Artspace, 378 Aylmer Street North
Wednesday, August 22nd – Friday, August 24th, 12:00pm-9:00pm
An installation of films playing simultaneously throughout the gallery:
Auguste and Louis Lumière’s First Films, France, 1895-1900
Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye, Soviet Union, 1924
Jonas Mekas’ Walden: Diaries, Notes and Sketches, U.S.A., 1969
Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, Wales, 1980
Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, France, 1983
Friday, August 24th :
6:30pm: Reception with food and drink;
7:30pm: Curators’ remarks;
8:00pm: Keynote speaker, Dr. Davide Panagia (Cultural Studies, Trent University), “Hume, Cinema, and the Politics of Discontinuity”;
8:30pm-9:15pm: Closing Discussion moderated by Dr. Ger Zielinski (Cultural Studies, Trent University)
Dziga Vertov was a productive figure in cinema under Lenin and the early years of Stalin. Born Denis Kaufman in 1896 – he later changed his name to Dziga, apparently mimicking the sound of the camera – and died in a sorry-state of inactivity in 1954 due to the cultural repression of the Soviet regime. His entry into moving-images was via the newsreel and he would immediately claim that this form was the pinnacle of the craft. Kinonedelia, or “film-week”, was the first big project he undertook shortly after the 1917 Revolution, lasting about a year. With the Tsar overthrown and the people holding positions in politics and culture, one of the new regime’s tasks was to document its progress. If socialism – and its efforts towards communism – was far superior than other political systems to that date, then the eye of the camera need only be turned to the facts of Soviet life. Vertov insisted on the movement of kinopravda, or film-truth, and quickly developed this movement over the course of filming in the early 1920s. Vertov began as one, and then went on to recruit Elisaveta Svilova as editor – also his wife – and his brother Mikhail Kaufman taking the role of cameraman. Together, calling themselves kinoks, or cinema-eye men, they developed a style based on both the facts of Soviet life and specific filming techniques which would catch what is invisible to human perception. This is the birth of kino-eye, or cinema-eye, “the documentary cinematic decoding of both the visible world and that which is invisible to the naked eye” (KE, 87). After the success of the newsreels shown across the State entitled Kinopravda, comprising 23 installments between 1922 and 1925, and his feature length productions Kino-Eye, Forward, Soviet!, A Sixth of the World and The Eleventh Year, by 1929 whenever a cameraman was seen documenting an event, the crowd could be heard murmuring, according to Vertov, “Kino-eye, kino-eye” (KE, 86).
The early work of Kinonedelia and Kinopravda prepared Vertov for his first feature in 1924, Kino-Eye, or Life Caught Unawares. That same year Sergei Eisenstein was making Strike, and the two young filmmakers could not have been more at odds. Both had communism in their hearts but their methods, at this point in time, could not be reconciled: a fiction of an extraordinary event, mostly scripted, acted, and emotionally charged on the one hand, and a preference for the unscripted, non-acted film which documents everyday life on the other. Vertov lashed out at the kind of art films Eisenstein would become known for and stressed the importance of his own work. “With the skillful organization of factual footage, we can create film-objects of high propagandistic pressure, without the annoying, suspect affectations of actors and without the romantic-detective fictions of various and sundry ‘inspired’ people” (KE, 48).
So what is it that makes Kino-Eye better suited to communist aims than an Eisenstein film? In a most remarkable passage of Marxism, Vertov describes the film as such:
[Kino-Eye] represents an assault on our reality by the cameras and prepares the theme of creative labor against a background of class contradictions and of everyday life. In disclosing the origins of objects and of bread [and in the film we see the entire process of manufacturing and delivering bread and meat, all the way to the hands of the people], the camera makes it possible for every worker to acquire, through evidence, the conviction that he, the worker, creates all these things himself, and that consequently they belong to him. (KE, 34)
Thus Vertov declares he is not an artist; he would much rather be called a shoemaker (KE, 36-37), a worker among other workers contributing to the goal of communism. “We renounce the convenience of the studio,” he insists, stressing the importance of laboring with others (KE, 39). This is his separation from the intellectual work of someone like Eisenstein; although the latter valued and worked in such a way that the film’s production is not the idea of a single genius, Vertov cannot, in a way that Eisenstein can be, called a director. Without the raw material of the workers and their efforts in building communism, a film could not be produced. We have something then, with Vertov, which we may wish to call the birth of documentary filmmaking.
Vertov was, despite a few decades between them, closer to techniques of the Lumière brothers in 1895 than his contemporaries, Soviet or American. While the Lumière brothers certainly staged events, did not always catch life unawares, many of their 50 second pieces are the facts of life. A horse and carriage parading through a flooded street, workers were exiting the factory, street scenes where a man stops to gaze in wonder at this whirling device, the feeding of an infant, streetcars, and the moving shots of city landscapes. These scenes of Lumière’s appear again with Vertov. Even a train is filmed but anew as we are shown one shot from below, the camera on the tracks, and thus (silently) roaring over our heads. Vertov’s cameraman Kaufman levels landscapes as would the Lumière’s: the young pioneers cross, horizontal to our vision, a bridge at a distance while the raging waters rush below and the sky glows above. [If you want to see the extent of the Lumière’s influence on Kaufman, Vertov’s Eleventh Year highlights this most I think.] However, unlike the Lumière films, Kaufman often follows the action with his camera, moving the device to get a better look at the object being filmed; and Svilova, the editor, will not let us pause on an image for longer than a few seconds, which is again unlike the stationary 50 second Lumière shorts. That being said, with both Vertov and Lumière, each of their films or newsreels provide viewers with a glimpse of a life, and death as Kino-Eye brings a funeral to us, that we have not seen before. At its inception this was the goal of cinema. The Lumière’s travelled, showcasing their short films just as the reels on Alexander Medvedev’s film-trains trekked across the Soviet Union.
