In Search of the Real: Man with a Movie Camera

The question of what constitutes realism in art is complex and not easy to illustrate. This is owing in part to the many different movements that purport to embrace realism, all of which approach the question from a different angle. Is realism the accurate depiction of what the eye sees, as some of the early French Realist painters suggested? Or is it something more intangible, a quest for artistic truth rather than mere mechanical reproduction? Perhaps it is both.

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece, The Man with a Movie Camera, is a superb example of Soviet Constructivist Realism. It offers both realistic depictions of everyday life, owing to the indexical quality of the photographic medium, but also abstract interpretations and manipulation of visuals through the unique tools of cinema, some of which were pioneered by Vertov himself. The film was commissioned under the Stalinist regime, and was therefore at odds with the new Socialist Realist movement that had been endorsed by the state. Considering that the film is unabashedly pro-Soviet, this highlights the absurdity of the state confining the artist to one narrow definition of acceptable material.

An opening title card states the film’s intention: to create a new international language of cinema, rejecting the conventions of theater and literature. The film largely achieves this, though with some caveats. It purports to be a documentary, but portions of it are staged, such as a woman getting dressed. Also, the ways in which Vertov manipulates reality through shot selection, editing, and special effects in order to convey a particular meaning mark it as more of an experimental art film than a true documentary. Though it genuinely is capturing real moments featuring real people (i.e. non-actors). To be fair, the opening card does call the film an experiment. And while it eschews intertitles, it nevertheless relies on signage within the frame to convey meaning.

The film was dismissed by contemporary critics for its avant-garde style, which clashed with the popular cinematic approach of the day. Indeed, the film was ahead of its time, anticipating the more fast-paced editing of modern films. Today, the film is recognized for its genius, and even many modern films cannot match its sheer momentum. If I were to choose one word to describe the film, that word would be kinetic. The film’s raw energy is consistent with the prevailing mentality of Constructivist Realism, embracing motion — the movement of objects within the frame, movement of the camera itself, or both.

But the core strength of the film is its embrace of “the real,” through its earnest depiction of everyday life. In spite of its evident support of the Soviet State, there are many inherent truths on display. Though the film is almost a century old, the world it depicts is startlingly familiar, the lives of its subjects relatable. In essence, it is the story of a day in the life of a city. The city is not named, and in fact multiple cities served as filming locations. In this regard, Vertov departs from mechanical documentation and ventures into a constructed reality that is nevertheless truthful in terms of its ideals. This city story plays out in parallel with the story of the titular man with the movie camera (Vertov’s brother), whom we follow throughout his process of documentation. In this regard, the film is reflexive, commenting on itself. As a result, the cumulative work is both a celebration of the modern Soviet state and of the art and possibilities of cinema itself, all the while highlighting the universal truths that make us human.

The film opens with a crowd slowly gathering in a theater, reflecting the actual audience watching the film. Seats lower automatically, highlighting the Constructivist Realist movement’s embrace of modern technology. Close-up shots of the mechanism of the projector remind us of the mechanical process at work behind the art we’re experiencing. Then the movie unfolds on the screen-within-a-screen and we, the actual audience, experience the film along with the on-screen audience. Throughout the film, we periodically cut back to the filmed audience, breaking the spell and reminding us that we’re watching a film. This is a technique that is often employed by avant-garde filmmakers who wish to draw attention to conventions within the medium. In this case it serves both that purpose and also the purpose of linking us together in a mutual appreciation of cinema itself and the wonders of technology that make it possible.

As the movie-within-the-movie begins, the pace is initially slow. There are still shots of the city, with some beautiful and unconventional framing to draw the viewer in. People are shown sleeping, with an emphasis on the stillness of their bodies. As a pro-Soviet piece, the film arguably breaks down here, since we see the disparity between different strata of civilization. Some people sleep comfortably in their beds, while others are homeless and sleep on the streets. This is truthful however, harkening back to the harsh depictions of poverty seen in the French Realist movement. As such, it is honest and very real. Various shots of objects — a telephone, a car tire, a typewriter — hint at the activity that is to come. Slowly the world begins to wake up, and the day begins. Some of the shots of people going through their morning routines are clearly staged, again placing the film at odds with its stated goal of avoiding the conventions of theater. This was one of the most common criticisms of the film at the time of its release. But although these moments are staged, they are nevertheless relatable. So we see here the emphasis on truth over mechanical documentation. While it contradicts the mission statement, it is nevertheless an exploration of the real.

Once the world wakes up, the pace of the film quickens. Cars begin to move, trollies zip back and forth, and people fill the streets in growing numbers. High angle shots show the growing progression, from a few people, to dozens, to hundreds. Vertov places his camera atop vehicles to achieve stunning tracking shots as we follow cars, carriages, trollies, and so on. The trollies become an important element, which Vertov returns to throughout the film. In particular, there are multiple split-screen shots of trollies moving in opposing directions, sometimes four of them filling each quarter of the frame. Perhaps the trollies symbolize the role of technology in modern life, connecting us to one another. In this regard, the film is also an example of Modernism.

