The Man With The Movie Camera (1929)
Genre: Silent Avant-Garde Documentary (Soviet Union)
Starring: Russian cities, its people, and the cameraman shooting them.
Directed By: Dziga Vertov
Overview: In this film, declared as an experiment in filmmaking, the director attempts to create a film without a plot, without actors, without script or structured narrative. In short, creating an Avant-Garde Film.
Acting: The man who goes around a 'typical modern Russian city' is without a doubt an expert at capturing and keeping the essence of the candid. From children to Babushkas, we see the faces of joy and hardship, little moments of the slices of life that make up a day without context, leaving the 'why' open to as much interpretation as you would have when passing someone laughing in the street. This manner of passive observance says that people make up a place, without forgetting that the place is the primary focus.
Cinematography: Luckily for me this director only has one other film available to me on DVD, because yet again another master of cinematography has made me reel from his astonishing talent at montage-making to the point of slowing my exploration of the works of the Silent Era. Like the other Russian geniuses of his age, Vsevolod Podovkin, Sergei Eisentein, and the Austrian Erich von Stroheim, we have here an expert in the visual atmosphere. It's a gorgeous movie from beginning to end. I kept looking at how much time was left, and was saddened at every instance, knowing that it was approaching its end.
Script: The most unfortunate thing about this film is the subtitles. We are told from the very beginning that there will be no use of intertitles, no 'standard script', yet storefronts and garbage cans with obvious Russian on them were translated. Only in two instanced did I feel it helped enhance the understanding of the artist's vision (a couple signing a marriage certificate, while the next couple signed divorce papers), but I often found the black-outlined yellow subtitles an unwelcome distraction. It was a touch disappointing to be reminded so often that this was the past, retouched in the here and now. Less would have been more.
Plot: Ironically, this story has more of a plot than most similar experiments in the Avant-Garde. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, though intensely similar comes nowhere as close to greatness as this does, simply because rather than a day in the life of a city, we are given a character to follow, not simply the passage of time. This experiment follows an evolutionary process that starts with a man capturing film, then continues with editing and finally showing it to an audience. There's an interesting linear flow that those more rooted in the left brain will appreciate as 'continuity'.
Mood: There is a beautifully hectic air about our cameraman as he goes atop buildings to shoot the city streets teeming with crowds, or in a car as he zooms in on the passengers in the one just a few feet away, or best of all the shot of our hero, looking through the lens of the camera lying on railroad tracks as the train speeds towards his head. It's obvious how much fun this documentarist is having, and that joyous exploration is certainly contagious.
Overall Rating: 84% (Happy To Be The Man Watching Him)
Aftertaste: I was freaking out, mouth agape, blinking and confused, squinting my eyes from time to time... pissed off frankly, wondering why this kind of thing is no longer in our theaters. Mourn the death of modern film by showing this at the funeral. Praise the advent of the DVD generation, for bringing obscure stuff like this to our attention.