In Memory of Vincent Canby (1922-2000)

Man With the Movie Camera, by Dziga Vertov, produced for DVD and VHS by David Shepard, presented by arrangement with George Eastman House, 1929. Musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. B&W, silent, 68 minutes. Distributed by Image Entertainment.

Paris, April 1953. Flirted with a pretty French girl outside the Cin?math?que. Twenty or maybe twenty-one, three or four years older than me. Grey eyes, black brows, short skirt, good legs. She said, “Aimez-vous Dziga Vertov?” I answered truthfully, “Vertov? Connais pas.” Exit pretty French girl. Drat. Should have said, “Vertov? Je l’adore!”

Taconic, Connecticut, June 1973. An impromptu film society in Norfolk showed Dziga Vertov’s silent Man With the Movie Camera (1929) in a 16 mm print rented from the Museum of Modern Art. A recording of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat played along with the film. “Vertov was a Ukrainian Jew,” I confidently told the woman sitting next to me. The man on the other side said to her, “Vertov was born in Bialystock, Poland, at the end of the nineteenth century. His original name was Kaufman. Denys Kaufman, in fact. Man With the Movie Camera, or Chelovek s’kinoapparatom, is his masterpiece.” Man turned smoothly to me and said, “People sometimes think he was Ukrainian because dziga means spinning in that language, just as vertov means top in Russian.” Ever more smoothly man went on, “Dziga vaguely recalls the Yiddish word dredle, the top given to little children at the festival of Hanukkah, as I’m sure you must know.” Man was one of those CIA types who nestle in that corner of northwestern Connecticut, coiled in semi-retirement. Knows absolutely everything about the Soviet Union and speaks fluent Russian, with an impeccable accent no doubt.

I left after the first reel was changed, incensed by the words “as I’m sure you must know” and glad to be on my way back to town. Once home, I bought Jay Leyda’s Kino at the Eighth Street Bookstore and read up on Vertov. He was born in 1896 and died in 1954, a contemporary of Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak. What a spectacular moment in the history of the arts in Russia! In the years just after the Revolution, Vertov was one of the brightest stars in that cataclysmic explosion. As a very young man, he developed a theory of camerawork close to modern cin?ma verit? but in practice more zany and ironic. From this came the group called Kino Eye. Leyda quotes a critic of the time: “The director ordinarily invents the plot for the scenario– Dziga Vertov detects it… he thrusts the lens of his camera straight into the crowed centres of real life.” Man With a Movie Camera, begun in 1928 just before talking pictures, is at or near the top of every serious scholar’s list of great silent movies. Intolerance by Griffith was an influence on him; so were Paris qui dort by Ren? Clair, and Berlin, Symphony of a Great City by Walther Ruttmann. This was the epoch of “symphonic” movies and novels about the city; e.g., King Vidor’s The Crowd, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, Joyce’s Ulysses, Dos Passos’s U.S.A., etc. Finnegans Wake the culmination of this.

I now felt ready to go back to Norfolk and confront that anti-Semitic scion of Yale and Skull & Bones. Taconic, Connecticut, July 1973. The movies shown this weekend in Norfolk were Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm and Sally of the Sawdust, the latter a wonderful silent with W.C. Fields and an elephant. CIA man wasn’t there. I impetuously lecture the women of the club on what I’ve learned about Vertov. Each of them thanks me profusely. “I sincerely enjoyed that…”. “I really learned a great deal…”. Every new thank you a lash of the whip, reminding me that while they have seen all of Man With a Movie Camera, I saw only one reel. To make matters worse, on our way back to New York, M. (her people summer in Taconic) tells me, “I was impressed with you. Deeply.”

