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I, Machine – Dziga Vertov Is ‘The Man with a Movie Camera’

Flicker Alley's Blu-ray release of five of his films reveals just how crucial the Ukranian-born, avant-garde filmmaker Dziga Vertov has become.

Dziga Vertov (born David Kaufman in Ukraine) specialized in a hybrid of documentary, fiction, and propaganda that demonstrated his theories of montage by combining footage into forceful, meaningful motions and a sense of life, action, and progress. His work is showcased on a new Blu-ray anchored on an astoundingly clear print of his 1929 masterpiece The Man with a Movie Camera. What the viewer sees is a full-frame silent print (nothing lopped off the sides), struck from the negative, that Vertov himself left in Amsterdam; missing bits have been restored, including chapter numbers and a brief shot of a baby’s birth. The Alloy Orchestra’s score is based on Vertov’s notes. Although these features are excellent, don’t get rid of the 2002 Image DVD if you have it, which has critical commentary, or the 2003 Kino DVD with Michael Nyman’s score.

Vertov’s most dizzying, free-floating achievement, this day-in-the-life “city symphony” pulls off a battery of rapidly edited devices: superimposition, split-screen, moving camera, slow motion, freeze-frame, stop-motion animation, and almost abstract geometries celebrating modern machinery. It claims to record life without sets and actors, although we see at least two “actors”: the cameraman (photographer Mikhail Kaufman, but who’s shooting him?) and a pretty woman (Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova) who awakens and works as an editor, all calling attention to the film as a construction. The prologue is especially self-conscious, using a theatre set with self-animating seats, an audience and a conductor.

The movie takes time to ogle pretty girls, thus characterizing the camera a bit lecherously; there’s an eye superimposed over the lens for a literal masculine “kino-eye”. When we get to the part of the day when workers have leisure time, there’s a long section of male and female erotic-athletic spectacle, intercut with appreciative gazes, foreshadowing Leni Riefenstahl and today’s Olympic broadcasts.

Also in amazing shape is Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), which opens with close-ups on people’s ears as they supposedly listen to a radio broadcast in celebration of electrical, mining, and mechanical progress. There’s a jab at religion as a church is remodeled into a workers’ club — with reverse-motion tricks. The soundtrack includes a few speeches but is mostly an avant-garde mix of music and effects with injected whimsies. It’s similar to Vertov’s Stride Soviet (in Landmarks of Early Soviet Film), but odder and more experimental.

Crammed with beautiful imagery, Three Songs About Lenin (1934) functions as hagiography and propaganda about Lenin’s legacy more than experimentalism, for “formalism” was increasingly viewed with suspicion under Stalin. Ironically, years after that regime made Vertov re-edit the film to remove certain personalities, Stalin himself largely got edited out. Aside from its imagism, the movie’s most interesting quality — as with all Vertov’s work — is its sense of musicality. Structured by Uzbekistan “folk songs”, it includes themes of female empowerment.

From 1924, the feature Kino-Eye and newsreel Kino-Pravda #21, unrestored and ragged, should be considered bonus material. The former’s several sections concentrate on village children organized into Lenin Youth, who march around aggressively helping people in a manner evocative of Village of the Damned. We also see social problems of alcoholism, cocaine, homelessness, tuberculosis, and a mental asylum. Vertov’s reverse-motion tricks include the un-butchery of a cow!

Some of this film’s footage is recycled in the newsreel, which marks the one-year anniversary of Lenin’s death, with much footage of him in a manner that would later be called “cult of personality” about Stalin. It’s also a quick history of the last ten years, including footage of a Muslim woman taking off her veil “for Lenin”. Footage of his funeral includes Stalin and other notables. There’s also hand-drawn animation illustrating how the legacy continues.

As a whole, this package illustrates the aesthetic accomplishment of a man quoted in the booklet as declaring: “This is what I am, a machine that runs in chaotic maneuvers, recording moments one after the other, assembling them into a patchwork. Freed from the constraints of time and space, I organize each point of the universe as I wish. My route is that of a new conception of the world. I can make you discover the world you did not know existed.” Now that cinema has assimilated these ideas to sell cars, drugs, and other ideologies, we can see — ironically — how crucial Dziga Vertov has become.

RATING 8 / 10
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