Wednesday, October 23, 2002

The Alloy Orchestra

Posted By on Wed, Oct 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM

The Alloy Orchestra comes to town this weekend, marching in with drums and reeds, and rolling through like a musical-cartoon circus wagon chockablock with twanging banjos, wheezing squeezeboxes and clanking, jangling junk drawn by a clippity-clop pantomime pony. The group electronically synthesizes a strange ensemble of moody voices — and they do it all for silent film. Functioning as an artfully noisy cinematic time machine, they transport movies from an age of relative innocence when moving pictures were too young to talk. This time around, the three-man “orchestra” will use classic American swashbuckling adventure and slapstick comedy, Soviet agitprop and German Expressionist horror as their sonic playgrounds and canvases.

First on the playbill is The Black Pirate (1926), a high-adventure spectacle shot in primitive Technicolor featuring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Fairbanks’ athletic swashbuckler — a marooned innocent who finds himself a pirate on the high seas — is ripped from the pages of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. There’s suspense, literally explosive and flashy set pieces, melodrama and romance rendered in antique hues. In short, it’s an embryonic Hollywood action movie.

Next is Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), a film the Soviet Communist Party branded as failed agricultural agitprop. Its faults as party propaganda are what make it a masterpiece: The depths of its elegant, pastoral beauty transcend its surface of communist rhetoric. This is a must-see for any serious student or connoisseur of cinema.

Then there’s the 1919 slapstick circus of Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton shorts, and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), the darkly grotesque, vampiric spore of the fright film.

The orchestra best succeeds when it can percussively match and marshal the voices of metal (Fairbanks’ sword, heroic communist machinery, and Arbuckle and Keaton’s comic vehicles). A kind of musical Heidelberg Project, the Alloy Orchestra recycles commonly forgotten and found objects into what some call sound art.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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