Jonny Weinberg discusses this experimental 1929 silent documentary film
‘I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I am the machine that reveals to you as only a machine can see it’ – so said Dziga Vertov, self-proclaimed ‘Author-supervisor’ of the 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera. Largely ridiculed upon release, this piece of Avant-Garde Soviet cinema now places 1st in Sight and Sound’s ’50 Greatest Documentaries of All Time’ list. An all-encompassing portrait of life in a modern soviet city, it is the film’s loose form and experimental visuals that excited and baffled audiences. Now, following a 2014 re-master of a new full-frame print, it has been given a limited summer release to once again baffle and excite audiences. I managed to catch a screening at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, though it has been showing at cinemas throughout the country – including a run at the BFI Southbank.
Movie Camera begins with several bold title slides, grandly declaring it “An Experimentation in the Cinematic Communication of Visual Phenomena.” We are told to expect a film “Without the use of Intertitles”, “Without the Help of a Script” and “Without the help of theatre”. Vertov certainly does not undersell his work. What follows is just over an hour of fluid, enthralling cinema with no plot, actors, sets, or dialogue whatsoever. Even by the standards of documentary, Vertov strays far from convention. Rather than being straightforwardly informative like most modern documentaries, his film seeks to convey an impressionistic truth through its innovative style.
Behind Vertov’s flair and innovation is a strong belief about the purpose and practice of cinema … To show Film as art in its own right, with its own unique ability to depict “life caught unawares”
As far as its subject goes, the film leaves no stone unturned. It was shot in Kharkiv, Kiev, Moscow and Odessa to create the image of a complete modern metropolis. Over its short run-time, Movie Camera examines seemingly every aspect of modern life. There are candidly graphic scenes of birth, sombre images of a funeral. Freed from the restrictions of narrative or story, we see the signing of marriage licences, the signing of divorce applications. Vertov shows us the intimate, the mundane and the grand – as promised, all the visual forms of life.
Laid out on a page like this, the film’s contents sound flat. Written down, it appears slightly like a sterile catalogue of life in a series of images. What we see on screen, however, could not be further from this. Thanks to Vertov’s bold and innovative visual techniques, Movie Camera serves as both a mesmerising and exhilarating viewing experience. Along with his editor and wife Elizaveta Svilova, he manipulates the film in ways that have gone on to shape modern editing. The double-exposure of film, superimposing of images and screen splitting transform Vertov’s images. He slows the film down, plays it backwards, speeds it up or combines still images to create stop-motion sequences. Vertov imposes no strict style of cinematography, no signature camera moves so beloved of modern directors like Tarantino or Wes Anderson. Instead, the subject moulds the film’s form. The effects make Man with a Movie Camera more visceral and intimate, and allow it to truthfully convey the nature of life in a sprawling city.
What is most striking is the way Vertov puts the filmmaking process on screen. Central to the film is the Man with the Movie Camera himself, shown wandering the city with his camera and tripod. He films from the top of a tall building, lying along train tracks, even in the sea. He is superimposed onto images: we see through his camera and we watch him film others. The multiple viewpoints form part of the movie’s distinctive visuals, including an iconic shot of his eye staring at us through the lens. Later on in the film, we see the editor at work, cutting up film. As she takes a break, the film pauses. As she cuts up the film, the frequency of cuts increases. This self-awareness and illustration on the filmmaking process intertwines with Movie Camera’s depiction of the city. It is introduced from the very start of the film, which shows an audience sitting down to watch a film screening and an orchestra preparing to play. As the film ends, the audience empties out – on screen as in real life.
Behind Vertov’s flair and innovation is a strong belief about the purpose and practice of cinema. His opening slides reveal his desire to capture real truth on film by abandoning the props of literature and theatre. To show Film as art in its own right, with its own unique ability to depict “life caught unawares.” Movie Camera is the practical manifestation of this theory and is an example of the film medium used to its full potential. Vertov shows us the inherent voyeurism of the camera while using it to illustrate the chaos of modern life, bridging the gap between spectacle and intimacy. He is brave enough to throw away the crutches many modern directors still cling to, determined to allow a film to stand on its own as an art form. The result is cinema at its purest. Movie Camera is as spectacular as ever and certainly worth re-visiting.