Man With a Movie Camera



Chelovek s Kinoapparatom
USSR 1929
Dziga Vertov
approx 65mins (silent – duration depends on running speed)

Man with a Movie Camera stands as a stinging indictment of almost every film made between its release in 1929 and the appearance of Godard’s Bout de Souffle 30 years later – and Vertov’s dazzling picture seems, today, arguably the fresher of the two. In any case, it’s shameful that it took directors three full decades – three full decades of generally static, tedious “movies” – to remember that movies should really move, that the camera can and should be a mobile, vibrant participant in an exciting process: the transmission of events onto celluloid. This is what Man with a Movie Camera is all about. In terms of the use to which the medium was put, it’s a quantum leap forward, one of the rare films that deserves to be called a work of genius.

Luckily for us, it’s also a tremendously accessible and enjoyable cinematic experience. Man with a Movie Camera is scarcely an hour long, but must surely contain more shots per minute than any other commercially released film – towards the end it reaches in intensity reminiscent of the most extreme dance-music videos. It’s neither fiction nor documentary, rather an unclassifiable mixture of the two. It starts, disconcertingly, with an audience entering a cinema and sitting down to watch a film, which we then see running through the projector – then we become part of the same audience, watching a record of a single day in a large Russian city, sometime in the late 20s.

Except the film took over four years to shoot, using locations in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. Throughout the film we see the camera used to film many of the shots – which means, of course, that more than one camera, and more than one cameraman, were employed. Vertov switches between the events in the city and the mechanisms by which these events were recorded – we see a ditch being dug between some railway tracks, for instance, then we see the ‘oncoming train’ shots that reulted. Vertov further emphasises the artificial nature of what we’re watching by occasionally slowing the images down to stills, which we then see being examined, filed and spliced by editors: the film thus becomes an exhaustive documentary of its own production, as much as it’s a priceless record of mundane urban Russian life.

There’s no attempt to craft any kind of narrative – as with a much later Russian classic, Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974), this ends up working to the film’s advantage, as we must respond on a different level of engagement, concentrating instead, as Vertov insists, on cinema’s apparently unbounded potential. It’s like an experimental showreel, proud of its rough edges, an audacious throwing down of the gauntlet. Perhaps it’s even more than that – perhaps Vertov intends the title to function in anthropological terms. Just as ‘homo erectus’ (standing man) gave way to ‘homo sapiens’ (thinking man), Vertov sees technological innovation providing a possible next step on the evolutionary ladder – ‘man with movie camera,’ or, perhaps, ‘observational man,’ homo kinematensis.

His cameraman (cameramen?) seems complusively driven to seek out new images – occasionally placing himself in physical danger to do so, as when he’s winched out in a basked over a glossy waterfall. There’s nowhere he won’t go, nothing he won’t do – at one thrilling moment a passer-by has to literally jump aside to avoid being mown down as he approaches, camera presumably strapped to the bonnet of a car. It’s typical of Vertov to leave this in – typical of his breakneck sense of humour. Later, during a sequence in a drab government office, one woman continually hides her face with a handbag, steadfastly refusing to go down in cinematic history.

by Neil Young