Essential Viewing: Do-It-Yourself Auteurs (Part 2 – Further Viewing)

Jamie Stuart’s short film “Man in a Blizzard,” which took one day to complete during New York’s brutal Christmastime blizzard of 2010, became a triumph of DIY filmmaking when Roger Ebert recommended it be nominated for an Oscar.

Surely, no mere YouTube video shot and edited on the fly has gotten this kind of critical acclaim. Millions of hits, maybe…

but nothing approaching the endorsement of Pulitzer Prize winner Ebert. One reason Ebert cited for recommending “Man in a Blizzard” was “…it’s role as homage. It is directly inspired by Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent classic, Man With a Movie Camera.

“Man in a Blizzard” was shot on a Canon 7D digital single lens reflex camera, the kind you can buy at a high-end electronics store or on the internet:

but does indeed reach back to a tradition of poetic, semi-documentary experimental film known as the city symphony. Most of the classic city symphonies were made in in the 1920’s and include:


Rien que les heures

Etudes Sur Paris

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City


and reaching its peak with Man with a Movie Camera. Man with a Movie Camera makes poetic use of documentary footage, often rendering the city with the frenzy of Soviet montage– ironically the kind that Vertov criticized sharply when employed in the fictionalized films of his contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein.

Eisenstein, pioneered the propulsive, disjunctive editing made famous by the Soviets. But unlike Vertov, Eisenstein worked with staged events rather than documenting reality. Vertov accused Eisenstein of promoting a cinema bound by theatrical and literary concepts, and therefore unable to be truly cinematic. Man with a Movie Camera was to be something entirely new, pulling from the images of real life, and transforming it into a language of pure cinema.

Man with a Movie Camera also dives fearlessly into abstraction at times, like the Dadaist film Ballet Mecanique:

and Ralph Steiner’s films, like Mechanical Principles:

What all of these films have in common with “Man in a Blizzard” is an ingenious opportunism. There are some legendary cameramen behind the lens on these films, such as Berlin’s co-cameraman Karl Freund of Metropolis fame and Ballet Mecanique’s Dudley Murphy, the visually inventive future director of The Emperor Jones. Like Stuart, they learned to take advantage of spontaneous privileged moments through years of practice on short films. Vertov honed his craft churning out a newsreel series called Kino-Pravda throughout the 20’s, along with several documentary featurettes– Soviet propaganda with an artist’s fine touch.

Stuart’s own no-budget experimental shorts photographed at several New York Film Festivals, form a kind of city symphony in their own right:

“Blizzard” is hardy the first creative work directly inspired by “Man with a Movie Camera”
Commissioned to write a new score for the film in 2001, the British Jazz and electronic band The Cinematic Orchestra produced an entire album entitled “The Man with the Movie Camera”:

And the city symphony tradition has continued to the present in a variety of forms:

Perhaps the most important consequence of “Man in a Blizzard” will be raising awareness of silent era films that show more stylistic daring and ingenuity than so many of today’s gargantuan spectacles. In an era where filmmaking technology is now available to anyone with some disposable income to spend at Best Buy or Amazon, this lesson is crucial.

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