Baraka with a Movie Camera: From City Symphony to Global Symphony

*This essay was originally written for a Graduate writing class on December 14, 2010.

At first glance, it would appear that a comparison of Ron Fricke’s Baraka and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera is an unfair juxtaposition since the political and ideological messages of the two films vastly differ in both message and cultural sympathies. Man is a city symphony focused on a localized Soviet city of 1929. It celebrates socialism, modernity, industry and labor, while encouraging humanity’s coexistence with machine. Baraka on the other hand is a global symphony that celebrates humanism and spirituality. With its “one world”message, the film romanticizes nature while chastising modernity and society’s obsession with a destructive global-industrial consumerist culture. However, despite these thematic differences, there are many instances of overlap and parallel filmic moments the two films share in common, more specifically, their use of technological cinematic elements, poetic structure and experiment in pure montage that push filmmaking to limits beyond the classical Hollywood narrative composition that has long dominated world cinema.

Before engaging in a systematic comparison of the two films, it is worth noting Vertov and Fricke’s similar respective roles as marginalized figures within the commercial and academic establishments of their time. During the 1930s, Vertov became an outcast of the Soviet film industry, isolated by his contemporaries; his major works, as Annette Michelson notes, were “shoved hastily and distractedly into the ash can of film history…” (xix). It wasn’t until the 1970’s when historical revisionists came to acknowledge Vertov as one of the leading figures of early documentary filmmaking and recognized Man With a Movie Camera as a pioneering breakthrough in cinematic technical form. Michelson claims, “The Man With a Movie Camera was simply unavailable for concentrated study within the Soviet Union, and until 1970 it was equally unavailable, for all practical, critical purposes, in the West” (xxii). Similarly, one is hard pressed to find interviews or academic analysis on either the elusive Ron Fricke or his marginalized film Baraka. In the only published academic essay to date since the film’s release in 1992, “’Baraka’: World Cinema and the Global Culture Industry,” Martin Roberts speculates, “one of the reasons why the film seems to have slipped through the net of film studies may be that it is not easily located within existing generic categories of film analysis” (63). Like Vertov, who is now broadly studied and revered as a pioneer by academicians worldwide, Roberts is hopeful that “Fricke, his postmodern descendent and no less of a marginal figure in American cinema, may come to be seen as a filmmaker ahead of his time” (70).

Vertov and Fricke’s unique style of filmmaking radically and intentionally depart from any universally accepted classical forms of narrative storytelling and even break from standardized documentary modes of production. As Roberts states, these films are “not easily located within existing generic categories” (63). It’s difficult for a general audience to tolerate a feature length film with no actors, no dialogue and no established narrative. By challenging the constraints of socially accepted filmmaking formulas, the filmmakers used pure cinematic techniques to construct their films and tell their stories. Vertov’s theory of montage, in fact, was determined to severe film from the formal constrictions of literature and theater, to create an original “film-language” solely dependent on cinematic techniques, transforming film into what he termed “pure cinema.” Writing about his “kinoeye” movement, Vertov puts it this way: “Montage means organizing film fragments (shots) into film-object. It means ‘writing’ something cinematic with the recorded shots. It does not mean selecting the fragments for ‘scenes’ (the theatrical bias) or for the titles (the literary bias)” (Michelson, 88).

The only titles we see in Man With a Movie Camera are presented during the opening credits when Vertov finds it necessary to offer the viewers a disclaimer to the cinematic experience they’re about to undertake. The credits begin: “For viewers’ attention: This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theater. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature” (Man With a Movie Camera). If Vertov’s montage style created an “international absolute language of cinema,” then why was it not more widely accepted and adopted as a legitimate form of filmmaking? More importantly, why did film critics and academicians disregard it for so many decades after? The answers might rest on the limited receptive capacity of generic audiences and not on montage film technique itself. As mentioned before, general audiences have little tolerance for feature length films in which they need to “work” to create meaning. Audiences typically want linear stories and likeable characters they can identify with and latch onto as a form of escapism. Films like Man and Baraka dramatically deviate from these norms and demand a more intellectual engagement from its viewers. Baraka, with its long takes and slow sweeping camera movements is particularly difficult because it presents majestic images like still photographs or paintings, forcing the viewer to linger within the frame, to explore the mise en scene and search for meaning in its metaphors and poetry. In her review of Baraka, “Mondo Meditations,” Amy Staples writes, “Faced with its refusal to engage language as a system of codification and linearity, the viewer struggles to create meaning out of a seemingly ambiguous and free-floating chain of signifiers” (663). Although the language of non-verbal imagery can be “international” in scope, it nonetheless presents a problematic language for general cinema audiences to interpret.

