Thursday, January 5, 2012

I am in awe of 'Man With A Movie Camera'

I just can't get over it. It's the kind of thing I respond to emotionally. It's real life rearranged into fascinating patterns—something like music, but augmented for the eyes. And it's really gotten to me.

Two days ago, I scored this 1929 film from the Soviet Union, created by Dziga Vertov (see above, with his co-star) in that remarkable era of artistic experimentation before Stalin commandeered the arts for his own purposes. 'Man With A Movie Camera' is a wonderful film to score, with its startling montages and shifting cutting rhythms and so many other elements that lend themselves to music.

Vertov, in demonstrating the possibilities of the movie camera, showed the potential for cinema to reimagine life itself, and releasing an avalanche of raw creativity in the process. 'Man With A Movie Camera' shows us life in ways no one had ever experienced before.

And in doing this, Vertov produced a strutting celebration of life as it is experienced by most people, a piece of art that immortalizes the ordinary all around us by transforming it into something extraordinary. And I find this very moving, especially so in the wild and frentic last five minutes of the picture, the equivalent to the "grand finale." Something about it reaches out and grabs me and makes me feel glad to be alive, and gives me a sense of limitless possibilities.

Of course not everyone will respond to 'Man With A Movie Camera' in this way. So at the conclusion of Tuesday night's screening, I asked our relatively small audience (maybe 15 souls) for reactions. Without hesitating, one of my regular attendees blurted out, "It was AWFUL!" She was, alas, expecting a typical Hollywood story, which 'Man With A Movie Camera' is not.

And so we talked a bit about her response, and it forced me to try to express why I responded so strongly to the film. And I kept coming back to that "music for the eyes" idea. 'Man With A Movie Camera' is really built like a big Mahler symphony, with peaks and valleys, sometimes woven out of the most ordinary material, just like Mahler would sometimes do. (For example: building a funeral march out of a children's nursery song in his Symphony No. 1.)

But it was Mahler who told his pupil Bruno Walter that a symphony must form an entire world, and that's what Vertov accomplished in making 'Man With A Movie Camera.' Vertov used footage of real life to refashion something like a whole new world, or at least a world that would be new to viewers, both then and now.

And I found myself telling our audience that 'Man With A Movie Camera' was one of those silents to which the passage of time has added an important new layer of interest. The film, made more than eight decades ago now, allows us to see what has changed -- and, more importantly, what hasn't. Our gadgets may be different, but the rhythms of life that make up our lives in many ways continue unaltered. We still fall in love, get married or get divorced, grow old, and die. And we know this because Vertov shows it to us.

And in watching this on screen and playing music to support it, I feel connected not just to all those in my own age, but to all those who have gone before me, and who will come after me, too. We're all phrases and notes in a big symphony that started long ago and will not finish for a long time, if ever. Vertov compresses and restructures reality, as captured in 1920s Russia, in a way that helps me sense that even today.

It's enough for me to feel overcome, the same way I remember feeling in the Indian holy city of Varanasi a few years back, when I lit a floating candle for my ancestors and released it on the waters of the Ganges. Circumstances conspired to make me feel truly alive then, and part of something much bigger than myself. And the genius of Vertov's film is that it inspires the same feeling.

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