The Greatest films of all time: 2. Man with a movie camera (1929)

Introduction:

“Man with a movie camera” of 1929 by Dziga Vertov without any doubt is the ultimate definition of cinema, and the gold standard of filmmaking that any other film should be rated by. Ranking any film or making any list of the greatest film is not complete without having seen this film and comparing others with this film that has been made almost 90 years ago. Only “The Battleship Potemkin” by Sergie Eisentein that was made four years earlier could stand above this film, for being an earlier creation, having invented some cinematographic and filming techniques prior to this masterpiece, and also having a story to show. Surprisingly both films are made by two Russian film masters, who defined cinema at its inception. One believing in the medium for telling story and narrative, while conveying ideology and provoking emotions (Eisenstein), whereas the other used the screen to experiment the art and techniques of cinema, camera movements and editing, albeit conveying his poetry (Vertov). 

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Vertov’s experiences with a simple camera of 1929 has been and will be an invaluable lesson to any camera man or film director, what camera and editing can do. The vast experiences with camera and editing (done by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova) in this documentary film has taken others for many years later to absorb and replicate some of the techniques in their films to this day. This masterpiece of cinema was definitely beyond its time in every frame, technique and content. “Man with a movie camera” should be taught in any schools of filmmaking frame by frame and students need to appreciate how such a grand work came to possibility with a simple camera in 1929. Vertov could not possibly achieve this great work in a feature film content, though his documentary or camera work experience is not without content. The film in fact is the story of urban life of men, women and children in the Soviet cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa, at work, play and else. The man with the camera is as well part of the film and story, as he is shown frequently in the film. Therefore the people of Soviet Union, including the cameraman are characters or actors of the film. This masterpiece that perhaps deserves a book to write about, needs an introduction of its creator.

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Vertov (his pseudonym) born as David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Denis Kaufman (1896-1954) was not only a pioneer filmmaker, but also a cinema theorist. Vertov first studied music at Bialystok Conservatory, then writing poetry, science fiction and satire. From 1916 to 1917, he studied medicine in Saint Petersburg, while experimenting with sound collages in his free time. He eventually adopted the name “Dziga Vertov”, which translates loosely from Ukrainian as “spinning top”. In his early writings, Vertov emphasizes on the camera lens as his “second eye”, that can perceive and record the nature of individuals, their interrelations with each other, the nature, machinery, and their emotions. After the Russian revolution of 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya studio and started the Russian first newsreel series in 1918. 

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Soon by 1922, Vertov started to explore the “truth” or capacity of he film as a media, that can capture beyond the fragments of reality, by organizing the pieces together and allowing a deeper truth that cannot be seen with the naked eye. While working in the “Kino-Pravda” (The Film truth) series, Vertov focused on everyday experiences, eschewing bourgeois concerns and filming marketplaces, bars, and schools instead, sometimes with a hidden camera. Vertov in his 23 issues of these series over a period of three years, used simple, functional and unelaborate cinematography, as he did not believe in staging as it is customary in the fictions. The stories were typically descriptive, not narrative, and included vignettes and exposés, all in an experimental process. Verov in his theory of cinema was critical of “Institutional mode of Representation” dominant to this day in fiction telling and feature films with narratives and stories, that he called it “The art’s tower of Babel, all imaginary, an illusion and not representative of reality”. He goes to the point that calls the drama as another “opiate of the masses”, like religion. 

By the end of the “Kino-Pravda” series in 1925, Vertov has already invented several new filming techniques such as stop motion and freeze frames. While planning on “a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theater and literature” in his upcoming the “Man with a movie camera”, he was hired by the Ukraine State Studio to accomplish such. The film was criticized by some to detract from Vertov’s portraying pure reality, or portraying “life as it is”, as some scenes being staged, such as the reversed shot of the chess pieces being pushed off a chess board. But “Man with a movie camera” goes beyond Vertov’s earlier “Kino-Pravda” or newsreel series to show only the “life as it is”. In this film, while continuing with his film experiments, he applies his numerous first time ever techniques to portray human emotions, interactions with each other, the nature, machinery and else, in parallelism and antagonism, etc. Therefore he influences or interprets the reality that otherwise could not be perceived well by the naked eye or a plain camera shot. He puts the different fragments of reality into juxtapositions and contradictions to convey his understanding and his message to us about the human’s nature. That is why he is present as a character in the film, and at the end even the camera on its own without “the man” or him, is an existing entity, possessing a character. 

