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Man with the Movie Camera: The Male Gaze Between every audience and a film there will always lay a camera; this camera may seem transparent or not visible, but nevertheless there is a camera and a cameraperson filming the scenes. Laura Mulvey, within her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, coins the term “male gaze,” where the intermediary, the camera, is metaphorically transformed to the eyes of a male, changing how we view cinema, as well as both men and women immortalized on the silver screen.
Dziga Vertov, a Soviet director, wrote and directed an avant-garde, silent documentary film called Man with the Movie Camera in 1929. Despite being famous for its anti-narrative cinematical elements, the film includes a number of narrative developments of human movement in the Soviet Union, which portray power struggles between the government, men, and women.
Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera reflects Mulvey’s psychoanalytic male gaze by abstaining from the use of a visible subject or actors, its use of a wide and unusual variety of cinematic camera techniques, and a male perspective.
Man with the Movie Camera lacks a clear or constant visible subject or actor, and thus supports Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in cinema. The film, instead of having recognizable characters or actors, attempts to capture the life of a camera man, very much from the camera’s perspective.
Vertov includes shots of the titular camera men within the film, but many of the scenes are montage or unstaged clips of daily life.
By not utilizing strongly developed characters, the audience does not have a particular perspective to view the film, other than the exclusively male cameramen, but, by including the cameramen, with their cameras, filming within the film, as well having the audience view another audience watching the same movie, Vertov brings attention to the gaze itself; that there is, in this case, a man looking through the camera and creating the scene.
Mulvey says that “There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at” (200). The male gaze in the example of scenes of cameramen filming with the film itself represents this pleasure of looking and of capturing a moment. Mulvey goes on to say that: “At first glance, the cinema would seem to be remote from the undercover world of the surreptitious observation of an unknowing and unwilling victim.
What is seen of the screen is so manifestly shown. But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy” (201). Man with the Movie Camera seems to counteract the illusion of cinema by drawing attention to the act of filming and the cameramen themselves and a lack characters.
Furthermore, because the film is a silent documentary, though an orchestral soundtrack was produced to accompany the film, the characters that are present have no voice or audible connection to the audience, thus without a consistency of characters nor a voice attached to any of the subjects within the film the audience becomes aware that the camera can ultimately be an intermediary between the cameramen and them, and the illusion of narrative cinema is lost.
Mulvey states that in film women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control of the camera, and thus the gaze, comes from the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres, in this case, as a result of the male cameramen present in the film (200). Though there are no consistent human characters with Man with the Movie Camera, the camera itself seems become a subject itself.
In the opening scene of the movie one of the various cameramen is positioned, by being superimposed, on top of another large, mountainous camera. In later scenes within the film, Vertov seeks to emphasize the power of the visual reach of the camera; it can go anywhere and be anywhere. For example, Vertov creates scenes in which the film superimposes a cameraman inside a glass of, women waking up and getting dressed, and a woman giving birth, and the baby being bathed. In another scene the camera is subject to simple animation in which it even evolves human movement like its cameramen.
These scenes portray the gaze of the camera, thus the gaze of the man behind the camera – a literal male gaze, as having the power to film and objectify anything, from this the camera itself becomes the subject amongst a lack of actors. Man with the Movie Camera utilizes an unusually broad range of cinematic technique and staging, which reflect Mulvey’s male gaze of cinema. A majority of the scenes in the film appear to be completely not staged, as the audience is aware that the cameramen being filmed are simply attempting to gain shots of people of the Soviet Union in their everyday life and routine.
By creating a seemingly realistic shot, Vertov changes “the function of film… to reproduce as accurately as possible the so-called natural conditions of human perception. Camera technology… and camera movements…, combined with invisible editing… all tend to blur the limits of screen” (204). In one clip, Mikhail Kaufman, one of the cameramen, as well as Vertov’s editor, sets his camera up in a train car to film passengers sitting in a train car.
Despite the people in the train car appearing staged, one child waves to the camera shyly, making the scene lose its formal, undisturbed feeling. In a similar way to voyeurism and the male gaze, Mulvey says “that of the spectator in direct scopophilic contact with the female form displayed for his enjoyment (connoting male fantasy) and that of the spectator fascinated with the image of his like set in an illusion of natural space, and through him gaining control and possession of the woman within the diegesis” (204).
In the case of Kaufman filming what we presume as a diegesis of natural space, according to Mulvey the male gaze of the camera, the cameramen, and the audience creates a spectacle of the natural, or unstaged, world, which, as Mulvey puts in Freudian terms, creates a voyeuristic male fantasy. The film itself does contain sexual imagery, concurrent with the male fantasy. Scenes of a camera set up in a room continuously films women waking up and getting dressed, then undressed later, which literally fulfills the fantasy of voyeuristic male fantasy.
Similar to the concept of the’ peeping to,’ The Man with the Movie Camera creates an unstaged world which entertains the male gaze. Amongst other cinematic techniques include many scenes involving track shots. Track shots, so named because the camera is usually set along a track in order to control its movement, mirror a gentle progression of movement, not entirely unlike human walking or running. In this sense, the film once again recreates a natural world through comparably human movement. Other techniques, such as extreme close ups, for example of people sitting in the audience viewing the movie, the same film, within the movie in the heater present the audience with another scene in which the viewer is associated with the active subject; the camera and its gaze – or the gaze of the titular characters, and the passive, objectified individuals, as well as the masses. Lastly, Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera reflects Mulvey’s male gaze through its portrayal of men and women through objectification. The basis of this argument comes from the assumption that the audience will take the perspective of the cameramen seen filming within the movie, whom are the only consistent characters, thus the audience will take on the gaze of the male.
Mulvey says “the man controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralize the extra diegetic tendencies… as spectacle” (204). One of the first scenes in which women are visible on screen, is a montage of footage of cameramen working to achieve difficult or risky shots, such as sitting in front of a moving train or filming in a moving vehicle, spliced with scenes of women putting on pantyhose and braziers.
This comes as a reflection of the male gaze by objectifying women through the comparison between men working with cameras and taking dangerous shots and women’s legs. In one, the men are usually facing the camera or their faces are at the very least visible to the viewer whilst they are filming, yet for the women their faces are never visible throughout this montage, only their bodies.
This works on different levels to support a male gaze; it solidifies the association of the audience with the male by both showing men’s faces, and their gaze, and their relationship with the camera; women are not shown to be even capable of a gaze nor able to be equals with the male gaze by meeting it with their own. According to Mulvey, the male gaze is based upon the theory that “the paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.
An idea of woman stands as a linchpin to the system: it is her lack [of a phallus] that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence; it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies” (198). Through this reasoning, The Man with the Movie Camera, no matter how artificial this montage may be interpreted, objectifies women as both a threat of castration and sexual objects, and portrays men as the both the men behind the camera and connected to the actively looking audience. Despite much of the film being nstaged, The Man with the Movie Camera contains a few scenes in which the events are staged or choreographed. The scene mentioned earlier, of the women getting dressed, is one of the few obvious examples of staging within the film, as well as a scene in which chess pieces are being collected in the middle of the chess board. By having scenes that are obviously staged or choreographed, especially amongst a vast majority of film that is natural, or, Vertov emphasizes such objectification.
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera comes to the viewer as a reflection Laura Mulvey’s psychological male gaze by having no consistent characters or narrative development, unusual cinematic and plot techniques, and by utilizing an objectifying male gaze. Vertov’s film, much like a majority of film of the silver screen from Hollywood’s day and age, clearly had examples of a male gaze a theory from Mulvey, a much more contemporary writer, despite many of its non-traditional, anti-narrative structure.