Updated late 2018:
A scorching modernist manifesto where any sense of certainty is fully disarticulated and humanity – and perception – is entirely destabilized, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera gets to swift work rebuilding humanity, and sight itself, as an elastic, workable construct being actively primed for new awareness and ushered into a bold, uncertain future. It is the rare film that seemingly invents or explores further than ever before a new filmic technique in almost every shot. They cannot be counted on two hands: slanted angles, clipped editing, freeze frames, artificially slowed and quickened camerawork, superimposition, jump cutting, split screens, impenetrably wide angles, painful close-ups, tracking shots, backwards footage, and just about anything you can think of.
More importantly, all of them are used with such verve and energy – they capture less a narrative than an impression of unfettered chaos. Most obviously, they focus on communalism, people in relation to each other and the world around them, and work, machinery, and the raw metal of city life. The film is not interested, as was quickly becoming the bane of Western film’s existence, in the “individual”. Instead, it focuses on the communal process and mechanics of living (Vertov famously argued that narrative cinema was becoming the opiate of the masses, in a none-too-subtle nod to Marxist philosophy).
Vertov, following on Eisenstein’s famous development of Soviet montage techniques, masterfully intercuts images of people, machinery, everyday objects, and the city at large, emphasizing the ways in which they remain all connected despite not physically occupying the same contained small space. He often cuts on motion, seeing a continual progression of life even in seeming stagnancy. It may appear clinical or distant, lacking a narrative, but that is because its narrative is that of life as it is lived rather than any particular story of an individual triumphing over a conflict.
It is fitting then that Vertov’s goal was in fact “life as it is lived” – he set out to make the film with the intent of not only challenging narrative-based cinema but proving how the movie camera could depict every-day life not as a series of arcs and narrative but as an impression. The more obvious side of this goal, the aforementioned attempt to destroy the bounds of narrative cinema and to fly in the face of individualist-convention, would cement the film’s place in the annals of time.
But the film’s greatest achievement is less discussed, and one which is fundamentally in tension with Vertov’s stated goal of depicting life itself. Vertov goes to great lengths not only to depict everyday life, but to depict filmmaking. He captures a camera-man almost everywhere, openly putting him in the shot. He goes beyond this though. We get a cameraman attached to a platform in front of a moving train, superimposed in a beer mug, superimposed over the city, objects shown to us only through a visible camera lens, shots of the eye looking through the camera lens, as well as shots of audience members assumedly watching this film, and shots of the film’s editor cutting together shots from Vertov’s camera. On the surface, these capture Vertov’s goal: to argue for the role of the camera “anywhere”, quite literally, in conveying that the movie camera could depict all facets of life and could find itself positioned anywhere to capture the biggest and smallest features of existence.
But to claim that Vertov’s open-faced depiction of the process of filmmaking within a film about “life” only speaks to the way film can capture life as it is lived fails to capture the nuances of the relationship Vertov depicts. Vertov and his brother Mikhail Kaufman, who served as the film’s mind-bending cinematographer as well as the visual depiction of the cameraman in the film (depicted, of course, by another camera often not held by Kaufman) do not shoot naturalistically, but openly fill the frame with filmic manipulation. They draw attention to the fact that this is not reality, but a film. Many images are intentionally framed with the idea of the frame in plain-view, capturing how the film, for its non-narrative, impressionist nature, is still being manipulated left and right by the filmmakers. This is not only a depiction of life, but the way life is reflected and distorted through art, and how we come to understand “real life” through forms of media which still distort that reality even in their attempts to avoid any such artifice.
This question of art and life is never more embattled than when we see images of Kaufman filming intercut with images of his filming being watched by an audience, a dissonance which profoundly breaks down time and space as it relates to reality and film. The audience is watching some semblance of this finished product, of course, and yet their watching the product is contained within the product – it’s a stunningly subversive reflection on the inherent unreality of art. The act of making and observing even an art that aims for realism innately entails the bending of reality, and of time and space, through the lens of the artist.
The intentionality of the question of art vs life is backed up by this film’s production as well. Vertov essentially filmed hundreds of random images less to capture reality than to have reality serve as a playground for his camera. When he was done, he handed the film to his editor, his wife Elizaveta Svilova, to compile into a production, going to great lengths himself not to interfere in the editing process. Not only does this resolutely challenge future auteur theory, the idea that one person as the director is categorically the voice of the film, but it calls into question the idea of a central intention to any film.
The process of filming and editing here abstract the film’s world behind layers of artificial filming and editing techniques to capture something that could not truly capture the “reality” of the world in a literal sense. The person who edited the film together had never seen that reality in person, for she had not been on set. She had only seen the reality of the images filmed through the camera, having been handed to her after-the-fact. Her perspective, and thus the film’s, was thus necessarily distorted. She could not construct true “reality” as it was lived, but only an impression of reality.
