Film Analysis: Man With the Movie Camera Dziga Vertov, 1929

Paul M. Nguyen

Film Fr. John Wykes, OMV October 17, 2011

Nguyen 2 Dziga Vertov's Man With the Movie Camera, released in 1929, in the Soviet Union, portrays what he sees to be the imperfections both of the socialist regime of his own day and of capitalism, as it began to spread around the world and influence his own country. He conveys this message in a constructivist–realist style, making use of many cinematographic devices, including some original techniques, and he is quite effective at presenting these ideas, especially when combined with his musical notes, and despite the film lacking “intertitles, … the aid of plot, … the aid of actors, … [and] the aid of theater.”1 Vertov was a founding member of the “Kinok” group in cinema at the time. The name is a contracted form of the words for “window,” “cinema,” and “eye,” and their central principle was to purge cinema of the catastrophe it had become in its portrayal of wild emotions, fantastic stories, and in its distortion of reality. The Kinoks believed, rather, that cinema should show reality precisely as it is, and that in place of the frailty and inconsistency of men as they were, cinema should delight in a harmonious union of man with the ideal machine.2 They sought to displace the Hollywood “Factory of Dreams” with their own “Factory of Facts.”3 And this is precisely what Vertov does in this film. Vertov uses a wide variety of cinematographic devices, including composition of frame, many types of shots ranging from extreme close-up shots to long shots, and well-known techniques developed by his Soviet contemporaries to convey his message. Because the film is without plot, each shot has a message of its own, and shots edited into a sequence take on an additional meaning over the course of the film. At various points, as indicated by Yuri Tsivian in his audio essay accompanying the film, Vertov posits that various things we commonly take for granted as objective are, in fact, relative, including time, space, motion, and even politics.4 Vertov makes extensive use of cross-cutting between a depiction of a scene in real life and one or more symbolic images that are designed to characterize the shot of reality. In some cases, this
1 2 3 4 Man With the Movie Camera, DVD, directed by Dziga Vertov (1929; Film Preservation Associates, 1996). Dziga Vertov, My Variant Manifesta, trans. Kevin O'Brien (1922), pp. 11–12. Yuri Tsivian, Man With the Movie Camera, DVD audio commentary (Image Entertainment, 1995). Tsivian, Man With the Movie Camera.

Nguyen 3 cross-cutting takes the form of the Kuleshov effect, in which a shot of one scene or image is juxtaposed with several disparate images that each place the viewer in a strikingly different emotional context. Vertov often uses close-up shots of body parts or mechanical objects to compose these messages. Vertov also employs a technique developed by Sergei Eisenstein known as “dynamic intensification.”5 It consists of cross-cutting in shorter and shorter segments between shots of machinery in action. Vertov combines this principle with the message he is trying to convey: that analogous structures within society and among various machines invite a natural and ideal harmony between man and machine. For dynamic intensification, he shows various factory wheels and arms moving faster and faster, a train's wheels and arms accelerating, the camera cranking, and various other wheel-like machines. In the opening of the film, Vertov shows the city asleep, machines idle, and streets empty. He then presents the man with the movie camera, who rises before the rest of the city and proceeds to capture the awakening of the city on film. Notable in his style is the reactionoriented method, evident in his filming of men waking up who had slept on the street that night. Their confusion and initial reactions to awakening to the sound of the movie camera cranking beside them are caught on tape just as they are: Vertov's “life caught unawares.” On the other hand, some shots Vertov uses in the opening sequence were staged, yet portrayed as faithfully as possible to actual reality, an expression of Vertov's “life as it is” principle. The clearest example of this is the woman who rises, changes out of her sleepwear and begins to wash herself for the day, since Vertov's camera could not have captured this scene without her permission and knowledge, though it does not seem that she is acting for the camera. Vertov then cuts to various shots of people washing the streets and preparing their various tools for the day's work, showing the consistency within society in undertaking these preparatory tasks at the start of the day. Vertov compares this uniformity of action observable in people within the city to the consistent performance of machines, his persistent ideal.
5 Tsivian, Man With the Movie Camera.

Nguyen 4 Vertov proceeds to exhibit various forms of transportation that take laborers to their places of work. He presents the trains, trams, buses, and automobiles and masterfullyorchestrated in their movements, timed with the musical accompaniment, and moving in synchronous fashion, again demonstrating the ideal nature of the operations of mechanical equipment and, indeed, delighting in it.6 Vertov's intention to encourage the laborer to unite with his machine and enjoy his work is fairly obvious in this section. His depiction of traffic conductors and other “organizers” makes this impression all the more explicit. Vertov illustrates the relativity of space by showing streetcars traveling toward and away from the camera, passing left and right in front of the camera, and an elevator car going up and then coming down; he also adds a shot of the camera apparently passing through the floor into the room below. Later, he will show a close-up of a ship passing by the camera such that it is unclear whether the camera or the ship is actually moving relative to an external point. He also shows a bridge with the clouds moving past, but because the composition of the frame excludes the ground, it is unclear whether it is the clouds or the bridge that is moving past the other. Vertov inserts a sequence in which he follows rather literally the text of a Walt Whitman poem from Leaves of Grass (1855). In this passage, Whitman remarks rather apathetically about the ease of dying, birthing, and marrying, and Vertov illustrates all of these in the same order. As Vertov depicts the daily life of laborers, going about their busy tasks, he then interjects with an emergency, which is built up by shorter and shorter cuts, interspersed with an extreme close-up of a human eye, which looks in different directions, corresponding to the camera movements, and blinks, corresponding to cuts between shots. The speed accelerates to 1frame shots, at which point the scene of the emergency unfolds: firemen rush to their trucks and race down the street. Yuri Tsivian remarks that due to the camera angles used in filming the rushing emergency vehicles, it is unclear whether the fire truck and ambulance are rushing toward each other or, as we might assume, working together to reach the scene of the emergency,
6 Vertov, My Variant Manifesta.

