A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1929 – Man with a Movie Camera
I really wanted to go with a transition to sound film so I could talk about that, but this film really transcends all of that.
First off, this is a documentary. So that alone makes it worthwhile, because even though I don’t like watching documentaries, I admit that it is a crucial aspect of cinema and should be respected as such. That said, this might be the greatest documentary of all time.
The film has no story, but is rather just shots of people in Russia, over the course of a day. The really interesting aspect of the documentary is the incredible range of techniques it uses over its 68 minutes. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
This film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents, deploys or develops, such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and a self-reflexive style (at one point it features a split screen tracking shot; the sides have opposite Dutch angles).
If you’re looking for just about every trick you can possibly use to visually tell a story, this movie has it all.
That’s what I love about the movie. The idea is that film can go anywhere and do anything. And that’s a wonderful sentiment, and on top of that, an important sentiment to have, since, aside from the rigidly adhered-to techniques of narrative filmmaking, this film put forth all of these techniques and methods film could use on top of that. While this film is deliberately avant garde (it’s a documentary and avant garde, two very important aspects of cinema that will be under-discussed on this list, and most lists, to be honest), it really goes for it in terms of putting forth all of these techniques.
And it takes a film like this to be out there for filmmakers to go, “Hmm… that’s interesting,” and incorporate some of those techniques into narrative filmmaking. That’s always the most impressive part to me. Not the filmmakers that go so far out there as to do stuff like this, but rather the ones that are able to incorporate that into classical Hollywood, and make what, by definition, are meant to be generic films into something more memorable due to their chosen filmmaking techniques.
It’s hard for me to even say anything about the film itself, because it’s so fast and furious with all of these beautiful shots and images and editing techniques that you can’t really do anything except marvel at it all. I mean, you can sit there and analyze it shot for shot, but that’s certainly not something I’m trying to do here.M y goal is to talk about what the most representative films are of their years, and I think, when you really think about it, this film really defines 1929.
1929 is a time when film is transitioning from silents to talkies. And that means a whole new set of rules are being developed. And films are going to have to learn how to tell stories differently. And here’s a film that just comes out and throws all of these techniques on the table like puzzle pieces. And now, as the dictionary of film is being rewritten, a film like this plays a huge part in that. And as such, this has lasted as one of the most famous films of all time, and continues to be seen as impressive work.
Seriously, you watch this film now and go, “Whoa… check out that shot.” It’s still influential to this day. But it’s really its addition to the language of film and the amount of techniques that could be used to tell a story in an era when everything was changing that really makes this feel like the defining film of 1929.