If you enjoy a pure canon cinematic experience, then Man with a Movie Camera should be on top of your to-watch list. A silent, avant-garde documentary that pushed boundaries of cinematic visual techniques and offered revolutionary possibilities of filmmaking.
Man with a Movie Camera is a kaleidoscopic insight of city life in the Soviet Union that was directed by the pioneering Soviet experimenter David Kaufman, aka Dziga Vertov which means “spinning top”-just like the dazzling sensation that Man with a Movie Camera offers.
Vertov developed a montage method called the Cine-eye, which he believed that it would help Man develop and evolve into a more precise human being. His interest in machinery allowed him to invent creative techniques for the basis of cinema. While other cinema theorists viewed Cine-eye as a strong psychological, emotional tool to influence the mass viewers and thus induce an ideological aspect, Vertov believed that films were too influenced by romanticism and theatre to allow Man to evolve and so he desired to build a model of filmmaking that is based on the rhythms of machines and truth.
“An experiment in the cinematic transmission of visual phenomena… without intertitles… without a script… without sets, actors… »
A propaganda or a genius film?
Through his film, Vertov portrayed the mechanism of filmmaking. From the shots of the audience entering the theater to the images of Kaufman and Svilova filming and editing respectively, Vertov tells how the film is made. He manages to deconstruct the objectivity of films by revealing the truth about the constructed reality of documentaries.
The film’s self-reflectiveness reminds the viewers that the reality of this documentary is filled with personal political beliefs. Because Vertov was against fictional cinema; believing that it was elitist and disinterested to the Communist regime as it created fake reality. So, Vertov uses the film as a portrayal of filmmaking techniques and the different processes they go through. Undoubtedly, some critics argued that the film was a propaganda, made to educate and boost the Soviet population to work hard in order to become post-Communists. If you ask me, the film was largely about the mechanism of filmmaking and the camera’s striking advancing technology at that time rather than a propaganda.
Vertov was against the traditional mainstream film of that time. He was strongly concerned with creating a method of filmmaking that contradicted the fantasy of Hollywood that “romanticized” films and thus falsified reality. In his documentary, Vertov tried to convey a current realistic world of the Soviet society. This is emphasized in some sequences where Vertov and his borther (the cameraman) and his wife (the editor) were shown working on making this film. To Vertov, the camera was not only a tool for filming but also a body part- the human eye- that is essential to perceive reality. Vertov believed that cinema has its won language which travels globally without the need of theatrical or conventional language, and that is a powerful mindset.
The Fast and Furious of 1929
Vertov was very concerned with rhythm in terms of the visual language. He insisted that the language of cinema had to be self-referential and universal. Vertov in his film adopts the concept of rhythm in a striking and creative way. From the beginning of the film, one could observe a series on intervals between the frames, the shots and the scenes. Within the film’s narrative frame, there are two different rhythms that go along the visuals. In the part where people are asleep, the city gradually starts to awaken, people go to work and the traffic starts to flow, the shots here a quite long and slow paced. But the rhythm progressively intensifies when the scenes of work factories are shown. The shots have rather a short duration and a fast motion referring to the theme of industrialization and its acceleration. By contrast, towards the end of the film, you could guess the scenes represents the holidays where people enjoy their free time by going to the beach or watching sports. In these sequences, the rhythm goes back to being sustained and slow paced and the shots are back to being long, in connection to the theme of holidays and leisure.
The film also uses this juxtaposition technique. For instance, in the sequence of a woman shown washing her face, the film takes the viewers to another sequence of a high-pressure water cleaning off a pole. Both of these sequences share the element of water. The editing successfully collides them to induce a certain thought or underline a message in the viewers’ minds. The water metaphor could suggest a call for a cleansing of traditional bourgeois narrative. This goes in line with the reason why there are repeated sequences of some ordinary objects. Furthermore, the audio carefully matched the visuals and the rhythm in the film. The music kept changing throughout the film according to the sequences and their pace. For instance, while the shots are fast paced and short in the industrial scenes, the music also follows the pace by matching it with an energetic flow.
The most striking series of shots is the train sequence. The angle and the montage are the most interesting part of it. Showing the man with his camera fixing its position to capture the train from below while the train is fastmoving toward him is really fascinating, considering the time the film was made in. The repeated shots of the train passing by is also impressive. The film sometimes cuts to the woman who apparently is waking up suggesting that the train was sort of a bad dream as the fast and dazing movements of the camera exactly matches the woman’s head and body movement before finally waking up. This goes to show the capacities of the camera’s mechanism which were interestingly ahead of its time.
Man with a Movie Camera remains unparalleled and revolutionary even after all these years and it has inspired many filmmakers and now you know why.