In these early city symphonies and documentary films of the Soviet avant-garde, we find the city itself as stand-imotor modernity. The filmmakers turn their cameras to their contemporary moment like the Baudelarian flâneur as described by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur is a wanderer and observer. In the 19th century the flâneur strolled the streets of quintessential modernist cities like New York, Paris, and London, return home only to record the images of the day with pen and paper. In the 1920s and 30s, Dziga Vertov and others seem to emerge as a more instantaneous version of the flâneur. Rather than waiting to record the images in writing, the filmmakers are able to document their wanderings as they happen, evoking a sense of immediacy.
The flâneur does not wander in straight lines, nor in temporal sequence. In Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera,” the flâneur, the eponymous “Man,” is a collage/montagist, collecting and arranging is hosts and images without regard for narrative or temporal sequence. When the flâner turns the camera on the city, he finds complexity and unity. Fittingly, Strand and Sheeler’s film borrows from Whitman, the American flâneur, wandering the country and rejoicing in Democracy. Such democratic ideals emerge in Grierson’s documentary of a fishing trawler, as the filmmaker does not discriminate in subject matter but rather embraces the laborer as appropriate for artistic treatment as are kings.