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Monday, July 14, 2014
"The Mad Camerman" (on Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera)
Appearing in 1929, the same year as Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, Vertov’s important experimental “documentary” featuring the Ukrainian city of Odessa— suddenly became apparent to me—would be a natural companion to the works printed above. Below is a review-essay I wrote about this film in 2012. The fact that this adventuresome Russian director chose the Ukraine as the subject of his major work seems to reiterate the intense relationships between the former Soviet Union and Ukraine, and its presentation of the bustling metropolis of Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city, might help to contextualize the current battles between the Putin and Porotshenko governments. Long described as a global “the breadbasket” because of its rich and fertile soil, the Ukraine continues to be of major significance in Europe.
the mad cameraman
Dziga Vertov (writer and director) Человек с киноаппаратом (Man with a Movie Camera) / 1929
Vertov's film begins with a written prologue:
The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION
of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCENARIO
WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work
by Kino-Eye is directed towards the
creation - ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY - on the basis of its
complete separation from the language of theatre
Vertov had randomly shot over 1,775 scenes, employing his wife Elizaveta Svilova to cut and piece them together as a representation of a day in the life of a city (in this case, Odessa) in 1929.
Certainly Man with a Movie Camera is intentionally experimental, using numerous techniques from double exposures, slow motion, freeze frames, split screens, close-ups, and long tracking shots to what is described as Dutch angles, a tilt of the camera to the side creating vertical lines at an angle to the frame.
Yet one certainly cannot describe this documentary as being without narrative. It begins, in fact, with the above manifesto as a kind prologue before showing, from within, a movie house, as the crowd enters, the seats seeming to automatically fall from upright position to the horizontal in long rows. The crowd is seated, a curtain rises, and an orchestra is poised to begin as a short stasis creates tension before the conductor brings down his baton on the Alloy Orchestra, a group which creates not only a driving rhythmic music but incorporates sounds such as sirens, crowd noise, the cries of babies and much else.
The narrative is made immediately apparent, as a woman is seen sleeping upon a bed, an alarm clock blares, and another woman sits up to wash her face and change into her dress. Although Vertov's work begins rather slowly, it quickly picks up a speed that drives the numerous daily routines, from traveling to work by bus, train, streetcar and other modes of transportation to the masses' arrival into the heart of the city where they begin their numerous daily routines that take us into the late afternoon when the host of figures engage in multiple entertainments, including theater, sunbathing, and various engagements in sport events.
At the center of this narrative is the central character, an almost manic cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) who with camera in hand hops upon various forms of transportation, climbs bridges, and mounts machines, tracking scenes from below and on high as he risks his life to capture the life and energy of city living.
But, of course, we know that despite the cameraman's busy demeanor that there is yet another camera trained on him, and that, in fact, the film is not just a movie about a "man with a movie camera," but is a more self-referential film, a movie about a movie maker. The stars of this narrative are the cinematographer, Vertov himself, and the tool he uses to accomplish the task. At one point the camera seems to actually come alive, taking itself apart and reassembling its own being. At another moment we witness the mad camera man atop his own camera. And again and again, while the masses go about their daily chores, the cameraman and his camera race across the screen to track the actions of the Soviet folk it—again mostly in a pretense—"secretly" shoots. This is not exactly candid camera, however, for although Vertov is said to have distracted several of crowds from the fact that they were being filmed, the very outsized version of his machine surely encouraged some of his figures to pose for the camera, or, to put it another way, to "act."
Except for the statement of no intertitles, accordingly, Vertov's manifesto seems to ignore what it claims to have accomplished, creating instead a kind of theatrical narrative whose actors are the cameraman and his camera among a cast of thousands of extras. No matter, the film is still today one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made, long ahead of its time using techniques that influenced 20th and 21st-century filmmaking.
If at times Man with a Movie Camera, particularly near the end, seems—as Vertov's critics had argued—gimmicky and even manipulative, overall the work is a remarkable achievement, representing as it does a vast landscape of pulsing city life.
Los Angeles, March 21, 2012
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (March 2012).