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I wrote recently about Battleship Potemkin and noted that when watching older or critically well-regarded films, I often end up being more interested in how they were made or the behind-the-scenes production and history of the film, rather than being able to enjoy the film on its own merits. I think narrative films suffer from this more so than documentary or documentary-like films, and Man With a Movie Camera is a prime example of this.
Where a film like Potemkin has somewhat aged poorly in the narrative department, Vertov's film has no narrative. Indeed, the opening titles - the only explanatory text in the film - proclaim that it will be a film without a script, without actors, without even intertitles. Where I tend to appreciate the camera techniques or unusual editing or production design of older film, Man With a Movie Camera is stunning because it consists of nothing else. Vertov was exploring his anti-narrative film philosophy and just shooting Soviet Russia as it existed in 1929, and while there is much to discuss over what he chose to include (or ignore), it's a truly fascinating journey.
If I took any particular theme or message from it, I think it hinges around the moment, midway through the film, when in one of several more experimental sequences Vertov abruptly hits pause on some shots of people conversing (with each other or the camera operator, it's unclear). In motion, these people look absolutely alive. It helps that the restored film is incredibly clean and looks like it could have been shot last week, both in the picture quality and the way it's framed and cut together. In motion, it does not look like another time, or even another country. When Vertov pauses, however, and shows individual frames of film (in a meta scene where his wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, edits the reels) suddenly those same human faces look truly ancient and completely removed from the modern day. When the film resumes and they're in motion again, the moment is gone, and they look just as human as before. It's as if his whole thesis is that only film in motion paints a true picture, even still photography is inadequate at capturing people, at capturing the world. If that was one of the points he was making, then I think Man With a Movie Camera is a wild success.