Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom)

UK Release Date 1929
Director Dziga Vertov
Starring Mikhail Kaufman, The Camera
Runtime 68 Minutes
Certificate U
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 4th August 2015

Way back in 2013 (yes, we’re officially that old), we embarked on a Feature (definitely with a capital F) to review the BFI Top 10 Movies. This wasn’t a resounding success as, to date, we’ve only managed to get around to reviewing four. Though the remainder have a very proud place in our extensive DVD collection. Someday we will finish the list. By which time no doubt it will have been updated. I very much hope this entry survives for many future iteration though.

Approaching the feature with an air of trepidation, for some reason Man with a Movie Camera stood out. It's quite possible this is because it was only 68 minutes long. But that might be a cynical way to look at it. Whatever the reason, it's was the first of the Top 10 that I watched specifically to review.

The version of this film that I watched is the 2009 release which includes a soundtrack by Ninja Tune's The Cinematic Orchestra. To begin with, the soundtrack is fantastic. I can imagine the film being an altogether more difficult watch in it's entirely silent form (I've tried watching silent films before without music and it's unbelievably difficult to concentrate). Now, the whole shebang has been, according to the BFI website: “Restored by Lobster from the Eye Film Institute feature print. With music by the Alloy Orchestra after instructions by Dziga Vertov”. Which I can only assume has improved it even more.

The movie is a documentary experiment featuring, nominally, the Man of the title but predominantly clips of scenes from everyday life in newly Communist USSR. The word experimental, which flashed up at the beginning, is usually a sign for me to flee the room to go watch a monster B movie. So in this instance I was immediately ill at ease. Ten minutes of flashing images in and I was having none of it, convinced that this whole thing was pretentious twaddle.

Then it started to make sense. The flashing images started to form something not necessarily coherent but certainly something daring and interesting. Ostensibly a day in the life of a city, taking in birth, death, marriage, divorce, work, transport, you name it, the movie is far more than a man pointing his camera at random subjects. Ahead of his time by an almost astonishing distance, Vertov flies through a deluge of camera viewpoints, editing techniques and probably a good handful of tricks that I'm not even remotely qualified to name. Kinetic editing, dissolves, stop motion animation, superimposing, fast and slow motion, split screens and fades all wash before your increasingly wide eyes (I had to take notes of the number of techniques used, unheard of for me watching a film). 

And in amongst all this, to remind us how this it getting to us is the only 'actor' in the piece, the Man with the Movie Camera. Sometimes superimposed over the city or his camera and sometimes the subject of the director's camera himself (in some impressively precarious positions). The director's sense of humour shows through repeatedly, a fantastic sequence of workers walking over a camera is shown from the camera and then from further away - thereby showing that the Man is of course actually lying on the ground to achieve a shot you've just taken for granted.

In Short:

It's probably difficult to overstate the influence that Man with a Movie Camera has had on subsequent filmmakers but you'll recognise shots and techniques from any number of half forgotten films in the back of your mind - witness the slowing of the film at the end of a shot as people are walking. A timeless piece of work that should be viewed by anyone who loves film, to dismiss it as 'boring' (as some have) is odd for such a brilliantly inventive, lively and playful piece. I am a convert to experimental cinema. For 68 glorious minutes only.

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