Response to “Man With a Movie Camera” by Dziga Vertov
I was lucky to see “Man with a Movie Camera” when I was fifteen years old – that kind of age when you begin to form your distinctive circle of interests and independent opinion about certain things. I was absolutely amazed by the visual language of the film and the mood the author managed to create in certain scenes. Another reason the film left such a good impression was a variation of a strong sound design by Cinematic Orchestra that matched the image so well. Ten years later, after “rediscovering” the movie accompanied by entirely different music I found myself surprisingly both disappointed and happy. That was a perfect example of the sound design that could ruin the whole impression of the film. By rare exceptions of some scenes I found it mostly irritating, so I just simply had to mute the sound so that I could concentrate on the visual language of the film. I was sincerely happy that was not my first acquaintance with this masterpiece of cinematography, otherwise I simply wouldn’t appreciate it.
Created in 1929, this documentary “announces itself in the opening cards as “an experiment in the cinematic transmission of visual phenomena… without intertitles… without a script… without sets, actors, etc” – pure cinema…” . The film is a kaleidoscopic evocation of life in Odessa, Kyiv and Kharkiv. As Johnatan Romney mentions in his article for The Guardian, “Vertov’s film is a classic example of what has been termed the “city symphony” form, in which elements of urban life are montaged impressionistically. His particular vision is at once musical, abstract (constantly caught between organic life and industrial modernist geometry), and also a supremely self-reflexive film, showing how its own images are put together: Vertov’s wife and editor Yelizaveta Svilova, and his brother, cameraman Mikhail Kaufman.”
To create “Man with a Movie Camera”, D. Vertov was hired by The Ukraine State Studio. Later in his essay the author mentions that in this project ” he was fighting “for a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theater and literature.”.
Ivan Kozlenko, deputy director of Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Kyiv is convinced that “this is a very “Odessian” film: it has so much sun, sea, and space in it; its emotion is lively and vital likely inspired by “romantic vita-ism”, a popular theme in Ukrainian art in 1920s. It comes from a long line of brilliant propaganda films by Vertov but is in fact itself totally apolitical, although its “non-Russian” aesthetic was rejected by Sovkino in Moscow and it could only be made in the Ukraine, which had become a haven for artists fleeing from Russia where attacks on dissent had begun .
Some have criticized the obvious stagings in this film as being at odds with Vertov’s credos of “life as it is” and “life caught unawares”: one of my favourite scenes in this film, the awakening of a woman is obviously staged, as is the tracking shot which films Mikhail Kaufman riding in a car filming a third car.
However, by Yuri Tsivian, for Vertov, “life as it is” means to record life as it would be without the camera present. “Life caught unawares” means to record life when surprised, and perhaps provoked, by the presence of a camera.” .
- Vertov layers, crosscuts and tilts the film to create special effects and enhance the narrative. “He consistently uses the camera’s full potential, and carefully select the right feature for individual subject: fast panning or cutting when evoking high pace (work, development, growth), slow motion to understand human and animal body in motion, stopping, tracking and handheld movement” .
Ben Nicholson in his article for the BFI Film describes some of the visual effects Dziga Vertov used in this particular film. There is a short summary presented below.
The dissolve, in which the final frames of one image are briefly laid over the introductory frames of the next, is the oldest form of film transition. Originally, most segues from one shot to the next were done this way, but by the 1920s dissolves increasingly used to indicate the passage of time. D. Vertov himself was an early adopter of this effect, and multiple occurrences of it appear in Man with a Movie Camera. In one sequence, we see time pass as empty locations fill with activity: a deserted beach becomes populated by women doing aerobics, and swimmers glide through a previously still ocean.
- Vertov was one of the first filmmakers to experiment with frame-rates, manipulating the number of times per second that his camera captured the action in order to distort the speed of certain clips when the film passed through a projector at its usual 24 frames per second. This is most memorably used in a sequence at the park during an athletics competition.
In a wonderfully strange sequence, the film’s eponymous movie camera decides that it no longer needs its operator; it spins around of its own accord and gambols about on its own three legs.
The split screen effect is one that Vertov utilises a lot in Man with a Movie Camera. In the 1920s, with his hand-cranked 35mm camera, he would have achieved this by covering part of the lens to first create an image with an empty half. Then, winding back and shooting over the same strip of film with the other half covered, he would fill in the gap. Vertov employs this technique to various ends throughout the film – sometimes to create a trick of the eye, sometimes to distort the image. In one sequence he uses the split screen, in a way that is still adopted today, to focus on different actions or spaces at the same time.
Vertov uses this technique several times – famously, he literally places the cameraman inside a pint of beer in one scene.
Double exposure remained popular for decades, especially when conjuring spectres for horror pictures.