Man With a Movie Camera Review

A cursory glance at the BFI’s output to date reveals a surprising number of documentary and documentary-influenced titles. A few of these could be deemed “conventional” in the sense of those pieces that often grace discs’ special features content (Kirby Dick’s Sick : The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is a fairly straightforward document, for example, despite its subject matter), but for the most part the unifying element is one of experimentation. Indeed, classics such as Housing Problems (1935) and Elgar (1962) have witnessed a release as have those deserving of a wider audience (Anup Singh’s dreamlike meditation on Indian filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, The Name of the River, deserves to be singled out), and with this is mind it seems entirely appropriate that one of their earliest DVDs should have been what is perhaps the major avant-garde documentary work, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera.

Vertov was a key player of 1920s Russian cinema (one amongst many, this being the era of Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Kuleshov and Pudovkin) and a leading member of the Cine-Eyes collective. The group set out to destroy the concerns and conventions of the fiction film - a manifesto declared “the old films [are] leprous! Do not look!” - and instead turned to what they termed “actuality films”. Prior to Man With a Movie Camera Vertov had produced 23 “issues” of these newsreels under the title Kino-Pravda (literal translation: “Cinema-Truth”) and a number of equally political features, yet it is with the 1929 work - memorably described by critic Amy Taubin as “silent cinema’s last stand” - that his reputation lies.

As with many examples of the avant-garde, Man With a Movie Camera is far more accessible than expected. Vertov adopts the approach of the “city symphony” whereby the film’s duration recounts a day in the life of a city from dusk ‘til dawn, splitting each reel into a chapter of approximately ten minutes, each detailing an aspect of 1920s Russian life (work, for example). And whilst the film works as well as other “symphonies”, such as Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) from which the phrase was coined, one often gets the impression that Vertov has adopted the structure purely to provide a framework on which to hang his own multitude of ideas.

As both Man With a Movie Camera’s title and attendant “excerpt from the diary of a cameraman” subtitle would suggest, Vertov is first and foremost concerned with the filmmaking process. Indeed, the film works very much as a realisation of the Cine-Eyes’ manifestos insofar as it constantly questions the “truth” that cinema supplies. It does so by making the cameraman (played by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman - if played is the correct term, of course) the star rather than Russia’s cities and their inhabitants. The audiences’ focus remains firmly on Kaufman and his equipment as he appears in his own shots courtesy of reflections, shadows or even when setting up a camera angle, one which later materialise on screen. As such he can be seen as a representative of cinema: the film presents him as both a casual, unseen viewer (such as when he uses a telephoto lens) and an active participant (scaling buildings and travelling over waterfalls in order to achieve his stunning panoramas) in much the same as film itself can be seen as both invisible (insofar as it appears to simply unfold before our eyes) and ever apparent, something Vertov also highlights when he suddenly halts proceedings in order to take a trip to the editing table (manned, incidentally, by Elizabeth Svilova, Vertov’s wife - Man With a Movie Camera being very much a family affair). It is this other structuring device that provides the film with a force beyond merely being a record of Russian life at the time of its production.

The major, and perhaps most basic pleasures, however, are provided by the images and their sheer beauty. Of course, silent cinema must rely almost entirely on its visual content, yet here Vertov and Kaufman are able to turn even the most mundane of objects and activities into truly fascinating pieces. With the framework of “city symphony” being so loose, the pair are free to encompass a huge expanse of urban life as they explore the cities, treating both the matter-of-fact and the more expectedly important aspects with the same inquisitive eye. Whilst this gives Man With a Movie Camera a hugely inviting air of positivity (perhaps reflecting the political mood of the time, at least through Vertov’s eyes), it also serves to illustrate just how much the audience should identify with its “star”. After all, not only does he go to great lengths to achieve what we are seeing, but he also never imposes any favouritism on his images; births and deaths, marriages and divorces are all deemed equal, and there is, ultimately, something almost heroic in that.

There is a sense, however, that Vertov isn’t entirely satisfied with the material he and his brother have collated. Man With a Movie Camera never relies solely on the visual strengths of the images alone, but rather presents them via a diverse range of cinematic techniques. Of course, as has been said Vertov’s intentions extend beyond the merely pictorial, and if he is question what cinema is able to achieve then surely he should be doing so by using all that filmmakers were capable of at the time. Moreover, it becomes quickly apparent that he has as keen a grasp of post-production techniques as he does of the primary filmmaking process. What the audience is treated to us an onslaught of editing techniques ranging from visual punning (which may seem a little crude in places to modern eyes) and stop motion to more elaborate use of freeze frames and slow motion. The overall effect is such that it may seem a little too overwhelming on initial viewings. Indeed, having worked in the era as Sergei Eisenstein, Vertov has been somewhat ignored as a key innovator of cinematic editing practises. As Jean-Pierre Gorin, co-founder with Jean-Luc Godard of the post-’68 political collection ‘Le Group Dziga Vertov’, put it: “Eisenstein thought of himself as the inventor of montage, but in fact he was inventing camera angles. At the same moment Vertov was inventing editing.” (Sight and Sound, vol. 42, no. 3 [1973])

This connection to, and influence on, Godard only serves to enforce Vertov’s place in cinema history. Indeed, it also serves to highlight the importance of Man With a Movie Camera itself; the intense visual stylisation may be read as prototypical of the now ubiquitous “MTV style”, yet the film constantly surprises and never settles into that form of simple-minded posturing - it’s far more interesting, complex and repeatedly rewarding than that.

The Disc

This release of Man With a Movie Camera (the first of three to be released in the UK to date) has been sourced from a 1996 restoration by David Shephard - the man responsible for numerous silent prints currently available on R2 DVD. In itself, Shephard’s work is fine and poses no major problems. There has, however, been a major problem in transferring this print to disc, so much so that the resulting film has the ugly look of a VHS copy; both the occasional subtitles and, more importantly, the long shots prove difficult to decipher. The BFI did improve on this situation with their later Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera release, though sadly that disc did not feature the choice of musical accompaniment nor the exemplary commentary found here.

Of the two scores present on this disc, it is the Alloy Orchestra’s which will please the purists. Adhering to Vertov’s original musical intentions, sound effects have been added to create a dynamic between sound and vision, though the score can appear a little quaint at times. To my ears, In the Nursery’s more modern offering is preferential. A gentler, more neutral recording, it paradoxically makes the images stronger by never directly referencing them in the manner of the Alloy Orchestra. Indeed, the clash between hasty editing patterns and a more relaxed musical tempo only serves to enhance Man With a Movie Camera’s qualities as they become ever more apparent. (Both scores are presented in DD2.0 and sound crisp and clear throughout, demonstrating none of the problems that affect the picture quality.)

Elsewhere, the disc offers familiar extras in the form of crew biographies and a brief poster gallery containing two images (both of which are used on the packaging), though the centrepiece of the collection is film historian Yuri Tsivian’s faultless commentary. Addressing the film almost shot by shot, Tsivian offers a breathless talk track that not only provides a full analysis of Man With a Movie Camera and its various concerns, but also supplies details of its production as well as a historical and political context. Indeed, so much content is provided over the film’s duration (which, remember, is only 68 minutes) that not only does it reward repeat listenings but also more than makes up for the paucity of extras elsewhere.

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