I am not suggesting that montage has been completely ignored by filmmakers or their audiences. On the contrary, montage has played an integral part in many feature length fiction films since the early Soviet experiments first introduced this theory to the world marketplace. Because of montages unique ability to condense or expand temporal and spatial parameters, filmmakers have relied on these techniques to interject condensed narration into their narratives. Mainstream media and pop culture have also largely adopted montage as a primary source of production. Many thirty and sixty-second television commercials and most pop music videos employ montage. Nonetheless, each of these three appropriations of montage consumes little screen time, ranging from thirty seconds to usually no more than a few minutes. In contrast, Baraka and Man push these limits well beyond what most viewers can stomach.

Stylistically speaking, the two films are feature length experiments in montage. On the surface, they are alike in that they reject actors, dialogue and a narrative structure, and rely solely on images, editing and soundtrack to transmit meaning. Baraka’s self-proclamation that it presents “a world beyond words” also parallels Vertov’s intentionality to create an “international absolute language.” These superficial and basic fundamental similarities clearly categorize these two films as part of the same tradition. A close reading however exposes further moments of overlap beyond their technical construction to reveal the closely associative poetic mode of production the two films share.

Although both films purport to negate a narrative structure, a skilled viewer can readily interpret their inferred narratives and discern thematic meaning by exploring their juxtaposition of images and sound, against their formal use of the various methods of montage, including “metric,” “rhythmic” and “intellectual” as theorized by Sergei Eisenstein (72). Structurally, both films possess a narrative arc complete with a beginning, middle and end, typical of classical Hollywood narratives. Both films can be divided into various sections, or poetic stanzas, that represent fragments of a whole. In his thoroughly cinematic analysis of Man With a Movie Camera, Vlada Petric breaks the film into four parts: “the Prologue (2 min. 45 sec.), Part One (33 min. 12 sec.), Part Two (27 min. 50 sec.), and the Epilogue (7 min. 5 sec.)” (72). He further argues the film contains “fifty-five segments” within the four parts. In a different interpretation of the film’s structure, Anna Lawton bypasses Petric’s prologue/epilogue reading and asserts, “the film is divided into two symmetrical parts… both marked by a similar progressive intensification of the rhythm, a kind of crescendo that starts with shots of rather long duration and ends with a series of shots no longer than a split second” (46). Regardless of which interpretation one follows, it is clear the film engages in a poetic narrative framing, identified by its use of rhythm, phrasing and juxtapositions.

Man With a Movie Camera opens in a movie theater as an audience enters about to watch the same film we are being presented. In essence, the viewers and the audience on screen are spectators of the same film. The film proper then begins with long takes and slow camera movements showing early morning images of desolate city streets, people sleeping both indoors and out, sunrise and city buses getting ready for the work day. In the tradition of the city symphony genre, Man depicts a day in the life a modern Soviet city from its awakening to the closing of the work day. Most of the middle part of the film follows the cameraman as he ventures around the city, visiting various worksites and engaging in labor, not only with his actual camera as he films, but also physically working in factories. After a long day of work, the film shifts to representations of leisure activities. We see citizens celebrating the rewards and benefits of modern socialist society as they engage in: sporting activities, beach bathing, and leisure entertainment, drinking at a bar and entering the Lenin social club. As the day closes, the film returns to the movie theater to show a fast paced crescendo of the audience’s pleased reaction to the film they just witnessed. As Petric suggests in his interpretation, the prologue, which begins with the audience entering the theater and the epilogue that takes us back to the theater, frame the “film within a film” to show us “life-as-it-is” in a typical modern Soviet City. Within this framework, the film contains an inferred three-act structure.