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While vertov’s earlier experiments in “Kino-Pravda” or newsreel series were mostly “life caught unaware of the camera”, in “Man with a movie camera”, many scenes and shots having been taken of the characters aware of the camera and the man behind it, as they look into the lens, and even having their reflections in the camera lens. The numerous and new camera and editing techniques such as slow and fast motions, freeze frames, juxtaposition and dissecting images, and else are clear evidence of the camera impact and interpretation of life. The “Kino-Glaz” or “Cine-Eye”, a montage method that Vertov developed earlier in 1919, is clearly “I am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see”! While at the same time, Sergie Eisenstein used his creative editing and other cinematic techniques as a tool to convey thrilling, emotional, psychological and ideological influences onto the audience, Vertov in a parallel manner used his own film techniques to show his poetry of his early years’ writings onto the screen. Vertov’s legacy was followed by many, including the “Free Cinema” movement in England in 1950s, “Direct Cinema” in North America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the “Candid Eye” series in Canada in the 1950s, and “Cinema Verite” movement in France in 1960s and 1970s. 

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The numerous cinematic techniques of the film include double exposure, fast and slow motions, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch and low angles, extreme close-ups, panoramic and tracking footage played backwards, stop motion animations, self-reflexive visuals, etc. All these techniques of the film, too advanced for its time and even many years to come, were possible by Vertov’s uncompromised efforts mounting the camera in many impossible locations such as on moving cars, trains, on the rope above a waterfall, in underground mines, and else. Among many first-ever seen shots and scenes are naked women on the beach, vaginal delivery of a baby in an operating room, for the first time and for years to come on the screen. The superimposed shots such as the cameraman setting up his camera atop a second, mountainous camera, or getting up out of a beer glass are all the first time ever seen on celluloid. 

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In the British Film Institute’s 2012 “Sight and Sound” poll, film critics voted “Man with a Movie Camera”, the 8th best film ever made, and in its 2014 poll it was named the best documentary of all time. This frontier “avant-garde” film in its premier release in Moscow, starts with a manifesto by Vertov: “The film, Man with a Movie Camera represents an experimentation in the cinematic communication of visual phenomena without the use of intertitles, scenario, actors, sets, and 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.”

Although some critics of the time, have stated that some of the film techniques such as the fast editing, close-ups, the store window displays, the shots of a typewriter keyboard are borrowed from Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great city”, Vertov himself has responded to the German press in 1929, that these techniques and images had been developed and employed by him in his Kino-Pravda newsreels and documentaries for the last ten years, all of which predate Berlin. Vertov’s pioneering cinematic concepts actually inspired other abstract films by Ruttmann and others, including writer, translator, filmmaker and critic Liu Na’ou (1905–1940) whose “The Man Who Has a Camera” (1933), pays explicit homage to Vertov’s “The Man With a Movie Camera”.

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Despite Vertov’s own worries that the film may not be received well by the ordinary audience for being too experimental, it was well received and even anticipated before release by many. The fast pace of the film’s editing, more than four times faster than a typical 1929 feature, with approximately 1,775 separate shots, perturbed some critics such as Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times who stated “Dziga Vertov, does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that which holds the attention.” The use of different techniques such as double exposures, extreme close-ups and fast editing along with corresponding sound track tempos, portrays the film even more enthralling, capturing such emotional qualities, which could not be fully portrayed through the use of words. The film’s numerous new techniques and the lack of “actors” and “sets”, but the real people in the real world, helps to convey Vertov’s concept of directing the film to achieve “the creation of a genuine, international, purely cinematic language, entirely distinct from the language of theatre and literature.”

