There is a surprisingly moving sequence in the vintage Soviet documentary, The Man With the Movie Camera (1929).
The film, about life in a Soviet city, features a scene where a bride climbs out of a carriage; she dressed in modest white and clutches a bouquet of flowers. Then we are shown a funeral procession; a man’s corpse lies on a stretcher that is practically buried in blossoms.
Here are two of the most significant occasions of a person’s life, each adorned with flowers.
The Man With the Movie Camera is a documentary that specializes in the duality in life. The premise of the film is simple: a man with a movie camera goes about the city and films stuff. Yet, he can’t help but poke a bit of fun at life’s binary qualities. For example, as one woman thrusts her hands into a basin of water to wash her face, another woman thrusts her hand into a pail of water to wash a window.
Throughout the film, images are either contrasted or compared. We are watching the construction of visual poetry.
But we’re also watching the deconstruction of filmmaking. This trippy film shows us how this very movie is being made while we’re watching it: We see the shooting, the editing, and the premiere at a movie theatre. We’re inside, and outside, of the movie-making process at the same time.
We’re warned about this going in. Before the craziness starts, we are given an explanation:
FOR VIEWERS’ ATTENTION: This movie presents an experiment in the cinematic communication…This experimental work aims at creating…a language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.
Now, we hope we haven’t given you the impression that this film is difficult to follow, because it isn’t. It’s smart, funny, touching, and feels much shorter than the 67-minute run time.
For example, a magician on the street entertains children who are enthralled by his tricks. You can tell this guy is the best thing they’ve ever seen. In another scene, young women are similarly enthralled with male athletes at a track and field competition.
It feels familiar – this magician, this sporting event, this busy city. We are told it’s Odessa, although film historians say some scenes were filmed in other Soviet cities. Regardless, it is a day in a city that is both old and new, where horse-drawn carriages share cobblestone streets with crowded trams.
But this isn’t just the story of a city.
It is the story of us.
It’s the story of being human, and of the things that delight us and make us miserable. For example, one sequence takes place in a licensing office. Here, a nervous man and woman fill out a marriage license. The next customers are a surly couple applying for divorce.
Throughout all of this business, we see the cameraman, in his rolled-up shirtsleeves, angling his camera on a roof or filming from the back of a moving vehicle. The fact that this cameraman appears to be everywhere, all at once – much like the Soviet government – is not lost on us.
The Man With the Movie Camera is probably the most unusual film we’ve ever seen. (Like the street magician, the cameraman uses tricks in his act, such as superimposed imagery and split-screen photography.) It must have been a thrill to see it on the big screen when it was released in 1929.
If you’re in the mood for a completely different approach to filmmaking, we urge you to see The Man With the Movie Camera.
Note: Flicker Alley provided us with a screening copy of The Man With the Movie Camera. You can visit their shop by clicking HERE.
The Man With the Movie Camera (An Excerpt from the Diary of a Cameraman): starring Mikhail Kaufman. Written and directed by Dziga Vertov. VUFKU (The Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration), 1929, B&W, 67 mins.
Silver Screenings is an irreverent blog celebrating classic movies. We believe these films are good for you, like expensive chocolate or a trip to the spa. Our goal is to “sell” classic movies by showing how entertaining they are, and how much we can learn from them still. You can follow Silver Screenings on Twitter @925screenings.
The Man With the Movie Camera is now available on Manufactured-On-Demand (MOD) DVD from Flicker Alley.