In some ways, Devotchka is the perfect band to create a new 21st-century soundtrack for an esoteric slice of 1920s Russian cinema.
The Colorado-based quartet was Grammy-nominated for its work on the 2006 Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. But more important, the group’s music is as genre-defying as Man with a Movie Camera, the silent 1929 experimental film for which Devotchka has composed new music.
Man with a Movie Camera and its new soundtrack saw their debut in 2017 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Devotchka performed the soundtrack live again two years later at the Denver Film Festival.
As much as director Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde work defied the conventions of its time and place in the Soviet Union, Devotchka has proven that unconventional music has a place in today’s popular culture.
Oh, and the band’s name is Russian for “girl.”
As primitive as a ‘20s-era film may seem, Man with a Movie Camera was released more than 20 years after the birth of film as a commercial medium during a time when filmmakers were still trying to figure out what to do with this new technology of moving pictures.
More than a decade after the Russian Revolution, Vertov—true to the film’s title—was walking the streets of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa capturing real life and implanting the results with “special effects” that were new and innovative at the time—slow motion, split screen, stop-motion animation etc.
The real-life mayhem of workaday life is presented in quick edits and juxtaposed to everything from childbirth to oddities like moving chess pieces and the point of view from inside a beer glass. Vertov never hides the effect his camera has on his nonfiction subjects—instead, he plays with the form, turning himself, his crew and editors into quasi-cast members.
The result is neither documentary nor narrative, though the movie incorporates elements of both. Instead, Man with a Movie Camera is an experimental film in the truest sense of the term, a test of what the medium could do—and do without—in an era when scripted westerns, melodramas and comedies dominated the silver screen.
“It really just captures the humanity of a day,” said Nick Urata, Devotchka’s composer who plays theremin, guitar, bouzouki, piano and trumpet, among other things.
In the following interview, Urata discusses Devotchka’s efforts to bring new life to Man with a Movie Camera, a near-forgotten gem of early filmmaking.
How did you choose this particular film to create new music?
I kept hitting a brick wall because there are so many amazing silent films that are artistic achievements. But for a modern audience, the pacing and the things they call intertitles, where the dialogue flashes up on screen in a silent movie—it’s like a momentum killer. So I went through a deep dive and watched virtually every silent movie that still exists.
That’s when I happened on Man with a Movie Camera. I found out later that’s exactly what the director, Vertov, was rebelling against. It was the really early days of cinema and he was part of this movement that wanted to wrestle cinema away from goofy people in costumes spouting theater lines. He thought it was such a powerful medium. It becomes this emotional experience as you watch this film. These people look like they could have been filmed yesterday. Then you start to do the math. You realize that everyone in this film is now gone.
Yes, even the infant who is born in that brief moment of surprising full-frontal female nudity.
We really started to feel the weight of that. I think the audience did too. The brilliant thing Vertov aspires toward is the use of non-actors. You see the shyness and the realness in these people’s faces and you start to face your own mortality, which is pretty powerful.
Despite a few moments of what now seems like corny trick photography, Vertov is forward-enough thinking in 1929 to be conscious of the form of filmmaking when he turns himself into a character in the film. There are also times when it’s clear that the camera is affecting what we see on the screen.
It was extra hard back then because the cameras were huge and really noisy. It’s not like now when you can sometimes lull the subject into forgetting about the camera. It also had four times more edits than the normal film of that time period. So he was way ahead of his game there. They also risked their lives to capture this stuff. They were riding on the train—Vertov’s brother almost got killed. In one of the shots, he’s riding his motorcycle and cranking his movie camera. It’s friggin’ awesome.
What was your approach to scoring the film—to match the action, contrast with it, or to be incidental?
Generally, we just wanted to enhance the experience. You get this emotional attachment of seeing [what seems like] your friends or your family or yourself on the screen, and we just wanted to be sure to bring that out in the music. At the same time, there’s only four of us [in the band]. We’ve got to keep the crowd entertained. It’s not like the player-piano days. We left some room for improvisation. Each performance is its own unique thing. I’d say it’s one piece with a bunch of different movements.
Even though the film is quite old, it has a certain timeless quality. Did you strive to keep the music the same way?
Yes, definitely. That is a rule we generally try to live by. It’s not like we went back and used old instruments or anything like that. It’s a very modern-sounding score. The other unspoken thing about doing a live film score is you’re performing without a net. There’s definitely room for train wrecks.
And there are a few train wrecks in the movie anyway.
What was the biggest challenge of doing this?
We couldn’t write a lot of it down because we’d be turning pages constantly. I think the biggest challenge was memorizing it.
That’s where the improvisation comes in, right?
Yeah, there is some open space there where things are going to sound different every night, which is kind of cool. It’s a lot to take in.
Is there any future for this work outside of live performance—on a DVD perhaps?
I think we’d just like to keep it as a live attraction. The more we do it, the more it will develop. It’s also a great way to spread the word about this film.