A Post-Structuralist View of Narrative in “Man with a Movie Camera”

Now for a POST-STRUCTURALIST SEMIOTIC approach

This analysis can provide more specificity and in-depth analysis about how Narrative works in Man with a Movie Camera by applying another layer of analysis through linguistic comparisons to see its underlying structures.  It also helps clarify the formalist logic used by Lev Manovich.  After all, the concept of Narrative is quintessentially borrowed from literature or linguistic practices to which Manovich nods.  Moreover, post-structuralism is a very established (and important) field of cultural analysis that arose in the middle of the 20th Century.

Consider this text description of one section of the film:  woman on the phone + man directing traffic + woman on the phone + traffic signal turning + busy streets + couple at the wedding registry office + movie camera lens hoovering over busy streets + couple at wedding registry office + traffic signal turning.  The data or scenes are ordered, linearly and viewed one after another.  However, what is the logic that “reads” the flow of one scene to the next as a Narrative?

Consider that a plot requires that one subject or object affects/causes/takes an action on another subject or object.  In fact, a plot is based on how one event causes the next event and, thereby, advances or progresses the narrative.  Yet, on the structural level of the exhibited data, this is not what happens in Man with a Movie Camera – one scene does not create an “event” that “causes” the next scene to arise.  Instead, as a linguistic structure, the film reads: Subject + Subject + Subject + Subject.  There are no “verbs.”  Structurally or semiotically, one scene does not cause an action nor is it linked by a “verb” to the next scene, so to speak.

So reconsidering the above text description of scenes in Man with a Movie Camera, the busy streets do not “cause” the wedding registry office scene.  One scene does not cause the next scene to arise.  So without a plot, the scenes still create a narrative, a progression of meaning, but in a different way: by carefully applying visual techniques or “effects” to the series of scenes to make a “visual montage”.  (These days, many of us may be familiar with the slow-motion “visual montage” as a popular cinematic treatment to create drama or quite often to spoof or parody a particular sequence of events, and it sometimes appears in political campaigns.)   As Manovich states, in  The Language of New Media (MIT Press: 2001):

Man with a Movie Camera never arrives at anything like a well-defined language.  Rather, it proposes… to use… ‘effects,’ as cinema’s new way of speaking… And this is why Vertov’s film has particular relevance to new media.  It proves that it is possible to turn [visual] ‘effects’ into a meaningful artistic language.  Why is it that in [John] Whitney’s computer films [such as Catalog, 1961]  and music videos effects are just effects, whereas in the hands of Vertov they acquire meaning?  Because in Vertov’s film they [the effects] are motivated by a particular argument, which is that the new techniques of obtaining images and manipulating them, summed up by Vertov in his term ‘kino-eye,’ can be used to decode the world.  As the film progresses… straight footage gives away to manipulated footage… we gradually realize the full range of possibilities offered by the camera.  Vertov’s goal is to seduce us into his way of seeing and thinking, to make us share his excitement, as he discovers a new language for film.  The gradual process of discovery is [the] film’s main narrative… Thus in the hands of Vertov, the database, this normally static and ‘objective’ form, becomes dynamic and subjective.  More important, Vertov is able… to merge database and narrative into a new form.” (242-243, my emphasis)

So whether or not you agree with Manovich’s analysis, he makes an important point that is worth understanding: instead of Vertovi’s narrative unfolding by a plot that links the data – that is from one piece of data causing the events of another piece of data – the author/artist/auteur makes choices about how to use visual effects to give meaning and a point of view to the data. The sequence of “affected scenes” then advance a narrative by constructing a cinematic montage.  For example, Vertov sped scenes to make them more exciting; while he juxtaposed industrially scenes with busy social scenes to relate them by proximity in the narrative; and he ordered the entire film as if it were one day.  The experience of each effect and then viewing them in sequence gives you a narrative, but not one of causes, rather the artist’s new subjective narrative is one of effects or affected scenes.  As for Vertov, his effects presented the “data” as a narrative of an exciting, productive and social Russian society.

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