Man with a Movie Camera
2005Director: Dziga Vertov
he weight of cinematic history bears heavily on the keyboard of anyone offering their opinion of 1929 Soviet classic Man with a Movie Camera, re-released for a limited period in Australian cinemas this month. Film scholars throughout the decades have dissected, lectured and written volumes on this seminal silent feature which offers a dawn ‘til dusk view of everyday life in urban Russia, its formidable reputation enhanced by two modern music scores, one in 1999 by downbeat hipsters The Cinematic Orchestra, the other in 2002 by respected soundtrack guru Michael Nyman (The Piano). With the 2002 version currently gracing our screens, pity the unfortunate reviewer who dares to criticize.
Fortunately that person is not I, although I will say Vertov could perhaps have used the slow motion to greater effect had he thrown in a balletic gun battle between two Russian cops on the edge who also happened to be martial arts experts. Another teensy-weensy criticism is the absence of a car chase through the streets of Moscow, although to be fair we are treated to the odd sight of the director riding a motorcycle one-handed around a speedway circuit whilst cranking the camera, no mean feat considering its cumbersome size. In short, this is no Bourne Supremacy.
Nervous flippancy aside, suffice to say Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece still looks stunning today, in fact employing such a wide variety of experimental camera techniques that many modern movies seem staid and uninspiring in comparison. You know we’re in cinematic trouble when a 1929 Russian silent montage documentary is more impressive visually than anything Scorsese & Co are coming up with these days.
Polish-born Vertov (real name Dennis Kaufman) had years of experience as a newsreel man in Stalinist Russia when he single-handedly advanced the art of cinema several leaps at once with his daring, unorthodox approach to the exultation of Russian life. Filling the celluloid with metaphors and trying out every non-linear technique he could think of, Man with a Movie Camera (original title Chelovek s Kino-Apparatom) was for audiences of the day an unusual and at times uncomfortable experience. Melding techniques such as animation, freeze-frames, split-screens, dissolves and putting himself in the frame with his camera (his brother shooting from a second), Vertov succeeded in transcending the conventions of film and opening up the possibilities of the medium for generations of budding movie makers to come.
If a series of montages depicting ordinary Soviet workers at work and play sounds like a yawn-fest, five minutes with this incredible film will not only change your mind about what makes for interesting subjects but also make you want to dust off that DV camera and write your name on the back of a director’s chair. Vertov illustrates with simple transposition of images the intellectual possibility of film that is all too often forgotten and in choosing to document the ever-smiling ordinary man and women of the streets reminds us that it is the moments we experience every day with our friends, family and co-workers that define us, a revelation that is stark and profoundly moving.
Far superior writers than I have filled textbooks with talk of Vertov’s technique and use of metaphor (most strikingly comparing the camera with the human eye), so I leave it to them to explain should you wish to investigate further. For the layman one thing is certain. Eighty minutes with this 1929 film is enough to convince that as lovers of movies and moviemaking we owe a tremendous debt to Soviet cinema, surely one of the least celebrated nations in the canon of film. Man with a Movie Camera not only informs and defines film today—in many respects it still surpasses it.
By: Chris Flynn
Published on: 2005-12-20