Dziga Vertov by Peter Kubelka / by KirstenStudio

After last week of experimental film screenings, it seems appropriate that I'd end up at MoMA Friday night for their screening of Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass by Dziga Vertov, Russia's master of early avant-garde cinema.

I recently read Documentary: A History of Non-Fiction Films, written by Erik Barnouw. The author devotes some time to Vertov and he wrote enough about Vertov's life and works to pique my interest.  When I noticed the Dziga Vertov Exhibition at MoMA I felt inspired to check it out. (After Friday night's film, I was motivated to go to Saturday's series of two lectures. Unfortunately both were sold out.)

The real treat of Friday evening, however, ended up being Peter Kubelka, the Austrian experimental filmmaker who introduced Friday night's film. He spoke with such passion and humor, and was incredibly visual in his explanations and descriptions. He had the audience in the palm of his hand.

Personally, I was completely engrossed and almost preferred him to continue speaking rather than break for the actual film. I sat by a guy who mentioned he had a class taught by Kubelka and said he was equally amazing then. Kubelka, also a theorist and teacher, was responsible for the restoration of Vertov’s Enthusiasm and had a significant role in preserving a collection of Vertov film materials at the Austrian Film Museum. Mr. Kulbelka co-founded the museum in 1964. He is also on the Selection Committee at Anthology Film Archives.

Mr. Kubelka spoke for a while before playing the first ten minutes of Enthusiasm.  The film was then stopped and Mr. Kubelka spoke again. He proceeded to break down what was just shown.  He explained the significance of the visual and audio elements, which enhanced my experience when it was then played from the beginning all the way through the film.

Without the kind of context Friday night's audience was given, Enthusiasm might appear to be an interesting document of Russia in the 30's and its promotion of socialism. This is why putting something like this in your Netflix queue doesn't always quite cut it.

Mr. Kubelka pointed out the relevance of the microphone being in the frame purposefully.  Vertov wanted us aware that we are seeing reality being recorded and not just canned music laid under some images. The juxtapostion of people kissing the religious icon’s feet at the cathedral, to drunkards downing a bottle of vodka.  At first sight, this may appear to be nothing more than a reflection of city center life in mid afternoon (unless you majored in cinema studies, which I regrettably did not), but Kubelka clues us to something more.  It is a commentary on the ill effects of religion and drinking. We are being told they're a crutch.  We later see steeples being torn down and a message of diligent productivity in both machine and human, as though they are one.

In the year 1930, visual film and audio became one and sound performs an important role in Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass. Again, Mr. Kubelka's poetic prose presents movement as sound, and sound as music. "We live in a world of separation." He sights the example of a ballet performance and his Grandmother chopping onions.  The former we understand to be musical movement - art, while the latter we wouldn't, yet chopping the onion creates rhythm, movement, sound, etc. "Movement makes sound, sound makes movement.  What we call symphony is myth" he told us.  Sound, he says, is the messenger of movement and in Enthusiasm we're told that Vertov digs into this mine of possibilities with sound and time.  As I watched the film as Kubelka's words sank in, I was inspired despite the fact that by modern standards, Enthusiasm is long and at times dry, it is rich in light and shadow, sound and rhythm.

While I can't fully quote or explain all the fascinating bits Kubelka brought up with his own special kind of symphonic enthusiasm, I'll leave you with some of his last words, or as best I can recall, of the evening...

We know there is air because of the Impressionists.... as we live, we learn in the world from what the artist developed and explored, and in that respect Vertov was a door opener.