Similarly, Baraka is arranged within its own three-act structure. The first act, or the set-up phase, begins with serene images of nature, early morning sunrise and small groups of people beginning their day in ancient cities. The beginning day motif in Baraka, can broadly be interpreted as the beginning of civilization. Like Man, these earlier scenes incorporate long takes and slow camera movements. Panoramic long shots depict the splendor of nature, major eastern and western religions, traditional tribal dances, an abundance of trees, water and clouds in a purely esthetic appreciation of earth and humanity’s coexistence with the natural. The second act, or the conflict phase, depicts a starkly different impression of humanity. A close-up of an electric saw cutting down a tree marks the first major turning point of the film. Machine is literally cutting its way into the film. The rhythm of this act is markedly fast paced and gives us a global symphony of humanity’s destruction of nature, deteriorated cities, extreme poverty, exploited laborers in congested factories, middle class privilege, war and mass murder. The act is capped by a montage sequence of the ancient ruins of once mighty empires. Act three, or the resolution phase, depicts modern humans coexisting with and revering nature as throngs of worshipers bathe in the Ganges River; reminiscent of the bathers in Man. This final act ends with nighttime images of nature, rotating star-fields and a lunar eclipse.

Like Man With a movie Camera, Baraka’s three-act structure implies a circular arc. Both films start with the beginning of a new day, take us through the day’s happenings and end with the closing of the day. While Man’s city symphony represents the daily life cycle of a modern Soviet city, Baraka’s more ambitious global symphony essentially cycles through the dawn to dusk of all humanity. The film’s opening sequence, which could theoretically be considered the film’s prologue, presents a montage of unpopulated scenes of nature. A slow tilt down then reveals monkeys bathing in Japanese hot springs. As a metaphor, the human-looking monkeys represent man in his primordial harmony with nature. Close-ups of a monkey are crosscut with a shot of a star-filled night sky as it rapidly morphs from darkness to daylight, reinforcing the film’s genesis concept. The closing sequence, or the film’s epilogue, again brings us back to a world without people. Low angle shots of natural structures dominate the frame as a night sky backdrop shows moons and stars supernaturally racing across the frame. The film’s final shot reveals a slow pan across a black sky illuminated by thousands of stars before slowly fading to black, figuratively indicating the end of time.

Within this framework, both films manipulate shot duration and editing speed to create the rhythm and tempo that correlates directly to the themes explored in each sequence. They both begin with slow camera movements, melodic music and long takes at the beginning, to reinforce their waking day motif. As time progresses and the subjects within the frame engage in more activity, the pace of editing speeds up as evident in the surreal factory sequences of both films. The rapid editing and accelerated action creates a mechanical style of representation rooted in the artistic Futurism movement of the early 20th century of which both Man and Baraka borrow influences to formulate their thematic expressions. In both films, human workers appear like automatons, lifeless and mechanical. Eventually, both films take these unnatural rapid motions out of the factories and onto the fast paced and chaotic movements of city streets. While Vertov’s city symphony focuses on the productive congestion of a modern Soviet city, Fricke’s global symphony portrays the chaos that unites all major metropolitan centers around the world. In the Futurist tradition, both films represent man as machine and machine as man.

The factory and city montage sequences of the two films also overlap in their use of non-diegetic music, since both incorporate syncopated jazz-like percussive rhythms. While Baraka represents “a world without words” it certainly is not a world without music. The entire film contains non-diegetic music, strategically edited by Michael Stearns to coincide with the images on screen, further influencing an emotional response from the viewer. The similar use of fast-paced and somewhat chaotic percussive beats in the parallel street and factory sequences of the two films is by no means coincidental. Nor is it a coincidence that both present similar objects and subjects on screen.

A catalog of the imagery both directors chose to photograph and include in their films will reveal the following overlapping themes: overcrowded city streets, chaotic intersections and crossroads, passenger trains and different modes of transportation, herds of commuters, homelessness, factory assembly lines, women rolling and packaging cigarettes, cities, man-made structures, clouds, waterfalls, flocks of birds, death, cemeteries, mourners at funerals, close-ups of children (some happy, some not), still photographs, people bathing outdoors, modern technology, communication, animals, bells ringing, uniformed men, street signs and billboards, Nazi symbols, and dancing people. While both films incorporate these similar images, Fricke appears to appropriate Vertov’s concerns in order to counter his celebration of modernity and industry by using similar images to communicate an opposing ideological statement.

