Back to the future

Back to the future

Picturegoing is a splendid online resource compiled and curated by the estimable Luke McKernan, who also runs another richly interesting blog under his own name and in his spare time is the British Library’s Lead Curator, News and Moving Image. ‘An ongoing survey,’ is how Picturehouse describes itself, ‘reproducing eyewitness testimony of viewing pictures, from the seventeenth century to the present day.’ So here you will find Alfred Hitchcock recalling a virtual railway journey around 1910, the novelist Dorothy Richardson at an early talkie, and The Drifters ‘Kissin’ in the Back Row’ in a song written by  Tony Macaulay and Roger Greenaway. Luke reproduces the diary entry, recollection, song or whatever and adds a minimal but always revealing annotation. The earliest entry is from The Diary of Samuel Pepys with its account of a magic lantern show, and now one of the most recent is my own note first published on this blog of seeing The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD for the first time.

I am delighted that Luke requested permission to include this brief account from 26 February 2007, but as is always the case I was slightly nervous at re-reading something I wrote some years back. In fact, I was pleased to see that the prose is serviceable and that the historical context I sketched seems correct. Moreover, my sense of the significance of the occasion -’On Saturday night I saw (and heard) the future of arts programmes’ - has been borne out by the success of The Met’s project, by NT Live and by the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, which I now produce. (Next up is The Two Gentlemen of Verona on Wednesday 3 September – we ran the first camera rehearsal yesterday, and it is a wonderfully engaging and enjoyable show.)

From the start the brief for Picturegoing has taken in accounts of pre-cinema entertainments along with the movies after 1895, and now Luke hopes to extend the range to feature other media related to the cinema. In particular, he want to include further responses to this hybrid form that combines theatre and cinema and that, as he correctly notes, currently goes by a host of names including ‘streamed theatre, live-streamed theatre, live-to-cinema, simulcasts, live theatre and live cinema’. I look forward to Picturegoing offering me further virtual trips to the cinema in its myriad of manifestations.

Ghosts of Richards past

Ghosts of Richards past

To Middleham Castle on Saturday evening for a unique ‘performed screening’ of a 1911 silent film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Sited in the glorious Yorkshire dales, the impressive castle, now in the care of English Heritage, is strongly associated with time spent there by the late medieval monarch. The film was Frank Benson’s production from his own staging, in which he stars as the wicked king, and which was shot on the stage of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The occasion was a presentation by Silents Now, a group led by Professor Judith Buchanan and based at the University of York, which is dedicated to exploring new ways of bringing audiences to films made before the coming of sound. And the ‘performed’ element was the contribution of the incomparable John Sweeney at the piano and a group of actors who contributed the verse, together with vivid sound effects, in perfect synchronicity with the flickering images. Nestled inside the ruined, spotlit keep and huddled with my family against the cold, I found it rather magical and rather marvellous.
Read more »

Shakespeare the sailor man

Shakespeare the sailor man

Many of the world’s most prominent Shakespeare academics are meetings this week in Stratford-upon-Avon for the invite-only International Shakespeare Conference. A highlight of the first day was the screening of Shakespearian Spinach as part of the paper by Professor Peter Holland. This 1940 Paramount animation features Popeye and Olive Oyl as Romeo and Juliet – and it is rather special. Here it is as today’s treat…

Cinema reviews for Henry IV

Cinema reviews for Henry IV

I am in Stratford-upon-Avon for today’s first camera rehearsal for the RSC’s live cinema presentation of Henry IV Part II on 18 June. One of the things that frustrates me about these broadcasts is that they rarely get reviewed or discussed as examples of live cinema. Part I on 14 May, however, attracted at least three substantial responses – from the Birmingham Post, from the blog But madnorthnorthwest and from academic Dr Peter Kirwan at The Bardathon:

Richard Edmonds’ 5-star review for the Birmingham Post:

 [I]n this skilful filming of the play not a word was missed, articulation was nigh perfect, the ends of lines were not dropped and so we heard our Shakespeare clearly which is surely the point of the exercise. The other great thing which a seat in the stalls cannot give us, is the intimate close-up. In the film of the play such as this, you can see the pores on an actor’s skin, almost feel his emotional suffering as the camera closes in on his eyes, and you can see the work of the costume department in detail.

 • The blog Butmadnorthnorthwest:

After the successful broadcast of Richard II last year, the RSC is now continuing with Henry IV (part 2 follows in June). Started off with a charming and informative interview of Gregory Doran (NTL, you might want to take notes of how these are done. Kudos to Suzy Klein.) who admitted having unsucessfully looked for his Falstaff until Ian McKellen called his attention to the fact he was actually living with him.

