It’s all a matter of confronting the visual elements one way or another. It’s all a matter of intervals.
Dziga Vertov, “Kinoks: Revolution”

The journal of the Left Front of the Arts, LEF, was where the fathers of Soviet and world cinema, Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, first announced their theoretical projects. It was still difficult, however, to sense in these brief manifestos (“Montage of Attractions” and “Kinoks”) the principal differences in how the two men saw the nature and tasks of (Soviet) cinema. These would become apparent later, in the late twenties, and would be impartially discussed in the pages of New LEF.

Their approaches might be crudely summarized as affective-manipulative (Eisenstein) and machinic-democratic (Vertov).

These stances made absolute two discrete aspects of the aesthetic doctrine of productionist art as developed within the LEF—namely, a notion of art’s goal as the sensual manipulation of the emotions of the viewer, listener, and reader versus the view of art as life-construction involving the creative participation of everyone.

It was no easy task to find a balance between these stances towards leftist art. For the LEFtists, considerations of craft and professionalism marked the limits of democratization, while the limits of professionalization itself were found in democratization’s demand that the model of art making as a closed caste of priests and “teachers of the people” be rejected.

The Proletkult movement insisted on democratizing art, but it went so far in this direction that it abolished art itself, descending into amateurism and dilettantism. The task of incorporating the proletariat within culture was thus solved, as it were, but only on the shaky basis that “the artist” belonged practically to his own social class. That is, Proletkult avoided overcoming his slave-like sensibility and developing his “proletarian consciousness.”

On the other hand, the Trotskyites (like most members of the Soviet government) stuck to traditional views about art’s role in society. They mainly emphasized its pedagogical and ideological functions, thus completely denying the very possibility of “proletarianizing” art and attracting the masses to it other than as students and spectators—that is, other than as objects of manipulation.

Despite their internal differences, the LEFtists proposed a model of cultural construction in which it was possible to become a life-artist here and now. This process wasn’t to be postponed until after socialism was constructed in one country or the world revolution accomplished.

This model was, of course, deeply utopian: aside from its meaning as a project(ion), it was also a paradox. Art as life-construction was possible only given the fulfillment of one condition: a society that had already achieved communism—that is, a society that had already overcome the division and alienation of labor and the social differences engendered by them. This society would be built, however, only if people took a life-constructivist approach to work and art.

LEF’s understanding of art as emotional manipulation was a response to the apparent contradiction between these two requirements. It proposed using a new kind of art to alter the sensibility of the new social class (workers) that had entered the historical arena. This approach didn’t contradict the idea of life-construction and the principles of democracy. On the contrary, it assumed their validity.

Andrei Platonov, a grateful reader of LEF’s first numbers, thus commented on Nikolai Chuzhak’s thesis: “No one will deny that art affects the emotions, that is, it organizes them in a particular direction. […] But to organize emotions means to organize human activity via the emotions. In other words, to construct life” (Platonov, “LEF”).

But the practitioners and theoreticians of LEF saw the means and ends of such “construction” differently. Sergei Tretyakov, New LEF’s editor-in-chief, noted that although Eisenstein and Vertov shared the same general political outlook, they had from the outset employed different methods. In Eisenstein’s work he detected “the preponderance of the agitprop element with the presented material relegated to an auxiliary state.” In Vertov’s work, on the contrary, Tretyakov noted “the preponderance of the informational element, in which the subject matter itself is more important.”

Tretyakov argued that Vertov’s films were not pure newsreels for they were guided not by the tasks of “daily life and social weightiness,” but used factual (flagrant) material as the unit of an aesthetic utterance provoked by the demands of the revolutionary class (Tretyakov, “LEF and Cinema”). Tretyakov described Eisenstein as a filmmaker-as-engineer who used the audience itself as his subject matter. They are a “slab of meat” he operates on with his instruments (the montage of attractions) in order to “mold social emotions” (Tretyakov, “Eisenstein: The Filmmaker as Engineer”).

While Vertov’s cinematic technique was employed in discovering a new social sensibility that would allow viewers themselves to make conclusions about what they’d seen, Eisenstein exploited the current sensibility of the masses in order to “emotionally shock” them, which was the only possibility for enforcing “perception of the ideological aspect of the presented [material] and [drawing] the ultimate ideological conclusion” (Eisenstein, “Montage of Attractions”). Vertov and Eisenstein’s communicative strategies thus mainly differ in their treatment of the subject and the justification for montage technique.

