Man with a Movie Camera
Movie poster by Jaishree Garg (All rights reserved)
With no actors, story, or a made-up set, Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a movie camera” is a one-of-a-kind film that takes its audience on a scintillating cinematic journey. This montage (a more fitting description of this docu-film) showcases the fast-paced urban life of four cities of the Soviet Union. While the movie largely showcases the social lives and ways of the city dwellers – the man who follows these people around with the camera comes out as a strong character, who is, in his unique way, taking the audience through a narrative without words. While the movie doesn’t follow a script or dwells on a definitive subject, it can be seen that the man and the camera largely remain the subject of the film.
Right from the beginning one can see that Vertov and his team showcase subtle portrayals of the imperfections of the paced-up urban life along with the fallibility of that time’s socialist as well as capitalist regime. Though not directly influencing the idea of wrong and right, they run a commentary on the new industrial age, the differences in the lifestyle of the laborers and the upper middle class, and the robotic nature of humans mirroring the machines. Since the entire movie is made in fast motion, it moves at a seemingly fast pace, beginning with a city that is lazy and asleep before progressing to a city full of life and labor; work and play; humans and machines.
The film is said to be a pioneer in popularizing techniques like collision editing, double exposure, fast motion, freeze frames, and jump cuts. Given its technical complexity, the film took 3 long years to complete and after much anticipation and criticism was finally released for public viewing in 1929.
When the movie was released it was heavily criticized for its focus on “form over content” approach, but almost 80 years later it was reevaluated and was ranked eighth in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the world’s best films. Even after all this time, the movie holds its place in the society, aptly describing the stark differences between different classes of the society, the fast-paced nature of urbanization, and astonishing similarities between humans and machines.
Thoughts and Observations from the Movie
What is a city? Wait, before you answer that, think of what is a human in relation to your definition of a city. Once you figure the answer to these two, ponder over what the fundamentals of living in a city are; What makes a place a city; how do humans behave within a city? What shapes the lives of the city dwellers; and how do you and I shape these cities and societies with our view of the world.
I believe that this movie revolves around a lot of these questions, answering a lot of them indirectly. By showcasing the eventful yet repetitive routines of people from different sect of the society, it attempts to make you think of your place and contribution to a city by merely existing and going about your day mechanically. I certainly don’t think the movie points to anything specific and labels them good or bad; right or wrong, but merely exhibits an interesting observation of the lives of urban dwellers through an experimental cinematic experience.
The movie starts with the man with the camera himself, waking up before the rest of the city to capture it. There is also a seemingly slow portrayal of the city in the beginning – a city that is asleep, a city that is waiting to wake up and get started with its day’s work. As the day progresses, we start to see a shift in the pace – the once slow and sleepy city is charged up, moving about – almost like someone pressed the “on” button on a machine.
My first thought after watching the movie was just how mechanical our lives had become in relation to the cities we lived in. But as I pondered a little more on the concept of cities in relation to humans, I realized that the human body has always been mechanical. If a human body is isolated from its thoughts and feelings, it is essentially a systematic machine that shuts down and starts up during operating intervals. Then why did the idea of industrialization and mechanization bother me so much? Sure, industrialization as a whole took over the agrarian society, where humans were considered more in touch with their nature. But was that the real human nature at all? It’s a confusing thought that can be debated to infinity.
Even though the movie was heavily criticized for lacking a solid content or context, I think that throughout the movie you see a theme that moves around various aspects of the city, which captures the small details of life, death, marriage, divorce, work, play, and leisure and in the backdrop covers the fundamental changes brought about by urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism.
Given the fact that Vertov was a marxist, the idea of capitalism, which borrowed heavily from industrialization, was shunned by him, glimpses of which can be read in his book Kino-eye. However, I believe that in spite of Vertov’s cause against capitalism, the movie stays largely positive by showcasing the union of humans with machines, making one obsolete without the other. The constant display of a variety of machines, including machines used to shoot and develop movies show that Vertov is not really against the idea of urbanization or industrialization, but is merely intrigued by the pace of it all and wants his audience to form their own perceptions of the same. There is also the possibility that Vertov is not merely trying to portray the similarities between human and machines, but the similarities of the two to cinema? Isn’t cinema all about mass production and consumption, much like the age of industrialization? The only difference between the two being- images in the case of cinema and consumer goods in the case of industrialization.
An interesting comparison can also be made between Vertov’s portrayal of the Soviet Union and the India of 1929. While the west was rapidly moving towards industrialization, India was rebelling against the Britishers by boycotting all mass produced, factory-made goods. In India, during the 1930s, a different kind of machinery was gaining prominence. You must have guessed it by now – I’m talking about the Charkha. Though mechanical in nature, the Charkha made human touch compulsory, making the human hand more powerful than a machine. This stark difference is quite metaphorical resembling the difference between the perception of the west and the East as well. In the movie, Vertov shows men and women in the same light, doing similar chores, getting groomed, playing sports, working, and having fun at the beach. This portrayal was true to the nature of the Soviet’s, where both men and women thrived. However, the story was starkly different in India, where the portrayal of the city would have had the men doing multiple things outside their homes, while women would have been captured inside their homes.
This legroom for observation and perception is another thing that makes this movie a delight to watch, opening you up to new ways of looking at debatable topics such as industrialization, capitalism, socialist realism, and urbanization.
For a film that had no definitive, popular actors, or even a theater, Man with a Movie Camera surely conveys a host of messages that could be understood not just during 1929, but is likely understood with greater impact in even today’s time around the world. As we rapidly move towards globalization and technological advancements, we’re once again moving to a mechanized age, where usage of machinery is making our hands obsolete and cinema is venturing into exciting experiments. If we missed the point of “Man with a camera” being just a cinematic experience, we sure get it now – after all we’ve finally found the sanity to appreciate this classic silent cinematic experience and regard it as one of the best movies made in the history of cinema.
Note – This blog article is part of the seminar art series at Srishti Institute of art and design on the topics that fall under the category – “What is a City?”