Peter Kirwan at The Bardathon:

This was the first of the ‘Live From Stratford-upon-Avon’ events that I’ve attended, the live screenings from Stratford modelled on the NT Live series that will, hopefully, by 2020 see the complete works of Shakespeare broadcast internationally from the RSC’s main stage. If the RSC wishes to remain competitive in a new market then it’s a necessary step, and it was a pleasure to see John Wyver’s team doing an extraordinary job with the filming. Despite the obvious awkwardness of filming a production performed on a thrust stage, cameras captured the fine detail that characterises Doran’s work, from the apparently suspended crown which dominated the stage at the production’s opening to the detail of Falstaff’s reaction to his dismissal by Hal.

I would be delighted to learn of any other detailed reviews, whether positive or negative.

PS. for the rationale for my new approach to the blog, go here.

Sunday: a blog makeover

Sunday: a blog makeover

Although there is no sign of this here, I have been thinking a lot about a new direction for this blog. I have remarkably downtime at the moment and I’m all too aware that I am not posting regularly. The next RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast is coming up fast – Henry IV Part II on Wednesday 18 June. There are other broadcast projects underway, plus I am researching and writing articles on, among other topics, live cinema, Henry Moore, Shakespeare on television and Ken Russell. And I am doing my best to work on the data entry for the Screen Plays database which needs to be complete by the end of the year – and we still have a long way to go. Finding the moments to post here as I have in the past has simply become harder in recent weeks. So I am going to try something a little different. Please bear with me over the coming days as I work out quite how it should work.

I intend to post something here every day – but not to feel that I have to craft an article for each entry. Rather, many of the entries will just be a link or several such or a video or a book I’m reading, with a line or two of commentary. And I’ll keep the past seven days active in a separate updated entry – and then ‘retire’ entries eight days or older into the archive. You’ll get the hang of it, I hope. Anyway, here goes…

Sunday 8 June

Previously on the blog… I used to compile a Sunday links section of things that I had found interesting during the previous week. I miss this, as I think one or two of you do also, and I am hoping that my blog makeover will offer some of the links that I would have previously highlighted. So to begin on this new path I am going to point you towards a terrific series of recent posts on one of the blogs that I admire the most, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s Observations on film art.

In April and May David Bordwell authored a wonderful series of posts about film reviewing in the United States in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. They are full of richly interesting ideas about the cinema, writing and the culture of America. He intends to pull these together into an e-book but in the meantime you can read them here:

Otis Ferguson and the way of the camera, 20 November 2013
David Bordwell characterises this piece as the ‘prologue’ to the series. He reflects on the writings of the film critic of The Nation between 1934 and 1942.

The Rhapsodes: Agee, Farber, Tyler and us, 26 January 2014
Introducing James Agee, Manny Farber and Parker Tyler…

I’m captivated by all three. None holds me hostage, though; I write as an enthusiast but not a promoter. What attracts me now, in tandem with the book I’m writing on Hollywood in the 1940s, is what they did in their first decade. Although many readers didn’t notice, these three made writing about American film exuberant and important. They raised it to a level of frenzied acuity that it had never enjoyed before. They helped create, by the delayed action I sketched earlier, the modern institution of movie criticism, with all its virtues and excesses. In the process, they forged some original ways of thinking about American cinema.

 • Agee & Co.: a newer criticism, 9 February 2014
Leftist ideas about popular culture – and especially Hollywood – in the 1940s…

James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler [...] wrote criticism with a zany gusto that nobody else imagined possible. They didn’t telegraph their punchlines; sometimes you couldn’t be sure that there was a punchline, and sometimes there seemed to be too many. As for popular culture: They seemed, with reservations, to like it a lot. They liked being unSerious, which only lent greater oomph to the moments when gravity was demanded.

James Agee: All there and primed to go off, 23 February 2014
On Agee on Chaplin and John Huston, and on Walker Evans too.

It’s terribly easy to be sentimental about Agee, and almost as easy to be hard on him. (Brutality, as Stroheim and Griffith knew, has its sentimental side.) But I think that reading him can do something rare in film criticism: He calls you to your best instincts. His dithering can be frustrating, and he often snaps open too many pipes in the sonorous organ of that style.

Manny Farber 1: Color commentary, 17 March 2014

Manny Farber 2: Space man, 23 March 2014

We’re so attuned to late-phase Farber that turning to this hero’s apprentice work may seem to court disappointment. But from the start the writing is racy and engaging, and not so densely impacted as in his late phase. Moreover, he has long been considered our critic most sensitive to the look of the movies. By rummaging first in his youthful art reviews, we can get a better sense of exactly what his criticism owes to the visual arts, modernism in particular. The result, which I’ll present in the followup entry, wasn’t quite what I’d expected.

 • Parker Tyler: a suave and wary guest, 2 April 2014

Tyler tries something different [from Agee and Farber]. He’s not a realist but a surrealist. What Agee and Farber praised as “accuracy” or “authenticity” scarcely concerns him. And story–at least, the story the film pretends to be telling–doesn’t matter to him so much. The very first chapter of his first book is titled, ‘The Play Is Not the Thing.’

