Music gives `Camera' an extra dimension


April 05, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

We need conscious people, not an unconscious mass, ready to yield to any suggestion.

Long live the consciousness of the pure who can see and hear!

Down with the scented veil of kisses, murders, doves and conjuring tricks!

- Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov - my hero.

That's the reaction I have whenever I watch Vertov's silent Soviet masterpiece, The Man With a Movie Camera (1929) - especially with the score by the amazing, three-man Alloy Orchestra that accompanies the film on the print to be shown tonight at the Walters Art Museum.

Dziga Vertov was born Denis Kaufman; according to Ephraim Katz, dziga means "spinning top" in Ukrainian, and vertov means "the act of turning" in Russian. But his chef-d'oeuvre isn't just a celebration of the joy of movement and the gift of sight (as if that weren't enough!). With unbounded optimism, Vertov salutes the variety and dynamism of everyday urban life.

In this film, when the director's vision lingers on a bum, it isn't to pound home the plight of the homeless but to savor the man's languorous freedom and stubbornness; when a skilled female laborer swiftly puts together cigarette packs, she isn't being exploited - she's showing off her expertise.

Setting a prototype cameraman loose to chronicle an unnamed Soviet city from dawn to dusk, Vertov wrings comedy and a clearheaded lyricism from the traffic in the street, the commotion in the trolley-yard, and the goofiness and chagrin in a bureau that handles both divorce and marriage - without using any narrative.

His explosive style exploits every device from split and superimposed images to pixilation and freeze frames. His cutting is witty and suggestive even at its most obvious. The effect is not to engorge the senses but to spark a delight that's simultaneously sensual and cerebral. The camera becomes an agent of modernity and the director a cheerful comrade who shares his tricks and know-how with the audience.

Years ago, when I saw the movie for the first time in a film-school class without music, I responded halfheartedly. (Many I've talked to have the same fidgety memory.) Seeing it on the big screen with the Alloy Orchestra's score is a genuine eureka experience.

The sounds these "junk metal musicians" have devised from their synthesizers, bottles and handmade drums and instruments (under the guidance of Vertov's recently found notes) release the film's soaring Machine Age gallantry and humor. The main theme has a spacious sense of imminence, of momentous things about to happen reminiscent (believe it or not) of Jerome Moross's score to William Wyler's The Big Country. But the rippling clangs and sly interpolations of jazz and wedding music give the work a cosmopolitan cheekiness.

"On the movie-house habitue, the ordinary fiction film acts like a cigarette on a smoker," Vertov once wrote. "Intoxicated by the cine-nicotine, the spectator sucks from the screen the substance which soothes his nerves. A cine-object made with the materials of newsreel largely sobers him up, and gives him the impression of a disagreeable antidote to the poison."

With the suitably-dubbed Alloy Orchestra, The Man With a Movie Camera is more than an antidote to ephemera - it manages to defog the brain and renew the gusto of otherwise narcotized film addicts.

The Man With a Movie Camera screens tonight at 7:30 in the Graham Auditorium of the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Admission is $7 for nonmembers and $5 for members, seniors, children and students. Call 410-547-9000.

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