Top 50 Countdown – #46

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The Man with a Movie Camera

Year: 1929

Director: Dziga Vertov

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Technically speaking, The Man with a Movie Camera, which chronicles a dawn to dusk day-in-the-life of Moscow circa 1929, is a documentary. But Vertov takes the basic raw material of a straightforward “city symphonies” travelogue documentary and through a variety of cinematographic techniques/effects transforms it into something infinitely richer and more interesting: both an exhilarating demonstration of the filmmaker’s ability to manipulate reality into a personal vision and a profound exploration/celebration/deconstruction of the filmmaking process itself.

Anticipating the French New Wave by some 30 years, Vertov’s film asserts itself as an imaginatively self-reflexive work, ironically commenting on its own making by showing:

• The cameraman shooting it:     

• The editor cutting it:                 

• and an audience watching it:   

 

Throughout the film Vertov employs experimental editing and innovative special effects to express his vision of cinema as way of transforming reality, including:

Double-exposure effects – in the opening scene a tiny cameraman climbs to the top of a giant camera and takes a few shots with his own camera before climbing back down.

Stop-motion – in a playful exhibition a camera positions itself on its tripod and then walks away on its three legs.

Superimposition: in the final shot a human eye peers out from a camera lens, provocatively associating the two image-capturing apparatuses.

Montage sequences – among its many achievements, The Man with a Movie Camera represents nothing less than the apotheosis of the art of Russian montage, whose symphony of images culminates in a rhapsodic crescendo of quick cutting that anticipates MTV videos by half a century.

But the above commentary does not begin to do justice to this groundbreaking, gloriously cinematic masterpiece, so take 70 minutes and experience it for yourself on DVD or online here.

Trivia:

• The cameraman in the film is Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman.

• The editor in the film is Vertov’s wife.

• Born Denis Kaufman, he changed his name around 1915 to Dziga Vertov, which roughly translates as spinning top.

• Vertov’s other brother, Boris Kaufman, became an important cinematographer in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for On the Waterfront.

• Some in the Soviet film industry criticized Vertov for emphasizing aesthetic form over ideological content, including Eisenstein, who perhaps in a fit of professional jealousy wrote disdainfully of The Man with a Movie Camera‘s “purposeless camera hooliganism.”

• Jean-Luc Godard named his late ‘60s production company the Dziga-Vertov Group.

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