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.