A True Cinematic Experience
Last night I had a truly cinematic experience.
It is easy to forget that cinema is barely 130 years old. Yet in the frenetic first decades of the new form some of the greatest works of cinematic art were produced. Many of these define even today our film language, the power of film to promulgate ideas – its use as propaganda and its role in observing ourselves and as the most important art form of the 20th and possibly the 21st centuries. (In the case of this century only time will tell and we shall all almost certainly be dead by the time we have a definitive answer!) Last year Sight and Sound, suggested that the greatest documentary ever made was ‘Man with a Movie Camera, (the original Russian title was literally, Man with a Film Camera), made in 1929 by Dziga Vertov. The BFI has released new digital print which I was able to see in a packed cinema in Bristol. The sound-track – sadly not a work of genius like the film itself – was a live performance of a new composition to accompany the film by Paul Robinson.
Put aside the fact that the word ‘documentary’ did not exist until invented by John Grierson in 1926, just three years before the release of Man with a ‘Movie’ Camera just exactly what definition one should give this wonderful film? I prefer ‘art film’ because it is the most joyous expression of pure cinematic invention with no captions, obvious narrative other than the events which for the most part start in the morning and end in the evening. It is quite simply a work of visual genius and added to the foundations of cinematic language as seen in the ground-breaking approach to editing, cross-cutting, multi-layered images, fast and slow motion, still images, Point of View and the place of the cinematographer within the community he is filming. Yes, it observes ordinary life on the streets of four Soviet cities in a long-running series of vignettes but that does not make it a documentary in my book. It is much closer in experience to a contemporary video art installation like those currently on show at the Louis Vuitton Foundation housed in the magnificent Frank Ghery building in Paris. Check out the work of video artists like Ulla von Brandenburg, Pilar Albarracín and Douglas Gordon.
Vertov was the leader of the Council of Three – his wife the editor and his brother the cameraman. He wanted to make films that were not tainted by ‘Foreign Matter’ such as the theatre and literature which he accused his predecessors of making. He wanted his film to be a work in ‘a truly international absolute language’. Seeing it on the big screen, surrounded by a rapped audience and switching off from the music which served, I felt, to get in the way of the images I can concur that he succeeded in his ambition fully.
I know the film from my student days and reminding myself of it when researching the Film Culture unit, but I had never seen it in the cinema. Today there is a great debate about the future for cinema. Will anyone bother to go when they can watch films on their laptops, tablets and phones or download them onto the telly at will? Is cinema on its last legs? There is simply no substitute for the collective experience of going to the movies and films that have the ambition to be cinematic must be seen on a big screen to be experienced in that context. I go to the movies a lot and have no intention of stopping, nor feeling I get the full experience of film by watching it on a VDU. In fact, just a few days ago I was in the same cinema watching Tangerine, a film about trans-gender sex workers in LA shot entirely on iphones and directed by Sean Baker. A wonderful, wild, witty and poignant day in the life shot continually with a moving camera – just like Vertov’s masterpiece and well post-produced so that on the giant screen the rich, saturated colours of a limited mega pixel camera and cheap lens added to the sum of the parts. The technologies of the two films may be poles apart and separated by 85 years of cinema history, but Baker’s film owes a lot to Vertov. Go check them out in your local flea pit and live cinema in all its diverse glory.