This week, we are screening Dziga Vertov’s influential experimental film Man With A Movie Camera (1929) with a score performed by Alloy Orchestra (per instructions left by Vertov). While I don’t have access to what he wrote, I gather that the athletics scene was probably supposed to involve mickey-mousing to some degree.
As you watch, you will note the use of gongs each time the athlete accomplishes their task: the discus is released, the hammer is thrown, and the bar is cleared. Over and over. The mechanical movements involved in Olympic style athletics emphasize that moment of arrival and release in slow-motion.
Many of you have already noted in your responses that much of the musical accompaniment in this film emphasizes the various aspects of industrialization, especially machines and their relationship to the heights of human civilization. Vertov himself envisioned the melding of one particular machine to humanity; his theory of the Кино-глаз (cinema-eye or camera-eye) claimed that the camera’s eye was superior to the human eye in grasping the world as it really is. Cinema would help humanity evolve to a superior form, an “electric man” as it were, and his films would broadcast the Leninist-Marxist message across national barriers (keep in mind, this was long before television). Film, from his perspective, was being corrupted by romance and narrative and the kinoks (cinema-eye) followers were going to rescue it and make it useful to humanity.
In this montage of athletes going through their motions through a demonstration of good form (throwing discus and hammer is as much about graceful form as it is about strength), he accentuates their arrival through that gong. They are electric. First he slows down the discuss thrower, high-jumpers and pole-vaulters (the orchestra follows suit by slowing down the tempo), as he intercuts shots of spectators at normal speed not paying too much attention – they can enjoy the spectacle, but they are incapable of slowing down what they see note the beauty of the mechanical form. And then he stops the sequence in the middle of some hurdlers. The music stops with them. Again he stops a horse and the music follows suit. Soon after, the music and the athletic sequences speed up and the gong takes on a very different function.
This might make an audience member wonder what exactly Vertov is getting at in this sequence (and, presumably, in his instructions to the orchestra). One of the things that makes celluloid superior to the human eye is that you can slow it down, and stop it to see movement in more detail, to admire physical forms, and take in more of what is happening. You can filter or overlay the image to emphasize or reveal aspects of the picture that are not apparent to the naked eye. Perhaps this is why so many smart-phone users love taking and sharing photos; they can not only record what’s happening around them, but they can also capture ephemeral moments when the natural world takes on artistic forms through the frame of the shot.
Vertov may have had some outlandish (yet influential) ideas. Yet, he understood that there are aspects to cinema that can emphasize rapid movements. Here, he shows how moments that are just too quick for the naked eye to take in without the director’s framing, editing, can also be emphasized through the score’s mickey-mousing.