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November 20, 2016

Man with a Movie Camera: Stylistic Innovation, Substantive Rumination

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When asked to analogize Russian documentarian Dziga Vertov, who died in 1954, to a more contemporary artist, I have difficulty locating an answer. For a lot of other filmmakers, this isn’t so. The work of Akira Kurosawa, cinema’s most refined master of breathtaking spectacle and intelligent kineticism, can be aesthetically paralleled to the maximalist records of Kanye West, whose symphonic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains among the most rousing and epic of this century’s popular music. The philosophical films of director Terrence Malick, which follow characters ambling aimlessly through existence in search of earthly salvation, parallel the music of Sufjan Stevens: thematically in their shared Christianity, aesthetically in how their subdued emotional intensity is conjured by sporadic acknowledgements of quiet wonder. Dziga Vertov, on the other hand, defies easy categorization. In Man With a Movie Camera, which screened at the Cornell Cinema earlier this semester, we witness cinematic innovation that barely registers because of our familiarity with the filmic techniques it introduces. But that does not blemish the merits of what is still, to this day, considered by a respected many to be among the greatest films ever made. Indeed, its relentlessly avant-garde form literally demonstrates the hypothesized limitlessness of cinema. This is not only because of its Marxist attentiveness toward history’s working class, nor its ethnographic rendering of the mundane necessities alongside the sincere pleasures of daily life, but because its meta-textuality that makes the medium into the subject turns the art form in on itself. Nothing can escape the interrogative eyes of cinema, even cinema itself.

And indeed, the interrogations prompted by Man With a Movie Camera, a seemingly shapeless documentary edited together purely through aesthetic association instead of narrative chronology, question the efficacy and purpose of the medium without losing any of the complexity of their other questioning. In representing the world so candidly, Vertov detachedly invites us to consider both the relationship of the medium to the world, and the world itself. To be swept up by the eclectic, but refined, curiosity of the film is to allow your thoughts to wander while under the elegant guidance of a filmmaker intent on provoking philosophical inquiry. The images of urban Soviet life may prompt one to contemplate sociologically the idiosyncrasies of organized society, or ponder metaphysically upon the spatiotemporal structuralism of the physical world. Indeed, the breadth of Vertov’s riveting images are mirrored by the breadth of potential thoughts they conjure. And all the while, Vertov reminds us that we are watching a film, and all that that entails. To what degree does film mediate the phenomenal world? Vertov asks us to consider the difficult balance between obfuscating and clarifying that underlie the most effective aestheticizations of the world.

It therefore shouldn’t surprise one to learn that much of the editorial techniques that we today take for granted were pioneered in Vertov’s cutting room. The slow motion, jump cuts and split screens are among the many techniques that make their debut in Man With a Movie Camera. Isn’t it fascinating that something like a filmic technique could have once not existed? A technique, a non-physical entity, is a concept. Are they “invented,” or “discovered?” The formal innovations of Man With a Movie Camera don’t sit as impressive sideshows to the film’s very essence. Instead, the history of cinema, the possibilities of its future, the arbitrary nature of authorship and countless other notions of artistic expression are all a consequence of form. Make no mistake, this film is among art’s most formally daring experiments. It probably blew open the minds of many inter-war Soviet cinema-goers for whom its visual distinctiveness would have signaled an aesthetic awakening.

Ultimately, as a film constantly heralded for its contributions to the development of cinema, Man with a Movie Camera demonstrates the potent co-existence of stylistic innovation and substantive rumination. It deeply rewards through its breadth of focus while preoccupying us with the specificities of the medium.

Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com.

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