Thoughts On: Man With A Movie Camera
A day in the 1920s Soviet Union as captured by the man with a movie camera.
I’ll start by simply saying I love this film. Not only is it an awe inspiring filmic experience to see a time and place almost entirely alien, but to see 1920s Russia (Moscow) and Ukraine (Kharkov, Kiev, Odessa) through Vertov’s eye is dumbfounding. The immersive essence of his direction found in the constant movement, the ambiguous and blatant juxtaposition of images, the orchestral rhythm of editing, the perceptually inspiring composition and framing, all culminates into a 70 minute piece you daren’t take your eye off. I’ve always then thought this is a film to see, not to talk about, as to understand it’s ‘narrative’ (loose phrasing) you simply have to experience it. There is, however, something of great depth at the core of this film. Whilst it is a documentary, a simple, yet astonishing, compilation of shots, Man With A Movie Camera implies an answer to the horrible question: why? There are many reasons anyone could give you as to why they like anything. For example, you could ask a poet why they like words. Now, the poet being a poet, would most probably give you metric, lyrical, emotional and metaphorical reason as to why words in this form are the best. I haven’t a serious problem with this as, though their words aren’t literal, tangible, possibly comprehensible to me, I can still get a rough feeling of what they mean. But, to break down a complex, think-feely argument a stereotypical poet may give, I think it’s best to turn the concept of this question to someone else. If we use the idea of ‘what do you like?’, take it away from the poet (as they would provide an intangible answer) and give it to a child, it’s likely we’d get an: ‘I just do’. Why do you like chocolate, Susan? I just do. Why do you like to play outside, Jim? I just do. Why do you like rabbits, Maxwell Von Daux III? They’re fluffy, I can feed them lettuce, Leporid are, in fact, inherently cute, they appeal to primary human biases of charm and endearment; the large eyes, disproportionate–yes, yes, but why do you like all that? Oh, I suppose I just do. And my point here is that from an either pragmatic or emotional basis, you’ll filter down the constant whys until you hit a point where you say: I just do. Understanding this, we can begin to break down a complex ‘why’ question like ‘why film anything’. What the inevitable ‘I just do’ here implies will be the basis of this essay.
So, to start bottom up, I think it’s fair to infer that we film things because we see, we perceive. Saying this, we can hit that bottom ‘I just do’ by recognising that we simply do perceive things. In other words, we’re not going to question why we’re conscious, if it’d be better if we weren’t, the whos, what, when, wheres and so on. We’re going to start with the fact that humans have a combination of imagination and senses. We have a mind and eyes in the front of our head. And it’s here that we have the fundamentals of cinema. Film, movies, cinema is an attempt to replicate our experience of sight. Films however, aren’t long, steady cam shots of the mundane everyday. Films infuse the concept of mind, of the imagination, into the replication of sight through the control of space and time. In other words, editing. Films, unlike our perception of the world can jump from morning to midday, from three years ago to nine millennia away, simultaneous, they can jump from the corner of a bedroom in a small town, in a small home, in the middle of nowhere, to the centre of the Indian Ocean. The only way we can do this in our heads is through imagination; you can remember an event from 4 years ago, you can predict the weather this Friday. What cinema then becomes is a way of extrapolating the imagination of the human mind, and, via the sensual medium of sight, present it tangibly. This is kind of why we film things. We film things to communicate internal ideas to others. Why must we then communicate? There’s two answers to this. The first is that it makes the everyday easier. When you have the words banana, hungry, give you translate personal needs into actions – Steve handing you the banana you can’t reach off the top shelf. The second, and more relevant, reason for communication is that it acts as an existential bridge. I don’t know if you reading this are human. There’s no quantifiable, observable way I can ensure that you think, feel, am, like I. Communication allows us to conjure a magnificent, unfathomably comforting illusion of this however. I could ask you, what are you thinking? And just might get back: I’m hungry. Or something along those lines. And thus, through words we’ve established not only that I might be able to reach for that banana (probably should have chose a less phallic food) but that, like me, you get hungry too, you feel a need for food, chemicals, energy. Now, the example given uses the sensory medium: sound. Film does the exact same thing, but with sight as a primary and sound as a secondary. And it’s because sight is arguably the most precious and valuable sense to people that film is the most accessible, most expressive art form available to us.
