November 3, 2011

Alloy Orchestra Pairs Music to Film

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A few weeks ago, when discussing Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, I noted the richness and continuing cultural relevance of silent cinema. The Ithaca community will get the opportunity to experience silent film firsthand this weekend, when the Alloy Orchestra comes to Cornell Cinema.

The critically acclaimed Alloy Orchestra, described by the Los Angeles Times as “always compelling,” returns to Cornell after the success of their performance last year with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Comprised of only three men, Alloy Orchestra is renown for providing intuitive and interesting musical accompaniment to classic silent cinema. As described by the orchestra director, Ken Winokur, the Alloy orchestra is a combination of classical instruments and less traditional ones. Alongside clarinet, keyboard and accordion, members also play the musical saw and found objects. As Winokur put it, they “run the gamut of classical instruments to anything they can find.”

This year, the orchestra will play three different shows. The first, on Friday night at 7:15, is with the film Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 abstract masterpiece. Man with a Movie Camera is devoid of actors, of sets and of a traditional plot, as the opening credits announce. The film is a dizzying fabric of images described by Winokur as having “a kinetic energy […] it just builds and builds.” This visual masterpiece assumes renewed vigor when paired with the Alloy Orchestra’s excellent score.

Later Friday night, Alloy will play alongside a series of short art films. The program is (appropriately) dubbed the “Wild and Weird” program, and features ten films made between 1906 and 1927.

Perhaps the most exciting event, though, is on Saturday, when the Alloy Orchestra will play with Karl Heinz Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, a rediscovered gem of German expressionist film.

The history of From Morn to Midnight is a complex one. Made in 1920, the movie was not actually released in Germany, because it was deemed too abstract and too radical. The film was instead released in Japan three years later, and the current edition is taken from a print preserved by the National Film Center of Japan. The print was recently restored, and screened with Alloy accompaniment this year.

From Morn to Midnight is adapted from a popular play by Georg Kaiser, and tells the story of a bank cashier who meets a beautiful woman. He is so moved by her that he decides to embezzle money, leave his home and embark on a life in the big city. The play itself was an “expressionist” work. Here, however, Martin translates the story into a strictly filmic manifestation of expressionism. The abstraction and heightened stylization of the film come in part from the use of film techniques like superimposition and double-exposure.

It is an innovative work, and a startling example of German expressionist cinema, which could be compared to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — a movie that has completely defined the expressionist genre and eclipsed other films like From Morn to Midnight in fame. Film professor Brian Hanrahan notes that the rediscovery of and exposure to films like From Morn to Midnight, can afford a “much more complex and plural view of Weimar Cinema and expressionist cinema.”

“Even only thirty or forty years ago when people thought of Weimar cinema, or even silent cinema, they had a very limited number of canonical films in mind,” he added. “Thanks, however, to painstaking restoration work and to new technologies, these films are now accessible.”

Winokur echoes this, noting, From Morn to Midnight and the entire Cornell Cinema series, is a chance for even silent film enthusiasts to “broaden [their] viewpoint about what was going on during the silent film era.”

And for those less familiar with silent film, Winokur promises an exciting and fun introduction to silent film. In general, Alloy Orchestra strives for music meant to “bridge the gap between these [silent] films and modern audiences.” He cites Alloy’s mission as finding a compromise between traditional and modern music, finding a “halfway point.” The orchestra also tries to select films that contradict negative stereotypes of silent film. “People who haven’t seen silent films may think they’re conventional, boring or slow,” he said, “but we try to pick films that aren’t these things.”

The entire series, culminating in From Morn to Midnight, will therefore give film buffs, or even recent silent film initiates (here’s to hoping some of you were inspired to watch Berlin: Symphony of a Great City!) the chance to expand their understanding of silent film. The rare experience to hear live musical accompaniment also allows us to experience “silent” films as original audiences did, that’s to say, loudly — with live, swelling music.

Original Author: Hannah Stamler