Home Video Hovel: Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera, by David Bax
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is largely considered one of the greatest films of all time. It takes the pole position and provides the title for Flicker Alley’s compilation Blu-ray, Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera. The landmark film and the others collected herein are often described as documentaries, though it seems the more accurate feeling about them is often, ”Documentaries… I guess?” Our tendency to divide films into categories of fiction and nonfiction (with a small ghetto reserved for experimental films, for which this one also qualifies) leave us with precious little vocabulary to describe movies that attempt to do something other or more than tell stories. The opening text of the film makes plain that there will be no intertitles, no script, no “theatre” at all. Then Vertoz includes a shot of a row of theatre chairs with their seats lowering by themselves, playfully inviting you to sit and enjoy an exercise in establishing and exploring a purely cinematic language.
What follows is a mesmerizing and constant hour-long barrage of images, cleverly and masterfully juxtaposed. Despite its relatively short runtime, there is no end to the things it can be said to be “about.” One of its chief concerns, though, is the production and construction of a film itself. The camera is often the subject as shots of a man schlepping the apparatus and its tripod appear in various locales throughout the movie, some of them practical, some of them impractical (like shoulder deep in the ocean) and some of them downright impossible (double exposure allows a camera to be set up on top of a much larger camera). Later, Vertov depicts the process of editing shots that then appear in the film. Man with a Movie Camera achieved ouroboros filmmaking way before the 90s came along and made the word “meta” cool.
When he’s not deconstructing the cinematic process, Vertoz is just as interested in people. Specifically, he depicts the life of urban dwellers circa 1929 from birth (a literal shot of a baby being born) to death (a massive funeral procession through the streets). With a frantic rhythm and sharp, canted angles, he shows us the increasingly fast-paced lives of industrializing world, punctuated with multiple shots of screaming, massive steam trains zooming across the frame at all angles.
With an original score by Alloy Orchestra and a breathtakingly sharp transfer, this Blu-ray is a fine way to get to know this film and the other works included.
Those other works are Kino-Eye (1924), which is as much about Vertov’s principles of filmmaking as it is about his political and social ones; Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), a sound film about sound films and Five Year Plans; and Three Songs About Lenin (1934), three films in one about Lenin and how he is viewed a decade after his death.
Other special features include Kino-Pravda #21, a 1925 newsreel on the first anniversary of Lenin’s death as well as a booklet about Vertov.