Their vastly opposing political and ideological divide is what wedges the two films apart. While both films show women hand-rolling cigarettes at a tobacco factory, Man’s female factory workers are not represented as oppressed laborers, but instead seem to enjoy their jobs. They smile and laugh at the camera, celebrating labor and socioeconomic growth. In contrast, Baraka’s close-ups of Keaton-like stone-faced women rolling cigarettes, speaks to the oppressive nature of mass production and consumerist culture. Fricke’s camera pulls back to reveal an extreme long shot of thousands of apparently discontent women at a cigarette factory. Vertov’s factory sequence consists of “metric montage” that links and compares similar images to assert a positive attribution to work and labor. To counter Vertov’s assumptions, Fricke subverts this celebration of factory labor by juxtaposing contrasting images against each other, utilizing Eisenstein’s theory of “conflict-juxtaposition” to jolt the viewer into formulating meaning to otherwise unrelated content.

The cigarette factory sequence in Baraka is particularly interesting because Fricke specifically appropriates the same subject Vertov explores in order to subvert the latter’s celebratory message. By utilizing Eisenstein’s theory of “conflict-juxtaposition” as opposed to Vertov’s metric and rhythmic montage, Fricke communicates meaning through pure associational form. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson describe this style of editing in these terms: “Associational formal systems suggest ideas and expressive qualities by grouping images that may not have any immediate logical connection. But the very fact that the images and sounds are juxtaposed prods us to look for some connection – an association that binds them together” (363). Therefore, Baraka’s associations ask broader questions about labor, exploitation and consumerism.

The montage sequence that directly precedes Baraka’s cigarette factory sequence reveals a catalog of poverty as the camera pans and tracks through deteriorated Favelas in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, Brazil. The final shot of this sequence is of a low-flying airplane that almost touches dilapidated tenements in one of these cities. The camera pans left following the plane, then stops as the plane flies off-screen, revealing, for just a split second, the partial image a large Marlboro billboard. Although the viewer’s attention is naturally focused on the flying plane, a trained eye will notice this large cigarette ad aimed specifically at the lowest wage earners of the city. A short glimpse of the billboard functions as a visual bridge to the next shot, which cuts directly to a cigarette factory in Indonesia. After panning and tracking around the factory in five medium and close-up shots revealing somber-faced women, Fricke cuts to a slow-motion medium shot of Japanese middle-class consumers waiting at a bus stop. A man slowly raises a cigarette to his mouth; behind him we see a newsstand and shelves stacked with cigarettes.

Another significant sequence in which Baraka uses “conflict-juxtaposition” is the commuters/chicken sequence. Although both films present commuters moving about in the city, only Vertov’s use of metric and rhythmic montage reinforce the sameness of daily life in his Soviet city. Fricke on the other hand, rejects a comparison of like images to explore the collision of distinct actions as a metaphor for the chaos of modern city living. Baraka’s sequence begins with a variety of commuters depicted similar to Man’s. Shortly after, a sequence of factory workers assemble computer parts, followed by thousands of chicken eggs moving along on a conveyer belt, as we follow their lifecycle from eggs, to chicks, and finally to grown chickens that lay more eggs. Using time-lapsed photography, we see thousands of chicks crushed on top of each other, ushered about the factory on racing conveyer belts, juxtaposed against commuters moving at rapid inhuman speeds, crammed into subway cars, racing up and down escalators and rushing through revolving doors. This seemingly random association not only points to the chaotic reality of city commuter life, but also to the similarity between middle class society and a flock of chicks, herded through an apparently meaningless existence.

Besides their divergent political ideologies, the two films also differ dramatically in their representation of subjective and objective perspectives. Man With a Movie Camera alternates between multiple points of view. At times we see through the perspective of the audience at the movie theatre, then through the eyes of the cameraman, then through an omniscient viewpoint–watching the cameraman making the film. Man is as much an experiment in cinematographic and filmic techniques as it is an experiment in montage editing. Martin F. Norden notes how, “Vertov employed split screens, slow motion, fast motion, freeze frames, superimpositions and unusual camera angles in ‘Man’ to show that the camera eye could see things differently (and, by implication, better) than the human eye” (110). Man makes no attempt to conceal its artifice. In fact, the cameraman and the camera are the protagonists of the film since both move about the city engaging with its photographed subjects. In the Futurist tradition, the camera is later personified as it literally comes to life, performing for the viewing audience. There are also numerous scenes in which the editor is cutting the same footage we are being presented. Vertov basically lays bare the device to express film’s communicative value as a universal language, free from literature and theater.

