Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

I have recently, as you’ll know, been looking at various cinematic genres and their origins in the history of filmmaking. It is a difficult task, because the very nature of art is that there isn’t really any way to determine which film was the “first” of its kind, so sometimes its better to just leave the idea of a certain film defining a genre to one side, because it can sometimes come up with various problems. However, saying that, the documentary genre is one I have an inherent interest in, and I sought out Man with a Movie Camera (Человек с кино-аппаратом or Chelovek s kinoapparatom), perhaps not the first documentary film, but undeniably one of the most unique.

The documentary genre is one of the most fascinating, and it doesn’t get more complex and interesting than Man with a Movie Camera, a highly influential film that serves a predecessor to many documentary films. It makes sense to view this film as a valuable precursor to modern documentary films, and in a way it seems to be a bit ahead of its time – it takes a look at life, and watching this film I was struck by a reminder to the iconic and utterly captivating quote by Plato – “an unexamined life is not worth living”, and in a world where many documentaries are high in concepts of politics, social issues and economics, it is interesting to see one of the first major documentary films just focused on life itself, rather than on any particular issues. It was a tall order that Dziga Vertov undertook, but he certainly pulled it off expertly.

To be honest, Man with a Movie Camera is a difficult film to review because it just doesn’t quite fit into the boundaries of any other film – it is completely without plot, nor does it have any thread of a story or narrative, and it just serves as a panoply of visual images reflecting life. Due to this, I won’t be reviewing Man with a Movie Camera in the same way I would any other film – it just doesn’t seem right to hold this to the same yardstick as narrative films. I will be taking a different approach, simply commenting on a few aspects of Man with a Movie Camera that I found fascinating, and I will hope to locate this to a space within the cinematic universe where it can exist as its own very special kind of experiment, and one that we should look on very favorably as a great precursor to the modern film.

Man with a Movie Camera is notable mainly because of how experimental it was – and watching other films from the 1920s, I am struck by how very different the filmmaking here was. It seems to me that between Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, the Russians were certainly onto something a long time before the rest of the world. Man with a Movie Camera features some aspects of filmmaking that quite simply did not exist in that era. The use of cinematography to tell this story, introducing different kinds of camera angles and shots, as well as innovative editing and very simplistic visual effects (such as a particularly amusing stop-motion scene) make Man with a Movie Camera quite an experience. For any cinephile who has an interest in form, Man with a Movie Camera is most certainly the film to seek out. It is the very definiton of form over content, and you will become giddy watching the techniques that would become commonplace in film being born here. Man with a Movie Camera does not have a story, but it actually doesn’t need one, because it serves to be a revolutionary piece in terms of filmmaking, and it certainly achieves that.

I will say it again – Man with a Movie Camera is completely void of any kind of narrative, and that is absolutely wonderful. It takes a somewhat nihilistic view to filmmaking, rather than telling a story and constructing events to portray some kind of narrative agenda on the part of the filmmakers, Vertov and his brother Mikhail Kaufman (who served as cinematographer on this film) prove their true value as nihilist filmmakers by cutting out any artifice and rather presenting life in its most simple and honest way, without any kind of staging or construction. I could even go so far as to say Man with a Movie Camera is a film about nothing – but then again, it is also a film about everything. In a strange way, Man with a Movie Camera, this short documentary without even a thread of a story, weaves together realism, nihilism and surrealism in a truly unique fashion.

Man with a Movie Camera is a realist film more than anything else. It does what realist writers and artists attempted to do – present their art in a way that is unabashadly true to life and honest, and it doesn’t get more explicitly clear that with this film. The lives of ordinary people are shown to us, without any context, and we as an audience are forced to either just watch this film and accept the images on screen as they are, or interpret as we please – these are the lives of human beings in the 1920s, and there is some kind of strange joy in just watching these people live their lives. There isn’t any context needed, because while there are some fascinating moments in this film that feel a bit too fleeting, I found myself never longing for more information. Vertov tells us exactly what we need to know, yet he doesn’t tell us a single thing. It is strange but it certainly becomes increasingly clear as to what Vertov’s intentions were when making Man with a Movie Camera.

It seems to be that Vertov had the intention of crafting a film that removed all the ambiguity and falsehoods of fiction and rather presenting us with a raw, sometimes confusing, but ultimately deeply honest portrayal of human life. Reading about Vertov and his group of Kinoks, they waged a vicious war against fiction, trying to prove that cinema was made to reflect life in its purest form, and fiction was best left to writers, as the job of the modern filmmaker was to show life. Now obviously I vehemently disagree with his sentiment here, but it is difficult to not be charmed by the extreme audacity of the concept. For Vertov, cinema was “life caught unaware”, and that all forms of staging were just contrary to the spirit of cinema. I won’t engage too much into a history of where they stood on the issue of reality vs. fiction (mainly because it dips deeply into Communist theory, and as much as I’d love to explore that right now, I’d rather not. Another time). Man with a Movie Camera is a film that presents us with an honest view of society, and a snapshot of a period of time, where we can draw our own conclusions – there isn’t any need for fictionalizing this story, and that’s quite an achievement when you consider a film manages to be this rivetting without a single narrative moment.

There was something that struck me about Man with a Movie Camera more than anything else – this film is so modern. It was made in 1929, which is obviously a very long time ago, almost a century. Yet there is something about Man with a Movie Camera that was quite different from other films from the era. I am basing this on a few silent films I’ve seen over time, and there is just such a clear difference – first of all, the scope of Man with a Movie Camera is much wider – it goes into the real world, and sets up cities, towns and the countryside as the stages, rather than film sets and theatres, which often contributed to the very distinctive look of silent films. The “actors” in this film are real people, and thus aren’t actually giving performances. Their “performances” are simply reactions to the fact that they are being filmed, and I have to say the most distinctive image of Man with a Movie Camera for me was near the beginning, where a young man simply laughs at the fact that he is being filmed.

Considering so much silent cinema uses excessive acting, composed of elaborate expressions and over-the-top gestures, it was odd to see such naturalism on film. Silent cinema undeniably has its roots in theatre, so I won’t hold the very artificial qualities against it, but it just forms a stark contrast to Man with a Movie Camera. Both kinds of films were vital for the evolution of the film industry today, and a film like Man with a Movie Camera could not exist if it wasn’t for fictional narrative films contrasting with it. When you take the themes and narratives of fiction films, and blend it with the innovative forms introduced in Man with a Movie Camera, you get the birth of modern cinema.

We have to understand the value of looking at a film like Man with a Movie Camera from a modern perspective, because without the massive experimentation done with this film, we wouldn’t have modern cinema in the way we know it. Vertov took an enormous risk in playing around with form, cinematography and editing, and while it may be a bit strange for some to watch this film, once you realize that the form of this film was previously impossible, and how it made the impossible possible by simply exploring where film can go, we can understand the influence a film like Man with a Movie Camera has on all cinema that followed. Viewing Man with a Movie Camera through a modern lens can lead to some profound realizations on the origin of modern filmmaking, and its absolutely wonderful.

I’ll be honest – Man with a Movie Camera is a film that may have been groundbreaking in its time, but I don’t think too many people nowadays will be too captivated by it. I will go ahead and say that this film will probably only appeal to cinephiles and film students with an inherent interest in the history of cinema. If you want to see where so much of what we watch everyday originates, give Man with a Movie Camera a shot – seek it out (it is freely available online), watch this very short film (it only runs for about an hour) and get lost in the magical genius that was Dziga Vertov as we view the world through his eyes and the lens of his movie camera.

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