon the importance of location sound recording as the only way of “preserving the advantages of location shooting in the production of sound documentary film” [Tsivian: 297].
Having experimented by taking the apparatus further and further from the studio in Leningrad, Vertov and his team eventually made their first location sound recordings. “He sent a euphoric telegram declaring a ‘victory in the field of documentary recording … for the first time we have recorded the sounds of factory machines, a locomotive, and other documentary material for our film’. Recordings were then made on location in the Donets Basin (Donbas) ‘in conditions of clanking and crashing, in workshops shuddering with sound’. The result was Enthusiasm, which Vertov proclaimed the first full-length sound documentary film, ‘the first train of sound to have burst through the velvet studio walls on to the open expanses of audible life’. It had disproved the doubters, ‘definitively exploded the shell of the sound studio and … resolved the vexed question of sound documentary recording’” [Hicks: 72].
The central premise of this essay has been to demonstrate, through numerous examples—in four Vertov films, spanning ten years—evidence of a profound understanding of the film-maker’s role in shaping the film-viewing experience; and by extension, how he aspired to have his audience accommodate that vision. The secret for both Vertov and his audience lay in the psychological nature of perception; that is, the subjective experience of sound. Recognizing how the human brain (that is, the attuned observer) perceives and processes information is fundamental to understanding the power of a Vertov film to hit its mark.
With the development of his Radioglaz, Vertov intuited that the viewer would be capable of ascribing sound to a random and ever-more-rapidly presented series of images. These sound cognates, or visual cues set in motion on the screen would carry associations—or sound correlates—that could be instantly paired with the image and assembled by the brain into a perceptual Gestalt. His exploration of the Radioglaz frontier, beginning a decade before sound in film became a reality, represented a brilliant mobilization of all of film’s rhetorical and technical resources—“the adoption of a theoretical gaze—a lived reality—of exceptional depth and breadth, aimed at no mere representation or simulation [of reality], but at a transformation of consciousness in the most complete and intimate sense” [Michaelson, Man: 64].
What this observation implies, in fact, is borne out by Vertov’s most mature pre-sound work, The Man with the Movie Camera. Linking kino-eye, montage methodology and Radioglaz constituted a bridge between film technique and human perception, appealing directly to the assimilative power of cognition and the impulse of the human mind to ‘grasp and understand.’ Vertov understood the importance of connecting to his audience in this way. In opening scenes, an audience is portrayed gathering in a theater. By film’s end the audience is rewarded with the opportunity to view themselves, viewing the film they have just watched being made. The clever theoretical scaffolding surrounding this film-within-a-film serves as the ultimate invitation by the film-maker, as he enters the ‘inner movie’ of the audience—becoming a shared experience of self-reflection. Initially, an abstract whirling mass of horizontal lines fills the screen. For Vertov, this image of an ambiguous, glowing, spinning form serves as a powerful metaphor—the eponymous spinning top—a symbolic invitation to the future. Perhaps meant to suggest a radio’s inner workings, the image invites the viewer into his Radio-Ear, “…or to be exact, into an imaginary prototype of the sound theater—a dream theater of sorts. He is telling the audience, ‘Enjoy the music for the eyes’” [DVD commentary, The Man with the Movie Camera, 2003 ed.]. Critics may not have comprehended his fractured and rapid-fire style of information delivery, but his viewer (and more significantly, that viewer’s mind) did.
In the final analysis, Vertov’s perpetual search for “Kino-Pravda” is revealed in the nexus between the sound-filled world beyond the camera lens and the silent ‘screening room’ of the human mind. Interpolated through his innovative, multi-sensory montage techniques, this may have been Dziga Vertov’s most profound contribution to the art, craft and magic of cinema.
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
View a Youtube video produced in conjuntion with this Vertov essay:
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Fisher, Lucy. “Enthusiasm: From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye,” Film Quarterly, no. 2 (Winter, 1977): 25-34.
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—, Chap.4- No Noise. Dziga Vertov: Life and Work. John MacKay, Ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
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