The first truly great “modern” documentary ever made promises what it delivers: a man in Soviet-era Russian moving about the city and capturing everything. Filmmaker Dziga Vertov essentially creates the grammar of cinema-verite with his Man with a Movie Camera and nearly every documentary owes something to it. Modern in this sense means that it is a documentary that was more than merely pointing a camera and recording reality as it existed with no thematic or subtextual dimension.
This documentary at first merely seems to be an example of the point and shoot mentality that keeps YouTube “celebrities” in play, but what is lacking on YouTube is a little trick of moviemaking called associational editing. This underlying foundation of associational editing is juxtaposition. Which is to say that one image is juxtaposed against another, usually in a way that seems completely natural, but which provides a texture or tapestry of meaning that in retrospect makes it clear the editorial choices were consciously made. An extreme example of associational editing would be the Surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou, in which images are juxtaposed to each other in a way that seems anything but natural in order to create subconscious connections that only become clear sometime afterward.
Dziga Vertov’s silent Soviet masterpiece A Man with a Movie Camera takes the exact opposite approach while remaining utterly true to the conceptual understanding of associational film editing. A Man with a Movie Camera does engage images that seem naturally connected to each other in way that makes the documentary nothing more nor less than a film editing course compressed into one 68 minute lesson. By the time this documentary draws to a close, those who have been paying attention to the ways in which the man with the camera both composes individual shots and edits them together will have learned most of what they will ever need to know in order to manipulate the perception of reality and exploit both the intellectual and emotional engagement of film audiences.