Man With A Movie Camera

"I am the machine that reveals the world to you as only I alone am able to see it."
- Dziga Vertov

A reflexive piece of film because of its strong sense of fragmentation and ambiguity, Man With a Movie Camera portrays dynamic images of life in 1920s Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa. It swiftly shifts from one subject matter to another in an ambiguous and disordered sort of way, thus provocatively confronting the audience with the task of finding a common thread that ties them together. Dziga Vertov, one of the most brilliant minds of early Soviet Cinema, has left some substantially-sized lacunas in the film for viewers to fill.

Man_with_a_movie_camera.jpg Man_with_a_Movie_Camera_poster_2.jpg

Some posters made for Man With a Movie Camera

I found the task quite arduous but enjoyable nonetheless. I was at the edge of my seat, eagerly waiting for a scene that would somehow shed some light on the patterns or links that must have defined the preceding sequences. I, however, ended up with more questions than I did answers, but I did experience every once in a while some sort of golden epiphany through parallelisms and contrasts depicting the fantasy of modernism. As you can observe in the excerpts below, machines manufacturing goods at high speed are contrasted with shots of people manually toiling away. Industrial machines are likened to athletes. Scenes of leisure are followed by frantic scenes of work. Life as a cycle that goes on and on — from dawn to dusk, from birth to death, from marriage to divorce — is likened to a glorious machine, with its bolts, gears, rods, and wheels operating in constant motion. In a nutshell, most of the scenes were very evocative of the communist ideal, especially in its emphasis of socialist values — of the ideological view that with the harmonious relationship between the economy and the masses, an optimistic future is at hand.

Yet more than being a propagandist film on communism, Man With a Movie Camera is a film about film itself, for it highlights the process of filmmaking. It was made in the 1920s, a time when photography and cinema were still relatively new art forms. The camera was then believed to have the ability to show reality in its pure, unadulterated state, and yet Vertov exposes its true workings. Despite the illusion of immediacy that the camera can impart to the audience, the images it captures can actually be processed, edited, and forever changed, such that the "reality" the camera records becomes a construct, even a contrivance, in itself. Film is much like the reality staged in paintings and fiction, and should therefore be approached — even confronted — in a critical rather than passive stance. Although it is possible to see actualities in film — and in fact, most scenes portrayed in Man With a Movie Camera are in themselves actualities — we are constantly reminded that these are filmed actualities.

The opening shot establishes the overall feel of the movie — a clip of a cameraman setting up his camera is superimposed onto a larger camera, giving the illusion that the camera man is perched atop a camera of epic proportions. Yet another compelling image is when the camera eventually takes on a life of its own, as it grows legs, limbs, and begins to walk across the screen. One of the final scenes with the camera lenses turned towards the audience with a human eye superimposed over the iris is also iconic. These are powerful metaphors that remind us two important things. First, of the power of film to transport people to places they could have never imagined themselves in, and second, of the primary identification we as audiences make in watching films — the identification with the camera.




The film further demonstrates these points by employing different techniques in the usage of the camera: it pans, it zooms in and out, it slows down, it speeds up, it rewinds, it fast forwards, it superimposes. It uses freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, dutch angles, animations, double exposures, stop motion, and quick editing — and all these create cinematic artificialities, breaking the conventions of watching and seeing.

sg6czo.png 33ynbit.png 1zwdnit.png
245j7h2.png 20kzzlv.png n6w22s.png

Vertov's storyboard sketches come to life using various filming and editing techniques.

Furthermore, many scenes strongly mirror the assembly of commodities in factories, reminding us that even films that appear seamless and perfect are in reality held together by much work and effort. We, for instance, see the camera itself and the man operating it. These give us a sense of the difficulties involved in shooting scenes.

In this iconic image, Mikhail Kaufman plays the cameraman, who goes through great lengths just to take the perfect shot …
14ujibo.png 23tqjww.png

… and here is Vertov himself in action during the making of the film.

We also see an editor (who happens to be Vertov's wife) in the process of film editing — she meticulously cuts up rolls of film and pieces them together.
Given this process, film is thus not as seamless as we perceive it to be.

One might wonder what Vertov's intentions were in creating a film of this nature. He founded The Kinoks ("cinema eyes"), a group of Soviet filmmakers formed in the 1920s.

vertovportrait.jpg kaufmanportrait.jpg svilovaportrait.jpg
Dziga Vertov, founder Mikhail Kaufman, cameraman Elizaveta Svilova, wife and editor

As filmmakers of their time, they had very radical views. Their key ideas have revolutionized the documentary film, giving it a fresh, dynamic voice, and raising it to an entirely different intellectual level. They rejected staged cinema — its actors, its constructed plots and scripts, its studio shooting. They placed much emphasis on the camera, which they called the Kino-Eye, for they believed this could grasp the world in its entirety from infinite points of view and organize it into a single, coherent picture. Vertov advocated the camera as a communist way of seeing the world, hence the connection between the film's stylistic elements and the Marxist ideals that it tries to convey.

