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Altos: Earth @ Oriental Theatre

Oct. 4, 2013

Oct. 5, 2013
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earth altos 2013 alexander dovzhenko milwaukee film festival
If you've never experienced The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon, it really is worth trying, even if you're not all that into Pink Floyd or stoner culture. My friends were in high school the first time they attempted to sync the two in high school, and they approached the process with the exacting precision of a science experiment. Referencing online instructions, they made sure the needle hit the record at the exact right time (on the MGM lion's third roar, not its second) and immediately began noting the coincidences. Each scene change seemed to hit at the same time as a musical shift. When the band sang about death, Dorothy passed a skull. When the wicked witch cackled, a backup singer wailed menacingly. My friends were less sure that they'd timed the needle right for side B of the album, but when a cash registered chimed at roughly the moment the film snapped into color, they were satisfied they'd gotten close enough.

After the album ended, we continued watching the movie for a few minutes before deciding to replay the record just for the hell of it. This time we didn't consult any instructions or make any effort to drop the needle on cue; they just let it play to see what would happen. And sure enough, that second listen was as coincidence-laden as the first. It turns out you can play any part of Dark Side of the Moon with any moment of Wizard of Oz—any moment of anything, really—and they'll seem synchronized. That's the wonderful thing about the brain: It's always searching for patterns and connections, trying to find order and meaning, even when it isn't there.

Milwaukee's Altos had some fun playing with that idea Friday night at the Milwaukee Film Festival showcase screening of Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent Ukrainian film Earth. The post-rock ensemble, which for the occasion expanded to 18 members from its usual dozen, had been commissioned by the festival and Alverno Presents to create a live score, but what they came up with wasn't so much a mere soundtrack as an elaborate experiment in how music and sound shape our response to the things we view.

The festival couldn't have picked a much better canvas for Altos to play with. In his introductory remarks, Milwaukee Film director Jonathan Jackson explained that he'd suggested the picture because it was one of his favorites, an underrated work that deserves to share the same renown as Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's far better-known masterpieces from the era. Friday's screening of a rare, pristine 33mm print of the film made it easy to see where that affection stemmed from. Dovzhenko's eye for beauty was nearly unrivaled among his peers, and his love for nature comes across in his many vibrant shots of windswept fields and ripe produce (in the movie's opening scene, a dying grandfather briefly rebounds from infirmity to eagerly devour one last perfect pear). As a tribute to the land and the people who work it, Earth is perfect, but as pure storytelling it's a quirky, erratic thing, a curiously paced Communist propaganda piece populated by characters who are so unwaveringly dialed up to 11 with joy, fury or grief that it can be difficult to read the actual stakes. In one key scene, villagers respond to the arrival of a tractor as if it was the second-coming of Christ (or maybe something even better, given the film's secular, Stalinist lean—in the film's final act, a mourning father concludes there is no God, and the movie celebrates him for having come to his senses).

It was up to Altos, then, to decide whether to play any given scene for tension or levity, and they clearly delighted in wielding that power. True to form, their guitars, violins and horns crescendoed readily, lending suspense to scenes of even fairly ordinary concerns. In the evening's most whimsical number, the ensemble accompanied a young man's merry, late-night dance to a jaunty techno groove, but the soundtrack wasn't all about juxtaposition. During scenes of farm work and production, Altos' choruses of pretty, wordless ooh-ed and ahh-ed vocals conveyed the same sense of awe as Dovzhenko's camerawork.

Given how much the mood shifted from song to song and scene to scene, the screening sometimes felt like a collection of black and white music videos, in part because portions or Earth are edited like one. Leaning heavily on montages—and even breaking for a segment detailing how bread is baked—the movie repeats footage and snippets of dialogue, sometimes out of order, and combined with Altos' more ambient accompaniments and the film's slightly too slow for comfort projection speed, the effect could be disorienting. When Altos weren't playing their score for catharsis, though, they went for sheer volume and spectacle. If you sat toward the screen, where the band was hidden in an orchestra pit, the drums hit loud enough to rattle through your chest. An older lady seated in front of me spent the opening number covering her ears before acquiring a pair of earplugs.

In hyping this centerpiece screening so aggressively, both through lead-up promotion and with pre-screening remarks from not one but three speakers who all promised greatness, the film festival risked overselling the performance, but it really was every bit as unforgettable as billed. Those who scored tickets to the sold-out event experienced a truly one-off event that raised the bar almost impossibly high for future film festival productions. And those who didn't? Well, Earth is on YouTube, and Altos have an album on Bandcamp. It won't be the same as witnessing a tightly arranged live performance in a historic theater, but cue up the two as they fall and you're bound to take at least a little something away from it. That's how we're wired.


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