Experimental filmmaking is somewhat of a rabbit hole. You can jump down and go as deep into it as you want. Inside you will find wonderful things and possibly horrifying things. There will be images which astound and some which horrify. Man with a Movie Camera falls a bit on both sides of that line. It presents the shooting and arrangement of footage with a whimsy that is infectious (this movie makes its viewers want to go out and shoot street footage), and then builds to a horrifying pace of rapid-fire cuts which are unseen outside of modern progressive editing. It is fair to say that Vertov’s shooting and editing technique is so ahead of its time that it was unseen at the time and remained unseen for a very long time after.
Yesterday was the first time I had ever seen this film. A few weeks ago I ordered the Masters of Cinema blu-ray from amazon.co.uk and have been anxiously awaiting its arrival in my mailbox. Only a short time ago did I watch Battleship Potemkin (1925, dir. Sergei Eisenstein) and became interested in the early silent-film sensibilities of those European filmmakers. Man with a Movie Camera, often considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made (although that is a misleading description at best), instantly became a must see and I ordered the MoC boxset as soon as they announced its release.
The film opens with a screen of text describing the film as excerpts from a camera man’s “daily journal.” That’s just a sort of fancy way of describing it as a kind of travelogue. The film moves through what is presented as a single day (the movie was actually filmed over three years). It shows people working, living, laughing, giving birth, sleeping, and getting ready for their lives. Man with a Movie Camera is not a documentary, it is a document.
This movie is self-described by the director as a movie made “without script” and “without actors”, with the intent of creating a new narrative and visual language. It is interesting that the editorial arrangement of camera footage is the singular component of film which can be found in no other medium. The visual elements can be found in painting and photography, the music is its own independent art form of course, but editing is the technique which separates filmmaking from all other art forms. In Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov intended to develop the visual language of film beyond what had previously been explored in other films of the era. To be quite honest, Vertov explores forms of editing and montage which seem extremely modern to our contemporary eyes.
The ending of the film develops into an incredible montage of rapid cuts, ever building in tempo and pace, and is so incredibly modern-looking that one might believe it were from a modern film attempting to look old. It’s a marvelous achievement and is a type and style of editing which would not be widely used again until the 60s and 70s. In fact, the nearest thing I can think of is probably the shower scene in Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock), which features an incredible cut-to-shot ratio.
Calling Man with a Movie Camera a documentary is misleading at best. As I said previously, it is more of a document. It is a look at a city and its people during a very specific time in history, meanwhile it is also one of the most daring experiments in montage editing ever created. This film and Battleship Potemkin would make for a wonderful double-feature. Both films deal with montage editing in different ways. Man with a Movie Camera deals with editing via a documentary standpoint, meanwhile Battleship Potemkin deals with editing via a narrative standpoint. An interesting contrast.
The Masters of Cinema boxset contains not only Man with a Movie Camera but also some of Vertov’s propaganda films. Overall that boxset was a great experience and is one I would highly recommend.