Vertov with his German-made Kino-Eye.

And just to contribute to Vertrov's views, my personal opinion is that the true democratic potential of the camera lies in how it enables anyone to become a filmmaker, an artist, a participant in social discourse. (This holds even more truth these days, now that virtually everyone can have access to video cameras and editing software, and independent cinema and Youtube are all the rage.) An excellent example demonstrating the democratic potential of film is an updated version of Man With a Movie Camera entitled The Global Remake, where people around the world are invited to record images interpreting the original script of Vertov’s film and upload it on the site for the entire planet to see. A 2008 version of the film can be viewed here.

I would consider Vertov's film to be an early realization of Walter Benjamin's ideal, in which art serves a purpose by making the masses critical and aware, thus enabling them to participate actively in culture and politics. As Benjamin writes, the processes of destroying the aura of works of art and substituting a unique insistence for a plurality of copies find their most powerful agent in the film. He also reinforces Vertov's notion of Russian documentary filmmaking as a Marxist way of seeing the world, saying:

In the Soviet Union work itself is given a voice. To present it verbally is part of a man’s ability to perform the work. Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.
All this can easily be applied to the film, where transitions that in literature took centuries have come about in a decade. In cinematic practice, particularly in Russia, this change-over has partially become established reality. Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves, and primarily in their own work process.

Utilizing no story or script, no famous actors and actresses, and no studio, yet still undeniably powerful in its impact on audiences, Man With a Movie Camera destabilizes the cinematic conventions not only of Vertov's time but perhaps ours as well.

Some interesting links:

(c) 2009, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes (070093)

Man with a movie camera is interesting in its way of exploring typical common things in another dimension. During the time it was released in the late 1920’s, Vertov’s style was avant garde. It was crisp and new, something that caused a stir in the industry. It was far from the classic theme that was all the rage at that time. It was a risk that paid out beautifully. In here, Vertov attempted to cut all other form of communication and just made his clips altogether, speak for themselves. It highlighted the way a camera can capture what the eye can see and where it can go, virtually endless. Vertov used a lot camera technique to add more drama and to produce an eerie sense of recognition of what life under the Soviet Union was like. It created familiarity and an unspeakable bond between the audience and the film. He also created parody with double exposed shot wherein two images were meshed into a single frame. It related how things could mean differently in a single situation. It also showed how to antagonizing ideas work together to build a central idea, a transition from one state to another. This is shown by the double exposed clip of marriage and divorce. It was like the people who accepted and “married” under the Soviet Union was now on the rise to denunciate its allegiance and move on to greater heights. It may take some time or a couple of running time in the film before one could really grasp its importance. I won’t say that it tickled my fancy at once but as it progressed, I saw another dimension to it. There was more to the clips; it wasn’t just “random” things a trigger happy man would shot. It had an underlying complexity in it that radiated a subliminal message about social issues governing that period. Give a man the liberty to talk about anything in a paper or ask him to knock himself out with a video which comprised of what he wanted, then upon seeing his work, you begin to understand what he is all about. Vertov was ahead of his time and served as one of the pioneer in making it happen politically through the voice of his camera.

edited by 061957

The Man with a Movie Camera is an epitome of groundbreaking Russian political cinema, circa 1920, because of how it manifests film as a political and/or ideological medium. Dziga Vertov utilized it to advance certain principles in cinema. He remarked,

“The film drama is the Opium of the people…down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!”

This statement gives people a holistic glimpse of Vertov’s ideologies in the film, all of which are shown through the Kino- eye or the cinema eye.

Reality captured: Kino-Pravda

The Russian film world during Vertov’s time was heavily into fiction. His antidote, in response to the film‘s condition as a “dying organism“, was “reality.” This notion won Lenin’s support, who declared that since people were drawn to theatres by nonsense films, then there must be a counter for this through films that deal with world realities. This paved the way for the authorized launching of Kino-Pravda, or film-truth, as headed by Vertov.

In the film, Vertov manifest this notion of making film straight from reality, or by capturing “life caught unaware” through the camera. This means that the film will have to be made without any acting and manipulated apparatus apart from the camera. It rejects staged cinema with its cast, plots, and set designs. It is a cinema of fact, one that captures the real, un-manipulated world. In this sense, the documentary is superior to fiction, because film should depict the world, life, as it is without the aid of theatrical apparatus.

Various shots exemplify this principle. The camera depicts daily life and routines in Moscow. All the shots were directed to random people— some of which were aware they were being filmed while some remained unsuspicious. The point is these people were not cast for the film, they did not follow some script and just went about with their activities. The reality shots included cycles and images of industrial Russia and technology, the factories and laborers, the production processes of the film, landscapes, sports events, musical performances and other leisure activities. All these are captured as soon as the camera’s eye opens in the beginning until it closes at the film’s end.

