When insight took a back seat to `socialist realism'

Constructivism in Film: ``The Man With the Movie Camera,'' a Cinematic Analysis, book by Vlada Petric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 325 pp. $44.50. The artistic term ``avant-garde'' is a vague one - it means ``advance guard,'' nothing more - and usually best avoided. But in certain times and places, there has been an identifiable ``garde'' for adventurous artists to be ``avant.''

One such was the Soviet Union in the 1920s and '30s, when Communist Party ideologues laid down a line of ``socialist realism'' and expected artists to steer their activities by it. This meant subordinating insight and ``formalism'' to practical, accessible work that would advance the cause of socialism.

Many artists had no problem with this notion. Indeed, some of them (short on insight and formal cleverness in the first place) probably welcomed it. But it posed a desperate plight for filmmaker Dziga Vertov and others like him, who saw the essence of their art as a campaign to bring new forms - and through them, new meanings - into the world.

Bursting with enthusiasm for the artistic possibilities of modern technology, Vertov was a born filmmaker. His goal was to rid cinema of literary and theatrical roots, creating a new kind of film that would rouse and raise the viewer's consciousness. He was close kin to the Constructivists, who saw art works as functional objects with the pragmatic elegance of craftily designed buildings or machines - in which each element, however small, contributes to a harmonious whole.

Up to a point, the socialist-realism gang might have welcomed Vertov's ideas. He and his ``kinoks,'' as he called his colleagues, opposed all fiction on film, preferring a radical realism that necessarily reflected the everyday circumstances of the new Soviet state.

Their theory had a Part 2 that soured relations with the ideologues in power, however. While it's the job of cinematography to capture life-as-it-is, Vertov said, the filmmaker should use editing to interpret and redefine reality.

The realists had no problem with Vertov's images. But what he did with those images - cutting and splicing them into visionary streams of interpretive art - put him beyond the pale. So did his belief in a deliberately difficult art that forces the spectator toward active participation, not passive consumption. So did his refusal to value ideological correctness over freedom of personal expression.

Much of this may sound like an obsolete and academic quarrel, but its history sheds interesting light on contemporary cinema. Nowadays, lazy critics and formula-obsessed filmmakers take for granted the superiority of fiction over fact in popular moviemaking.

Not so in Vertov's day, when critics vigorously argued the merits of staged versus unstaged film. The most influential debaters came down passionately for the ``cinema of fact'' over the ``cinema of mesmerization,'' as they called fictionalized movies.

Lenin himself got into the act with his New Economic Policy, decreeing that a ``reasonable dose'' of entertainment cinema would bring in rubles at the box office without harming the masses beyond repair. This led purists to fret even more over what one theorist called ``a Pickfordization ... of the workers' way of life.''

Have such hearty theoretical battles been fought in American film circles? Yes, but not since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when documentary filmmakers - led by Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers, and others - vigorously challenged the notion that only fiction has a legitimate place on the screens of neighborhood theaters. At the same time, advocates of nonfiction cinema fiercely debated the ethical implications of traditional documentary - with its potentially manipulative narration - and such new, ``non-coercive'' forms as direct cinema and cin'ema-v'erit'e.

That was a period of healthy ferment, especially compared with the Age of Spielberg we live in today, when only the slimmest kinds of fantasy and frivolity are deemed reliably ``bankable'' with a conservative-minded public.

It's no coincidence, I suspect, that deeply felt arguments over the proper nature of theatrical film - and the feasibility of popular nonfiction film - have raged in both the United States and the USSR at times of social and cultural upheaval. No discussions this provocative can be heard (outside some limited academic areas) in our own cinematically smug and sociopolitically self-satisfied era.

``Constructivism in Film'' focuses on the dynamics of Vertov's work, with stimulating side trips into his life, times, theories, and relationships with art movements from Constructivism to Futurism. Vlada Petric, who teaches film at Harvard University and runs the Harvard Film Archive, leaves the reader to draw connections with more recent developments in filmmaking and criticism.

``Constructivism in Film'' is fascinating on a historical level, as Mr. Petric traces the ironic and ultimately tragic circumstances that led one of the Soviet Union's most progressive artists to be branded a ``formalist'' reactionary.

Anyone interested in modern history will find much to ponder in the impeccable first section, which studies Vertov's career in its cultural and political context.

Film enthusiasts will find more riches in the succeeding portions, which offer superbly detailed analyses (both thematic and formal) of Vertov's masterpiece, ``The Man With the Movie Camera,'' still a frequently revived and internationally admired work.

Petric's writing style tends to mirror the complexity of his ideas, especially in the analytical chapters. He's also prone to tossing off technical terms with explanations that come tardily, perfunctorily, or not at all. These quirks render ``Constructivism in Film'' more challenging (especially for those with little or no background in film studies) than it might have been. But its rewards are generous.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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