Home again at the Chelsea Hotel, I read more on Vertov. After Stalin comes to power, I learn that while certain directors (Kuleshov, Eisenstein) are ostracized for “formalism,” Vertov is “allowed to fade gradually away.” He directs his last feature-length film in 1937, and until his death in 54 he works mostly for the newsreels. Sad end. New York. I was reviewing videos for the Nation. One review began: “Kino Video has a series called, hauntingly, ‘Red Silents: Visions of a Worker’s State’.” I singled out Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita, Queen of Mars, with its sets by Alexandra Exter, and Esther Shub’s documentary The Fall of The Romanovs. By that time I knew something about Constructivism; had seen Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin; had read Annette Michelson’s “From Magician to Epistemologist” about Vertov in The Essential Cinema.

Moreover, the news had reached me that in breaking with Truffaut, Godard invoked Dziga Vertov’s name, quoting one of his manifestos: We rise against the collusion between the “director-enchanter” and the public which is submitted to the enchantment…Down with the scented veil of kisses, murders, doves and conjuring tricks!

Oddly, though, I still hadn’t seen more than that one reel of Man With the Movie Camera. New York, November 1995. Vertov’s movie was being shown in a newly restored print at the Walter Reade Theater. For some reason or other, I didn’t go.

Soon after, I read J. Hoberman in the Village Voice: “This kaleidoscopic city symphony– conjoining Moscow, Kiev, Odessa into one metametropolis– may be the most densely edited movie ever made. Vertov matches the rhythms of a single day to the cycle of life, and the mechanisms of moviemaking to the logic of industrial production…. The Man With the Movie Camera is at once a Whitmanesque documentary-portrait of the Soviet people, a reflexive essay on cinematic representation, and an ecstatic ode to human labor as a process of transformation.”

According to Hoberman, I have missed “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

* * *

New York, January 2001. Stuart Klawans, author of Film Follies, who used to write about movies for the Nation, is giving classes at Columbia on film criticism. Movies about making movies the theme of his first course. Syllabus includes Godard’s Contempt, Truffaut’s Day for Night, Sternberg’s The Last Command. “Of course I’m beginning with Man With the Movie Camera,” he says. I tell him I’ve never seen it. Next day he drops off this DVD.

New York, same date. Watched Man With the Movie Camera after dinner. It begins with a pronouncement. No, in point of fact, it begins with the metronomic music of the Alloy Orchestra, propulsive, techno-sounding and said to be based on Vertov’s own notes. The pronouncement reads: “This film presents an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events.” The work then goes on to proclaim itself “a film without sets, actors, etcetera.”

This experimental work aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.

Oh, well. But then I started laughing as soon as the action began. First off, there is an actor and he looks like Buster Keaton (in The Cameraman!) Second, a movie theater appears and it too is an actor, putting up its house lights, folding down its seats, opening its curtains. Then an audience comes in; a film is handed to a projectionist (Vertov himself); he threads the projector; and, all within a few minutes, this movie-within-a-movie unreels.

Man With A Move Camera confines itself to a day in the life of a modern city. It goes from daybreak to after nightfall in a dazzling series of short action sequences, intercut with stills, now on the streets of Moscow, now in Karkhov, now in Kiev, later on the beach in Odessa. Simultaneously, in serpentine fashion, the movie starts winding back on itself, biting itself in the tail, so to speak. It ends up in the theater where it began, or it ends up in the camera with which it began, or it ends up in the head of the cameraman. Thus, there are two time lines to consider. 1. That of the “narration” (if that’s the right word) and 2. that of the cameraman.

The hero of the movie is the cameraman. He risks his life to bring us shots of railways, dams, electric pylons, mines, fires — and of traffic, incessant traffic. (The cameraman sometimes wears trousers and sometimes riding britches and boots and always a cap, often with the bill turned around. Who is this stand-in for Vertov, or rather for Vertov’s cameraman, his brother Mikhail Kaufmann? The movie never says. But he is always Keatonesque.) The cameraman’s shots of urban life proclaim a socialist city that functions as efficiently as Berlin, Paris or New York. They also reveal a city with poverty and dirt whose citizens react to being filmed sometimes with anger, sometimes with glee. By contrast, in the prosperous parts of the city, the cameraman flirts with his subjects who are mostly well-dressed women. The coquetry of these passages have a special charm. Vertov and his camera love women even more than machines, it seems.