For Vertov, communication between artist and spectator is furnished by a machine—the movie camera. The cinecamera is both the metaphor for such a machine and its exemplar as the instrument of film production. In keeping with the productionist ideas of the LEFtists, Vertov insists on this notion throughout Man with a Movie Camera. Vertov contrasts the individual subject, who illustrates his experiences by means of commonplace movie plots and mimetic acting, with the evolving possibilities of the kino-eye, which dispassionately investigates the “chaos of visual phenomena.” This kino-eye is motivated by nothing other than the task of reconstructing a social reality adequate to a liberated humanity, a reality that is disavowed and falsified in plot-centered fiction film. In Vertov’s work, reality isn’t captured in aesthetically contemplated images, but via the internal forms of social events, which are in a state of continuous becoming. Montage is subordinated to their internal rhythm (formed from temporal and spatial intervals), not to the clichés of the viewer’s superficial perception. This approach doesn’t propose that we record material processes seen from the outside, but that we expose within the visible the machinic structure of reality itself and bring the image of man into the closest possible alignment with this reality. Moreover, the machine is understood not as a human-controlled instrument that imitates his actions to help him achieve useful ends, but as the reflexive structure of matter itself, which biological man merely imitates. We are confronted here with a machinic-anthropological utopia (Vertov’s “perfect electric man”). This utopia, however, isn’t in thrall to the ideologemes of the already-achieved social paradise and the artist who reflects/protects its symbolic values, but is directed towards the permanent alteration of all aspects of life with the end of constructing the communist society.

Although he never needed literary treatments for his pictures, Vertov did write something like a libretto for Man with a Movie Camera. In it he attempted to “project a visually conceived cine-symphony into the realm of the word.” Here is what came of this attempt:

“During the process of observation and filming the chaos of life is gradually manifested. Everything is natural and explicable. The peasant with his seed drill, the worker at his lathe, the rabfak student bent over his book, the engineer at work on his blueprints, the Young Pioneer speaking at the club meeting—they all are engaged in one and the same necessary great cause. All of it—the newly built factory, the perfected machine tool, the opened village nursery, the well-written exam, the new sidewalk, the new tram […]—all these things have their sense. They are all victories, big and small, in the battle of new against old. […] They are all ground that has been won in the struggle to construct the Land of the Soviets, in the struggle with the lack of faith in socialist construction. The cinecamera is present at the great clash between the world of capitalists, speculators, manufacturers, and landowners, and the world of workers, peasants, and colonial slaves. The cinecamera is present at the decisive battle between the world’s only Land of Soviets and all other bourgeois countries.”

This long passage is something like the ideological storyboard of his renowned film. This storyboard isn’t, however, then manifested in a staged spectacle of cinematic images (as with Eisenstein), but rather guides the montage of unfolding social reality in Vertov’s film.

For Vertov, the subject position of the toiling revolutionary masses as Other was privileged. He saw his own work as filmmaker as immanent to the communist construction undertaken by the Soviet people. He simultaneously recorded its successes and urged it to continue this work without stopping.

Eisenstein criticized Vertov for the contemplativeness of his cine-aesthetics, contrasting the kino-eye, which only observes, to the “kino-fist,” which also acts. Such rhetoric, however, is just a symptom of the aggressive, individualistic strategy of Eisenstein himself. Onto the symbolic emptiness of the screen he projected images that were profoundly individual and autobiographical in their origins, merely camouflaging them with revolutionary propaganda slogans (cf. Valery Podoroga, “Eisenstein: Material for a Psychobiography”; and Osip Brik, “Vertov’s The Eleventh and Eisenstein’s October”). This only confirms the thesis that the Other is manipulated in Eisenstein’s movie theater of cruelty. In this sense, Eisenstein (at very least, in October) pursued a strategy that was the opposite of Vertov’s: a montaged reduplication of the revolutionary masses and an aestheticization of the modernist politics to which the Soviet state hewed in those years.

Scholars have justly remarked, in the narrow context, on a displacement of the “effects of socio-economic modernization” in formalist montage cinema happening in parallel with a shift of emphasis from effective production to ideological and artistic “effectiveness” (cf. Andrei Gornykh, “Montage as Historical Form”). But I would link the “reification” of modernist culture in the Soviet cinematic avant-garde, which these same scholars note, only with the Eisensteinian montage fragmentation of reality, while principally distinguishing it from Vertov’s practice of montage.