I hate to come down on Cinematic Orchestra’s J. Swinscoe. I love his work, particularly last year’s excellent Every Day. But as an audio CD, The Man with the Movie Camera is a thoroughly unessential release, made up of nothing more than the general framework for songs which would later become that album. Every Day saw Swinscoe’s group moving away from their debut as the studio project of a downtempo producer with a jazz fetish. They became more of a working band, featuring live drums, bass, and horns as well as vocal theatrics from veteran jazz queen Fontella Bass, all layered over sample patterns.
But the backstory behind this material makes it worth a look to fans of the Orchestra’s material as well as devoted film critics. The album comprises a score commissioned in 2001 to serve as the soundtrack for screenings of Dziga Vertov’s classic 1929 silent film The Man With the Movie Camera. The DVD included contains what seems to be a live performance by the band playing over the hourlong film. The release serves as both a multimedia project and a musical precursor to Every Day. In “The Awakening of a Woman” rests any early version of the vibe jam “Burnout,” and middling raps by Roots Manuva are the only things missing from “All Things to All Men.” As for the movie itself, it is an incredible passive narration on the emerging importance of the then-new video camera as a documentary tool. It is a collection of fascinatingly mundane instances of everyday life in the early-twentieth century Soviet Union, as seen through the eye of the eternally objective camera lens. Yet personal intimacy is part of the film’s appeal. Simple acts such as the work of underground miners, factory workers packaging cigarettes, and young women manning switchboards are rendered significant by the machine. The film repeatedly uses video flashes to draw parallels between the camera and the human eye.
Though the music at times feels disconnected from the film, there are nice subtleties to the production, such as the antiquated orchestra sounds coinciding perfectly with the string section footage opening the movie. I’m guessing this is a segment of the original 1929 score left to hang in the air before the soundtrack breaks into electronics. A nice ambient wash cues the opening of fountains and windows at the beginning of a new day in “Dawn,” and the footage continues, revealing mobs of people sunbathing, operating printing presses, and riding street cars. By far the best musical offerings are “Voyage” and “Yoyo Waltz,” boasting energetic horn duels which play over footage of amateur pole vaulters, footballers, and motorcyclists. These tracks sound somewhat more spontaneous than much of Swinscoe’s studied downtempo.
The flim is also a sort of commentary on the population’s continued rush toward industrialization, containining repeated flashbacks to images of machinery pumping away and a segement toward the end showing camera acting on its own will through stop-motion photography. Cinematic Orchestra’s almost fusion-like mix plays throughout, and the individual songs often stretch their welcome out a bit too far without Fontella’s vocals and other musical diversions, but the film on its own merits at least one viewing. It ends appropriately with footage of a moviehouse crowd viewing a film very similar to the one the viewer has just seen. If you want to hear Cinematic Orchestra’s best work, I can’t recommend this one, especially if Every Day already sits on your cd shelf. But the film, though a bit long in parts, is an historical document of notable significance both to film historians and to those merely interested in the birth of the modern video documentary.