DJ Spooky Rescores Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya)
We’ve come a long way since some of my favorite Russian writers like Chekov or Gogol portrayed the misery and almost transcendent wretchedness of serfdom in Czarist Russia. The vignettes in Dovzhenko’s Earth point to a clear use of Proto-Modernist film editing techniques combined with a masterful control of film as a storytelling medium that pulls us into the un-ambiguous realm of how we can, as so many corporate ads tell us today, “re-think possible.” In keeping with the “imagist” scenarios of the other films in his highly celebrated “silent trilogy” (Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1928)), Earth, as the final installment, was hyper-realist, but eerily without a center. Its core imagery and the worlds his “silent trilogy” describe are ones of Gogol-esque semi-timelessness. If I were to tell you about a song that sampled horses that sing or reprimand their owners, noble cows, glistening meadows, wily cossacks, dancing peasants, declamatory speeches by wild-eyed individuals, close ups of sun flowers (the symbol of Ukraine) alongside proud women with similarly open faces, vast reaches of empty sky over fields of waving wheat — a vision of a natural order that paradoxically seems both brutal and harmonious, you would probably think it’s not an electronic music situation. You would be wrong. The connection here is that Dovzhenko’s imagery is poetry in part because it’s a paean to existence and because it sings about rather than recounts its details.
The polyvalent way that Earth unfolds is testimony enough: it’s a quality that Dovzhenko brings to how he puts the story if the transformation of the serfs into a farmers collective that still resonates in 2012 and beyond. The “imagist” cinema-poetry that Earth brings to bear in this epic has a kind of timeless quality that is imbued with an almost indescribable sense of authority in the characters he presents mixed with the tender sadness of a loss of certainty that every revolution brings. When you watch the opening scene of Earth in which an elderly farmer dies in a pear orchard, you into feel you’re experiencing a scene from the Bible as if it were actually happening in front of you, rather than watching a propaganda film from 1930.
Since this is a propaganda film, three-dimensional characterization isn’t a strength – it’s not even attempted. The film is more concerned with startling imagery, and there is a great deal of repetition: this is where it can link to modern DJ culture and film re-score projects like Michael Nyman’s and The Cinematic Orchestra’s score for Vertov’s Man with a Camera. In Dovzhenko’s Earth there’s a strikingly formalist quality to every scene – the same shot is often acted several times just to make sure that we get the idea. Like Ryszard Kapuciski’s stories that were set in war torn parts of the planet, one is often pressed to think about the “realism” of the situation. But that’s kind of the point: Dovzhenko once wrote in 1933
“It is possible that we are still in a pre-historic stage of cinema, for the great history of cinema will begin when it leaves the frame of ordinary artistic representation and grows into a tremendous and extraordinarily encompassing perceptive category”.
I couldn’t agree more. I hope you enjoy!
Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky
Alexander Dovchenko’s Earth Земля
Rescored by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky
“If it’s necessary to choose between truth and beauty, I’ll choose beauty. In it there’s a larger, deeper existence than naked truth. Existence is only that which is beautiful.”
~ Alexander Dovzhenko
Artist Statement: I’ve worked with archival material from the former Soviet Union on several occasions, and the cinematography of Alexander Dovzhenko stands out for its particularly powerful use of “imagist” techniques that one would usually find in the realm of Russian poets like Mayakovsky or Khlebnikov.
Alexander Dovzhenko has been hailed by many critics and fellow film directors as one of the great voices of Soviet cinema. With his Ukrainian trilogy (Zvenigora, Arsenal, and Earth) he created a syntax of political cinema that bridges the spectrum from activism to high concept film. Along with Soviet cineastes like Mikhail Kalatoziv, Andrei Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Vertov and Pudovkin, he looked at the radical trasnformations of Russian culture through the eyes of an artist and devoted chronicler of everyday life after the Revolution. Dovzhenko’s approach to film runs into a resonance with what Eisenstein liked to call “dialectical montage” – it pulled elements from the editing process of film, and applied a kind of associative poetry to the way Dovzhenko created stories. In that context, he regarded editing itself as an artform in its own right. This s where his approach to film, and Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky overlap.
Paul D. Miller is an artist, writer, and musician whose tactics in presenting digital media inform almost every aspect of his craft. HIs use of archival materials mirrors the way great Soviet film directors like Vertov, and Eisenstein wrote screenplays: he plays with found voices, the way those directors looked at narrative collage. Miller has presented re-scores of key Soviet era films like Dziga Vertov’s “Kino-Glaz” and “Kino-Pravda” at venues such as The Tate Modern, The Hermitage, and many other art venues. He likes to think of the act of “sampling” as an inheritance both from the Western tradition of collage in the footsteps of John Heartfield’s “photomontage” and the more recent practices of Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince: characters in hip hop are sampled sounds, and Miller has been a globally celebrated artist of contemporary digital collage. He brings that kind of compositional strategy to Dovzhenko’s 1930 masterpiece “Earth.”
Where bands like The Cinematic Orchestra and the Alloy Orchestra have explored acoustic soundtracks to classics of Soviet Cinema, Dj Spooky works with the iPad software he developed with MusicSoft Arts to arrive at a unique combination of digital media accompaniment to historic film like no other electronic music artist or band. Dovzhenko’s “Earth” is re-scored live with iPad software uniquely tailored to fit the evolving role of the contemporary Dj and musician. Dj Spooky’s software was developed to edit music in a live context that uniquely resonates with Dovzhenko’s concept of “film poetry” because of its relationship to collage and sampling techniques.
In Dovzhenko’s use of visual metaphor there’s a deep sense of allegorical complexity that fosters an imagery of social upheaval while connecting to earlier folks traditions – it’s what separates him from his more ideologically driven contemporaries: this is where his masterpiece powerfully brings home what Dovzhenko creates with the masterpiece of his trilogy: EARTH (Zemlya), a stunningly lyrical work that celebrates a natural order of being that reaches from seeds planted in the fields to the stars in the firmament.
Where Dovzhenko’s connection to Soviet art and cinema was a clear relationship to the avant garde, Dj Spooky arrives at a similar milieu through contemporary digital media. As the 21st century evolves, it’s increasingly clear that Dovzhenko’s work is aligned with a strain of European modernism (represented by artists such as Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, Andre Breton, Antonin Artaud, and Duchamp) that sought inspiration for new forms of art in the tales, imagery and traditions of folk culture as transformed into a lyrical exploration of the edges of the known political, social, and economic methods of telling stories. Dj Spooky’s new score to “Earth” revives that tradition and creates a new way of exploring its hidden dimensions.