The painstaking recreation of a silent film classic is proving to be Michael Nyman’s unfinished symphony
I won’t blame you if you think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that Michael Nyman is giddy with excitement at the prospect of his new exhibition, but it’s true. Nyman may be principally known for his film scores, for Jane Campion’s The Piano and Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and for the Michael Nyman Band and its recent collaborations with David McAlmont amongst others, but he’s also a photographer and filmmaker, and it’s this latter art form which has, for now at least, truly captured his imagination.
For the past six years, Nyman has been “remaking” Dziga Vertov’s hugely influential 1929 wordless documentary, Man With A Movie Camera. In a major installation opening this week, all ten of Nyman’s remakes will be shown simultaneously, synched to the original and sharing the soundtrack he was commissioned by the BFT to write back in 2000, and which started the whole process.
“It’s come from a series of accidents and a series of really practical things,” he says. “It’s not me sitting down and saying, okay what event can I make that deals with contemporary cinema and my images and music? And although the process of doing it is totally inorganic, the whole project has mysteriously become very organic.”
It began when Nyman’s editor, Max Pugh, who had worked on around 20 of Nyman’s short films in his Cine Opera series, first watched Vertov’s film. The impact was immediate. “He came screaming into my room saying that Nyman and Vertov were sort of indivisible,” says Nyman. “That was very flattering for me.” But then Pugh suggested they might make a “replacement” of Man With A Movie Camera using images which Nyman had shot, such was the compatibility between the subject matter and the style of the two filmmakers.
Nyman has been shooting film since the early 1980s, gathering footage from all over the world and using every format of video camera. Pugh calculated that there were 5,000 shots in the Vertov, then mechanically he and Nyman began the process of replacing them. Shots of trams and buses, of industry, of women in the street, of children walking along the beach and sport and baby dolls wrapped in plastic.
“Some things were really uncanny,” Nyman says. “There are one or two replacements that were so bizarre they verge on the unbelievable.” One was an image Nyman captured while in Moscow for a performance with the Michael Nyman Band in the 1990s. “To advertise the concert there was a big banner stretched across a boulevard,” he says. “I thought this was interesting and out of vanity I took a shot of it. In the Vertov, totally unbeknownst to me, there is a similar banner that he had shot some time between 1926 and 1929 which advertised the Maxim Gorky performance.”
Another parallel has a Moscow connection, but this time it emerged form a visit Nyman made to Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, housed in one of Russia’s architectural masterpieces, the former Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage designed by Konstantin Melnikov in 1926. Having been invited, Nyman took some photographs “just to be able to recollect having visited”. “Then the next time I was sitting on stage with the Michael Nyman Band, playing the soundtrack live to the Vertov, I looked up at the screen and there was a scene that I’d seen dozens of times where buses or trams come out of a garage and it is the same f***ing garage.”
It’s clear that Nyman is delighted with the coincidence; more than that, he explains it illustrates what he describes as a “conundrum” that exists in filmmaking but not in music. “All those wonderful intellectual, visual, stylistic conundrums you can’t really do as a composer. I mean I can take a piece of Mozart and relate it to 1950s rock’n’roll filtered through an imagination that comes to minimalism and John Cage, but that’s a kind of stylistic trick and an opinion. The very fact of having the Nyman banner side by side with the Gorky banner I just think is such a brilliant visual, cultural, conceptual conundrum that I think it leaves similar conundrums in music way behind.”
Gathering the footage to use is a process that Nyman likens to building a bird’s nest, describing himself as a collector of “natural objects”. It’s reminiscent of Nyman’s habit as a little boy, growing up in London, of collecting bus tickets and lollipop wrappers. While the film was being “upgraded”, Nyman realised that different versions could be shown simultaneously, illustrating the relationships between, as he puts it, “my images and the Vertov images and my images and my images”. He wasn’t interested in ten screens on a wall, or ten monitors, he wanted a “forest of screens” in a space that the viewer could walk through. “They’d be positioned in such a way that not only could you see each screen in relation to the other screens but all screens in relation to a master screening of the Vertov.”
Each version of the film that will be presented is complete but Nyman is far from finished with the project. He’s too entranced by the process, delighted by it, to let it go. “It’s like visual plant hunting,” he says. “I’m constantly seeing more interesting beach scenes and sports scenes, more interesting forms of transportation.”
Vertov’s film doesn’t only represent what it represents but also represents filmmaking. Nyman continues this intertextual weaving by including footage of himself filming, capturing his reflection as he works. It’s part of what means that the film will never be finished.
“When I write a piece of music, apart from tinkering around with it, it’s finished. But the Vertov project is in a state of constant unsettlement. It’s something I couldn’t have planned, didn’t plan, couldn’t have predicted. I think it’s really thrilling. I will go to Edinburgh and I will take a camera and I will re-film from within my forest. Then there will be another version which will include footage shot in amongst all these screens.” He pauses. “I’m never going to get shot of it,” he says, sounding quite delighted.
Images Were Introduced opens on Friday at Summerhall. On the opening day there will be a Q&A with Michael Nyman at 10.30am, and a book signing at 12noon. www.summerhall.co.uk