Sight & Sound-Off: #8 – ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ and ‘Vertigo’

They say that art imitates life. Sometimes, life itself is the art. Then there is that grey area known as cinema, a format founded on bring reality to the screen and capturing the world around us filtered through fiction, fireworks, and the vision of those behind the lens. No one would ever argue that all genres are the same, but you can link many of them through the medium being mentioned. Take the documentary. While it is almost always an accurate reflection on the world around us, creativity and craftsmanship are typically applied to render the ordinary anything but. On the opposite side of things (one assumes) is something like Vertigo by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. For the mighty Master of Suspense, the thriller format was nothing but a vessel, a means of channeling his obsessions and imagination into a viable construct that wavered from beautiful to the bizarre.

Yet few in the film critic community would argue a connection between the brilliant murder mystery (currently holding the number one spot and Sight & Sounds overall list) and the early Russian experiment Man with a Movie Camera. You can, however, see how one influenced the other, even if the authority is cursory and indirect. Hitchcock believed in the power of images, of mixing light and shadow, color and composition to provide subtext to his characters’ concerns. For him, the movie was in the making, not in the eventual outcome. Similarly, Man with a Movie Camera‘s Dziga Vertov wanted, way back at the dawn of the artform, to push the boundaries of what the medium could be. He wanted to experiment with visuals and editorial variables, to see if the lens could capture more than the regular everyday existence of his Russian comrades. For both, the end result was art imitating life, and visa versa.

It’s strange that the director’s list would place Vertigo so low, considering its otherwise hyped dominance. Of course, once you learn how the S&S choices were compiled (it’s more or less a popularity contest, with assignment a direct result of the number of ballots a selection can be found on), you understand where it falls. For many this is Hitchcock’s masterpiece. For others, it’s the deranged drivel of a moviemaking madman who was falling in love with his own fetishes. It’s easy to see the filmmaker in his lead, a man (Jimmy Stewart) who becomes so obsessed with the subject of his ongoing murder investigation that he eventually makes her (Kim Novak) over into the spitting image of the dead victim. Naturally, there’s a twist and turn here and there, but for the most part, this is Hitch’s homage to his own fascination with actresses (especially blonds) and their ability to magically morph into objects of compulsive desire.

Man with a Movie Camera has no such psycho-sexual undertones. It’s not out to reveal anything deviant or divisive about Russian in the late ’20s. Instead, Vertov aimed at being a voyeur, of creating the first example of solid cinema verite in the documentary genre’s young life. He employed radical approaches to capture his images. He hid the camera from his subjects, setting it up in ways so that they could not see or hear it. He also placed it in unusual places and employed diversions to keep the participants from playing to the lens. His aim was to observe and record. He left the “narrative” element of the film (which really is nothing more than a life in a day dynamic) to his editors. He hoped he would end up with a statement about the Soviet system as the wave of the future. Instead, he crafted a commentary about how far we’ve come as a global people in the last few years, and how similar things are to life a near century ago.

Machines and ancient architecture initially fill the screen. A Soviet city awakes, ready to be received by the rolls of celluloid Vertov has at the ready. Initially, the director shows his hand, arguing that his camera can be anywhere – on a mountaintop, in a building, in a glass of beer. He then utilizes a style symbolic of what he’s recording to further underline their import. Huge pistons pump in double and triple exposure, throngs of tanned beach goers relax like relics in a plucky people’s museum. Important edifices are stretched and warped via split screen and other directorial tricks, while landscapes and the faces that fill them provide a portrait of Russia’s reality. Sure, there is a propaganda element here, a desire to predetermine how viewers will respond to the various imagery. But Vertov also wanted to make something significant, to push the boundaries of both the medium and its making.

Vertigo has similar ambitions. Hitchcock had fallen in love with authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel Celle qui n’était plus and wanted to buy the rights. When he couldn’t he focused on their follow-up, The Living and the Dead. Casting concerns plagued pre-production (intended star Vera Miles got pregnant, so Novak was hired, even though, by the time filming began, Miles was fine) as did certain story changes in post. The studio didn’t think much of the final result, and for a long time, Vertigo was considered a bit of a folly. It wasn’t until the mid ’60s, when auteur theory was firmly entrenched and Hitchcock, in general, was being reevaluated as a genius that the film became a milestone.

It makes sense. Few works as wonderful as Vertigo reach an audience (or critic) out of the box. Instead, they have to sit and breathe, like a fine wine. For many, the extreme psycho-sexual underpinnings raised more than a few late ’50s eyebrows. Even worse, Hitchcock’s uncompromising vision made the entire experience appear insular and abstract, at least initially. Like Man with a Movie Camera, the original intent was fairly obvious. Once you got past the basics, however, an entire world of imaginative possibilities opened up. The result is a pair of primers on how to use film as both as tool and a talent, a means to an emotional end and a window on worlds long gone.

For the majority of writers, critics, scholars and talent polled, Vertov is nowhere near Hitchcock in terms of final placement. The directors, however, clearly valued one high above the other. Both, however, deserve their mention in the pantheon of motion picture meaning. For them, art and life are the same thing. For those who they’ve influenced and entertained, it’s a given.