Film Review: ‘The Orchestra’,
by Zbigniew Rybczynski
Throughout my life, I have consistently nourished and humored the fond belief that I am an intellectual of some substance. Today, however, after more than 64 years of life on the planet and confronted at every turn by the ineluctably obvious mediocrity of my own life’s events, I am so well versed in the limits of my relatively modest merits and mindful of my substantial failings that I must now finally concede that mine is actually a very pedestrian, second-rate pseudo-intellectual awareness at best (boo-hoo!).
The clear evidence of this has been with me since my earliest days, since standard IQ testing in academic years (secondary school) produced a disappointing intelligence quotient of about 130, a rating far from qualifying as anything of extraordinary merit or exceptional substance. Following true to demonstrated form and regardless of these blunt and impartial assessments, my ego has persisted in its myopic self-regard as being something special (or at least more special than the norm). Naturally enough (and in keeping with several social psychology studies done in the past decade or so that demonstrate a valid inverse relationship between IQ and true intellectual self-regard: the lower the intelligence, the higher one's regard for one's cerebral capabilities), I seem to have refused to accept my inherent limitations of potential and have blithely maintained the gratuitous self-deception until only very recently.
One of the limitations that a pseudo-intellectual often must cope with is the inability to carry volumes of facts and knowledge entirely within one’s head. To rationalise that glitch in my unfailing regard for self, I have frequently maintained in defense that there are actually two types of superior human intelligence in evidence among most groups of people: those individuals who know a great many things without having to refer to outside sources of factual data, and those who, lacking that skill, are still able to identify outside data sources and access them appropriately on a PRN (medical shorthand for as needed) basis. In other words, there are those who have so many specially polarized brain cells that they are able to carry their resource library almost exclusively and entirely within their heads; in contrast, there are those (like myself) who are merely skilled at finding the requisite data when and when they need to. These two groups are well removed from the ‘average’ individual in contemporary American society who confuses opinions for facts, and who routinely enshrines emotionally reactive and highly personalised feelings as unassailable documentation of the first order (in my opinion…a bit of irony here, perhaps?...a good example of this last group may be found in those delightfully uncomplicated ‘Tea Party Patriot’ populists we hear so much about these days).
At any rate, if you are by now wondering where this ruminative soliloquy is headed, I reference all the above as an excuse for having all too frequently failed to be aware of certain basic nuances of contemporary culture that are so startling (when finally encountered) in their significance as to constitute a failed awareness process of disturbing magnitude in their omission.
One such recent example of this is my tardy recognition of a brilliant contemporary Polish experimental film maker named Zbigniew Rybczynski (pronounced ‘Rib-shin-ski’). So great has been this naïve personal oversight of mine that I am reminded of that humorous slam against conventional lower-class economic medicrity that goes (more or less), “A year ago I couldn’t even pronounce ‘rocket scientist’; now I are one!” If you are yourself not aware of exactly who Rybczynski is, or what form his particular genius has taken, let me enlighten you; but first, a bit of retrospective stage-setting.
Back in the early 90s, I was an expatriate American living and working for the Saudi Arabian Government. The ‘living’ part of this undertaking usually consisted of sharing a flat with a number of other expatriates of many different nationalities. Over the course of my decade of so of work among the Saudis, this found me quartered with Egyptians, French, Germans, English, Filipinos, Australians, PRC Chinese, an occasional Scandinavian or two, and more than a few fellow Mercans (a southern style English dialectical idiom for ‘Americans’). At one point, I was living with two Ozzies (from Australia, or ‘Oz’) and a Brit (who gave regular evidence of feeling vaguely put-upon, having to share living facilities with former colonials). Thus it was that a particularly hot Riyadh summer evening (that’s akin to saying the Arctic winter is cold, of course) found us all home at the same time. The weather outside the compound was gusty, with the threat of an impending sand storm hanging over us like a Kite (the bird, not the flying airfoil) rising in a simoom (a characteristic sere desert wind) and we were predictably bored, yet again.
