A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

As the truism has it, the movies taught us to see. But the great achievement of Man With a Movie Camera, the thing that causes critics to repeatedly put it on lists of the greatest films of all time, is that it helps us understand what the movies are making us see. In its tour of a city in the Soviet Union -- actually a composite of four cities: Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa -- the film works by montage, by swift cutting from one scene to another, juxtaposing birth and death, marriage and divorce, humanity and the machine, and any number of other supposed opposites, giving us a sense of the interwoven texture of life itself. But at the same time, it exposes us to its own tricks: It shows a carload of people, then it shows us the cameraman precariously perched in another automobile, filming the group. It could even have pulled back to show us the camera filming the car with the cameraman who is filming the original carload, but by that time we've gotten the idea: Movies, like any attempt to construct reality, which we do in every waking moment, are a trick of perception. "Dziga Vertov," which translates from the Ukrainian as something like "spinning top," was the pseudonym of a director also known as Denis Kaufman, whose brother, Boris Kaufman, won an Oscar as the cinematographer for On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). Unlike Boris, Denis remained in the Soviet Union until his death in 1954, a loyal Marxist who was considered a major director and film theorist well into the 1930s, though his later career was stymied by the ideological changes that took place under Stalin. His wife, Elizaveta Svilova, worked as his editor, and the actual "man with a movie camera" seen in the film was his other brother, Mikhail Kaufman. Man With a Movie Camera is one of the essential films, even today, when almost everyone is a person with a movie camera in the shape of a smartphone in their pocket. It's also one of the most available films ever, readily accessible online. The version on Amazon and YouTube is enhanced by a hypnotic Philip Glass-like score by contemporary film composer Michael Nyman, although other musical accompaniments exist.

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