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The film that was originally released accompanied in theaters with live music, it has since then been released a number of times with different soundtracks, mostly classic or mixed from 1983 to a 2002 jazz, and Michael Nyman’s band at London Royal Festival Hall, to a very recent RUMORS soundtrack called “Ghost” by Oliver Heldens in March 2016.   

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“Our eyes,” he wrote, “see very poorly and very little… the movie camera was invented to penetrate more deeply into the visible world”. Vertov’s agenda in Man with a Movie Camera signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, “show us life”. 

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Conclusion:

In closing remarks “Man with a movie camera” is the gold standard of filmmaking and a lesson, not just technical, but conceptual for all the filmmakers then and now. No films yet even to this day has achieved such a celebration of numerous film techniques at once. This great masterpiece also for being all visual art without any dialogue or intertitles is another great example of how a real work of cinema should look like, distinct from the art and language of theatre and literature. Vertov realizing the fact that the pure visual art of cinema is hard to achieve in a narrative, specially when putting all the thinkable filming techniques of the time, perhaps obsessively, he used documentary as the context. This masterpiece of cinema will be once again redefined based on the following criteria:  

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  1. Originality: “Man with a movie camera” is original not only in its numerous technical innovations, but it is original in its experimentation to extend the camera work to its ultimate achievement. This masterpiece could be only done in a documentary, not a feature film that would be restricted by a narrative. Vertov’s goal that he achieved well, was to demonstrate such capacity of camera and even editing, that could not be done in a narrative film, perhaps an answer to his critics of the film’s too much technicality. But at the same time this great film that over time has been recognized more and more, is not only a mixture of dry film techniques and camera works, but a genuine tool to portray the life as it is with the real people who are the greatest actors of all time. Even the film goes beyond Vertov’s previous newsreel and reality documentary, for being poetic, showing the humans’ emotions, inter-relations with each other, machinery and the nature. Moreover the film is different than Vertov’s previous works, where the camera has been hidden, as here the camera is an active participant. “Man with a movie camera” is perhaps the only film in the history of cinema to show the hardship of the camera and the cameraman in making a film.man-with-a-movie-camera-16
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Man with a movie camera” is unique and un-repeated in the history of cinema. The techniques of the film is not only in its tremendous, first-time camera movements for the time, but it is also in its slow motion, freeze, and fast paced editing that is mesmerizing, while eyes bothering for some. For today’s viewers and students of cinema and film editors, knowing that such amazing editing was only done with manual film splicer and scissors, then the value and appreciation of the film would be multifold. Since the film was experimental, Vertov was free to do and show what could be achieved with camera and editing and other cinematographic techniques then. So the product was a film full of many cinematic techniques surpassing not the films of its time, but for many years to come and forever all in one film.man-with-a-movie-camera-10
  3. Impact Factor: “Man with a movie camera” has influenced and taught many filmmakers for years, many film techniques that took them long to incorporate them in their films. The impact of the film was not just in its numerous cinematic techniques, but how to show meaningful, ideological and poetic content in a documentary, technical and experimental film. This great film was also a heroic lesson for innovation and experimentation and actualization of ideas and dreams in any media formats, against all odds.man-with-a-movie-camera-6
  4. Survival: “Man with a movie camera” has survived well so that the today’s viewers, experienced or lay would be surprised by what has been done almost 9 decades ago. The surprise will be multifold when one compares the rest of the films of the time, even a couple of decades after, to see how primitive they were compared to this masterpiece in cinematographic techniques. Of course there is one exception, “The Battleship Potemkin” made four years earlier in 1925 by another Russian master, Sergei Eisenstein who created a very technical film in a context of a significant narrative, so to make it in the top 5 or 10 of the lists of many greatest films ever made and our number 1 film of all time!

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“I am kino-eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. Now and forever, I free myself from human immobility. I am in constant motion. I draw near,then away from object. I crawl under, I climb onto them. I move apace with the muzzle of galloping horse. I plunge full speed into a crows, I outstrip running soldiers. I fall on my back, I ascend with an airplane, I plunge and soar together with plunging and soaring bodies… My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you.”

Dziga Vertov, from “We:Variant of a Manifesto”, 1922!

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