Sunday, January 24, 2010

Film #6: Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Director: Dziga Vertov

Release Country: Soviet Union

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (in which I flatly outline the plot and spoil the hell out of the film for you. Fair warning):

Uh...there is no story. And this was the whole point of the film. Right away, we get a message from director Vertov telling the viewers that this film will have no story and no dialogue. It is meant as a documentary to show just how the moving camera works as a human eye. He trains that eye on the myriad people in the Soviet Union. While the camera may stay on a person for a few different scenes, there is no running narrative. This is, in essence, a documentary covering a single day in the life of a city.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing before any research):

This film was surprisingly cool. For being released when it was, I can see why people still go back to it. Granted, you need to have a bit of patience and be willing to accept the director's caveat at the beginning, but if you do, you're in for a 68-minute visual and aural treat. The layout of the filming isn't hard to pick up early on - it starts with the early morning when the city and its denizens are asleep. Nothing moves. The people are in bed. The factory machines are still. Roads are empty. Shops are closed. This first part of the movie could essentially have been done with still, single camera shots.

And then, things start to stir. Slowly, the city starts to pull itself into motion. The people start to yawn and stretch. The machines start to warm up. A few autos and trolleys pull into the streets. As the film progresses, the camera shots become more kinetic and gradually more complex in an attempt to keep up with the crescendoing pace of life. We see inside people's homes and their jobs; their leisure and toils; their joys and sorrows. All of this is done with a massive montage of shots, never staying on any one thing or person for much more than 10 or 15 seconds.

Here's a link to the beginning of the film. Just take a few minutes to look at & ponder each shot:

It may sound dizzying, and at times it is, but it's incredibly captivating. In writing, it sounds dull to speak of watching people work assembly lines, exercise, put on mud packs at the beach, work in coal mines, and file for marriage and divorce licences. But trust me, Vertov knew exactly what the magic of moving films is - it's voyeurism. I don't know when the term "people watching" was born, but Vertov realized very early on that the moving camera's greatest power is acting as a set of eyes for us to take in the endless lives and movement around us. Anyone who's been briefly and quietly hypnotized by seemingly mundane things like a person getting an exactingly precise haircut, water streaming over a dam, or watching people try to jump hurdles, will understand the appeal of this film. At times, I almost couldn't understand why I was so entranced, yet I was.

There were times, however, when I knew exactly why I was entranced, and it had to do with the music. It's awesome. I'm really not sure how much of it was based on the original music score, but there were several sounds that seemed too modern to have been done in 1929 (I'll be looking this up later). The DVD I watched was a 1996 release and the music has a really engaging sound that blends some folk and classical instruments like accordions, violins and pianos with what sounded like modern, electronic mood music. I realize that this may not be very authentic, but it works incredibly well and enhances the playfulness of some segments, while accentuating the frantic pace of others. (Note: the music I heard is the same as the clip that I included above.)

Would I recommend this film to others? Hard to say. Only if you're ready for something experimental, even though it's not outrageously so. This isn't Naked Lunch - there's nothing overtly mind-bending about the film. It's really just a director stretching the limits of the visual medium to its extremes very early on and giving your eyes things that they know, but given in a way that only a movie camera can give it. If you think you'd like to kick back and just watch, then do that. Just watch.

Take 2; Or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie" (Done after doing some research on the film):

Holy high concept, Batman!! Talk about vertigo-inspiring complexity!! The DVD I watched features an audio commentary by a Dr. No-sounding film critic who seems to be quite the expert on director Vertov and his entire philosophy of film. Re-watching the film with this commentary opened up all kinds of things that I had only half-grasped or suspected upon my first viewing. Here's the long and short of it:

Firstly, the whole thing is basically a commentary on the value of early communism and the disgusting wastefulness of a capitalist society. The many shots of moving machinery and people working on assembly lines are cross-cut with people in beauty salons or in the service industry; the message being that efficiency and tangible productivity are to be venerated, while the rest is to be dismissed as a complete waste. In the latter portions, it becomes more clear that, true to the visions of Leon Trotsky, Vertov held great disdain for church, alcohol, and fiction. He felt that these three things, more than anything, were the great vices upon which a capitalist society thrived. This is, of course, a different argument for a different blog, but it certainly adds a very dense layer to the film and provides a mountain of material for analysis.

Another interesting feature that was pointed out during the commentary is Vertov's approach to incorporating the filmmaker (himself) into the production. In a form of full disclosure to the viewer, you see many shots of him moving and setting up his camera. This was all to circumvent a tremendous problem in documentary filmmaking - how can you be sure that the subjects being filmed will act naturally? Similar to Heisenberg's uncertainly principle in physics, Vertov and his cohorts ultimately decided that the closer you look at something, the more it changes. You can't truly capture the genuine person as if the camera isn't there. Instead, they make sure that the filmed subject as well as you, the viewer are totally aware of all things involved. These guys were obviously thinking of films on levels that very few of us ever even consider. They saw it as a true science rather than a simple medium of entertainment.

Here's one of the many shots from the film which include Vertov & gets the point across about just who's looking at you:

And all of this is just the tip of the pyramid. I haven't even gotten much into the actual images and how the rest of the them relate to each other. Suffice it to say that even the audio commentator on the DVD admitted that this film simply cannot be absorbed with one, two or even three viewings. There is just too much happening and being said, all without words, amazingly.

Final note: the music score that I heard was done by a group called Alloy, who apparently has made quite a name for itself by performing memorable scores for old silent films. As mentioned earlier, I love what they did with this movie.

In the end, I would probably watch this film again since it's not very long and it has masterfully crafted shifts in pace and tone. Since I often enjoy dwelling on what I'm seeing and hearing, this movie is right up my tree. I'm sure not all would feel the same and would write this film off as pretentious, pinko commie junk. I certainly disagree with that, even if I don't completely agree with Vertov's overall social assessments. The film is different and highly innovative; two things that I like to go back to.

That's a wrap. 6 films down. 99 to go.

Coming Soon: City Lights (1931):
Ah...the little tramp. I suppose this will be a fitting way to end the silent film segment of the list. Come back in a few days to see just how this little bugger stacks up to Buster Keaton's mute comedic stylings.
Please pick up all empties on the way out.