Chelovek s kinoapparatom

(The Man with a Movie Camera, Ukraine/Soviet - 1929)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: -
Genre: Documentary
Director: Dziga Vertov
Screenplay: -
Cinematography: Mikhail Kaufman
Composer: Michael Nyman (2001)
Runtime: 80 minutes

An endless burst of creative energy, Man with a Movie Camera is a strong candidate for the most influential film most people are unfamiliar with. Arriving at the end of the silent era, in a sense it's a culmination of the great artistic inspiration of the time, utilizing or inventing nearly every camera and editing trick that was then possible, which is to say the majority in the history of film. But in a more important sense, it's the starting point.

The creative team behind Man with a Movie Camera - Vertov, his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman, and his editor wife Elizaveta Svilova - made their first splash in the early 20's with their manifestos in avant-garde journals. In these they set themselves at odds with the rest of the left, rejecting the staged dream cinema that artificially reproduced the world and arguing in favor of newsreels recording the world as it was. It should be noted that as it was had nothing to do with simply rolling the camera and editing to put forth a point of view, Vertov hated that type of documentary and condemned so called "reality" films as well. His conception, which somehow stemmed from the camera's superior eye to that of humans, was a lyrical and intricate envision. Vertov's beliefs seemed a bit contradictory: he proclaimed the glory of the camera as if it was unbiased scientific collector of reality but then asserted its method of deciphering the world was true Marxist despite the fact that his calling attention to the filmic aspects exposed the materialism of the medium.

Vertov's films had been made under the auspices of Lenin's government. Lenin understood the power of the camera to sway an audience, and knew it was particularly important at that time since the majority of the population was illiterate. Not surprisingly though, the hacks in the party didn't understand Vertov's lyrical and poetic work, and targeted their complaints on much of what makes it revolutionary. They didn't like his experiments with superimposition, animation, split screen, quick cutting, and so on. They wanted their truth to be prepackaged, more meaningless and empty platitudes, rather than to explore and unearth.

Vertov was Polish by birth and had been fired by Moscow in 1927. Nonetheless, when making Man with a Movie Camera for the government of Ukraine, Vertov remained a true believer in the communist ideal and Man with a Movie Camera was designed to help convince Soviet citizen's to embrace technology as the Soviets were lagging behind the west when it came to industry. That said, from viewing Vertov's work one could probably make as strong an argument that machines were controlling man. Part of the brilliance of this work is improvement and reduction is allowed to remain a matter of taste. So despite being such a firm believer in the Soviet cause that he volunteered his services to the state intending to make propaganda, Vertov is one of the very few directors that refused to reproduce the propaganda of the day. This, unfortunately, set him outside of his time and guaranteed a small audience, but like such outsiders as Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati, some condolence can be granted for the fact his work is still being studied largely because it doesn't diminish as soon as the business world orchestrates the latest set of fads for the dullards to conform to.

One cannot talk about early cinematic technique without mentioning Vertov's peer Sergei Eisenstein. However, though Vertov very arguably owes some montage technique to Eisenstein their leftist ideas were radically different. Both were assigned to make propaganda films, though such distinctions seem silly since they tend only to be applied to serving the government, ignoring the fact that government and business go hand and hand, empowering and enabling one another. While Eisenstein conceded the plot to make art, Vertov simply scrapped the plot and made art.

To say there is no obvious message in Man with a Movie Camera is an understatement. Probably the closest it comes to propaganda (as in almost every case, it can just as easily be argued that it's instead moral values) is in using montage to create a collectivist message. Though not explicitly spelled out, each worker might come away from the film understanding they have a place in society and a relation to the others. In other words, it's a film against selfishness, a film that in a highly artistic manner reminds us we aren't alone in the world and helps us to appreciate that other people are not only behind but essential to what we have.

Jean-Luc Godard, the greatest and most well known filmmaker to be majorly influenced by Vertov, once argued that Vertov was the only director to ever truly achieve the leftist ideal. To Vertov, Eisenstein's failing lay in producing what Vertov described at different times as "dream films", "poison" and "film vodka", more or less bourgeoisie entertainment, unlike his that expressed "Soviet actuality". To Godard, Eisenstein's failing lay in retreating into history, while Vertov's success was in politicizing all of everyday life. The inspiration of Vertov spurred the avant-garde movement of the 60's that believed reconstructing the past was useless because any thoughtful and honest examination of what has come before entails assessing where we are today, the present. Even before the "Dziga Vertov Period", in films like Une Femme mariee Godard would focus on human's relationship with and the effect of the materials and images that surrounded them. The Vertov period then was marked by Godard's rejection of the bourgeois aspects of his previous films, attempting to replace the commercial and materialistic aspects with a socialist solution, which since it was Godard meant the shift was more from a mediation on the idea of creating better films to one on the idea of using film to help create a better world.

Though the subject matter of Vertov's documentary is one day in the life of the Soviet Union, the real star of Man with a Movie Camera is in fact the camera. Vertov was one of the first that understood to innovate one has to eliminate, so again we can see the influence on Godard. His approach was radical. He scrapped actors, sets, plot, and dialogue (intertitles).