What to watch next? A serious problem. After some deliberation, I decide on Keaton’s The Playhouse, Sherlock, Jr. and his wonderful short, One Week. Oh, and of course The Cameraman.

New York, April 2001. I began to write about Vertov’s movie: “It’s impossible to overstate the virtuosity with which Man With a Movie Camera was made. There are split screens, changes of camera speeds, incessant visual puns, multiple superimpositions and techniques of cutting and montage to which the only possible reaction is Wow! After repeated viewings, my reaction is the same. In Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall a man says that every well-planned garden must have a quality of ‘unexpectedness,’ to which another man replies, ‘Pray, sir… by what name do you distinguish this character when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?’ Man With a Movie Camera addresses this paradox with prestidigitation. (In fact, a Chinese magician appears at a central point of the film, delighting children with a shell game.) Vertov’s cinematic sleight-of-hand makes it impossible for me to take in the by now familiar ‘unexpected’ moment, however many times I see the film. This movie’s peculiar paradox is: How can one speak of a work of art that is intentionally dumbfounding? (Certain writers about Man With a Movie Camera quote the famous saying of Heraclitus: ‘One can’t step into the same river twice.’ The movie says, ‘Or even once.’)”

New York, May, 2001 I began to write about Vertov again.

* * *

The opening credits of Man With a Movie Camera mention only three names: Dziga Vertov, director; Mikhail Kaufmann, cinematographer; and Elisaveta Svilova, editor. Kaufmann was Vertov’s older brother and Svilova was his wife. All three appear in the movie, which is subtitled “an excerpt from the diary of a cameraman.” It announces itself as “a record on celluloid in six reels.” Then the number 1 appears and it promptly transforms itself into a window with curtains. This is the first of the movie’s many puns.

Man With a Movie Camera runs for sixty-eight minutes. Not a second is wasted. In one particular passage a languorous young woman wakes up suddenly. She appears to have had a dream in which the cameraman is filming in the path of a rapidly oncoming train. She wakes up just as the cameraman pulls his foot off the track. Then as the city itself comes to life, we watch her as she starts her day. First we watch her put on her stockings. Then we watch her fasten her brassiere. We watch her and the city in equally quick takes. These shots are so impersonal that it comes to us almost as a surprise when we realize that for some moments we have been in the young woman’s bedroom, watching her dress and wash. The camera, meanwhile, has insisted on her slimness, her blondeness, her youth. At last there comes the moment when she is truly awake. She dries her face and looks straight up at the window of her room. The venetian blinds open and shut in sync with the young woman’s eyelids.

I write about this passage, which lasts only a matter of seconds, because it is the only time the Man With a Movie Camera stays inside a person’s home. Vertov takes a more typical view in a Moscow marriage bureau where couples also go for divorce. Here the camera is set behind the desk. The shots of the couples are intercut with pictures of trams going off together, of trams going off and veering apart, of a horse cart crossing to the left, of a horse cart crossing to the right, of motorcars coming toward us, of motorcars going away. For all of this virtuosic editing, which is exceedingly lyrical (Elisaveta Svilova herself is shown twice here as if in tribute), the total effect is documentary, objective, cold — ….

* * *

I’ve just remembered some doggerel I read or heard long ago. It goes something like this:

Moviegoers hate expositions, Rightly, it seems to me. Movies should always happen Unexpectedly

This offers me an easy way out. But before I go, one more detail–…. Soon before the ending of Man With a Movie Camera, a black metal box slides onto a bench in the movie theater. In stop-time animation, the box unlatches and opens itself. Awkwardly on its tripod, the movie camera steps out. It stands itself up and shows itself off. Here is how I focus, it says. Here is how I turn my crank and my head. The audience nods appreciatively. The camera bows. The audience smiles. The camera walks off. The box shuts itself and follows.


BEN SONNENBERG started the magazine Grand Street in 1981. He edited it for nine years. His Lost Property, Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy has been published in paperback by Counterpoint Press.


BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at