Monday, December 19, 2016

Russian With Percussion

Once upon a time I had a roommate who was allergic to nuance. It was during the onset of the disco craze and, like many gay men, he had been seduced by the thumpa-thumpa-thump sound that had taken over bars and dance clubs across the country. With so many of his experiences enhanced by drugs (Chuck liked to take a hit off of a bottle of poppers before gunning the accelerator to drive my car up a steep hill), he liked his music loud. Very, very loud.

One day, I arrived home to find him seated on the floor in front of the stereo, listening intently to the prelude to La Traviata. Very loudly. This is music that Verdi composed to communicate Violetta's fragility in her dying days. While it includes several themes that appear later in the opera, it is not meant to be played at full volume.

When I asked Chuck why he had the volume cranked up so high, he responded "If I'm going to learn something about opera, I REALLY NEED TO HEAR IT!" Unfortunately, he committed suicide nearly 30 years before David Cox's article entitled The People Who Dive With Whales That Could Eat Them Alive appeared on the website for BBC News. In his article, Cox explained that:
"Sperm whale vocalizations have long fascinated scientists for one reason in particular. They are almost inconceivably loud. While normal human speech takes place between 60 and 65 decibels (dB), sperm whale clicks, described as such because we hear them as 'tak-tak-tak,' can reach as high as 235dB. In contrast, a loud rock concert is around 115dB and the sound of a jet engine is roughly 140dB. Quite simply, sperm whales are the loudest animals on the planet. Such is the power of their clicks that whales can comfortably transmit information to others from hundreds of miles away, and even across vast oceans. A sound of 180dB is enough to cause drastic cell death in your ears, but the most powerful sperm whale clicks will not merely deafen you: they can vibrate the fragile human body to pieces. In one incident in 2011, a calf began jostling Fabrice Schnöller with its nose. He held up his hand to gently move the whale away, and felt a sudden hot pain through his arm. Such was the power of the clicks coming from the calf that his hand was paralyzed for several hours."

My attention to decibel levels was prompted by the recent Day of Silents presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. With six programs, the musical accompaniment was split between pianist Donald Sosin and the formidable sounds of the Alloy Orchestra (an ensemble whose percussive style is especially appropriate for films involving oppression, industrialization, terror, and suspense).

Now celebrating 25 years of accompanying silent film, the Alloy Orchestra has become a favorite ensemble for film festivals. With more than 1,000 performances to their credit, the three-man ensemble (Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur, and Roger C. Miller) has visited a dozen countries while helping to revitalize the classic medium of silent film accompaniment. When the Alloy Orchestra is really cooking, the experience can be like listening to an angry passage by Philip Glass or John Adams while stoked on five cans of Red Bull. As their website boasts:
“The Alloy Orchestra began its notorious reign of silent film terror with an original score for Metropolis in 1991 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts. In the intervening years, the group has written scores for 30 feature length film presentations, typically premiering their new scores at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, or the New York Film Festival."
"We thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources. Our combination of electronic synthesizers, 'found' percussion (which can often be seen hanging from the 'rack of junk'), and more traditional instruments (clarinet, accordion, and musical saw) allows us astonishing flexibility. We can conjure up a French symphony or a simple German bar band of the 1920s. The group can make the audience think it is being attacked by tigers, contacted by radio signals from Mars, or swept up in the Russian Revolution."

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The Alloy Orchestra was the perfect choice to accompany a screening of Sergei Eisenstein's first full-length feature, Strike (1925). Set in 1903, the film's six sections depict an angry uprising by oppressed workers in pre-revolutionary Russia who have been systematically exploited by a small group of factory owners who seem like caricatures of fat and wealthy bankers and capitalists.While 2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it's important to remember that Eisenstein's film premiered only eight years and two months after the revolution began!

One of the capitalists in Sergei Eisenstein's Strike (1925)

Strike's leading characters were portrayed by members of the Proletcult Theatre. Although the action shown is often violent and depressing (crowds being attacked with fire hoses, a man on horseback dropping a baby from the third floor of a building, cattle being slaughtered), there is no denying Eisenstein's early strengths in editing as well as moving large crowds of extras. The contribution of cinematographer Eduard Tisse adds extra symbolic weight to many shots and sequences.

A scene from Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, Strike

In this 94-minute film (which was screened using a 35mm print from the George Eastman Museum), it's easy to feel as if the action is an endless series of sequences in which angry workers run from one side of the screen to the other. Throw in some horse-drawn fire engines, heavy machinery, and a genuine struggle between the haves and have-nots, and Strike can take on a surprising relevance to today's union-busting workplace. In many scenes, the artistry with which Eisenstein's film gains its cumulative impact (amplified by the pounding accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra) turns a screening of Strike into one of those "What the fuck just happened?" cinematic experiences.

