May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 11, 2013
(Join Jeffrey Overstreet and Michael Leary as they discuss the Top Ten films from the recent Sight & Sound Greatest Films poll. Visit the “Sight & Sounds Greatest Films Conversation” tag for previous installments.)
ML: This was an interesting biographical experience. I haven’t seen this film for many years, long enough that I think I last watched Man With A Movie Camera about twelve years ago – when I discovered a wall of foreign and independent films in VHS at the Highland Park Library. During this blessed year of library rentals, it became clear that cinema would become a dominant feature of my personal and academic life. This led me to the discussion board, at which we met, that would later become the Arts & Faith forum. These conversations in turn led me to try my hand at film criticism, which through various twists and turns resulted in Filmwell, where we are talking right now.
In keeping with the tone of our experiences with the Sight & Sound Top Ten list so far, watching this again felt revelatory. So this installment has brought me full circle biographically, but in an odd formal way. While watching Man With A Movie Camera again after all these years, I can see little bits and pieces of many of my favorite films scattered throughout. It is as if Vertov (and his collaborators) predicted the kinds of things to which I would be attracted in cinema and stuck them all together in a giant flickering heap.
JO: I’m laughing, because if I ever heard of this film before Sight and Sound’s list, it somehow failed to stick. If we weren’t having this conversation, I would still be ignorant of this movie.
Perhaps that’s for the best. It’s only been in the last decade that I’ve really learned to see cinema as something more than a way to illustrate a narrative. Man With a Movie Camera is the work of someone who saw — far ahead of his time — that cinema was an art form unto itself, a way to express ideas not only through images but through editing and juxtaposition, through alternating light and dark, fast and slow, rhythm and arrhythmia.
Vertov was a new kind of poet, and watching him work I now understand better some of my favorite films — Wings of Desire (with its God’s-eye view of a city by day and night), The New World (with its poetic associations of human beings and objects), even the Twin Peaks series (which is obsessed with electricity, motors, and machines). I see ideas masterfully conveyed here that I thought were quite innovative in those much, much younger films.
I wasn’t surprised to find Living Russia among this movie’s many alternate titles, and it makes me think of how Wim Wenders meant for Wings of Desire to be a film about Berlin’s divided psyche, above all. The angels were, for him, just a device to allow him perspective on his troubled city. Vertov gives an almost supernatural character to his cameramen, who seem to be able to go anywhere, film everything. They’re like the next step in evolution.
And this is set up from the opening shot, which literally declares “This is a film on film.” But even this is conveyed visually, with a cameraman climbing out of a camera and setting up a camera on top of it.
ML: I am not sure how far we want to wade into Vertov’s pretty formative theory about cinema as a “second eye” that can capture life as lived more authentically than any other medium. But I want to hear your thoughts about how critics have always described the film as non-narrative. But this has always struck me as a little bit off. Not just because the film is the strategic compilation of a lot of little narratives, but the film really is also a story about cinema.
One of the most joyful filmed sequences I can think of is the extended scene in which Vertov is in one car filming a cameraman filming a third car. These three vehicles weave back and forth across the lanes, Vertov’s camera swinging around to catch another angle as his cameraman in the frame is doing the same thing. Along with all the other shots of camera lenses unfolding like a flower, a tripod scooting around on its own, and similar frequent references to the act of filming something, I think the best way to describe what is happening here is Vertov telling a story about the camera coming to life in history as a powerful way of seeing and communicating.
JO: I wouldn’t call it “non-narrative.” Vertov’s opening declaration — that his film is an achievement of “complete separation from the language of theatre and literature” — is quite an overstatement.
I suspect we can find a variety of opinions about what the film’s “narrative” might be. For me, it looked like the narrative of a city over the course of a day. Juxtaposing shots of individuals waking up with shots of the city itself coming to life, he is making a character of the city, and this film is a story of the city’s wild, complex, sometimes glorious and sometimes troubled life. It becomes both particular in its details and “everycity” in its documentation of common human experience.
