Truth and the Camera: Man with a Movie Camera

The Cinema Edition

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Film Poster

Under the shadow of a revolution, regime changes, the dawn of Modernity and the rise of invisible continuity editing pioneered by American artists like D.W Griffith, Cinema itself was seeing a momentous shift and metamorphosis. Out of Lenin’s communist central and the Moscow Film school birth a new line of thinking, using the intrinsic and inherent attributes of cinema to convey meaning and express ideas beyond just the cliches of western narrative cinema. Of the many aspects of cinema the Soviets identified cutting or editing to be the singular attribute that differentiates cinema from all other art forms. The purpose then was to use montage, the assembly of images, to push the form and its capabilities further. From this montage centric Soviet School rose many pioneers such as Kuleshov, Eisenstein and the artist of our focus, Dziga Vertov. 

Vertov being an alumni of the Moscow school found editing to be the crux of the cinematic form, which he explored most intensely in his most well known work the 1929 experimental film, A Man with a Movie Camera. The film has no discernible plot, narrative, characters or arcs but instead consists of several vignettes of a city, it’s people and ordinary everyday life strung together not at a whim but at with the aim to produce meaning within the minds of the viewer. It is an experiment on the power of montage and the ability of the edit to produce meaning. 

Vertov strived to discover the true language of film and showcase a social realist perspective to highlight a socialist utopia in line with views of the communist regime – achieved by pointing a lens at reality. But Vertov’s reality is a constructed reality, taking footage from four cities compiled over four year using the editing techniques pioneered by Eisenstein (Theory of Montage) and Kuleshov (Kuleshov Effect) to tell the story of a city and its people; from dusk to dawn and from life to death. Vertov contrary to Eisenstein and others using “staged” cinema exclusive of documentaries (Vertov calling non-documentary film “the art of the Bourgeoisie”),Vertov as a Kinok focused on the idea of the camera being the Kino-Eye (the mechanical eye); being able to capture the truth of reality beyond even the human eye and the purpose of cinema to capture this truth and propagate it. 

The film itself follows a cameraman (played by Vertov’s brother) as he travels the city capturing images of city life, from factory workers and commuters on trams to volleyball game and workers enjoying a drink. He attempts to condense the hustle and bustle of a city into a microcosm highlighting the growing industrial state, booming culture and flourishing populace. These images are melded together with numerous editing and cinematography techniques to highlight the camera as the Kino-Eye (with perception beyond the human eye) with the use of cross dissolves, double exposures, repeat edits, jump cuts, stop motion animation, slow motion, etc. All to capture life not as it is but as cinema can. Vertov aims to show life but life as it can be through the lens of a camera. He isn’t just showing us a city but also creating within the viewer ideas about city life, economic and social inequality, and the dreams of a Socialist Utopia. To understand this further I would like to explore three particular sequences; first the scene involving the intercutting of a working woman and a woman at a salon, second sequence showing the intercutting between a new born child and a funeral procession, and the final set of sequences being a group of shoots involving the superimposition of numerous cultural, working and leisure activities, 

The first scene we shall deconstruct plays out as such; a working class woman slugging away at a railroad tossing coal into the reserve of a train, this is intercut with a upper class woman having her eyebrows done and hair washed at a salon. Using the juxtaposition of a bright face bourgeois woman being pampered and a coal smeared woman who is clearly of a lower social and economic status, Vertov uses the contrasts to highlight the divide and the inequality between the different classes but unlike someone like Eisenstein and his film’s Strike or Battleship Potemkin where this difference is used as a call to arms, Vertov more subtlety attempts to humanise the issue and create revelations within viewer about the inherent inequality within society. 

The next sequence involves shots of a newborn baby being washed intercut with a funeral profession of an individual across the streets. The juxtaposition of these two contrasting shots most overtly address the ideas of  life and death, which Vertoz uses to further his construction of the city and the many facets of life that make it up (the beginning of life and the end of life). But on the larger discourse we also see that each shot contains groups of people witnessing both the birth and death connecting the community to the individual to even their most primal states. Vertov across the film produces the idea of the community or collective; communal commuting, joyous group factory work, collective leisure and culture. Community in work, in play, in life and in death. 

The final set of sequences is a series of shot consisting of multiple superimpositions, double exposures, split screens which consists of singing, dancing, theatre, factory work, commuting, city streets, public transport etc. all melding and morphing into a singular tapestry – work, leisure and culture all one in this city. This use of the double exposure and superimposition brought together through tonal montage attempts to create a singular image of the city one where the people work, indulge in leisure and participate in culture – Vertov’s constructed reality of a Socialist Utopia. 

