Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Soviet Union 1929

Eye-eye

Eye-eye

Sight & Sound‘s current issue suggests that Man with a Movie Camera is the best documentary ever made; this follows on from the film’s appearance in the top ten 2012 poll, in the same magazine, of the best films ever made. As long as we don’t treat such lists too seriously (it’s absurd to think one is better than all others unless you’re talking about Everton), such canons can be useful in highlighting films that might be neglected. I’m not sure Man with a Movie Camera is neglected but it is a great film.

It is a witty example of the ‘City’ film, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Großstadt, 1927), as it documents a ‘day in the life’ of an anonymous city; actually an amalgam on Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. It starts with the city waking up, cutting between an anonymous woman rising and the start of the ‘rush hour’. It continues with work, focusing on factory and mining as well as the onrushing traffic. Toward the end we see people in their leisure time. The film’s bookended by an audience in a cinema watching Man with a Movie Camera.

It is this self-reflexivity that situates the film in the avant garde of the time. For much of the film we see Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) shooting the movie. A number of avant garde techniques, such as split screen and superimposition, are employed.

Clearly the ‘man with the movie camera’ is a bit of a ‘lad’ as early in the film the camera lingers on a woman’s legs. A cut to the camera lens, with an eye superimposed upon it (literally the ‘Kino-Eye’) is winking. The woman, once she realises she’s being ogled, gets up and walks off. He also likes his beer.

The wit suffuses the film that is also characterised by an astonishingly fast average shot length (ASL):

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds.        (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929)

At one point a registry office for marriage and divorces is intercut with a woman giving birth and funerals. The frenzy of the editing suggests that life can be encapsulated in these four events; Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova edited the film.

There’s more to the film that technical wizardry, Vertov was making a political statement:

. . . it is a critique of Lenin’s temporising with the middle class with his New Economic Policy… Vertov shows us beggars and porters and bourgeoisie parading themselves in horse-drawn carriage . . . The Bolshoi Theatre, for Vertov an unacceptable relic of the old regime, is made optically to collapse on itself. (Winston, Sight & Sound, September 2014: 39a)

‘Dziga Vertov’, by the way, means ‘spinning top’.

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3 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    I agree with your comment that ‘lists’ could be used to promote neglected films. No doubt Nick James [Editor of Sight and Sound] would argue that the list introduces Vertov to new audiences and there is something in that, but there are other Soviet documentaries which also would benefit from some promotion and a restored print/Blu-ray etc. I suspect that Keith could provide us with a list. In the meantime I’ll suggest Esfir Shub.

  2. keith1942

    It is a great movie, more worthy than most of the title of ‘the best’. I thought Brian Winston’s piece in S&S was very good.
    As for other Soviet documentaries, Esfir Shub needs revisiting. And there is a whole Factory of Facts [Vertov] that is worth veiwing. Il Giornate del Cinema Muto had a restrospective a few years ago. I think I have mentioned some of the films in my reports from Pordenone.
    They are via the Early & Silent Cinema link.

    • keith1942keith1942

      Now the film is released on DCP by the BFI. Note, the parallel Blu-ray release has a score by Michael Nyman; but the cinema release has one by the Alloy Orchestra. I enjoyed their accompaniment at a screening at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto They are very good and have developed their arrangements from notes left by Vertov for musical accompaniments.
      The post above, like the BFI, is right that the film uses footage shot in Kiev, Odessa and Moscow. Vertov and his comrades moved to the Ukraine where the climate was more conducive for political and cinematic experimentation. This makes it all the more galling that Picture House and the Hyde Park list the film as based in Moscow. Adding insult the latter attributes the film to ‘Russia’ rather than the Soviet Union: and unfortunately increasing error these days.

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