Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ (1929) explores maybe as many themes as the perspectives in his film. It deals with the part played by montage in the film making process, the relationship between man and technology, the multiple perspective and dynamism of the kino eye, and what this does for the anthropologist’s research… all gathered up in a lovely, energetic urban symphony.
What first drew my attention to this 1929 film was how incredibly modern it looked for its time – the chosen perspectives, regardless of their impressive number, the ways in which reality can be depicted, the limits of objectivity, even the beautiful soundtrack by the Cinematic Orchestra. Also, the harmonization of man and machine was a modern theme to be dealt with in cinema at the time. ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ makes it seem as if it all fell into place – the film maker’s camera becomes his own eye, and sometimes ours, other times it becomes the eye of a bird… in some ways, we are being shown that, even in the camera ends up limiting our perspective, it might end up enriching it through uncovering the perspectives of others, which our eye is incapable of reproducing. However, the movie camera isn’t. By not having to deal with pure, untouched realism anymore, we now enter, according to Nichols (1991), a ‘fiction of objectivity’. In Vertov’s neo-realist approach, reality has a life of its own.
The soundtrack and plot are very well synchronized, in that the music does not only complement the film well, but it synchronizes with it in terms of rhythm. This also represents the fast movement of urban life, along with the advancement of technology, which allows us to increase our rhythm of life in the exact same way the music and pace of the film change. In the end, it might not even be important that not even the camera can catch all possible perspectives objectively, because as it misses some details in order to make way for others, we do more or less the same thing. Moreover, now it is not only us who can get acquainted with all these perspectives – the entire world can be introduced to the film maker’s kino eye.
Vertov did not want actors to star in his film. What he insisted on was a genuine depiction of the surrounding urban environment. We do not hear a narration, or anything else that could spoil the exclusivity that is given to the camera and the film maker’s eye in painting a ‘fiction of objectivity’. He did not edit the film though – his wife did, and we can see her editing it in this very film, by Vertov’s choice. This is indeed about the film making process as well, but it is also about its potential to be well received and understood. Socially speaking, film would appeal to the entire population, regardless of class or social position – everyone is meant to be able to understand it. For Vertov, film thus becomes an essential tool on the path to good, objective communication.
Sometimes the people were aware that they were filmed, but many times they weren’t. However, the camera is the main character. The camera captures life in real time, not only in matters of space, but also regarding life events (death, marriage, birth, divorce) that seem to happen all at one time. All along, the camera is at the same time above and among this agitated, fast and crowded urban life.
There is a ‘superhero’ touch to the camera and, implicitly, the kino eye, similar to the heroic ‘new Soviet man’. Indeed, governing perspective is not an insignificant capacity, and the movie camera makes it all possible. Vertov created an innovation and ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ probably re-defined the cameraman’s work as noble, necessary and powerful. I really enjoyed watching this film – it is obligatory for any novice film maker, especially one interested in the power of montage.