Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #8

"For viewers' attention: This Film Presents an Experiment in the Cinematic Communication of Visible Events without the Aid of Intertitles, without the Aid of a Scenario, without the Aid of Theatre. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of Cinema based on its total separation from the language of Theatre and Literature. Author-Supervisor of the Experiment, DZIGA VERTOV."

The above declaration begins Soviet avant-garde filmmaker Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, immediately establishing the purpose of this "film." This column has touched several times on the concept of "pure cinematography," in which a film conveys its central plot/themes almost completely through images rather than exposition. However, in nearly all of those films, there is still a plot, characters, and motivations; they are still tied to the basic tenants of narrative storytelling. Vertov, however, made a film that frees itself from those same tenants, creating a brief work that demonstrates the possibilities of cinema in its infancy.

Vertov was best known as a documentarian in 1920s Soviet Union, and was part of a group of like-minded filmmakers known as the kinoks, or "kino-eyes." These filmmakers attempted to apply Marxist principles to cinema, and Vertov was one of their key figures. Man with a Movie Camera follows 24 hours in an unnamed Soviet city (actually filmed in three different cities over the course of three years), with the only consistent figure being a cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman, Vertov's brother) seen occasionally. As the introduction states, there's no plot, no characterization, and no writing to explain the action. In this regard, he's created a film that is completely untethered from the strictures of narrative, and it creates an experience that is more universal and impressionistic.

More after the jump.
What really makes this film noteworthy, however, are the groundbreaking editing techniques Vertov and his editor/wife Elizaveta Svilova. Throughout the course of the film, Vertov employs a number of then-revolutionary techniques, including split-screens, Dutch angles (the frame is tilted at an angle), slow-motion, double-exposure, freeze-frames, jump cuts, stop-motion animation, and rapidly-cut sequences. The film begins with a split-screen, making it appear as if the cameraman is standing atop a giant camera:

This motif is used several other times throughout the film, placing the cameraman in places ranging from a cup of coffee:

To the tops of buildings and towering over large crowds (these shots eerily bring to mind the Orwellian paranoia state the Soviet Union would later become):

The top shot utilizes the split-screen technique, in which one frame is spliced together with another to make it appear that it is one single image. The bottom shot uses double-exposure, in which one frame is laid over the other to create the appearance of a single image. Both of these techniques were still fairly new at the time of Vertov's film, and he would push the limits of double-exposure throughout this film by layering multiple images over each other, as in the shot below:

This shot is composed of several different images on separate frames: a man clanging spoons together, a pair of feet dancing, and two separate pairs of hands playing two different pianos. The resulting image is cacophonous in its images and movement, but together it demonstrates the capabilities of the double-exposure technique and how it can be utilized to convey multiple ideas. Vertov pushed numerous techniques to the point of combining them, as he does in the below shot by split-screening two separate tracking shots filmed in a Dutch angle:

Ultimately, the lasting legacy of Man with a Movie Camera is that it serves as a Rosetta Stone of modern film editing techniques, providing filmmakers with a guide to the possibilities of how to shoot moving images. More than that, Vertov's film blew open the doors for what cinema can do and be, setting the stage for future filmmakers to continue pushing the limits of the form for decades to come.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Stalker (1979)

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