Juxtapositions feature prominently in the film. A couple is seen filing for a marriage license, then a subsequent couple is seen filing for divorce. The film breaks its own rule here. While it doesn’t use an intertitle, it does rely on a close-up of the documents to tell us what’s happening. The documents are in Russian, though, so a non-native speaker needs a translation to understand the significance of what’s happening. In this regard, the mission statement of creating a universal cinematic language divorced from any text breaks down. Other parallels work much better, however. A funeral is intercut with a woman giving birth. This is followed by a shot of two trollies: one approaching and one receding, suggesting the eternal cycle of decay and renewal. It’s perhaps the most beautiful and poignant moment in the film, and arguably the most real.

And of course there’s our man with the camera, documenting it all. At one point, the two cameras (the on-screen camera and the one capturing the image we’re seeing) seem to be deliberately filming each other, making a commentary on the reflexive nature of the film. At one point, the two cameras are superimposed over the crowd. We see Vertov’s brother filming, but the other camera is unmanned, reflecting the fact that we never see that camera operator, who remains mysterious to us. This reminds us that the person behind the camera is usually unseen, yet is still there manipulating the on-screen reality.

After a lengthy burst of activity and motion, the film suddenly grinds to a halt, focusing on freeze-frames of the faces of the people we’ve been seeing. This suggests moments frozen in time, recorded by the camera, and the viewer is invited to reflect on the ephemeral nature of life. This is another of the film’s inherent truths, another way we experience “the real.” But then Vertov uses this as a segue to take us behind the scenes and into the editing room. We watch the editor physically cutting and splicing the film, revealing the mechanical and artificial process of making a film. This is both a modernist celebration of technology and of the process of filmmaking itself, yet it also serves as another reminder that we’re watching a film and to be mindful of the processes involved.

We then move into an examination of people at work. Close-up shots of wheels and gears turning, pistons moving, serve as a modernist perspective on the role of machines in everyday life. Human faces superimposed on these machines draw a connection between humans and their tools. This is an example of how abstract concepts can serve a realist purpose. There are some shots of activity in a steel mill, of switchboard operators frantically moving cables about while wearing headsets (another example of modern technology), of a woman rolling cigarettes, and of another woman wrapping packages. Rapid montages show the fast pace of modern factory work. It’s repetitive, but runs at breakneck speed, and that speed accelerates as the sequence progresses. Fast-motion shots accentuate this sense of relentless productivity. Yet there are frequent shots of people smiling. Unlike the exploited factory workers of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, this is not a Marxist indictment of Capitalist alienation, but a celebration of Soviet empowerment. There’s a disconnect, however, as the cinematic language employed suggests dehumanization, which does not align with the way people are depicted relating to their work. Perhaps Vertov was experiencing some cognitive dissonance. He wanted to embrace a positive perspective on work in the modern Soviet state, which would have pleased the Soviet Realists, but he may have been intuitively aware that things weren’t perfect. Intentional or not, the abstraction of Constructivist Realism arguably provides a more real experience than the concrete imagery of Soviet Realism.

Finally the machines grind to a stop. The work day is over and it’s time to play. This is by far the most relatable portion of the film. People go to the beach, they sun themselves, they swim. Children watch a street performer. We see empty recreation spaces, and then through a dissolve, they’re filled with people, once again drawing our attention to time and the connection between people and the places they occupy. Other people hit the bars, engaging in one of the oldest human pastimes. Again we’re treated to an abstract reminder of the filmmaking process, as our man with a movie camera is superimposed on a shot of a beer mug, looking as if he’s actually inside the mug. It is during this sequence that the decades melt away. We could be the people in these shots. Many impressionist paintings celebrated middle class recreation, but here we celebrate universal recreation across classes.

The film culminates in a sweeping montage of visuals, a synthesis of everything we’ve seen so far. The editing reaches a fever pitch, with some shots lasting only a few frames. Fast motion shots transport us into another realm, where time melts away and we embrace the pure momentum of cinema. All this builds to a climax of rapid-fire imagery that the eye can barely perceive, a veritable explosion of visuals, leaving one awestruck at the technique on display as well as the wonder and magnificence of our modern world. We’ve left behind mere documentation and ventured into purely abstract territory, and yet this is still an exploration of the real, since emotion is abstract, and the visuals are their manifestation.

It is in this way that Man with a Movie Camera serves as an example of realism in the sense that Soviet Constructivists sought to understand it. While it differs from the concrete sense of reality seen in both French Realism and Soviet Realism, it finds its own truth in much the same way that Impressionism and Social Realism did. It’s an ambitious and daring film, so it’s not surprising that it took a while to find its audience. But it ultimately proved to be highly influential and is today rightfully viewed as one of the most important movies ever made.

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