At Performa: Man and Machine Film Program

11/12/2009 10:47 AM |

Futurist Noise-Intoners

“The more perfect the machine, the less noise it makes.” This from Luigi Russolo, one of the more prominent Futurist composers and author of yet another one of the group’s important manifestos, The Art of Noises.

One of Russolo’s primary innovations both for the Futurists and for noise enthusiasts since, was his creation of noise-intoners (pictured). These intoners were literally a series of machines that created a variety of mechanical sounds that Russolo composed for and used to perform live soundtracks for silent films being made by his cohorts in the Futurist movement. It’s this last purpose that was brought back to life last night during a screening of three films at Anthology Film Archives as part of Performa 09.

The evening did not start out with noise so much as machinery. The first in the series of three films screened during the Man and Machine program, The Belly of the City (1933), directed by Francesco Di Cocco, would have featured assaulting and cacophonous noises had the soundtrack been recorded at the same time as the images. Instead, the clatter and clang of the imagery was met with a score that matched the silent films of the 1930s, as composed and played live by Pete Drungle. The subject of The Belly is very much in step with one of the biggest cultural fads of the moment—food pornography, with an emphasis on a politically correct knowledge of the origins of what one is lasciviously consuming.

Beginning in a bustling stockyard, we follow the cattle from a crowded field into the slaughterhouse, watching as the workers gut, skin, and halve the enormous beasts. From there we travel into the wholesale markets, baskets upon baskets of fish, potatoes, melons, squash, cucumber, barrels of beer, endless bottles of milk. Then to the food factories—the bread bakers, the pasta slicers, the vast systems that allows us to create food on a scale and at a pace that could never have been attained before the early 20th century. From panning shots of what seems like more food than could ever be consumed by a city, the shot widens, the market opens and restaurateurs, green grocers, street vendors, and the like race in, choose their wares, and load their vehicles and their backs. Plump market women balance enormous baskets and bushels of corn and apples atop their heads. Then onto the streets and into the dining rooms—the consumers consume—purchasing, eating, drinking. And in a mere 13 minutes, the film concludes with a brief shot of a baby suckling at its mother’s plump breast.

It’s the kind of film that adventurous parents in Ditmas Park would show to their young children with the intention of teaching them the realities of modern consumption. It’s a storyline that’s been told and retold in very similar terms time and again since the 1930s. In fact, during the many factory scenes I couldn’t help but remember my glee as a child every time Mr. McFeely would drop by Mr. Rogers Neighborhood with a video cassette that showed us kids how pretzels or rubber erasers were manufactured with long, beautiful shots of the whirring mixers and conveyors of every sort you could imagine. That’s the kind of wonder that comes across in Di Cocco’s film. Though there is also a sense of awe, of adoration for an efficiency that is a bit ominous, and also a juxtaposition between flesh and steel that would have, presumably, been more stark at that time than it is today.

In the highly comical and strange second film, The Mechanical Man (1921), also accompanied with a live score by Pete Drungle, we start to get some sense of the fear and violence that underpinned the match up between man and machine. Though incomplete (some sections of the film have been lost) what remains of this feature-length silent directed by André Deed is a mad, melodramatic, sci-fi, horror romp. The story is far too complicated to try to summarize here, made more difficult to describe by those missing chunks, save to say that instead of a fleshy Frankenstein monster, a Mechanical Man has been created, in fact two of them have been created, one operated by a villainous woman bent on murder, who herself is then killed when the controls for her robot short circuit and electrocute her. The climax comes when the Mechanical Man shows up to a masked ball and the attendees think that it’s actually a man dressed as the machine. Chaos, death, and much swooning quickly ensue, ending with a battle royal between the Mechanical Man driven by the evil woman and another driven by the good professor. It was fantastic, even in its truncated form, confusion and all.

And lastly came March of the Machines (1927), this one directed by Eugene Deslaw and accompanied with a live performance by the musicologist and composer Luciano Chessa. Chessa was invited by Performa to reconstruct 16 of Luigi Russolo’s original noise-intoners and he previewed one of them during the screening of this brief nine-minute film. The film itself is a collage of machinery in action—grand cranes, enormous conveyor belts, spinning gears and engines, among many other things. But the primary interest was in the contraption that Chessa was manipulating in the shadows below the screen, which emitted a surprising variety of sounds, from a fanlike whirring to a metallic ringing to a low thumping. This particular instrument, when translated from Italian, is named The Whistler and Chessa chose it for the screening, he told us, because of the softness of its voice. With machines on the screen above and Chessa down below manipulating unseen levers and gears within the large wooden box of his instrument, the effect was something like that at the end of The Wizard of Oz. All the films beg the question: What are these machines for and who is really manipulating them? In that respect they seem like incredibly appropriate reflections on the fascist regimes that the Futurists hoped to build in their early days, and that of any other political machine built by man.

The rest of Performa’s film series (running through Nov. 16) promises other great surprises, not the least of which is the Futurist Film Funeral that will take place Saturday, Nov. 14 at the ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn. The event will feature not only a literal incineration of the “cinema apparatus” but also a remix of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Performa film curator Lana Wilson deserves some serious credit for the line-up she’s put together for this year’s festival.