Report from John MacKay’s ARTHEMIS lecture

John MacKay — professor of Slavic and East European languages and literatures and film studies, and chair of the film studies program at Yale University — gave a very engaging talk yesterday for the ARTHEMIS lecture series. His presentation “Dziga Vertov and the Paradoxes of a Revolutionary Materialist Film Practice” gave the audience a good look at some of the material part of his forthcoming book on the soviet filmmaker.

The goal of this presentation was not only to reconstitute the production history of films on which Vertov worked throughout his career, but also to  fill narrative “gaps” in Vertov’s work and dispel certain ideas about Vertov’s career which are generally taken for granted. Through an extensive use of archive materials, including documents from Vertov’s personal archive, MacKay was able to get a more precise sense of the reception of Vertov’s work, as well as a clearer picture of Vertov’s relation to the rest of the industry.

MacKay’s aimed to demonstrate two things during this talk: First, that we need to take into consideration the larger production context of “auteurs” such as Vertov. Even though the production industry in the Soviet Union was quite different from the Hollywood studio system which is most familiar to us, there was such a thing as an institutionalized production system. MacKay attempted to demonstrate that one of Vertov’s main challenges was to find spaces in this system that would allow for experimentation. In other words, Vertov had to find cracks in the system that would allow his vision to shine through.

The second aim of MacKay’s talk was to clarify a particular aspect of Vertov’s theories and practices which has led to two opposing readings of his work. While, some see Vertov as the most important proponent of non-fiction cinema in Soviet Russia, the others see in him a purely avant-garde filmmaker. The truth, MacKay argues, is that Vertov was fully invested in both camps. This point was emphasized by MacKay during his conclusion, in an attempts to warn us against the oversimplification of this binary opposition which has plagued most scholarship on Vertov.


Next week, April 4 at 4pm, ARTHEMIS will be hosting its final event for the academic year 2013-14. For this occasion, Raymond Bellour (CRNS) will come give a talk entitled “On Cinema and Other Moving Images.” Coming out of his extensive work on the myriad media of moving images, Bellour will be discussing the increasing need to distinguish between Cinema, which is specific by its screening context, and other images and their particular modes of exhibition. More information on this event will be made available shortly, so stay tuned.