With this basis of perception and communication we can return to Man With A Movie Camera with a fundamental understanding of this image:
This image cites that this film is a way of demonstrating perception through the art of film for reasons discussed thus far. Add to this the title of the film: Man With A Movie Camera. It’s easy to read this as A Man With A Movie Camera, but, the fact that we’re missing that ‘A’ or even ‘The’ suggests that this is not a film about one person, but us all, collectively: man or humankind. What this all suggests is that this film is an expression of the human mind, imagination, experience. This is a film about life in respect to human perception. There are a myriad of nuanced and intricate things, probably a countless amount, that I could say about this film. I could zoom into hundreds of cuts, shots, angles, images, but, we simply don’t have time for that, and I simply don’t have the will. What we are instead going to do is work with 5 given tools or images. The first comes with the opening of the film and the audience we watch fill a theatre to view what we are also about to. (This audience also comes back into play near the end of the film). Second, is the world waking up (with the added knowledge that we also don’t see it go to sleep). Third, work. Fourth, relaxation, recreation and play. Fifth, the man filming all the way through the film. These 5 elements are at the core of exactly what this film has to say about us all.
So, we’ll save the audience we see in the beginning and end for last, and start with the world waking up. The solidifies an idea of chronology to the film, it makes clear that time will progress continually, morning toward night. What’s interesting about this comes with a common trope of story telling. People love to start at the beginning. And this often translates to us seeing a character wake up in the morning and fill out their morning routine.
So, why is this an instinctual reaction writers actively avoid?
Writers try to avoid this kind of scene unless the narrative requires it because it’s generic, it is a instinctual reaction. It’s because people like to tell sequential stories, to start in the beginning. What this all implies about Man With A Movie Camera is that comprehension requires a clear beginning – a clear middle or end to start with on the other hand is harder to achieve. I think this is why the film requires it’s generic opening. If it’s a film about us, for us, why shouldn’t it give us an easy narrative to follow? This is an important rhetorical question when you consider that this film essentially has no end to it’s beginning – the world doesn’t go back to sleep. To understand why there isn’t an implied cycle we’d have to jump to the next core element: work. If you were to succinctly summarise what this movie is about thematically, it’s probably best to say it’s about industrialisation, about what was modern civilisation in the 20s. With the masses of crowds, focus on transportation, legs, movement, mechanism, all juxtaposed with waking up, it seems like we should have a social critique on our hands. It’s then easy to infer that this film is about the robotisation of humanity through industrialisation. We live to work, to find ourselves working to live, to then find ourselves in a cycle. This isn’t what the film is about though. It captures the beauty of the crowd, of organisation, industrialisation. And this is all to do with movement. There isn’t a critique of industrialisation with this film because there isn’t a perceived cycle, there is a constant movement forward. This is why the film ends on an high, not with the world going to bed. What is then implied about people and civilisation over the course of the narrative is that we have a constant forward momentum – especially with the dawning of the 20th century. Our perception keeps our eyes on horizons, we move with time – perpetually forward. This is a crucial element of the film you see repeated again and again, but, to this movement also comes reason.
Reason comes with the fourth key element: recreation. This is a film as much about industrialisation as it is joy. There’s a political side to this with communism, capitalism, socialism and so on, but, what’s more poignant is the fact that joy and industrialisation are simply presented as life. Working then relaxing to different proportionalities is what makes up our days, months, years, lives. It’s watching this on film that you can’t help but get an awkwardly existential feeling of purposelessness. Outside looking in, our lives are made up of times where we’re doing the things we have to do, just so we can do the things we want to. When you specifically are living this, going to work or school, then coming home to watch a film, be with friends or family, you have a muted sense of the aforementioned forward momentum of life. Strapped in, it’s hard to realise the ride you’re on. Extrapolate this onto film, however, and you perfectly demonstrate the difference between the boring and the entertaining. The things we have to do put directly onto film as we experience them, and in real time, would bore us to death. The things we want to do, and as we remember them (snapshots) are the epitome of great entertainment. It’s life with all the boring bits cut out and the best (most poignant) parts exaggerated. So, bringing this back to the film, this is simply a day in Russia/Ukraine to show that what we experience is a numbed perception of a mundane reality, that reality in fact is what we make it to be: entertaining, boring, purposeful, meaningless. This is best shown through editing and the narrative stretch. Firstly, the pacing and relentless montage perfectly demonstrate that humans perceive things as moments, as tasks on a check list. This draws back to the use of the morning and chronological story telling as we’ll be given mere hints of a commute or work day instead of an entire arduous experience to adhere to imagination. Again, this shows that in cinema editing is representative of imagination, of manipulated thoughts and memory, all exaggerated, abbreviated, contorted as to make them manageable and/or poignant. Why this is important to show comes back to the fact we never see the forward momentum of life come to end. The momentum in the film may slow down, we may see quiet moments of beauty, of recreation or simplicity, but nothing ever stops. This encompasses the film’s perspective on industrialisation. Humans are born, we wake to work and work for better lives.
