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Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works
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)
The Man with the Movie Camera is Vertov's masterpiece, a fragmentary salute to the glories of the Soviet Union that stands with Sherlock, Jr. and Nosferatu as one of the most inventive-ever silent films. As proven by the other films on this set, Vertov was well-versed in the film uses of propaganda. This particular one expands on that concept, however, making it a lasting comment on how humankind has mastered the machinery it builds and, indeed, has become an indelible part of it (one of the recurring visual motifs: an eye superimposed on a camera lens).
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)
The blatant propaganda of Kino Eye definitely stands as a byproduct of Vertov's time as a newsreel producer, although this film's crafty usage of raw documentary footage paves the way for Movie Camera. Though it uses a lot of hyperbole-filled text cards to make its point, the tightly edited flow of imagery and unadorned documentary footage show that Vertov found his voice pretty early on. The film rambles on a lot and could have benefitted from several trims. Segments such as the magic show performed in front of some enraptured children demonstrate his ability to capture everyday moments. There's also some inventively done parts that make it worth a peek - including two odd, reverse-filmed segments showing bread loaves and cuts of meat evolving into, respectively, wheat fields and a live bull.
Kino Pravda (1925; 23 minutes)
Part of a series of state-produced newsreels, Kino Pravda has Vertov in full-on adoration mode. The short film honored the anniversary of Lenin's death by celebrating what he accomplished - paving the way for a new, supposedly liberated Russia. Once again, Vertov's inventiveness with double exposures, mirror images, adjusted speeds and other celluloid tricks leave an impact, despite the strident, pro-Communism message.
Enthusiasm (1931; 66 minutes)
With Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Vertov explored the full potential of the medium for his first sound film. Opening with shots of a young woman tuning into a short wave radio, Vertov fully exploited his signature fragmentary style in this patriotic travelogue of the people, industry and agriculture of his birthplace, the Ukraine. The results are both a visual and aural banquet - despite, like Kino Eye, the abundance of overlong segments. Vertov mixed together often-dissonant found sounds and indigenous music to craft a track that went well beyond what's usually required of straightforward documentaries. If not nearly as concise as The Man with the Movie Camera, the film remains quite the expressive, immersive union of image and sound.
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)
Another unabashed propaganda piece, Three Songs of Lenin is presented here in a fragmentary form derived from prints that were originally released as separate silent and sound films. In three parts, Lenin's legacy is exalted with semi-abstract shots of military parades, solemn glances at mourners walking past the leader's casket, and text-heavy salutes to his greatness. Although a mildly intriguing example of how Vertov adapted to the more conservative Stalin regime, Three Songs mostly merited inclusion here as an added curiosity piece. To this viewer, what most resonated was Vertov's precise stagings of mourners at Lenin's casket, moodily lit as if they were Marlene Dietrich in a Josef von Sternberg opus.
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.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.