One way Vertov differs from almost every other documentary filmmaker is in his self-reflective insistence. This is a film that more or less begins and ends with an audience watching film, and sporadically pauses to show the various processes that went into making it at work. Vertov more or less believed was that the line between documentary and fiction was drawn at whether or not the people knew they were being filmed. His famous 1923 theory Kino-Eye argued for "life caught unawares". Vertov came to this conclusion by noticing that, due to the already great popularity of dramatic films, the people he'd try to film would change the second he started filming them. Suddenly they'd start imitating or impersonating their favorite screen heroes, acting like cowboys! Though technically most of his subjects did know, so maybe I'm poorly phrasing his idea, he didn't give them any direction or stage anything and refused to use their impersonations (unless for a self-reflective joke), so they never had much idea what he was shooting or how he would use it in relation to other scenes. They were more or less the raw material.

What made Vertov's work so exciting is how he would put this raw material together irregardless of any kind of traditional logical or time construction. He didn't allow reality to get in the way of fun. The whole experience is jokey in a good way, utilizing two cameras but acting as if there's only one and never actually showing us anything that appeared to be by the shown cameraman. Rather than distract, the whole film takes on a new sense; it's not only a documentary but also a meditation on the idea of making a documentary.

All Vertov's postproduction was at the service of going beyond human perception. Thus, it's more a reshaping than a reality, more a philosophical questioning than a didactic truth. Duality of message is so prevalent in this work. Though theoretically about telling the truth, the self-reflectivity points out the falseness in many ways. For instance, one scene is highly suspenseful because the cameraman's perspective is a cheat. They make us believe a train is going to run the cameraman over by showing him kneeling on the train cranking as the train comes dangerously close. By moving between angles and times, we see the cameraman continue to be in a dangerous place and he should at least get his foot crushed but it's all a game.

Man with a Movie Camera is so far ahead of it's time that when Godfrey Reggio utilized many of the same techniques nearly 55 years later in his debut Koyaanisqatsi, people, myself included, thought he was doing something revolutionary. The mistake is fairly understandable when one considers the direction documentaries took after the silent period. I'm not expert on documentary, but after the experimental Soviet work of the silent period that was no less interesting or inventive than any of the dream films that were being produced, also highlighted by Mikheil Kalatozov's virtually unknown Salt for Svenetia, we rarely see the poetic imagery, the rhythmic beauty in what Andre Bazin once described as "the ocean of mediocrity that constitutes commercial distribution" until Koyaanisqatsi.

Vertov was much stronger than Reggio when it came to editing the footage together. He started by matching the footage to rhythms of the day he was depicting. The masterful editing of his wife is very deep in that it asks us to learn from what he called "intervals" (differences between the footage and the duration). But the film can be examined as lightly or as deeply as one wants to go. The energy and exuberance, the great flood of excitement is easily understandably to everyone and constantly involving because Vertov so perfectly understands pacing and tempo. The ups and downs keep it consistently interesting instead of burning you out after a few minutes like the modern assaults on the senses known as music videos.

Another supposedly pioneering film, this one a far cry from the great experience of Reggio's, that is in fact not as original is Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia. Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman (their younger brother Boris was the brilliant cinematographer behind the films of Jean Vigo and On The Waterfront) lay out all the basics for filming athletic competition. More or less, all Riefenstahl added was the fruity fascism that still plagues us today - worshipping and drooling over muscular physiques. The rhythmic editing is supplied by Walter Ruttmann, who previously directed the well regarded Berlin: Symphony of a Great City in similar fashion. Ruttmann got his ideas from Vertov, and in both cases probably corrupted them in Vertov's eyes because the style was utilized to add more bourgeois idealism to the world.

Though his most famous and with the amount of people watching silent films these days thus considered his best film, Man with a Movie Camera caused the demise of Vertov's Kinoks group. The differences and compromises of working for the Ukraine film studio VUFKU fractured their own manifesto, and led to Vertov and his brother never collaborating again. It also delayed the release of the film, resulting in it coming at the end of a series of tributes to cities, following Alberto Cavalcanti's Paris film Rien que les Heures, the aforementioned film by Ruttman, and Kaufman's own Moscow. With the death of Lenin, Vertov further lost his place in the Soviet film scene, as Stalin didn't want anyone to express truly Leninist views, just dull conformists who would shut up and turn a blind eye. Though his next film Enthusiasm, with it's pioneering alternation of sounds and images that approximated off-screen narration and use of industrial sounds, made its mark in the art world it was almost the end of his career. He only made one more major film, 1934's Three Songs of Lenin, which fell victim to such studio butchery as altering the ending to favor Stalin's new bend and actually adding footage of Stalin here and there. Rather than sellout, Vertov tried to finish his career producing newsreels. Dull as the ones he was allowed to create under Stalin were, the realisms he spoke against, his criticism of the government's support for bourgeois dream films got him demoted to staff editor. 25 years after Man with a Movie Camera, he died with little fanfare.

A few years after his death, Vertov became the key inspiration to the cinema-verite movement started in France by Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin and taken up in the US by the likes of the Maysles Brothers, Fred Wiseman, & D.A. Pennybaker. Cinema-verite, in fact, is actually nothing more than the French translation of the term Vertov coined Kinopravda. In the 1920's, the Kinok's had actually made up a checklist of the way to make films and put it into practice. It called for rapid means of transport, highly sensitive film stock, light handheld film cameras, equally light lighting equipment, and a crew of super-swift cinema reporters, in other words what every documentary filmmaker lived by once lightweight cameras allowed them to start working. Around the same time, a series of self-reflective filmmakers including Godard, the criminally neglected Chris Marker, and Stan Brakhage began making films, showing Vertov's influence in both the dramatic and documentary fields.




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