Now, to flesh out this concept we need to come to the fifth element of the film we’re to discuss: the camera man. Here, the primary question of the essay comes back into play. Why must he film all of this? Why must it be shown to an audience? We’ve actually touched on this with communication. The thing Vertov seems to want to tell us, the viewer, when we’re watching this film is that it is a movie. Understanding this is crucial. Yes, the film’s about life, people, industrialisation, but, seeing the film as a second hand perspective of the world, we come to the crux of its message. When you present the sheer momentum of life as the film does, you begin to feel that humans are machines, that we are not much different from a nest of ants, or hive of bees. But, trying to capture, to solidify, to control that momentum is an irrevocably human trait. Art and all it tries to project is often cited as what separates us from the animals. You often hear books, poetry, music, love, compassion, curiosity used as evidence of our intelligence. But, to bring this back to the fundamental cut-off point of the essay, it’s because we have a hole in how we perceive that we are what we are. This hole is human necessity, want, desire, drive. This impulsive need for more is present in animals. It’s what drives natural selection. It’s what has ants build a vast network of tunnels and crevices inside of a mound. Humans have these traits. It’s where things like sports, beauty, cities, technology comes from. But, whilst the ape has a stick as his tool and we have computers (which is a key distinguishment) building cities, having sex, creating life and structure isn’t enough for us when it is for the ape. This is the hole in perception. All we have isn’t enough. Building pyramids, creating vaccinations, discovering the atom, going to the moon, none of it good enough. And thus, we have the existential plight of all humans. It’s then seeing human drive in this respect that we can recognise that existentialism is not much more than boredom. Boredom is dissatisfaction. Questioning everything takes having the time to sit back and ponder, it takes a deep seated irritation, a crucial discomfort, agitation, restlessness to ask: why? Why isn’t a necessary question though. This is true for the most basic life form as it is for us. A single celled organism simply recognising that they are hungry is enough for them to figure out that they have to eat. You don’t need to ask why you feel this way to pick up that banana – that’s the magic of instinct. But, add to instinct emotion and consciousness and you’re complicating matters. Now, this opens up a lot of questions as to why we perceive, but, as said, we won’t delve into that. What we’re better off doing is looking forward once again from this point.
Given a hole in the way we perceive, the way we live, humans have found a way of filling it through art. This is what the camera man represents. The man with the movie camera is a fundamental image of control. He takes the world and he distorts it with angles, pacing, editing, juxtaposition, music. Now, bring in the primary element of the film: the audience. They are in the beginning and end of the film to demonstrate that we find solace in a contorted view of the world. This is translated via film, but essentially demonstrates that humans are best off in a world of their own design, of their own creation. This brings us to another talk I’ll link to in the end, but gives a pivotal argument as to why we film anything. We film the world because we are born with a flawed perception. This perception keeps us driving forward in life and as a species, our way of viewing the world bound to the invisible arrow of time, but all the while perception can hold us back. And this is because questioning and boredom are intimately linked. Bringing progression, questioning and entertainment together we have a thing like cinema. This is the film in a nutshell. It’s simply life meets a lens.
So, in the end, we film things to control the world to a certain extent, and from time to time, so we have a plaster to cover the hole in our perception. The man with a movie camera is thus a complete one, but more so, is a happy one.
Requiem For A Dream – Futility: How Do You Slow Down A Runaway Train?
Green Room – When Does A Film Start Being A Horror?
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