Man With A Movie Camera at the Three Rivers Film Festival | Program Notes

Man With A Movie Camera at the Three Rivers Film Festival

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The fest closed out in high style Saturday night with a Regent Square Theater screening of this silent classic, accompanied by an original score performed live by Boston's Alloy Orchestra.

Cinephiles couldn't have asked for more: a sold-out showing, with a pristine 35 mm print of a film that hasn't been screened publicly around here for at least a decade. And the Alloy's propulsive and witty accompaniment was the perfect match for Dziga Vertov's still-astonishing 1929 avant-garde documentary about a day in the life of Moscow.

The film's quick cutting and masterful use of devices from slow motion (beautifully used to depict athletes) to multiple superimpositions and stop-motion animation were surprising enough. But who would have thought a film from Stalinist Russia would have depicted women on a beach, naked from the waist up and photographed frontally, smearing themselves with mud (presumably for cosmetic reasons)? Or a split-second view of a newborn baby, umbilical cord and all, in front of the spread-eagled woman he'd just emerged from?

Perhaps most notable is the title device, the cameraman who's seen trotting through many of the film's scenes, tripod over shoulder. (And he, like Vertov, is indeed male, accounting for the high count of demi-cheesecake shots on that beach.) The cameraman's presence is a wonderfully postmodern device, a constant reminder that we're watching a film, and of what it takes to make one.

Better still in this regard are the scenes depicting strips of exposed film itself, with close-ups on individual frames -- a laughing child, say -- that then "come to life," now taking up the whole screen. (The editor whom we see in these scenes is likely Elizaveta Svilova, Vertov's wife and frequent collaborator, and widely regarded as a co-author of this film.)

Man With A Movie Camera's approach was not entirely new. For instance, the film is very much in the mold of the "city symphony" portraits of other bustling metropoli that were in vogue at the time. And Buster Keaton, for example, had experimented with self-reflexive cinema-themed narratives in such earlier films as Sherlock, Jr.

Still, Vertov's film is that rare silent classic which dates hardly at all. Surely that's largely due to the film's sense of urgency. A friend I saw it with interpreted Man With A Movie Camera as a challenge to other artists to rise to the times.

Finally, the screening felt like a new high for Pittsburgh's decade-long romance with silent films with live musical accompaniment. Previous highlights have included everything from period scores to Chaplin and Harold Lloyd shorts to the Mongolian throat-singing group Yat Kha accompanying another Soviet classic, Storm Over Asia, at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. But the three-man Alloy Orchestra, whom festival organizer Pittsburgh Filmmakers hosts most every year, is the most prolific practioner hereabouts and arguably the best, showing what you can do with little more than percussion and keyboards.  

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