50 years, 50 films Vol II: The Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
We return to our drift backwards through cinema with a ground-breaking documentary. If that’s what it is.
There are some outbursts of modernity that almost immediately seem outdated. The flash and the flam of the fashions becoming sad reminders of a moment grasped too forcefully. Then there are works like Dzigo Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, which still seems as awkward, exciting and peculiar as it did on the brink of the Great Depression. The pseudo-documentary (debate still rages as to its status) has been lurking in the critical ether ever since. You could argue about the extent to which anything quite so odd could have an influence, but, simply by running through all the medium’s possibilities, the Soviet production pointed towards endless possibilities. By the time the 2012 Sight and Sound poll came round, after dancing around the final corral for decades, the film finally made it into the top ten.
What is this thing? Born Denis Kaufman, Vertov began his career shooting newsreel footage of the Russian Revolution. Ten years later he had established himself as a key documentarian of the age. His notion was, through creative editing, to reveal truths to the viewer that were not habitually apparent to the naked eye. The Man With a Movie Camera was both a culmination of that project and a shift at an oblique angle. His ambition was — like the near contemporaneous Ulysses — to record a life in the day of a European city. Geography is twisted to temporal demands. Filmed in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa, the picture begins with public transport emerging from hangers and depots. We then observe the various citizens as they make their way to work and fall through the day. A woman gives birth. Some couples get married. Very much on board with the Marxist dream, Vertov’s picture features a kind of celebration of the assembly line as an example of socialist philosophy in action. And so on.
What still sets the film apart is its determination to exploit all the tricks and possibilities of the equipment. Like Lawrence Stern deconstructing the novel before it has been properly invented, Vertov pulls his material apart and reassembles it in dazzling fashion. “Life caught unawares” is represented in slow motion, through animation, via multiple images and — Jaws enthusiasts take note — through startling reverse zooms. What emerges is a work that somehow maintains a unity despite the being creates as a mosaic.
Not everybody got it. The contemporaneous New York Times review could hardly have expressed greater bemusement. “It is a disjointed array of scenes in which the producer, Dziga Vertoff, does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that which holds the attention,” Mordaunt Hall wrote. Vertov soon fell foul of the surge towards Soviet realism. But the film has lasted. It has prospered. There should be such things.
View it all above with a score by Michael Nyman.