Dziga Vertov’s The Man With A Movie Camera

Volume 22, No. 2
March 2003

By Alan Berliner

When it comes to the important things in life, there’s a first time only once. First steps. First day of school. First job. First apartment. First love…. I wish I could say I recall the first film I ever saw, but that event has long since faded into the blur of childhood. My parents -- who never imagined I would ever ask such a question -- don’t remember either. Now that I’m old enough to keep track of such things, I’ve sadly come to realize that most of the films I see are strictly one-night stands. The first time is usually the only time.

Fortunately, there is an eclectic group of films that deserve a special place in my pantheon of “first times” – films that mark important moments in the genealogy of my evolution as a filmmaker. I’ll always remember the first time I saw Citizen Kane, Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight , Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, Michael Snow’s Wavelength or L’Atalante by Jean Vigo -- films with whom I’ve since developed an ongoing long-term relationship.

Of all my first times though, there’ll always be my “best” first time. Dziga Vertov’s, Man With A Movie Camera not only intoxicated me with the magic of filmmaking, but was also the first film I’d ever seen that I wished I had made myself. Considering the fact that I hadn’t yet made a film at that point in my life, I knew I had just seen something profound and unsettling. Here was a film that seemed to embody everything I could ever hope to accomplish in films of my own one-day. It left me tremendously inspired. And really jealous.

Made in 1929, it’s part experimental essay, part documentary, part portrait, part cine-poem, and part city symphony -- a virtuoso, cross-genre film that speaks fluently to filmmakers of all denominations. Filled with visual rhymes, perceptual jokes, self-referential gestures, and a temporal structure transfigured as musical form, it’s also a day in the life of a city interwoven with the rhythms of the life cycle -- a lyrical compendium of images from birth to death. Simply put, Man With A Movie Camera is as close as I’ve ever seen to a film about everything.

Man With A Movie Camera taught me how to think cinematically. How one person alone with a camera could find beauty, meaning and metaphor in the world simply by immersing in the flow of daily life, and looking around. For Vertov, the city was a studio; his visual laboratory, an unending source of transcendent detail and surprise.

But it doesn’t stop there. The film is a virtual catalogue of image making -- shots move forward, backward, they’re animated, superimposed, layered, enlarged, fragmented, slowed down, sped up, frozen -- and the way it’s all put together makes it one of the most sophisticated films ever made. The role of editing is revealed as a process of discovery; as a means of creating a flow of thought – a cross between the logic of language and the energy of music. Man With A Movie Camera unfolds as a series of visual equations, inviting the viewer to participate in the process of making connections between images; it is the cinematic textbook for learning the mathematics of montage.

Dziga Vertov (his name means spinning top or perpetual motion) has created a newsreel for the ages -- a film that’s avant-garde both politically and aesthetically. His Kino-Eye manifesto advocated a radical politics of revolution and reinvention in the ardently futurist rhetoric of the era. He found the tool of his vision in a machine -- the movie camera – and its most elegant expression in Man With A Movie Camera. Created in the spirit of celebrating proletarian dedication -- an ode to work – it made me forever think of filmmaking as a field of play -- never as a job. And to this very day, every time I see it, I’m tempted to run outside with my camera and begin my own city symphony.