Man With A Movie Camera – Why Film Anything?

Thoughts On: Man With A Movie Camera

A day in the 1920s Soviet Union as captured by the man with a movie camera.

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.

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Requiem For A Dream – Futility: How Do You Slow Down A Runaway Train?

Thoughts On: Requiem For A Dream

This is the final part of my in-depth analysis of one of my all time favourite films.

Requiem 6

Over the last 5 parts we’ve covered the terrific narrative movement this film has, the almost literal ride it takes you on, and then themes of past, present, responsibility and regret. What this all culminates into is a film about life in the guise of tragedy, a movement towards inevitable disaster. I think this is what all great stories, all great films, are. They are a transcription of life dressed up as something. In other words, stories are lives compressed. They are lessons learned, journeys taken, rides endured, that are translated to words or images that are caught on film, written on paper. This is what a story is – snap-shots of life. The best stories take this concept of snap-shots and define it with themes. Like I said, they dress life up as to tell of specific problems, to teach specific lessons. I’ve said this about writing and screenwriting, but I’ll reiterate. The best lessons in life are the almost useless ones, the most ambiguous, most generalisiable, but still categorical. These are the best lessons because living is a subjective experience. You can’t live your life under a specific set of rules that worked for one person because we quite simply aren’t the same. Now, what this means for stories, for words that represent life dressed up as something, all comes down to the audience. Stories must be broad, secretly non-specific as to connect with as many people as possible – to allow us to figure out the specifics of the lesson implied (not really taught) under one specified theme. This all kind of begs the question of why I’m clarifying the movie’s message and picking it apart over so many posts, but, let’s ignore that. Instead, let’s try to get a final grip on the colossal think piece that Requiem For A Dream.

Requiem’s specific theme is tragedy. This story is of tragic lives. It tracks hope along a rough road that all characters end up falling off of, their lasting words being nothing more than a sorry (if anything). The point of this comes down to emotions. The purpose of showing a tremendous spiral into tragedy is to make us, the audience, experience dire futility. The question inherent to the title, Requiem For A Dream, is thus: what was I supposed to do? We see this best with Harry. His story line, like my posts, bring everything together toward a futile sorry. Harry’s Requiem is linked to his mother, of Sara losing a husband and turning to her son as the only person she has left in her life, but Harry not being able to handle that because he felt smothered. So, whilst he’s made to regret everything he cause by the end of the film, what does that do for anyone? There’s two approaches you can take to this seemingly rhetorical question. The first is to zoom out of the narrative in Jodorowsky-esque style and say, ‘it’s all just a film’. What this then implies is that when people run into dead, futile ends, that’s it for them. But, for the onlookers, they’ve just witnessed what not to do. They’ve watched a person dig a hole and throw themselves down, meaning they should have no trouble in simple edging around it. This means that this film is nothing more than what it seems: ‘a very expensive anti-drug campaign’. Whilst there is this element to Requiem, I feel there’s more to be fleshed out here. If we take another approach to looking at the final question of the film, ‘what was I supposed to do’, but imagine it’s us, not Harry, Sara, Marion or Tyrone, saying it, then, we’re forced into a much more complex situation. If films are lives, snap-shots, lessons then why should we take an approach to them that’s outside looking in? Why shouldn’t we put ourselves in the film? I won’t leave you with that rhetorical question though. To expand on what I mean here, just look at action films. How do they make us excited, thrilled, exhilarated? They put us in the action. Whether it’s with Michael Bay-esque explosions, gun shots and crashes you can’t help but feel, great character work exemplified by the likes of a John McClain or Indiana Jones, awe inspiring choreography seen in The Raid series or numerous Jackie Chan films, joyous, blood-drenched, fetishistic, squirt-fest, cum at your face, scenes like Tarantino’s Crazy 88 sequence… action draws you in. The same happens with drama, romance or suspense. We have to be drawn into the emotions of the scenes, the feelings of the characters, the mysteries and conflicts at hand. Art films or the subtextual, ambiguous parts of a film also need investment – you putting yourself in a character’s position. So, what this all makes clear is that to really get into Aronofsky’s masterpiece, we have to put ourselves in the position of characters.

Now, it’d be easy to put ourselves in characters’ shoes at the beginning of the film, or even mid-way through. But, the ‘what was I supposed to to’ becomes a ‘what am I supposed to do’. And the answer to that is simple. Stop taking drugs, get a job, get into therapy, chin up, don’t be stupid. Where it makes sense to take over the character narratives is the end of the film. I believe this is why it ends where it does, to have us continue with the characters’ plight and face the questions they do.

  

 

We’ll put this to rest with a metaphorical logarithm. With the song Laid To Rest by Lamb Of God, we have the way in which to deal with all of the characters’ narrative conflicts. To get into this we’ll take a look at the chorus:

Smother another failure, lay this to rest.

Console yourself, you’re better alone

Destroy yourself, see who gives a fuck

Absorb yourself, you’re better alone

Destroy yourself.

