Jules Does

Jules Does Films: Man With A Movie Camera

Posted on: August 31, 2012

  I find lists very helpful, from ‘The Top 10 Worst Bugs Ever’ to ‘100 Books to Read Before You Die’ (I know, I know). So when I read that Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera had been voted 8th best film ever by Sight and Sound‘s poll of film critics, it seemed like a spectacular stroke of luck that it was going to be shown at the Prince Charles Cinema about a month afterwards. So I did what every list-ophile would do, and went to see it.

If you read the Wikipedia article linked above, you’ll see immediately that this is not a film which is like any other film. There are no actors, which removes it from the realm of fiction, and no plot, which makes it something less than a documentary. There are certainly themes, and moments of humourous juxtaposition, but without any clear story it becomes a cinematically rich wander through Soviet Odessa.

The perfect adjective for this film is “meta”. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this film defines meta in film! Along with standard film shots, there are multiple instances where the cameraman is shown filming the exact image just viewed.

If you want to be Orwellian about it, the picture, with its mountainous camera in the opening shot, the omnipresent cameraman (towering over a crowd in one shot, condensed into a glass of beer in another) and the frequent comparisons between human eyes and the mechanical “eyes” of the camera, is oddly prescient of totalitarian Russia’s all-seeing society and of our own CCTV-monitored lives. The editor, detached from the rest of society, sits cutting people into and out of films in a darkened room, filing small rolls of film under impersonal headings like ‘Market’ and ‘Factory’. The swift intercutting of editor, enlarged human eye and various scenes of daily life towards the end reminded me of the end of Space Odyssey: 2001, another film on the critics’ Top 10, where Kubrick cut the hallucinogenic unfolding of colours in space with shots of Dave’s eye, which also changed colour. Interesting that a film which is so domestic in its orientation (market scenes, people getting out of lifts, factory workers, people at the seaside) can have such a strong influence on a film where modern-day Earth is never seen.

It’s tempting to read subversion into any early Soviet film, particularly one made not too long after the death of Lenin, but I’m not sure that that would not be doing a disservice to this particular film. It is so focussed on the people of the cities, their behaviour and the behaviour of the objects with which they interact (clothes, trams, factory machinery) that I’m not sure that the film is intended to be a statement of any particular political persuasion. There was, however, an amusing moment where a shop selling religious icons was immediately juxtaposed with a large public poster of Lenin, and a church with a political hall.

The overwhelming theme, present in the title, is the conjunction of man and machine. This is not just a man or just a movie camera, but both, and the resulting output is somewhere between the two. The excellent stop-motion animation of the camera crawling out of its box and onto the tripod before wandering off serves to underline this fact that it takes both a human and a mechanical aspect to create a piece like this one. Machines have an important place in the film, meriting close-ups just as intimate as those of their human counterparts. Gradually, larger crowd shots start to replace the close-ups and the film’s focus is put more firmly on the machines operating in the city, the mysterious editor, the cameraman and his mechanical eye and so on, replacing the humans whom we have seen dressing, working, giving birth (quite graphically), showering, swimming, buying, selling, laughing and performing other human functions. The machines in general do the same jobs over and over again, particularly the trams which criss-cross the city in dizzying patterns and the chairs in the cinema which kindly unfold themselves for their patrons, while the humans are more diverse. The man and his camera occupy the space between – the mechanical action of filming is monotonous, but the camera and his man cross heaving rivers, lie under trains and cars, ride on motorbikes, go to the seaside, and in other ways are highly active, varied and human.

See, this is what made me so interested in this film! When it was over I was surprised and wondered what I could have to say about it, but the more you think about it, the more it unfolds and reveals new ways of thinking. I’m not quite convinced that it’s the 8th best film of all time (better than Rear Window or The Godfather?) but it’s certainly a film which is more than it initially may seem.

Thank you for sticking with me! More film reviews coming up later.

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