Just saw Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and had one of those moments where you realise just how splendid a film of the city can be. One of those moments where everything changes about how you see film.
(An aside: The first film I remember doing that was Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) which my Uncle Milton showed me when I was 17 or 18, and the last film that I remember doing that was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and that was seven or so years ago…
Funny that they’re all from around the same time.)
I haven’t seen the other city symphony films, have only vaguely heard of them (but always meant to track them down). Some say that this is the best, and I believe it — on a foggy Sunday afternoon when all too often I enjoy a little snooze, I sat entranced at scenes of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa seamlessly edited together.
But what I loved is that the cameraman (as courageous hero) and the woman editing the film itself (women fill this film, working everyday women) — as well as its initial audiences — are always present, reminding you of how reality is moderated, cut up and represented in film.
This is not neutral, the process is anything but seamless. There are many shots that go from still to moving pictures, playful and charming. It reminds you constantly how it is you see what you are seeing, that choices are being made. It takes you from the everyday into split screens, kaleidoscope effects, occasional stop-motion and surreal compositions of eyes and watchers and movement. Unlike many a black and white film I have seen using such effects, they improve the whole. They give a sense of the city as mediated by our own vision and the vision of others. It challenges us to think about not just what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.
It does this with exuberance, not with pretension. In 1929. With the few avant garde films I have seen from the 1960s onwards, I find the lack of pretension amazing and most wonderful.
All this, and then oh…the life of the city that it shows. Cities as we shall never know them now, full of trams and horsecarts and early automobiles. Pedestrians everywhere. Life brimming over its streets not dominated by fast-moving traffic — that piece of my brain obsessed with transport adored this aspect of it, down to the woman pouring oil in the tram tracks in the very early morning.
This is a film of movement and labour and social leisure — unsurprising in a film that of the soviet revolution just before Stalin’s crackdown. It shows people in these aspects of their lives — at work in factories and mines, a ceaseless flow of associative editing from beauty shop to laundry to automated spinning wheels to film editing to operators connecting calls to typewriters to beaches to babies being born and funerals and movements through the streets. Life filling these great boulevards, (but very little in homes, nuclear families, neighbourhoods, a telling political and social focus)…
The factories were the not the most popular of screen grabs, but can I just say again how wonderful to see the screen full of women. A few of them of that beauty that usually finds it way to the movies, but most of the beauty that does not. Smiling, laughing, making cigarette boxes, walking and telling stories and working and bearing children.
Most wonderful. I shall enjoy seeing it again, and know I shall see much more.