Man Ray meets the Beastie Boys at RISD

By
Monday, September 10, 2007

Music videos are usually YouTube fodder, and early 20th-century silent film is often confined to Modern Culture and Media class screenings, but leave it to the Rhode Island School of Design to bring them together. The RISD Museum hosted a unique screening Friday night of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film “Man with a Movie Camera,” accompanied by a musician playing largely improvised live music on a piano, for the opening of its latest gallery show, “Music Video/Silent Film: Innovations in the Moving Image.”

The pianist for the screening, Yakov Gubanov, composer-in-residence at the Harvard Film Archive and Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, created a seamless counterpoint to the film. Artsy silent film can be tedious, but the live score was surprisingly engaging for an inexperienced viewer.

Maya Allison, curatorial assistant for the RISD Museum and organizer of the exhibition, called Vertov’s film a “city symphony” – an almost impressionistic series of shots designed to evoke the feeling of living in a city. In this case, the city was Kiev, Ukraine, in 1929, under Soviet rule, and the audience follows a man with a camera who travels around the city filming factories, beaches, trolleys, coal mines, carousels and of course, people – women putting on makeup, couples getting married and men playing instruments.

It’s not an action-packed thriller, but it’s compelling – the film creates an idyllic sense of people living their smal,l individual lives in the big city. But over an hour of silent shots can be hard to take. That’s where Gubanov’s score fits in. Indeed, it’s hard to remember that the movie is silent, or supposed to be silent – Gubanov drew on his Russian heritage to create a score that evoked Soviet culture and other musical references, including popular melodies such as Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Gubanov told The Herald he was inspired primarily by his own experience for the score of this film. “Musically, it is just inside,” he said.

Traditionally, silent movies were accompanied by a live musician, who, Gubanov said, were usually commissioned by the film’s director or the owner of a theater. The performance’s interplay of musical accompaniment and avant-garde film from the 1930s ties in with the gallery show, which takes clips of “Man with a Movie Camera” and other experimental films and juxtaposes them with modern progressive music videos. Black-and-white film clips play next to videos of the White Stripes, the Chemical Brothers and the Beastie Boys, among others.

Allison said in a presentation of the exhibition that the music and the films play on each other – usually, music scores a film, but in some cases in the exhibition, the visual component is conversely a “score” for the music.

Initially, she was inspired to create the show when she noticed that artists experimented with film when it was a relatively new medium in the 1930s, in a similar way that music video directors experiment with their medium, she said – music videos, she pointed out, are a relatively new medium.

The juxtapositions made in the show are intriguing and absorbing, and the RISD Museum has put a lot of thought into the thematic elements explored by each set of clips. The exhibition is divided into four themes, with two screens for each – one for the avant-garde film clip and one for the modern music videos. Many of the music videos in the show were directed by Michel Gondry, acclaimed director of “The Science of Sleep,”- notably, the White Stripes videos “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “The Hardest Button to Button.”

Allison discussed how a set of music videos and a film by French avant-garde filmmaker and photographer Man Ray both played with the idea of flatness and motion and called to the viewer’s attention the medium they were watching. In another set, technology goes to work on the humans present in the films: The black-and-white clip shows how human actions mimic machinery – or is it the other way around? Meanwhile, the music videos (both directed by Gondry) show the White Stripes cheerfully being controlled by their instruments and industrialization taking over the French countryside.

It involves some careful thought and interpretation, but the latest exhibit at the RISD Museum is a great deal of fun, and at the very least, a chance to watch some great music videos. The exhibition runs through Feb. 24, 2008.