Recently, I re-watched the classic experimental film, Man With A Camera (1929), written and directed by Russian Dziga Vertov (and marvelously edited by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova). Voted the number one documentary of all time by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine, it’s a gem of a flick, the vibrancy of an early industrialized city on full display (actually, four cities spliced together: Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa) and flaunting every known (and, until then, unknown) cinematic technique in the book — fades, reverse angles, crane shots, train shots, trick photography, panoramics, close-ups, nudity, births, deaths, marriages, divorces. And leitmotifs of self-referentiality: cameras filming cameramen at work (clambering, risking), or slyly turned on the audience, as if winking at us, camera to camera.
It is not only full of the visual surprises its editing brings but has subtle humor and suggestive juxtapositions. The cameraman setting up in the beer mug is an amusing sequence. But there’s even anticipation of horrid things to come, such as when we see a woman shooting at a target — «Uncle Fascism» — a man with a swastika. Hitler had made the swastika his symbol of choice in 1920. And when he wrote, «The Slavs are born as a slavish mass crying out for their master,» he had in mind Ukrainians. This is poignant: We know what the director behind this camera doesn’t know: behind the vibrancy depicted is a near future that includes a Ukrainian holocaust (Holodomor) and the Nazi onslaught of WWII.
In an essay in his book, Film Form, the highly-lauded filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein assailed Vertov and his use of slow-motion: «Or, more often, it is used simply for formalist jackstraws and unmotivated …
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