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Michael Nyman takes on ‘Man With a Movie Camera’

The composer’s ambitious take on the 1929 classic is the centerpiece of a Tufts exhibition of his visual work.

Image from “NYman With a Movie Camera,” a sound-and video installation.Michael Nyman and Myriam Blundell_Projects, London

MEDFORD — The English Minimalist composer Michael Nyman is likely best-known in the United States for his film scores. They include Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” the science fiction opus “Gattaca,” the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” the Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon comedy “The Trip,” and several Peter Greenaway films. One can see (and hear) how Nyman’s clean, expert opacity would suit Greenaway.

In 2002, Nyman did a scoring retrofit, composing music for Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent documentary, “The Man With a Movie Camera.” Of course designating “The Man With a Movie Camera” a documentary is a bit like calling the Russian Revolution a transfer of power. Correct so far as it goes, such a description doesn’t go very far at all. Vertov’s film inspired, and is incorporated within, “NYman With a Movie Camera,” a sound-and video installation that’s the centerpiece of “Images Were Introduced: An Exhibition of Film and Photography by Michael Nyman.” The show runs through May 17 at the Tufts University Art Gallery.


A marvel of energy, wit, and visual imagination, “The Man With a Movie Camera” remains one of the most exhilarating movies ever made. The 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll on the greatest films of all time ranked it eighth. “Vertigo” came in number one. Only a very serious thing for Kim Novak could explain someone wanting to watch “Vertigo” more than “Man With a Movie Camera.” Why Nyman should be drawn to it is easy to understand.

Since 2007, he’s been assembling “NYman With a Movie Camera” (get it?). It consists of a dozen various-sized video screens. Eleven show moving and still color images shot by Nyman. Another, smaller screen, set back amid the array, shows the original Vertov film. Nyman’s 2002 score plays on loudspeakers. The music is often quite good, especially so during Vertov’s famous concluding crescendo of shots.


Courtesy of Michael Nyman and Myriam Blundell_Projects, London.

The installation lasts 68 minutes, the running time of the Vertov. The screens are in synch. Sometimes the images more or less match. Sometimes they complement each other, visually or conceptually (Vertov shows a gramophone, Nyman has an LP on a turntable). Sometimes they clash (motorcyclists for Vertov, elderly walkers for Nyman). Certain subjects recur in “NYman”: boxers, political demonstrators, dancers, a bullfight, skaters, sunbathers, Barbie dolls (!), Sylvester Stallone (!!).

The overall effect is hectic — when not outright disorienting. Where Vertov is intoxicating, Nyman seems more intoxicated. Some works of art are best seen with someone you love. “NYman With a Movie Camera” might best be seen with a designated driver.

Does Nyman intend the installation as homage? Update? Gloss? Revision? This last possibility seems absurd, until one considers the grandiosity implicit in that punning title. “NYman With a Movie Camera” is impressively elaborate and ambitious. It’s also effectively self-destructive. That one screen showing Vertov’s original is what holds the eye. The other screens seem superfluous, at best, and a distraction, at worst.

“Images Were Introduced” has three smaller additional components. Two relate to a vast movie theater in Mexico City that was later converted into a music venue and then closed after a portion of the roof collapsed. The building is a marriage of opulence and wreckage: Ozymandias at the movies. Nyman pays tribute to this amazing Art Deco space with a selection of color photographs and a 15-minute video, “Cine Opera,” for which he provides a musical score. There are arresting, even stupendous images — debris beneath the chandeliers, rubble-covered seats — and an affecting sense of low-grade tristesse. But the whole thing does go on. The result doesn’t feel hypnotic so much as underedited.


The other part of “Images Were Introduced” comprises a half-dozen grids consisting of four to nine photographs. Their subjects include staircases, the numerals on a gas meter, butterflies, stacked folding chair. Nyman takes his inspiration from Sol LeWitt’s photographic grids. But in their reliance on repetition and finely calibrated variation one can see a visual correlative to his music. As with that music — and the “Cine Opera” photographs and video — these “Grids” are handsome, cold, detached.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.