Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera
David Liu | 18 May 2010
“I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.” —Dziga Vertov, 1922
It’s hard to believe that Soviet pioneer Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, conceived as a cinematographic experiment in 1929, remains so far ahead of its time. So much is conveyed through its 68-minute running time, a fraction of which contemporary films can only hope to match, that we are obliged to set aside our conventional expectations towards not only silent pictures but movies in general.
Through his frantically paced montages of denizens and physical structures, Vertov anticipates the anxiety of 20th-century metropolitan life. Industrialization has left its mark, evaporating in the form of billowing factory smoke and giving way to a mechanized world driven by man’s limitless capacity for invention and innovation. Horse-drawn carriages, automobiles and locomotives race between frames; mannequins operating sewing machines blend with nondescript pedestrians. Moscow, Kiev and Odessa merge into one urban behemoth, tossing and turning to the pulse of post-industrial modern times.
The beauty of Man with a Movie Camera, aside from its synthesis of images, lies in its exhilarating self-reflexivity. At the beginning of the film, a man appears in miniature form out of a movie camera, then disappears; he is then seen in various stages throughout the city, conducting and capturing the action all at once. Observing the metropolis through his lens, we can’t help but feel omniscient. From bird’s eye panoramas of city squares to intimate close-ups of domestic life, the film feels at once alien and human, chaotic and idyllic, sultry and sophisticated.
As Man with a Movie Camera gradually segues from an overview of mankind’s industrial triumphs into a celebration of everyday life, Vertov’s sprawling documentary of civilization maintains its timeless verisimilitude. Often considered cinema’s first city symphony, its only flaw lies in the lofty standard it established for future generations of imitators, such that we may never see the likes of it again.
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