I hate the early films of Sergei Eisenstein with such a sleep-stealing vehemence that I think it’s made me almost blanketly intolerant of experimentation in film, or at least wary of it, and while I was open-minded about An Andalusian Dog (1929) because of my curiosity about Dali and Bunuel, and appeased by the 12-minute runtime, I was groaning and checking my watch all throughout Man With a Movie Camera, which is over an hour long, and I was primed to conclude,w hen it was over, that, like Eisenstein before him, director Dziga Vertov is here feeling entitled to his audience’s attention, fancies himself more an artist than a storyteller, and that he slapped this shit together with a self-stroking notion of profundity that eclipses concern for his audience.
Then I chilled the fuck out for a minute and read some essays about it, skirting the academic stuff, and realized that I’d watched this movie the wrong way. Strange concept. was looking for a narrative, which Vertov isn’t really aiming for (although a couple of studious viewings could probably realize one). He does, however, have a motive beyond abstraction.
I guess I sorta forgot that cinema was still in its infancy in 1929. What he’s doing here, in filming random scenes around Kiev, is showcasing what a movie camera is capable of doing — which not everybody was savvy toward at the time. How it can move, the effect o certain angles, the way you can craft an illusion by imposing a portion of one image over a portion of another.
The movie is a celebration of the craft, and of its potential for artistry. A lot of the footage here is beautiful. The grace of its athletes in slow motion, hurdle-jumpers and soccer players, or the tracking shot of a cameraman walking through town with a tripod rested on his shoulder. The graphic depiction of childbirth, like the eye-slitting shot in Andalusian Dog, made me kinda flip out at Starbucks and slap my laptop shut.
The tricks Vertov puts to use here aren’t all as effective as they might once have been, but if you relax for it, maybe have a drink and try not to think too hard about it, a lot of the movie can probably still prove hypnotic.
Still, the most interesting part of watching it, from my end, is confronting the intersection (and the disparity between) my expectations of a movie and the movie itself. The idea of seeing a movie the wrong way, with the wrong mindset, expecting it to be something and to achieve something in which it never showed any interest.