The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Man With the Movie Camera (1929/USSR/dir. Dizga Vertov) appeared at #35 on my original list.
What it is • Experimental filmmakers of the twenties had a penchant for "city-poems," documentaries that recorded the daily life of a city, either in short form or, in the case of Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, over the course of an entire feature. The Man With a Movie Camera follows this course with explosive results although - appropriately enough - it "cheats" a bit, using four cities (Kharkiv, Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa) despite implying that we are gazing at a single metropolis. This is in keeping with the spirit of Movie Camera, a defiantly anti-fiction film which is nonetheless lively with creativity. There are a few staged shots, but for the most part this creativity is expressed through manipulation of the image, an anti-"verite" vision of documentary cinema. This ferociously fast visual cascade was radical during the slower-paced silent era and remains startling today. Superimpositions, backwards-motion, kaleidoscopic montages, and buoyant dollies give the movie a sense of endless motion. "Without the Use of Intertitles...Without the Help of a Scenario...Without the Help of Theatre!" the first (and last) title card declares. Vertov, in his early thirties at the time, had already spent years experimenting with revolutionary newsreels and avant-garde shorts, overlapping the two categories and pushing the medium to (and past) its limits. This film was the culmination. If it seemed Vertov was kicking open a door, that door quickly closed: within a decade, severe Socialist Realism was the mandatory state style. Future generations, far afield, would have to pick up where the fiery young turk had left off and today The Man with a Movie Camera seems more relevant than ever. When it unexpectedly cracked the prestigious Sight & Sound top ten for the first time in 2012, David Thomson noted: "Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film is the single work in the new top ten that seems to understand that nervy mixture of interruption and unexpected association" of the online era.
Why I like it •
As many of my picks have demonstrated - and as my own work hints - kinetic editing has a special appeal to me. The establishment of rhythm through visual juxtaposition brings cinema closer to music than to novels or paintings; while long take master shots or slow, contemplative camera movements have their own special magic, dynamic editing casts a spell over me quicker than any other aspect of a movie. Needless to say, then, I was swept up the moment I began watching this film (I believe on a TCM broadcast about ten years ago). I also loved its joyous spirit, the fusion of intimate home movie, informational documentary, fast-paced blockbuster, and avant-garde experiment. Ambitious boundary-crossing movies always appeal to me. The Man With a Movie Camera is also interesting because it can't be pigeonholed as pure "formalist experiment" or "political agitprop." For Vertov, social and aesthetic revolution went hand in hand. I also think Thomson was right. There has been much talk of "death of cinema" in recent years but I don't think it's dying, I think it's transforming. Transforming into many different things, perhaps, but at least a few of those things strongly resemble The Man with a Movie Camera: kinetic, iconic, personal, whimsical, able to communicate its energy through a variety of screens and even different potential assemblies. Godard said all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun (camera and cutting ability were implicit) - Vertov proves all you need is an imagination.
More from me • A clip of this film appears at 5:02 in "Jazz Age Visions", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. I never reviewed this film before, but I did compare it to Berlin: Symphony of a Great City in a review of that film.
How you can see it • The Man with a Movie Camera is available on Fandor and can be rented (or purchased digitally from Amazon or on DVD from Netflix. It's also on YouTube, appropriately enough.
What do you think? • What's your favorite shot? Who is your favorite Soviet filmmaker of the twenties? What recent developments in film, especially online video, does this movie bring to mind?
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Yesterday: The Gold Rush (#36)
Tomorrow: Band of Outsiders (#34)