The compound, maintained for us by the Saudi Government was actually quite nice, all considered, with large, spacious rooms, an air conditioner in every window, wall to wall carpets, and all the furnishings of an upscale American home for the most part. We even had a super-size television that was linked to an international orbital satellite relay, offering us an almost incomprehensibly broad range of television programming from all parts of the planet. In addition, there was an ‘in-house’ TV studio serving the entire compound that would feature a daily program of illegally copied movies from the USA and other Western nations. Many of these films had been simply recorded directly off American television channels on a VCR complete with commercials and with no effort made to edit out the advertisements. Of course, since life in the Kingdom was so ‘different’ anyway, because of this fact small reminders of American culture (like ads) were more often valued as welcome reminders of the ‘home’ culture we had been away from for so long.
So there we were, all of us sprawled on various divans and sofas, unmotivated even to go downtown to cruise the large Saudi shopping malls to gawk at the cane-toting Muttawa’ain (religious police) and hunkered down to wait out the gathering sandstorm with bored resignation. Someone switched the TV on then and started flipping through the channels in the time-honored manner with the remote control when suddenly a passing channel’s fare caught my eye. Framed in the tube’s all-seeing luminous eye was a curious mix of visual and auditory inputs that met my puzzled gaze, seeming to consist of a sound-track of classical (western) music with what struck me as superimposed avant-garde visuals. Since I have long been a fan of classical music, I suggested to my sidiyks (‘friends’) that we hold on this channel to get a better feeling for what it offered. The channel turned out to be the previously referenced ‘house movie channel’ and a check of the scheduled programming for it revealed that this was a PBS ‘Great Performances’ program selection that someone back in the states had recorded a few weeks earlier and flown over via courier flight.
For me, it was another one of those moments similar to the one I mentioned in an earlier review of the sci-fi themed ‘FINAL APPROACH’ film, and to say the visuals were somewhat unusual would be understating things considerably. As my flat-mates and I watched this surprising program, we struggled to understand exactly what it was and what was being said by the director. Lacking any knowledge of Zbigniew Rybczynski’s film work at that point in my life, I was at a complete loss for some sort of defining meaning, but, as the 57 minutes of this film gradually played through, I was sublimely captured by the whole experience. My most immediate impression was that here was something that required greater analysis, closer focus and more leisurely study, so I contacted one of our local studio techs and asked him to make me a VHS copy of the program. He did this and it was delivered a short time later. Due to the fact that there were some various bits of nudity in the film, the copy delivered to me had all the explicit shots of breasts and genitals ‘fuzzed’ out (austerely conservative Islamic culture, of course), sadly enough, but at least I had a copy of my own that I could view at my leisure.
The film in reference, titled ‘The Orchestra’, was (as I later found out) a cooperative PBS high definition production initially produced for the Japanese domestic market that might be described as (in its simplest definition) a ‘music video’. Since Japan had high definition television programming for almost 15 years before it came to the United States, the version shown on Public Broadcasting stations (WNET) lacked the astounding clarity of the HD original, but it was an early and tantalising glimpse of what cutting-edge media technology promised to deliver to American audiences. [Note: Although HD television technology has been in use in other parts of the world for many years, the United States deliberately delayed adopting it for a number of reasons that had more to do with maintenance of existing commercial profit-making paradigms and the existing technology infrastructure than with technological advancement potential. Had American commercial visual media broadcasting companies elected to adopt HD standards when it first became available, HD would have been established in the United States more than a decade and a half ago.]
Zbig Rybczynski, the visionary creator of ‘The Orchestra’ (and number of equally stunning experimental video pieces) was born in Poland in the year 1949. Although he expressed an early interest in cinema, the main body of his experimental video work did not begin until shortly before 1972, after graduation from the Lodz (Poland) Film School. Ten years of creative work in the film medium by Rybczynski in Communist-controlled Poland ended at about the same time as the declaration of the Polish ‘Solidarnosc’ (Solidarity) labor union movement came into being ( founded at the Gdansk Shipyard and initially led by Lech Lawensa). Efforts by the Communist Polish government to quash the movement led, as is today well documented, to declarations of martial law (continuing from about 1981 through 1989) and in 1981 Rybczynski fled his native Poland with wife Wanda and a son. Immediately before his departure, he had been a teacher at the Lodenz Film School and had also been active in an avant-garde film group as a cinematographer and directing assistant. Four major film efforts completed during that time included Plamuz (‘Music Art’, 1983), Zupa (‘Soup’, 1974), Nowa Ksiqzka (‘New Book’, 1975), and Tango (1980). It was this last film that gained him a measure of international acclaim, with the subsequent bestowal of an Oscar Award for ‘Best Animated Short Subject’ in 1983.
