The most obvious comparison to The Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom) is Godfrey Riggio's mesmerizing 1983 Koyaanisqatsi, which wordlessly paints images of the modern technological world running amuck. However, almost mind blowing is the realization that Dziga Vertov's cinematic experiment took place near the end of the silent era in 1929 and in the Soviet Union, making his project even more remarkable as a film well before its time.
Despite decided differences, a more profound comparison lies in Luis Bunuel's breakthrough deliberately avant-garde Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). Both 1929 experimental films contain surreal imagery and were created for artistic purposes to explore new directions for cinema, and both have influenced filmmakers ever since. Although Vertov primarily wanted to explore the technological possibilities of cinematography and the visual medium, while Bunuel focused on shocking audiences with representations of dreams, they both converge with cinematic expression that forces audiences to form their own meanings from the wordless imagery. Both films are now staples in film appreciation classes and are universally studied by cinematographers—justifiably so!
Vertov's technical approach to film stems from his background. The Polish-born filmmaker studied music and worked on the first Soviet newsreel, Kinonedelia. Like Bunuel's seventeen-minute short, Vertov's 68-minute documentary bears repeated viewings; in fact, it demands them, because no way can any human possibly comprehend its essence in one sitting. Impossible! So rich is Vertov's film that it will hold up to multiple screenings and close analysis that will reveal new secrets each time. Thus, I operate at a handicap presently after seeing the film as a whole just twice (so far).
After a brief prolog warning that no intertitles, plot, or theatrical devices will be used, Vertov bookends the documentary inside a movie theater, visually signaling that we are to witness the film process itself in inventive ways. While people file into the theater, the seats rhythmically move up and down to the music (Michael Nyman's score is based on Vertov's notes) as the projectionist prepares for the screening, actually threading a copy of The Man with a Movie Camera into the projector, a motif that must thrill Kiaroastami and others who love to use "film within a film" conceits.
Vertov strives to create a "truly international, absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature." He succeeds remarkably, despite having an artistic fallout with his cinematographer brother (Mikhail Kaufman), who would never work with him again. Although he photographs urban life in Moscow and Odessa from dawn to dusk, the real star of the film is the cameraman, along with the film process itself. With amazing fluidity, the film cuts between scenes, the camera filming the scene, and the editing process without losing a step. Furthering the connection between humans and camera technology is one scene that shows a close-up of a woman's eyes, juxtaposed with the camera and its shutter along with window shutters. Another effective sequence initially shows still photographs of people along with the editing process before revealing these same people in moving images. Other effective sequences draw parallel in movement or contrasts between horizontal and vertical motions.
Vertov disdains fictional pieces, and he goes to great lengths to record his subjects without having the camera influence the scene, using a telephoto lens or a hidden camera to capture people in their natural state. One situation needs no such pretext: A young man suffers an accident, so he is in no condition to act for the camera and neither are the people performing first aid and getting him to the hospital. In another scenario where people obviously play to the camera, Vertov involves the cameraman within the frame—a tracking shot achieved by filming from another automobile running parallel with the subjects.
Much easier to photograph objectively are machines, and many are captured on film, often visually compared again to the camera and to humans. A definite rhythm accompanies both humans and machines—the gradual waking process that kicks into high gear during the productive middle part of the day before the winding down relaxing stage, where machines shut down and people head to the beach. Always, however, the camera is at work, just as the human eye proves to be the so-called "window of the soul" the camera is forever open to capture the essence of life. Vertov does his best to demonstrate this potential, providing a cinematography primer of basic fundamentals to serve as a textbook for all time.
Credit Vertov's wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, for her creative editing work. Unlike his brother, she stood by his side and assisted on other projects after The Man with a Movie Camera. Now regarded as an icon, this amazing film is one that cinema lovers will want to add to their collection because it's one of those films that you simply can't get completely after one or two screenings. I've turned my rented copy back, but I realize that I'm not done with Vertov's film yet—words inadequately describe his visual expression. For that you have to experience the Image Entertainment DVD firsthand, with its insightful (though dry) commentary by Yuri Tsivian and the updated musical score. This belongs on the essential list. Vertov's pioneering experiment stands as an icon and, like Bunuel's landmark surrealistic creation, has forever changed film history.