Still Life: Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera
KATIE COLFORD (YC ’16)
Dziga Vertov’s final note on the score for his famed “Man with a Movie Camera” calls for the “loudest sound you have ever heard,” as John McKay described at the recent Whitney Humanities Center screening of the classic 1929 film. At the screening, the three members of the Alloy Orchestra, who had written and performed the live score, apologized for not meeting that request.
To say that the experience was loud is an understatement, but the intensity of its score remarkably disappeared against the whirring kaleidoscope of its cinematography. We think of films like “The Matrix” and “Inception” as original experiments in alterations of physical reality, but such manipulations were already well underway in “Man with a Movie Camera” made almost a century earlier. Vertov takes full advantage of the filmic medium to convey a sense of malleable urban space that is intoxicating to the architecturally inclined viewer. Vertov at one point cuts a city street in half and folds it in on itself in a proto-“Inception” moment. A woman’s blinking eyelids are intercut with opening and closing window blinds so rapidly that it seems as though the one cannot operate without the other. The Man with the movie camera (Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman) is shown in a double exposure as an ethereal giant floating over a swarm of people, tracking their slow movement, while he himself is being filmed by an unseen man with a second camera (Vertov himself). Bringing the cinematographic process full circle — this time, with a proto-“Matrix” touch — Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova, is shown slicing film strips and arranging the very clips we will later see in the movie.
Within this imaginary city, Vertov presents some of the most tender, exciting, and, occasionally, saddening, moments of quotidian life: the rhythmic revolutions of machinery, the visual harmony of a truss bridge, the sensuality of a woman dressing, the humor of a child surprised by magic. All of this joyous energy is framed by architectural space — public, private, and their interstitial connections. It is “the invisible space that man can live in…, and which surrounds him with countless presences,” as the German poet Rilke phrases it. Indeed, Vertov’s dynamic world is incessantly, relentlessly, powerfully present. For 80 minutes, we are transported to a Moscow transformed and spliced into pure phantasmagoric display, suggesting that the city does not in fact need its structural reality to come to life in the eyes of the viewer.
 qtd. in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 203.