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CLASSICS: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

February 16, 2016

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written by: Dziga Vertov
directed by: Dziga Vertov
rated: unrated
runtime: 68 min.
release date: January 8, 1929

 

Many say that the groundbreaking, experimental silent film by Dziga Vertov “Man with a Movie Camera” from 1929 has no story and no actors. This is not a correct or incorrect assessment of the film, for while there is no screenplay or assigned cast, there is still a story to be told and that story is inhabited by people. We cannot project our expectations for what a film is on an eighty-seven year-old film that is beyond definition. If we had to assign characters to “Man with a Movie Camera”, they would be the director, the cinematographer and the editor – like a conductor who guides and directs an orchestra; it is these three who tell the story here.

Watching “Man with a Movie Camera” for the first time recently was certainly fascinating, but it was mostly a reassuring experience. For a long time, I thought I was the only one aware of the activity in my everyday life, but here was Vertov documenting urban life in the Soviet Russia of the time (Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa), furtively capturing vehicles, animals and people, from sunrise to sunset. I considered my eye my camera which would record all that I see into my brain and in return, those sounds and images would randomly file away in my mind for later random use.

 

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I know it’s not a revelatory thought process, but how surprising (and reassuring) it was when I discovered this quote from Vertov, “I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I am the machine that reveals the world to you as only the machine can see it.” That quote is visually reiterated throughout the film as Vertov repeatedly shows an eye superimposed on a camera lens.

Vertov’s immersive avant garde 98-minute montage film feels like what humans recorded in their minds. It’s a film very similar to the kind of stream of consciousness recording that we too often dismiss or tuck away daily, only to be subconsciously regurgitating the images seconds, hours or days later. Vertov deliberately veered away from what was being defined as “a movie” at the time, by shooting a collage of scenes shot guerilla style by his cinematographer brother, Mikhail Kaufman (seen glued to his tripod) and edited by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova (seen slumped over reels of film).

Kaufman is the titular man with the movie camera seen in Vertov’s film (making the title self-reflective) but he too is being filmed as well. So, both Kaufman’s and Vertov’s footage would be sliced together by Svilova in such a way to form a movie as a whole and to also present how a movie can be made. It’s a marvel of artful and seamless editing that is breathtaking for its time. Kaufman not only serves as cameraman, he’s like a stuntman as well – cranking his camera while standing in the back of a moving vehicle or climbing up bridges and smoke stacks to get aerial views.

 

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Without even knowing the guy, it’d obvious Kaufman had this “go anywhere/do anything” demeanor that is actually quite infectious. Seeing pedestrians curiously (and at times, nervously) acknowledge the presence of a rolling camera in their midst is humorous and also relatable – it serves as a very common human response to such an awareness. I find such a response when someone I’m secretly sketching on the train becomes aware that they are my model. The responses of being captured always vary and those responses are what Vertov captures here. It’s one of many instances in “Man with a Movie Camera” where Vertov captures life being captured.

Some scholars and critics consider the film a commentary on how man has mastered the machinery he has built and, indeed, has become an inseparable part of it. Sure, there’s some of that, but there’s so much more. Vertov observes how people are about their occupations just as much as what we do. We see several clips of two different women at work, doing two different jobs – one seems content while another seems to be persevering – both personalities are captured, not just what they are physically doing. If Vertov only captured one of them, “Man with a Movie Camera” wouldn’t be as interesting. His interest doesn’t rest on one subject, he looks at the world as we do – comparing and relating someone with the last or next person we see.

On a technical level, the film is an impressive feat, showcasing a variety of techniques similar to a kitchen sink approach, but a kitchen sink approach is usually used when an artist isn’t sure what to do. That’s not the case here. Vertov and his crew are assured and purposeful in their actions. Vertov incorporates different camera speeds and exposures, tracking and trick shots, close-ups and stop motion animation. It doesn’t feel like he’s incorporating any of these methods just because he can, but rather because he has a certain order or transition of images in mind. To first time viewers, the film may seem like a random collage, but there is certainly a method in which Svilova edits “Man with a Movie Camera”.

 

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Vertov is mindful of his audience all along, something that can be seen immediately when a statement is seen on-screen that explains the film will have no intertitles, storyline or actors. For modern viewers, that’s just historical context, but imagine seeing that back in the day. If you can remove yourself from the fact that this ambitious (overwhelming at times and reflective at time of life) film has been – taught in film classes, dissected by critics, placed at the top of several “best of” lists and consider how audiences at the time of its release received the film – there is something transportive to the viewing experience.

What is translated the most in the flurry of images and sequences we see? How much fun Vertog, his brother and wife, must be having. This is a film that’s busting with excitable energy, even during slower scenes – it’s as if the filmmakers communicate a palpable “I can’t wait to show you what’s coming next” vibe throughout the film. They are our tour guides through a dizzying array of juxtaposed movements of machines and humans – city dwellers on their commutes and wealthy citizens in automobiles, a funeral procession and a woman giving birth, factories pumping out steel and cigarettes and healthy comrades diving, taking mud baths and playing basketball – all contrasts and all walks of life. It’s not just a celebration of life, but a celebration of the observance of life.

 

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Slava Bulbash permalink
    April 3, 2017 2:08 pm

    “Vertov was documenting urban life in the Soviet Russia of the time (Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa)” – actually it was Soviet Ukraine, rather Ukraine under Soviet occupation of Russian Communist regime. Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa (this would be a correct spelling) – were and are Ukrainian cities. In the film itself on many occasions the viewer can see signs, inscriptions, documents in Ukrainian language. Also this film should be considered as a Ukrainian documentary because it was produced at VUFKU which is All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration of that time. It is important to get all facts right, isn’t it? 🙂

  2. Andy permalink
    April 4, 2017 12:37 am

    Wonderful movie!

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