Tag Archives: Dziga Vertov

Revolution: New Art for a New World review: where art and politics clash

Who among us can honestly say they haven’t got their history from the movies? Sometimes, at least. And while Hollywood epics are known to take liberties with the facts, some movies seem to be more immediate sources. Take Soviet history. If you are a silent film aficionado you will have seen how Soviet cinema is constantly re-presenting events from its own recent past. And even if you don’t mistake reconstruction for documentary fact, these films provide their own window on history. The government involvement is often painfully clear, but that in its turn provides its own commentary on the events as presented on screen. A new documentary about Soviet art history, Revolution: New Art or a New World, recounts a familiar anecdote about Eisenstein’s October (1928), a stirring re-enactment of the 1917 revolution. On the day of the premiere, Stalin himself entered Eisenstein’s editing room, and ordered that all scenes involving Trotsky be excised.

So the film, intended to create a certain impression of the workers’ struggle, and of Lenin’s leadership, loses a fragment of what truth remains inside the propaganda. But, of course, this story is almost well known enough to be a companion-text to the film. October becomes known as the story of the 1917 uprising, but without Trotsky, on Stalin’s orders. That said, I hadn’t realised quite how much exaggeration went into October’s depiction of the assault on the Winter Palace. Revolution put me right on that too.

Rodchenko Photographs. © Foxtrot Films
Rodchenko Photographs. © Foxtrot Films

What I’m saying is that context is always important, and this documentary, released on DVD next week is especially welcome as a survey not of all Soviet history, but the art scene, and its relationship with the changing political regimes. For Lenin, art was the best form of propaganda, and he channeled plenty of funds into hiring artists to make monuments and sculptures of socialist heroes. Never mind that many of those artists had absorbed the revolutionary spirit of the times themselves and felt passionately that their work should not be beholden to religion or state. There is a great line here about the anarchism of Malevich’s work coinciding with Bolshevism, rather than there being an cause-and-effect at work between the two.

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Instant expert: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Name: Man with a Movie Camera

Date: 1929

So is this like Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman? Well yes a little, but mostly, very much no.

Not a comedy then? Not American either, it’s a Soviet documentary, a City Symphony in fact.

I know about those – which city does it portray? Erm. Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev. And Odessa. But you’re not always sure which is which.

A fake then? No, it’s art.

Which means it’s not a factual film at all? Well that is a tricky question. A group of Sight & Sound critics recently voted it the greatest documentary of all time. So that’s that, but I’d argue it isn’t really a documentary at all. As is often the case, I agree with David Cairns, who calls it a “Non-fiction Film Thing” in a new video essay.

That is not so catchy. How about just “Film” then? The stated intent of Man With a Movie Camera was to make a film that owed nothing to the other arts, literature, theatre, painting. Check out the opening intertitle. “This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

That sounds amazing. It is, full of astonishing cinematic tricks and playful philosophizing and passion. It is the most filmic of films and you should watch it, which is kinda the point of this conversation.

You always have an ulterior motive. Yes, I am sneaky that way. Man With A Movie Camera, my forgetful friend, was released last year in the cinema and on Blu-ray – my review is here.

I’ll read that later, I’m really busy. Asking silly questions must take up a good deal of your time. The TL;DR version of that review is that the cinema release of the movie was great, a gleaming restoration with a dazzling score by the Alloy Orchestra, but the Blu-ray release was not quite up to the same standard (although fans of the Michael Nyman score might overlook that).

I’ve missed my chance then. No. There is a new Blu-ray of Man With a Movie Camera in the shops – and it is the theatrical version that knocked my socks off last year. Put simply I recommend that you buy this version, from Masters of Cinema, forthwith, without delay.

Anything else to sweeten the deal before payday? LOTS. The aforementioned video essay by Davis Cairns and Timo Langer, and the not insubstantial matter of four of Vertov’s other important works (Kino-Eye, Kino-Pravda #21, Enthusiasm, Three Songs about Lenin). Plus an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Ian Christie, a booklet crammed with treats from the archives. And a very nice box.

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You can read more about the Masters of Cinema release here and buy it from lots of places including here.

Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

As of next week, Man With a Movie Camera could be coming to a big screen, or a Blu-ray machine, near you. And there’s always a good reason to watch Man With a Movie Camera again. First, because it’s such a stunning film: exhilarating, avant-garde and witty. And second, because each time you do, you’ll grapple with the questions it throws at you again – and just possibly come up with different conclusions. This magnificent movie may be a film studies set text, but it defies attempts at explanation, and in fact, it has a unique way of wriggling out of any category you might try to impose on it. Recently crowned top documentary of all time, it is also an experimental art film. It appears to be a City Symphony but it is a fraudulent one – filmed in three cities and naming none of them. Its absurdities of composition and action make the audience think of comedy, even cartoons and its trick cuts and frame manipulation are closer to animation than conventional film-making.

If I could rechristen this film as its director did himself when he went from plain David Kaufman to the far more evocative Dziga Vertov, I would call it Woman with a Moviola. The new name would be in honour of Yelizaveta Svilova, who edited the film with Vertov, and whom we see stitching together frames midway through the film. The man of the title clambers, and tilts and gets where the action is, that’s for sure, as any camera operator should do. But the magic of this film is in its elaborate construction, its celebration of those arts that are purely cinematic – not offcuts from other media. As Roger Ebert said when he reviewed the film in 2009: “It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it cinema.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Svilova is also arguably the least well-known of the “council of three” comprising herself, her husband Vertov and his brother-cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. And it seems appropriate to the film’s perversities to proclaim her the heroine: at this point, perhaps, the only way to look at Vertov’s film is sideways.

