Is ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ Brilliant, Boring or Both?

By  · Published on October 9th, 2012

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, Cole watches Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera for the first time and yawns while Landon attempts to defend the film as a necessary rebellious element of early filmmaking with some astounding visual metaphors. Sadly, the conversation does not devolve into a boxing match.

Landon: So we have the first movie on our list that’s about movies and filmmaking, which also happens to be one of the oldest in the Top 10. Since Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera aims to establish a unique filmmaking “language,” I thought it might be useful to test the theory of the film itself against the other films it’s placed with.

Did Man with the Movie Camera establish a language of film, and can we see that language play out in the other films in the S&S Top 8?

Cole: That’s an interesting angle. How do you mean?

Landon: Well, this film seems to be kind of a polemic in that it rejects the utilities of other art forms, namely theater and literature, to justify film as an art in its early years. I’m wondering if Vertov’s vision for film was more of less acted upon in film history, or if the institution of Hollywood, the pressures of storytelling, and even film sound prevented Vertov’s vision of a unique filmic language from happening elsewhere.

In other words, despite its Top 10 placement, did Man with the Movie Camera fail in its initial goals?

Cole: If those are the goals, and the movie’s introduction seems to cement that they are, then I can’t see how it succeeded on the whole. There are some excellent tonal moments in the S&S list (and in fantastic films not enshrined there) that eschew the need for story, but by and large, plot rules the day.

Landon: Yeah, on the one hand, there’s a film like The Searchers, an example of a film genre based in a popular literary genre, or The Rules of the Game which in some ways feels like the dynamics of theater. But I bet Vertov would have approved of 2001.

Cole: And yet, 2001 is nowhere near as unstructured as Man with a Movie Camera. It’s practically straight out of Robert McKee’s screenwriting class comparatively. Regardless, 2001 is an outlier while the bulk of the list (and the releases of today) show how steeped in a particular kind of storytelling movies have become.

Do you agree?

Landon: I do. And while I’m used to Russian filmmakers hating Hollywood, I find strange the notion that Vertov would see the character-based linear coherence of something like Tokyo Story uncinematic. But he did see film sound as the end of cinema as they knew it, specifically because of its transition to a word-based medium.

Cole: That’s what’s baffling to me – that he would truly believe that random assorted images would be or should be the aesthetic exclusive to filmmaking. In that, he failed on yet another level.

Landon: What’s that?

Cole: The introduction points to the bleachers when it comes to refusing the elements of other artforms, but watching the film, it seems obvious that he’s borrowed all of the aspects of still photography and simply given them “motion.” He dismisses core elements of other arts, but latches onto photography and chaos.

Landon: To be fair, the strict polemic of Man with the Movie Camera was of a time and of a place of cinematic polemics. Filmmakers like Vertov and Eisenstein were experimenting with film’s potential, which they felt had yet to be realized, and they thought it would be a powerful means of bringing people into modern life. Because the majority of Russia was illiterate, they tried to teach the Russian people a “cinematic language.”

But as you point out, whether that language is coherent in a way that we can interpret it concretely is something else entirely. With Eisenstein, it’s clear. A image + B image = C meaning.

With Vertov I’m not quite sure.

Cole: That seems exactly right. I’d go as far as to wager that you could rearrange a majority of the images in the film and show it to film enthusiasts without anyone knowing the difference. That seems ultimately problematic.

Landon: I keep waiting for the subplot about the woman in the bed miles away from the scary train to come back.

Cole: In my re-mixed version, she does. And she has a chainsaw for a hand.

Landon: Sounds great.

Cole: At the very least, he was right about sound. Yes, silent film was a profoundly necessary step in the process of making film universal, but it’s difficult to praise through the roof a movie that’s essentially a slide show.

If you can’t tell – I didn’t really care for this movie at all. But I have a very specific reason for it.

Landon: The fact that it’s propaganda made by the national cinematography associations? Where’s The Man with the Editing Bay, damn it!

Cole: Exactly. I felt 14% more communist after seeing it. Plus, while I can see a reason to praise it historically, I’m part of that annoying camp that sees art’s potential as a marriage of creativity and craftsmanship, so while there’s some creativity in being the first Dogme 95 filmmaker (Dogme 1929?), the craftsmanship just doesn’t seem to be there. Distinguishing this from amateur work would be very, very difficult.

Am I being too harsh on this Best Movie Ever?

