For me, silent films usually conjure images of mustache-twirling evil-doers, jazz-age slapstick or, more chillingly, D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking yet racist opus, The Birth of a Nation. Griffith wasn't the only director of the silent era who saw both the aesthetic potential and propagandist power of moving pictures. In 1929, Russian auteur Dziga Vertov released The Man With the Movie Camera, a masterpiece that has had an enduring influence on cinema, particularly the French New Wave. And yet, much like Vertov himself, the work has fallen into obscurity, which is why Breakdown Book Collective has chosen to screen it on Monday, June 13, as the second installment of Silent Film at the 404, a film series held at Club 404 restaurant on Broadway.
"Breakdown has been showing films for a while," says volunteer Liz Simmons, referring to the popular Bike-In screenings held at the collective's Capitol Hill home. "We like showing obscure films, but silent films are even less known. We wanted to expose people to them, especially ones that have some sort of social commentary."
Like Fritz Lang's Metropolisor Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times -- the film that launched Breakdown's series -- Man With the Movie Camera portrays life in an industrial society. But where the others offer a dire, dystopian vision, Vertov's movie celebrates the virtues of labor and harmony in communist Russia -- all the while using radical technical innovations to analyze the nature of cinema and perception.
"It's basically this modernist look at the beauty of industrialism and the mechanization process," explains Breakdown's Eric Gangloff. "There are all these shots of factories and public transportation and people doing all this very repetitive work. Everything's running smoothly. Everybody's a cog in this very happy machine. It was very clearly propaganda. But the shots and the angles and the editing are very intriguing and mesmerizing. It's just beautiful to watch."