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Man with a Movie Camera (1929)


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Poster art by the Stenberg Brothers

Man With a Movie Camera is work of early Stalin-era propaganda by Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), a true-believer in the October Revolution who sought to make movies that glorified the proletariat without the corrupting influence of narrative drama, which he despised. His career as a filmmaker began in 1917 at age 22, soon after the Bolsheviks took power, when he worked as an editor for Kino-Nedelya, the Moscow Cinema Committee's Newsreel series. There he met his future wife and collaborator, Yelizsveta Svilova (1900-1975), who edited their films. (She is seen in this film doing precisely that.) With his younger brother Mikhail Kaufman (1898-1980), (who is also seen as the man with the camera) the three would go on to form Kino-Pravda, or Cinema Truth, a "collective" that made films showing everyday life, often without the knowledge or consent of the subjects. (The term "cinéma vérité" is a literal translation of Kino-Pravda.)

Vertov was born David Abelevich Kaufman in Bialystok, Poland, then part of the Russian empire. His family fled to Petrograd in 1915 after the German invasion of their homeland. He Russified his name to Denis Arkadievich before giving himself the more descriptive pseudonym that in Ukrainian is something like a pun on "spinning top." There was a third brother, Boris Kaufman (1906-1980) who would eventually make a career for himself in the USA when Elia Kazan hired him to shoot On the Waterfront.

 

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Dziga Vertov 

Man With a Movie Camera was made for Ukraine's State Studio. Most of the footage was shot from early June to mid September of 1928 in Odesa, Kyiv, Moscow, and Kharkiv. Vertov's goal, as he claims in the opening graphic titles, was to present a cinema that does not rely on a script, or a story, or actors. We will see, nonetheless, some obviously staged sequences for narrative's sake, but they are few. Vertov loved machines. He considered them superior even to man, as his comparison at one point of the intricate and tireless functioning of mechanized parts to an exhausted and dirty working man, drinking and washing from a trough, makes painfully evident. Still we get an often breathtaking series of images showing men and women going about their day, happy in their work, traversing their orderly modern city, even enjoying a drink or two at the beer hall.  We see camera tricks that Vertov is credited with having invented in his Kino-Pravda days that, familiar to us now, must have seemed quite impressive then. Vertov shunned studio photography and artificial sets and believed in getting out and shooting life as it happens. One result to be grateful for is his photography of architectural landmarks, including some that were razed during Stalin's redesigning of Moscow, and others lost in the destruction of World War II, that are themselves truly stunning.

 

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Park Bridge, Kyiv


Architect and camera historian Richard Bossons has collected an extensive amount of research on the production of the movie and then-and-now photos of the filming locations that can be found here, and downloaded in PDF format for the larger images here.

I watched the print available for free at Vudu (with it's rude ad breaks) that features music by Michael Nyman composed in 2002 and used for the British Film Institute's DVD. Nyman's score is a not-quite minimalist work with colorful harmonies that change every two measures in varying pulses that complement the scenes, all under very pleasing melodic fragments that include some intermittent soprano vocalization. It occurred to me during a few sequences, while watching the spinning, whirling machines under the quickened tempo of Nyman's music - especially in the closing minutes - that this was the experience I wanted, but did not quite get, from Koyaanisqatsi

There are many full length postings on You Tube. One with Nyman's score is posted by Harry Steiman. I wish now that for my first viewing I had paid the fee to one of the streaming services that offer it without ads because the abrupt aural and visual shift from old world beauty and the hypnotic score, to the colorful noisy ads was spell-breaking. I will search out the BFI disk. It is a rich work that will stand up to repeated viewings.

It runs 68 minutes and the time passes quickly. 

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