Paintings glimpsed in movies are often fascinating, and invariably so when they exhibit modernist tendencies. Take a look at the painting below that is granted just two seconds or so in the British Gothic melodrama Madness of the Heart, 1949 (a detail of the poster is featured above). On the left there is what is clearly meant to be a Picasso-like young woman, and to the right is a flower that, along with the lower realm of the picture, we might imagine as refugees from a Matisse canvas of the 1920s. The centre is a good deal more indistinct, blurry even, but that’s most certainly an eye right in the middle.
In the plot of the film the painting is entirely marginal. In a seaside French town our heroine Lydia (Margaret Lockwood) has just visited the local doctor, for a reason that we don’t yet know. Her wealthy and impossibly romantic husband Paul (Paul Dupuis) is away on business and she is invited to have a drink with slacker Max (David Hutcheson), a painter and an almost entirely peripheral character. Lydia asks Max what he’s been working on, and he holds up the painting to the camera as he says, ‘It’s a view of the harbour.’ There’s a beat before he continues with a chuckle, ‘At least, I think it’s a view of the harbour.’ All of which means nothing to Lydia, since a rare and apparently incurable disease has robbed her of her sight.
I want to argue that the painting, which makes no other appearance, opens up fascinatingly complex aspects of a film that has almost no place in conventional histories of British cinema. Robert Murphy, for example, in his authoritative Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in British Cinema, 1939-1948 dismisses Madness of the Heart in a single phrase as a ‘soggy melodrama’. But as I hope to show it’s a great deal more interesting than that. read more »
In 1966 the British artists Gerald Laing (1936-2011) and Peter Phillips (b. 1939) made the sculpture Hybrid, which is illustrated above from the immaculate online catalogue raisonné for Gerald Laing’s work. Working in New York, the artists used a polling kit (shown in a Life feature below) to ask 137 artists, critics, curators and others what the form, materials, colours and the like should be for an ideal work of art. The forms the respondents filled in were fed into an IBM computer at Bell Labs which then determined the parameters of the object. As John J. Curley writes in his essay ‘Hybrid sculpture of the 1960s’,
Hybrid is a transnational sculpture that can be reduced to transmittable sculpture that can be reduced to transmittable information. And, furthering the implication of the title, the information was a tabulation of averaged Anglo-American artistic tastes.
I came across the fascinating Hybrid tale thanks to an exceptional publishing project that is itself something of a hybrid. Curley’s essay is one element of Issue 3 of the open access online journal British Art Studies(BAS) from the Paul Mellon Centre and the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA). And I want now simply to pen a couple of paragraphs expressing my admiration and enthusiasm for BAS. read more »
A holiday Sunday links to articles that I have found interesting or stimulating over the past seven days. Thanks as usual to those who have pointed me towards some of them, via Twitter and in other ways, and apologies for the absence of appropriate name-checks.
• Modernism at the seaside: a lovely Heritage England post highlighting some of the best seaside modernism to be found near our coasts.
• The sound of horses – two John Ford westerns: a richly interesting video essay by Will Ross for Mubi.com about the soundtracks for Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine:
Now there’s also an associated academic collection of essays, Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghostsigns, edited by Roberts together with Stefan Schutt and Leanne White, newly available from Routledge. The table of contents (reproduced below) gives a sense of what a rich range of subjects ghostsigns can connect with, but as with so many academic volumes the book retails at an unaffordable £85 for the hardback and just-beyond-my-budget-zone £34.99 for the e-book. As so often, the advice has to be, get thee to a library.
The modern documentary was born in 1960, by way of that year’s Presidential campaign. The producer Robert Drew, a Life-magazine editor who wanted to make television documentaries as fluid as photo-reporting, oversaw the development of lightweight synch-sound cameras and recorders. He put the equipment to the test in Primary, an up-close account of the two rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, as they hustled for votes in the April 5 election in Wisconsin and then awaited the results.
And here’s an evocative clip courtesy of The Criterion Collection:
To BFI Southbank last night for a showing of a rarely-screened British film from 1947 that I’d never even heard of. The White Unicorn (known in the States as Bad Sister) is almost entirely absent from the literature about post-war cinema – apart that is from a valuable discussion of Margaret Lockwood’s persona by Sarah Street in the academic collection Heroines without Heroes: Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema, 1945-51. I’m not at all going to do justice here to the film’s richness – and its occasional absurdities – but I do want to record a few immediate thoughts. To give you something of a taste of the film’s attractions, here is the original trailer:
At the end of last week I celebrated BFIPlayer’s new collectionThe Arts on Film which offers 100+ features and documentaries for online viewing. Many are free to access (including those below) and there is much that is unfamiliar alongside a number of well-known titles. Continuing my exploration of the fringes, below are brief notes on six pre-World War Two films, all of which were unfamiliar to me.
None of the six is in any sense a ‘conventional’ film about the arts, and in each one specific artforms are touched on more or less tangentially. The main concerns — a portrait of a place, for example, or a glimpse of a celebrity — lie elsewhere. Nonetheless, they each belong to a kind of ‘pre-history’ of the arts documentary, and each has considerable interest. read more »
I was sorry to learn of the death at the weekend of Brian Rix, whose BBC obituary can be found here. His campaigning for Mencap and other charities has been rightly lauded in the press, and there has been a somewhat cautious celebration of the Whitehall farces for which as actor-manager he was best known. Critics have always been uncertain about quite how to regard these comedies, even while audiences largely adored them. And not least those of us who watched the BBC television broadcasts of them on highdays and bank holidays throughout our childhood.
Between 1952 and the late 1960s BBC Television broadcast some seventy live comedies and farces from the Whitehall Theatre in London.The series is the most sustained and successful partnership between a theatre company and a broadcaster, yet the productions were rarely discussed by journalists at the time and have been ignored by writers on television ever since. Recordings of only a handful survive, but there is extensive documentation of almost all of them in the BBC Written Archive Centre.
One day, perhaps, I’ll write that journal article (or even book) that I have half sketched out about the Whitehall farces and television. But for today, here’s a lightly edited version of a Screen Plays post that I wrote back in 2011, the original of which is here. It explores the considerable significance of the first television broadcast from the Whitehall in 1952 of (just the first act of) Brian Rix’s production of Reluctant Heroes (pictured above from Radio Times). Screen Plays, incidentally, was the AHRC-funded research project undertaken by Dr Amanda Wrigley and myself, one outcome of which is Screen Plays: The Theatre Plays on British Television Database that features details of a number of the early Brian Rix broadcasts. read more »
Links as usual to articles that I have found interesting or stimulating over the past seven days. Thanks as ever to those who have pointed me towards some of them, via Twitter and in other ways, and apologies for the absence of appropriate name-checks.
• How the $100 million NYPD creator gambled away his fortune: … but then there’s this remarkable story from earlier in the year, also for The Hollywood Reporter, by Stephen Galloway with Scott Johnson about the series’ co-creator (and initiator of Deadwood) David Milch’s apparent bankruptcy.
• ‘The vision thing’: … and remember this, from the final series?:
I continue to lament that journalistic criticism about television in Britain today remains, with a few honourable exceptions, pretty poor. But if you know where to look, there is much rich writing about the medium’s history – and I thought today I would simply highlight a handful of recent contributions to two key web sites. My first link, however, is distinct from these, being a piece marking the passing of a major television drama producer who was particularly influential in the 1970s and ’80s. read more »