Reality as seen through the cinema eye: Kino-eye

The film truth is aided by another of Vertov’s key propositions on the capacity of the film and the camera. The following text provides Vertov’s early outline of the film:

“I am the kino-eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world only as I can see it.Now and forever I free myself from human immobility. I am in constant motion. I draw near, then away from objects. I crawl under. I crawl on top. I move apace with a galloping horse. I plunge full speed into the crowd (…) manoeuvring in the chaos of movement, recording movement, starting with movements composed of the most complex combinations.Freed from the rule of sixteen to seventeen frames per second, free of the limits of time and space. I put together any given points in the universe,no matter where I have recorded them. My path leads to the creation of fresh perception of the world. I decipher in new ways a world unknown to you.”

This is in line with his project of exhausting reality through the camera’s cinema eye, which essentially extends the limitations of humans’ commonplace ways of seeing. Such a project enables an experience of reality-transcendence while shooting reality at the same time. The camera’s eye travels, simultaneously and freely, even to the point of invincibility, where the human eye may not have the liberty of doing so and thus, is able to show the viewers a more conscious, detailed and transcendental view. Also, this may be linked to Vertov’s ideals of how cinema should be— transcending and realist at the same time, in motion, and revealing of new sights and, the term used as a construct, worlds in contrast to the traditional fiction-heavy narratives of his time.

In the first few moments of the film, we see an empty theatre in different angles and points of view. One is through curtains, which was voyeur-like; another is a wide shot from the entrance door and is thus a very inclusive view— in it is the screen, the empty chairs, the floor. Through this, one gets the feeling that the camera has a control of what it can capture, as the audiences see through the camera’s eye while watching. To further this, the camera zooms in to rather minute details such as when seats of chairs are slowly moving down— suggestive of the fact that these are about to be used by yet-to-arrive audiences. By shooting and choosing such scenes, Vertov shows how utilizing film, cameras in specific, can come with great control on perspective; and control, too, by showing the minute things that take place, which the human eye may usually neglect or may not normally have access to.

This consciousness is prevalent throughout the film. There are scenes where one sees the cameraman, a film character, pointing his device from different vantage points— from the top of a building, a moving car, on top of a bigger camera in the opening scene, through a window. Along with these are sudden scenes of immense intensity and activity, many of which take place behind closed doors and walls— people signing contracts for divorce, a lady in slumber, a woman beautified inside a parlor. Apart from reflexive scenes that show the man with the movie camera are close ups of the camera itself, examples of which are the scenes where viewers are shown a zoomed in perspective of the camera’s eye as it blinks. Apart from the man holding it, all these make the camera an important character in the film, because of the control, even power in a political sense, it enables the director and the viewer to have by using it and seeing what it shoots, respectively.

(stills that depict the Kino-eye)
mmc-cameraeye1.jpg mmc-cam-reflected-in-cam.jpg

Montage: Elevation of Labor, Productionism, Socialism and Marxism

The use of montage in Man with the Movie Camera is a juxtaposition of shots that shows the difference between still photography and cinema, and is purposed to achieve an organic whole. But perhaps more importantly is the exemplification of processes, and this is where the elevation of production processes and labor surfaces.

The film shows shots of the very ways it was created— a cameraman in the midst of shooting scenes, the editor handling rolls of film, and the projectionist. This is in line with the Productionist doctrine where the work, the process of production, is of aesthetic value, and not the end-product. Apart from processes of filmmaking, labor is elevated by filming scenes that were paralleled to the working class. The camera zooms in to several activities of workers such as those that take place in factories and the streets. It also compares elite women riding carriages to commonly dressed and worked up faces of other women who just walk in the streets, some even barefoot.

Vertov’s ideological milieu in the film is early Soviet Communism and Socialism. These are fleshed out by providing positive shots of Russian economy and industry— happy workers and the strength of industry in Russia, the importance of factories and machines as fundamental to an ideal society. One sees that the machine is in harmony with its workers, as in the notion proposed in an ideal communist setting. Productive recreation and leisure is juxtaposed to self-serving shots of the elite who are more concerned with vanity inside beauty parlors. The working class, the labor and production processes of immense activity and relevance, are given their rightful and essential places in the daily life/routine of Moscow from sunrise to sundown.

(the production process)
mmc-filmstrip-1.jpg mmc-filmstrip-2.jpg
(productive labor)
mmc-match3.jpg mmc-match3a.jpg
(juxtaposition of worker and bourgeois)
montage8a.jpg montage8b.jpg
(worker in harmony with the machine)


Sources and Helpful Links

[ Notes on Ideological Undertones and Vertov's Theories in the Film}
Movie Stills
Film Career and Biography of Dziga Vertov
Insightful Film Review
Another Insightful Review and Assessment

edited/submitted by 052328

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.