Continue reading Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control

Man With a Movie Camera: the greatest documentary of all time?

Two years ago, Dziga Vertov’s landmark art film Man With a Movie Camera crashlanded into the top 10 of the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Today, I can jubilantly announce that this year Movie Camera tops another Sight & Sound poll – the hunt for the Greatest Documentary of all time. There’s another silent in the top 10 too – the wondrous, beautiful, and controversial Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922).

1. Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

2. Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France 1985)

3. Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker (France 1982)

4. Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais (France 1955)

5. The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris (USA 1989)

6. Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin (France 1961)

7. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty (USA 1922)

8. The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda (France 2000)

9. Dont Look Back, dir. D.A. Pennebaker (USA 1967)

10. Grey Gardens, dirs. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (USA 1975)

Both of these films deserve endless discussion and analysis, it’s true – as do the others in the list, from Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) to Don’t Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967), but I want to linger on Vertov’s film for now. I think it’s rather special – but I am intrigued by its success in this poll. For me Man With a Movie Camera is really an art film, not a documentary, because it foregrounds technique and display above truth-telling and information-imparting. Not that it doesn’t do that too, but in the world of documentary film-making, City Symphonies have every right to push form over content, and Man With a Movie Camera is the most invigorating of all City Symphonies. This is a movie about the sheer joy and madness of film-making – stopmotion, superimposition, freeze-frame, split-screens, rewinds, acute angles and all. It exalts in the possibilities of photography and motion. From the opening scene in which the cinema seats slam down one by one, onwards, we are sure that this will be a movie about the movies, and all the more enjoyable for that. It’s as addictive as popcorn, as edifying as high art.

Is it worthy of comment that Man With a Movie Camera is in the ascendancy at a time when there is little good news coming out of Ukraine? I’m not sure – for most viewers, I suspect this film is lumped in with the less-specific categories labelled “Soviet”, “Silent” and “Arthouse”. But it always does us good to remember that far-away parts of the world are synonymous with more than the bad news that hits the headlines. This poll result reminds us that Ukrainian cinema, as showcased at last year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, shines in our global film heritage. There are, you’ll note, no British films in the top 10.

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Man With a Movie Camera at the Barbican, 29 May 2011

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

You can’t throw a plate in London this month without hitting a screening of a Russian silent film, what with Battleship Potemkin and the BFI’s Kino season, and the Barbican is getting involved too. The final episode in the cinema’s City Symphony strand is Dziga Vertov’s weird and wonderful Man with a Movie Camera. It’s a masterpiece of montage, with a whimsical sense of humour and a remarkable rhythm.


Dziga Vertov’s ‘city symphony’ creates a montage of daily life in Moscow (with some scenes shot in Odessa) and emerged as one of the most innovative and experimental films of the silent era. Stunning photography by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman depicts the pulse and energy of the city in the late 1920s, the people at work and play, and the machines that make the city tick. A landmark in avant-garde cinema.

The film will be shown on 35mm film, and will be accompanied by a live score from In the Nursery, a synth-based band from Sheffield which has soundtracked several silents. Here’s a review of their Man with a Movie Camera score from a performance in 1999.

Comprised of relatively lush, ‘intelligent’ techno, the music adds a contemporary feel to a film whose joyous celebrations of modernity in all its forms still seems fresh… Seeing the film for the first time, I found it almost overwhelming. Although In the Nursery’s techno is less ‘industrial’ than it could have been, its unashamed populism does Dziga Vertov proud.

Man with a Movie Camera screens at 4pm on Sunday 29 May 2011 at the Barbican Arts Centre. Tickets cost £10.50 or £8.50 online or £6.50 for members. You can buy them here.

Kino: Russian Film Pioneers season at BFI Southbank, May 2011

Strike (1925)
Strike (1925)

The Russians are coming to the BFI Southbank. In the year that sees the release of the restored Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin, the BFI is exploring Russian cinema with a seven-month programme: two months will be spent travelling through Russian cinema history, followed by a season of science-fiction and space documentaries, and a final season devoted to the director Alexander Sokurov.

It’s the first month that mostly concerns us, and the BFI is showing 12 silent features, plus a programme of early shorts (all playing twice) and a couple of educational events. That’s alongside Potemkin’s extended run and two special screenings with live scores (Eisenstein’s The Old and the New and Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia). Plus, don’t forget that Eisenstein’s October is on in April. It could be a little daunting, so here’s the Silent London guide to what’s on when and what it’s all about.

Some of these films are very rarely seen, or at least very rarely seen on the big screen. That’s a polite way of saying that a couple of them are the kind of favourites that do come round fairly regularly. Which is not to say that you should give them a miss, but this is a good opportunity to see some Russian rarities, so pick your screenings wisely. Unless, of course, you plan to see everything, in which case I tip my (fur) hat to you.

Continue reading Kino: Russian Film Pioneers season at BFI Southbank, May 2011

Silent films at the Glasgow Film Festival

Faust (Murnau, 1926)
Faust (Murnau, 1926)

The schedule for the Glasgow Film Festival has just been released and as expected there are plenty of great films old and new being screened as part of the event next month. Of special interest to this blog is the Music and Film Festival strand, which comprises documentaries about music and musicians as well as films shown with live scores. Not all of the films with live musical accompaniment are silents, but of course some are – and they look very exciting.

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