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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

City Symphonies

Updated: May 5, 2023

Last year I invested (via kickstarter) in London Symphony, a brand New Silent Film about the Culture and Diversity of London. The director/editor Alex Barrett referenced some of my favourite films as his influences inlcuding Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Night Mail (1936). The trailer, music and photography are stunning, and I can't wait to see it. Here's a sample to tempt you....

With the release of London Symphony still a few months away, thought I check in with Man with a Movie Camera again.

Update: The film was relased, is amazing, won loads of awards. Buy it here.

Michael Nyman's Man with a Movie Camera (1929/2002)

Directed by Dziga Vertov

The year is 1929, filmmaking is at its most innovative and creative - with no sound recording equipment one man and his camera can go anywhere and film anything and this is precisely what Dziga Vertov did. However, a black cloud is on the horizon with the arrival of sound technology and the huge success of the American film The Jazz Singer audiences were crying out for more and European filmmakers saw their small (yet significant) impact on world-wide filmmaking as being under threat from the vast power of the burgeoning American studio system.

In the Soviet Union Dziga Vertov was determined to retain the integrity of filmmaking as an art form in its own right, one which did not rely on the tropes of any other and so he created his dazzling film The Man with a Movie Camera. In the film's opening title sequence he proclaimed: "This film presents an experiment. A film without inter-titles. A film without a scenario. A film without sets, actors etc. This experimental wok aims at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of Theatre and Literature."

What follows is a just over an hour of documentary-style footage of a day in the life of the City. There are some dazzling shots on the streets, in offices - of poverty, of great splendour - there are trick shots, special effects and in jokes. This is a movie abut movies - in some shots we see a cameraman at work, carrying out risky and death-defying acts to secure shots for the audience's entertainment. He is nearly mown down by a speeding train, crawling on his hands and knees down a mineshaft and flying over turbulent a river in a crane. This really is great stuff - however the most magical of all are the shots of people, there are those that hide from the camera and those that play up to it - those that ignore the man with the movie camera and those that are transfixed. The Man with a Movie Camera really is a celebration of the movies and a record of filmmaking at this historic turning point in film history.

But what of Michael Nyman? This is a typical Nyman score - troubling and discordant lifted straight from any of his scores from The Draughtsman's Contract to The Piano. Having not heard any of the film’s previous scores I have nothing to compare it to - but it is Vertov's images that have stayed with me, not Nyman's score.

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