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Sight & Sound List #8: Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

QUICKER THAN A RAY OF LIGHT: Dziga Vertov and Man With a Movie Camera

by Sara Gray

I have my own personal reasons why I value certain movies over others. I grew up watching Xanadu with my family over bowls of popcorn, and that nostalgia still makes me warm years afterwards, even when I try to show the film to friends and rediscover just how gobsmackingly awful it is. I remember the wistfulness of my college years every time my Tumblr dashboard feeds me stills from Memento, Requiem for a Dream, or Being John Malkovich, all of which I first watched from a crooked seat in Austin’s tiny Dobie Theater. Even trash like The Chronicles of Riddick rekindles the apathy I suffered during a particularly dysfunctional relationship, when hits from a former boyfriend’s bong inured me to three months of unemployment.

Such emotional echoes, while mine alone, aren’t unique to me. Each of us is a special snowflake, of course, but piled together, our tastes form vast hills of sentiment. We watch films for their emotional impact upon us. As every Oscar teleprompter has dictated since the dawn of awards ceremonies, films are there to challenge us, to comfort us, to “show us our dreams.” Prurient or intellectual, high or low, Michael Fassbender’s physique or Rainer Fassbinder’s turmoil—it’s all grist for the feelings mill. What, then, separates Sight and Sound’s Top Ten from the hundreds of thousands of other films ever made?

The answer partially lies in Man with a Movie Camera, canonized by Sight and Sound for the very first time in its 2012 list. Though the other nine films are amongst the most affecting ever put to celluloid (I dare anyone not to weep at the end of The Searchers), they all exhibit a technical ingenuity that went on to influence hundreds of later movies. Yet Camera stands apart, as it alone focuses purely upon how the camera itself can be used to generate feeling instead of a film’s plot or acting. Its director—who loved filmmaking so much, he changed his name from David Kaufman to Dziga Vertov, which loosely translates to “the cranking sound of a silent film camera”—sought to free the camera from the tethers of story entirely. His experiment helped to create the language of angles, shots, and editing techniques that all modern filmgoers now take for granted when sitting down to watch a movie.

As a viewer, it can be difficult to appreciate a vanguard work of art when one has already seen dozens of its derivatives. When I first read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, I kept getting bored and thinking, “Geez, this shit is just like The Matrix,” until I reminded myself that this was the first time some hacker bro teamed up with a badass ninja chick to blow up the internet. Similarly, Camera features hundreds of startling jump cuts, surreal juxtapositions, and other tricks later used by every film editor from Breathless to Snatch. The result is sensory overload. There’s so much going on, so quickly, that I soon felt the exhausted panic I suffer when I watch films by Michael Bay—until I remembered that Camera was released in 1929. The future is then, my friends. We’ve been here for a while.

Being a good Soviet in 1920’s Russia (before Communism had been wholly swallowed by Daddy Stalin’s fascism), Vertov was more interested in documenting the realities of Russian civic life than anything else. Though Camera doesn’t have a plot per se, it does tell a story: that of a day in the life of a typical Russian city. His camera captures the quiet dawn hours before the morning rush, including everyone from early commuters to hungover hobos sleeping in parks. Then the film surges onward, relentlessly cutting to people at various jobsswitchboard operators, coal miners, foundry workers, doctors, office wonks—before closing with a frenzied onrush of clips showing what these workers do for fun. If this sounds familiar, then yes, you too have just realized how much Madonna’s “Ray of Light” music video owes to Soviet propaganda.

Though Vertov’s mastery and his wife Elizaveta Svilova’s editing skills are still fresh enough to transcend Camera’s 83 years of age, its ideological approach hasn’t fared so well. In one scene, Vertov focuses on a young worker at a cigarette factory. She smiles gleefully as she packs and folds dozens of cigarette boxes in an increasingly manic pace, becoming a grotesque human machine. It left me feeling queasy, as it was similar to several dread-inducing scenes from later “day in the life” documentaries like Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara. In those films, the mass mechanization of chicken processing plants (and their resulting effluvia) require the doleful yodeling of Lisa Gerrard on the soundtrack, as little else could describe the awesome terror at What We Hath Wrought. In 1929, Vertov’s view of machines was guileless, almost ecstatic. He called the camera his “second eye,” after all, so he saw no problem with humans transforming themselves and their world via machines. In 2012, things are decidedly more complicated.

Despite all that, there’s a playful energy in Camera that’s impossible not to enjoy. It reminded me of my own film experiments in seventh grade, when a friend and I borrowed my parents’ handheld Sony and tried to make our own Star Trek episode. Our best shot featured a pink Slinky that we taped to the camera’s body. Once set, the lens then opened into a vortex of rings, into which we placed an Enterprise-shaped Micro Machine. Instant wormhole! I like to think Vertov and his brother, Mikhail Kaufman (who appears in Camera as its titular Man), felt the same sense of giddy excitement as they asked each other, “What would it look like if we put a camera under a speeding train? Or over a waterfall? Or on a motorcycle?! Holy shit, THIS IS AWESOME!”

Ironically, it was Vertov’s dedication that eventually landed him on Stalin’s shit list. By showing Kaufman venturing everywhere, filming everything he saw with equal interest, Vertov elevated the role of cameraman (and, by proxy, all filmmakers) into that of a god. Nowhere is this more evident than in a superimposed shot of Kaufman towering like an auteur Godzilla over a crowd of thousands, seeing all, filming all. Stalin and his cronies didn’t like the sound of that; they knew more than most that power hinges on keeping certain things hidden. As World War II ground to a start, the Russian government discredited and censored Vertov’s work, keeping it from the people that Vertov sought to champion.

But Vertov’s vision has triumphed. On the commentary track, available on the DVD of Camera I rented, scholar Yuri Tsivian mentions that Vertov hoped cameras would become accessible to all members of Russian society, so that everyone could be their own director in a true people’s cinema. That dream has come to pass, as now anyone with a smartphone (or even a decent dumbphone like mine) can take pictures and movies with ease. And we do: of our lunches, our spouses, tornadoes, cats, the space shuttle Endeavor, fashionable strangers, police brutality. Everyone, and everything. So many of us have “second eyes.” I don’t know what this cinema of the people will entail, but in watching Man with a Movie Camera, I had sudden feeling: like I just got home, through the endless years.

Sara Gray lives in Austin, Texas, and she still thinks that “Ray of Light” is one sick jam. She tumbls here.

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    Here’s an essay I wrote about Man with a Movie Camera, wherein you find out just how much I still really like Madonna’s...
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