O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
The movie camera, assuming that power, was able to record and play back the world around us. Naturally, when it came to telling stories through this new medium, the narratives were borrowed from both page and stage. Was this to be the fate of moving images? Dziga Vertov thought different. The moving picture made possible new means of expression and new narratives. The movie needed to be a language in its own right, an “absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature”. Hence Man With A Movie Camera (1929, 68 mins), a manic composite of disparate scenes and images drawn from any old day in Soviet Russia edited in such a way as to tell a universal story.
As the title suggests, the premise is thin – a man does indeed have a movie camera – but it’s the execution that is rich and makes this a rewarding view. Our eponymous man can be seen regularly, out and about with his camera, whether he be running along the streets, standing on rooftops looking over the streets, or even just standing in the middle of the street. It’s hardly surprising that much of the content should be set here as this is a film about life and much of our daily life happens on the streets. Shops line them, trams glide along them, and those down on their luck sleep in them. But the man about town with his camera is not the subject, but what is seen through his lens. And, what the camera sees is a world without borders. Where a person may have difficulty going, the camera has no qualms. And so the streets are only part of its focus. Beyond there’s industry, beaches, and bedrooms.
All human life is here, juxtaposed. Birth alongside deaths; marriage against divorce; the rigours of work versus the pursuit of leisure. That it’s real people and not actors make it a beautiful historical document, but Vertov’s handling of this is nothing short of cinematic poetry. And it’s not just his attention to the myriad Russian lives that composes this symphony but the technology that occupies the people, be it in the workplace or through entertainment. The wheels of machinery turn, churning out their product repeatedly, a mirror to humanity’s daily saga of life and death.
Ultimately, the camera does not just capture what it sees, but shows a startling self-awareness. It sees the movie itself being made. When it begins we see an empty cinema, the type where news reels were once shown. The seats come to life, people gather to watch. Just another facet of daily life. But what they have come to see is not just the end result, but its production. Vertov’s work has fun here. We see innocent street scenes and then cut to the man filming them. Many people are blissfully unaware of the camera’s all-seeing eye while others direct their performance its way. We see a boy smiling, unaware he’s being filmed, before moving to the film in the editing room where his smile is static in a single frame.
The speed at which images fly by is incredible. The second you’ve been presented with something — a scene, an object, a face — to observe, and adjusted to this, the film has discarded it in favour of something else. It’s frenetic, and with the accompanying high-tempo soundtrack (Michael Nyman’s 2002 score, in my case) it takes you on a dreamlike journey that carries an undercurrent of urgency. It’s not quite free-associating, but the wealth of images flow in and out, both complementing and contradicting each other.
If Vertov’s new cinematic language is playful, so too is its further use of technique. The director doesn’t shy away from experimenting with his footage, and thus we see double exposures, split screens, slow motion, amongst others. This creates interest and adds variety to the those scenes that are perhaps overused. There’s one moment, shown in reverse, featuring the gathering – or ungathering, rather – of chess pieces that doesn’t ring true with the opening assertion to viewers that the film is “a cinematic communication of real events” however it still works as another interesting image in the film’s inventory. What most impressed me was a piece of stop motion animation that saw our titular movie camera lose its man and walk around on its own. Truly the camera has the power to go anywhere.
With no definite narrative, the montage of disparate shots in Man With A Movie Camera is a fine example of the Kuleshov Effect writ large. What can it mean when one image is followed by another? A train passing and a woman rousing from sleep, say. Each to their own. But to watch this film now, over eighty years since its release, represents many different journeys. One back in time to a world gone by; one across the world to a place unvisited; and one through a day in the life of both a city and a man. A man with a movie camera — the reel deal.