Man with a Movie Camera has an average shot length (ASL) of 2.3 seconds and contains 1,729 individual shots. Russian Ark, by contrast, has an ASL of about 91 minutes and only one shot. These two Russian films were made seventy-three years apart — the first is silent and the second was shot on digital video. They make a fascinating pair, working in opposition to each other, both aesthetically and politically. Man with a Movie Camera is one of the starkest examples of Soviet montage theory, what we might call the Eisenstein school of filmmaking, which defines the language of cinema as the juxtaposition of different shots edited together. Russian Ark had no film editor; instead, the film is the most extreme example possible of the Bazinian emphasis on mise-en-scène, defining the language of cinema by what is (and is not) within the frame. So we’ve got a film geek double feature for this month, but these movies are well worth the effort.
In 1929, the question of a “language of cinema” was very much up for debate. The introduction of synchronized sound had reinvigorated the idea of using film essentially as nothing more than a recording device for stage plays or classic novels. Silent cinema, before its abrupt extinction, had been stretching beyond that. F.W. Murnau experimented with universal stories that transcended language and cultural boundaries in his films The Last Laugh and Sunrise. Dziga Vertov, director of Man with a Movie Camera, didn’t think that went far enough, and he opens his film with a manifesto:
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.
Consequently, the film is difficult to categorize. The word documentary comes close because the movie presents a day in the life of a city, observing real people at work and play. It’s a forerunner of the “direct cinema” movement, with no frills or commentary, attempting to capture life as naturally as possible. But there’s another layer on top of that: the movie is about its own making. The first images are of a movie theater where an audience gathers to watch the same thing we’re about to watch. In the film-within-the-film, the title character is often seen carrying his camera all over the city and filming, with some of his own footage incorporated into the movie along with that of an unseen second cameraman. The film’s editor, Elizaveta Svilova (Vertov’s wife), is shown splicing film together, and some of the frames she examines will later be seen in motion. So we might call it a meta-documentary.
Man with a Movie Camera is about film itself, the great unexplored possibilities of the young medium. The limitations of camera placement are stretched, with shots from the top of tall buildings, in a mine, under train tracks, and on moving cars. Even more breathtaking than that is the speed of the editing as it measures the pulse of city life, the roles different citizens play and the machines they use. The human body itself is viewed as a machine, with an extended sequence of athletes training for Olympic events. Different actions are juxtaposed — a typewriter with a piano, hair-washing with clothes-washing, manicures and sewing with film editing. The pace ebbs and flows before building to a thunderous conclusion. What the movie communicates is the vibrancy and harmony of the new communist society, with the machine of cinema portrayed as another tool for keeping that society running smoothly.
That kind of optimism has been beaten down relentlessly ever since. Alexander Sokurov’s extended history tour in Russian Ark conspicuously avoids almost any direct mention of the Soviet period, focusing instead on the era of the Russian Empire. Unlike Man with a Movie Camera, which opens and closes with famous shots of a camera, the camera in Russian Ark is meant to be forgotten. We are simply there, walking in the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. This film also has documentary elements, but the museum becomes more of a dreamscape, or perhaps an afterlife (depending on how we interpret Sokurov’s simple but fraught opening narration). The lack of cuts makes it impossible to ignore that different periods of Russian history are coexisting at the same time and place. Famous historical figures such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas II (and Anastasia) and Alexander Pushkin all make appearances not far from where present-day tourists look at paintings. As the unseen Sokurov and a nineteenth-century French travel writer explore the huge complex, they discuss history, art, politics, and literature, trying to hold on to traditions that may be lost.
Sokurov describes it as a “film in one breath.” The continuous take, made possible by new technology (you simply couldn’t record on that much celluloid all at once), captures a similar variety of human activity as is found in Man with a Movie Camera. There’s a theater performance, a changing of the guard, a diplomatic ceremony, and finally a ball. A blind museum visitor examines a sculpture by touch, while other visitors examine paintings by smell. The communist era is basically reduced to a room full of coffins and empty picture frames. It’s all much more ponderous and forlorn than the earlier film (to say the least), with an explicitly stated ambivalence about the current state of the nation. The older film unabashedly embraced modern times, while the newer one looks back fondly on the period before the Revolution changed everything.
Walter Murch, in his terrific book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, compares editing’s effects to a dream:
We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams. In fact, the abruptness of the cut may be one of the key determinants in actually producing the similarity between films and dreams. In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, “This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.”
Roger Ebert, in his review of Russian Ark, said something different:
…the effect of the unbroken flow of images (experimented with in the past by directors like Hitchcock and Max Ophüls) is uncanny. If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. Russian Ark spins a daydream made of centuries.
Which of these two visions is the more “cinematic”? It’s an argument that’s been going on as long as film theory has existed, and I love both approaches (many of the greatest movies have found ways to combine them, naturally). The task of producing both of these movies was incredibly arduous, each in its own unique way. Think of the tension that built on the Russian Ark shoot, as it approached its ninetieth minute, where a single visible mistake could ruin the whole take and keep the movie from being made (the crew was allowed into the museum for only one day). Think of the dedication of capturing all of Man with a Movie Camera‘s footage with a hand-cranked camera, and later editing all of its 1,729 shots together physically. I find myself holding my breath during both films. They’re foreign, theoretical, plotless, experimental — and more exciting than most of the movies I’ve ever seen.