Chelovek S Kinoapparatom (AKA: The Man With the Movie Camera) – 1929
Director – Dziga Vertov
Starring – Mikhail Kaufman
From a history of film point of view, the Russian masterpiece The Man With the Movie Camera, was revolutionary. One of the first films to truely utilize the power of editing, it helped to form the bedrock of what we know as the modern movie today. When it is watched without that revolutionary, ground-breaking context, unlike a lot of it’s peer films from the infancy of the artform, The Man With the Movie Camera holds up suprisingly well.
At the beginning of the film, there is a title card (this is a silent film, accompanied only by music) explaining that there is no plot, there are no characters acting out a drama or comedy, this is strictly an exercise in editing, a manipulation of image, rhythm, and pacing. Despite this warning, however, we are given a throughline from the beginning to the end. Like the movie’s title explains, we are witness to a man as he goes around with his movie camera, capturing what he sees as he goes through the day. The imagery is structured to form great arcing patterns, as well as juxtaposing of imagery. For example, a sleeping woman is paired and intercut with a deserted city scape as it just begins to stir with morning traffic, and the pulsing, pounding gears of a train are mixed and married with still and slowly moving faces of children as they watch something offscreen. Dziga Vertov, the director, forces us to consider all the connections and similarities contained within a days worth of activity.
The imagery continues to build and wane faster and faster until it seems as though something might break. And it does…sort of. We are watching a section of film with a horse drawn carriage bringing a family out and about for the day when it simply stops. The image is frozen there, and the spell is broken. At that point, Vertov is drawing our attention to the fact that we are being manipulated. He is using the imagry on screen to quicken our pulse, or to lull us into a daze, and when it is suddenly forcibly stopped, he begins to manipulate us in a different way. When the image of the frozen carriage is pulled back a little, we see an editor sitting and cataloging film sections. There are shelves and shelves of different shots, presumably the shots that we have been watching. Our editor goes to work splicing sections together and showing us the man behind the curtain, only since this is still being filmed and later on edited, that means there is another curtain with another man behind it. Our attention is so constantly drawn to the raw elements of this film, from the camera man taking a shot (Mikhail Kaufman, the film’s actual cinematographer), to the editor compiling and re-working footage (the film’s actual editor), that everything is laid bare and hidden in plain sight at the same time.
All the while, when we think we are seeing some really candid segment of the construction of this work, we are infact being led down this path on purpose. This provides the framework for every piece of visual media that we are accustomed to today, from film, to reality television, to documentary, to stage plays. There is nothing on display that isn’t supposed to be.
Despite, my obvious appreciation of the content of this film, there are moments where the fact that it is a silent movie takes it’s toll. With the repetetive nature of it’s construction and this editing trick, at 68 minutes, it still seemed a little long. The music at times also seemed a little antiquated and simple (not the film’s fault, but still a product of the time that it originated). By and large, it was a lot of fun to watch, but I was just as happy to finish it as I was to start it.
“Look at all the cool shit you can do with this here camera!” – Ashley