Dziga Vertov is currently the subject of an extensive retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This includes a symposium on the great Russian director’s work, featuring scholars, artists and filmmakers like William Kentridge, Peter Kubelka, Guy Maddin and Michael Nyman. It also boasts the U.S. premiere of a new, supposedly definitive restoration of Vertov’s revolutionary Man with the Movie Camera from 1929, which has long been my favorite Soviet film of its era; it is the movie I show most frequently in classes to illustrate the principles of montage editing and one can only hope this version will turn up in Chicago theaters soon.
The Soviet Montage movement, which produced some of the most groundbreaking and influential films of all time, began in Russia in the early 1920s and lasted for roughly a decade before government pressure brought an unfortunately abrupt end to a cycle of movies known for their adventurous formal and intellectual qualities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, originally released in 1929, provides both a shining example of Montage filmmaking and a good reason why the movement had to come to a premature end.
Vertov’s contemporary Sergei Eisenstein offered a widely accepted definition of montage when he wrote that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots.” In other words, the true meaning of a film sequence should lie in the way that it is edited, arising not just from what happens within individual shots but from the juxtaposition of these images against one another. The major Soviet directors of this era (Eisenstein, Vertov, Vsevelod Pudovkin and the Ukrainian Alexander Dovzhenko) might have had different ideas about how montage should be employed but they all agreed on its central importance as the basis for creating and understanding movies.
“Dziga Vertov,” a Russian phrase that literally translates as “spinning top,” was the pseudonym of director David Kaufman, a fitting name for the wild man of the Soviet Montage movement. Man with the Movie Camera is Vertov’s best known work and it is typical of his artistry in that it is difficult to classify; it is part documentary and part experimental movie – with a few elements of narrative continuity filmmaking sprinkled in for good measure. Before the film proper begins, a title informs us that we are about to witness “an experiment in the language of pure cinema.” As this would indicate, Vertov was obsessed with the mechanics of filmmaking, especially cinematography and editing, to the point where they ultimately became the subject of his work. It’s as if he wanted to use the film medium to explicitly call attention to the tools of his trade by inviting viewers to share in his wonder and amazement at how those tools could record and transform reality.
Vertov was in particular fascinated by the camera lens, which he repeatedly and cleverly compared to a “cinema eye” recording daily life. His philosophy can be summed up in his 1923 manifesto Kinoks: A Revolution: “I am kino-eye. I am builder. I have placed you, whom I’ve created today, in an extraordinary room which did not exist until just now when I also created it. In this room there are twelve walls shot by me in various parts of the world. In bringing together shots of walls and details, I’ve managed to arrange them in an order that is pleasing and to construct with intervals, correctly, a film-phrase which is the room.”
Although Man with the Movie Camera does not feature a narrative in any conventional sense, it can be said that there are two “stars” in the movie. One is the Russian people en masse. This is the respect in which the film fits into the “city symphony” mold – a genre encompassing abstract studies of major cities around the world that attempt to show off the uniqueness of each city’s architecture and people through musical editing rhythms. (A Propos de Nice, Manhatta and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City are all notable examples.) One of the central ideas behind the city symphony films is that the people who live in each particular city form a kind of collective hero for the movie. Interestingly, Man with the Movie Camera was mostly shot in Moscow but, in an analog to Vertov’s “room with twelve walls,” it is ultimately a composite city that also contains footage of Odessa and Kiev.
The other “star” of the movie is what really sets Man with the Movie Camera apart from the other city symphony films: Mikhail Kaufman, the film’s cinematographer as well as its title character. Throughout the film we see Kaufman at work, filming with his camera and, in a meta-device decades ahead of its time, we also see the footage that he’s shooting elsewhere in the movie! For Kaufman and Vertov, brothers in real life, the act of filmmaking was clearly a joyous, adventurous, athletic activity. Watching the two of them prove that a camera can be positioned virtually anywhere, from the depths of a coal mine to the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle, is an exhilarating, head-spinning experience. (The shots of Kaufman at work were taken by a second cinematographer, Gleb Troyanski.) But the production of Man with the Movie Camera was a family affair in more ways than one: Vertov’s wife Yelizaveta Svilova was the film’s editor. Characteristically, Vertov included shots of her editing the movie within the movie – a fitting tribute to a woman with a Herculean task to perform.
Incredibly, Man with the Movie Camera has an average shot length of less than 2 and a half seconds, an astonishingly fast pace for a film from the silent era. (The pacing is comparable to contemporary Hollywood action films such as the Bourne franchise.) And yet whenever I show the film in class, I’ve noticed some students invariably grow restless and bored. I think this is because, although some of them find it gratifying purely as a piece of kaleidoscopic eye candy, the absence of a traditional narrative to pull the audience through the experience means that viewers must be unusually active in parsing Vertov’s montage sequences in order to make sense of his underlying ideas. And because of the rapid pace, which allows Vertov to throw out more ideas per minute than you can shake a stick at, each viewer is likely to come away with his or her own interpretation of “what it all means.”
For me personally, the film resonates as a humane portrait of a teeming metropolis, the diversity of which is signaled by a series of contrasting images: rich and poor, work and play, marriage and divorce, life and death. These images don’t conflict with each other as they do in the more propagandistic films of Eisenstein. Rather, through their synthesis, they reveal something profoundly true about the lives of ordinary men and women who live in the city; the Russian people captured by the brothers Kaufman and their movie camera over eighty years ago are not so different than the Chicagoans I see and interact with every day. This radical brand of self-reflexive humanism may not be for all tastes but that was the case even in 1929. Vertov’s film, made during the regime of Joseph Stalin, was accused of being formalist and esoteric, leading to a government mandated policy that Soviet films should adhere to the principles of “social realism” and be simple enough to be understood by all audiences. Yet Man with the Movie Camera is still able to speak across nations and time to people of different political persuasion today. I suspect it will continue to do so for as long as movies are shown.
There are several versions of Man with the Movie Camera available on DVD. My favorite is the one released by Image Entertainment featuring a score by the Alloy Orchestra based on musical instructions written by Dziga Vertov himself.