Man with a Movie Camera

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 28, 2015

I ask you! Is this the cockiest movie in film history? These young Soviet collaborators are so aware of their awesome technique, and so aggressive in pummeling us with it! They’re just as certain about what they’re saying, so confident about its absolute significance. You really can’t blame them. First, the virtuosity on display here really is awe-inspiring; it’s always fun to see previously self-pleased film students get all slump-shouldered and dispirited after watching this prodigy of a film. They hear footsteps, and then they’re trampled right over. Suddenly, apprehension. What’s the point of even trying?

As a matter of fact, Man With a Movie Camera is so bursting, cinematically speaking, you might compare it to Louis Armstrong’s roughly contemporary Hot Fives/Hot Sevens ensemble work. Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues even. They are, all of them, pretty well comprehensive anthologies of medium possibility. Carry on, self-pleased film students. But you’ll always be borrowing!

Back to you can’t really blame them—this is true at an intellectual or conceptual level as well. Here’s the world, so full of truth and error, of possibility and of the inequality that keeps us from it. So much of the world’s substance, so many of its opportunities and oppressions, are so obscured from view. That comes of ignorance, and from out-and-out injustice. Individuals are responsible, and systems or ideologies even more. We need change, and reform. We need help!

All of that, of course, is the cause for which the Revolution was undertaken, and all of its subsequent conflicts enjoined. In a smaller and yet stirringly emphatic way, Man with a Movie Camera re-stages or continues this conflict. For Dziga Vertov, the film’s mastermind—we had better add his enterprising brother Mikhail Kaufmann, the cameraman of the film’s title, and editor Elizabeth Svilova (also Vertov’s wife)—the solution lies in Marx, in a constantly renewed Revolutionary spirit, and in the foregrounded apparatus of documentary cinema.

More pointedly, especially with regard to that last idea, the solution is them! There’s an inconsistency—not, I think, a hypocrisy—in the idea of these supremely talented, deeply convicted firebrands. It’s a Marxist given that every worker is equal in importance, equal in deserving access to the nation’s means and resources. MwaMC is positively rapturous, quite deeply believing in the way that it illustrates and testifies to this notion. What heroic, what titanic labour is featured here, and how beautifully it is featured. And it’s not only labour that we’re seeing. In addition to some quite pointed and frequently amusing critique of lingering bourgeois indulgence in this revolutionary society, Vertov et al. also give us heroic and titanic recreational endeavour, in addition to the most vivid and ardent kinds of plain, outright living.

But if every worker is equal, then some workers are still just a little more equal than others. Once again, this isn’t hypocrisy, and it’s certainly not George Orwell. It’s youth! It’s talent, confidence, conviction, joy. And artistry, which is to say the revolutionary artist, who does his beloved comrades one better by putting everything into place, and providing the coherent vision that gives us the courage and wherewithal to carry on.

Stalin prevailed, of course, and blasted all of these bright hopes. And yet these hopes remain with us. Better than that: these hopes are constant and benevolent realities, right here in the democratic west. This is the British documentary film movement, the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office. This is Canada’s National Film Board, the BBC, public television and radio, National Endowments for the proliferation of the Arts and the Humanities. Nothing remotely communistic about it all, either (though I know some of you disagree). It’s simply that profit motive is replaced by the prudent use of public funds to creatively address things that commerce is almost never interested anyway. Vertov’s marvelous film is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Look out! Amazing stuff.