Friday, April 26, 2013

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Chelovek s kinoapparatom, USSR, 68 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/editor: Dziga Vertov
Photography: Mikhail Kaufman, Gleb Troyanski
Music: Michael Nyman (2002)
Cast: Mikhail Kaufman

I'm no expert, but with the exception of the heroic graphic arts of the 1920s Leninist Soviet Union, I can think of few other artifacts that so vividly convey—propaganda or no—the brilliant optimism and energy of that unique time and place than Man With a Movie Camera. This delightful "Experiment in the Cinematic Communication of Visible Events" (and I can also think of few better or more pithy manifestoes on film than that deceptively simple "Communication of Visible Events") is an exuberant, timeless, and deeply felt and imagined classic film for one and all. Fortunately, the Russian film impresario Dziga Vertov's impossibly fresh meditation on life, freedom, beauty, work, and cinema has been enjoying another (always well deserved) resurgence of interest in recent years, appearing in the top 10 of the most recent Sight & Sound poll results and moving from #97 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? all the way up to #25.

It's not hard to see why. For one thing, the formal designations as "avant-garde," "experimental," and sometimes "documentary" are a bit misleading and do not begin to convey how perfectly charming and visually adroit the picture is. It is a feast of the optical, with as many stunningly beautiful naturalistic scenes as forays into fantasy, and a willingness to try anything, including freeze frames, stop-motion animation, and other special effects. Man With a Movie Camera seems different every time I see it, and I have been looking at it periodically for decades. I constantly notice new things and often react to much of it as if I'd never seen it before. This is possibly due to its determined lack of narrative, which offers few of the usual hooks on which to focus one's impressions, or possibly to the different soundtracks. Or perhaps, somehow, it really is a different movie every time.

It is certainly positioned well to exploit a certain weakness on the part of its audience, which persists to this day. We have been trained to take film in a theatrical / literary / narrative frame, but this dispenses almost entirely with that, focusing much more on cinema's (equally natural) lineage of visual arts and music. Which raises a very interesting problem. I suspect a good deal of the reason Man With a Movie Camera looks and feels so vigorous and contemporary is due in part to its current soundtrack by Michael Nyman, which was completed in 2002 and has a notable Steve Reich / Philip Glass vibe to it. It's not a problem for me, but it does raise questions about the limits of fiddling with a filmmaker's intent. But, as I say, I think its effect is remarkably good: with both of its cinematic hands, visual and aural, wrapped tightly around separate wires charged with powerful voltage. So effective is this, in fact, that even the menu screen for the Kino DVD, a simple design with music and images from the movie in an appropriate graphic setting, is itself instantly, unbelievably exciting.

The general arc of Man With a Movie Camera (because even in the formal absence of narrative we must have something) traces the course of a day, from morning to night, dwelling mostly in urban environments but otherwise ranging wide across the range of human experience, often programmatically: weddings, divorces, births, deaths, oppositions and dualities 'round every corner. A cameraman (Vertov's brother, Mikhail Kaufman, who also shot much of it) appears frequently, his tripod hoisted over his shoulder. There are many recurring images of him, and of eyeballs, camera lenses, and the twirling-arm motion of the time of someone operating a camera (a gesture that may live on still in games of Charades). In one scene, a cameraman doing that is seen reflected in a panning shot, likely shooting exactly what we are looking at.

It is entirely naïve of all potential for a surveillance state, even as it chillingly shows at one point a King-Kong-sized cameraman looming over a crowded city center. But I don't necessarily count that against it. Its innocence is one of its greatest charms, and it is flatly drunk almost purely on cinema itself, the acts of looking and seeing, finding ways to pay explicit homage to pioneers such as Eadward Muybridge and the Lumiere brothers, framing the production itself as a movie, with scenes of it being viewed inside a theater at beginning and end. It shows a film editor at work. It demonstrates the relation of moving pictures to still photography, showing single frames and then animating them. At one point we watch a scene being shot, with footage from that very shoot edited in. It is all artifice and construction, put to the end of bending reality itself. That is how ambitious this is. It is permeated with the fervor of a culture inventing and reinventing itself right before our very eyes.

Yet for all its fantastic qualities, there is a broad streak of naturalism to much of everything we see. In many ways it fits well, indeed is frequently slotted right in with, the so-called city symphony films of the silent era, which include Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis and Manhatta. We see people rising and dressing and grooming, we see weddings, a woman giving birth, a cigarette manufacturing assembly line and many, many scenes of work—there's a little room for commerce in this generally utopian vision, but much more for industry and work—we see piano keyboards and typewriter keyboards, crowds of people at the beach, many great shots of athletic competitions, we see urban dwellers exercising, at the beautician, sharpening a hatchet, rolling film.

It is dazzling and compelling, a romping hour-plus of visuals and music, that feels its way to climax by intuition, ending on a brilliant high note. It is 84 years later and it looks better than ever. This is one you owe yourself seeing, it's pretty much as simple as that.

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