It's Been Real
Man with a Movie Camera
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of theater. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature."-Introduction.

Early in the existence of any medium (or of any thing, really) it can be difficult if not impossible to tell what that medium might become. The potential is basically boundless and anything is possible. Dziga Vertov recognized that fact, and saw a great potential in film, an ability in the medium to transcend the constructs of theater and literature and to become a visual medium unto itself, a medium that need not rely on story, structure, or even sound to find success. Instead of relying on any of those crutches, Vertov believed that all cinema needed to be successful was a man and a movie camera.

Following that simple idea to its logical conclusion, Man with a Movie Camera presents urban life in Odessa and other Soviet cities from dawn until dusk. With no pretense toward story or characters (outside of the titular man and his camera), the film simply observes the life of people in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920's. Because of the simplicity of its premise (which can hardly be called a premise, really) Vertov relies on numerous cinematic techniques to liven up what otherwise might have been a boring hour-long look at the Soviet Union. Instead of a dry, straightforward observational film, Vertov really stretches the lengths of what the camera can do, inventing some important cinematic techniques in the process. Among the techniques Vertov invented (or inventively utilized) are double exposure, fast and slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards and stop motion animation.

The film has an openly avant garde style, in furtherance of Vertov's desire to show just how far film could go when freed from constraints. The film opens with a shot of a man setting up a camera on top of a giant camera, allowing some surreal touches to creep into this otherwise straightforward observation. Vertov also filmed every scene separately with no intention of developing a storyline around them. Instead he gave all of the footage to the editor, who then put it in some semblance of an order.

Of course, Vertov's intention to film exactly what was happening with no one noticing was impossible at the time; cameras were still too large, loud and obtrusive to go unnoticed. To solve this, Vertov tried to distract subjects with something louder than the camera filming them so that he could capture true reactions. Vertov was also dogmatic in his desire to abolish all fictional filmmaking and place documentaries at the center of cinematic expression.

Even with all of that cinematic trickery, Vertov could easily have created a film that would be almost unwatchably boring today. However, the pace is so frantic, the cinematography and editing so inventive, and the score (which, in the version I watched on Netflix, was recorded in 1996 based on the director's initial instructions for how to score the movie live) so engaging that the film was never boring.

In one sense, it is difficult not to see Vertov as a failure (and I'm sure, were he alive today he would consider himself such, what with the continued existence of fictional films), yet the real truth is that he is a visionary, a man who had a dream of what cinema could be and strove with his every endeavor to remake it as he thought it should be. Man with the Movie Camera is in some ways, one of the purest documentaries ever made (it is, after all, just shots of people living their lives), and in other ways, one of the most experimental and inventive examples of the form (the touches of surrealism and his advanced cinematic techniques add to that argument). Whether you see it as boring or fascinating, as a pure documentary or muddled surrealism, it is impossible not to see Man with the Movie Camera as one of the most important documentaries ever made.

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

2/5: Political Documentary Month: The War Room

2/19: Political Documentary Month: Street Fight

3/4: Waltz with Bashir

3/18: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

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