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Arts & Life

A Restored Avant-Garde Classic, 'The Man With A Movie Camera' Is An Ecstatic Experience

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courtesy Flicker Alley
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Made in 1929 and silent, it's been called "the best documentary ever made." Now this recently restored avant-garde classic is available on Blu-ray.

The title is The Man with a Movie Camera. The director is Dziga Vertov, which is not his real name – that was Denis Kaufman. Born in Poland and an enthusiastic believer in the Russian Revolution, Vertov made agitational-propaganda films for the fledgling Soviet Union (which for a while took the official position that the cinema was one of the wonders of the new world). The name the filmmaker gave himself, Dziga Vertov, means "spinning top," and when you this film you'll understand why he took this name.

The subject of the movie is something like a day in the life of a Soviet city. Vertov filmed in Moscow, Kiev, and a couple of other locations. The film starts in the early morning and ends at the close of the day. The real subject, though, is cinema itself. It comes out of the movement called Constructivism, which believed that art could construct realities, and so Vertov created in cinema the picture of a city and the picture of a day.

The thrilling, brilliant beginning shows a movie theater. The scene is all anticipation of something miraculous. The seats are up, as if at attention, no people are in the space, and no film on screen. As if on cue, the seats go down, people enter, and a small orchestra sits poised to play. The projectionist threads the film in the projector and brings together two electrified carbon rods. There were no bulbs at the time; the light comes from the arc that jumps between the two rods. The film starts to run in the projector, light hits the screen, and everything comes to life.

It's an ecstatic experience.

Aside from joining images from different places to look like one city, Vertov compresses time and events. Right from the early slow-paced shots of people waking up – some in their beds, some homeless on the street – the speed of the action increases. The film assembles heroic sequences of the Soviet industrial machine, at first still and then, when the workday begins, spinning, pumping and manufacturing. The scope of human life just erupts off the screen. Marriages, divorces, births, deaths, work, sports, bars and people parading on holiday.

Vertov reverses the directions of objects in motion so you can see them as only film can present. He splits the screen. The very first images of the film show a close-up of a movie camera and a cameraman with his tripod superimposed on the top. He's the hero of the movie and he's played by Mikhail Kaufman, Vertov's brother. As an aside, there was a third brother, Boris Kaufman, winner of the cinematography Oscar for Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront.

Vertov's cameraman climbs atop hydroelectric dams and goes down into coal mines. He's everywhere that life exists. But Vertov also brings in the editor of the film – who just happens to be his wife, Elizaveta Svilova – and shows her editing a sequence of a sporty horse-drawn carriage just as he shows the exact sequence she's editing.

The Man with a Movie Camera is great fun to watch. As a statement and demonstration of a philosophy of cinema, it's stunning. The opening titles, which are full of Soviet-style assertions, inform the audience that this film is like none other. It has no intertitles; it has no script. In fact, the film aims to achieve what Vertov calls the complete separation of cinema from the language of literature and theater.

That's a lot of crowing, but The Man with a Movie Camera pulls it off. Vertov's "camera-eye" creates a fabulous world of poetic, symphonic motion. The restoration by Serge Bromberg and Lobster Films in Paris and the Eye Film Institute of The Netherlands looks gorgeous. And for a topper, the accompaniment by the boisterous Alloy Orchestra is delirious, just like the film.

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