In stark contrast, Baraka attempts to conceal its artifice by never revealing the process behind the camera. It takes the point of view of an omniscient, presumably objective and distant observer, never taking part in the daily routines of the subjects it photographs. Fricke’s 70mm camera lens offers wide panoramic shots, giving the viewer a broad sense of the world he presents. Roberts suggests that Fricke’s camera is, “Apparently unconstrained by the limits of mere mortals, now soaring above lakes, now moving unseen among the world’s peoples as they go about their daily business, its omniscient gaze resembles nothing so much as the eye of God” (75). It’s difficult to mask “God’s” 70mm lens however, so the trained viewer readily identifies the contrivance of certain shots and even the performative quality of some of its subjects. Contrary to Vertov nonetheless, Fricke wants his audience to ignore the production behind his production, in order to achieve maximum emotional impact.

Clearly, the biggest difference between the two films is their conflicting political and ideological affiliations. While Man embraces and celebrates modernity and industrialization, Baraka denounces those very systems as destructive. Lawton argues that by creating the “man/machine” analogy, “[Vertov] stresses the harmonic coexistence and interaction of human beings and technology in a constructivist world” (48). Man portrays a positive view of socialism in post-revolutionary Soviet society to praise the growth of the metropolis. The main themes of worker productivity and subsequent leisure function as Marxist propaganda in support of the new socialist Soviet state. In direct contrast, Baraka’s workers are portrayed as poverty-stricken, exploited third world factory laborers juxtaposed against middle class consumers and multi-billion dollar war making apparatuses. In effect, Baraka is the antithesis to Man With a Movie Camera, since it favors nature and spirituality above modernity and industrialization.

For the entire imagery the two films share in common, what is markedly absent from Man, but is a central focus of Baraka, is the role religion plays in the world. Man’s city symphony travels around countless locations and presents over 1,700 shots, yet not one image is either of a religious figure, structure or symbol. Conceptually, Man proposes an atheist or agnostic sensibility in which society functions free of religion and spirituality. In contrast, Baraka’s central claim is that humanity has lost its primal spiritual self, and as a result, is destroying itself and the world. Baraka’s global symphony exposes what would normally seem extremely different religious belief systems: tribal rituals, Catholicism, Christianity, Judaism, Islamism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The intent of this catalog and “contrast-juxtaposition” is meant to highlight the similarity in humanity’s quest to find meaning outside of their selves, not the differences. Roberts sums Baraka up this way: “Ideologically, it takes the form of liberal humanism whose dominant metaphor is that of the family. In spite of its myriad cultural differences, it affirms the human race is ultimately part of the same global family, sharing a common set of life experiences: birth, death, sexuality, children, food, love, belief in the supernatural, war” (67).

Although the films differ in all the respects mentioned, one cannot deny the close association of their stylistic production and thematic intervention. It seems plausible to assume that Fricke pays specific homage to Vertov, not only by employing montage as a purely cinematic expression, but also in choosing to expose parallel subjects as subverting principles. Baraka essentially reads as a direct response to Man With a Movie Camera. Fricke basically expands Vertov’s themes to counter what he assumes are the latter’s ideological misgivings and present his own philosophy of humanism in a post-industrial global arena. While the films differ in this respect, their shared commitment to experimental montage garner both films a unique place in film history as pioneering deviants from traditional Hollywood narratives. The two films truly present a universal language of meaning without the use of words.

Works Cited

Baraka. Dir. Ron Fricke. Magidson Films, Inc. 2001. Film.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008. Print.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Ed. Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949. Print.

Lawton, Anna. “Rhythmic Montage in the Films of Dziga Vertov: A Poetic Use of the Language of Cinema.” Pacific Coast Philology 13 (1978): 44-50.

Man With the Movie Camera. Dir. Dziga Vertov. Film Preservation Associates, 1996. Film.

Michelson, Annette, Ed. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Trans. Kevin O’Brien. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print.

Norden, Martin F. “The Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1920s: Connections to Futurism, Precisionism, and Suprematism.” Leonardo 17.2 (1984): 108-112. Print.

Petric, Vlada. Constructivism in Film: The Man With the Movie Camera A Cinematic Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print.

Roberts, Martin. “’Baraka’: World Cinema and the Global Culture Industry.” Cinema Journal 37.3 (1998): 62-82. Print.

Staples, Amy J. “Mondo Meditations.” American Anthropologist 96.3 (1994): 662-668. Print.

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About Wilson Santos

Wilson Santos is a writer, filmmaker, music producer, DJ, spoken word artist, graphic designer, entrepreneur and college professor. And he makes a hell of a Mojito too.

Posted on August 28, 2012, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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