MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929)

  • Director: Dziga Vertov
  • Writer: Dziga Vertov
  • Accolades: Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 (#8)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), Free streaming (with ads) on Vudu, Stream with subscription to Docsville, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video or AppleTV

I’m stealing this factoid from Roger Ebert, sorry Roger. The average shot length (sometimes called “ASL” by movie buffs) of a modern action movie (that is, the time between cuts) is 2.3 seconds. In 1929, that number was 11.2 seconds. You could take that as a sign that our attention spans have gotten shorter, and of course they have, but it is also a sign of the movies figuring out their own language. In 1929, movies were still, in many ways, basically filmed stageplays. That’s all well and good, but it’s not taking advantage of the great things about film as a medium. That year, a Soviet filmmaker named Dziga Vertov released Man With a Movie Camera, though it took decades for his vision to really be appreciated. The movie’s ASL? 2.3 seconds

Today we would call Man With a Movie Camera a documentary, I suppose. The opening titles call it “an experimentation in cinematic communication,” and credit Vertov, not as Director, but as “Author-Supervisor of the Experiment.” Dziga Vertov (this is actually a nom de plume that approximately translates to English as “spinning top,” his birth name was David Kaufman) spent several years making the movie with a small team, many of whom refused to ever work with him again. The movie in theory depicts a day in the life of a Soviet city, doing so with the sort of energy movies had never managed before. The only real through-line is a man running around town with a movie camera slung over his shoulder on a tripod. He lies over train tracks, only pulling back just as the train comes. He rides a motorcycle to capture the other motorcycles behind him in motion. We see the movie being edited, cutting between the editor and the stills, which then burst into life. Despite completely lacking a traditional “plot,” the movie definitely reaches a climax near the end, while it cuts frantically between the shots of the movie, the cameraman capturing those shots, and people watching the movie in a movie theater.

When people first saw Man With a Movie Camera, they were pretty horrified. The New York Times reviewer infamously said that Vertov “does not take into consideration that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that holds the attention.” Even Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet director who is credited with inventing a great deal of the modern language of movies in films like Battleship Potemkin, called it “pointless camera hooliganism.” But Vertov insisted that film was its own medium, that it was too hung up on things like literature and theater. Today, what we’re looking at when we see it is movies figuring out what they can really do for the first time.

There isn’t much in Man With a Movie Camera that really shocks us today, but it’s important to remember that many of these seemingly simple techniques had to be invented by Vertov out of whole cloth. He uses “double exposures” to transpose one image on top of another and thus comment on their relationship. He pioneers both fast motion and slow motion. At one point the camera lingers on a volleyball match, and it’s easy to wonder why, but its probable that Vertov’s viewers would never have seen sports in slow motion before. He uses split screens, “dutch” angles where the camera is placed at a harsh angle to the objects on screen, tracking shots (where the camera runs along a track), and match cuts. This latter innovation involved one shot visually “rhyming” with the next despite their not actually being related (probably the most famous example is Kubrick’s cut from a flying animal bone to a space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey). At one point the movie runs two different shots in split screen, tracking in opposite directions, at opposite dutch angles.

Francois Truffaut famously invented the “jump cut,” in which one scene cuts forward in time inside itself, in his movie Breathless in 1960. But Vertov definitely does that here. His problem is that he’s ahead of his time by too many decades here. The filmmakers influenced most by Man With a Movie Camera came decades later. Now, it is often considered among the masterpieces of movie art, though it is still sometimes overlooked due to being (1) an old, silent movie, (2) from Soviet Russia, and (3) not having a conventional plot, or actors, or that stuff. Though perhaps because of that confluence of circumstances, it doesn’t particularly “feel” old timey. Vertov’s frantic views of factory life still play to a viewer today, though they are perhaps more foreboding now than he would have intended at the time.

Vertov was more interested in form than content, so he didn’t have a problem fitting his films in with what the Soviet censors wanted from him. When he shows the wonders of Soviet factory production, it’s meant to glorify the proletariat. These images of the Early Modern city seem oppressive to us now, or at least to me, but the movie thinks it’s a great place to live. In the 1930s, however, the Soviet government decided that it wanted to create something of a state artistic style, one of “Social Realism.” Not covered in that were double exposures and jump cuts. Vertov kept making a living, but essentially became a glorified newsreel editor. After 1934 or so he never really got to make a movie with his “artistic vision” again. His brother (who can be seen briefly in Man With a Movie Camera) later emigrated to America and won an Oscar for Cinematography for On the Waterfront

So, maybe you don’t care what movie invented slow motion, what you want to know is if you will have a good time watching Man With a Movie Camera. And to that I say, I have no idea? I am someone who likes documentaries and just sort of staring at things. I’ve just finished all 13 episodes of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, all of which tend to involve long stretches where they just point the camera at things and play classical music. I loved that, and I love this. It’s all in the rhythm, the way it builds and flows through different subjects.

One thing I should mention is the music, which is likely different depending on which platform or source you watch it on (if you buy it on DVD, my understanding is that there are several different options). In the early days of silent cinema movies didn’t have synced soundtracks: the technology didn’t exist. So the music would be provided by an organist or pianist in the theater itself. Thus, in order to duplicate this experience in modern times, something of a cottage industry has sprung up writing new scores for silent movies. Man With a Movie Camera is a very popular subject. The version I watched had a driving, modern music track that reminded me of something by Phillip Glass. It was written and performed by “The Cinematic Orchestra,” and worked extremely well in context. If you’d prefer, I’m sure you can find something more “traditional,” though I would point out that Vertov himself was hardly one for tradition.

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