The bravura day-in-the-life-of-Russia silent The Man with the Movie Camera has been endlessly discussed in film studies classes, picked apart by critcs, and ranked near the tops of innumberable "Best Of" lists. Dziga Vertov's pioneering documentary has a place in film history, but how well do we know the actual man with the movie camera? Flickr Alley's Blu Ray release Dzinga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera attempts to shed some light on this Soviet master - not only does it have a lovingly restored, pristine version of his most iconic film, it also includes four other 1924-34 propaganda films which give a full picture of this inventive filmmaker.
The films on Dzinga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera reveal a dazzling film craftsman who had one foot in the European Avant Garde, the other in the Communist dogma of his hero, Vladimir Lenin. Post-Revolution Russia was an interesting time, when the Soviet bureocracy was pushing forth an oppressive, murderous regime, yet needed the forward-looking, creative talents of believers like Vertov to spread their collective-utopia message. While the outright propaganda displayed in the other films may seem strident to our modern eyes, one can still view them as proof of Vertov's impressive skill with camera angles, editing, juxtaposition and layering of images. It was certainly on display in this set's earliest film, 1924's Kino Eye, while Enthusiasm (1931) and Three Songs of Lenin (1934) demonstrated that he had as much virtuosity with sounds and music as with imagery.
Along with a comprehensive, 24-page book supplying lots of background information on Vertov and his work, Flicker Alley's Dzinga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera's single Blu Ray release contains the following, newly restored films:
The Man with the Movie Camera (1929; 68 minutes)
Vertov sets up The Man with the Movie Camera as a film-within-a-film, where images of movie theater seats magically lowering themselves cues in the audience that they're as much a part of the machinery as the onscreen activity. A series of opening text screens state that this film is an impressionistic portrait of Russia in all its gorgeous diversity, with no title cards to distract from the flow of imagery. What follows is a dizzying array of juxtapositions involving machines and motion - city dwellers on their commutes, wealthy citizens in automobiles, a funeral procession with a woman giving birth, factories pumping out steel and cigarettes, healthy comrades diving, taking mud baths, playing basketball. Throughout, Vertov himself is seen athletically trooping about these locales with his tripod-mounted camera, a living being (shown stop-motion animated at one point) and extension of the filmmaker's body.
Kino Eye (1924; 78 minutes)
Kino Pravda (1925; 23 minutes)
Enthusiasm (1931; 66 minutes)
Another intriguing aspect to Enthusiasm (and the other films, really) is how unabashedly it celebrates industriousness and the noble sacrifice of putting in a full day's work. Jobs that look demeaning, repetitive and unsafe to modern viewers are presented as the nearest thing to Heaven On Earth. This particular one would make for a provocative double feature with A Human Condition, Louis Malle's 1974 look at a French auto plant, which takes on an infinitely more jaundiced view of industrial production.
Three Songs of Lenin (1934; 59 minutes)
The Blu Ray:
All of the content on Dzinga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera derive from high-definition digital restorations undertaken by France's Lobster Films and a variety of other companies. Having just seen an older DVD edition of The Man with the Movie Camera about a year ago, I can safely conclude that this new (2014) restoration is a knockout - beautifully detailed, scrubbed of scratches, dust and other debris, and balanced correctly with a rich variety of grey shades. The booklet included in this set details all the painstaking work that went into this effort - and it shows in this gorgeous disc.
The other films included in the set also have a pleasantly detailed presentation, although there's a little more deterioration in the source prints. Some passages in the silent-era films appear blown-out, while the final reel in Three Songs of Lenin sports a considerable amount of damage. Visually, they're comparable with Flicker Alley's Chaplin's Mutual Comedies set.
The Man with the Movie Camera retains the Alloy Orchestra underscoring from 1996. Although it's played on modern synthesizers, the track was made from Vertov's original instructions, seamlessly blending in with the visuals. As with the Robert Israel scoring on the silent Kino-Eye, it's in clean, nicely balanced stereo. The two sound-era films sport serviceable, dynamically limited mono tracks with a moderate amount of pops, hiss and other flaws. Optional English subtitles are provided on all films.
No extras on the disc itself, although the included 24-page booklet is a great bonus with biographical info on Vertov, detailed production histories on each film, credits, stills and more.
If only for a gorgeously restored The Man with the Movie Camera (assuredly one of the finest films ever), Flicker Alley's Dzinga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera earns a DVD Talk Collectors Series honor. This nicely annotated Blu Ray contains four other newly-restored films Vertov made between 1924 and 1931, unapologetically Russian pieces that fascinate with their outright propaganda and visual brilliance.