The MOVIE

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Film poster by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1929. Surely one of the greatest movie posters of all time, an extraordinary graphic design perfectly capturing the breakneck journey through the city that is ‘Man with a Movie Camera’. See the section on THE MOVIE CAMERAS for the Stenbergs’ other marvellous poster for the film.

‘Man with a Movie Camera’ [Человек с кино аппаратом, Chelovek s kino apparatom], along with Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’, must be the most influential of all Soviet films. It was voted one of the ten best films in cinematic history by ‘Sight & Sound’ readers, and the best documentary ever made [1]. The latter accolade is rather misleading as the film is not a documentary in the conventional sense. Vertov describes it as an ‘Excerpt from a Camera Operator’s Diary’ in the opening titles, but warns the audience:

“Attention Viewers!
This film is an experiment in the cinematic communication of real events
Without the help of intertitles
Without the help of a story
Without the help of theatre
This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature”

Rather than ‘Director’ Vertov describes himself as the ‘Author-Supervisor of the Experiment’. On the face of it the ‘story-line’ is of a man with a movie camera wandering about an unnamed city (mostly a mixture of Odessa, Kiev, and Moscow – see Notes)  filming its activities during the day. There are images of trams, trains, traffic, people working and playing, birth, death, marriage and divorce, an ambulance and fire engine, factory machinery and crowds at the beach. But the film is unlike any other ‘City Symphony’ in the 1920s such as Paul Strand’s on New York, and Walter Ruttmann’s on Berlin, and this dry description “…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.” [2]. It is also a film about film-making, shots of the city and the ‘Man’ (Vertov’s brother, and cinematographer, Mikhail Kaufman) are interspersed with images of the film being edited by Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova. There are occasional views of the audience in a cinema reacting to events on the screen, watching the very film that they are appearing in!

Dziga Vertov aka David KaufmanDziga Vertov (a pseudonym meaning ‘spinning top’, his real name was David Kaufman) became a film-maker in 1918 after two years experimenting with sound in what he called the ‘Laboratory of Hearing’. During the Civil War he organised film shows and film-making on the ‘agit-trains’ spreading propaganda through the areas captured by the Red Army, and then worked on a series of short documentary films he titled ‘Kino-pravda’ (Film-truth) during the early 1920s. During this period Vertov developed his experimental film techniques and his theories about cinema as the art form best suited for the masses. He derided film drama as ‘… the opium of the people…Down with the bourgeois fairy-tale script! Long live life as it is!”.

Vertov believed that the camera, more than the human eye, is best used to explore real life, as being a mechanical device it would record the world as it really was without bias or aesthetic considerations. This theory he called ‘Kino-glaz’, or Cine-Eye:

“The Cine-Eye lives and moves in time and space, it perceives and fixes its impressions in a completely different way from that of the human eye…We cannot make our eyes any better than they have been made but we can go on perfecting the camera forever.”

“I am the Cine-Eye. I am the mechanical eye.

I the machine show you the world as only I can see it.

I emancipate myself henceforth and forever from human immobility. I am in constant motion. I approach objects and move away from them. I creep up to them. I clamber over them, I move alongside the muzzle of a running horse, I tear into a crowd at full tilt, I flee before fleeing soldiers, I turn over on my back, I rise up with aeroplanes, I fall and rise with falling and rising bodies…

…Freed from any obligation to 16-17 frames a second, freed from the restraints of time and space, I juxtapose any points in the universe regardless of where I fixed them.

My path leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I can thus decipher a world that you do not know.”

– Dziga Vertov: The Cine-Eyes. A Revolution, published in LEF #3, 1923 [3]

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He adopted these principles in several films following this manifesto including ‘Kino-glaz’ in 1924 (above), and ‘A Sixth Part of of the World’ in 1926, but ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ is the apotheosis of his theories [4]. It had a mixed reception on its release, criticised as too ‘formalistic’ with Sergei Eisenstein deriding it as “pointless camera hooliganism”, and many audiences and critics were baffled by its breakneck editing and special effects (see THE CRITICS section). It is now regarded as a masterpiece of world cinema, influencing directors from Godard to Christopher Nolan [5].

I am a camera historian not a film studies academic and so the above is only a basic summary of the movie. For a more detailed analysis refer to the BIBLIOGRAPHY and three of the best analytical texts on the film:

‘Man with a Movie Camera: an Introduction’, John MacKay, Academia, 2013

‘Constructivism in Film, The Man with the Movie Camera, a Cinematic Analysis’, Vlada Petrić, Cambridge University Press, 1987.

‘The Man with the Movie Camera, The Film Companion’, by Graham Roberts, IB Tauris, 2000 

 

THE MUSIC FOR THE FILM

Silent films were meant to be accompanied by live music as shown in the opening sequence in the film. My Grandfather used to accompany silent films (including Westerns) in the local cinema with his ‘cello in a string quartet! Dziga Vertov left notes to indicate the type of music he thought would suit the film but sadly his directions seem to have been ignored with few exceptions.

Still the best music for the film is the Alloy Orchestra’s wonderfully percussive and exciting score of 1995, composed for the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. It is exactly the sort of ‘Constructivist’ music you could imagine being composed at the time, full of driving jazzy rhythms, metallic and other sound effects.

