Documentary, Not Drama

Man with a Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera makes self-reflexivity political.

You are being filmed.

Before that landmark Soviet film, artists who foregrounded the act of creation usually prioritised individual experience over common purpose.

Even when a self-reflexive work concerned itself with politics, such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, subjectivity took precedence.

In Man with a Movie Camera, by contrast, we see how the film is made and how much work goes into getting shots and editing them together, but we aren’t given much insight into the individuals responsible for that work.

There are obvious similarities between Man with a Movie Camera and other films from the 1920s that documented everyday life rather than restaging it on a set. Like Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, Vertov’s film begins at dawn and then charts a day’s happenings.

But there is one crucial difference.

Instead of making the camera disappear, as was standard for both conventional narrative features and artful documentaries, Man with a Movie Camera keeps reminding us of its presence.

We see the lens. We see it move forward and back. We see a blurry shot come into focus.

As is the case in most European languages, the Russian word for camera lens contains “objective”.  And Vertov treats it as a promise worth keeping.

Even when we see a close-up of people’s faces, it’s rare to have a sense of their inner life. The most common expression conveys surprise or bemusement at the fact that they are being filmed.

Because Vertov communicated his artistic intentions with extraordinary clarity, we know that this apparent superficiality was deliberate.

In the years before making Man with a Movie Camera, the Russian filmmaker repeatedly explained that realising his medium’s full potential required breaking with the past. This meant forsaking the idea that cinema should adopt preexisting modes of storytelling.

Long before celebrated German playwright Bertolt Brecht developed his concept of epic theatre, Vertov anticipated its most radical innovation.

Instead of facilitating identification with characters, an art adequate to the spirit of revolution should facilitate identification with the apparatus itself.

Rather than vicariously experience the joys and sorrows of fictional people, moviegoers should reflect on the complex network of relations structuring their everyday lives.

But Vertov went even further than Brecht.

Brecht still believed it was valuable for audiences to follow a made-up story, provided they did so from a distance, dispassionately.

Vertov wanted to dispense with the storytelling impulse itself.

Over and over, he distinguished between the mainstream films dominating screens worldwide and his own work, which repudiated every one of their conventions.

At one point, he made an especially illuminating analogy, suggesting that the need for those conventions represented an addiction:

The effect of the usual drama on the steady viewer is that of the customary cigar or cigarette on the smoker. Poisoned by film-nicotine, the viewer sticks like a leech to the screen that tickles his nerves. A film-object made of newsreel footage will do much to sober this viewer, and, if we’re speaking of taste, will seem to him an unpleasant antidote.

Everything Vertov did as a filmmaker was intended to break moviegoers out of bad habits.

From his perspective, the documentary footage recorded by the cameraman and assembled by the editor was more than enough to produce a compelling film. It wasn’t necessary to shape this content by superimposing tales taken from somewhere else.

At the same time, Vertov recognised that there was an insuperable limit to this plenitude. Except for shots taken through a window, in which the camera’s reflection can be seen together with its subject on the other side, what we see on the screen is invariably shadowed by what we cannot see, the camera that is giving us the power of remote sight.

Part of what makes Man with a Movie Camera’s self-reflexivity so impressive is that it continually reminds us of this fundamental truth.

A little over fifteen minutes into the film, there is a very short sequence in which we see the bodies of men from ground level as they pull carts full of rocks.

We can see how primitive and worn-out the footwear of these workers is and how hard labour has affected their gait.

Then we cut to an establishing shot from overhead as a cart passes over a man wearing a beret lying prone on the ground. He pushes up with his arms, gets his feet under him and stands up.

With the help of the pause button on a remote control, it’s easy to play back these eleven seconds and confirm that the final shot shows us the position of the cameraman who captured the ground-level shots.

We see what the man with a movie camera sees while prone on the ground, captured on film. Then, we see the position from which he sees it.

To document a man with a movie camera, it is necessary to have a second person with a movie camera. Following this realisation to its logical conclusion, to document that second person would require a third person with a movie camera and so on.

It happens so fast that many viewers might not register what they see.

This is why Vertov made sure to include many sequences of this kind in the film, ensuring the redundancy that makes communication more effective.

We periodically see the camera’s reflection, creating a palimpsest with the spectacle in front of the lens. We also see numerous shots that recall the shot of the cameraman filming the carts, in which the act of filming is shown.

As his analogy to nicotine addiction indicates, Vertov realised that moviegoers raised on conventional film dramas might need help understanding what he was trying to achieve.

Although he was devoted to creating new men and women with the help of cinema, Vertov knew that their retrograde predecessors must be dealt with.

That’s why Man with a Movie Camera begins with a title sequence explaining why it doesn’t have intertitles. And why the film itself is bookended by shots of a movie theater, in which we eventually see people watching some of the same footage that we see directly.

At first, though, the theatre is empty. The seats are folded down as if by magic before we see people occupying them.

Vertov is trying to remind us that we are the audience as much as the people in the theatre.

Back when Man With a Movie Camera could only be seen in public, the full impact of this montage was latent. Now that most people do not watch films in theatres, the sequence acquires a retroactive significance.

It would no doubt distress Vertov greatly to realise how tenacious our addiction to conventional film dramas has proven to be.

But there would also be reasons for him to take heart.

The availability of inexpensive cameras has enabled millions of people worldwide to exercise the documentary impulse. As a result, the percentage of films made in a studio, using professional actors and a fictional scenario, is decreasing steadily.

If contemporary audiences give Man with a Movie Camera a chance, Dziga Vertov’s antipathy towards anything “theatrical” in cinema and even towards linear storytelling itself can teach us how to see in ways that go beyond narrative as we have known it.

Even more importantly, his masterpiece reminds us to remember the camera’s presence precisely when we are most inclined to forget it.

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Screenshot courtesy of mike lit. Published under a Creative Commons license.