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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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‘We put the world before you’

‘We put the world before you’

To The British Library for a splendid talk by Dr Luke McKernan (the text of which is now available here) about the life and films of Charles Urban, gloriously accompanied on the keyboards by Mr Neil Brand. Earlier this year Luke published Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925, and this lecture was a celebration of the book and of its subject. Urban was a major figure in early cinema, one of the key figures in the development of factual filmmaking, and perhaps most remarkably a great innovator in colour cinematography.

Rather than attempt to précis Urban’s career, let me point you in the direction – with the warmest possible recommendation – of Luke’s compendious website about his hero, Charles Urban, Motion Picture Pioneer. Along with much else, you will find an extensive biography, numerous documents and images, and a selection of embedded films, four of which I reproduce here for your entertainment and edification (others can be found on Luke’s website here). The first is an early ‘phantom ride’ film, the second a test shoot for Urban’s Kinemacolor process, the third one of his most celebrated films (shot by naturalist filmmakerPercy Smith), and the fourth a personal pleasure, given that I was born and brought up in Whitstable.

View from an Engine Front – Barnstaple (1898)

Tartans of the Scottish Clans (1906)

The Acrobatic Fly (1910), a re-issue of the 1908 title The Balancing Bluebottle

Oyster Fishing at Whitstable, England (c.1909)

Image: The logo of the Charles Urban Trading Company shows the Roman messenger god Mercury apparently travelling with the assistance of a train wheel (or possibly a reel of film), carrying a banner bearing Urban’s much-repeated slogan, ‘We Put the World Before You’. From Charles Urban: image gallery.

Why we should all be more intermedial

Why we should all be more intermedial

Earlier this month I was delighted to make a very modest contribution to a conference in Oxford about Louis MacNeice, radio writer and producer co-organised by my Screen Plays colleague Dr Amanda Wrigley. Amanda and Professor Stephen Harrison have just published an edited volume of a selection of MacNeice’s radio scripts, Louis MacNeice: The Classical Radio Plays (Oxford University Press, 2013), and the event was to mark that and also the fiftieth anniversary of MacNeice’s death.

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963, pictured above in 1955) was a mid-century poet who worked for more than twenty years as an imaginative and innovative writer and producer for radio, but who also had plays staged in the theatre and on television. For the conference I offered a paper about MacNeice and television (the subject of a parallel post at the Screen Plays website), and the day’s discussion prompted all sorts of new ideas. But above all, the papers reinforced my sense of how much richer our cultural history would be if it was written and studied far more than it is beyond and across disciplinary boundaries like ‘literature’, ‘film studies’ and ‘broadcasting history’. If, that is, we were all more ‘intermedial’.
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Tell Me Lies: agit – yes; prop – no

Tell Me Lies: agit – yes; prop – no

In 1966 Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company mounted a collaboratively devised stage show titled US. The subject was our relationship to and responsibility for the Vietnam War. The following year, with a minimal budget raised in part by subscription in the United States, he directed a feature film titled Tell Me Lies developed from but in no simply a document of the stage show. The film enjoyed modest distribution in 1968 but for various reasons it has been all-but-invisible for 45 years. Thrillingly, the Technicolor Foundation and the Groupama Gan Foundation have restored the film under Brook’s supervision and this version has just been released in France. I saw a print at a London Film Festival screening on Sunday (at which Brook did a Q&A afterwards) and I am still mentally reeling. My ideas about the film I begin to explore below, but first here is the trailer.


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‘Opus’ day

‘Opus’ day

This is a little story about the joy of serendipitous discovery in the archives. I am working on a research paper about the ways in which Henry Moore and his works featured on television and in films during his lifetime. Central to the story of Moore on screen are the six films about the artist made by the great BBC filmmaker John Read, about which I have posted on several occasions including here. But for this paper I am undertaking a survey of as many of the other British films that I can find. The search took me yesterday to the always-welcoming and all-round admirable archive of the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green. On my list for viewing was Opus (1967), about which I knew precisely nothing. But what turned out to be a dazzling kaleidoscope of the arts in mid-’60s London was definitely the highlight of my day – before I later discovered it is available on a DVD set released by the BFI that was sitting at home in a (tall) pile waiting to be viewed.
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Another Ealing

Another Ealing

Another Saturday, another review of another DVD set from Network’s The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. Following last week’s engagement with the first release, today’s post is concerned with Volume 2. Here is another quartet of lesser-known British feature films shot mostly (location filming is minimal) on the stages at Ealing between, this week, 1935 and 1942. Embedded below is Network’s trailer for the quartet – and across the jump are my thoughts about each of the four films.


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