Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Films I Love #36: Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)


Some films are so revolutionary, so influential, that their sui generis originality and verve can still be felt even decades after their first impact, long after their innovations have been absorbed by subsequent generations. Dziga Vertov's Man With the Movie Camera is this kind of film, retaining much of its power and irresistable energy despite the nearly eighty years that have passed since its creation. Vertov created a moving portrait of city life in every sense of the word, both emotionally affecting and viscerally thrilling, built on the pulsing rhythms of its cutting and its perfectly calibrated shifts from frenetic passages to languid interludes. It's no accident that Vertov frequently returns to images of industrial mechanisms, since the rhythms of pumping pistons often drive this thoroughly modernist, industrial age film. The film encompasses an overview of the life of a city from its earliest spasms of wakening in the morning to the twilight calm of evening. Vertov was ambitiously trying to include images representing the entirety of human life and experience, from such mundane acts as getting up in the morning, going to the beach, going to work, to the big life-changing events of birth, death, marriage and even, cheekily, divorce. Vertov's film is a kaleidoscopic view of the life cycle itself, with so much detail and activity crammed into a twenty-four hour period, itself condensed into barely over an hour of images.

In order to represent such vitality and variety, Vertov was endlessly inventive with the formal properties of his fledgling artform. He superimposes images over one another, creating densely layered compositions in which the rhythms within the image are often as fast as the editing that joins images together. Some of Vertov's inventions are more playful — like the famous shot of a cameraman appearing to stand up from within a glass of beer — while others serve a propagandistic function, evincing Soviet principles about the nobility of labor and the proletariat. But mostly Vertov is concerned with composing his film as though it was a piece of music, thinking in terms of movements and rhythm rather than narrative.

17 comments:

Flickhead said...

When the DVD version with the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack came out, I used to watch this over and over like a rock n' roll movie, blown away by the imagery with that amazing music pumping through the speakers at a rather high, ear-splitting volume.

I remember showing it to a filmmaker friend of mine who'd never seen it, and when it was over all he could say (a tad woozy) was, "Holy shit!"

Ed Howard said...

That's awesome. I love the Alloy Orchestra score too, it's so bombastic and intense. Sometimes, though, I like watching the film truly silent. As much as I enjoy the Alloy score, in many ways it's almost too impressive: it threatens to overpower the rhythms of the actual film at times.

Joshua said...

I really like the Alloy Orchestra version, but for some reason prefer the Cinematic Orchestra. Maybe its my affection for Ninja Tunes.

Either way, this film has a thousand and one beautiful images and you've picked some remarkable ones for sure. I've always liked Vertov's disclaimer at the beginning,

"AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION

WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES

WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT

WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE"

Sam Juliano said...

I am a big fan of this filmmaker and recently acquired the German DVD of his greatest masterpiece, ENTHUSIASM: DONBASS SYMPHONY-1931, which as Chaplin rightly contended presented "industrial sounds like no film ever did." Of course Chaplin said that at the advent of sound when there were few to compare it with, but the truth must be said that even subsequent films including Chaplin's own MODERN TIMES and Rene Clair's seminal works don't quite measure up to this great film.

It can rightly be asserted that Vertov was a self-annointed "documentarian" whose works evinced in a much more profound context, a highly poetic vision of Soviet realism. His work in this masterwork that you rightly place in your most venerated category, set the stage for the cinema verite of the 50's that we know so well, and Marker, Godard and brakage are indepted to this Russian genius.

His KINO EYE and THREE SONGS ABOUT LENIN are well worth investigating as well, although the film you review here and ENTHUSIASM are his ultimate masterworks.

The celebrated cinematographer Boris Kaufman was Vertov's brother.

I love this observation from your review best:

"Vertov's film is a kaleidoscopic view of the life cycle itself, with so much detail and activity crammed into a twenty-four hour period, itself condensed into barely over an hour of images."

Sam Juliano said...

