Appreciating Films: Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera


Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film The Man with the Movie Camera was truly revolutionary. It not only implemented various new cinematic techniques including varied speeds, stop-motion and split screens to name a few, but it also controversially exposed the apparatus involved in making film itself.

Dziga Vertov was a pioneering Russian filmmaker who belonged to a group of filmmakers known as the Kino-Eyes who believed in the power of social realism and documentary filmmaking. As a collective they wished to break away from narrative cinema and its insistence on constructing linear narratives in an attempt to construct a false impression of reality. At the beginning of the film is a manifesto from Vertov which highlights his movement away from traditional narrative forms where he declares ‘this new experimental work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature’.

The Man with the Movie Camera is meant to chart the course of one day starting at dawn and ending at dusk, showing us the typical activities that occur within a technology driven city, but rather than following typical narrative is composed of hundreds of documentary clips. Vertov collected all of these hundreds of clips and formed a type of celluloid database leaving it to his wife Yelizaveta Svilova to edit all of the footage into something comprehensible. One of the most interesting sections of the film features her editing the film. We are shown individual stills from the film, then the celluloid itself, followed by her editing the film by literally cutting the film up with scissors. Once she has joined the filmstrips back together the film starts to play again. As an audience we are literally shown the mechanisms involved in the construction of film, something that was rarely shown within early cinema.

Whilst the film can be said to have no plot or story, the cameraman himself becomes a character; we see him on his journeys filming a scene from a car, filming whist riding a motorcycle, filming an oncoming train.

Perhaps the most self-referential scene on the nature of cinema however comes at the end of the film. We are shown a theatre full of people watching The Man with a Movie Camera, they watch a clip of the cameraman riding a motorcycle whilst filming outwards at the screen. The shot is filmed from the back of the theatre, therefore we are literally watching an audience watching the film that they themselves are being filmed for.

The Man with a Movie Camera is also notable for its innovative cinematic techniques often producing kaleidoscopic images through the use of split screens and double exposures. Crowd scenes appear never ending as shots are dizzyingly spliced together, a chess board merges together warping our sense of scale, the cameraman appears towering over cityscapes as a giant recording the passing of everyday life. There is a multitude of amazing shots and it would be impossible to talk of them all.

images from The Cinematic Orchestra – Man With a Movie Camera DVD, (May 2009)

It is not enough to watch this film once, with each shot being on average 2.5 seconds if you blink you will miss something. On each repeat viewing something new if revealed and it is often hard to believe that this film was first screened in 1929 as it still appears fresh and original due to its revolutionary editing techniques and methods.

The information for this article was taken from White City Cinema and MOMA

Are you a film buff who found this article interesting? Go ahead and check out other articles from the Appreciating Films series!

written by marthasmarvels on 2011-12-03 #lifestyle #black-and-white #kino #documentary #silent #cinematography #appreciating-films-series

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