Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

“This Experimental Work Aims at Creating a Truly International Absolute Language of Cinema”

Introduction

In many discussions regarding the Sight and Sound ‘Top 10′, it was a fair point that films such as Birth of a Nation, Sherlock Jr and Battleship Potemkin were not included in the Top 10 itself. Cineastes would explain how you couldn’t ignore D.W. Griffiths technical skill and Buster Keaton’s wit. You cannot dismiss the use of editing within Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In all cases, until I saw Man with a Movie Camera, I would happily argue that they all showed innovative techniques that paved the way for the future, thus establishing a higher position. But in terms of the vast quantity of techniques and the purposeful sense of experimentaion, Man with a Movie Camera surpasses them all. Technically, this film experiments in every possible way. This is a film which, if you hold any interest in filmmaking, you can appreciate what Dziga Vertov is trying to do. In the opening credits, he admits that the film does not include a ‘scenario’ nor ‘characters’; but what the film does include is huge, concerted effort to capture the love, joy and passion of filmmaking. This is clearly what prompted critics to celebrate its importance to cinema.

‘Building the Revolution’ by Popova

Russian Constructivism

In terms of context, the film clearly explores the politics of the time. The film holds itself to a Marxist ideology and celebrates the hard-labour necessary of a Russian citizen. Though there is no ‘story’, the film depicts the expected day-to-day life of a citizen from waking in the morning, through the work-practices, commute to work and overview of the city itself. We see the city empty as very few people roam the streets – and the cameraman (directors brother Mikhail Kaufman), on his own, travelling. As the film progresses, the streets get busier and we see the various feats accomplished by man. Look at the wondrous plane take off whilst the trams happily take employees to and from their place of work.

But through the context of industrial and commercial enterprises- whether it be men in the mines or women at the cashier – the visual connection is clear. Akin to the posters created by the Stenberg brothers for the film itself, the shots are composed to evoke the Russian Constructivist movement, as shown by Popova and Rodchenko; artists recently celebrated at the Tate Modern in London. Sharp diagonal lines cut across many sequences – as factories are shown on a slant and steely faces, covered in soot, work tirelessly. This is a strong film – confident and bold in its goals.

Perspective

But, to a modern eye, this perspective is limited – and the glue that holds the film together is through the ‘character’ of the filmmaker. Viewing the film in 2012, you realise that Vertov must be filming another cameraman who is, in turn, creating their own film. The sense of control and perspective is integral to the loose ‘plot’ that you could create surrounding the film. We, the audience, are viewing someone’s perspective of a regime and city that, clearly, they deem exceptional and celebratory. But, akin to the barrage of inversed-filmmaking that we have seen recently (dreams within dreams in Inception; a sense of observing, obsessing and execution of oneself in Looper) – it seems filmmakers clearly enjoy the ‘meta’ level of filmmaking in this modern age; characters and stories are almost self-aware. Man with a Movie Camera is, as a documentary, recording and reflecting on itself through the film. As it explores the various filmmaking techniques, you cannot help but wonder whether the film is almost acknowledging the manipulative nature of filmmaking, and therefore its relevance to todays cinema is even more pronounced.

In addition to this sense of self-awareness, Man with a Movie Camera also shows the cameraman as a voyeur. He watches a woman sleep; the eye roams across the body, highlighting curves and creases. The same masculine-eye seems present later on too as we see a woman remove her stockings and bra – before, shortly after, showing a curvaceous woman rowing and then a different woman on a horse-riding machine. A day at the beach reveals topless women applying mud to themselves. Another technique of filmmaking as he, directly and indirectly, references sexuality and the lustful eye.

Music Video of the 20’s?

There is no apology for this manipulation; it surely is a documentary ‘documenting’ Moscow, Odessa and Kiev. But sequences that show the creation of cigarette boxes are simply fascinating in their organisation and composition. The sequences, edited together flawlessly by Vertov’s wife Elizaveta Svilova, are akin to a dance-music video as the pulsating percussion (from the soundtrack provided by the Alloy Orchestra in 1995, taken from Vertov’s notes) adds rhythm, urgency and pace to a sequence that, alongside a slower soundtrack (‘In The Nursery’ has a provided a soundtrack with less pace, but feels more ‘reflective’),would simply not give such a strong sense of importance to the assembly-line. This truly is the complete opposite to the depiction of the assembly-line in Modern Times. Vertov shows us how effective hard-labour is – and the necessity of it – opposed to Chaplin’s criticism of hard-labour.

This is a masterpiece, and when I first began the film I was wary. I knew very little of this film – let alone my lack of knowledge regarding Soviet Cinema. I didn’t know how I would approach the film – would it drag? Could I truly appreciate the context? But honestly, at only 70-minutes long, you would have to be incredibly impatient to struggle during a viewing. Vertov employs such a broad range of camera manoeuvres and styles that every shot is an art piece unto itself – and a cinematic art piece at that. He shows static-shots, photographs, before showing the practical-editing that bring the film-reels to life. We see split shots that distort and change how a building is percieved. We see a plane, pre-figuring the use of widescreen – whilst we will then see the view when looking through two trams, making the focus become exceptionally slim and difficult to see.

I will end with a reference to a brief overview written by Russian-Film academic Josephine Woll: “A glourious tribute to everything that movie-making can be”. To think that a film – an experiment no less – can be so influential, inspirational and important speaks for itself. One sequence attempts to imitate the movement of the eye – cutting between an eye/pair of eyes moving and the camera moving up and around in imitation. It doesn’t work – and proves that cinema is not simply imitating the eye; it delves much deeper, and the multitude of techniques Vertov uses emphasises how much deeper film could go … and indeed it did.

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