Thursday, April 17, 2008

man with a movie camera, by dziga vertov

Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1929) is only 67 minutes long, but at the end of it you sort of feel like you've seen everything in the world at least once. Here's a random assortment from the film's opening minutes:

It claims to be an "excerpt from the diary of a cameraman," and you do get a real sense that Vertov enjoyed running around filming just everything he could get his camera pointed at. There's a documentary impulse at work here, but it's a documentary with no subject, or rather the subject is something as vast and grand as an entire urban society.

Vertov seems to be able to find visual interest in just about anything he looks at, although this requires a certain degree of cinematic inventiveness. Indeed, the film repeatedly provides shots of the "man" of the film's title, and shows some of the extents to which he'll go to get interesting footage:

This has the interesting dual effect of causing the film to serve as a documentary of its own production (see also: Adaptation) and simultaneously, to subtly highlight some of the artifice and fiction involved in any documentary enterprise (see also: American Splendor). For these shots, in which our cameraman appears, imply the existence of an unseen second cameraman and camera, which certainly puts the lie to the idea that the film we're watching is the "diary" of a (lone) cameraman...

Beyond the slender thread of this (fictitious?) cameraman wandering around the city, there's no real narrative to speak of: in fact, the film openly declares the absence of story in its opening titles, claiming to be a (bold!) attempt to totally separate the cinema "from the language of theatre and literature." This is part of why we screened it in sequence with The Blood of a Poet (Film Club XXVI) and Meshes of the Afternoon (Film Club XXVII), films which are similarly focused on discovering and exploiting the unique properties of film as an art form. Of the three films, Man With A Movie Camera is the only one that is really a "pure" cinematic experience: there is no real way to imagine replicating even a rough approximation of this film in any other media.

Part of the reason Vertov can accomplish this is because he is a master editor. Editing is pretty much the prime element of cinema that is unique to cinema (everything else can be said to emerge either from theatre or photography), and Vertov was one of the first people to really think about the various effects that editing could generate. (His early days in filmmaking were during a period when celluloid was too expensive to shoot much new footage, and so new films were generated by re-cutting together old newsreel footage.) This film pulls out every editing trick in the book and uses that in lieu of narrative to create a kind of dramatic interest and rhythmic propulsion (it's briskly edited even by today's quick-cut standards). Of course, since this film is so concerned with the process of its own production, Vertov takes his movie camera into the editing lab:

...and even shows us a young Soviet editor hard at work:

Most "meta" film ever? Indeed, and a love letter to cinema of such sincerity and magnitude that I don't think it's been equalled in the intervening eighty years. This is an important film, a perfect addition to my "personal canon" that I worked on a while back.

Next week: another film that could arguably be said to be an "excerpt from the diary of a cameraman," Chris Marker's weird meta-documentary Sans Soleil (1983).

1 comment:

Chet Mellema said...

"'pure' cinematic experience: there is no real way to imagine replicating even a rough approximation of this film in any other media." That is a fantastic definition...ever since reading that Bazin claimed 'Bicycle Thieves' and other neo-realist films to be something approaching pure cinema, I've been fascinated by the expression and even used it on occasion, but I never really formulated a working definition in my head. Nice work. I certainly can't see Bicycle Thieves replicated, at least effectively, in any other medium. "Pure" cinema indeed.

I'll be interested to read your take on Sans Soleil...I saw it for the first time when Criterion attached it to the La Jetee release. Marker is an eccentric...but in a great way.