The final aspect of the Man with a Movie Camera I’d like to investigate is the meta-narrative. Vertov’s film isn’t just about a Socialist Utopia city but about film and filmmaking itself. From the very first scene of self reclining seats (done rhythmically through stop motion), assembling of crowds of movie goers (the collective) and the literal projection of the film, Vertov lets us know that this is a film about cinema and what reality is like through the Kino-eye. This has four major aspects of that develop the metanarrative; the cutting back to the audience viewing the Man with a Movie, the animation of the Camera, the trials and tribulations of the cameraman, and finally the sequence showing the editing process itself. 

The Man with a Movie Camera is a film within a film, showing us a collective experiencing a modern visual art together. From the very opening shots Vertoz invites us to join in the viewing and shows us the process that makes the cinema going experience happen. And as he cuts back to the audience in between the city centric film we breaks the illusion and almost in a Brechtian way makes us look at the formal and technical attributes necessary to make the film even happen. Unlike American or other classical western films where immersion and engaging narrative were the focus over understanding the formal elements of the film, Vertoz standing in stark opposition to this.

Vertov gives sentience and perspective to his Camera, literally bringing it to life with numerous shots of it moving on its own, its own mechanical being with agency (done through stop motion). The camera is alive capturing sights and articulations of reality that even the human eye can’t fathom – a literalisation of the Kino-eye. Additionally various shots of the camera looming over the city, the superimposition of camera and then cameras man setting it up, and the iris spiralling shut add to the mystique of the camera and give it an almost otherworldly nature; a creature that hold perception beyond even our own. 

But the camera cannot capture anything without the cameraman, the titular character of the film. Vertov’s cameraman precariously scales buildings and tower, hangs off the edge of a moving train and stands on of speeding car all to capture the perfect shot. Vertoz shows us the lengths to which the artist is willing to go to capture footage for his art. He also places his camera and the cameraman diegetically in slice of life tableaus where common people work, play and live their lives unconstrained by the camera, adding to Vertov’s constructed reality that the camera is a natural part of this new industrial world. 

Finally we shall explore probably the most interesting sequence in the film, which brings together the Soviet’s obsession with editing, film’s meta-narrative and Vertov’s constructed reality – the editing room scene. Halfway through the film a freeze-frame takes place and the film then cuts to the editor in the editing room cutting the very film we’re watching. It is a fascinating look into the process of what it takes to make Cinema out of reels upon reels of raw footage. Vertov’s Kino-eye captures the mesmerising trailing of Film stock, the intricate splicing and fusing of celluloid, and the matches of single frame shots to the actual footage. This gives the viewer an understand of the work that goes into the art of filmmaking (harkening back to the cameraman death defying attempts to capture the perfect shot). Vertov doesn’t want the viewer to be oblivious to the cogs in engine but instead wants the viewer to probe and explore. With the opening scene in the theatre Vertov invites you to join in the moviegoing experience but with this cut away to the editing room invites you to explore what makes cinema. 

Vertov attempted to create a city that was living and breathing; a city full of life, hustle and bustle, mass commuting, droves of people gleefully taking part in repetitive but fulfilling industrial work, actively participating and consuming art & culture, and eventually settling for the day with a drink. He wanted to capture reality through the Kino-eye, which he saw as the only objective reality (using a meta-narrative to produce in the audience a greater appreciation for the craft) but as we dig deeper we see an irony and fallacy in his thought. What Vertov created wasn’t unmediated reality but a constructed one, one where his lens captured truth but then altered in his editing room. The Man with a Movie Camera is a propaganda film but instead of it being about revolution and resistance it is about propagating an idea that a modern industrialised metropolis can only truly exist in the serene, harmonic and beautiful state represented in the film if it followed the ideologies that fit with the new communist regime. Vertov’s film came out during a rising trend of films known as City Symphonies, which attempted to capture city life in specific large cities like New York and Paris, but the Man with a Movie Camera isn’t about any one city but is about what a city can be or more starkly what a city should be. 

By Mrinal Rajeev

Mrinal Rajeev is a third year student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Film studies. He has been an avid film lover for years, and amateur filmmaker, working part time as an editor, screenwriter and director for various feature films, short films, advertisements, and music videos. He’s crazy for anime, Kung fu movies, Area 51 memes, Lemon Tea, Cheesecake, 60s rock and Outkast. You’ll usually see him playing Pokémon Showdown and raging about writers block and the latest Chance the Rapper Album… 
Check out his short films on Instagram: @soulandsilverscreens


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