Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

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When it comes to editing we can pretty much trace back a majority of modern techniques to Soviet Union filmmakers. Crazy Russian minds like Sergi Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin crafted all kinds of montage theories both in films and in academic papers. But if you want the actual practical techniques for editing, look to Dziga Vertov–the third key Soviet silent filmmaker–and his documentary Man with a Movie Camera.

This film tells us before the first shot that it is both an experimental film and will play without the use of intertitles, which is to say the written word will not be used in any way to convey ideas.  Instead the film will communicate purely through the images itself. Furthermore, the film will not even utilize a narrative, creating a purely cinematic picture.

manmoviecamera-documentary

Since this film is a documentary there are a lot of moments in which we watch an interesting shot and then there is a short sequence afterwards showing us how the scene was shot. In this way, the film becomes a documentary of the filmmaking process. It even shows us the workings of the projection booth and one of the editors spicing the film and rejoining it to make a sequence.

In modern times this is less impressive as we have our 2-4 disk making of releases for just about every important and popular film, chronicling the making of the film from consept to cinema. Yet for early audiences such a behind the scenes look at filmmaking was probably as much of a revelation as being taught the secret to a well known magic trick.

manwithamoviecamera-intercutting

Most of the film is simply a showcase for various editing techniques and manipulations. The film is arranged around different spectacles of editing. The film mostly focuses on two techniques. There’s the rather pedantic cross cutting technique, pioneered by American filmmaker Edwin S. Porter in which you cut back and forth between two events and create a gradual buildup until the two merge into one event. The more interesting technique is where the film develops a rapid fire rhythm and cuts between a number of images until it escalates into the insane, flashy editing that gets overused today.

A lot of these editing techniques demonstrate how film can both speed up and slow down time. Time is, arguably, the major manipulation of the film medium as a film sets the exact moment of time in which the audience experiences something and how long it takes to get through that experience.

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At one point the film stops abruptly, presenting a freeze frame of the film. It then progresses to linger on a series of other images from various shots in the film. Film is comprised of small images. At any moment what we are seeing is simply a still image. Yet through motion we perceive the illusion of motion. Hence we get the name motion pictures.

Yet not all the editing is simply for the sake of time and technique. The editing also creates an artistic element. One of the early sequences of the film is a woman waking up. As the film lingers on various part of her body it cuts to different items and buildings throughout the city, creating a poetic association. Perhaps the best artistic sequence of the film is when it cuts between the blinds of a window, an open window, the women’s eye and the lens of them movie camera. In this way it conveys film as both a management of light, framing and sight all through purely displaying images.

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While the film has its share of beautiful and compelling images, most of the film is steeped in academic rigor. A lot of the film plays out in a very technical, precise faction, as a kind of visual textbook for certain filmmaking technique. The scene itself is rarely fascinating; it’s the editing that makes it watchable.

Usually the things being photographed are mundane and simple and shot in a rather simple manner as well. Unless you are interested in the techniques behind filmmaking—specifically editing and photography—this is not a film for you. I appreciate this film from an academic standpoint, but I don’t find its subject matter compelling or gripping.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Man with the Movie Camera