Two Radical Filmmakers: Luis Bunuel and Dziga Vertov
Spanish Surrealist Luis Bunuel and Russian Futurist Dziga Vertov are both widely regarded as innovators of avant-garde filmmaking. Both directors are similar in that their pioneering efforts date from the late 1920s, and both cite Marxism as the political motivation behind their respective works. Yet each director's films are quite disparate from the other's, achieving different effects in the viewer, and even finding themselves at odds with the other's films. The ideological themes and motivations of Luis Bunuel and Dziga Vertov are demonstrated well by two films, Bunuel's The Andalusian Dog and Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera, both of which are highly characteristic of their directors.
Bunuel and Vertov, while artistically opposed to one another, are both identified as adherents of Marxism. Bunuel's advocacy of Marxism is exemplified by a statement written in response to a telegram from Moscow and signed by Bunuel and his fellow Surrealists announcing their full support of the Communist International (Lewis 87-88). Vertov's involvement with Marxism dates to his employment in 1918 with the Moscow Cinema Committee, responsible for producing official Soviet newsreels for the new Bolshevik government (Feldman 2-3).
Yet, while both Bunuel and Vertov's works exist as tools of social and political change, they are also reactions to each other's style of filmmaking. Bunuel lists Vertov as a producer of the type of film
directed exclusively to the artistic sensibility and to the reason of the spectator, with its play of light and shadow, its photographic effects, its preoccupation with rhythmic montage and technical research, and at times in the . . . display of a perfectly conventional and reasonable mood. (Bunuel 151)
Bunuel claims that The Andalusian Dog "represents a violent reaction" (151) to this sort of film.
Vertov's films, on the other hand, pit themselves against the works of other avant-garde filmmakers, including the Surrealists, due to what Seth R. Feldman refers to as "Vertov's attack on the dominance of artistic personality . . ." (38) which he (Vertov) perceived in the Surrealists' work. Further ideological, aesthetic, and technical distinctions between Bunuel and Vertov's films may be seen through the individual analyses of Bunuel 's The Andalusian Dog and Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera.
As quoted by Francisco Aranda, Luis Bunuel, who collaborated with Salvador Dali in its filming,1 describes The Andalusian Dog, or Un Chien Andalou, as an attempt "to take the aesthetics of Surrealism to the screen" (56). Aranda further quotes Bunuel 's explanation of Surrealism as "an unconscious, psychic automatism, able to return to the mind its real function, outside of all control exercised by reason, morality, or aesthetics" (56). The Andalusian Dog certainly succeeds at living up to this explanation, as its scenario is not bound by reason, nor does its grotesque imagery comply with the moral or aesthetic standards of the day.
The Andalusian Dog is filled with bizarre and vulgar images which directly attack reason and moral standards. The film begins rather brusquely with the famous image of a woman's eye being sliced open with a razor (The Andalusian Dog). Francisco Arandals synopsis of the film notes several other repulsive images which are obscured in the actual film due to its varying quality such as "two pianos, each bearing the carcase of a donkey and oozing from the lid entrails and excrement," as well as close-ups of armpit hair (61-62). Other notable images include a man uninvitedly groping at a woman's breasts and then visualizing her as being naked, an androgynous woman poking at a severed hand in the street and subsequently being struck down by a car, and ants crawling from the stigma in a man's hand (Andalusian Dog).
Bearing in mind its nonsensical, violent imagery, The Andalusian Dog might be construed by some as nothing more than an exercise in shock value, but Bunuel determines that the film serves its purpose as a work of Surrealist art by explaining how its audience, by accepting "only those representations as valid which, though they moved them profoundly, had no other explanation . . . , dispensed with the restraints of customary morality and reason" (153). The Andalusian Dog can thus be seen as an attempt to upset social and cultural standards; this is further demonstrated by Bunuel's statement that "this film has no intention of attracting nor pleasing the spectator; indeed, on the contrary, it attacks him, to the degree that he belongs to a society with which Surrealism is at war" (152).
Bunuel's Marxist political views, however, are never actually directly addressed in the film, although the film does question bourgeois values, and much of Bunuel's later work includes direct attacks on bourgeois society (Mellen 11). It is curious that the Marxist ideology with which the Surrealists so strongly identify is largely absent here.
Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera, or Chelovek s kinoapparatom, is a clear example of Russian Futurist, or Constructivist, values. Constructivism, described by Seth Feldman as "the use of a Futurist aesthetic to secure the triumph of the [Bolshevik] Revolution in the form of a technological quantum leap into the future" (27), is successfully demonstrated in Vertovl's film by the unification of the Futurist aesthetic, which "[advocates] speed, power, and mobility" and "[celebrates] technological achievements as works of art" (25), with Vertov's optimistic views of the new Soviet society. As a filmmaker directly employed by the Soviet government to produce propaganda films, and as a technical innovator, Dziga Vertov can easily be considered an avant-garde artist, one who unites sociopolitical concepts with art.
Futurism's celebration of the machine and rejection of previous art forms are both manifested, and unified, in The Man with the Movie Camera. Vertov's film constantly employs innovative techniques made possible by the utilization of the most up-to-date filmmaking technology available in the Soviet Union at the time. Feldman lists several techniques used in the film, including "overcranking, undercranking, stop-action, reverse action, and superimposition," that can be seen not only as aesthetic innovations, but also resulting in a distinctly "machine-made vision" (35); additionally, the camera is "mounted in positions from which the human eye would be barred" (35). At the end of the film, by using stop-action photography, the camera appears to assemble itself on its tripod and bow to the audience (Man with the Movie Camera).
Vertov's admiration of the machine and technology is further shown throughout the film by the inclusion of an astounding number of machines and engineered objects. Bridges, dams, locomotives, biplanes, and trolleys appear in the film as often as humans do, if not moreso; in fact, many of the people appearing in the film are shown cheerfully oiling giant gears, operating giant spindles, and attending to other types of machines (Movie Camera). In one scene, a discus thrower shown in slow motion suggests the proto-films of Eadweard Muybridge, whose photographic work divides human and animal motions into multiple images of discrete, machine-like movements (which, in turn, suggests the work of Frederick Taylor, who sought to break down the human aspect of manufacturing into series of efficient, machine-like movements).
Vertov even depicts the filmmaker as a type of machine, as shown in a striking montage sequence in which the image of the cameraman setting up a camera is very rapidly alternated with images of various types of large machines (Movie Camera). This is also shown in a recurring image in which a human eye is superimposed over a camera lens (Movie Camera).
Vertov subscribes to a concept commonly found in the avant-garde; namely, that anyone should be able to participate in the artistic process. To this end, in nearly all of his films, Vertov employs a technique he calls "Life Caught Unawares" (Feldman 25), described by Feldman as the "inclusion of images of the common man going about his business . . . [and] the use of hidden-camera shots" (30). The Man with the Movie Camera includes this technique as well, with the interesting result that there are no actors, characters, fictional storylines, or stagings (except for stop-action animation) (Movie Camera). This "Life Caught Unawares" technique distinguishes Vertov's film from Bunuel's The Andalusian Dog, which is fictional and employs characters.
The Man with the Movie Camera is so obsessed with machinery that one may speculate whether it was meant to be viewed by machines, although this is a cold prospect. It seems as though Vertov does not even intend for his film to be construed as entertainment, although the wide array of visually interesting effects make it entertaining. The film does actually work on another level, as a sort of abstract film essay on the early Soviet Union.
Thus the film techniques of two politically similar directors may be contrasted. While Bunuel's The Andalusian Dog does not address radical politics nearly as explicitly as Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera, Bunuel's film does not exist in the post-Revolutionary climate that Vertov's does. One wonders if Bunuel would feel as hostile towards Vertov's society as he does his own, or if Vertov would find the same fascination with Bunuel's Western Europe as he does with the Soviet Union.
1 Although The Andalusian Dog is credited to both Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Francisco Aranda explains that
when [The Andalusian Dog] is compared with the later and separate works of Bunuel and Dali, we see that not only the cinematographic quality, but also all the positive values of the film are those of Bunuel. Mary Meerson, of the Cinematheque Francais, who was in Paris in the thirties, has said that anything not good . . . must be attributed to Dali: some recherche images, the symbolist tendencies, an element of snobisme, the danger of avant-garde preciosity. (60)
- The Andalusian Dog. Dir. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. 1929.
- Aranda, Francisco. Luis Bunuel: A Critical Biography. Trans. David Robinson. New York: Da Capo, 1976.
- Bunuel, Luis. "Notes on the Making of Un Chien Andalou." The World of Luis Bunuel. Ed. Joan Mellen. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. 151-153.
- Feldman, Seth R. Dziga Vertov, a guide to references and resources. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979.
- Lewis, Helena. The Politics of Surrealism. New York: Paragon House, 1988.
- Man with the Movie Camera. Dir. Dziga Vertov. 1928.
- Mellen, Joan, ed. The World of Luis Bunuel. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.