Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera played at the Music Box with live accompaniment the other day. I get there early like I always do but can’t sit in the front row like usual because the keyboard player/composer’s rig is set almost against the seats. It looks more like a command module than a musical instrument.

A guy in a leather jacket sits down and place some jazz as people filter in. Then he stands up, turns around, and introduces himself as the composer of the music we’ll be hearing with the silent film.

I spend the next seventy minutes with my mouth open. This was made ninety-three years ago but is still eons ahead of much of what passes for movies these days. How could that be? Is progress or evolution total fiction? Vertov communicates so much without a single word. Now we fill hours and hours with gum-flapping to say very little.

A friend asks the next day how I could enjoy the movie when it was made under the auspices of the USSR and I tell her it’s the same as appreciating religious painting without an ounce of faith. Artists have always have to work under political and ethical restrictions. The Lenin shit flies by lighter and quicker than the recurring streetcars.

The day I write this I read Jean-Luc Godard’s obituary. Godard loved Vertov enough to found a film collective called the Dziga Vertov Group. I love a lot of his movies despite his stupid politics. It’s harder to excuse a wealthy Frenchman idolizing Mao than a naive Jew thinking he’s helping build a workers’ paradise. Less than a decade after Man With a Movie Camera, Vertov was barely allowed to express himself at all, while Godard kept being an apologist for a genocidal monster for an embarassingly long time. 

Still, he was one of the very few filmmakers who kept Vertov’s spirit of innovation alive to the end of his days. He was never satisfied to repeat himself or just push product like most of his contemporaries. I remember being amazed by his 2014 film Goodbye to Language—a 3-D tone poem that I couldn’t begin to describe. It pointed a way forward that no one in mainstream filmmaking has taken up. 

They’re too busy making content.