The Man With a Movie Camera
(Chelovek s Kinoapparatom)
1929. Russian. Directed by Dziga Vertov. Photographed by Mikhail Kaufman.
With Mikhail Kaufman and Elisaveta Svilova.
The Man With a Movie Camera has high-art credentials. It is a
movie that in the 1960s might have been part of a museum exhibition on
Soviet graphic design. The credits double asa manifesto (in exhortative
Cyrillic) from director Dziga Vertov and his circle. They called themselves
the Kinocks ("cinema eyes"). They believed that narrative cinema
falsified reality and misled people (they particularly disliked "American
adventure films"). They proposed instead an experimental "film
without a scenario
without sets, without actors." The result
is part urban documentary, part Constructivist experiment, and part reflexive
The prologue is set squarely in the avant-garde: we see a tiny cameraman
superimposed atop a huge and heroically-lit movie camera. It seems more
jokey collage than proletariat realism. The cameraman climbs down from
the camera, walks into a movie theater and disappears into the screen.
The chairs in the theater do a little dance via stop-motion photography.
The projectionist threads up The Man With a Movie Camera. The show
The movie proper follows the "symphony of a city" format, a
kaleidoscopic rendering of urban life that was in vogue in the 1920s.
Before dawn the city is still (the footage was shot in several different
cities, actually), then life begins to stir: trams leave the barn, merchants
hose off their sidewalks, people head to work, factories fill up, machines
whir, telegraph wires hum. We return again and again to the geometries
of trolley tracks and traffic signals. After work lets out there is cycling,
soccer, puppet shows, the beach. A baby is born. A couple gets divorced.
A funeral procession passes.
The Man With a Movie Camera does indeed document life in the worker's
paradise immediately before the Depression. At the same time it documents
the making of a movie, namely The Man With a Movie Camera. The
Kinocks believed that cinema could be demystified if people could see
how it was done. So (setting aside their disinterest in narrative), they
take the cameraman we saw in the prologue as their hero and follow him
as he shoots the very film we are watching. He arises before the city
does (he is the first human we see) and sets out with his tripod over
his shoulder. He appears throughout the movie, an intrepid explorer, filming
from moving vehicles, climbing a tower with camera in tow, leaning out
of a train window, perching on a parapet, going down into a mine, rushing
to the site of an accident, etc. The film bills itself as "an excerpt
from the diary of a cameraman."
One effect is to make the cameraman just another working man running
a machine. But this is a curious kind of machine: what it produces is
a record of both its environment and itself. Even more curious: the man
running around with his tripod is in fact Mikhail Kaufman, the cinematographer
of The Man With a Movie Camera (and Dziga Vertov's brother), in
the process of making the movie that we are watching him in. The film
does not shy away from this paradox, but embraces it.
In one pan shot aacross some store windows, Kaufman catches his own reflection.
Usually, though, he "films himself" more obliquely: we see the
footage he has shot intercut with footage of him shooting it (clearly
there was another cameraman involved, poor uncredited schmuck.) Often
we see the cameraman and his subject in the same shot and then switch
to the cameraman's subjective view. In one curious sequence, Kaufman lies
on the railroad tracks as a train approaches (perhaps a dig at American
adventure films); after the train passes we see him retrieving a camera
from a hole under the tracks. Only much later in the film are we shown
the results: a train roars by just over our heads.
Montage gets deconstructed as thoroughly as photography. The editor of
the film, Elisaveta Svilova, Vertov's wife and fellow Kinock, shows up
half-way through to take charge of the images we have seen Kaufman capturing.
In one stunning sequence, a laughing child suddenly freezes and there
is a montage of frozen faces. A followup shot shows these shots as frames
in strips of film; then a scissors appears and snip! Living people have
been reduced to celluloid. They are simply a plastic material to be manipulated.
Once Svilova has finished cutting and pasting, the people come to life
again, their mobility restored.( It's a full half hour later that we see
them in context, crowded around a clown in a park.) The movie we are watching
includes its own assembly! When did Svilova edit the sequence showing
her doing the editing? In another dimension?
There are many optical tricks, which Vertov would probably call legitimate
"cinematic communication of visible events," but which I call
self-referentiality. He uses multiple exposures, split screens, kaleidoscopic
images. In one scene, towering camera tripods appear to tromp through
the center of town like dinosaurs; in another a human eye (Vertov's own?)
is superimposed on a camera lens. This all calls attention to the artificial,
constructed nature of the enterprise.
The movie winds up with a real stunner. The audience in the Proletarian
Film Theater is watching The Man With a Movie Camera (we know this
because we've seen the projectionist open the labeled film can). Onscreen
is Mikhail Kaufman riding a motorcycle with his camera on the handlebars,
shooting directly into the camera that is taking the scene. So the audience
is seeing Kaufman in the process of shooting the very film that he is
appearing in, and they are appearing in the very film that they are watching.
The Man With a Movie Camera was unseeable for many years, and
perhaps this is when Vertov got the reputation as a social-realist propagandist
(the original American title was Living Russia). Clearly this is
mistaken. The Man With a Movie Camera is extremely manipulative
and unabashed about its contrivances. It recognizes that the process of
recording, reordering, and juxtaposing creates profound instabilities
and in the shock-art tradition of Constructivism and Vorticism, pushes
those instabilities to extremes.
Is this a film-portrait of a city that comes clean about its own creation?
Or is a film-portrait of artists creating a city for their own purposes?
At first glance it seems that the man with the movie camera, cranking
away, is recording the events before him, but maybe he is in fact driving
them. Maybe his tirelessly-rotating arm is the dynamo that powers all
those gears, pistons, sewing machines, trams, planes, typewriters, clocks,
and carousels. The bustling city could be his dream, his cinema.