ENTHUSIASM (Dziga Vertov, 1931)

One of the most dazzlingly inventive films ever made, especially in its symphony of natural (or purportedly natural) sounds, Entuziazm is still my least favorite film by Polish-born documentarian Dziga Vertov (Denis Abramovich Kaufman), who also made one of my ten favorite ones, The Man with a Movie Camera (1928). Entuziazm is essential viewing, of course, and it’s quite wonderful; but its celebration of Soviet progress and destiny grows tinny and a bit tiresome, and there’s at least one big inadvertent laugh. Blame Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who wrote Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Every time I see Entuziazm, when the narrator boasts that worker productivity succeeded in meeting the goals of the five-year-plan in only four years, I think of Ninotchka, where, upon meeting her in Paris, an aristocratic slacker dispenses this sarcasm to a Soviet agent: “Comrade, I’ve been fascinated by your five-year-plan for the last fifteen years.”
     Entuziazm opens with the sound of a cuckoo clock—a reference to Russia’s feeble-brained tsarist past. An ordinary young woman wearing earphones is seated outdoors. Intercutting eventually suggests the possibility she is listening to the broadcast of a symphonic concert. The new order, the Soviet Union, it is implied, has brought music—the music of inspiration and possibility—to the masses.
     A cruel exhibit of past religious habits follows as outside and inside a church old worshippers cross themselves—derisively, one looped sequence shows the same soul crossing herself over and over and over again—and kiss the feet of a gigantic Jesus. A low, upwardly tilted camera creates an impression of oppressiveness. All this nastiness is mere set-up, in any case, to the raiding and emptying of the church of its icons by workers: implicitly, the new freedom. (Later, we see a young woman—perhaps the same one as before—sculpting a bust of Lenin: a new “icon.”) The cross on top of the church is replaced with the nation’s flag. The old has given way to the new.
     Vertov creates a stunning smoke-belching ode to industrial productivity that Robert J. Flaherty would environmentally undercut, biting the hand of Standard Oil that was underwriting it, in Louisiana Story (1948). Amidst a cacophony of toot-tooting, static, chug-chugging and ding-a-linging, we are told this: “The country needs coal.” Vertov, in a highly fragmented fashion, aims at an integrative view of the interdependency of elements of Soviet productivity. Coal-mining provides energy; factories, combining machine- and human labor, provide steel and manufactured farm equipment; the latter, fueled by coal and operated by farmers, thresh a harvest of wheat. The railroad is shown as connective tissue, transporting mined coal to the factories and, from the factories, whatever is needed in rural areas. Railroad tracks are the new order’s bloodstream. Captions and narration assist in portraying workers at whatever point in this joint process as aggressive warriors and heroic figures. However, one remark about potential worker indolence reminded me of the warnings against drinking and smoking in Vertov’s earlier Kino-Eye (1924).
     This is one of those Soviet films with many low, upwardly tilted shots of laborers cast against destiny-laden eternal skies. Like time-lapser Gus Van Sant long after him, Vertov is fond of speeding up those skies, in his case to combine in the same image a steadfast structure, such as the church steeple now crowned by the flag, and the rushing skies above it. At one glorious moment, Vertov speeds up further the speeded-up motion, and the explosive result summarizes all the bursts of impossibility that throughout the film encapsulate the newness of cinema, this a combinate metaphor for the newness of the Soviet adventure: reverse motion, multiple exposures, quick intercutting, camera rotation, and so forth. Experimental techniques dizzy us with possibilities; but Vertov can also frame a shot so that it assumes tremendous life without the intervention of tricks. An overhead shot of soldiers marching in the street creates a powerful oceanic effect that pushes and pulls the viewer’s eye and pounding heart from top to bottom of the image. Vertov is a master of perceptual psychology.
     Why do I not like this film more then? It is cold, not much fun, disjointed, repetitious.
     Footnote: The film’s conclusive march tune suggests where Meredith Willson may have found the melody for “76 Trombones.”

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