I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term “pure cinema,” now that it’s become both a critical cliché and an apt descriptor of the kinds of films that have been winning me over in recent years. Films like Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow have all hit the pure cinema sweet spot for me, centering their artistic merits around the marriage of sound & the moving image, carving out a mood & a tone instead of structuring their goals through traditional stage play & television style narratives. As often as I find myself seeking a pure cinema aesthetic in my film selections, however, I do have to admit that the term’s sudden ubiquity, along with other descriptors like “tone poem” & “mood piece,” has watered down its meaning somewhat. There’s even been a recently launched Pure Cinema podcast jokingly titled after the term in a tongue in cheek way. As current as the “pure cinema” concern & descriptor feel in a hive mind sense, though, the type of art it describes has existed nearly as long as the medium as film itself. Last year, I fell in love with the early “pure cinema” silent era horror A Page of Madness, which explores its tone & mood-based concerns in a flood of intense, seemingly narrative-free imagery. Later that decade, director Dziga Vertov was even more direct & intentional in his pure cinema ambitions. Frustrated with early film’s adherence to narrative forms of art that came before it, like stage plays & literature, Vertov attempted to make a film purely concerned with the art of the moving image. The result was 1929’s avant-garde “documentary” Man with a Movie Camera.
Filmed over three years in a range of Soviet Russian cities, Man with a Movie Camera is structured as a day in the life in the modern industrialized age. The film has a from dusk until dawn narrative shape to it, but otherwise tells no coherent story. It is a silent film without intertitles, a movie with “no scenario, no sets, no actors.” Vertov attempts to establish a “universal language of cinema,” in which narrative adherence to an A-B plot would only get in the way of its pure cinema aspirations of a director as an artist attempting to test & define the boundaries of his medium. As a documentary, the film is an interesting look at what Soviet cities look like in the 1920s. The advertising, transportation systems, and assembly line machinery of places like Kiev & Moscow are documented with a kind of historical eye, even if they’re filtered through avant-garde cinematography & editing techniques. Modern leisure is captured just as much as factory work too, with the movie often breaking to document barroom alcohol consumption and families bumming around on the beach. There’s very little humanism to its documentary style, however, as the film deliberately avoids focusing on or developing anything resembling a character. Besides stray moments when a woman hooks a bra or a man walks across a construction beam, Man with a Camera films people from dehumanizing heights, like watching the scurrying citizens of an ant farm. The cities themselves are also abstracted in this way, as the camera searches for geometric lines in its buildings, nurseries, park benches, and typewriters. This emotionally distancing abstraction makes the film difficult to focus on in its entirety, even with its measly hour-long runtime, but any five minute stretch of the work is fascinating to the eye in a formal sense and this is ultimately a film about form.
A more accurate title for this work might have been Man with Two Cameras. Vertov’s favorite subject to film seems to be himself, filming. The movie is overloaded with shots of camera equipment, projectors, film strips, and even movie theaters. Everything from principal shooting to the editing process to the screening of footage is represented onscreen, suggesting that Man with a Camera is less about documenting modern city life than it is about navel-gazing on the subject of what is art & what is cinema. Sometimes it finally finds a specific subject for audiences to latch onto in these reflections, like when stop motion footage of a camera turns it into a personified character. Overall, though, the movie more effectively breaks down the camera and the man who operates to their function as just two more machines in the larger, industrialized picture.
It can be striking how modern that goal & aesthetic are in a 2010s context. I imagine this is the exact kind of cinematic artifact that Guy Maddin daydreams about & drools over while planning out his own work. Personally, though, my fascination with Man with a Camera‘s early experiments in tracking shots, overlayed imagery, and mimicry of the human eye’s perspective as it darts around erratically can only take me so far. The avant-garde horrors of this film’s predecessor, A Page of Madness, were much easier for me to connect with because there was a humanity in its central narrative, however vaguely defined. The recent documentary Cameraperson also sounds more immediately interesting to me for similar humanist reasons, despite being just as loosely assembled over the course of disparately documented years, locations, and personalities. Man with a Movie Camera‘s dedication to a pure cinema ethos is both visually & philosophically interesting to me in an intellectual sense, but I do think a little influence from literary or dramatic narrative tradition would’ve been helpful in making it more interesting as a film instead of an academic exercise. Dziga Vertov was definitely onto something, though, and it’s fascinating to watch him reach for the outermost boundaries of his medium, something I wish more modern directors would do now that television & video games are encroaching on & democratizing their territory.