man with a movie camera (1929)
Dziga Vertov put forth a radical ideal at the end of the 1920's and challenged the accepted norms of an art form that had yet to be ironed out into tradition. Man with a Movie Camera paints a portrait of the visual language of cinema, in such a way that it neither requires, nor barely flirts with, verbal and written language to communicate its concepts. To call the film documentary would be too simple, and to call it narrative would be disingenuous. It is neither form as we know it today, as the two formats have crystalized into their own substructures of cinema, and yet, Vertov's film is far closer to the idea of pure cinema than most films have gotten in the subsequent ninety years.
Vertov's film begins very simply, and for a time his audience may even believe they are being shown a storyline as we attach ourselves early to a cameraman as he speeds through the city and the countryside gathering footage. What Vertov does instead is to construct an elaborate escalation whereby the film seems to scale to a new level of complexity as the film continues. Vertov divides the film in chapters in order to give some structure and progression to the events, the technique is simple enough to cause us to feel a sense that the film is leading us somewhere. Where Vertov leads us, of course, is not in a straight line of linear time as we would expect, but into the moment, we dive deeper into an instant many times over, replaying sequences and seeing them from all angles. The footage that the camera is capturing, the camera that is capturing the footage as captured by a second camera, the editor, Vertov's wife Elizaveta Svilova, as she cuts the footage and runs it backward and forward. We see occurrences from multiple angles and in multiple speeds, we come to know time as a series of frozen instants; how strange that in the century to follow Vertov's experimentation, the availability of video and photo cameras has caused everyone on Earth to be entranced by the concept of capturing an instant. It may have been that Vertov wanted us to examine the moment and to see life as it was lived in an endless instant, but it can also be argued that life moved in that direction on its own, too preoccupied with the moment and the falsity created by images than in living a true life. Cinema, as Vertov knew, has the power to free the mind of the human being from its temporal trap, its usual rut of forward-moving time, caught in the stream of existence and grant the human mind omniscience, a power thought only to be possessed by gods. In this way, Vertov's mission to create a new cinematic language was that of trying to expand the consciousness of man, and narrative film served only to further trap the human mind into more and more levels of adherence to time and space. With Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov charts a course in cinema where we are still trying to achieve to the fullest expression. His film, here, turns from a whimsical assembly of footage from both everyday life and the filmmaking process itself into a transcendent foray into the uncharted waters of cinema in the film's final act. The use of double exposure (sometimes more than that) and flash cuts, jump cuts and the like all blend into an experience that can neither be quantified nor told. Man with a Movie Camera's final act cannot be put into words, we intuit it through visual language of Vertov's construction. What the final act trying to say exactly? It speaks of possibility, it speaks of man entangled with machine (apparently Vertov's view was that man paled in comparison to the possibilities that machines brought to life), the camera is one such machine and he is in love with it. His eye seems to become the lens, we become the best of our form, we become chiseled and sculpted and perform great feats of athleticism. Above all, Vertov, whether he likes it or not, only drives khuleshov's point home further; images hold deep meaning, but they are a subjective meaning, they mean what we believe they mean.
Vertov's experiment is ultimately one of the greatest works in cinema, it is tantamount to any great master work of art that is ultimately about its own process. Yet, Vertov's views are much more than just a film about filmmaking, his work is about what the act of recording even means, so existential are his musings that he brings us closer, not only the experience of watching a film, but the experience of living, of existence in and of itself. The complexity in Vertov's field of view have everything to do with a notion that has overtaken the public consciousness in the 21st century. Where Vertov believed that to become more involved in the moment, the instant and to see the superiority of machine over man as a mechanism of efficiency would eventually benefit humanity, the idea has taken hold in a rabid and overblown obsession of the new century. For Man with a Movie Camera's cinematic standing, it is one of the finest films the early era produced. It is a film which reinvents itself as it expands and contracts in front of us, it moves in ways that most films could never dream of. It opens and closes itself to us, it brings us in and then shows itself to us in new combinations, it remixes its own first act into a third act that brings us closer to the existential nature of the image itself. An image, which was once in history an imagination, now made manifest in front of us by the power of the machine. Vertov was correct to worship this new device, but woe to any who give it too much credit. The power is in the poetry of its communication, not in the certainty of its mechanisms.