October 1st, 2014

Milwaukee Film Festival, Man With a Movie Camera

Tuesday night, September 30th, we went to the Oriental Theatre for the Milwaukee Film Festival's showing of the 1929 Russian "documentary" Man With a Movie Camera (Человек с киноаппаратом) (Chelovek s kinoapparatom). In the a 2012 poll conducted by the British Film Institute magazine Sight and Sound, film critics voted Man with a Movie Camera the 8th best film ever made. In 2014 Sight and Sound also named the film the best documentary film of all time. Having now seen the movie, I can see why film professionals like it. However, (depending upon the competition) I would not have voted for it.

I use quotations around "documentary" since the movie is really an art film using documentary footage-i.e., (mostly) unscripted photography of real life. However, the film's auteur, Dziga Vertof, had a distinct agenda to reshape film. The movie is innovative and thought-provoking in many ways. For example, I had never really given any thought to how a shot of an onrushing train that passes over the camera would have been shot in days when the only film cameras were hand-cranked and not operable remotely. Per Wikipedia "This film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents, deploys or develops, such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and a self-reflexive style."

In my opinion, that's actually one of the film's weak spots: the self-indulgent farrago of tricks becomes its own raison d'etre, and the images on the screen lose meaning independent of the manipulations.

The movie's plan is to show twenty-four hours in the life of a Soviet city (a synthesis of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, and Kharkov). It begins with a self-referential frame: a movie theatre, in which we see film being prepared for showing, the audience filing in, the carbon arc being struck in the projector, and the show starting.

The show proper begins with what is almost a sequence of still pictures: quiet buildings, nearly empty streets, homeless people sleeping on benches. Then, the city comes to life, first, mechanical. Airplanes, trolleys, motor busses roll out of hangars and garages. A steam train rushes onscreen. Then, the life becomes industrial, as the people start work, showing us every task from barbering to coal mining.

Through it all, we see the Man With A Movie Camera, most often a tall lean man in a cap, tripod carried over his shoulder, picking his way down the mine, standing between lanes of traffic, climbing a factory chimney, getting too close for comfort to a lava-like foundry pour. A first it is subtle, but gradually you realize that part of the film is documenting the man doing the documenting. In one of the longer sequences, we see a cameraman filming some ladies in a moving, horse drawn cart, while standing on the doorsills of a moving open auto paralleling them. There is nothing keeping him from falling to likely death in the street except his sense of balance and perhaps the hands of the other people in the car. Then, you realize, that there has to be another car accompanying, filming him filming them, with the second cameraman probably doing the same stunt.

The film has a definite Industrial rhythm, the pace of which picks up relentlessly as the work day goes on. Then, there is a respite as work ends, and people go out for the afternoon. We see sports and games, but even here the pace again accelerates, to running, leaping, and racing.

After dark, the view goes to taverns and dance halls. Here, the pace is frenetic almost immediately. At last, it is time for cinema, and the viewpoint goes back to the movie house where the film started, with the viewers watching sequences of the film we have just seen, but overlaid with more double exposures and special effects, and, of course, even greater speed. The film ends with a shot that has recurred through the film, the cameraman's eye seen though his lens.

The film was a massive work, taking four years to shoot, and thousands of shots. Some of the nice bits that are both the "workaday world" and self-referential were the sequences of Elizaveta Svilova, Vertof's wife and film editor, reviewing and cataloging the thousands of clips used in making the film.

So, my verdict is, "too cute by half." I certainly understand the impulse to experiment, to show off all your tricks, and to put in all the "cool stuff" you have, but some modicum of restraint is almost always called for.

My enjoyment of the movie was also affected by the live music provided by Alloy Orchestra, a three-person ensemble that is well known for performing with silent films. Alloy Orchestra created a score for "Man With a Movie Camera" in 1995, which they performed on Tuesday night. The default setting for the score is percussive, loud, and fast. The music follows and overtakes the movie's persistent accelerando with excessive zeal, to the point that it is tiring to be exposed to. Even scenes that don't need a frantic underscore, such as men drinking beer around a table, have such a soundtrack. One could postulate a hot jazz band off camera, but the relaxed poses and casual chat we see the men engaged in belies that. (Other than opening credits and "End" at the end, the film has no title cards of any kind, so any speech we see has to be assumed from context--).

So, an interesting film, that, in my opinion, was overdone. Mine is not the common view, and much contrary writing can be found on the Internet. The full movie (without soundtrack) is in public domain, can be viewed or downloaded at: https://archive.org/details/ChelovekskinoapparatomManWithAMovieCamera if you want to make up your own mind.

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