Man With A Movie Camera (Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929) is a film. That much I am sure of. Beyond that, its all up in the air. That said, you could easily make a case for it being the greatest music video of all time.
That’s not meant to discredit the film in any way. Vertov’s use of music, rhythm and image in this film is just astounding. It is rare to encounter a work of such guttural primordial force, combined with visuals which work only on the microscopic and the abstract, no brainwashing or brain-numbing occuring. He presents life, or represents life, or re-presents life, in a beautiful organised chaos. And he creates a vision of themes, machinery which has life and talks and sings, people who exist in a variety of forms, each inhabiting their own unique persona in the collage he’s crafting. The cityscape morphing into itself, or the camera operator being in turn captured by the camera eye. All this and much more, all in synchronisation to the dense conceptual symphony of the cityscape he builds, through music and imagery.An illustrious, multi-layered orchestral piece which is a force in its own right, not merely a backing soundtrack. The combination of the two creates this spectral force of cinema.
There’s a small part of me that wants to bring this film down to Earth, to try and help communicate to you just what is going on in the 6 segments of his self titled “experiment”. Because to those who might not be familiar with the historical context of the early Soviet film pioneers, and then also be familiar with Vertov himself, and his theory which underpins part of the ethos of these essays, that of the Kino-Eye, the idea that the camera is more “perfect than the human eye for fathoming the chaos of those visual phenomena which evoke spatial dimension”, it can be difficult to even comprehend what’s going on. The filmmaking is just so radical, so deeply idiosyncratic and complex in it’s arrangement, that it becomes a vast gap to bridge just to even get on board with it. His experiment in pure cinema, with no script, no actors, no intertitles to provide context, nothing beyond the image and its manipulation, the music and its manipulation, and the interplay of the two to create a film.
This is cinema which exists on its own, cinema which is so deeply personal that the only comparison I can bring up is the work of M.C Escher, an artist who exists outside of the historical art continuum and the popular art continuum, but who is nonetheless an artist of profound depth who’s influence spread far and wide. This is said to be one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, ranked eighth in all world cinema in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, a documentary so far removed from any normal definition of documentary that we might imagine that it becomes either a dreamlike joyride or a crushingly boring betrayal slog.
The technical proficiency on display is blisteringly visionary, considering the level of expertise at the time in 1929 (and the three years before during its making), cinema’s existence only around for the last 30 years. The edits, the superimpositions, the splicing and re-orientation of the film itself, the literal film itself as he splits it, mirrors it, shows it being edited by his then wife. The camera becomes a subject of the film, itself being stared at by the kino-eye, as the filmmaker becomes just as important in the tapestry as the world he’s capturing. For that alone, the work is deserving of your time, time which is so precious these day, only clocking in at 69 minutes and managing to retain such a strong pace that most modern films can often lack. The symphonic ending sequence, it’s blindingly fast cuts and encompassing explosion of sound take cinema into the untranslatable, which can only be seen and heard to be understood. It felt ecstatic, revolutionary.
But it is only a film, and a rather curious one at that. Films can only do so much, and their makers even less. This film was Vertov’s call to arms for a (in his eyes) more visionary, a higher cinema. One concerned with poetic, intellectual, portrayals of life, not buried under fiction and lies and myths, what he termed “the opiate of the masses”. It did not take off, and maybe it is better that it did not take off, certainly easier. Vertov was like many visionaries, simply too radical. So consumed in its metaphysical nature, the work was not received well, certainly not with the sense of adulation and respect it holds today in cinematic history. If film had really become like Vertov’s work, imitators would have inevitably diluted the spirit of the entire project. It’s taken this long to properly appraise the work, imagine how it could have blown up if his ethos had become dominant.
I idolise Vertov, I make no secret of it.Half of this essay must read like a love letter to him as much as this film, but the truth that lies in this film’s kino-eye, is its ability to transcend its time and place to make a piece of art that touches on a level beyond words, language even. It is a work which carries a true incendiary spirit, one which I link in terms of true revolutionary cinema to Easy Rider. It is an extraordinary film in that is not like the Soviet contemporaries, nor the American “Talkies” who he reviled, nor like the films of today, it is out of the ordinary. It is not for everyone. The pioneering spirit is not for everyone. That does not mean that those who do not like it as much as me are wrong, or inferior in any way. Simply that I like to imagine I share a spirit with a man who pursued a cinema of vision, at the expense of support and acclaim which could have been granted to him if he had just fallen in line. It is his refusal to fall in line which makes the work great, but also condemns it.
Enough about Man With A Movie Camera. I have spent so long talking about it in the abstract, because that is what it provokes, abstract thought. It has lost some of its original meanings and intentions I’m sure, the passage of time erodes. But it is a work which shows just liberating cinema can be, freed from its conventions. Simply, it must be seen.
The ‘Kino-Eye’ speaks for itself, and it has so much to say.
(A grand thank you to the folks at Eureka who have distributed a “Masters of Cinema” Edition of this film, which not only has a gorgeous restoration which I viewed for this, but also contains some of his other works, and an excellent collection of additional material and essays. I have not been endorsed by them in any way, I just strongly recommend picking up the special edition if you can find here , it would have made Vertov very proud.)
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