Every artist should hold a desire to transgress his or her medium. And by do so, advancing the artistic creation that personify the form. This in turn, can pave a path for future artists to enable even further advancement. The reinforcement of this philosophy is what makes art eternal. All art forms find their identity through characterizing techniques, which themselves contain systems that cannot be replicated; and if there is one technique that could distinguish cinema as an art form, it’s the craft of editing.
A film that successfully personified these techniques and transgress its medium is that of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). At the time of its release, the average shot length (ASL) for a film was 11.2 seconds, Man With a Movie Camera has an ASL of only 2.3 seconds. As mundane as this statistic may seem, it is the basis behind the reasoning of why this film had, and still has such a powerful impact on audiences.
A horrified New York Times reporter, Mordaunt Hall, wrote in his review prior to the film’s release, “The producer, Dziga Vertov, does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that which holds the attention." Mr. Hall’s reaction is to be expected. This film was a successful experiment in the prediction and display of the evolution of human communication, based on what Vertov witnessed within his daily life. And for silent picture containing an editing style that almost can be described as bio-mechanical, the film not only speaks volumes, it wails and screams as it brings the viewer to their breaking point!
Man with a Movie Camera is beyond fascinating for a multitude of reasons other than simply rapid cuts, Vertov was making a bold point. He felt that film up to this time was locked into the same limitations as stage plays and it was time for filmmakers to discover a new style that was purely cinematic. He proposed that images could move with the speed of our minds, or in some cases throughout the film, at the pace of a passionate composer (seems Vertov could also be loosely credited with the prediction of music videos, now that I think of it.)
Though, as rapid as the images are in the film, they certainly are not random. Man With a Movie Camera opens with an empty cinema, its seats vacant. The seats swivel down (by themselves), and an audience hastily gathers within the theater and fills each row. They begin to view a film. This film. And this film is about--this film being made.
The underlying purpose Vertov had to capture these images is to show 24 hours of footage of a single day within a Russian city. A process which took Vertov four years to film in three different cities throughout Russia. The fact that Vertov does not disclose this information to the audience broadens the scope of the film while narrowing its focus on to The City, The Film, and the only continual figure within the film, The Man With a Movie Camera.
As the film progresses and the pace of the images rapidly accelerate, the film itself becomes even more self aware. There is a reoccurring scene of a traffic cop standing in the middle of a busy intersection directing the flow of traffic. According to Feldman, this reoccurring image is a visual metaphor for the editor of Man With A Movie Camera. “It is she who controls the flow of the film images.” (Feldman 29)
Vertov even goes as far as to transcend metaphors all together within the film. Man With a Movie Camera is interlaced with shots of the film itself being edited. A literal melding of the machinery, the editor, and the film itself. Scenes will come to a sudden halt and stop at a freeze frame, only for the focus to be turned to the editor, who at that moment has stopped working. The preservation of linear continuity is completely abandoned and what we are left with is a vigorous display of rhythmic harmony between composers of both images and music.
Most films strive to capture what most editors refer to as “invisible editing.” These are edits that serve the purpose of storytelling while not bringing attention to themselves. Providing seamless transitions and creating a higher sense of immersion for the viewers. Man With a Movie Camera stands out as a significant piece of art because it completely derails this process. The film assembles itself within the view of the audience and is literally about itself. Although at first glance, the film is a frantic display of images nonlinear to each other, it is these layers of the capture, assembly, and presentation of the film which fold onto themselves seamlessly. Producing a viewing experience that is as violent as a thunderstorm, and yet as elegant as a piece of origami.
Some might argue that Man with a Movie Camera fails at what it is trying to prove; that film can exists outside of narrative. Though it is human nature to try to make logic and sense out of any chaos we perceive, those who pursue this futile search are truly missing the genius sewn into the carful construction of this film.
Director Rob Cohen once stated, “Editing is the reason why people like movies, because in the end, wouldn’t we all like to be able to edit our own lives?” Film is both kind of exploration and well as a method of escapism. A film should evoke emotional response from the viewer as well as be a looking glass into a world not our own. Man With a Movie Camera proves that it can accomplish all of this not only without the confines of a narrative, but outside the confines of a logical reality as well.
It is this complete disregard for the unwritten rules of cinema that Vertov possess within this film that makes it so significant. Without the boldness of directors like Vertov and Dali examining and experimenting with the void of abstraction, there would never have been a Lynch or Cronenberg. Truly great films reside within the minds of the dreamers, to where logic may not always apply. As stated, every medium most possess a technique to progress the form further, and cinema’s technique is editing. Within thirty years of the birth of film, every editing method that is used today, had already been established. With that framework now set in place, it is up to creative individuals to continue to pave the road directors like Vertov discovered. And along the way, rules are surely to be broken.