It’s also a narrative about the wonder of being an embodied human being, taking us on a tour of human experience. It chronicles so many basic functions — even some downright clinical footage of childbirth that is still shocking today. We explore emotions like exhilaration (manifested with the recurring sight of engines and motors and locomotives) and curiosity (by documenting endeavors to place the camera in unlikely places). Whatever the camera frames, that subject ends up telling us something about ourselves.
It’s also a narrative of how the arrival of the camera influences the city… how it captures and changes what’s in front of it. (Sometimes, characters are obviously aware the camera is watching them.) That’s a subject that’s we’re still exploring as if it’s new. But the dominant theme that I carry away from the film is that the opening of the camera’s eye is the opening of a new kind of awareness, like the discovery of a sixth sense. And even though that eye is as capable of showing our weaknesses as it is of showing our strengths, it is ultimately a hopeful vision of progress and potential.
So it’s kind of ironic that, for all of the wonders that Vertov’s camera capture, he constantly exposes the camera’s limitations as well. One of my favorite shots is just a close-up on a sleeping woman’s arm bent back over her head, like a square cut from a Klimt painting. So, even though the image is composed with such elegance that I wanted to freeze-frame it, print it, frame it, and hang it on my wall, its power is in all that it leaves beyond the frame. It fires up the imagination, asking us to complete the picture.
Still, I’m uncomfortable categorizing the film as “narrative cinema.” That’s a term I’d give to films in which the images exist primarily to illustrate what is happening in the story. This is something much grander. Poetry can relate a narrative, but it it’s not poetry if it isn’t also suggesting something more. The purpose of this film is not merely to show us “what happens” but to demonstrate a new kind of play. As poetry invites us to consider possible relationships between words and lines and sounds, and to weigh a variety of possible interpretations, Vertov is inviting us to experience new associations between moving images.
This feels like a movie that fulfills cinema’s poetic potential in a way that few others have. Its great-grandchildren include The Tree of Life and In the City of Sylvia.
ML: Bordwell often talks about what he calls “intensified continuity,” which is a way to talk about the lack of deep focus, establishing shots, and similar framing devices in contemporary cinema. Films now typically move more quickly from shot to shot. Most scenes are shot in close-up to conversation or action. Cameras move more frequently within scenes. The camera is seldom set up in such a way that it can simply watch an event transpire. (Think Transformers vs.The Searchers for an extreme example.)
For Bordwell, this becomes problematic when films eventually abandon any depiction of actual continuity and turn into mere impressions of events, e.g. the fight scenes in the Jason Bourne movies. And I have always agreed with that. But Man With a Movie Camera is an interesting counter-example. There is a lot of deep focus throughout. A few extended tracking shots. But then the film has about 1775 different shots in its 68 minutes. There are a lot of close up shots of faces that quickly fade or edit over into something else. It kind of breaks all of Bordwell’s rules in its radical application of continuity across so many sequences.
But the difference is that Man With a Movie Camera is not an action film. It doesn’t intensify continuity because we might otherwise get bored. It isn’t trying to keep us munching on popcorn. For Vertov (and his editor), the speed at which the film transpires is necessary. It is the only way he can transmit his feeling that Soviet life was brimming with activity and vigor and promise. We move so quickly from young face to old face, industry to sport, car to horse, because this is the only way we can see it all in one glimpse. It is such an intense experience that one can really feel Vertov’s passion in every frame.
JO: That’s a great observation. I hadn’t thought about this. I’ve watched too many chaotic action movies in which the impatient filmmaker relies on editing for energy because he doesn’t trust that he can find energy in his subject. And so I have developed a severe allergy to quick-cut moviemaking. But I showed no symptoms of that allergy watching this.