The group, who specialise in silent movie music, made a careful study of Vertov’s notes (Vertov archive, Moscow) to his composer (Konstantin Listov) for the premiere of the film in 1929, and it shows. The last few minutes of the film are a thrilling, mesmeric, combination of music, noise, and action, and the soundtrack carefully follows what is shown on screen unlike most of the other scores for the film.

A DVD is available from the BFI with the Alloy Orchestra score but the print quality and sound are poor (on my disc). There is also a commentary by the Russian film historian Yuri Tsivian who researched the music for the Alloy Orchestra score. The best version by far is the Lobster Films/EYE Film Institute restoration of 2014 taken from Vertov’s own print of his film left in Amsterdam in 1931 (www.eurekavideo.co.uk).

So many scores do not reflect the activity on the screen, maintaining a similar tempo throughout. Michael Nyman’s 2002 version is a popular one on DVD but the rhythm of the music is much the same whatever is happening on screen (e.g. it just carries on regardless at the dramatic pause in the action during the car and carriage sequence [00:23:02]), and bizarrely includes choral singing which creates completely the wrong atmosphere. Michael Nyman is apparently composing an opera about Dziga Vertov (according to a recent radio discussion).

The BFI DVD features an alternative score by In the Nursery which is in a similarly minimalist and choral style.

The same ‘faults’ apply to the Cinematic Orchestra’s 2003 version which has a consistent jazzy ‘mood music’ rhythm, sometimes at odds with the action on screen.

The National Dovzhenko Film Studio in Kiev digitally restored several classic films from VUFKU in 2011-2012, including Man with a Movie Camera. A new soundtrack for the movie was created by Dj Derblaster (Ivan Moskalenko), the Ukrainian DJ and musician. The 1999 soundtrack of British electronic band In The Nursery (see above) is also included.

The Wikipedia entry for the film lists no less than 22 different soundtrack versions from 1983 to 2016.

John MacKay in his biography of Vertov (see BIBLIOGRAPHY) has detailed notes on the scores (p. xxx note 45).

Not strictly speaking a soundtrack for the original film the score for Perry Bard’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera: A Global Remake’ (2017) is terrific, and even more ‘Vertovian’ than the Alloy Orchestra’s.

In 2019 the innovative The Cabinet of Living Cinema (thecabinetoflivingcinema.org.uk) created a new score for the film to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the premiere. The group also announced a UK tour performing live with a screening of the film, however I believe that the only screening was at LSO St Lukes in London so I have not seen/heard this version.

 

SPECIAL EFFECTS IN THE MOVIE (to be expanded….)

‘Five wonderful effects in Man with a Movie Camera and how they’re still inspiring film-makers today’, Ben Nicholson, British Film Institute.

 

ARCHITECTURAL NOTES

Two well known Constructivist buildings are shown in the background of the film:

BAKHMETEVSKY BUS GARAGE, Obraztsova Street, Moscow (1927)

Architect: Konstantin Melnikov

Structural Engineer: Vladimir Shukhov

Restored in 2006–2008 and reopened in September 2008 as The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art by Dasha Zhukova.

IMG_4081From the film 00.14.05

Bus Garage1960s

1200px-Moscow_BakhmetevskyGarage_191_8304Current restored appearance

IZVESTIA BUILDING, 5 Pushkin Square, Moscow (1927)

Architect: Grigory Barkhin

IMG_4080From the film 00.08.05

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REFERENCES

[1] Link to both polls:  http://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-sound-magazine/greatest-docs

Brian Winston, in the September 2014 issue of Sight & Sound, made this interesting claim 85 years after the film came out:  ‘..Vertov’s agenda in Man with a Movie Camera signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, “show us life”.  Vertov is, in fact, the key to documentary’s future.’

[2] Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian, 30/07/2015

[3] ‘The Film Factory, Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939’,  pp. 91 & 93 (see BIBLIOGRAPHY).

[4] “The idea for The Man with a Movie Camera had already arisen in 1924. How did this idea take shape?” MK “Strictly speaking we needed a Kino-theory and a Kino-program in cinematic form. I suggested such an idea to Vertov but it could not be realised at that time”. ‘Interview with Mikhail Kaufman’, 1979 (see BIBLIOGRAPHY). He had a major disagreement with his brother over the editing of the film and they never worked together again.

There is an argument that Vertov contradicts his theories by providing a narrative throughout the film (ie the cameraman making a film), and that the trick effects and obvious actors and staging in some scenes (the Girl in her apartment etc) conflict with his desire for film realism. However, Vertov’s approach ‘…differed with most of the other Soviet futurist and constructivist artists, who insisted on the absolute dominance of  “facts'” in art, and sought to eliminate any subjective interpretation. Vertov was less inclined to restrict his film making to such a factual approach and instead strove to achieve a balance between an authentic representation and “aesthetic” reconstruction of the external world. In doing so, he merged his “Film-Truth” principle of respecting the authenticity of each separate shot with his “Film-Eye” method, which requires a cinematic recreation of events through editing’ – Vlada Petric, ‘The Man with the Movie Camera, a Cinematic Analysis’, p. 8 (see BIBLIOGRAPHY).

[5] See section on THE MOVIE’S INFLUENCE

 

CREDITS

Period Soviet posters, photographs, and illustrations are in the public domain

Current view of Bakhmetevsy Bus Garage from Wikidata