Admit it. Your eyes popped out of your head the first time you saw Neo dodge those bullets. It’s OK, you can fess up—being a cinema connoisseur doesn’t mean you can’t go gaga over popcorn movies. Although to be fair, The Matrix was a lot more than just a way to sell Raisinets. Its unfettered, dazzling mise en scène thumbed its nose at the rules of physics and the motion picture camera’s traditional limitations, blowing wide open the rules on how a director could imagine the world inside the frame.
Imagine this statement of intent springing from the lips of the Matrix‘s visual effects team: “From today on, I liberate myself forever from human immobility. I am in perpetual motion. I approach and move away from objects—I crawl beneath them—I climb on top of them . . . I throw myself on my back—I rise together with airplanes—I fall and fly in unison with falling and ascending bodies.” But the Matrix‘s special effects crew didn’t write that manifesto. That declaration of independence was penned by Russian film visionary Dziga Vertov, 70-some years before Neo was even a glimmer in the Wachowski Brothers’ eyes. And while today every commercial containing a freeze frame combined with a shift in perspective might count The Matrix as its closest kin, it doesn’t take much to see how its DNA stretches back to Vertov.
The devoted Marxist formerly named Denis Kaufman (“Dziga Vertov” means “spinning top” in Russian, an appropriately revolutionary mental concept) despised the bourgeois conventions of narrative film, with its namby-pamby melodrama and earthbound staging. He envisioned a radical new path for the infant art of film, “a total separation from the language of theater and literature”, as the opening titles of his magnum opus Man With A Movie Camera (1929) boasts. His concept of “kino-pravda” (“movie truth”) meant the director’s primary job was to show the world as it was, without artifice or falsehood, through the unblinking eye of the camera lens.
Man With A Movie Camera was Vertov’s lasting, triumphant contribution to cinematic language. The ultimate “day in the life” documentary, it combined footage of post-revolution Soviet citizens going about their daily business—waking, grooming, commuting, laboring, drinking in pubs, sunning themselves at the seaside, being born, burying the dead—with an entire palette of camera tricks, from stop-motion to superimposition to variable speed, all shot by the titular protagonist shouldering his hand-cranked apparatus through bustling and unscripted crowds.
But Vertov was no dry adherent to orthodox verite. He knew the camera’s gaze was more suited to understanding the truth of the visible world than our own puny optic nerves could ever attempt. “Our eyes see very little and very badly,” wrote Vertov in 1926, “so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena . . . now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into the visible world . . .” Unlike other directors who restricted certain effects to describe specific phenomena (superimposition for ghosts, or undercranking for comedic levity) Vertov uniquely regarded every technique in his cinematographic toolbox with the same democracy of meaning. Vertov correctly theorized that the motion picture camera’ effusive vocabulary meant human vision need not obey the limited rules of time and space any longer.
In the late ‘90s, visual effects designer John Gaeta (and crew) pushed this idea even further by divorcing the physical camera from the finished sequence. To create the sweeping “bullet time” effects in The Matrix, instead of using a single motion picture camera they created a snaking roller coaster rig of still cameras, each programmed to fire in sequence (a la Muybridge motion study) around the flailing or leaping actor. The resulting stack of photos were sequenced like a flipbook and digitally smoothed to create swooping slow motion effects impossible to create with conventional movie means. (The team won an Oscar for their painstaking foray into “virtual cinematography”.) But this now commonplace innovation would never have existed without Vertov’s original awoval of cinematic liberation. When Trinity leaps into the air at the beginning of The Matrix and the camera rotates 180 degrees around her coiled airborne body before she strikes, she’s the direct heir of Vertov’s fearless hypothesis about film’s untapped potential.
It’s one thing to have a sci-fi action film full of astounding scenes, but a semi-documentary is another matter. How can Vertov consider Man With A Movie Camera devoted to reality when so many shots are altered, or manipulated, or staged? Trolley cars collide like ghosts in superimposed shots. Two hands magically smooth jumbled fistfuls of chess pieces into their proper places on the board in a reversed shot. Athletes clear hurdles in slow motion, hovering in midair at the leap’s apogee and slowly returning to speed as they hit the ground. A young woman wakes, dresses, and washes her face, much too calmly to be an unscripted moment (imagine the footage Vertov’s crew would have gotten if she hadn’t received warning of their sudden presence in her bedroom.) But what the detractors miss is that Vertov insisted on truth, not reality. Lurking behind all cinema lies a truth so profound and obvious it takes willful ignorance to ignore. And to understand any further, we need to take the red pill.
Twenty-two minutes into Man With The Movie Camera there’s a scene of a family out for a drive in an open roofed touring car. Cut to our cameraman, standing in a parallel car, cranking away at the bemused inhabitants of a horse-drawn carriage. Our tendency to invent continuity between disparate shots creates the mental illusion that the cameraman is shooting the family in the car. Upon reviewing the shots it’s clear it’s assembled from two entirely different occasions, but the sequence’s meaning is clear: some people are riding, and the cameraman is filming them, and we’re seeing his footage. Wait—actually, there’s a third, invisible camera shooting the cameraman shooting the car. After all, the cameraman can’t film himself. Tricky, right? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Just then the galloping horse freezes.
The sudden halt is a shock. We were just getting the hang of this movie. The still image lingers. Then, quick cuts to other stills. Women in the car. The busy street. The face of a little girl, framed by sprocket holes in several frames of film. We see the film’s real editor (Vertov’s wife Elizaveta Svilova) at work, pulling labeled coils of film from a shelf –“Factory”, “Machines”, “Market”. She spools up reels of clips, running and stopping the motion of the movie we’re currently watching. With this incredible sequence, Vertov has yanked the audience out of “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” as Morpheus so elegantly put it. It’s just a movie. We’re watching pictures on a screen. And when the pictures stop, the spell they cast stops, too. By not sparing us the fiction behind the illusion of film, Vertov gets at a truth deeper than any other filmmaker up to this point (and very few afterwards) have dared to acknowledge: that film reality is not reality at all. It doesn’t take a sophisticated computer network to hoodwink our sense of the real. We even paid for the tickets ourselves. After this shattering diversion we return to the trotting horse and the smiling excursionists, but nothing is ever the same.
While The Matrix made scads of money ($460 million worldwide, at last count), Man With A Movie Camera was viewed as just another “city symphony” coming in on the tail of similar newsreel documentaries. Even documentarian and film critic John Grierson (an early champion of other Soviet filmmakers like Eisenstein) sniffed that Movie Camera wasn’t really a movie, just a “snapshot album”. Vertov had a few more good films in him—Enthusiasm: Dombass Symphony (1931) is something of a sound film equivalent of the silent Man With A Movie Camera—but the advent of hard-line Stalinism seriously hampered his output. He was put to work overseeing unimaginative newsreels for the remainder of his career until his death in 1954, unaware of how his innovations would inspire later filmmakers to describe the world in new and limitless ways. The challenge of his legacy is heard in Neo’s parting words: “I’m going to show them a world . . . without rules or controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”