by Drew Martin
Earlier today I watched the eighth best film ever made and the best documentary of all time according to recent Sight and Sound polls. The movie, Man With a Movie Camera, is an experimental 1929 silent documentary film, by Dziga Vertov (named in the opening credits as the "author and supervisor" of this "experiment"), and was brilliantly edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. The footage and editing blew me away. I have never seen anything quite like it. Even though the day in a life theme has been overplayed for decades, this seminal cinematic journal is amazingly modern.
The film presents everyday life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. We see coal miners, drunks, athletes, dancers, factory workers, typists, sunbathers, horses, cars, trams, trains, ships...it is an endless montage. There is a funeral procession paired with a live birth, and a couple applying for a wedding registration followed by a couple getting a divorce. The film breathes life, even when you consider that almost everyone in it is now dead. The feeling of the film, beyond any kind of Marxist agenda, is that it is good to be alive.
I grew up thinking that the 60s and 70s had nothing on the Roaring 20s and this film really confirms that for me. It was a positive time between two horrific world wars. Almost all the women have short hair with a modern style, and they are really active and sporty. Their smiles from nearly a century past still make you glow. The downy hair on the back of a young woman, who wakes up and puts on her bra, makes you realize this film is not only a window to the past but a macroscopic lens on the details of life at that time.
Solid machines with spinning gears drinking oil are modern symbols of the day. And even though many of these visuals are of obsolete things and bygone ways, you still get a sense of how futuristic this time seemed. This includes the obvious excitement around the presence of the camera for this ambitious project, which seems in that era even more fascinating than all of our selfie gadgets and apps today.
I love this film, and feel like it has given me a closer look at humanity than anything ever made before or after it. I think it will always feel modern and fresh despite its age because of Vertov's vision and Svilova's genius editing. In fact, this film can only get more precious as it gets older because its energy frees it from a time and place.
The movie starts with the following manifesto text...
This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theatre (a film without actors, without sets, etc.). This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theatre and literature.
The common critique of media is that by using it to record life and by observing life through it we are missing the real thing. But this film supports media in the grandest way. The truth is that life is so fleeting and free flowing that media gives us the chance to capture some of its magic.
I was thinking about this the other day from a totally different place. A few years ago I saw a video by the band Warpaint and instantly fell in love with their music/them. They recently came through New York and were playing in a very small venue so I got a ticket to see them this past Tuesday night. The fact is I knew I would never be able to get as close to the band as you see them in the crystal clear videos and I knew the sound would be worse than a clean studio recording but there was that urge to just be in the same room with them and to cut through the layers of media separation. And then once that is accomplished there is a funny desire to record the moment even though it feels awkward doing so and you know the recording will be nothing like the feeling of the live performance.
Click below to see a One Minute Warpaint recording I made.
Click here to watch Man With a Movie Camera in its entirety with the Michael Nyman soundtrack, which I recommend.