Friday Editor’s Pick: The Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

by on January 14, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Jan 20 at 7:00, 9:15 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]   ‘


Anthology regularly recurring “Essential Cinema” series turns its kino-eye on Dziga Vertov Jan 20 & 21, with more films to follow next weekend.


Dennis Lim for the New York Times:

It can be startling to realize just how many roads lead back to Vertov, who straddled the expressive peak of silent cinema and the inchoate excitement of the early sound era. His genius for rhythmic montage and his interest in perceptual processes mark him as a founding father of experimental film. His fantasy of the camera as an all-seeing panoptic tool anticipates our age of total surveillance. His self-reflexive bent — Man With a Movie Camera is ultimately a film about its own making — foreshadows the postmodern tendencies of what we now call meta-cinema.


In the 1922 manifesto “We” Vertov extolled “the perfect electric man,” and the dream of a man-machine hybrid is encoded in his pseudonym. He was born Denis Kaufman; Vertov translates as “spinning top,” and Dziga is an onomatopoeic coinage, meant to evoke the sound of a turning camera crank. Labor and process are the subjects and the materials of his cinema, which returns time and again to images of furnaces and smokestacks and to the rhythms of cogs and levers. The films themselves seem to have been set in motion by the wheels of industry.


J Hoberman for the Village Voice:

[Vertov’s 1920s films] were ballistic. Their newsreels regularly deployed split screens, multiple exposures, reverse motion, variable-speed photography, prismatic lenses, freeze frames, shock cuts, pixilation, and stroboscopic editing—anything and everything to demonstrate that cinema was not a means to tell a story but a machine art produced with a mechanically improved, all-seeing eye. Vertov’s first feature, Kino Eye (1924), was largely shot with a hidden camera and subtitled Life Off-Guard. Subsequent commissioned works…were tendentious, ecstatic, and never less than controversial in using the brave new world of the motion-picture apparatus to celebrate the brave new world of industrialized Soviet reality.


The work culminated in Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which, evoking the sensory bombardment of 20th-century urban life, employed strategies of visual analogy and associative montage so intricate that they are still yet to be named. At once a Whitman-esque documentary-portrait of the Soviet people, a self-reflexive essay on cinematic representation, and an ode to the transformative power of human labor, this fantastically cross-referenced, cubo-kaleidoscopic city symphony took parallel action to the third—or fourth—dimension. Designed to destroy habitual movie watching by revealing the ways in which the camera and film editor construct reality, Vertov’s masterpiece had the remarkable effect of encouraging the spectator to identify with the filmmaking process. Indeed, given the density of the editing, this supreme film-object demands to be studied on an editing table to be fully appreciated. Small wonder that it was condemned, by Sergei Eisenstein, among others, for formalist madness and fetishized technique; there had never been anything like it.



Michael Joshua Rowin for The L Magazine:

[Vertov] was the most radical of the major Soviet filmmakers of the late 1910s and 20s, the Bolshevik-as-visionary. Where Sergei Eisenstein employed montage for the purposes of historical dramatization, and where Alexander Dovzhenko used similar techniques to convey a sort of environmental lyricism, Vertov was instead concerned with the nature of the cinematic apparatus itself —what it could do as a machine and how it could augment human vision in pursuit of a perception otherwise unavailable to the naked eye.


Like many of his Soviet brethren, Vertov (real name David Kaufman —the pseudonym means “spinning top,” and immediately announces its owner’s interest in man-object hybridizations) proclaimed cinema as the future of art in a series of fiery manifestos. His principle idea was that the camera was an invention that could help man explore and discover uncharted realms of the visual world. The form that would best exploit cinema’s potentialities would combine documentary (what Vertov deemed “life caught unawares”); cinematographic tricks (split-screens, stop-motion animation, and extreme low and high camera angles are par for the course); and rapid and often violent editing techniques.


Daniel Kasman has some of Vertov’s storyboards, while Adrian Curry showcases the incredible Soviet posters for his films, both at MUBI.

NPR’s The Fishko Files takes a look:


A.O. Scott’s “Critic’s Pick” video essay, for the New York Times:


Moving Image Source reprints an excerpt from the introduction to Yuri Tsivian‘s Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties“:

Man With a Movie Camera is not merely a movie, it is also a statement, a manifesto, written in celluloid. There are things and images in Dziga Vertov’s films that are meant to be read, not just seen. However, spotting those moments and reading those images may not be quite as easy as he thought. Not easy for us, which is understandable: a man of his epoch, Vertov often relied on his epoch’s topical emblems, and as a rule topical emblems do not have much of a chance of withstanding the cur­rents of time. Not easy for Vertov’s contemporaries, either: most people were ill-prepared (or plainly unwilling) to attend to the screen with an eye as quick and a mind as open as Vertov thought his films deserved. Given this, I find it germane to a book con­cerned with the press polemic around Vertov if I conclude my introductory remarks by looking at those instances in Vertov’s movies when the movie itself attempts to behave polemically.


