Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

Director: Dziga Vertov

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In preparation for a review here, I have been working my way through Chantal Akerman – Four Films, a 2016 Icarus Films release of four documentaries made by the late Belgian director that features her “slow cinema” approach as she observes various locales around the world. One of the films, From the East (1993), chronicles her trip following the fall of the Soviet Union across Eastern Europe to Moscow, where she films workers walking to and from a factory and others standing in the cold waiting for buses. It is an interesting end to a story begun in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, a time of decisive action and idealism that the workers of the world could indeed unite and throw off their shackles.

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I wonder what Dziga Vertov, creator of the movie under consideration here, the much-acclaimed Man with the Movie Camera, would have made not only of life after the fall of the Soviet Union, but also the molasses-like observational style of one of today’s most honored filmmakers. I believe he would have to recognize that the films are cousins, with points of view reflecting their makers’ personalities, experiences, and ideologies and containing many of the observational shots both indoors and out, with people alternately mugging for and hiding from the camera, that allow cataloguers to call them documentaries. I think he would be very sad to see the failure of the great Soviet experiment Akerman documents with deliberate understatement; he might also be disappointed that the kinetic musicality he celebrated in Man with the Movie Camera seems to have left the documentary field and migrated to fantasies of other times and other worlds.

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Vertov (given name: David Kaufman), born in 1896 as a subject of the Russian Empire, emerged after the Russian Revolution as an adherent not only of bolshevism, but also of a cinema that would reflect a society reinventing itself. His interest was in taking actualities—films of everyday life that were among the earliest cinematic creations—a step further with new narrative and documentary forms. With Man with the Movie Camera, Vertov unveiled an almost pure cinema in somewhat-documentary form, an “image-oriented journalism” that could dissect “life caught unawares” and somehow create a symphony for the eye. An opening title card for the film is reminiscent of the spirit of The Communist Manifesto, with Vertov announcing his intention to create “a truly international, absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.”

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Vertov’s strategy is to self-consciously reveal the workings of the filmmaker, in fact, to make the filmmaker the title character of his film, appearing in its opening moments atop a gigantic camera and then moving into a movie theatre to show his epic of a day in the life of a Soviet city. The man with the camera is the new Tolstoy for a new age, chronicling a great new society. A repeated image of a marketplace named after Maxim Gorky aligns Vertov with the founder of the literary socialist realism in a Soviet Union whose aims are echoed in glorified images of the industrial age powered by ordinary workers pulling together and enjoying their lives to the fullest.

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Vertov’s film starts off slowly, showing apparently homeless people sleeping in the street, a metaphor for the Soviet Union before the revolution—poor and unconscious of the dawning social transformation. A row of cribs, the images of two sleeping babies superimposed on each other, suggests new energy from a new generation born into a proletarian dream. All is quiet—lifeless mannequins in shop windows, a taxidermied dog in a perpetual snarl, empty streets, an idle abacus, tall apartment buildings, imposing factories, and dormant machines bearing witness to the mechanisms of industry about to spring to life.

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From the interior of a building we see a car pull up. The man with the camera goes through a set of double doors, gets in the car, and is driven through the streets. Soon a flock of pigeons are on the wing—a sure sign of a change coming. In perhaps the most startling image of the film, the man with the camera is laying on a railroad track looking into his viewfinder with a train fast approaching. A thrilling set of cuts leaves us in suspense as to the man’s fate. Soon, Vertov reveals the magician’s method—a trench dug under the tracks allowed the camera to capture the shot safely.

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What then are we to make of close-ups of a young woman getting out of bed, affixing her stockings to her garter belt and buttoning her ragged bra behind her back? Other images later in the film of women sunning on a beach and naked women smearing themselves with mud suggest Vertov isn’t as revolutionary as he might appear at first glance. Sex still sells movie tickets, crowds still want to be pleased, experimentation shouldn’t confound and alienate.

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Intriguing are shots of Vertov’s wife and film editor, Elizaveta Svilova, working with bits and pieces of film strip. Single frames are shown, asking us to reengage our disbelief that what we have been watching is now history, not actually happening before our eyes. Short sequences of these frames moving at the speed of life and then stopping emphasize the artifice of the presentation. So, too, does all the trick photography in which Vertov engages, including split screens, superimpositions, slow motion, fast motion, and trick photography that engage the viewer with a rhythm that quickens our breath and heart beat.

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Vertov himself plays the man with the movie camera, but, of course, someone else is filming him as he shoots from open cars, climbs brick smoke stacks, follows around men and horses working in a low-ceilinged mine, and scales steel beams with his tripod on his back. The director’s claim that he is eschewing the literary and theatrical doesn’t exactly hold water because there is continuity of character (his), time linearity, dramatic and even melodramatic scenes, e.g., a close-up of someone talking urgently into a phone intercut with an ambulance racing down the street with the cameraman’s car in close pursuit. His section on life—marriage, divorce, birth, death—is quite short and occasionally humorous, the embodiment of the side-by-side theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy.

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Vertov also avails himself of the then-common technique in Soviet filmmaking of montage, with a dizzying array of quick cuts to disorient the audience, as well as thematic juxtapositions. For example, in one scene, he films a woman having her eyebrows dyed and matches it with a rough woman at work tossing coal into a railcar; in another, he shows a woman having her hair washed, followed by working hands scrubbing clothes in a washtub. The implications for socialist ideologues are plain as day and far from the objectivity people ascribe, generally incorrectly, to the documentary form. Nonetheless, all of these activities are part of the new order, so it’s hard to say what Vertov’s objective attitude may be.

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Music, of course, has always been vital to silent film presentation. The DVD I watched was scored by the Alloy Orchestra. Alloy is not my favorite silent film scorer, and other silent film buffs mention two earlier versions favorably, one featuring music by Jason Swinscoe performed by The Cinematic Orchestra and the other by Michael Nyman performing his own music with the Michael Nyman Band. Nonetheless, Alloy followed to the letter Vertov’s instruction that the film be accompanied by energetic music, providing the verve the director felt vital to his enterprise.

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This 68-minute ode to Soviet life and the filmmaking process is an exhilarating work of invention and must-viewing for every serious cinephile, but one I believe I have come to too late. Even while trying to keep the age of the film in perspective, I found it hard to think of this film as one of the greatest documentaries ever made. If it is a documentary at all, it is of the filmmaking process and the trickery that filmmakers use to entertain and inform, but it is incomplete in not sharing how special effects are achieved. Its special effects, which were not revolutionary in 1929, serve mainly to celebrate film’s own power of invention—for cinephiles, that may be enough.

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