In the 86 years that have passed since its premiere, Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera” hasn’t missed a beat. The film is revelatory—a kaleidoscopic vision of the past, a prediction for today. Last Friday, a 35mm print of the silent film was screened at the Dryden Theatre alongside a live performance by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-person musical group. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator from the George Eastman Museum—which runs the theatre—helped reconstruct the score, along with the Alloy Orchestra, based on Vertov’s original notes.
According to Usai, the film was meant to redefine or demolish the notions of documentary film that existed upon its original release. The film follows in the same tradition as Walther Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City.” However, Vertov’s work differentiates itself in vision, creativity and experimentation. The screening on Friday only reaffirmed its place in the documentary film canon. In recent years, polls by Sight & Sound Magazine, which is published by the British Film Institute, have ranked “Man With a Movie Camera” as the greatest documentary and eighth greatest film of all time. These polls are by no means definitive, but they do clue us into the contemporary critical view of the film.
Before Friday’s screening, Usai read from a photocopy of Vertov’s notes for the score, demonstrating his attempt to “reproduce as accurately as possible [Vertov’s] original instructions.”
The film loosely follows a cameraman who explores a city in the Soviet Union; in reality, the man and Vertov are both filming four different Soviet cities: Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. The man films from rooftops and below a train; inside a coal mine and on a crane above a waterfall. He films children on the street; men and women at work; and depicts the sexuality of Soviet-era beaches without the condescension or discrete paranoia that you might expect.
The Alloy Orchestra’s live performance was spot-on throughout; adding sound effects like honking and sirens, the three members of the orchestra proved their worth to the film as a whole.
In the film, the cameraman’s city montage juxtaposes man and machine in an attempt to realize Vertov’s vision. And, perhaps most presciently, Vertov portrays an audience that is watching what we (as an audience) are watching. The discourse around labor is at the center of this. In “WE: Variant of a Manifesto,” Vertov laid out his vision for labor’s ideal, revolutionary representation in film through the “affirm[ation] [of] the future of cinema by denying its present.” He wrote: “In revealing the machine’s soul, in causing the worker to love his workbench, the peasant his tractor, the engineer his engine, we introduce creative joy into all mechanical labor, we bring people into closer kinship with machines, we foster new people.” The montages in the film speed up and slow down; they make passionate the dispassionate.
A repeating image in the film is a camera lens overlaid upon a human eye. The camera lens closes; its aperture gets smaller and smaller. It’s the image that the film fittingly ends with. It’s almost prophetic: the eye stays open even as the camera closes, a now apt metaphor for the shuttering of once original, unpretentious film theaters.
“Man With a Movie Camera” is a radical film that has become brutally forgotten with the shuttered halls of theaters that showed films on 35mm. The only parallel today to “Man With A Movie Camera” is the albeit dystopian rise of IMAX and CGI in today’s films; one that, when repeated blockbuster after blockbuster, seems to be more boredom and hypnosis-inducing than freeing.
I would argue that “Man With a Movie Camera” goes further than any other film I have seen in transforming the myopia of life to something fundamentally different. It clues us into what cinema is able to do both theoretically and practically. From a film originally released in 1929 in a country that no longer exists, perhaps the best we can ask for is “newness,” some sort of acknowledgement of the present. And, above all, Vertov succeeds in this.
Schaffer is a member of the class of 2016.