Category Archives: bfi

Leftfield and Looping

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The London Short Film Festival‘s Leftfield & Luscious programme of experimental shorts is a good halfway house between the ascetic contemplationism of the LFF’s Experimenta weekend, and the calling-card aesthetics of most other shorts programmes. With a small prize backed by Wallflower Press (the Lux in previous years), and unencumbered by any obvious curatorial baggage, it’s a light-on-its-feet sort of picture of the state-of-the-art.

In The Lifesize Zoetrope [watch] director Mark Simon Hewis creates selfsame out of white t-shirted extras in a fairground centrifuge. The camera zooms in on a book of sheets that each particpant holds, and each scene repeats a couple of times as a zoetrope would before the page turns and a new sequence begins. The technical dedication is admirable (imagine how easy it would be to create the effect of this happening rather than actually filming sheets of A4 paper on a moving fairground ride), and the sometimes-scratchy results reminiscent of early eyetoys, but beyond formal experimentation the story itself is a suitably circular and repetitious tale of life, procreation and death.

The Black Dog’s Progress [watch | essay by Karen Alexander] (Dir Stephen Irwin) starts with a similar lo-fi moving image technology: looping flickbooks are laid out one by one across the screen, building up the tableau of a dog’s life through rejection, hunger, perversion and death, ending with a howling inksplatter. Both films were funded by Animate Projects, (an ACE/C4 venture) laudably supporting artists’ ventures into the medium of animation.

Like a filmic camera toss, Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside takes a roll of film and exposes it to the lights of London’s South Bank 36 times. Lights become lines become stars: the shape of the London Eye is somehow there and somehow not. Nagisa Kinoshita’s Touched is a creepy series of meditations on womanhood, from the little girl holding hands with a monster in the park, through pregnancy as a tethered balloon and the emergence of dark tentacles from within (we watched this while waiting for news from the hospital of L’s sister’s baby); each vignette breaks and then recedes through the vertical surface of the screen like water.

Judith Poirier’s Dialogue appears to lay type directly onto clear leader with ink: elegant outlines filled in with telltale inky ripples. What’s printed on the frame appears to be applied to the soundtrack as well, an echo of the experimental tactic used by Mary Ellen Bute, and by Norman McLaren in Synchromy. Typographers’ dabblings in other visual forms are typically facile (and often hard to read), but Poirier plays a more entertaining game: while bold capitals only produce snaps and crackles, the most aurally pleasing examples are the lines of lower case repetitions: mmmmmmmmmmmm, ppppppppp and fffffffffffff together produce satisfyingly crunchy bliptop chords.

It’s not the only film in the programme that refers back to earlier works. Ava Lanche’s Silence [watch], like Eisenstein et al’s Everyday, works through a groundhog day of alarm clock ringing and feet clumsily hitting slippers on the floor, before deviating to a simple point: each morning a woman wakes to urinate and tell us of a recent newspaper article justifying further wars in the name of the struggle against terror, which is useful, as she’s just run out of toilet paper.

On a gentler, more personal tip, The Reason I Collect [watch] takes Paul Escott’s own account of his life as a collector and hoarder of almost everything (save christmas cards), and animates the objects themselves: toys at war, a svankmajerish taxidermy cabinet, other people’s family albums and a one-armed Luke Skywalker: everything once belonged to someone, and that gives everything meaning. New Madrid (winner of the Wallflower award, imho a duff choice) narrates John James Audubon’s account of the 1812 New Madrid earthquake which altered the flow of the Mississippi river, over footage of landscape and submerged trees: beautiful and meditative, but also somnolescent.

Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan’s Landing Lights (Wallflower’s special mention), a 3-dimensional model of a plane repeatedly flies through a 3-dimensional model of a residential building, shown from several different aspects. The immaterial intersection of imaginary forms, the intimation that the catastrophe of a plane flying through a towerblock can be averted through modelling software as each are perfected on the drawing board, is magnified through the eerie emptiness of both plane and building into an ethereal beauty, until at last an engine hits a glancing blow on a folding chair left carelessly in its path, and something is touched.

