Essential Docs: ‘Man with a Movie Camera’

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When Sight and Sound magazine updated its lists of the greatest films of all time in 2012, lost in a sea of “Vertigo or Citizen Kane?” think pieces was arguably a bigger bit of news. Yes, among the ranks of Ozu, Kubrick, Ford, Fellini, and the rest of the top 10 was a Russian avant garde filmmaker, Dziga Vertov, and his incredible, unforgettable, silent documentary, Man with a Movie Camera.

It placed #8 on Sight and Sound‘s 2012 poll—up more than 20 spots from its place on the 2002 version of the same poll—and it’s as challenging and influential as anything among the entire list of 250. It’s borderline unrecognizable among non-fiction cinema today, yet the film’s stakes are nothing less than cinema as we know it.

Man with a Movie Camera‘s most important passage is its intro. For 30 seconds, white text on a black screen vows to expand the audience’s understanding of what’s possible with a movie camera. In 1929, when the film was released, cinema was still quite rigid—star-driven, bound by narrative conventions and space. To that, Vertov says this in these opening seconds:

“The film Man with a Movie Camera represents

AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION
of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCENARIO
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)

This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authenticity international absolute language of cinema—ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY—on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.”

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That’s a bold statement to lead one’s film with, and it sets Man with a Movie Camera‘s bar for success almost impossibly high. Vertov follows through on his promises, however. His film features no intertitles, no actors, no sets. It’s nothing but a man, his camera, his editor (Vertov’s wife, incidentally), and Soviet society.

Man with a Movie Camera‘s scant 76 minutes depicts Soviet life in a hypnotically elliptical way. One powerful sequence features the lightning-quick cross-cutting of a marriage, divorce, birth, and funeral. Vertov also introduces the machinery—mass transport, and so on—that’s changing his society as rapidly as he and his wife edit their movie. Lost in all the film’s trickery and big-picture, landscape-changing ambition is the fact that it’s a documentary about a society just 10 years removed from revolution. The Soviet Union was starting to come into its own, and while the lack of dialogue and intertitles prevents Vertov—a proud Soviet comrade—from getting too political, the film’s socialist overtones are undeniable.

More than 1,500 shots make up Man with a Movie Camera, many of which were revolutionary at the time. Double exposure places “the man” on top of his movie camera. Two opposing Dutch-angle tracking shots play together on a roughly spliced split screen. Vertov digs into the earth to shoot upward at a train passing overhead. This is all stuff movie viewers in the 21st century have grown accustomed to, but they had to be developed somewhere, sometime.

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Still, there’s nothing stale about Man with a Movie Camera. Vertov is like a magician. He promises the world in the introduction to his act and somehow delivers. When the woman is finally cut in half, even those who know how the trick is done will sit astonished at what’s transpired. Throughout the film, he gleefully lets us peak into his toolbox (he is, after all, the film’s main “character” as we glimpse him capturing the images that make up the movie). Inside, however, isn’t just a rabbit, a hat, and a magic wand. Vertov’s is a Pandora’s box—inside is nothing more or less than infinite artistic possibility, and 85 years later, filmmakers everywhere have thrived off his mesmerizing accomplishment, a truly essential documentary if one has ever been made.

— John Gilpatrick

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