Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
Movies with manifestos surrounding them are an understandably hard sell to any generalized audience, especially one approaching them nearly a century later. But Dziga Vertov’s electrifying silent landmark Man with a Movie Camera, the most famous work of the Soviet “Kinok” collective of which he was one third (with Elizaveta Svilova and Mikhail Kaufman, both of whom figure prominently within and without the frame here), fully achieves its central goal, which is to communicate in a singular language without barrier, in a way that would be impossible within any other medium. It aligns with John Cage’s later rejection of meaning and celebration of creation for its own sake, communicating only its own essence, exclusive to its own medium. Its sense of motion, playfulness, power and provocation possesses the same persistent magnetism as similarly kinetic avant garde pieces like Ballet Mechanique and Entr’Acte, except that Vertov maintains this energy and fervor for more than an hour without flagging.
The first two decades of Soviet filmmaking are rife with such intimidating staples of film history courses, but this example perhaps more than any other justifies its pedestal to the broadest now-conceivable audience. Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother do the most to transcend the generalized stereotypes of storytelling in the Eisenstein mold, but Man with a Movie Camera pares cinema itself to its essence to such an extent that it refuses to qualify itself as propaganda — or, for that matter, as storytelling. It announces itself emphatically as an “anti-narrative” film; no theater, no literature, only the camera, and while this bold opening statement doesn’t separate it in practice from other early abstract cinematic works or even from primitive actualities — which, after all, were also non-narrative and sometimes non-performative pieces concerned strictly with the camera’s relationship to reality — it does actually contribute a certain novel, even formal engagement with the piece as it proceeds. By announcing its disconnection from traditional cinematic form, it actually frees the audience, even now, to enjoy its purity of expression and its sheer intoxication with possibility.
One reason Vertov’s film is, along with Un Chien Andalou, kind of a totem of both the silent experimental film and the 1920s city symphony — dedicated, in this case, to several unnamed cities in the USSR — is that despite its strict adherence to the push and pull of pure cinema, unbound to theatrical or literary convention, it does have a more concrete motif than most such films, indeed that indicated directly by its title. Throughout the film we see a cameraman in the process of situating himself amongst the action, sometimes participating in it — lounging in the shallow waters of a sandy beach, for example — but always gamely observing, and often placing himself in dangerous (or impossible, defying the “documentary” label!) situations. Specifically this man is cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman, whose presence anchors the movie — which was, for all its surrealist and transgressive bona fides, actually planned and scripted quite meticulously by Vertov. It’s divided into six separate sections, linked by free association, their distinctions not obvious but instinctively present. Before the first section begins, the film sets its subversive tone with its magically rendered yet trivial depictions of theater chairs lifting themselves upward, a crowd piling into a music hall, an orchestra whose music (unheard by us, obviously, but represented artfully by Vertov’s scripted or planned sound design) is visually conveyed through editing, which gives the opening moments a kind of humorous levity.
And not all of what follows is meant to be taken wholly seriously. The first reel opens on images of desolation — beautiful and menacing and universally unpeopled: bridges, birds, benches, mannequins — plus eyes, setting up the film’s obsession with looking. But when the world awakens and everything twirls into abrupt motion, we’re confronted with the battering train-sex metaphor thirty years ahead of Hitchcock’s (and Bruce Conner’s) appropriation of the same sight gag. And with the body of a woman presented as in an exploitation film, reduced to a symbol, it makes a joke of our titiliation and to the automatic registration of a feminine figure as a subject of lust. Reel two, amidst more eyes and lenses, follows us through a montage of big industrial “things” into a phallic factory, furthering the undercurrent of slightly mocking eroticism. This shame is matched by a shot of a crowd of people pointedly avoiding the camera and its operator, bemused at their presence, as he dutifully traverses through them, creating a neat bisection that matches the corresponding split-screen effect of a city street (echoing Murnau’s Sunrise in its most romantic and chaotic sections). But it’s not so much that the film is funny as that it’s simply exciting, a whirlwind of simply striking compositions, breathless edits and camera trickery. Vertov builds a rhythm here, tracking the pulsating action of the factory and extrapolating out to dolls, store displays, the throbbing (and unheard) noise of life. But then a horse appears, and suddenly we freeze.
It’s here that Vertov and the Kinoks transcend even the boundaries enforced by the typical avant garde film of the ’20s or ’30s — after stopping dead, Man with a Movie Camera reveals the other facet of its own construction beyond the nature of the camera itself: we watch the film editor Elizaveta Svilova at work and observe her own crafting of a scene. In turn this third sequence reveals the distortion of information by film editing — formerly a neutral presence, the camera becomes a roving menace; unrelated images of birth, marriage and death (or, later, fire and light and darkness) start to form a grim and elemental message of sorts, which is all illusory because the footage isn’t connected except by Sviolva’s equipment; and lastly, we watch as camera movements follow eye movements, blinks impeeccably matched to edits. The implication is that even in this documentary dedicated to the camera and what it sees, we can be lied to, our mood artificially shifted. Someone controls all this, and it can’t be trusted. It follows in the fourth reel that the film can become a force of commercial persuasion, a glorification of industry: Svilova makes manufacture and work — specifically the work of women in particular — feel visceral through well-placed cuts. Again, the machinery matches up with the machinery of the camera; and the camera, formerly a specter of fear, is now itself in treachery, precariously mounted between tram cars.
When the machinery stops in the penultimate reel, so does the pulse. Vertov returns to the notion of city symphony as he turns us toward nightlife and recreation, preparing for a stop to labor and a transition to frivolity, much of it oriented toward body and exercise but with also a nod toward the fabricated self-moving chairs at the opening of the piece when we return to sudden stop motion and attendant artificiality. The camera, when not “invisible,” takes on farcical quality — stationed in a glass of beer, for instance — while the film editing, of which we’re now extremely conscious, turns toward further distance from reality with Riefenstahl-anticipating slow motion of athletics. More than any other portion of the film, these scenes communicate joy, which is quite the contrast from the final section, which is the least organized and focused. The editing has become totally relentless, as has the volatility of the footage itself, matching a brief interlude dedicated to weather. Direct propganda elements suddenly appear with an odd but enjoyable attack on a swastika (the “father of fascism”) followed by some echoes of earlier portions of the film: a giant cameraman, a House of Usher split screen, a startling, audience-implicating trip to a cinema rhyming with the theater in the first moments, and then — quickening tension, rapid cutting, a close-in on an almost macabre eye and an accompanying lens, and abruptly: the end.
There are many beautiful films made in this era with a surrealist or dadaist persuasion; most have ideologies less outwardly coherent than this. In the end, however, that statement of purpose, the film’s announcement of permission to the audience to exclude itself from any but the most rudimentary and superficial interpretation of what it’s seeing, and to revel in the sheer emotional power of life happening as interpreted by the film camera and the director and editors, while it articulates a liberation that some viewers may find necessary, is largely superfluous except in an historical interpretation of the picture’s importance, thus of Vertov’s and thus of the Kinoks’. As a viewing experience, Man with a Movie Camera defies explanation or paring down — it is powerful in and of itself for no reason other than that it is, a flexing of cinematic muscle as profound as any that can ever exist, because it simply exercises the limitless possibility of filmmaking with no tethering to commercial or narrative obligation. It’s masterfully entertaining, an explosive act of motion, but moreover it’s as exhilarating as a day in the life, in a way that has everything and nothing to do with the inherent properties of filmmaking.