Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Russian silent film gets a new, artistic voice 90 years later

UWGB Man with a Movie Camera program image_1556107431077.JPG.jpg

Across time

a musical artist

a motion picture artist


Their speech embraces universals.



The picture one finds wonder in city life.



People being people.

The music one finds wonder in that wonder.


Seeing with an ear.

Interpreting curiosity with notes of their own mind.


Images and sounds have no words, so this will have to do in describing a film from Soviet Russia released in 1929 and a live performance of a new score accompanying that film, “Man with a Movie Camera.”

The event happened Tuesday night in Cofrin Family Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The music was composed by Michelle McQuade Dewhirst of the UWGB music faculty. She performed (horn and toy piano) along with faculty colleagues Adam Gaines (trumpet), Courtney Sherman (soprano) and Bill Sallak (drum set and vibraphone) and her husband, Michael Dewhirst (cello). This group has high musical skill all around, and dedication to pulling off this intriguing project with flair.

The film was created over the course of three years by Dziga Vertov (director), his wife, Elizaveta Svilova (editor), and Mikhail Kaufuman (cinematography).

The concept of the film: A day in the life of us. The “us” is the people of Russian cities.

The concept of the music: Add aura.

The soundscape is that of impressionism versus creating musical scenery – a kind of cubism rather than realism.

The music stays out of the way of defining a time in a musical style or defining ethnicity/place in a musical style or defining activity or emotion in a musical style.

Oh, there is a tease when individual musicians in an orchestra are shown getting ready and when the conductor strikes up, out comes a jumble of music.

And there is a kind matching jazzy trumpet vigor when a fire brigade is seen racing on a mission.

And the score opens with drum drama, as if something of import is about to unfold.

Often, the atmosphere conjures a secretive night of thumbing through somebody else’s photo album unbeknownst to them and feeling a haunting wave brush the soul when viewing lives long past of people you don’t know but do know as people being people.

The haunting wave comes in the vocalese of a female voice. No words, just long notes. A kind of yearning. A kind of sadness. A kind of beauty.

The film often veers within its day-in-the-life structure. You name it, this comes visiting: split screen, odd angle, stop action, slow motion, special effects, daring angles, close-ups, vistas, time lapse, quick shift, multiple images but no partridge in a pear tree.

Ego is apparent. There are abundant shots of a guy with a camera setting up or being seen as part of the action and a woman doing wonders with film strips. The film may be about a-day-in-the-life, but it also is about, look how we made this film… we couldn’t resist.

Mostly, the film chronicles many activities, with eating being a major one not covered.

Points of interest include:

+ People at work in mechanized situations (a factory) or repetitive jobs (cigarette-packing assembly) or dangerous places (a mine, a steel foundry).

+ Visits to city hall for people registering for a marriage license, a divorce license and, apparently, a death certificate accompanied by images of a funeral procession and a woman weeping in a cemetery.

+ Slow-motion footage of athletes at a high jump and pole vault pit, leaping over hurdles and heaving a discus, javelin and hammer.

+ Multiple images/angles of men playing soccer and women playing basketball. The latter surprised me, having been led to believe that basketball was an American thing and women were late to arrive to the sport… and here is the late ’20s in Russia and women are dribbling, shooting and scoring.

+ Lots of scenes with transportation. There are steam-powered trains and horse-drawn carriages. Buses and trolleys weave through vibrant cities. Very few cars are seen. Primarily, people are on foot. Lots of people. Added up, the number of people seen in the various shots is 1 million, give or take 100,000.

+ A ride along with firemen in dashing helmets seated in an open-air fire truck, though there is no fire at the end. Ambulance chasing, too, and there is a victim with a head injury who is treated roughly by modern EMT standards.

+ Zipping along on a motorcycle on an oval course. A camera guy is pictured taking pictures as he steers the motorcycle – one of the “how’d they do that?” sequences.

+ A woman in labor. She writhes in discomfort. As she gives birth, the camera is right there. The squirming baby then gets rinsed and wrapped. And mother and child meet for the first time.

+ A beauty salon. Women are shown being made up. Later, some primp their hair for the camera.

+ Riding alongside a passenger carriage powered by a noble-looking horse. The riders are women who are well-dressed and look as if they are of means. As the coiffured women depart the carriage, a minion woman arrives to carry a hefty item. Silly me, I thought this “classless society” had no such obvious divisions.

The screening/composition/performance was part of UWGB Music’s “6:30 Concert Series” of eclectic fare. The series is distinctive of the campus, something artistically far-reaching on a regular basis.

This is the second silent film to which Michelle McQuade Dewhirst applied new music. The first was “Metropolis” in 2017. That employed an entourage of student musicians, versus five performers on seven instruments this time.

McQuade Dewhirst who oversees the series, told Tuesday’s audience the series will continue next school year.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My seven books are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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