Man With a Movie Camera is one of those illustrious classics you hear of long before knowing what it is. Sight and Sound magazine places Dziga Vertov’s picture as the eighth greatest of all time, IMDB rates it at 8.4, and Roger Ebert awards an outstanding four stars. By many others, it is voted as the greatest documentary of all time.
And this is where a sickening feeling descends in my stomach. Once in a while I sit down to a beloved classic and find myself perplexed as to why such high accolades are bestowed upon it. The last time I experienced this feel was watching Downfall, I awaited for that magic moment to transforms a good film into a classic, but the credits rolled instead. Vertov refreshed this sensation.
So, what is this film?
Man With A Movie Camera is 24 hours in a city without inter-titles or story. This single city is actually three; Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, captured in 1,775 separate shots of boats, edifices, crowds, machinery, streets and factories compiled diligently by Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, to give an overall sense of a modern Russian metropolis. The only consistency through this frenetic world is a guide, the eponymous Man with a Movie camera.
Vertov manipulates multiple minute sequences to form a grand landscape exceedingly well and is the proud auteur of the original meta picture. The film opens as a cinema unfolds autonomously and a crowd settles to watch a film – the film we are watching. Later, the images are interrupted by a freeze frame and the editor revealed. She cuts and stitches strips of negatives before the print run through a projector and reanimates the movie. Construction and finished product are simultaneous.
It is a genius concept, but I can not help but remain underwhelmed. Perhaps the gallons of sickly sweet praise made it hard to swallow. Roger Ebert’s review states, ‘the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man with a movie camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds… viewers had never seen anything like it’.
Fascinating though this statistic may be, this picture followed a torrent of Russian films demonstrating editing of this calibre; Strike, Battleship Potemkin, Storm over Asia, and in Europe Abel Gance’s masterpiece Napoleon was rife with invention in which alacritous editing was but one achievement. That is not to say the editing is subpar, it far exceeds that of October, but for Ebert to state that he ‘would invent an entirely new style’ is an uncomfortable accolade.
Though it deserves many.
The cinematography is excellently composed and insightful, in some shots even the Man with his hand cranked camera is documented in the process of documenting. He secures tripods to cars, crawls through coal mines, navigates busy factory floors, and lies dangerously close to train tracks. It is an intriguing additive to the meta idea concept which champions the functional process of capturing as an art as important as what is captured.
But again, these accolades tormented me as I recalled Herbert Ponting recording his equally dangerous stunts to present his awe inspiring documentation of Captain Scott’s Antarctic trip in The Great White Silence. Even the praise as ‘greatest documentary’ became irksome.
The definition of a documentary is ‘a film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject’. With no information divulged on a subject, this picture is hardly informational, but neither is it the first of its kind. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North precedes this picture by many years and Berlin: A Symphony of a City was a city document created in 1927.
However, I realised much of my problems with Man With A Movie Camera was professional reviews, and a second viewing allowed my expectations a recalibration to reconsider this ‘new style’. Man With A Movie Camera is something of an archetypal Koyaanisqatsi. Both boast exquisite cinematography illuminating everyday life in an increasingly rapid tempo to capture an atmosphere and epoch wordlessly. But, Vertov’s picture operates on less of a philosophical basis.
The film jettisons structure entirely in favour of images and therefore liberates itself to become omnipresent and push Russian Montage theory further than its predecessors. Vastly different images now entwine, for example, a woman tossing and turning in bed intercuts with a barrelling locomotive. It is a testament to OUR storytelling capabilities to narrativise extreme jump cuts and stitch together a meaningful bridge which is different for every viewer.
Vertov’s work is not so much an entirely new style as it is an amalgamation of emerging techniques and a demonstration of these experiments in concentrated form. Every filmmaking trick in the handbook from fades, to slow motion, to wipes and stop motion appear before the climax.
For someone unacquainted with works of the 1920s, it will blow away notions of static cinema. However, for viewers immersed in silent cinema, it can be appreciated as ANOTHER great piece, and not THE greatest. I state this because the best review I can offer a potential viewer is anything to diffuse the hype.
Man With A Movie Camera is consistently good and often great, but it is best approached with a pinch of salt. But then, this is only my opinion. Film, like any good art, is open to interpretation, and mine is only as good as the next.
It is impossible to dissect a single moment. The entire film is one intricate sequence from an omnipotent eye forever jumping from one bustling location to the next. But if one image is to remain distinct, it would be the final shot of an eye and camera lens superimposed upon one another. The eye remains staring as the camera iris mimics classic cinematic blackouts as it dilates shut.