The CRITICS

1929

“The Soviet response to Man with a Movie Camera was cool. The film industry simply rejected the film as unsuitable for domestic audiences. The problem for Vertov was that by 1929 Soviet cinema was expected to have moved on from experimentation to mature political responsibility. The continuing negative reaction to each of Vertov’s films can be seen as evidence of the nature of the Stalinist hegemony which was already developing in the late 1920s (see section on The Soviet Union in the 1920s).

In September 1929 RAPP (the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers) in a ‘Resolution on Cinema’ went so far as to state: ‘The concept of revolutionary cinema has sometimes been identified with the concept of ‘left’ cinema and this has given the Formalists the chance to disguise themselves as ‘revolutionaries’ and declare ‘revolutionary’ any formal experiments, even this [film which is] devoid of social content (Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with the Movie Camera’)’.”

Graham Roberts in ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’ (see BIBLIOGRAPHY).

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Sergei Eisenstein criticised the use of slow motion in film: “Even more frequently it is used simply for formal trifles and pointless mischief with the camera, as in ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’.” ibid.

“Khrisanf Khersonsky condemned the film in ‘Kino’ [#7, 1929] for ‘narrow formalism’ and ‘technical fetishism’. He also criticised the film for its lack of plot (siuzhet) and concluded that ‘Vertov remains the “artist-child” of the “artistic infancy” of Soviet cinema’. G Lenobl also attacked the film [in ‘Kino’ #17, 1929] for ‘technical fetishism’.”

Denise J Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918-1935 (see BIBLIOGRAPHY).

These views were typical of contemporary Soviet critics, but there was some support for the director from N. Kaufman (no relation) who rejected all accusations of Vertov’s poor planning and supposed ‘fetishism’ and made some counter-charges. He said that Vertov’s films had been consistently hampered by limited runs and rental ‘politics’ and that some of his films had either disappeared or had only been shown once. He also “declared Vertov a Soviet Walt Whitman, which perhaps is not too far-fetched. Vertov’s vision of Soviet Russia was, after all, a personal and lyrical one, for all his machine-age jargon, and Man with a Movie Camera is a wry but affectionate look at his world”. Source and quote, ibid.

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One of the first foreign critics of the film, Mordaunt Hall, was distinctly unimpressed:

“Around the clock in a Soviet city is depicted by camera flashes in a film known as ‘Living Russia or the Man With the Camera’ which is now at the Film Guild Cinema. It is much like ‘Berlin, a Symphony of a Big City’, only it hardly matches its German rival in interest, principally because its glimpses are too fleeting. It is a disjointed array of scenes in which the producer, Dziga Vertoff [sic], does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that which holds the attention. In the German film there was a suggestion of poetry, but in the Russian offering there is only originality to redeem it. As a matter of fact it becomes quite tedious and the hour that it lasts seems at least an hour and a half. It is also somewhat confusing. The individual who pops up every now and then with his camera has really little if anything to do with the picture, for what he photographs is not shown. One sees him at work, it is true, but he is no more interesting than a number of other persons in this kaleidoscopic stream. Another muddled notion is that of beginning the twenty-four hours with the night before, and where the Germans would have pictured a variety of persons partaking of their meals, dancing, or enjoying a theatrical entertainment, this Russian producer contents himself by depicting a throng of persons sitting in a small motion picture theatre. The screen is set and one hopes for some denouement, but it does not come. There are undoubtedly clever stretches in this picture, which was photographed in Odessa, Kharkov and Kieff [sic]. The notion of having everything come to a sudden stop is ingenious, especially when one discovers that the reason is that a motion picture film joiner is pausing at her work. The slow-motion passages of athletes diving, throwing the shot and other physical exercises are well conceived. The wheels of business and industry being set in motion is another laudable phase of this feature. But often one would like to dwell upon some of the doings. M. Vertoff, however, is in a hurry, and he may show a traffic policeman, and while one is studying his smock, off goes the minion of the law and on comes something else. Glimpses of a poster come on the heels of living persons. At the end of the day’s work the director shows one factory machine after another coming to a stop, and this is followed by the hour or so of recreation. On the same program is another Russian film called ‘When Moscow Laughs.’ It is evidently typical of Russian humor and nothing that is likely to stir an American to any great degree of mirth.”

Floating Glimpses of Russia. LIVING RUSSIA OR THE MAN WITH THE CAMERA, a Soviet film conceived and directed by Dziga Vertoff; “When Moscow Laughs,” an Amkino comedy, with Anna Sten and others. At the Film Guild Cinema.

New York Times, September 17th 1929

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The great Scottish documentary film-maker John Grierson (1898-1972), who actually coined the term ‘documentary’ in 1926, was rather dismissive of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ in a review of Vertov’s work in 1929:

“With Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ we are at last initiated into the philosophy of the Kino-Eye. Some of us have been hearing a great deal about the Kino-Eye and it has worried us considerably. Only the younger high-brows seem to know anything about it.…Now that Vertov has turned up in the original it is easier to see why intelligent students of cinema were betrayed into their extremity….Vertov, however, has pushed the argument to a point at which it becomes ridiculous. The camera observes in its own bright way, and he is prepared to give it its head. ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ is in consequence not a film at all: it is a snapshot album.”

