Michael Nyman's Man With a Movie Camera Review
This new release of Man With a Movie a Camera represents the third time the BFI has issued Dziga Vertov’s silent masterpiece onto DVD. Having discussed both of the previous discs on earlier occasions it seems appropriate that the bulk of this particular should resurrect those thoughts before turning my attention to the disc in hand. As such, the opening section is an edited version of my review of the first offering, whilst the second contains my original discussion of the first Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera release.
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 )
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.
Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera
For a demonstration of how a silent movie score can affect its subject consider electro-pop maestro Giorgio Moroder’s treatment of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Admittedly, he reduced the film’s length and tinkered with the intertitles, but it was his synth score and the use of pop songs (by Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury, et al) that distorted the science-fiction classic into a camp comic strip adventure. Whilst never making such an overt impact on their features, the BFI’s silent movies releases to date have often taken the route of providing brand new scores (James Bernard for Nosferatu, Simon Fisher Turner for Un Chant d’amour), and this second BFI edition of Man With a Movie Camera sees the company providing viewers with their third aural option; In the Nursery and the Alloy Orchestra were present on the first (still available) release, Michael Nyman has scored this one.
Given that this work is closer in its nature to Nyman’s cinematic commissions than to his other works as a composer, comparisons to his film scores are perhaps more apt. The major reference points are to the experimental, rhythm driven pieces he provided for Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts or his more recent collaboration with Damon Albarn on Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, rather than the more melodic compositions typified by The Piano. Of course, as Man With a Movie Camera is one of the classics of experimental cinema this approach seems entirely appropriate. Moreover, Dziga Vertov’s work shares more than a passing connection to Peter Greenaway’s insofar as they both share a rigid attention to structure and so Nyman seems doubly at home.
It is important to note, however, than despite the disc being given a title of Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera, the composer never once overshadows his subject. Listening to a silent movie score can often be a case of discovering what reaction or interpretation a composer has to a given work (there is rarely a director to consult or seek approval from, after all), and in this case Nyman succeeds very well. The driving force behind Man With a Movie Camera is, of course, its eponymous cameraman and so it is entirely fitting that he should retain control of the picture and not Nyman.
That said Nyman does not conform to Vertov’s original wishes for musical accompaniment (though this can be found on the other BFI disc with the Alloy Orchestra score). As such there are no sound effects or explicit references to what is occurring on-screen but rather a reaction to the more general shifts in mood. Whereas Vertov utilised a multitude of techniques throughout his picture, Nyman appears to be responsive only to the subtler devices. The visual punning, therefore, is largely ignored, but the use of juxtaposition is adopted throughout: a woman gives birth to an intense, repetitious birth; whole passages are driven by a melancholic vocal lament (which prompts the question as to what exactly is Nyman lamenting: A golden age of avant-garde filmmaking perhaps?). Of course, any score must return back to the images, especially when they are from an iconic work of this stature. And Man With a Movie Camera is such a rich work that any number of approaches would be equally valid. As such Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera should be seen not as a definitive version, but rather another excellent addition to the ever growing choice of soundtracks. Indeed, since the release of this disc, another has appeared on the R2 market, this one scored by the Cinematic Orchestra.
Effectively, this third release merely re-issues the second. There is no sign of the Yuri Tsivian commentary found on the first disc, nor is there the option to hear the soundtracks by In the Nursery or the Alloy Orchestra - hence the Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera title remains. However, just as the second disc improved on the first in terms of picture quality especially (the first suffered from a haphazard transfer and yellow burnt-in subtitles), this third offering once again makes a step forward in presentation. Whereas that disc provided a DD2.0 stereo soundtrack, here we find a fully uncompressed, CD-quality PCM offering of Nyman’s score. Moreover, the subtitles (which had previously moved on from yellow to a greyish blue, though nonetheless still burnt-in) are now optional and the slight window boxing of the presentation has been replaced with a full frame ratio. Needless to say the transfer quality is as good as on the previous Nyman disc – in other words, generally hard to fault and with a terrific level of detail.
Extras, however, remain identical. Biographies are present for Nyman and Vertov, Philip Kemp’s liner notes once more appear and there are a couple of original Russian posters for the film. It’s also worth noting that the small-scale metal case that housed the original Nyman disc has been replaced by a standard Amaray. As such it is debatable as to whether this release should be seen as a replacement to previous discs or, more probably, aimed at those who have yet to make a purchase. Either way Man With a Movie Camera remains an utterly essential piece of cinema.