And the editing is no small portion so the film – in a sense, it is the definitive feature of the product. When it was released, a critic famously stated that the filmmakers had edited the film with no grasp of how the human eye understands images; they argued that frames of different images were spliced too closely together, with no time given for audiences to digest the images before they gave way with chaotic clarity to new sights. It is not hyperbole to say that the critic was completely, entirely wrong even as they were completely correct; the film was edited with a complete grasp of how humans process images, and the filmmakers use this knowledge to eviscerate any semblance of normality and storytelling logic. Equipped with the realization that eyes do need time to process images, they speed up the edits to create a sense of perpetual chaos and motion, never letting us feel comfortable in an attempt to capture a “reality” of the film. We are always aware that the filmmakers are manipulating the reality to capture an essence of life behind the superficial “reality” of it.
When one looks back on the film to realize that it was very much propaganda, an attempt not to depict present life but an idealized future life of communalist machinery and work in a Communist utopia, it is easier to understand why Vertov openly calls attention to the film’s fakery. It is not “reality”, but an idea of a potential reality, a representation of a dream. By depicting the fact of making the film in the film, Vertov not only asks us to question whether such images were truly reflective of “making” the film or were mere constructs themselves. He also asks us to remember that, for everything he depicts, it is all ultimately a dream, something that currently only existed in the hearts and minds of many and could only yet be brought to life by a movie camera. He captures, above anything else, the simultaneous gap between art and reality, between the present and the dreams of the future, and the potential for film, as an art and a reflection of a dream, to realize that future reality.
All of it would be so much of a purely intellectual exercise if not for the fact that the raw emotionality, the pure sturm und drang, of the film carries it forward with such a propulsive, feverishly human energy that it threatens to implode. The film, for all its stylistic advancement, does not need to be viewed as a relic of the past, a sort of souvenir of a time long gone. It is, today, in 2014, as alive and exciting as it was when it premiered in 1929. It is filmmaking at its most wonderfully grenade-tossing, with shots in place simply to stagger and amaze and never feeling weighed down by having to conform to more supposedly mature aspects of film such as narrative. It has as much to say, more than perhaps any other film, about the nature life and its relation to art and the medium of film. Vertov creates nothing short of one of the cinema’s ultimate acts of self-reflexive deconstruction. And one of its grandest, most wide-eyed playgrounds.
But not an effortless playground, mind you, which may be this film’s most lasting and most deconstructive element. Man with a Movie Camera was produced in parallel with many city symphony films across Europe, so it would be wishful or un-judicious thinking to claim that Vertov’s achievement is a willful commentary on other city-symphonies, but it is, retroactively at least, a statement of critique, or at least an alternative possibility. If other city symphonies promise a universal ease-of-access to kaleidoscopic stimulation through a cinematic conduit, Vertov marshals his talents to remind us that this access is not unconditional, not dispossessed of sweat. The city, and the filmic glimpse of it, is not all decorum or a divine right. It is a process, provisional to perspective and to effort, to using the camera to see, to being willing to open up one’s eyes, to imagine, and more importantly, to harness technology to connect the masses and actualize mental fictions.
Thus, The Man with a Movie Camera is a statement to cinematic possibility, but distinctly to utopian possibilities, futures that will not necessarily be. It hurtles ahead of the present, but it frustrates its emancipatory charge by introducing the reflexive conditions of its own production, of its coming into being, of its temporal creation, of the fact that it, as a film, must be made. Which, of course, means it can be unmade, can be brought into un-being. Many Western films of the era trumpet their objectivity, their reality, the sheer fact of their monumental existence either resurrecting a past that was, in their idiom, unapologetically true (Birth of a Nation), or imagining a future that was guaranteed to be. Despite its breathless surge of energy and visionary skeleton, Man with a Movie Camera is never that sure of itself, and it positions cinema not as a document to reality but a tool for creating reality, for imagining reality and bringing it into being, a technological canvas rather than simply an eye. A participant in a reality that might be rather than a witness to a reality that is.
Which means that although the film uncorks an omni-directional, disorienting pure effusion of possibility and untrammeled energy, the most modernistic facet of this film is not its spellbinding architecture or technological ligatures but its awareness that these constructions are not impervious. It is a film about creation, basically, a statement not only to Soviet Russia but to effort, not simply to a city but to building a city, a work of work, a statement to the various kinds of work which society must endeavor toward in the creation of utopia, to the ways in which continual effort must be renewed and revitalized. Man with a Movie Camera, then, is a film which inclines toward becoming, in the Marxist sense, toward teleological progression and achievement perhaps, but also toward being in all its curiosities and instabilities. It navigates the early 20th century with not only a mind for labor but an eye for the perceptual work – the movement of the eye, the body, the camera, the city, and machinery – of modernity and to the schisms and disharmonic rhythms of aspiring, as a society, to harmonious existence. Toward a being that is always, by its very nature, a becoming toward something else.