Tag Archives: Man With a Movie Camera

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.

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

Win tickets to watch the greatest silent films of all time at BFI Southbank

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Man With a Movie Camera
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Man With a Movie Camera

Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of the Greatest Films of All Time attracted a lot of attention earlier this summer, when the critics toppled Citizen Kane off the number one spot, using Vertigo as a battering ram. Of far more interest to us was the fact that three, yes, three silents made their way into the top 10, with Battleship Potemkin skulking just outside.

This is great news for silent fans in that airy-fairy way that we like to see our best-loved titles acknowledged – and these three films are undoubtedly classics. They are my favourite, Murnau’s sublime Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Dreyer’s unforgettably cathartic The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vertov’s exhilarating experiment Man With A Movie Camera. There is a more substantial reason to get excited though: all the films in the Sight & Sound top 10 will be shown at the BFI Southbank in September – and you’ll find these silents already on the calendar.

The news gets better. You can win a pair of tickets to any of these screenings and all you have to do is tell me how much you want to go. Complete one of these sentences in 15 words or fewer to win a pair of tickets to the screening of your choice – as well as a pair of tickets to the Call it a Classic? panel discussion at the beginning of the month. I’ll pick the best sentences with an independent judge and our decision will be final. So make your answer as wise, witty or profound as possible!

  • I want to see Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans because …
  • I want to see Man With a Movie Camera because …
  • I want to see The Passion of Joan of Arc because …

Email your answers to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with the name of your chosen film in the subject header by noon on Sunday 2 September 2012. For your information, the Passion and Movie Camera screenings will have live musical accompaniment. The Sunrise screening will have a musical score but not live music.