Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Watched Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera for the first time last night. I can't pretend to have fully digested it fully, but I found it stylistically exciting and ideologically challenging. It's a film about film, as you might guess from the title. Although I only got to listen to half of it before returning the film, I found Yuri Tsivian’s commentary exceptional (the best since the one I heard for Antonioni's Blow-Up). From first viewing, I had the sense that the piece was strongly propagandistic in a Soviet style and that it was at least somewhat organized around the idea of a day in the life of The People. Tsivian clarifies that the film is actually a manifesto in images (after an introduction which is a brief manifesto in words), and he contextualizes the film by discussing the trend at the time of city symphony films that follow a day in the life of the city and just how Vertov's film differs from those. He also offers an excellent close reading of individual sequences and their intended meaning. This was helpful to me because the style of the film, though bold, is rather unfamiliar.

There are a few things going on in the film. First of all, there is a passionate and idealistic celebration of the common man and woman, especially the common worker, one might expect from early Soviet history, your basic Marxist ideology. More interestingly, the film has an agenda regarding filmmaking: to fully expose (or "unmask," Tsivian says is the favored term of the era) the process and techniques of filmmaking. Vertov and co. foreground that process as equal subject matter, showing cameras in the shot, giving close-ups of the lens, showing strips of film being edited and put in motion for the film effect, showing the projectionist at work in his booth. This was a bit tiresome to me because, today, we all know how film works. In 1929, though, this education may have been important for the masses, and it's made tolerable today because of the highly witty and meaningful way Vertov expresses these ideas, using visual metaphors of elegance and concision. At the same time, the film seems to demonstrate nearly every possible basic technique in the filmmaker's arsenal, including stop-motion animation, collage, freeze-frame...you name it. It's inspirational. It makes you want to grab a camera and get to work.

Tsivian helped clarify for me the meaning of the recurring image of a movie poster of a man and woman. Apparently (and the film made more sense to me once I knew), Vertov's manifesto stood against the conventions and style of commercial cinema, of fiction films, of the fostering of dream-reality. Film, in Vertov's view, should be used to open our eyes (there's a recurring image of awakening), not to indulge in escapist fantasy. For that reason, I was glad this film wasn't more influential (not that there was much chance of that). I love the Hollywood dream factory and believe that audiences are intelligent enough to analyze what they see in fiction filmmaking. They'll certainly rise to the occasion when properly challenged. This film places too much faith in the titular man (not woman, you notice) behind the camera to express "truth" or "reality," and Vertov's too-sober attitude that narrative, fiction filmmaking is corrupting or narcotizing is vaguely insulting and certainly more than a little starchy, the stuff of overly earnest leftists of a certain type.

That being said, its intelligence, meaningfulness and stylistic bravado are something to celebrate. Every professional filmmaker should see this film.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 is one of my favorite film books. Sarris is one of the few (including David Thomson) who has a gift for summing up an entire while satisfyingly including the key details. I may not always agree, but his judgements are invaluable. I'd love to see what he does with today's major directors. So I was thrilled to read the following in Andrew Sarris' column last week:
Since I decided recently that I was going to live forever, I figured that I had enough time to update The American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1968 to the 21st Century, beginning with Richard Linklater, whom I am tentatively placing in the category “The Far Side of Paradise.”

Still in his 40’s, Mr. Linklater may have a stab at making my pantheon of English-language auteurs, which takes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the British Isles. Among the other recent auteurs I am following (though sometimes from a great distance) are: Robert Altman, Harold Becker, Robert Benton, the Coen Brothers, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Clint Eastwood, the Farrelly Brothers, Peter Jackson, Jim Jarmusch, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Errol Morris, Mike Nichols, David O. Russell, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Terry Zwigoff … but I am still very early in my research.
And I was amused to read this passage in Roger Ebert's review of Broken Flowers:
Jim Jarmusch first came into focus in 1983 with "Stranger than Paradise," about a slick New Yorker who gets an unexpected visit from his Hungarian cousin, who is sexy and naive and soon leaves to visit her aunt in Cleveland. Then followed a series of films of various degrees of wonderfulness; I have admired them all except for "Dead Man" (1995); the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum regards me sadly every time this title is mentioned.
Yeah, I'll just bet. It's so weird to me that the two of them must run into each other constantly at Chicago screenings. They're so different in so many ways.

Song: "Sénégal Fast Food" by Amadou and Mariam

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