by Erin Irby
Upon entering Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall, there’s an undeniable sense of unconscious time travel. The bright red seats, wooden stage, and the neoclassical wall paintings create an atmosphere that blends the historic dimensions of theatre and cinema. Even the bathrooms, with their antique door handles and porcelain sinks, are a throwback to a time lost to foam soap and automatic flushers.
In the time of silent films, most weren’t truly sans sound. They were commonly accompanied by a symphony, orchestra, or single man on a piano. The music served as a way to engage and entertain the audience with a composed, and often times improvised piece of music. The Alloy Orchestra created an original composition to compliment the silent film, “Man with a Movie Camera.” Roger C. Miller, Terry Donahue, and Ken Winokur are the triad behind the genius that is the Alloy Orchestra. Their group not only has an impressive repertoire of silent film accompaniments but has performed at The L’ouvre and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
“Man with a Movie Camera” is a captivating, profound, and silent look at the USSR towns of Moscow, Odessa, and Kiev in the 1920’s. The film follows a man with a movie camera, but it’s ever so much more than just that. The feature shows women combing their fluffy page-boy bobs, children giddily laughing at an Asian magician, and men furiously working in the mines, drenched in sweat, pickaxes in hand. The director, Dziga Vertov, provides a personal and idiosyncratic look at Soviet life.
Although it was released in 1929, it is more than relevant today and contains film editing that is commonly used in science fiction films. “Man with a Movie Camera” challenges viewers to embrace the past while looking at the present world through a different lens- one of heightened perception and appreciation.
At times, the film can make heads spin and stomachs shrink from the zooming screen shots and rhythmic factory scenes. Vertov blends, chops, and mixes images in such a way that all concept of time is forgotten and immersion is inevitable. At the September 8th showing, this presence was made even more powerful with the addition of two percussionists and a man with a synthesizer.
Alloy Orchestra’s instrumental repertoire ranged from bedpans to accordions, and they included ominous timpani and recorded crowd noises used to enhance the cinematic experience. Because there were no spoken words, I felt as if I were in an intense dream throughout the film. The audience laughed at quirky complimentary sounds and absorbed the cacophony that came with the wide range of instruments mixed with absurd images projected on the screen.
Though the “Man with a Movie Camera” showing was a one time event at Cornell Cinema, be sure to check out the Alloy Orchestra’s amazing selection ranging from contemporary to classic, absurd to fantastic.