Posted: 07/22/2011

 

The Alloy Orchestra Plays Wild and Weird

by Jef Burnham



Now available on DVD from Flicker Alley.


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The “14 Fascinating and Innovative Films” (circa 1902-1965) featured in this collection boast brand new scores composed by The Alloy Orchestra— a unique, three-man ensemble whose music is every bit as wild and weird as the titles collected herein. But that is by no means a bad thing. Often, when one views a silent film, it is accompanied by some form of stock, “found music” that only marginally at best functions as an appropriate accompaniment to the film. If you’re really lucky, of course, the film will include the score that was originally intended to be played during the film’s theatrical presentation, but this is rare. What’s rarer still is to find a modern arrangement so perfectly suited to a film as the tracks accompanying the 14 films collected in Wild and Weird. Perhaps it’s the found objects that serve as instruments for The Alloy Orchestra, or perhaps they understand the films better than any other composer. Whatever the reason, I found the viewing of those films in this set I was already familiar with accompanied by Alloy’s new scores to be the most rewarding viewings of those films I’ve experienced to date.

One of the most fascinating compositions in this collection accompanies Hans Richter’s Filmstudie (1926). Like Richter’s Rhythmus 21, Filmstudie is an exploration of shapes in motion, focusing primarily on the motion of circles, orbs, and disembodied eyes. Included in the Alloy arrangement for Filmstudie are Alloy’s signature eerie chord progressions, the clanking of metallic found objects, the plucking of an out-of-tune zither, and a vocal track comprised of Hugo Ball’s Dadaist poetry read aloud and looped back on itself a number of times so that it plays forward and backward simultaneously.

After sitting through the program once in its entirety, I gathered all the collections I had on hand which contain films that also appear on Wild and Weird. I then set about assessing the quality of Flicker Alley’s presentation of these films when contrasted with those of other companies. And I’d like to share with you here my thoughts on the different versions of three of the pieces I was able to do this with.

1. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) is perhaps the most widely seen film of its era. A masterpiece of early trick photography and spectacle, the film’s elaborate sets and fantastic vision of the moon ensures that it will be regarded fondly well into the future. Perhaps this makes its inclusion here a bit old hat, but I’m immensely thankful that it is. I compared Flicker Alley’s version with that collected in Kino International’s The Movies Begin. For starters, Flicker made the narration written by Méliès to accompany the piece in public exhibition optional rather than fixed as Kino did. And visually, Flicker Alley’s transfer shows a marked improvement over Kino’s, characterized by a cleaner print and a far more stable image. The music too is a vast improvement, with The Alloy Orchestra’s simple, jaunty composition serving as less of a distraction than the over-composed tracks that typically accompany the film.

2. Edwin S. Porter’s Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) too is a masterpiece of trick photography. Based on the comic strip by Winsor McCay, the film relates the bizarre dreams of a man after he comes home from a night of binge drinking and overeating. The version of the film I used for the comparison is that collected in Kino’s Edison: The Invention of the Movies. This made for a rather interesting comparison, because, while the image doesn’t show quite the improvement in overall quality as Trip to the Moon had, Flicker Alley’s version of Dream has something that Kino’s does not (in addition to the Alloy score). Flicker Alley’s print of the film is in fact a tinted print, whereas Kino’s, as well as every other version of the film I had previously seen, had been black and white. Now I’m not sure the tinting particularly adds to the film in any substantive way, but the image contrast with the tinting is far more even than Kino’s with fewer blinding hotspots and unnecessary shadows. This allows for a far more successful integration of the visual effects into the storyline. Additionally, Alloy’s score is appropriately far less musical than that on the Kino set, giving the audience an aural interpretation of the sensory turmoil experienced by the character. Ultimately, I find the presentation of the film by Flicker Alley superior to that of Kino with its improved contrast levels and soundtrack, but the introduction by film historians and black and white print (which I do prefer aesthetically) on the Kino set made this one a very close call.

3. Finally, we have Buster Keaton’s The Play House (1921), which I’ve decided to touch on here to make a much larger point. Many silent films are unfortunately released in less-than-impressive versions by companies that specialize in selling public domain films by bulk. The copy of The Play House I used for this comparison is from one of Mill Creek Entertainment’s 100 movie packs, which you can usually pick up for around $20. I can’t even begin to explain the myriad of ways in which Flicker Alley’s release of the film improves upon Mill Creek’s. Factor in the Alloy soundtrack and you might as well chuck the Mill Creek disc in the trash. If you can replicate the comparison in your own home, I highly recommend you do so. It’s truly a testament to the incredible work done by Flicker Alley in restoring and presenting these films, and the best argument one could possibly make for not skimping out when it comes to DVDs.

Of the remaining films I screened multiple versions of, I found only one of the Flicker Alley shorts to be visually inferior, Winsor McCay’s animated Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet (1921). But even that was presented in sepia tone where Image Entertainment’s version had not, so it at least had something new to offer.

The nine films included in Wild and Weird not yet addressed in this review are:
-D.W. Griffith’s Those Awful Hats (1902),
-Segundo de Chomon’s Red Spectre (1907),
-F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly (1908),
-J. Stuart Blackton’s The Thieving Hand (1908) and Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy (1909),
-Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912),
-Ladislas Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912),
-Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey’s The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1927),
and finally,
-Eliot Noyes, Jr.’s Clay, or The Origin of Species (1965).

It should be noted, I think, that The Cameraman’s Revenge is perhaps the weirdest and wildest film of the lot, not to mention one of my all-time personal favorites. This stop-motion animation tells the tale of an unfaithful husband and his equally unfaithful wife using dead beetles and other such creatures to portray the story’s characters.

Finally, a DVD such as this doesn’t particularly need special features, but Flicker Alley delivers one anyway. The 10-minute featurette “Alloy Plays Filmstudie” joins The Alloy Orchestra in their studio as they lay down the tracks that would become the composition accompanying Filmstudie in Wild and Weird. It’s fascinating, after viewing the entire program, to observe the process that results in the bizarre tracks you had just moments earlier been enjoying. We are preview not only to the curious collection of objects that comprises their musical “rack of junk,” but witness the extent to which the music they compose is created by instinctively interacting with a film.

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.



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