In which we learn that a movie is a movie is a movie – no matter the subject.
Man With a Movie Camera is perhaps the best example of a film I’d heard of, knew roughly what it was about, understood it was considered very influential and had no intention of ever watching. The great benefit of forcing myself to watch and write about cinema from only the 1920s this year is getting around to films that I really should have my own opinion about.
Recorded on the streets of Russia, Man With a Movie Camera is an experimental documentary style film that has no characters, actors (bar two short staged moments) or even subjects to any extent. Unlike a typical documentary, there’s no central narrative or investigation taking place, it’s just a window into the Soviet Unions’ daily comings and goings as seen by a bystander in the street.
The film is perhaps best known for its innovations in editing, with early uses of slow motion, sped up footage, pauses and spit screens. They’re all artfully worked into the film, it never becomes an academic exercise in film technique. They’re necessary though to keep the audience engaged – people watching is entertaining for a few minutes but it’s a stretch to imagine looking out of a window at the neighbourhood for over an hour.
The film speeds by though, it’s hour-long length feeling like half that. Without the intertitles common in the era, there’s no sense of where you are at any time, you become lost in the poetic swirl and beat of the city life in front of you.
The one character of note in the film is the director himself, the “man” who the film is even titled after. He appears onscreen several times, setting up his camera, reminding the audience that we’re seeing what he chooses to show us. It’s presented as truth, packaged as cinema but truth nonetheless. Yet we know his camera only captures a small slither of the life teaming within a city. We see what we’re shown and the editing techniques serve as a reminder that we’re not really looking through a window but a kaleidoscope.
Writing for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw rightly points out that the director “Vertov shows machinery and factories and intuits that this is what cinema is: the mass production and consumption of image.” It’s the two sides of that coin that I find so fascinating about this film – we know it’s produced for us (production here meaning fabricated), it’s not shy about reminding us we’re watching cinema and yet we tend to consume it as a moment captured in time almost by accident.
As we live through an unprecedented and unpredictable time in 2020, you wonder if ninety years from now someone will be watching us go about our daily lives. Perhaps unlike 1929 where this was one of few visual records, the billions of cameras recording us every day will leave a more thorough account. Yet, each will be directed in their own way by a person with a movie camera – making us both documentarian and director alike.
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