Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 of Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera. This is the second time the BFI have issued Dziga Vertov’s 1929 masterpiece, this time with a new score and improved picture quality, but lacking the first release’s alternative scores and superb commentary.

For a demonstration of how a silent movie score can affect its subject consider electro-pop maestro Giorgio Moroder’s treatment of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Admittedly, he reduced the film’s length and tinkered with the intertitles, but it was his synth score and the use of pop songs (by Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury, et al) that distorted the science-fiction classic into a camp comic strip adventure. Whilst never making such an overt impact on their features, the BFI’s silent movies releases to date have often taken the route of providing brand new scores (James Bernard for Nosferatu, Simon Fisher Turner for Un Chant d’amour), and this second BFI edition of Man With a Movie Camera sees the company providing viewers with their third aural option; In the Nursery and the Alloy Orchestra were present on the first (still available) release, Michael Nyman has scored this one. Having already discussed the film itself in my review of that earlier disc, this piece will focus solely on the relationship between Man With a Movie Camera and its new Michael Nyman score.

Given that this work is closer in its nature to Nyman’s cinematic commissions than to his other works as a composer, comparisons to his film scores are perhaps more apt. The major reference points are to the experimental, rhythm driven pieces he provided for Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts or his more recent collaboration with Damon Albarn on Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, rather than the more melodic compositions typified by The Piano. Of course, as Man With a Movie Camera is one of the classics of experimental cinema this approach seems entirely appropriate. Moreover, Dziga Vertov’s work shares more than a passing connection to Peter Greenaway’s insofar as they both share a rigid attention to structure and so Nyman seems doubly at home.

It is important to note, however, than despite the disc being given a title of Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera, the composer never once overshadows his subject. Listening to a silent movie score can often be a case of discovering what reaction or interpretation a composer has to a given work (there is rarely a director to consult or seek approval from, after all), and in this case Nyman succeeds very well. The driving force behind Man With a Movie Camera is, of course, its eponymous cameraman and so it is entirely fitting that he should retain control of the picture and not Nyman.

That said Nyman does not conform to Vertov’s original wishes for musical accompaniment (though this can be found on the other BFI disc with the Alloy Orchestra score). As such there are no sound effects or explicit references to what is occurring on-screen but rather a reaction to the more general shifts in mood. Whereas Vertov utilised a multitude of techniques throughout his picture, Nyman appears to be responsive only to the subtler devices. The visual punning, therefore, is largely ignored, but the use of juxtaposition is adopted throughout: a woman gives birth to an intense, repetitious birth; whole passages are driven by a melancholic vocal lament (which prompts the question as to what exactly is Nyman lamenting? A golden age of avant-garde filmmaking perhaps?). Of course, any score must return back to the images, especially when they are from an iconic work of this stature. And Man With a Movie Camera is such a rich work that any number of approaches would be equally valid. As such Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera should be seen not as a definitive version, but rather another excellent addition to the ever growing choice of soundtracks. Indeed, since the release of this disc, another has appeared on the R2 market, this one scored by the Cinematic Orchestra.

The Disc

One suspects that part of the reason for the BFI to release a second edition of Man With a Movie Camera was due to the technical difficulties of the initial disc. Whereas that release has the ugly look of a VHS transfer, this transfer is far crisper and much easier on the eye. Judging from the amount of damage (which amounts to the occasional scratch) this print is identical to that of the previous disc, though the garish yellow subtitles that intermittently appeared before have now been rendered a much more appealing pale blue.

In terms of sound, the score has been presented in stereo and given that it is such a recent recording unsurprisingly sounds superb. Of course, as the full title of the disc suggests there is no place for the earlier release’s scores by the Alloy Orchestra or In the Nursery, and sadly the disc is also missing the excellent commentary by Yuri Tsivian that also graced that disc. (With this in mind it is recommended that both discs be purchased, this disc for the picture quality, the other for the better extras and value.) Otherwise, extras remain as before – brief poster gallery and biographical notes for crew members – with the addition of some notes on Nyman’s career.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Dec 28, 2004

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