Landon: Before I say yes, there must be at least individual shots that you found striking. The eyeball within the camera lens is pretty great. Thank you, Vertov, for making an image to put on every Intro to Film Studies syllabus ever.

Are there moments that worked for you?

Cole: Absolutely. The eye camera, the train sequences, some of the architectural shots. I’d love to hang some of them on my wall. And, yes, that was a jab at Vertov’s introductory dismissal. Take that, guy who’s been dead for 58 years!

Landon: Haha. 58 years is a long time.

Cole: You like it a bit more, I’m guessing?

Landon: It’s certainly not in my top 5 silent films (next week’s film is!), but I do defend its importance.

The historical argument is a relevant one here. Of course Man with the Movie Camera can’t be experienced the way it was, or intended to be, in 1929. But I think the movie is more important because cinema was hardly realized in any shape or form according to Vertov’s vision…

Cole: You think the artform needed a kick in the pants early on to allow for experimentation later?

Landon: Sort of. In a way, The Man with the Movie Camera is attempting to write a history that was never realized. Sound films were already being made in the US at this time. Think about it this way: the late 1920s was the first time filmmakers starting experimenting with the medium’s ability to do things besides represent sequential events, and they did so in a uniquely visual way.

They were just getting started, then sync sound came about and ruined the party. Imagine what movies might have come after this had sync sound not been invented until the late 1930s. Besides montage and juxtaposition, even in storytelling, there is something to say about the uniqueness of silent cinema. The General, Sunrise, and Passion of Joan of Arc are works of nearly completely visual filmmaking.

Cole: That sounds right, and the germinating seed of experimentation seems like an important one. The contentious relationship to sound is fascinating because I got a version of the movie without any background audio. And, unable to find one of the scores online, I set a Pandora station to Iron & Wine and let it roll while watching.

Silent films seem incredibly malleable that way. Almost unfinished by our traditional (now) standpoint.

Landon: Clearly, you should have chosen dubstep.

Cole: Hahahaha. That’s where I messed up. That factory would have REALLY come to life with Skrillex backing it up.

Landon: Skrillex is the Soviet montage filmmaker of our age.

But yeah, with a film like this you feel you can add to the experiment. This is probably the first film on this list that doesn’t feel like a sacred director’s vision that can’t be changed. And that’s not a knock at Vertov.

Cole: So maybe Vertov achieved something beyond his reach – delivering the first movie that welcomed remixing.

Landon: Well, it’s one of the first meta movies, that’s for sure.

Cole: You’ve helped me gain an even greater respect for a movie I hated watching.

Landon: Thanks. I first did that as a kid, when I got my brother to say “Well, I hate brussel sprouts, but I respect them.” Just as you convinced me The Searchers is more than another Western.

I have a question for you not about this movie, but about the logic of assembling lists like this in general.

Cole: Terrifying. Go ahead.

Landon: Man with the Movie Camera is certainly not “timeless,” but it is important. Many movies on this list are, to varying degrees, timeless and not. For instance, one has to understand a bit of history to appreciate what Kane accomplishes. What’s your take on the importance of timelessness for declaring films great?

Cole: Torn. As a construct, it seems sometimes self-fulfilling. If enough people declare something timeless and that echoes, the thing itself becomes timeless. It’s also insanely difficult to predict what will truly be “timeless.” Plus, it’s “timelessness” that seems to keep younger films (you know, at 40 years old) off of great lists.

You’ve caught me coming off a highly-rated movie that I didn’t like, but is “historical importance” really a reason to keep this movie where it’s at? Is there really no movie from 1970 and beyond that’s better than this?

Landon: I can think of plenty of other films to put in the #8 slot. I’m just saying that, while a movie that speaks to people beyond the time of its release is an accomplishment, I want to argue in favor of movies that still feel rooted in the time and place they were made, because that can be a fascinating key to the ways of perceiving the ways of perceiving the world in a foreign context.

It’s the closest we’ll get to time travel for another sixty years.

Cole: Maybe we just drift toward the universal. Art’s subjectivity can be the most difficult thing for us to accept, and a movie thoroughly rooted in its time is a direct reminder of that. A reminder that the things we appreciate now may seem awful to future generations (or would have seemed awful to audiences of the past).

Landon: There should be a S&S Top 10 of movies that went from great to awful. Welcome back to relevance, American Beauty!

Cole: Hahaha. That, I would read.

As long as Skrillex was booming in the background.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.