Saturday, May 10, 2014

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Director: Dziga Vertov                                   Writer: Dziga Vertov
Film Score: Konstantin Listov                        Cinematography: Mikhail Kaufman
Starring: Mikhail Kaufman as the cameraman

When film began the natural instinct of filmmakers was to shoot scenes of everyday life, of what could be seen around the filmmakers every day. The Lumiére Brothers were especially good at this. But quickly cinema took on a narrative style, telling stories with actors and sets and leaning heavily on plays and literature to supply the underlying stories with dialogue told through intertitles. This Russian film, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, dials back the clock and attempts to tell a story that isn’t a story, to shoot the things around people every day and turn it into a work of art through editing, effects and montage. As to how “experimental” it is, well, the same type of thing had been done two years earlier with Berlin: Symphony of a Great City by Karl Freund and Walter Ruttman. Still, it’s a moving portrait of Soviet Russia that was virtually unknown to the rest of the world at the time and is a fascinating time capsule of the period.

The film begins with an interesting conceit, an empty theater gradually filling up with people to watch the film itself, musicians at the ready and the projectionist threading the camera. When the film proper begins it is morning, people in bed or sleeping on park benches, babies in a row in a hospital. It’s not until a train rushes by that the people begin moving, waking up to start their day. Cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman is seen in various shots with his camera mounted in the back of a moving car, the conceit here that we are following him around as he shoots all of these scenes. Streetcars begin moving, factories start operating, people are moving about the city. Then the images freeze, and we witness a woman actually editing the film together. Marriages, divorces, births and deaths, everything is chronicled. The work that the people are doing is also juxtaposed with the work of cutting the film, and the eye of the camera is juxtaposed with the human eye. When the workday ends it’s time for leisure, swimming at the beach, riding a carrousel and playing sports. As the film returns to the theater there are some interesting stop-motion and special effects shots to close the picture.

The primary difference between this film and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, is that this film is actually about the shooting of the film. Where the German film is content to give a twenty-four hour look at Berlin, the Russian film was shot in several cities and is more concerned with making the audience aware that people are responsible for the film and in that sense it is unique in the way that it continually reminds the audience that they are, in fact, watching a film. I typically don’t like modern soundtracks to silent films, but this one by the Alloy Orchestra is perfectly acceptable, taking their cue from notes left by director Vertov, which mimics bells and sirens and various other noises to enhance the picture. Another interesting aspect of the film is how prominently women are featured in the scenes, and there is a real sensuousness about these ordinary women and their daily lives that is fascinating.

J. Hoberman’s essay in The A List is very brief, extolling the virtues of Dziga Vertov as one of his favorite filmmakers, more for the exploratory nature of the work rather than any lasting influence it has had on film history. Vertov himself admitted that his goal was to completely jettison “the tutelage of literature and the theater and bring us face to face with 100 percent cinematography.” Mission accomplished. But in doing so he has also marginalized his work in cinema along with all other forms of film that don’t fit into the narrative stream of film history. There are elements of propaganda in the picture, and ways of looking at his human subjects that would be incorporated by that greatest of cinematic propagantists, Leni Riefenstahl, but clearly that is not Vertov’s primary impetus. At its most simplistic, he wanted to do what no one else in film was doing, and he definitely succeeded. Man with a Movie Camera is unique to be sure, an experimental film that not only challenges the mind but is entertaining in its own right. And that is something worth celebrating.

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