The film reviews itself. Before it begins, title cards read “For viewer’s attention: This film represents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theater.” And that was the driving force behind Dziga Vertov’s brilliant Man with a Movie Camera (1929): what makes a film? He set out to, in some ways, distinguish and justify the new art form in comparison to other dramatic arts. Was the invention of the cinema constrained to simply recording plays for posterity? What could a camera do that can’t be replicated on stage? What could it do that can’t be replicated with the human eye? Vertov, his brother and cameraman Mikhail Kaufman and his wife and editor, Elizaveta Svilova, were bound to find out.
In 1929 film language was still being written (some might say it’s still being written today), and if Americans were inventing much of cinematic composition (wide shot, medium shot, close-up), the Soviets were hard at work in the editing room, discovering the possibilities of the medium there, tinkering with the way the combination of images can color a story as much as the images themselves. This is a nation that presented the world with the Kuleshov effect, an experiment in which audiences were given a shot of a man then a shot of food or a woman. If the second shot was food, the man was said to look hungry; if it was a woman, he was lustful. The shot of the man was the exact same. The theory is that points could be made simply by the way the information is edited. Man with a Movie Camera is a 70-minute exploration of that idea.
The movie is made up of images of urban life. Cars, trucks, factories, factory workers, crowds, individuals, theater goers, all presented in a parade of seemingly random images that build to a furious energy. The movie confused the reviewer for the New York Times who claimed it was muddled, moved too fast and could only offer originality. Despite its faint praise, the review reveals how revolutionary this type of movie was, how much faster it was, flustering the poor critic into trying to find a narrative and causing him to complain that Vertov “does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a space of time that which holds the attention.”
Of course, the eye can process information faster than we think it can, and Man with a Movie Camera is a visual delight, energetic and exhilarating. Take a movie it resembles in its stream of consciousness filmmaking, Le Quattro Volte, from 2010. The movies may have similar aims, but Man with a Movie Camera is too delighted with itself to share Le Quattro Volte’s leisurely pace. Russian society was growing up in the 1920s, it had left the old-world monarchy behind, and it was embracing its exciting (albeit flawed) new philosophy. Along with it came Soviet moviemaking, just as excited about the possibilities the medium could hold. These are certainly the conditions that lead to Man with a Movie Camera but the film transcends time and nationalism and feels fresh after 85 years. Surely, the cutting pace, which is much more like today’s music videos than anything from 1929, contributes to that, but the movie feels spontaneous because it acts as if it’s being created in front of our eyes.
If there’s a recurring “character” it is the man with a movie camera who is seen at different locales setting up shots and taking video. The suggestion (though it missed the New York Times reviewer) is that he’s shooting the film we’re seeing. The film opens upon an empty theater that gets quickly filled up with people presumably there to watch this movie. We see the film being assembled by an editor, and the film has a wry smile when it slows the images to a halt when that editor takes a break. On a stage, the elements of performance are all there to be seen, but with a movie any number of things have to happen behind the scenes; the camera has to be set up (a camera is shown setting itself up with the use of stop-motion photography), and video must be captured, processed and edited together. Formalist filmmakers want these things to be invisible. Vertov wants to bring them directly into the light.
Vertov, with Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, was part of the vanguard of Soviet filmmaking. Eisenstein was the master and was allowed to work long after the others because his films emphasized the masses over the individual. Vertov’s split from traditional narrative was too much for Stalin’s insistence on socialist realism, but even in Man with a Movie Camera you can feel the influence of that type of thinking. Cut together with shots of machinery and factory lines, the statement seems to be that movies are assembled like any other product; even the title reflects that anyone could be the man with the movie camera. More than that, however, the movie reflects how unique the medium is; this could only be a movie and only Vertov could have made it.