The Man with the Movie Camera / Dziga Vertov / 1929 /
Active Ingredients: Kinetic style; Advancement of a cinematic language
Side Effects: Beach scenes
Man with a Movie Camera opens with a declaration, which, like the film that follows it, remains iconoclastic and modern even now, over 80 years later. “This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema,” the manifesto reads, “based on its absolute separation from the language of theater and literature.” Unfortunately, director Dziga Vertov’s call to arms has rarely been answered in the intervening years of film history. Of course there have been filmmakers since Vertov to explore the potential of film as its own uniquely expressive and temporal medium (Terrence Malick comes to mind), but, so often chained to story and narrative, film art remains in its infancy. Thus, Man with a Movie Camera feels as shocking, aggressive and revolutionary today as it must have 80 years ago. A hyperkenetic, experimental combination of images, photographic effects and raw adrenaline, the film communicates deeply and effectively with each breathless cut.
From the beginning, Vertov emphasizes the presence of himself and his chief cameraman Mikhail Kaufman. As Odessa sleeps, the man with the movie camera watches all, magically emerging atop the skyline. Quickly though, the city explodes into frenzied activity: cars and carriages race through the streets, throngs of pedestrians rush about their day, populating factories like so many worker bees, functioning cogs in a massive social machine like the gears they themselves animate, and everywhere trains criss-cross improbably, bisecting and trisecting the streets in a confused geometric tangle of churning metallic lines, and over and below and among this endless crush of motion, the men and their movie cameras restlessly crank their own magic machines, both capturing life and somehow willing it all into existence.
Through the incredible suggestive power of Soviet montage editing, Vertov draws thematic connections among the images he juxtaposes. Marriage and divorce, birth and death occur simultaneously; the omnipresence of machines links the industrialization of Russian society to the ability of cinema to create. Indeed, all the proletariat citizens the film documents, and especially the man with the movie camera, are always doing something: creating, making, fabricating, producing. Vertov, in one of many very pointed juxtapositions, intercuts footage of his editor splicing and cutting the film, turing inert photography into life right before our eyes, with assembly line workers churning out packs of cigarettes and telephone operators connecting lines on a massive switchboard. What Vertov shows, both in his documentation of street life (edited at a pace that would make MTV jealous) and through his inclusion of the filmmaking process, is that cinema has a unique power to create such vibrant life and to directly communicate through an edit, powers that separate it from theater and literature. Vertov also humbly acknowledges his project as an experiment, a step towards a true cinematic language, not a rigid pronouncement of its syntax and lexicon. He merely points the way; it remains up to the filmmakers of today and tomorrow to push the language even further. The fact that so few have in 80 years is not only a testament to the film’s genius, but an exciting indication of the limitless possibilities of cinema left to explore.
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