Zack Friedman for BOMBlog

Vertov believed in a cinema of “fact”—in his “factory of facts,” films would be constructed from recorded actualities. An introductory statement to Man With The Movie Camera called for “the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema… on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.” In The Man With The Movie Camera, jumps from poetic images of urban life to the production of the film emphasize that the film, like life, is essentially something made, artificial, all part of a process of mutual surveillance.


Vertov’s camera lingers lovingly on machines, as if to say that the cinema is an industrial art, whose productivity has been increased, made more efficient. His images are militaristic: the camera is to be “filmed like a gun,” say notes from the shooting of Man With The Movie Camera. Yet his experiments with reversed film are thrilling. The mother of a Pioneer buys meat from a private seller instead of the cooperative: Vertov gives her a do-over. An intertitle announces “Kino Eye moves time backward.” This time she makes the right choice. So film has the power to correct reality, to direct people towards socialist ethics. But then we keep going. The meat goes back to the slaughterhouse, Vertov gives the bull back his organs and skin and brings him back to life, and then leads him all the way back to the countryside. Another sequence, “Kino Eye shows you the right way to dive,” is simply joyful: Vertov slows down the descents of divers and then, after the splash, undoes it and calls them back to the diving board. His sense of amazement with what he is able to do comes through (though such images of the human form should also be seen as paeans to the strong and healthy Socialist body.)

The appeal of Vertov’s work today is to get another chance to see the full extent of possibilities available to anyone with a movie camera—the feeling of unboundedness that appears to someone who can edit space and time.


Mónica Savirón discusses the film in relation to the work of Ken Jacobs, who introduced it last year at MoMA. For Brooklyn Rail:

Ken Jacobs’s film Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son is, with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, one of several important works of a reflexive cinema, whose primary subject is an aesthetic exploration of the nature of film itself. Jacobs has devoted much of his own life to exploring the intersection of art, radical cinema, and politics. Many of his films emphasize the hidden possibilities of cinema, including what the Kino-Eye school defined as the construction of a film by “intervals”—that is, “by inter-shot movement, by visual correlation of one shot to another, or by transitions from one visual stimulus to another.”

Jacobs states: “What drew me to the quest of Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son was what couldn’t be grasped in the decaying 1905 film (the original 10-minute film was simply called Tom, Tom), which was infinite in every way. I think that quest corresponded to Vertov’s underlying search for fact, the discovery without necessarily putting “to use” of what-is. He chose to be a propagandist for a social revolution, one I sympathize with, and which at the time showed signs of being possible…. Man with a Movie Camera…turns Odessa on its head. Why? Because cinema enables it to.…Man with a Movie Camera is more the product of a poet than of a propagandist.”



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

There is a temptation to review the simply by listing what you will see in it. Machinery, crowds, boats, buildings, production line workers, streets, beaches, crowds, hundreds of individual faces, planes, trains, automobiles, and so on. But these shots have an organizing pattern. “Man With a Movie Camera” opens with an empty cinema, its seats standing at attention. The seats swivel down (by themselves), and an audience hurries in and fills them. They begin to look at a film. This film. And this film is about–this film being made.

Most movies strive for what John Ford called “invisible editing” — edits that are at the service at the storytelling, and do not call attention to themselves. Even with a shock cut in a horror film, we are focused on the subject of the shot, not the shot itself. Considered as a visual object, “Man With a Movie Camera” deconstructs this process. It assembles itself in plain view. It is about itself, and folds into and out of itself like origami. It was in 1912 that Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world with his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” It wasn’t shocked by nudity–the painting was too abstract to show any. They were shocked that he depicted the descent in a series of steps taking place all at the same time. In a way, he had invented the freeze frame. What Vertov did was elevate this avant-garde freedom to a level encompassing his entire film. That is why the film seems fresh today; 80 years later, it is fresh. There had been “city documentaries” earlier, showing a day in the life of a metropolis; one of the most famous was “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City” (1927).

It was about the act of seeing, being seen, preparing to see, processing what had been seen, and finally seeing it. It made explicit and poetic the astonishing gift the cinema made possible, of arranging what we see, ordering it, imposing a rhythm and language on it, and transcending it. Godard once said “The cinema is life at 24 frames per second.” Wrong. That’s what life is. The Cinema only starts with the 24 frames — and besides, in the silent era it was closer to 18 fps. It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it Cinema.


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