Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Soviet Union, 1929

A film about a making a film about a city

A film about making a film about a city

Sight & Sound‘s current issue suggests that Man with a Movie Camera is the best documentary ever made; this follows on from the film’s appearance in the top ten 2012 poll, in the same magazine, of the best films ever made. As long as we don’t treat such lists too seriously (it’s absurd to think one is better than all others unless you’re talking about Everton), such canons can be useful in highlighting films that might be neglected. I’m not sure Man with a Movie Camera is neglected but it is a great film.

It is a witty example of the ‘City’ film, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Großstadt, 1927), as it documents a ‘day in the life’ of an anonymous city; actually an amalgam on Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. It starts with the city waking up, cutting between an anonymous woman rising and the start of the ‘rush hour’. It continues with work, focusing on factory and mining as well as the onrushing traffic. Toward the end we see people in their leisure time. The film’s bookended by an audience in a cinema watching Man with a Movie Camera.

It is this self-reflexivity that situates the film in the avant garde of the time. For much of the film we see Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) shooting the movie. A number of avant garde techniques, such as split screen and superimposition, are employed.

Clearly the ‘man with the movie camera’ is a bit of a ‘lad’ as early in the film the camera lingers on a woman’s legs. A cut to the camera lens, with an eye superimposed upon it (literally the ‘Kino-Eye’) is winking. The woman, once she realises she’s being ogled, gets up and walks off. He also likes his beer.

Drinking while you work

Drinking while you work

The wit suffuses the film that is also characterised by an astonishingly fast average shot length (ASL):

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds.        (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929)

At one point a registry office for marriage and divorces is intercut with a woman giving birth and funerals. The frenzy of the editing suggests that life can be encapsulated in these four events; Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova edited the film.

There’s more to the film that technical wizardry, Vertov was making a political statement:

it is a critique of Lenin’s temporising with the middle class with his New Economic Policy… Vertov shows us beggars and porters and bourgeoisie parading themselves in horse-drawn carriage… The Bolshoi Theatre, for Vertov an unacceptable relic of the old regime, is made optically to collapse on itself. (Winston, Sight & Sound, September 2014: 39a)

Dziga Vertov, by the way, means ‘spinning top’.

Ten (Iran-France, 2002)

Child as man

Child as man

Woman asserts independence

Woman asserts independence

Ten is terrific on both a formal level and in its content. Consisting of 23 hours of footage from two very small digital cameras attached to a car’s dashboard, edited down to 90 minutes, the film is anti-director; the mise en scene is the interior of the car and the passing landscape. Much of what we see and hear is improvised. However, there’s no doubting the clear message of the film, concerning a woman’s place in 21st century Iran.

The film doesn’t simply condemn Iranian society for its subjugation of women, it portrays the protagonist as complex and contradictory – as we all are. The boy, however, could do with strangling; he’s the only male present and its clear that the whining demands are typical of men who rely on women to do things for them – they want a wife for sex but also they want to keep their ‘mother ‘to look after them.

Ten can be regarded as an avant garde film in its anti-cinema stance, along with its materialist use of the lead-in as a countdown for each of the ten episodes. As Gonul Donmez-Colin points out, in Wallflower Press’ Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East (2007), here the director, literally at times, takes the back seat.