In his program essay, Michael Atkinson describes Eisenstein (who made Strike when he was just 26 years old) as having once been regarded as cinema’s most formidable intellectual. However, Atkinson also notes that:
Strike was the film that launched Soviet political filmmaking and the idea that montage was both a uniquely cinematic thrill tool and a formidable instrument for propaganda. One of the questions regarding Eisenstein today comes down to whether or not he was successful in subverting the state-mandated straitjacket with his extraordinary visual voodoo. Everyone abandons dialectics sooner or later and, as the years and donnybrooks with the heads-of-state went by (Eisenstein was not only gay but rather more passionate about his artistic profile than his role as a propagandist), the filmmaker became entranced more by byzantine compositions than the ability to motivate the masses.” 
Poster art for 1925's Strike
“Free of historical intents, contexts, or effects, Fascist art is usually heartbreaking in its naïveté, but Eisenstein’s movies seem embittered and angry, as if revolutionary discontent unconsciously expressed the artist’s outraged feeling that of all the nations in all the eras for the artist to be born into, it had to be this one. Look at Strike’s grotesque villains and backstabbing narrative gambits (a spy secretly photographing a protester with a camera shaped like a pocket-watch) as a retro comic-book saga of good and evil and suddenly the chill over Soviet tactics fades and you have pure grade-A pulp.”
A montage of faces from Sergei i Eisenstein's 1925 silent film, Strike

There are moments in the film when one can start to experience visual fatigue as Eisenstein's crowds run back and forth. However, there is no escaping Strike's political message or its gathering momentum. The quote from Lenin with which Strike opens could have been ripped from a speech by Bernie Sanders.
"The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity."
Poster art for Sergei Eisenstein's Strike (1925)

The following video allows readers to watch Strike in its entirety, but without the Alloy Orchestra's thrilling accompaniment.

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In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has taken care to program films which star the great Emil Jannings. Following in the footsteps of The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), Varieté (1925), and Faust (1926), December's Day of Silents featured a screening of Josef von Sternberg's 1928 silent film, The Last Command.

Emil Jannings in a scene from The Last Command (1928)

From 1901-1915 Jannings appeared with regional German theatre companies until he joined the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, where he found steady employment under Max Reinhardt's direction. Early silent films included The Eyes of the Mummy (1918) and Madame DuBarry (1919). As his career grew, he developed a specialty for portraying oversized tragic characters who suffered severe personal and/or professional humiliation that often resulted in their fall from a position of authority.

Physically, Jannings was an actor with an extremely powerful presence onscreen who often appeared larger than life. He became the first screen artist to win the Academy Award for Best Actor (1929). Although he made several movies following the transition from silent film to talkies (including 1930's The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich), his participation in Nazi propaganda films left him unemployable after World War II.

Emil Jannings in a scene from The Last Command (1928)

In The Last Command, Jannings plays an exiled Russian general who, following the Russian Revolution, must struggle to find work as an extra in the growing Hollywood film industry. When he was in power, he was on a first-name basis with the Czar and could make or break the lives of the people whose fate rested in his hands. One of those was a revolutionary named Lev Andreyev (William Powell), who also ended up in Hollywood. Unlike Jannings's character, Andreyev became a successful film director.

While searching for an actor to portray a Russian general in one of his films, Andreyev comes across the headshot for his former foe and casts him as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander. With Evelyn Brent as Andreyev's former love interest (who ends up falling in love with Jannings's brutal military officer), the film offers Jannings another magnificent opportunity to display his skill at portraying a confused and weakened powerhouse of a man who has been reduced to poverty as he struggles to hold onto his wits.

In her program note, Shari Kizirian explains that:
“Held back from release because of its uncomplimentary take on Hollywood and America’s ambiguous relationship with the ten-year-old Bolshevik government, The Last Command got into theaters after a green light from Paramount stockholder Otto Kahn, who made a good call. The film reportedly broke the record at New York’s first-run Rialto Theater when it opened there in January.”
Poster art forThe Last Command
“Sternberg wrote about the presence of Russians on his set in his 1965 memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, while getting in a jab about his difficult leading man: ‘I fortified my image of the Russian Revolution by including in my cast of extra players an assortment of Russian ex-admirals and generals, a dozen Cossacks, two former members of the Duma (all victims of the Bolsheviks), and, in particular, an expert on borscht by the name of Koblianski. These men, especially one Cossack general who insisted on keeping my car spotless, viewed Jannings’s effort to be Russian with such disdain that I had to order them to conceal it, whereas Jannings openly showed his contempt for their effort to be Russian on every occasion.”
Evelyn Brent as Natalia Dabrova in The Last Command (1928)

The following clip demonstrates how important it is to find the right musical accompaniment for a silent film. Although two different approaches can be heard, neither comes close to the driving urgency of the Alloy Orchestra's score.

The scene in which Jannings is seen in the studio's wardrobe department, trying to get into his costume and struggling to explain that a certain Imperial decoration would never be worn in the position the director has chosen, is heartbreaking. His demented death scene on the set of Andreyev's film is shattering to watch, especially when the depth of his character's personal tragedy is amplified by the stunning performance from the Alloy Orchestra. Here's the full film.

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