‘John Grierson: A Documentary Biography’, by Forsyth Hardy, Faber & Faber, 1979

1930

Jay Leyda (1910-1988), the American film-maker and historian, and student of Sergei Eisenstein, saw the film in 1930 and recalled his reactions later:

“My memory of ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’ is not reliable; I have not seen it since it happened to be, in 1930, the first Soviet film I saw. It was such a dazzling experience that it took two or three other Soviet films with normal ‘stories’ to convince me that all Soviet films were not compounded of such intricate camera pyrotechnics. But I hope to be forgiven for not bringing away any very clear critical idea as I reeled out of the Eighth Street Playhouse – I was even too stunned to sit through it again. The apparent purpose of the film was to show the breadth and precision of the camera’s recording ability. But Vertov and his cameraman-brother, Mikhail Kaufman, were not content to show any simple vocabulary of film practice; the cameraman is made an heroic participant in the currents of Soviet life. He and his methods are treated by Vertov in his most fluid montage style, establishing large patterns of sequences: the structure resembles that of ‘Kino-Eye’, with a succession of ‘themes’ – the audience, the working day, marriage, birth, death, recreation – each with a whirling galloping climax; but the execution of the two films, separated by less than five years, are worlds apart. The camera observation in ‘Kino-Eye’ was alert, surprising, but never eccentric. Things and actions were ‘caught’, but less for the catching’s sake than for the close observation of the things themselves. In ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’ all the stunts that can be performed by a cameraman armed with a Debrie or hand-camera and by a film-cutter armed with the boldness of Vertov and Svilova can be found in this full-to-bursting film, recognised abroad for what it really is, an avant-garde film, though produced by VUFKU, a state trust.” Source Artforum

1935

Paul Rotha (1907-1984), the distinguished documentary maker, said that in Britain, Vertov was “regarded really as rather a joke, you know. All this cutting, and one camera photographing another camera – it was all trickery, and we didn’t take it seriously”. In his classic work ‘Documentary Film’ published in 1935, he put Vertov in the ‘newsreel’ category of documentary film. Although he believed that much of his work is among the best examples of the ‘reportage’ style he did not care for ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. He said that although it was “a fascinating exposition of the resources of cinema and a marvellous example of technical accomplishment” it was “totally devoid of dramatic value. Throughout the film the spectator was constantly being reminded of the camera, for it was continually being brought before the eye on the screen. The film was punctuated by the interruptions of a close-up of the lens of the camera, the camera itself, and the eye of the cameraman. We travel along watching a cameraman photographing a lady in a carriage. We see on the screen what the camera of the cameraman is taking. We see the cameraman as the lady in the carriage sees him. We are alternately the camera and we see what the camera sees; then we are seeing the camera seeing what we saw before. At that point, we cease seeing the camera and see what we have just seen being developed and mounted in the studio laboratory. ‘Ah’ we say to ourselves, ‘that is the Kino-Eye’.” Source ‘The Traditions of Documentary’ 

1966

Herman G. Weinberg writing on the occasion that ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ became available in the USA for the first time:

“In the 37 years since ‘The Man with the Movie Camera’ the screen hasn’t progressed much, for all its technological ‘improvements’- certainly not where the expressive use of the camera is concerned. Now, at last, the rich lessons to be learned from this ardent work are available to a new generation of film makers. Let this generation go on from there and be inspired to equal or surpass the master.”

Film Comment, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Fall 1966), pp. 40-42, Film Society of Lincoln Center (JSTOR registration required)

1989

“Between 1926 when he made his last film for the state film studio in Moscow and some time after 1932 when he returned to Moscow to work for Münzenberg’s Mezhrabpom Film, Vertov’s operational base appears to have been in the Ukraine. One of the films he made during this period, The Man With The Movie Camera, is often shown to students because of the technical tricks Vertov used to demonstrate the illusionistic nature of the film medium. He intended the film to be a cinematic statement in support of his brand of propaganda film, an attack on his rivals in the Soviet film industry in the competition for funds and Party favor. While the film is much overpraised by Vertov’s Western admirers, and is falsely described by the Museum of Modern Art as ‘a documentary on the nature of socialist society,’ it need not detain us now. Its value for disinformation purposes lies in the context in which Vertov himself is presented.”

‘False Cinema: Dziga Vertov and early Soviet film’, Jeremy Murray-Brown, an article published in November 1989 in The New Criterion magazine (Volume 8, Number 3).

2009

“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 … 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.” Roger Ebert

2015

Man with a Movie Camera….”shows scenes of city life in Moscow, Odessa and Kiev, and the credits describe it as an ‘experiment in cinematic communication of visible events’ which doesn’t do justice to its dedication to transforming and upending reality. This film is visibly excited about the new medium’s possibility, dense with ideas, packed with energy: it echoes Un Chien Andalou, anticipates Vigo’s À Propos De Nice and the New Wave generally, and even Riefenstahl’s Olympia. There are trick-shots, split-screens, stop-motion animation, slo-mo and speeded up action. Welles never had as much fun with his train-set as Vertov had with his movie camera.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian, 30/07/2015