Vertov’s cinema, he wrote, is a science: it must precisely project, transmit to a group of peasants for instance, the agricultural miracle that is the Fordson tractor or the benefit of electricity to a village. In Kino-Eye we see a whole animation about electricity and how it functions, a classroom in which one learns how a telephone operates, and how antennas and radio-waves transmit music. Further, the very fabric which holds the film together – i.e., following the young pioneers and their communist adventures – is to dictate to viewers that they too can join the pioneers and educate the people on collectivization. The newsreel consists then of beautiful images which are educational, i.e., towards the education of workers and the development of communism: “by establishing a clear visual link between subjects, we have significantly weakened the importance of intertitles; in doing so we have brought the movie screen closer to the uneducated viewers, which is particularly important at present” (KE, 38). Vertov’s productions are rooted in communist ideology, without which we would not have these images to look upon: the spectator must be moved and convinced of a greater social and political existence under the banner of Lenin.
In Sans Soleil we are told that on May 15th, 1945, American soldiers attacked a hill in Okinawa, perhaps thinking they were conquering Japanese soil. They got only halfway up the hill that day and withdrew the next morning. Once this regiment departed fighting continued for a month, the Japanese eventually losing ground. Chris Marker tells us this brief story to bring us to the present (1983) Okinawa society, a society which, after 27 years of American occupation, has all but lost their respective culture. The culture of Okinawa will disappear; “the break in history,” the narrator relates, “has been too violent.” We see the noro, a priestess who communicates with the gods of the sea, rain, earth, and fire. But the images of her and the brief frames of ritual are not precisely to document it. Marker does not follow the ceremony as would an anthropologist with meticulous detail. What is shown is the ephemeral quality of images and this part of Okinawa culture: a few lines of prayer, drinking tea, a close-up of the priestess. What we see is the fading of a particular way of life brought on by the pressing modern world. The ditch where, in 1945, 200 Okinawa girls held grenades to their chests rather than surrender to Americans, tourists have their photos taken and a souvenir stand sells grenade-shaped lighters. Where the noro communicates with the gods, nearby one can find gas stations and bowling alleys. Describes the man whose letters are being read to us: “When filming this ceremony I knew I was present at the end of something.” It is so often women, in films of both documentary and fiction, act as representations of love and loss (Howe, 315). Such is the case here in Sans Soleil and in Vertov’s Three Songs about Lenin where women are filmed unawares and sing about the departed Lenin. How then are we to understand Marker’s fictionalized film-essay, Vertov’s newsreels, and still grieve at the loss of this community? How are old memories related and new ones created by these films?
In Vertov’s Kino-Eye, in the images of Soviet life – how bread or meat begins in the field and reaches the supplicant’s hands – he too does not film like an anthropologist. Like Sans Soleil’s images and the narration which cites Levi-Strauss on Japanese culture, calling it the poignancy of things, Kino-Eye also has an affect on our emotions, feelings, and if Vertov was successful, can shake and uproot our ideology. But such images, in all the films we have gathered in this exhibition, are fleeting. Okinawa and the Soviet Union will be topics of history, but the images of them in Vertov and Marker are not documents but rather haunt our memories. While actively consuming these films we undergo the same memory-work as the narrator and man in Sans Soleil. She reads us letters of and we view the images shot by travelling filmmaker Sandor Krasna (or Marker himself), both of which are already distantly in the past: in one scene this man writes to her from his island of Sal of a recent time in the company of his prancing dogs on the beach. While on that beach he remembered a January in Tokyo, or to further complicate the memory-work, he remembered the images he filmed that month. He asserts, with shots of Japanese people praying at a temple: These images “have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember?” The temporal layers in Sans Soleil are thick, most poignantly in this paragraph just mentioned: the January in Tokyo, the filmed images of Tokyo, the memory of the images while in the company of his dogs, the memory of that memory written down and sent to the woman, the woman’s first reading his letter, her relating this letter to us viewers, our memories of hearing her speak and seeing those images of the man’s island, playful dogs, Tokyo and ceremonies.
The title of this exhibition Tyler and I have put together could have been, as the woman speaks in Sans Soleil, something about the world of appearances, the memory of them, and their disappearance. She speaks on this “world of appearances,” naming them “fragile, fleeting, revocable, of trains that fly from planet to planet, of samurai fighting in an immutable past.” The world of appearances, contrary to what Vertov demands of cinema that it bear witness to the truth, the films exhibited here might fall under the theme of ‘the impermanence of things.’ The Soviet Union has disappeared and perhaps the last noro filmed by Marker. From the Lumière’s to Vertov and to Jonas Mekas, to Peter Greenaway and Marker, each projects in various ways fleeting images of a past, rather than a particular story or history that demands to be related in full. We have brief glimpses of years gone by, or in Marker’s case, a perpetual present in the form of letters and objects bristling with an impenetrable past; and also a future of science-fiction in the shots of Japan, mixed media, and philosophical musings. These filmed-images, like Krasna tells us in Sans Soleil, are now part of our memories.