DVD Review: Man with the Movie Camera

I wrote this DVD review (for pay!) in 2003 for the website DVD Empire.—DVM, May 15, 2016


Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Image Entertainment

This is one of the most dazzling and exhilarating films ever made. The Russian director Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) uses almost every visual effect available—split-screen, montage, strobe-like editing, multiple superimpositions, slow motion, fast motion, even stop-motion animation (of a dead lobster crawling down a mound of dead lobsters in a restaurant!)—to create what the Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman describes as “a Whitmanesque documentary-portrait of the Soviet people, a reflexive essay on cinematic representation, and an ecstatic ode to human labor as a process of transformation.” Rarely has the academic-sounding process of transformation, cinematic or human, been so entertaining.

The film opens with intertitles (its only intertitles) explaining that this “excerpt from the diary of a cameraman” aims to depict “visible events” not through any script, actors, or sets, but through “a truly international, absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.” Vertov championed something he called kinopravda, or “film-truth”: a documentary approach to filmmaking that self-consciously acknowledges its own cinematic manipulation of reality.

Indeed, the first shot in Man with the Movie Camera depicts the titular cameraman—the film’s cinematographer, Vertov’s older brother Mikhail Kaufman—superimposed filming atop a giant camera that faces the audience, Kaufman in effect astride a world he controls. Later, we see him superimposed over an aerial shot of the city, as if he’s God surveying His creation from the heavens. Otherwise, Kaufman acts like the typical dauntless movie hero as he carts his boxy camera and bulky tripod anywhere dangerous, walking between passing streetcars, climbing a giant smokestack, descending into a coal mine, hanging above a dam, hanging off a speeding train, lying under a speeding train.

Of course we see the footage he shoots in these situations, but we also see footage of average, everyday living—or rather, we see the truth as the particular medium of film presents it. A woman gets up, puts on her bra, and washes her face as the surrounding city slowly comes to life. Downtown streets suddenly fill with pedestrians and traffic, double-exposures making the streets look even more teeming. Milestones of life and death intermingle: a wedding, a funeral, and a very brief but very explicit shot of childbirth that wouldn’t appear even today in any mainstream American film. An ambulance picks up bloodied accident victims. Bathers exercise on the beach at Odessa (where the cameraman wears brief swim trunks!). Swimmers suddenly appear in the water via trick photography, followed by shots of a Chinese magician entertaining children, an equation of filmmaking with magic.

The film’s editor, Vertov’s wife Elisabeth Svilova, edits together footage from Karkhov, Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa to create an archetypal modern, bustling Soviet city filled with productive, active citizens and the latest technological marvels. (She also displays her own magical, godlike powers; we see scenes of her cutting and pasting footage, intercut with freeze-framed images coming back to life.) Coal miners, steelworkers, firemen, beauticians, seamstresses…conveyor belts, gears, pistons, automobiles, streetcars…all make Russian society work.

The film turns overtly propagandistic in its final scenes, however, as it warns Russians against the deleterious influences of alcohol, vanity, idleness, religion, luxury (the lobster scene fits in here somehow), and trashy movies. In the 1930s, after directing such early sound-era hits as Three Songs about Lenin (1934), Vertov’s output will decline as Stalin takes over and establishes Socialist Realism as the country’s official artistic style; apparently, wit and creativity hurt the Communist cause.

Man with the Movie Camera is digitally remastered from a 35mm nitrate negative. The film has its share of scratches and blotches but otherwise looks remarkably good for its age, with sharp detail and deep black-and-white tones. The camera tricks and special effects still hold up after over seven decades; will the computer-generated imagery in the latest multiplex blockbuster look passable even ten years from now?

The Alloy Orchestra wrote and performed a new score based on Vertov’s original music instructions. The clangy, percussive, and well-played score meshes perfectly with this fast-paced film, particularly with the shots of vehicles and machinery. (This three-man ensemble from Cambridge, MA, has also provided scores for two other silent classics out on DVD, Strike and The Lost World.)

Yuri Tsivian, an art history professor at the University of Chicago, provides the intelligent, substantive commentary on this disc. No Hollywood fluff here—instead, he describes in detail Vertov’s cinematic methods, reads long excerpts from analyses of Man with the Movie Camera, and even cites the Leon Trotsky quote that inspired a shot of frothing champagne bottles before a barroom movie poster. Except for the commentary, the disc offers no extras, but that doesn’t much hurt a film this notable.

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