Saturday, July 11, 2009

Man With a Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1928, bw/silent (9.5*)
This is a very lively, fast-moving documentary that attempts to show to the world one day in the life of people within the Soviet Union. Most of the footage appears to be around Odessa, and the film begins showing sleeping people in a quiet city, some outside on benches or sidewalks, then as the sun rises, the city comes alive. What could have been just a boring travelogue has been instead raised to the level of art by some innovative cinematic techniques that even some of today's boring directors would be well advised to watch.

Director Dziga Vertov often shows his cameraman Kaufman (or did Kaufman film Vertov?) carrying the movie camera around on its tripod, or superimposed as a giant on top of a building, or as a window reflection. He even films Kaufman while he films a scene, such as a galloping horse and carriage which they're racing alongside in a convertible automobile. The resulting shot of the horse is simply breathtaking, as exciting as the chariot race in Wyler's Ben-Hur 31 years later, and it's likely that Wyler had seen this himself.

We are shown some mundane images, such as coal miners, shopkeepers, sunbathers, street cleaners, crowds entering buses; but we also see the unusual: women cleaning and greasing the tracks for electric streetcars, athletes clearing bars in slow motion, a woman shooting a rifle at a target with a hat bearing a swastika, a topless pair of women at the beach spreading mud over each other!

This is a short film at 70 minutes, but it moves very quickly for a silent film as none of the images are onscreen for long, so the result is perfect for the short attention span century, and the film editing is at genius level for just about any year. At times the modern soundtrack detracts somewhat, but there is a nice correlation between the music's rhythms and the visuals onscreen.

Vertov also shows the film being projected in a cinema in front of an audience; it start with them filing into the theater and taking seats, closes with the curtain being drawn and the crows exiting - so he shows the creative process during and after the film's completion. This is a bona fide cinema classic that ranks highly on all serious lists, it's #78 on our Top Ranked 1000 Films survey, and its the highest-ranked documentary.

[Note: I would have given this a 10 if it had a compelling story]

One of the first recipients of our World Film Awards, as we started with 15 silent classics

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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.



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