PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

Dziga Vertov's 'The Man With the Movie Camera' Remains a Fascinating Documentary

Dziga Vertov believed that the camera could function as an extension of the human eye, and could see and record a truth that the ordinary human eye would miss.


The Man with the Movie Camera

Director: Dziga Vertov
Cast: Mikhail Kaufman
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Studio: VUFKU
Release Date: 2015-06

If your interest in film extends beyond the multiplex, you have no doubt heard of, and probably seen at least a clip from, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 documentary The Man With the Movie Camera.. If you are a student of film, you’ve probably pored over it in the context of other early Soviet films, perhaps comparing and contrasting Vertov’s approach with that of Sergei Eisenstein. According to Sight & Sound it's not only the best documentary of all time, but also the eighth best film in any genre. That’s a lot for a film to live up to, and yet The Man With the Movie Camera never disappoints, even after repeated viewings.

It’s not easy to describe what makes this film so captivating. In fact, it’s not easy to describe it at all, because the director had a lot more to say about what this film is not than what it is. Vertov, a Ukranian Jew working in the Soviet system (his birth name was David Abelevich Kaufman; cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman was his brother), wanted to create a distinct form of cinema that would not echo the conventions of the theatre but would use the technical means unique to film to create a new art form. Vertov, who joined the Communist movement in 1918, also wanted to avoid what he believed to be the bourgeois form and content of commercial Western films and instead to focus on the everyday lives of workers and other ordinary people.

Vertov also believed that the camera could function as an extension of the human eye, and that the “technical eye” of the camera lens could see and record a truth that the ordinary human eye would miss. He posited this “Kino-Eye” approach in distinct opposition to conventional narrative films of the time, which he called “Kino-Drama”, and believed the latter hid the truth rather than revealing it.

Normally, I look for the door when anyone starts talking about revealing truth through a constructed art form, but fortunately, you don’t have to believe in any of Vertov’s theories, or even be aware of them, to appreciate The Man With the Movie Camera. It chronicles daily life in several Ukranian cities (Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkiv) over the course of a day, from people waking up in the morning to going to bed at night. While Vertov’s sympathies were clearly with the working class, all strata of society get their time in front of the camera, including some people who had clearly spent the previous night without a roof over their heads.

The progression throughout a single day gives The Man With the Movie Camera a feeling of forward movement, and some individual segments are clearly organized around a theme, whether it's contrasting the routines of the rich and the poor or simply focusing on different round objects. The only constant is the regular appearance of the titular cameraman, although he's more a presence than a developed character and, like the other people who appear on screen, remains anonymous and reveals nothing about himself beyond what we can observe. Because it lacks a narrative in the conventional sense, and because the segments do add up to a collective portrait of life in the cities featured, The Man With the Movie Camera bears more resemblance to contemporary “city symphonies” like the 1927 Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt than to any conventional Hollywood film of the period.

The Man With the Movie Camera was edited by Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova, and her excellent work is crucial to the film’s success. One specific editing technique the film uses over and over again is that of montage in the Soviet sense, meaning the juxtaposition of images so they appear to comment on each other. Sometimes this juxtaposition carries a political meaning—for example, shots of rich women riding in carriages are juxtaposed with shots of women working in factories—while in others the effect is more of a verbal rhyme, like a shot of a woman washing her face juxtaposed with that of a window being cleaned.

My bottom line for a film is that the experience of watching it must be sufficiently rewarding to justify the time spent, and The Man With the Movie Camera more than passes that test. Setting all theories aside, it’s just fun to watch. Vertov had a fantastic visual imagination, and there’s never a dull moment on screen, due in part to a relatively short average shot length of 2.3 seconds (the average for film released in 1929 was 11.2 seconds). Vertov was also the master of special effects, and used techniques like double exposures, altered film speeds, and unusual camera angles and positions to add visual interest to this film. He also had an eye for framing interesting shots, and a sense of humor revealed in, for instance, shots of theatre seats apparently flipping down as if by magic.

The Flicker Alley release of The Man With the Movie Camera features a restored version of the film, based on a print from the archives of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It looks beautiful, and the soundtrack, based on notes left by Vertov, greatly complements the film’s visuals. This release also comes with an informative booklet including several illustrated essays on Vertov and his films, and four other Vertov works: the films Kino-Eye (1924), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), and Three Songs About Lenin (1931), and the 21st edition of Vertov’s Kino-Pravda newsreel series (1925), marking the first anniversary of Lenin’s death. None of these works are the equal of The Man With the Movie Camera, but they are all interesting as historical documents and for the light they shed on how Vertov’s cinematic style developed and changed over time.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.