Odessa, USSR, c. 1929 as shown to us by Dziga Vertov. Another movie so famous, I’ve been hearing about it forever, and I finally watched it. I expected a socialist agit-prop documentary film, mixed with self-conscious avante garde sensibility, but I found a dizzying and exuberant – and self-consciously avante garde – portrait of the people of the USSR.
The film uses just about every special effect available at the time: freeze frames (I immediately thought of 2001, the final trip to Jupiter), split screens, double exposure, time-lapse photography, stop-action animation, slow motion, fast motion, unusual angles, and lots of clever editing.
I was struck by the playful self-referential nature of it all: The man with the camera who is everywhere, recording all of Soviet life (supposedly in candid takes, despite the enormous machine he lugs around) but he himself is recorded. We see him, walking around with his machine and setting up. We see him, on a motorcycle, racing around a track with a camera mounted on the handlebars filming the scenes we were shown just before and will see just after…and then we see a theatre, full of people, seeing the film that we are seeing! Don Quixote complaining about the stories he’s been reading about himself couldn’t do it better.
The film shows the Soviet man and woman at work, in factories and mines. (In one crazy scene, our camera man is wedged into a narrow mining passageway filming a worker…but who is filming him?) Most of the film, to my surprise and delight, is about life of the everyday. Women having their hair done, athletic events, people drinking at a bar (and the camera man rises right out of their beer mug!), giving birth, watching horses, riding motor bikes, traffic in the city, playing chess (with some nice reverse footage of a board magically setting up from a pile of chess pieces) and listening to the radio.
This last scene comes a minute or so after a picture of Lenin is viewed on the outside of a worker’s club. The only image of him I noticed in the whole film! Stalin?? None. How did this guy survive the 30’s and 40’s unscathed? (He died of cancer in the 50’s.)
A favorite passage of mine shows children, then freeze frames of their faces, sewing machines, a woman at a workbench editing film, the film we are seeing. She stitches the images together like a seamstress.
Some stills from throughout the film – click the images for enlargements: