Also known as MOSCOW TODAY and LIVING RUSSIA, Dziga Vertov's tour de force was actually filmed in Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa. It's a startlingly avant-garde cross-examination of modern life, as well as a lesson in the power of filmmaking and an autopsy of its methods.
A theater is seen preparing for a show: seats are lowered, the projector set up; people file in, the lights dim, the orchestra waits for its cue. The film begins. A sleeping city is shown. People in bed, empty streets, clouds drifting overhead. Slowly the populace awakes, including a cameraman who
hurries out to shoot the city coming alive. As workers stream to their jobs, the cameraman shoots them in factories, in mines, pulling carts, getting married, getting divorced, being buried, being born. An editor is seen cutting these images into the form of a movie. Periodically we return to the
audience in the theater, watching the finished product. People are shown relaxing on the beach and engaging in sports, the pace of the film picking up as the hour gets late, and ending as the day draws to a close.
So-called "city symphonies" were nothing new; Mikhail Kaufman, the cameraman in (and of) THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA had made MOSCOW 26 three years earlier. But the technical innovation that went into its filming and the audacious self-reflexivity marked THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA as unique, and
conceptually decades ahead of anything else being done at the time. Every possible method of cinematic manipulation is used: undercranking, overcranking, split-screen, superimposition, even stop-motion animation to depict the camera working itself, walking away on its tripod--but always with a
specific purpose in mind. The editing builds to crescendos and crests (like a symphony), then stops dead in a freeze-frame, and we see the editor, Yelzavela Svilova, snipping those very frames into sequence. The filmmakers are showing us a movie about people, about city life, about the drama of
everyday events, then taking us behind the scenes and revealing the methods of the film's assembly. Men hauling carts pass directly over the camera, then we are shown the cameraman lying on the ground cranking the handle as he captures the shot. Parallels are drawn explicitly between workers at
sewing machines, feeding strips of cloth, and Svitlova feeding strips of film. (Hers is a job also; she's assembling something whole from fragments.) Parallels are drawn implicitly with a magician dazzling children with his tricks. (Through camera magic, we see Kaufman as a towering figure
overlooking the teeming streets, aiming his camera down at his subjects, or as a tiny figure hiding in a glass of beer, shooting people in a pub.) Unlike most films, city symphonies included, where the object is to make the audience forget that they're watching through a camera and being
manipulated by an editor, the whole point here is to make those things obvious. A lens is seen numerous times superimposed with an eye, and the cameraman is seen in reflection, shooting himself.
The film actually begins with what amounts to a written manifesto: "This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature." Dziga Vertov, the "author-supervisor of the experiment," was a
radical proponent of nonfiction reportage and the power of montage. Born Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman (cameraman Mikail was his brother), the son of Jewish intellectuals in Poland, he moved with his family to Moscow in 1915 and immersed himself in the experimentalism of the post-Bolshevik years.
Taking the name Dziga (from the Ukranian for spinning top) Vertov (Russian for the act of turning), he wrote science fiction and created sound montages at the Psychoneurological Institute in St. Petersburg, allying himself with the Futurists and their concepts of beauty in the clamor and rhythms
Soon after the October Revolution in 1917, the fiercely idealistic Vertov began working for the newsreel section of the Moscow Cinema Committee, then, under the supervision of Lev Kuleshev, on the "Kino-Delica" (Cinema Weekly) series of screen periodicals using montages of news clips as war
propaganda, traveling the countryside in colorfully decorated agit-trains. The western concept of film was excoriated as bourgeois and capitalist, despicable, false, and nonrevolutionary. Nobody was more vociferous than Vertov in attacking the backwardness of fiction films and championing the new
role of cinema in documenting socialist reality. Founding "Kino-Pravda" (named after the newspaper) in 1922, he cranked out 23 editions of the celluloid magazine, experimenting and refining his theories of montage. Yelzavela Svilova came on board in 1924, becoming his constant collaborator and
later his wife.
THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is unquestionably his most important work. All his intellectual concepts and formal experimentalism came together in one brilliant, multifaceted project. Unfortunately, by the time it was made he had already fallen out of favor with the Stalinist government that just a
few years earlier had embraced documentaries, but was now dismissing their technical experimentation as mere formalism. Vertov's films were box-office failures, dismissed by critics for not speaking to the masses. By 1927 the outspoken Vertov had made enemies of numerous other directors, most
notably Eisenstein, and soon found himself out of a job with Sovkino, the centralized state cinema trust for the entire county. Taking a position with the Pan-Ukranian Photo-Cinema Administration (VUKFU) in Kiev, he convinced the powers-that-be to allow him, his brother, and his wife to make THE
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA.
The 1998 Kino Home Video release of the film includes a superb, rousing modern score written and performed to Vertov's original notes regarding accompaniment. He himself experimented with sound features in his waning years, producing numerous newsreels, documentaries, and compilations, none of
which had the impact of his best work. In 1954 he died, but the legacy of his "Kino-Pravda," his "Cinema Truth," was taken up by the cinema verite movement. (Nudity.)
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