John Wyver writes: At the weekend I enjoyed Ad Astra, the new sci-fi film with Brad Pitt directed by James Gray. It’s an intelligent, interior tale with strong action sequences and exquisite visuals courtesy of DoP Hoyte van Hoytema. Hoytema’s credits include Interstellar and Dunkirk with Christopher Nolan (and the director’s forthcoming Tenet), Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Sam Mendes’ Spectre. And for the visuals of Ad Astra Hoytema and Gray drew inspiration from a perhaps surprising source: the films and videos of the American avant-garde. On 12 October New York’s Museum of the Moving Image is showing a programme of this work — and I’ve gathered a number below; h/t to artist John Sanborn for alerting me to this via Facebook). The institution’s website explains the background:
While in pre-production on his science-fiction epic Ad Astra, director James Gray was searching for ways to develop a new visual grammar for a cinematic depiction of outer space. He turned to an unlikely source for help: two scholars and curators of experimental media. Over the course of a year, Leo Goldsmith and Gregory Zinman put together notes, quotes, and research on over forty films for Gray and his production team. Their brief was to provide Gray with examples of how artists of the last twenty-five years had addressed themes of space and isolation in their work.
This program highlights the films and videos of those artists in order to illuminate the ways that Ad Astra developed its powerful aesthetic. From painted film to digital abstraction, and from Afrofuturist music video to essayistic video-collage, these works provide insight into the diverse material and conceptual approaches to the cosmos the filmmakers drew upon.
John Wyver writes: I seem to be getting back to weekly postings of links to stuff that has engaged and intrigued me over the past week – and here’s this week’s list. In particular, I have been reading reviews of and responses to Benjamin Moser’s new authorised biography of Susan Sontag, including:
The dauntingly erudite, strikingly handsome woman who became a star of the New York intelligentsia when barely thirty, after publishing the essay ‘Notes on Camp,’ and who went on to produce book after book of advanced criticism and fiction, is brought low in this biography. She emerges from it as a person more to be pitied than envied.
John Wyver writes: this week’s collection of links to interesting articles and videos, with grateful thanks to all those who alerted me via Twitter and in other ways.
The great American photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank died this week. As for so many, his collection The Americans (above, ‘Restaurant – U.S. 1 leaving Columbia, South Carolina’, 1955), as a book and then as a 2009 exhibition at the Met, was revelatory for me. Here’s a selection of articles published this week:
John Wyver writes: The director and television drama executive James Cellan Jones died recently at the age of 88. He was a very fine studio director who started working with the BBC in 1963, and who later became Head of Plays, 1976-79. Among his achievements was directing episodes of the game-changing serial The Forsyte Saga in 1967. In 2005 Kaleidoscope published his entertaining memoir Forsyte and Hindsight: Screen Directing for Pleasure and Profit. An outline filmography is here, and there is a short tribute from BAFTA here. I’ll add any obits that I come across, but in this post I want to contribute a short expression of thanks for a kindness that he did for me right at the start of my professional life.
Thrilling news from our friend and colleague Keith Griffiths, who writes the following on his Facebook page:
After three years of painstaking animation and production, tonight, Wednesday 11 September, sees the world premiere of The Doll’s Breath, the new 22-minute animated film from the Brothers Quay. It will be a Special Screening at the 25th Edition of the L’ÉTRANGE Festival held at the Forum Des Images, Paris.
There will be a repeat screening on Friday and the Brothers are attending both, and conducting a Q&A afterwards. The film is inspired by Felisberto Hernández’s Las Hortensias and is the second time that the Brothers have based a film on his fantastical stories. In this one Horacio, a former window dresser, sets up complicated charades where women and life-sized dolls change places in a web of jealousy, betrayal and murder.
John Wyver writes: I’m never entirely certain if it’s interesting to post here about artworks or architecture that I’ve encountered, or about films and television I’ve watched, or books that I’ve read. Indeed, after well over a decade, on and off, writing this blog, I’m still uncertain about quite why I do it. Or what readers get from it. Meanwhile, from time to time, and far from as regularly as I would like, I carry on, as with this post about a visit today to Plas Newydd. Spectacularly sited looking out over the Menai Strat, this house is the ancestral home of the Marquess of Anglesey, and is now in the care of the National Trust. Installed here is Rex Whistler’s spectacular modern masterpiece, ‘Capriccio of a Mediterranean Seaport with British and Italian Buildings, the Mountains of Snowdonia, and a Self-portrait wielding a Broom’ (1936-37).
John Wyver writes: The summer is nearly over, the Ashes nearly lost (again), series 2 of the wonderful Succession (above, HBO/Sky Atlantic) is with us and there’s not much going on in politics. So it feels like a good moment to return to our neglected blog. Let’s also return to this weekly format for recommendations of stuff that you might find interesting to read or to watch — and then let’s see how we get on with additional posts over the coming weeks. Watch out for news of coming projects and activities.
• The 1619 Project: the essential online publishing project of the summer, from The New York Times – an interactive engagement in essays and images with slavery and its legacies. This
aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
John Wyver writes: So it’s the official publication day for Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History. My thanks to The Arden Shakespeare for taking this on, to Gregory Doran and other colleagues at the RSC for all their support, and to numerous other scholars, archivists, friends and more for assistance in making this real. I am thrilled to see my book in print.
I know that, because of the demands of academic publishing, the hardback price for the book is unaffordable. But I hope that there will be a paperback next year – and a good reception will help that process. In the meantime I would be delighted if you would consider recommending it as a library purchase.
Publication day for my book Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History looms, and so here’s another instalment in my chapter-by-chapter breakdown. The third chapter, ‘Making Movies, 1964-73’ is really an essay of two halves. The second part considers the remarkable trilogy of feature films that Peter Brook made from his productions with the RSC during the 1960s: Marat/Sade, 1967; Tell Me Lies, 1968 (the Godardian trailer for the recent French restoration of which is below); and King Lear, 1971 (based on Brook’s 1962 Stratford production with Paul Scofield).
I also explore other moving images traces of Brook’s work during this extraordinary decade, and the Guardian last week ran an edited extract about my search for film records of his ground-breaking 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By contrast, although with all sorts of links to this story, the first part of Chapter 3 relates the almost-entirely-untold relationship in the 1960s between the RSC and the Hollywood ‘mini-major’ production outfit, Filmways.
John Wyver writes: I’ve been pre-occupied with other stuff for the last few weeks, but I want now to offer two or three ‘links’ posts rounding up articles that have engaged me recently – to start with, here are pieces about the past, present and possible futures of various media, including the one we persist in calling television.
• Introducing the BBC Box: Bill Thompson and Rhianne Jones at BBC R&D offer an initial glimpse of a prototype device that pulls together your personal data into one place – and that could be deployed in a public service context; my sense of this is that it could become very important – and for background see Matthew Postgate’s ‘Looking at the BBC’s role in data-led services’, also from BBC R&D.