Judge Daryl Loomis has no time for fiction, his real life is too hot as it is.
By the tenth anniversary of October, there must be not a single Tungus who has not seen Šestaja cast' mira.
Director Dziga Vertov (The Man with the Movie Camera) was disdainful of fiction film. He was in love with filmmaking technology, but strongly felt that fiction was a deceitful art form which took away from the true power of film to enlighten and engage society. Vertov stayed true to this ideal throughout his entire career; he never made anything resembling a fiction film, but it doesn't fit to call his productions documentaries, either. He strove to create what he called "Kino Pravda," translated as "film truth," in which he tried to capture the world unaware. Vertov's work resembles newsreels mixed with propaganda, but is something all its own. These narrative-free montages were hugely influential to political filmmakers like Chris Marker (A Grin without a Cat), and the two newly restored films on this set from Film Museum present the director at his most effective.
Šestaja cast' mira (translated "A Sixth Part of the World") is a travelogue of sorts that documents the USSR, from the urban Moscow to the barren Mongolian landscapes. In one sense, this film shows parts of the Soviet empire that were totally inaccessible to most. For us, it is a wide open window into the cultural expanse of the USSR at that time. In another sense, it is a seventy-minute thank you to the Soviet people, commending them for their hard work to make the Soviet Union the amazing place that it has become. This amounts to some of the most soft line propaganda ever committed to film, a sort of "Ski Utah" ad for the Soviets. There is no anti-capitalist message, though it is explicitly pro-communist. Unlike so much from the period (and much more as time passed), Šestaja cast' mira does not compare itself to the dark presence in the West. It pats the Soviet citizens on the back for their hard work in building such a fantastic empire.
Odinnadcatyj (translated "The Eleventh Year") features the same kind of soft-sell propaganda as Šestaja cast' mira, but carries a more pointed end than the earlier film. Here, Vertov focuses on power. More specifically, he shows the construction of hydro-electric power stations and bringing electrification to the Ukraine, certainly no small feat, then or now. Originally intended as a celebration of the decade anniversary of the October Revolution, it was delayed a year and, as such, has its title. In essence, Vertov followed the same path he did in the previous film, but its more focused subject and more advanced style make it more effective as a film, if not as propaganda.
While Vertov intended to eliminate the crutch of narrative from his films, he ultimately fails in this respect. It doesn't diminish the power or the worth of either film, but Vertov was misguided to think he could use the techniques he employs without imparting a sense of story. It would likely have been difficult for films like this to have been produced in later Soviet regimes, simply because of the seeming formalism Vertov employs. He heavily utilizes interlaid footage to connect his subjects, from the montage of workers in Šestaja cast' mira to the giant pounding his hammer into the rural Soviet village in Odinnadcatyj. The style is consistently beautiful, but it's hard not to think that his eye toward esthetics hurts the overall effectiveness of his aim.
Further disturbing the anti-narrative aims of these films are the original scores by Michael Nyman. They're out of step with Vertov's artistic aims, but his music makes the films much more enjoyable. Nyman's bouncy jazz-pop sounds add a whole different dimension to the films, in spite of likely objections from the director, adding to the narrative, lending a sense of humor and humanity to the footage that is not there without it. Both films have the option to watch silently, but that sounds like a bum deal to me. Nyman's scores are at once strong pieces of music on their own as well as effective accents to Vertov's films.
Film Museum's two-disc DVD set for Vertov's films is as good as can be expected, though there is an problem worth noting. This is only important for those on this side of the Atlantic, but the discs are PAL and would not play on my normal system. They played on both computer systems I tried, but your mileage may vary. I'm very happy to have been able to see the films, but that fact certainly makes any audio/visual judgment suspect. Such as I could see, both features look fairly good, considering the circumstances. There is plenty of damage to the prints, but this is all understandable, and both films are completely watchable at all times. The sound, on the other hand, is excellent, but all the speakers had to put out is music and it's a new recording, so I expected no less.
For extras, we have two short films, one from the time of Vertov's pictures and the other that serves as a glorified featurette. In the Shadow of the Machine is a German compilation film by Albrecht Viktor Blum and Leo Lania from 1928. Stylistically similar to the two features on the set, this film uses footage from Odinnadcatyj, among many others, to spin a very different web. Instead of the glorification of man's use of machine that Vertov intended with his film, this uses the culled scenes to speculate on the idea that man will eventually become a slave to the machine and will become little more than handymen in the mechanical world. It's an interesting thought, but its uncredited use of some fifty to sixty films also amounts to plagiarism; though this for another discussion. It's an interesting piece of work, nonetheless. The other film is a comparison of Odinnadcatyj and In the Shadow of the Machine, and discusses the use of footage that doesn't exist in the current edition of Vertov's film. This is a mere fourteen minutes and could stand to be much longer.
Dziga Vertov is important to the history of documentary and film essay, though his name is not remembered like it should be. Film Museum deserves credit for restoring these two films by the director at his height. I could recommend these films to anybody interested in the history of film, but unless it receives an NTSC release, there are few people I know who can benefit from the discs.
The discs aren't perfect, but the films are most interesting. Not guilty.
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Studio: Film Museum
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Scales of Justice, Odinnadcatyj
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Studio: Film Museum
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• Short Films
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