In 1990, coincidentally concurrent with the establishment of the Republic of Poland and the election of a free government there, he produced ‘The Orchestra’. He was also awarded an Emmy in that year for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Special Effects’ associated with this film. From that time onward, Rybczynski’s creative output has simply escalated, taking form in a number of further creative film efforts of singular uniqueness (they include, in part, ‘KAFKA’ and ‘STEPS’). Rybczynski’s academic background includes instructorship at several renown institutions (Columbia University in NYC, the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, and the Lodz Film School in his native Poland).
After leaving Poland in 1981, he first sought political asylum in Austria, shortly thereafter relocating to New York City and began work for the new MTV music video production, completing over 30 of these music videos between 1984 and 1988. In 1988 his experimental film efforts expanded to include the new medium of high definition broadcasting technology, using a prototype system pioneered by the SONY Corporation. This led to the 1990 production of his classic ‘The Orchestra’, as a cooperative effort with New York’s WNET (PBS), France’s CANAL+, and Japan’s NHK Corporation in Tokyo. As mentioned earlier, the original production was first aired in Japan, since HD television would not be available in the US for a number of years to come. The first presentation in the US would take form as part of the PBS ‘Great Performances’ series of programs (1990), although in standard (non-HD) video broadcast format. As such the PBS version lacks the stunning clarity and brilliance of the HD original, but now that the HD standard has been adopted by the United States’ telecommunication broadcast media, Rybczynski’s creative masterpiece of classical music, combined with startlingly inspired modern dance and cinematic direction may finally be viewed in its intended form.
As an ‘experimental’ film, the 57 minutes of ‘The Orchestra’ are like nothing seen before or after its production. It consists in the main of the music of 6 classical era western composers’ music (Mozart, Chopin, Albioni, Rossini, Scubert, and Ravel) set to a backdrop panorama of fluidic scenes that together comprise a music-video interpretation of the rise of modern 21st Century civilisation and it has been remarked that this film was created as an intentionally unique expression of the genre for those who appreciate avant-garde experimental film. As I remarked earlier, the film’s impact on me was such that I was immediately filled with a sense of speculative and interpretative wonder that I have seldom before experienced. The film was produced at Rybczynski’s Hoboken, New Jersey, studio.
Among Rybczynsky’s numerous credits are a number of not well known contributions to music-video productions such as those for John Lennon’s IMAGINE, and other productions for Mick Jagger, the Alan Parsons Group, Chuck Mangione, Yoko Ono, and other well known names in American pop music. Zbigniew Rybczynski has received a great number of awards and special recognition from all over the world over the past decades and has become particularly noted for his early, pioneering work in computerized high-definition television media and special effects technology. He is presently living in the Los Angeles area of California, working in blue and green screen video technology research, and has been said to be engaged in an extensive production in collaboration with Israeli writer and journalist Eli Barbur, tentatively titled ‘A Short History of White People’, since 2007.
An internet search for a copy of ‘The Orchestra’ can often be somewhat frustrating, although I was personally startled to find three copies of this particular work in DVD format available through AMAZON. I was all set to buy all three of them, figuring their availability to be a fluke, until I stumbled into Mr. Rybczynski’s personal internet website where new DVD copies of this film and his other two major works (STEPS and KAFKA) may be acquired directly from him for only US$ 22 each. A special set of all three is available for a flat US$ 60 (my preference). He is apparently no longer producing them, however, so once the remaining supply is gone, there would appear to be no more new copies available.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough, considering it to be both seminal and inspiring for its frank artistic treatment of the failed promise of both Communism and the Christian religion. You will not be disappointed in it, even if all you are interested in is an entertaining fifty-seven minute music-video diversion to while extra away hours in the middle of the great Saudi Arabian high desert.
For more information on the artist and his works, visit his website at: http://www.zbigvision.com/