CAPSULE: MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom; AKA Living Russia, or the Man With the Movie Camera

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dziga Vertov

FEATURING: Mikhail Kaufman (cameraman)

PLOT: A plotless record of twenty four hours of life in the Soviet Union of 1929, exhibited

Still from Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

through series of experimental camera tricks.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Man with the Movie Camera is a visually inventive, historically important and formally deep movie that reveals more secrets with each viewing; but, the only quality in it that might be called “weird” are the surreal camera tricks it occasionally employs. It’s a movie that demands space on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in editing techniques or film theory, but as far as weirdness goes, it’s purely supplemental viewing.

COMMENTS: Reviews of Man with a Movie Camera often spend as much, if not more, time discussing the history and philosophy of the production and its influence on future films than they do describing what’s actually in the movie. That’s because the challenge the movie sets for itself—to create a “truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature”—is more fascinating than the film’s subject matter (the daily lives of Soviet citizens in 1929). On a technical level, Movie Camera is a catalog of editing techniques and camera tricks, many of which were pioneered in this film but are commonplace or obsolete now. Be on the lookout for double exposures, tricks of perspective, slowing down or speeding up the camera speed, freeze-frames, reversed footage, split screens, and even crude stop-motion animation. One of the most interesting techniques is the amphetaminic editing of Movie Camera‘s climax, which moves almost too fast for the eye or mind to follow (a technique Guy Maddin would fall in love with and use to ultra-weird effect in the Constructivist/Surrealist hybrid The Heart of the World). Structurally, the film flows along as a series of counterpoints, alternating between two sets of scenes to create ironic contrasts (cross-cutting a funeral procession and the birth of a baby), metaphors (scenes of soot-covered workers in the mines followed by women being pampered in a beauty parlor to suggest the dignity of the worker compared to the frivolousness of the bourgeoisie), or other surprise connections (the cameraman getting dangerously close to the being hit by a speeding train is intercut with a sleeping woman tossing and turning as if having a nightmare). Other sequences interlace shots of the cameraman and film crew with the footage they’re shooting so the audience can see how the movie is made; for example, we see the cameraman filming horse drawn carriages, then watch the reaction of the bonneted women out on a Sunday ride trying to act nonchalant as if they don’t realize there’s a camera aimed at them from the car speeding along beside them. At several points the movie pauses and we focus on Vertov’s wife working in the editing studio splicing the footage together into a montage, as if we’re watching the movie being assembled before our very eyes.

Philosophically, Movie Camera advocates a pure Marxist agenda; thanks to the distance of time and circumstance, the preaching is not as heavy-handed and obvious to the modern viewer as it may have been to the film’s intended audience. The common worker, whether miner, factory worker or clerk, is spotlighted and glorified throughout. All that footage showing the cameraman and the physical process of making movies serves double duty here, reminding the audience that the propaganda artist is not a privileged class but is a fellow worker sweating away in the trenches. The film also advances temporary policies of the time: in 1927, Stalin had embarked on a policy of rapid industrialization to close the technological gap between the Soviet Union and the West. Movie Camera therefore fetishes the machine, taking a voyeuristic delight in glorifying belching smokestacks, pumping pistons, and particularly in the clicking shutters and winding cranks of its own favorite apparatus, the camera (I half-suspect director Vertov only shows the explicit birth of a baby because the vagina reminds him of a camera aperture).

At a more abstract level, the non-narrative, everyday subject matter of the film expresses the director’s ideological hostility to the fictional films of the West. Like Leon Trotsky, Vertov saw the spectacle and fantasy of fictional films as an opiate for the masses that needed to be reformed into something useful to the socialist state. This last position, turning the cinema away from escapism and towards practicality, was Vertov’s central concern in Movie Camera, but it resulted in two ironies. First, there is a paradox in that Vertov wants to limit himself to depicting reality, but so many of the images he chooses are fantastic and even surreal: a man with a movie camera standing on top of mountainous movie camera, a building collapsing on itself via split-screen manipulation, a plate of cooked prawns coming to life and slithering around. Presumably, Vertov resolves this apparent inconsistency between concern for reality and addiction to fantasy by constantly reminding the audience that they are watching a film and not a story, by emphasizing the role of the omnipresent unhidden cameraman and showing how he accomplishes his tricks, thereby unmasking the illusion and revealing the reality behind it. There remains, however, a (not unpleasant) tension between the director’s championing of reality over fiction and the way he continually undermines the reality of his motion picture.

The second irony is that, despite the fact that Movie Camera‘s foundation was doctrinaire Marxist theory, the movie was rejected and disavowed as avant-garde and decadent after Stalin adopted the official Soviet aesthetic of “social realism.” The Communist stance became that filmmakers should depict easy-to-digest, non-stylized narratives that could inspire the average theatergoer, showing him exemplary citizens and uplifting historical victories such as Alexander Nevsky‘s victory over the Teutonic Knights. Vertov stopped making his own films after 1934 and finished out his career as nothing more than an editor. Invented to celebrate the proletariat, Man with the Movie Camera ended up of interest entirely to the cultural elites; intended as a leftist manifesto, it proved too radical in its formalism for the Marxists.

Man with the Movie Camera is a recommended film, but with a qualification: you almost certainly must have an interest in film history or film theory to enjoy it. If anyone without such predilections were to call the movie insufferably tedious, I wouldn’t be able to refute them. Because the movie itself is in the public domain, but the various soundtracks are not, you have several options to watch the film. It can be streamed or downloaded from the Internet archive, but there is no musical accompaniment. The three main competing DVD versions currently available are distinguished by their unique soundtracks, each made in different styles but all following Vertov’s broad original scoring notes. Kino’s 2003 release (buy) features a minimalist score by Hollywood composer Michael Nyman. The record label Ninja Tune released a DVD (buy) with a hipper score from the electronic jazz outfit The Cinematic Orchestra. The version I watched to prepare this review was the 2002 Image disc (buy), with a very good soundtrack from the Alloy Orchestra that is hypnotically rhythmic and occasionally exotic; it plays as both period-appropriate and “futuristic” at the same time, and reminds me a little of the style of George Antheil. The Cinematic (digital version) and Alloy (digital version) versions of the movie are both available for online rental or purchase.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[the] wiggiest effects would seem to violate the idea of verit. But that’s the intoxicating power of making movies–you start out trying to record realism, and you end up animating a plate full of prawns.”–Jim Ridley, Nashville Scene (DVD)

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