Clarification: When I asserted that Chaplin's MODERN TIMES does not "measure up" to Vertov's two masterpieces I was referring to the use of sound, not the films in their entirety. MODERN TIMES is quite simply one of the greatest films in the history of teh cinema, a statement I regularly make when assesing cinematic masterworks, but certainly no less applicable here.

I also like the Alloy Orchestra a lot, but I wonder what Donald Sosin would have come up with here.

Ed Howard said...

Joshua, the only score I've heard for this is the Alloy one -- how does the other compare? And I love Vertov's manifesto at the beginning, what a perfect intro to this film.

Sam, good point about how Vertov poeticized Soviet realism -- the film is full of this tension between naturalism (the documentation of people just going about their day) and stylization (the inventive style). Godard was so enamored of Vertov, naturally enough, that he named his early 70s filmmaking collective after the Soviet master. Vertov was a true original, and even as his influence has been absorbed by others, his work still retains its capacity to shock and impress, even so many decades later. That's truly impressive.

Ed Howard said...

but I wonder what Donald Sosin would have come up with here.

Boring, aimless noodling? Seems to be the guy's default mode. Modern scores for silent films are tricky to get right, but Sosin usually just annoys me -- his scores on the Kino Avant-Garde set ensure that I always watch those films completely silent.

Sam Juliano said...

Hahahahahaha Ed!!!!

You do have a point there. More sedate pieces, and epic war films are more his specialty, but he's certainly no Carl Davis.

Joshua said...

Ed, it's a little less tense and a little more bubbly, but still relatively downbeat. If you could define the Alloy one by its reliance on bells, the Cinematic version would be reliant on a more openly synthetic sound, with a lot of horns in the foreground. There's an edited nine minute version on youtube you can check out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvTF6B5XKxQ

As for the intro, as I understand it Vertov got extremely nervous about the public's reception to the film and so printed that as a kind of disclaimer in the local newspapers. I find it really funny that he was so frightened that he took an ad out, which ended up contributing to the pressure seeing as how everyone who saw it got curious and went to the show.

Ed Howard said...

That's a great story, Joshua. I can understand why Vertov was a little nervous, though. The film still feels radical and visceral today -- imagine how it must have seemed back then!

just another film buff said...

This is a remarkable viewing experience... BTW, Berlin: Symphony of a City is like a twin to this film. Do watch it. It's like MWAMC with a human touch!

Bob Turnbull said...

Like everyone else here, I was pretty bowled over the first time I saw this film a few years ago too. Especially when you place it in the context of when it was made...

I've only seen the film with the Alloy score as well (it's great), but I own the Cinematic Orchestra version and love it to pieces...I've never synched it with the film, but it doesn't matter - it still manages to evoke the film for me (granted, I'm purposely trying to match up images to the sounds myself in my head). It's also just a great piece of music - lots of skittering beats (by a real drummer) underneath the repeated melodies.

I've been meaning to watch "Berlin - Symphony Of A City". You can find the whole thing here - though I suppose that isn't the best way to watch it...

Sam Juliano said...

Ed, Allan Fish just advised me that Michael Nyman's score for thye film, the version of which is linked here is the finest ever recorded for this film. I am a huge fan of Nyman, but sad to say I have not heard it myself:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Michael-Nymans-Man-Movie-Camera/dp/B0017QMXLU

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Like Bob, I really need to see Berlin: Symphony of a City; I've been meaning to for ages but somehow never got around to it.

Sam: I'll have to check out the Nyman score. Like you, I'm a big fan, especially of his work with Greenaway.

just another film buff said...

I was fortunate to watch it with the Nyman score the first time around.

Ironically, it is the absense of sound in Berlin: The Symphony... that makes it all the more rich!

Sam Juliano said...

Very good to hear that "Just Another Film Buff" Now I'm tempted to acquire this.

Tiger said...

Great to see more people appreciate this film extraordinaire! By far the greatest and most influential documentary of all time. I've seen it more time than I can remember.

You can download the Cinematic Orchestra version from my blog at www.cultcinema.net