And I think another difference is this: While the cuts come fast and furious, the content of the images are deeply connected, and we are asked to discern those connections. Sometimes they’re obvious – the thunderous progress of a train on tracks suggests the progress of the film through the projector even as it connects to the adrenalin coursing through someone who is in love, or the accelerated heartbeat of a viewer watching this movie. Sometimes the associations are more subtle, and they only occur to you on the second or third or twelfth viewing. Unlike Michael Bay, Vertov never appears to be suffering from attention deficit disorder. If anything, it’s the opposite. He conveys that he’s thinking so deeply and creatively that he’s making connections at an incredible rate. His epiphanies are happening so fast that they’re almost superimposed over each other on the screen.
ML: Yes, it seems hard to separate the overall political tone of the film (for which “epiphanic” is a good term) from the material of the film itself. There is a seamless transition between Vertov’s creative ability to perceive connections between such mundane things and his overall appreciation for this form of society. Which brings us to an important question, as this has been the most politically controversial film on the list so far.
Critical writing on Vertov commonly notes that he is working here in 1929 full of hope and expectation for the great socialist project. It is easy to see this in Man With a Movie Camera, which celebrates the collective, the brimming industry, the elevation of equality. But this all a few years before Stalin’s regime really consolidated and Vertov’s vision becomes a faded myth. There is a fair sense of tragedy at play here behind the curtain of his biography that is important to consider regardless of one’s perspective on his political impulses.
I think there is a tendency among some critics to kind of separate socialism of this era from Vertov’s “Kino Eye” approach to cinema. That way we can watch Vertov as an innovative formalist without having to deal with all the complicated political backstory. But this really waters down what Vertov saw in cinema. Man With A Movie Camera is about the possibility that cinema may allow us to really see ourselves as we are, as society only really changes through this kind of large-scale collective self-realization. We seldom think of film this way, and are skittish of things that feel like propaganda. But I can’t help but be stirred by Vertov treating cinema as the great big modern idea that could change how everything works.
From this perspective, I am starting to think of Godard’s more recent films (Eloge de l’Amour, Notre Musique, and Film Socialisme) as burdened with a similar sense of tragedy. Godard has seen through and beyond the great political experiment that so captivated Vertov. But it is only through the lens of Vertov’s joyful observation of life and power and social innovation that I can really understand Godard’s cynicism as an important reflection on the previous century – and film history itself. What Vertov saw as a promising unity that connects the torrent of images contained in this film, Godard now bears witness to as a bunch of narrative and structural fragments.
JO: I’m reminded of one of my favorite novels—Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale—in which New Yorkers go to work building a bridge of such ambition, such scale, such purpose that it seems like it might lead humankind on to some bright new shore. The bridge fails, ultimately. But there is so much joy and inspiration in the attempt.
Yes, the grand experiment in socialism — well-intentioned as it may have been — failed. And yes, Vertov is clearly caught up in the thrill of a vision. But like most failed experiments, for all of the damage done there were flashes of inspiration and genius along the way, and they informed history in a way that would make future “bridges” reach farther, more beautifully, with the benefit of lessons learned.
When I watch Man With a Movie Camera, I can acknowledge that the forces of history underlying Vertov’s work were foreign to me… and flawed. But there is nothing at all wrong with the beauty of an image well-composed, well-captured. There is so much to gain from the revelation that no human being, no activity, no aspect of the world — natural or manmade — is ordinary. Everything is extraordinary when it is honored with this kind of intention.
Many years ago, a photographer I admire, Fritz Liedtke, sent me an excerpt from Richard Meryman’s book Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life. It contained this quote from Wyeth himself:
“I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes. I see no reason for painting but that. If I have anything to offer, it is my emotional contact with the place where I live and the people do.”
Whatever his political views, Vertov’s “emotional contact” with a place, with a people, and with his chosen form of expression—his love for his subjects—is what enlivens this film. That sense that he is caught up in love with this city, and with the technology that allows him to capture it, will bring me back to watch this movie again and again.