Should you be looking for a list of ‘the best films ever made’, it’s probably best to go straight to the one compiled by the BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine, since that’s the one that carries all the weight. In 2013, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) was included in the list at number eight. For a silent art film with, famously, no characters and no plot, that’s quite an achievement, and it would be no surprise to see it climb higher in the list since it is without doubt one of the most influential films ever made. It is still engaging and exciting today, 90 years after its release, and that is in large part due to the daring and poetic way in which it is edited. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Vertov (and his Russian contemporaries) took film and pulled it in a different direction, imagined for it a new purpose; made of it a completely new medium.
It details a day in the life of a Russian city (it was actually filmed, over the course of four years, in three cities.) And although there is no plot, there is an organising narrative structure – essentially, we move through the day, starting with the city waking in the morning. More than that, there is a framing narrative, since we actually start at a cinema, watching a crowd file in to watch the film with us; we also see snippets of the film being edited, and at one level Vertov is foreshadowing the self-aware postmodernists of decades later. His film is about urban Russia, but it’s also about film – like many of the best works of art, it is first and foremost about itself, a completely independent artefact, a wholly unique world or diegesis. In this way – by exposing the process of film-making to us- Vertov establishes his editing technique as the absolute opposite of the ‘invisible’ or ‘continuity’ style which dominates Western film. He does not want us to forget the editing, to lose ourselves in the ‘art’; he is not offering us a passive experience of entertainment. You have to pay attention, to be engaged; you have to think.
And of course, it helps to be aware of the context. Russia in 1929 was only 12 years past the 1917 Communist Revolution. As revolutions go, that was a big one; a complete resetting of the system, as it were. It had a vastly profound impact on Russia and the world and, of course, on the art being produced in Russia. Karl Marx, the intellectual father of Communism, wrote that ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Russian filmmakers adopted that idea with gusto; they saw film as a way to change the attitudes of the audience, to make them think and see in a new way. They were, in short, attempting to continue the work of the Revolution via their art. Film is arguably the most democratic of the art forms; it is pretty much open to all audiences, regardless of education or literacy. As such, it was an obvious choice to reform the attitudes of the Russian (and, later, Chinese) working class audiences.
So, there is a deliberate refusal of continuity here. There is nothing to lull an audience into soporific passivity; nothing to ‘suspend disbelief.’ No plot, no recurring characters (the only ‘character’, perhaps, is the eponymous man with a movie camera himself.) All there is is the montage and the editing; and the editing is fantastic. For a start, there’s a lot of it: Roger Ebert points out that ‘In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds. ‘ (That ASL, by the way, is the same as Michael Bay’s Armageddon.) It is a whirlwind of ‘split screens, multiple exposures, reverse motion, variable-speed photography, prismatic lenses, freeze frames, shock cuts, pixilation, and stroboscopic editing’ (as listed by J Hoberman. He goes on to point out that some of Vertov’s techniques are ‘so intricate that they are still yet to be named.’)
An absolute masterclass in montage editing, then. At the end, we are left with the impression of a Russia which celebrates the collective effort (there are no individual characters here, remember; communism praises the group, not the individual), the machinery of production (including film – we see the association of daily work – sewing, mining – with Vertov’s work of filming and editing. The artist, he is saying, is a just another worker) and the revolution. Watch it!