I draw your attention to lines 2, 3, 4 and 5. These all align with the characters’ end situations. Firstly, Tyrone and Console yourself, you’re better alone. It’s in the first picture we can see that his Requiem is his mother. He never could make it, thus, he could never prove himself. The answer to his situation, of his failure, is to console himself as he’s better alone. (Hang around, we’ll get into why in a moment).

Next, Marion and Destroy yourself, see who gives a fuck. This line is a confirmation of Marion’s actions. She has exploited herself, turned to prostitution, ruined her art-work, given up essentially – and all for money and drugs. She gave it all up for a cycle between dirty singles and pounds of impure powder that will eventually destroy her.

Next, Sara and Absorb yourself, you’re better alone. Again, a confirmation of action. Sara’s conflict comes with her inability to cope with reality. She pitches all her hopes and dreams into television. She disassociates a process of fixing her relationship with her son, of finding happiness with friends, some kind of social affirmation, from something she must do, to something T.V (an appearance on a show) can do for her. So, with the end, she does absorb herself, she spirals into a fantasy that leaves her alone.

Lastly, Harry and the simple, Destroy yourself. With the lie Harry is told by the nurse, ‘Someone will come’ and having given the arm for drugs, only the leg left to give, it’s clear that he has nothing to live for. The answer to this in his mind, as would be most, would be to give up comprehensively, to commit suicide.

Now, what’s important to recognise now is that this is a metal song. I am in no way suggesting that these characters, or ourselves in their positions, should be smothered to death as they are failures. To understand what I mean, it’s best to start with the lyrics to this song as a whole:

If there was a single day I could live

A single breath I could take

I’d trade all the others away.

The blood’s on the wall, so you’d might as well just admit it

And bleach out the stains, commit to forgetting it.

You’re better off empty and blank,

Than left with a single pathetic trace of this

Smother another failure, lay this to rest.

Console yourself, you’re better alone

Destroy yourself, see who gives a fuck

Absorb yourself, you’re better alone

Destroy yourself.

I’ll chain you to the truth, for the truth shall set you free

I’ll turn the screws of vengeance and bury you with honesty

I’ll make all your dreams come to life,

Then slay them as quickly as they came

Smother another failure, lay this to rest.

Console yourself, you’re better alone

Destroy yourself, see who gives a fuck

Absorb yourself, you’re better alone

Destroy yourself.

See who gives a fuck.

See who gives a fuck.

See who gives a fuck.

Failure.

If there was a day I could live,

If there was a single breath I could take

I’d trade all the others away.

I’d trade all the others away.

You can look at these in two ways. Firstly, you can assume they are to be sung (screamed) at someone you hate. On the other hand, you could assume that they are to be sung (screamed) toward yourself. This turns the song into one of self-hate and regret. But, with the self-hatred comes a clear solution:

Smother another failure, lay this to rest.

The failure to be smothered here isn’t the character, it’s their actions. The core idea of this song is one of perspective and one of control. This all comes right back to this image:

When you have perspective, when you have the ability to perceive, you must have control over yourself. I touched on this with the idea of free will and responsibility. We may not have absolute control over our worlds, over our own bodies. We may suffer from addictions, depression, mentalities that simply want to destroy us in spite of our best efforts. Nonetheless, it is us who perceives, who feels the highs, the lows, the self-destruction, the self-hatred, the futility, the consequences. This is reason enough to assume you must take control. You must fight, or you must give in. You must take the idea given by the lyrics as something you can say to yourself. You then must decide how you will react. Will you see yourself as the failure? Will you see your actions at the failure? The ultimate and most poignant question the film give us is then: what can you do? What this means is that to move on in life you mustn’t bury your history – life isn’t a venture into free porn, and, as Magnolia makes clear, you may be done wit the past, but the past might not be through with you. This means that to move on in life you must bury your perception of the past. It can come back and bite you in the ass any time it wants, you simply can’t control that. But, what we do have partial control over is how we view what we have gone through. To overcome adversity you sometimes have to set things aside. You have to turn that ‘what was I suppose to do’ into ‘what can I do’. The point in this all comes down to the reason why I said we should pick up on putting ourselves in the characters’ shoes, not in the beginning, but the end. In perceiving we are never given a chance to act on a ‘what was I supposed to do’. What you nonetheless have to hear is what you can act on, is a ‘what can I do’ or ‘what am I going to do’.

This is the crux of the film. It gives you tragedy and dares you to get on with your day. How we overcome tragedy, how we overcome anything including ourselves is to take this broad idea of responsibility and make it personal. Whether you watch a depressing film and then listen to heavy metal or read a shitty magazine then go pet a cat, futility is an idea and (with a pretty nicely linked reference) to get over it you must firstly tell yourself, I’m not afraid any more:

Sorry, I’m not afraid any more, you have no power over me:

In the end, if what we perceive is our reality, is our own chance of perceiving truth, then to see your way through certain situations you sometimes have to close your eyes. So, how do you stop a runaway train? I don’t know. But, if you’re going to figure it out, you better calm down, take a breath and then get running.

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Requiem For A Dream – Harry

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Man With A Movie Camera – Why Film Anything?

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