Man with a Movie Camera [1929]

For my studies this year, I’ve watched in the order of 50 films, and the best of them is probably a 1929 silent pseudo-documentary called Man with a Movie Camera. It was made by a guy who got his start in newsreels and who was apparently a reasonably ardent communist. Some accounts of the film position it as advocacy for the communist idea of progress, but my impression from nearly a century away was that it’s more general celebration of urbanization and mechanization: man as a perfectly harmonious and functioning part in a structured society.

In that light, it could be read almost as the light-universe antithesis of Metropolis’ dystopia. In Metropolis one part of humanity is enslaved to machines who facilitate the comfortable lives of the minority. Metropolis constructs this as the “hand” and “head”, which will be yoked together an made into a less horrific enslavement by the “heart”. Lang posits a society where hierarchy persists, basically nobility and peasantry. For all that the evil robotic agent provocateur is defeated, and the real “heart” restored, this represents an evolution of the hierarchical system into a more perfect form rather than a disruption of the system. The real mediator between the slaves and masters remains machinery, of which the robotic Maria was just the most subtle version.

Man with a Movie Camera‘s more positive vision shows no hierarchy. Human workers aren’t shown in service to the machines, they’re shown as parts in a continuous chain of production. As both exist in series, there’s a kind of equivalence between a person and a machine – neither superior, neither expendable. The workers in Man with a Movie Camera are all shown as happy, and the mechanistic function they fulfil in the factory is then shown as the model for other behaviours. For example, in a scene of people swimming, each of the line of swimmers executes the same precise movements in pretty much the same time – they are machine swimmers, not spontaneous swimmers. It’s therefore still a film about a total integration, a sublimation of humanity’s spontaneity into the orderly operation of machines, but a happy one.

Both films remain strikingly modern and relevant. I think that we are probably still mediating the technological crisis that motivates the films: will machines free us from hierarchical societies or will they reinforce those structures? One micro example for me is the self-checkouts at super-markets. When I buy fresh fruit and vegetables I usually avoid them and use a human-operated lane, because they are much quicker at weighing and looking up the items than I am. Metropolis tells me that those workers are in service to the machine, facilitating its functions for my benefit. Man with a Movie Camera tells me that these are parallel operations, a symbiosis that uses the wider capabilities of a human as well as the precise calculating functions of a machine.

This kind of optimistic view of progress is encoded purely visually. I think Hitchcock would have recognised it as “pure cinema”, where the use of cutting, continuity editing, and montage (if those are different things) creates a meaning that requires no explanation. It is a visual delight. I’ve watched it with several different soundtracks and in every instance my awareness of the music has completely faded, leaving just a visual spectacle. It’s a work of absolute genius, which sets out to, and successfully does, prove just how sophisticated film is as a pure medium in its own right, not dependent on concepts borrowed from earlier art forms.

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