Man with a Movie Camera is one of the most ground-breaking and inventive films ever made. It topped the recent Sight & Sound poll of the greatest documentaries of all time; and came No. 8 in the same publication’s 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll.
Why? Well, it is an incredibly high-octane, breathless watch from start to finish. That in itself is pretty unique when there is no plot to speak of. The film is an ultra-experimental, montage heavy hymn to urban life in 1920s Russia; in which life is seen as sped up, fragmented and reassembled by the forces of an industrialised economy.
Vertov shot Man with a Movie Camera over the course of three years, in Odessa, Ukraine, but also in Moscow, Kiev and Kharkiv. He archly transforms the elements of life caught by his lens with a dazzling array of experimental camera and editing techniques. In doing so, Vertov investigates the nature of film and that of film material itself; he also creates a truly exhilarating ode to Bolshevik Russia.
The soundtrack is propulsive and spot on. The US-based Alloy Orchestra based their dynamic score for Man with a Movie Camera on Vertov’s own extensive notes, with help from film scholars Yuri Tsavian and Paolo Cherchi Usai.
At the time of release, Soviet critics thought Vertov formalist messings-about utterly insane and suspiciously bourgeois. In fact, they’d thought that for several years – and the BFI’s Blu-ray release enables us to gauge both where Vertov’s approach came from and where it ended up.
The Blu-ray features two radical mid-1920s documentary films as extras, both of which feature fantastic new soundtracks by electronic experimentalists Mordant Music. It also includes 1935’s Three Songs for Lenin (61 mins).
All three films are very different in tone from Man with a Movie Camera: more propagandist; more focused on rural Russia and the full ethnic range of Soviet peoples; using much longer shots to great effect. The film images themselves are not often subject to manipulations or superimpositions as they are in Man with a Movie Camera; but the way the images are edited together in sequence is often both striking and bizarre; and the textual accompaniments often seem off-message and surreal too.
One-Sixth of the Globe (1926, 84 mins) is every bit as fevered and delirial as Man with a Movie Camera. It starts with an anti-capitalist rant that focuses on the evils of the foxtrot (!), before embarking on a 20 minute address to a range of ethnic Soviets, an address that is so long it seems to swallow up any message.
The images of rural life and traditional cultural rituals are intriguing, almost ethnographic in tone. They are accompanied by bold intertitles which proclaim things like: I SEE … ; YOU ARE …; THIS IS YOUR LAND …; THERE ARE MACHINES … AND THERE ARE MACHINES THAT MAKE MACHINES; YOU, PARTICIPANTS IN THE GOAT SNATCHING CONTEST ON THE SHORES OF LAKE KHAR … etc. It is all rather crazy and wonderful, and that’s before the shots of marching, happy Soviets and heavy industry porn.
Kino-Pravda No.21 (1925, 36 mins) is an experimental newsreel (those two words probably look odder together now than they did back in 1925) devoted to Lenin and made for the first anniversary of his death. It suggests a connection between Lenin’s vanguardism and the avant-garde representations of cinema, the new world of juxtaposed images it makes possible. It is perhaps more bogged down by our sense of what was about to happen (Stalin) than either One-Sixth of the Globe or Man with a Movie Camera but there are some interesting animated sequences.
Three Songs of Lenin (1935, 61 mins) is another homage to Ilyich. It deploys much longer ethnographic style shots to focus on details of rural life before extended coverage of Lenin’s funeral and the Soviet achievements in industrialisation. WH Auden wrote verse to accompany this film and there’s a subtitle option for these verses; as an added extra Simon Callow reads them.
Review by Colin Dibben
[SRA value=”5″ type=”BIG”]
Man with a Movie Camera is in selected cinemas UK-wide and on extended run at BFI Southbank from 31 July.
Man with a Movie Camera is out now on Blu-ray with a Michael Nyman score and the excellent extras I mentioned above.