TSPDT 19-22: Man with a Movie Camera (1929) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
5Jun/180

TSPDT 19-22: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Enjoy the piece? Please share this article on your platform of choice using the buttons above, or join the Twitch stream here!

I'm going through the list of all the films I have not seen on They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is from the top of the pile, Dziga Vertov's 1929 experimental documentary Man with a Movie Camera.

19. Persona (Like) - Discussed at this link.

20. Rashomon (Like) - Discussed at this link.

21. The Godfather Part II (Like) - I'm not big on The Godfather but finally broke down at some insistence and watched Part 2.  All the apathy I felt for the original turned around in this sequel.  A big reason for that is the parallel plot structure of the now deceased Vito and Michael struggling with the power his father built.  It requires no investment in the first film because of how clearly Coppola communicates the inter-generational cycle of violence.

22. Man with a Movie Camera -

In 1929 the Soviet Union was post-Lenin, pre-famine, and surging forward on a wave of industrialization that took Russia from a borderline feudalistic country to one of the great powers on our planet.  Even knowing what's to come, Stalin's brutal dictatorship twisting the foundation of communism into an unrecognizable ghoul away from its ideological roots, Man with a Movie Camera is a breathless and bold statement of a country ready to flex its newfound power.  There's nary a whiff of the military in Dziga Vertov's film, instead focusing on the everyday pleasures while not ignoring the strain rapid industrialization placed on the populace.

Shots come and go so quickly the most accurate descriptor of Vertov's style is that old cliche, "blink and you'll miss it."  That doesn't come close to correctly describing the affect of Man with a Movie Camera.  Vertov's montage is so crisp and precise that even when the shots change from apartment outcroppings to hospital cradles arranged in aesthetic similarity the connection is emotionally clear even if the intellectual threads aren't immediately apparent.  This is not a film interested in the artifice of fiction or keeping cinema rooted in stage theatrics.  Vertov's trying to usher us into a new way of thinking about, crafting, and experiencing cinema with all the confidence and bluster of his fellow citizens.

Man with a Movie Camera isn't entirely free of artifice or, at least, Man with a Movie Camera requires a certain suspension of disbelief regarding what we know cameras and the human body are capable of.  When the titular man emerges from a frosty mug of beer we know intellectually that he's not gearing up for the worst hangover in human history.  What we're seeing is in-camera special effects, superimposing one image atop another to emotionally prep the audience for a night of fun.Regardless of how Vertov creates the shots, Man with a Movie Camera is more real and vibrant than the vast swath of "kitchen sink" dramas I've watched.  Vertov's grasp of montage kept me in perpetual awe of both the physicality needed to obtain many of the shots as well as his technical prowess in rooting me in the moment no matter how many cuts his editor, Elizaveta Svilova, made to the footage.  Vertov presents cinema as something constantly aware of its own artificiality by setting up dangerous spots where the man lays on a train track to obtain a shot then, by cutting between different angles of the train passing by, creates the illusion of being one with the experience of being on those tracks in that exact moment.  I could feel my entire skeleton start to vibrate with nervousness along with the train's journey.

There's a running theme of "the labor of one is the labor of all" to provide a contrast with the late film partying.  A shot of a woman washing her hands in a basin cuts with machines doing the same before rapidly presenting a worker dangled precariously on the side of a building to clean windows.  Vertov's camera is always joining itself with the people in their pleasures and labor instead of distancing itself with more traditionally composed images.  It stems from the opening shots where theater setup leads to jewelry, advertisements, and finally people sleeping on the side of the road.  He believed fictionalized cinema as an opiate, and this opening rejects the decadence of fiction as a dream before jumping in with the laborers.

Because of Vertov's firm control of montage the obviously staged moments feel as real as the window washing.  It's not completely successful, as the shots of a woman getting ready for her day might have been fresh in '29 but lack the daring of the rest of the film.  But when the staging works I felt immense joy.  My favorite involves Vertov's shots of an older woman throwing materials into a bin far taller than she is.  His camera captures the concentration of her in the moment only for her to break out into the most brilliant smile and small laugh at something off-screen.I'm also impressed with how Vertov is almost exclusively interested in the labor and pleasures of women.  One sequence that's grown in impact since Man with a Movie Camera's release involves a woman at a firing range.  Her target?  An ugly rendition of a man, "Uncle Fascism", in a Nazi hat.  Lyudmila Pavlichenko would have been, at most, thirteen years old when this film was released.  Did she see it and find inspiration to fight back against the Nazi's on her way to becoming one of the greatest snipers in world history? I can only speculate, but even my 2nd Amendment-hating self was fighting the urge to get down to a firing range for some target practice.

The best sequence is so richly layered in visuals and empathy that anyone with even a passing interest in film has to see it.  Vertov's camera is in the middle of the bustle when everything suddenly stops.  Here they are, people frozen in time, and Vertov pulls back to show the film itself being assembled.  It's artifice, but it's artifice aware of the dignity film can capture as one of the strips Vertov chooses to focus on shows multiple frames of a girl smiling at a magic show.  This is Orson Welles / F for Fake levels of metatextual awareness only less cheeky and more earnest.  Welles was earnest about trickery in his own way, but this one shot of a woman assembling happiness via film reassures my soul that film is a connective tissue that stretches beyond the grave.

Man with a Movie Camera also reassures me that the best cinema has to offer will never be grounded to a specific time or place.  There's additional context and strength knowing it comes from '29 Soviet Union, but so long as people seek dignity in their labor and cities fill their cracks with the hopes of its population Vertov's film will retain its beautiful strength.

If you enjoy my writing or podcast work, please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution! Every bit helps keep Can't Stop the Movies running and moving toward making it my day job.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Directed by Dziga Vertov.
Edited by Elizaveta Svilova.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.


Leave Your Thoughts!

Trackbacks are disabled.