The Rhapsodes: after lives, 20 April 2014

If there hadn’t been films that pushed the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, even the cleverest reviewers couldn’t have written so fruitfully. Without Sturges and Welles, Huston and Wyler, Hitchcock and Wilder, Wellman and Walsh, Lang and Preminger, Mankiewicz and Val Lewton; without perversities like The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Salome Where She Danced (above) and Turnabout; without ambitious pictures like Citizen Kane and The Story of GI Joe alongside dozens of sturdy programmers, the Rhapsodes would have had little to work with. The cascade of overpowering, exuberant, piercing, and crazy films of the 1940s surely pushed them to go all out. Great criticism can flourish, it seems, when there is great cinema.

Our Ken

Our Ken

Every conference is a curate’s egg, and you always hope that the good parts make up (and more) for those that are less so. A two-day gathering in Brussels this week dedicated to the films of Ken Russell (above, on the set of Tommy, 1975) had a very decent tally of the good, and at the same time was curiouser than most such events. Taking part in Imagining the Past: Ken Russell, Biography and the Art of Making History were scholars and academics along with some like editor Roger Crittenden who had worked with Ken Russell in the 1960s and ’70s. Present too was Russell’s indefatigable biographer Paul Sutton, who is one book into a projected five-volume ‘Life’ (he it was who suggested the comparison with James Boswell’s life of the good Dr Johnson). And then there was the filmmaker’s widow, the delightful Lisi Tribble Russell (@awhitetable). All of which made for a significantly more diverse discourse than academia usually accommodates.
Read more »

REM-arkable

REM-arkable

For the past several years I have been delighted to contribute some classes to the MA course in Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art. With the course leader Professor David Crowley, the students and I explore examples of screen-based media about the visual arts, many of which are drawn from British television. So we look at recognised classics like Civilisation, Ways of Seeing and Pop Goes the Easel (see yesterday’s post) as well as perhaps less obvious programmes like State of the Art and A Bigger Splash. For the fourth of my classes I ask the students to present an example of web-based video that they find interesting, and today one of them contributed this trailer for REM, a documentary about the architect Rem Koolhaas, which is being made by his son Tomas (there’s an Arch Daily interview with him here, with further details about the project). It’s a terrific short film, surprising and beautiful and imaginative, and a very original way of engaging with the spaces of a building (which is the Casa da Musica, Porto, above in an image from OMA).

OFFICIAL TRAILER FOR ‘REM’ DOCUMENTARY from tomas koolhaas on Vimeo.

Celebrating Jarman

Celebrating Jarman

To King’s College London on Saturday for the symposium Early Modern Jarman. This was a contribution to the excellent Jarman 2014 celebration of the life and work of the filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman who died from AIDS-related illness on 19 February 1994. Among much else, the day offered the chance to see Pandemonium, an exhibition in the Inigo Rooms at Somerset House, which remains open (and is free) until 9 March. There are other events in the coming weeks including Queer Pagan Punk: Derek Jarman, an extensive films retrospective at BFI Southbank (including The Last of England, 1998, above). And specifically related to the themes of the symposium is a screening on 28 February of Jarman’s 1991 film Edward II in St Nicholas Church, Deptford. The church is the resting place of Christopher Marlowe, author of Edward II and the focus also this year of anniversary celebrations, Marlowe450.
Read more »

Art and film and Belgium

Art and film and Belgium

A low morning sun and vapour trails in a blue, blue sky provide a spectacular backdrop as an early Eurostar pulls out of St Pancras. I’m on the way to Ghent for a symposium on Saturday about the early history of documentaries about the arts (a .pdf of the full programme is here). Needless to say, I also want to see – for the first time – the Van Eycks’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece in Saint Bavo Cathedral, a detail of which is above. My symposium contribution is to be about the films that the BBC producer John Read made between 1951 and 1979 with Henry Moore (about which I have often posted, including here, here, here and here). The event has been organised by Steven Jacobs, a scholar at the KASK/School of Arts in Ghent, who earlier this year edited the wonderful DVD collection Art & Cinema of Belgian arts documentaries (available here).
Read more »

Triumph of Napoléon

Triumph of Napoléon

I’m coming rather late to this, but I want to make a short contribution to the Napoléon discussion. Back in 1980 I was among those who thrilled at the London Film Festival screening of Kevin Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1927 film. And on Saturday, thirty-three years later to the day, I was on my feet in the Royal Festival Hall applauding composer and conductor Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the end of a further screening of the full five-and-a-half hours.

There is no question that watching the film with a live symphonic soundtrack is a great experience. Nor is there any doubt that Kevin Brownlow, the late David Gill, Carl Davis and others have been heroic in their reconstruction efforts, as last Friday’s Guardian article details. Since Saturday, I have read a number of thoughtful responses to the showing, including Rick Burin’s review of the screening and a post from the estimable Silent London website, as well as Luke McKernan’s discussion – and there is much in these with which I agree. But there’s one aspect of the film (and its effect) that seems rarely to be discussed explicitly, which is its politics.
Read more »