Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Creating a Non-Bourgeois Audience

Kino-Eye, dir. Dziga Vertov, 1924

Kino-eye is a pastiche film, held together mostly by the loose focus on a troop of Pioneers (Soviet boy scouts, basically). This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a plot, though: think of it as a bildungsfilm, the hero of which is the audience, which in the course of the film learns to become conscious of itself.

Vertov was probably a bit naïve, but he believed that Russian peasants who had never seen a film before would not be spoiled by bourgeois viewing habits. They were to be a tabula rasa out of which he could create a new kind of audience.

The film creates its own audience by presenting it with what Vertov called kino-pravda: truth that could only be revealed by the camera. His camera tricks seem pretty tame today, and to be honest they are used to greater effect in The Man with the Movie Camera. But their purpose is clear: to let the audience experience a new way of seeing. For example, Vertov uses slow-motion to emphasize the movement of the human body—as in the diving scene as well as this shot of a boy being thrown into the air:

And he uses reverse-motion to connect ordinary people to the conditions of production—as in two extended sequences in which he follows a cut of meat back through the slaughterhouse to the cow (it’s less gruesome in reverse), and a loaf of bread back through the bakery and the mill to the wheat field.

The message is that only film trickery can reveal the real conditions of existence. Vertov doesn’t try to hide the special effects, as is the case in what’s called the Institutional Mode of Representation—he realizes that the tricks are what people want. Like Méliès, he thinks of himself as a film magician. He shows us a real magician entertaining his audience, something he would repeat in The Man with a Movie Camera.

Unlike Triumph of the Will, which also shows a lot of audiences, Vertov literally shows the creation of the audience, as in this shot of a crowd gathering around an accordian player.

And he also places the viewer spatially within that audience, instead of just showing it from above.

And unlike Triumph of the Will, the audience turns out to be watching itself, as in this shot of a peasant woman making a short speech. She is taken out of the audience and for a brief moment becomes the star. Her joy at this simple example of self-expression is infectious.

The nature of the audience becomes more problematic towards the end of the film. Instead of an audience watching a live spectacle, they become a mass media audience.

How is it possible for a mass audience to watch itself? Well, through Vertov’s film, for one. Okay as far as it goes, but there is the disturbing possibility that the act of the country constituting itself as an audience must be mediated by the party, or the leader. This becomes more pronounced ten years later in Three Songs of Lenin (although there are other things going on there). This is nowhere near as bad as Triumph of the Will, though, where the perspective is often that of Hitler—it is only through his observation that the audience exists as one.

There is a strange section at the end which depicts some type of mental institution, probably meant to show that the state is taking good care of the least of its citizens. What’s strange is that it could be read as a criticism of state paranoia. This man yells (in the intertitle) “You are a police officer of the old regime, and it is unacceptable that the Workers’ Soviet doesn’t know about it.”

Even stranger is the close-up of his eye, which echoes the promotional poster shown above:

Is Vertov suggesting that his camera is insane? Or worse, his audience?

1 comment:

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