Nguyen 5 which, in his opinion, is another illustration of Vertov's relativity.7 Vertov recommended that musical accompaniment facilitate dramatic transitions such as this scene, and in the Alloy Orchestra's score, accelerating percussion lines and a clanging bell accompany and enhance the feeling of panic and fear and then signal the beginning of the response to the call for help. Tsivian also suggests that this call for help is intended by Vertov to represent a plea by the people for deliverance from the emotionally-overdone cinema of dreams. In subsequent scenes, Vertov seems to distort and manipulate the images captured by the camera to better represent human perceptions of reality, especially reproducing optical illusions as fact: trains passing each other are edited to actually meet on the film, which is consistent with our perception.8 Vertov's man–machine assimilation is illustrated most clearly in the scenes of a woman folding cigarette boxes on a peg, which accelerate and are replaced by a machine that processes the boxes in similar fashion. The acceleration of her working pace and motions makes a smooth transition from human labor to machine labor, and the smile on her face throughout this sequence shows that she enjoys her work and that the mechanical nature of the manner in which she is working is the ideal way to do it. The release of this film coincides with the development and execution of the First Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union, which called upon people to work and work well in order to outpace the rest of the world. It seems that Vertov is aligning himself with this work ethic, and demonstrates several other cases of enthusiasm or enjoyment of labor, including coal mine workers (actually filmed at a mine in Germany, demonstrating relativity of politics, according to Tsivian, in analogous political values across international borders9), steel production and telephone operators. Vertov does not close with this theme of ideal mechanization of labor, however. He captures the halting of the various machines that lay idle in the opening, shows laborers transitioning from the work day to their leisure time and engaging in sports. He seems to
7 Tsivian, Man With the Movie Camera. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid.

Nguyen 6 promote individual track and field sports based on a discipline of body, but also shows a couple shots of team sports. Tsivian also postulates that the portrayal of team sports represents an analogous transition as that from the individual unmotivated worker to the one organized into an efficient, mechanized system.10 One interesting scene shows a man throwing a javelin from screen left to right, and then a soccer goal-tender at screen right, facing left. It seems that the thrown javelin will strike him, but then a soccer ball passes from screen left to right, and is blocked by the goal-tender. Perhaps this illustrates the harmlessness of good exercise in that what seemed like certain catastrophe, in reality, was without ill effect. In a technique called “decomposed gesture,” adopted from Sergei Eistenstein, Vertov highlights the climactic moments of men jumping hurdles and a horse running. He also shows women swimming and participating in the pole-vault. Tsivian remarks that Vertov's equal coverage of men and women in this section and the cuts from sporting action to the faces of onlookers of the opposite sex eroticizes this activity.11 He further connects this with Vertov's fascination with Walt Whitman in Whitman's poem, “I Sing of the Body Electric” (1855). In this poem, Whitman enumerates much of the human physique, and it does seem that Vertov seeks to portray this same sort of fascination in this film. Vertov goes on in the leisure sequence to depict a woman applying lipstick and a nude woman rubbing herself with the “healing mud” of the Black Sea beaches, presenting a contrast between those who value outward appearance and those who prefer internal cleanliness. At the same time, Vertov presents the contraries of idleness and activity. In total, it seems that Vertov prefers the active and internal cleanliness over their respective contraries. Earlier in the film, Vertov presents couples completing paperwork to validate their marriage in one case, and to effect their divorce in the other. Tsivian offers the historical context that the liberal policy of the times had made both processes easier and easier – a simple signature could seal or release the

10 Ibid. 11 Ibid.

Nguyen 7 marriage contract,12 and it seems that Vertov is mocking this liberal policy's degradation or devaluation of social structures. For a vivid political statement, Vertov attacks Naziism, alcoholism, and organized religion in a series of scenes. First the cameraman stumbles out of a pub, possibly seeking refuge in a church adjacent, but finds instead that the face of a political figure replaced the religious icon that would customarily be there. A young woman takes up a rifle at a fair and shoots down a wooden man whose cap prominently shows a Swastika. She then proceeds firing, but the intervening scenes show bottles of liquor disappearing from a crate. Finally, Vertov closes in the same manner as the opening, the showing of his film in a theater. He also adds an analogy consisting of the radio's ability to mediate the communication of sounds on the one hand and cinema's ability to mediate the communication of not just image and possibly sound, but reality on the other. The final shots in the film are an editor's trick of a prominent building collapsing upon itself by turning inward to the center. Shots of this scene are interspersed with shots of a pendulum swinging faster and faster, possibly suggesting Vertov's wish that the collapse of such institutions as those he confronts in this film be brought about sooner rather than later. For a film without plot, actors, or theater, Vertov surely conveys a host of messages likely understood with far greater impact in his own time. He also makes extensive use of a very wide variety of camera and editing techniques in composing the scenes he was able to find in reality and those he had to procure as real in order to present this message. He desired that the “ideal cinema of the future [be] overwhelmed by life as it is.”13

12 Ibid. 13 Tsivian, Man With the Movie Camera, quoting Dziga Vertov.

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