It’s one of the most important films ever made, documentary or otherwise. See what all the fuss is about.
Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929, 68 min, Viewed via Amazon Video
Today, Sight & Sound published their decennial “50 Greatest Films of All Time” list (Which I supposed should be more accurately called, “The 50 Greatest Films of All Time, until ten years from now, when I guess we’ll retroactively warp reality so that these new films, in a new order, are now the greatest of all time.” Calling anything the best “of all time” is pretty dumb). It’s ranked, which means that no one will be talking about the actual merits of the films on it, and instead be pettily arguing over whether Vertigo is really better than Citizen Kane. That’s a shame, since all the movies on that list are truly great. Man with a Movie Camera jumped from #27 on the previous iteration of the list to #8 on this one, and since it’s the only doc on the list, I figured now was as good as any a time to finally see it.
People often criticize older films of being “slow” or some variation thereof. They’re both wrong and right. Yeah, old movies use longer takes and more “deliberate” editing, but holding it against them is just silly. It’s different from what we’re used to now, not inherently wrong. At any rate, this is not an accusation that could be leveled at Man with a Movie Camera. This doc is infused with an energy that’s drastically different from most cinema of its time. It makes use of hundreds of quick takes and rapid cuts. It’s Soviet-era montage at its finest, using brief glimpses of life to create a blinding array of impressionistic visions.
A silent film, the only intertitle comes at the very beginning, explaining director Dziga Vertov’s intentions in making it. The doc is meant to represent “an experimentation in cinematic communication… directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema, on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.” There is no story, only scene after scene of life in 1920’s-era urban Russia. There are no characters, except perhaps the collective character of all of these myriad experiences pooling together.
This is a film high on the possibilities of cinema. Vertov grasped what few had yet realized: that this “film” stuff was not a novelty, but a new art form. This movie is experimental in the truest sense of the word, with Vertov putting a camera wherever he can, and subsequently splicing together the results. He went forward with no concrete idea of what he was doing, trusting that he would find a “story” as he went.
And what did he find? Life. He captured footage of people at work and play, at rest and in movement, in their homes and on the move. This is communistic life at its most idealized. Many people move like tiny cogs that join into a larger, fractal contraption. Every frame of this movie thrums with activity, even in the places where Vertov freezes the image.
That’s another way in which he’s playing with the medium – every trick in the book afforded by editing, some of which Vertov himself invented here, is thrown into the mix. Fast and slow motion. Split screens and weird angles. Double exposure and stop-motion animation. This movie absolutely blew the minds of the people first seeing it. There had been nothing like it up to that point. In fact, special disclaimers about the nature of the movie were run with the advertising for it in the lead up to its original release!
There’s a wonderful sense of meta cleverness to the film. It opens and closes with people in a movie theater and a camera shutter opening and closing against the juxtaposition of an eye. It knows exactly what it is, and recognizes the transportive quality of the theater. There’s a reason that the recent shooting in Colorado hits on such a visceral level for so many people: there is the unspoken acknowledgment that the movies are a sacred space, that it is where we’re supposed to be able to go to another place.
Man with a Movie Camera also features the recurring image of, well, a man with a movie camera moving about the city. In the beginning, he’s perched atop another, giant movie camera, and he finds other vantage points throughout the city as the doc goes on. It’s another aspect of the whimsical sense of self-aware fun that Vertov brings to the proceedings. The movie itself is exploring, so naturally it follows a “character” on an adventure.
Man with a Movie Camera unquestionably belongs on a list of the greatest movies yet made (See, that’s much better than “ever made,” isn’t it?). It defies every idea that those who don’t know better have of old film. It’s brilliant and thrilling and pulsates with breathless potential. Within this film, you can spot all of what would come later from the form. This is where so many techniques began, and where many more were collated so that they could be held up as proof of life. Vertov was a genius, and this is the ultimate thesis on what film is.