On the less formal side there are a couple of interesting performance-based films, one amusing and one tragic. Alan Chieh-Hung Liang’s Cul De Sac is the recursive adventure of a scriptwriter stuck in a storytelling dead end, unable to make anything happen to a couple on the run through a tunnel. He ends up getting on his bike and going for a pint. Rinat Kotler’s You’re Not Going Anywhere presents a split screen, juxtaposing children playing and a woman recounting in a jocular fashion a horrible tale in which a woman skins her lover, without comment.

The final film in the programme Better to Have Loved [watch] (Dir Karen Macey), gets a live-action/stop-motion effect from being constructed of photographs on cards animated and manipulated, overscrawled with spiders, matchstick men and fuzz. Climbing through a hole in a wall leads a lonely man back to the seaside, a lost love and the picture on his own bedroom wall.

More so than feature film festivals, the point of short film festivals and programmes often seems questionable. With world-domination outfits like Future Shorts making a serious fist of online distribution, and online channels continually hungry for this sort of content, you can see a lot of these films online, in most cases before they hit a big screen anywhere near you. Why bother to drag your arse down to a cinema on a January Sunday evening? The point of sitting down in the dark and seeing all these films together (and more importantly the skill of the programmers: a mighty tip of the hat to Kate and Philip) is not only the avoidance of buffering and distraction but to see the whole lot at once, to grasp similarities, differences and references. This year, it seems to be all about returns: films that return to the beginning, and return to experimental traditions.

Me, me, me

I’ve been writing about old British films and old American terrorists; I’ve been talking about kiwi earthquakes and banging on back at BIGI. Time for a lie down.

West

I only used to come here for the Carnival. Westbourne Grove, Portobello Road and even Kensal Green were a strictly annual affair, packed streets to shuffle through, shops shut and pubs packed.

It could be a disheartening experience, too. Arriving full of energy, the first task would be to meet up with friends who were a) inevitably on the other side of the carnival and b) possessed of some kind of inexplicably degenerate musical taste. Time and again, the most beautiful sounds would boom from street corners, and I’d attempt to linger, only to be dragged forcefully along to the Ministry of Sound or Sancho Panza (if there’s anything worse than house, it’s Latin house) where I’d reluctantly shuffle around, silently hating my friends and wishing I was listening to reggae.

This tendency reached its apogee the year that I went with Rob and Sharon and we followed a techno float around the carnival route, the only float I could see whose crew and audience were entirely white (though of course hardly short of dreadlocks). It was like being the White Man in Hammersmith Palais year after year. In my mind I can still see a small, mythical static, just a few large speakers, playing roots and dub. A young man toasts while the old dreads sit around smoking collie weed and nodding slowly to the righteous riddim… of course everybody says the Carnival’s not really about reggae any more. I stopped going after the year I had to pull S out of a rowdy crowd at the Good Times system and nearly got into a fight. And that year there were only half a million people there.

If I ever ventured west out of August, the place seemed somehow naked without the floats and systems. Portobello was exotic enough for an N9 boy, with shops like Wong Singh Jones and the punky market under the Westway that wasn’t crowded with eurogoths like Camden. But visits were far and few between. Settling in Stoke Newington, Brick Lane felt more like my scene: West was even more foreign than South.

Now I find myself within spitting distance of the Westway, the top end of Portobello Road (near enough for two of us to carry a second-hand bureau home) and Maida Vale. But I’m also in a place without a name. Previously, I’ve had ‘Stoke Newington’, ‘Greenwich’ or ‘Brockley’ to put between my street address and the postcode: the true sign of a Zone 2 snob is that they live not just in London but in a place with an identity of its own, often with the imaginative help of local estate agents. Here, I simply fill in my address as ‘London…’. The A-Z says ‘West Kilburn’, but Kilburn proper is more or less due north. The bus stop says ‘Maida Hill’ and we get the Wood & Vale through the door: if you bought a house round here, the estate agent’s amenities pack would have Maida Vale tube on the map but not Queen’s Park. But it’s certainly not Maida Vale: rather than ubiquitous mansion blocks, three-storey terraced houses subdivided into flats are the norm around here.

To compensate, I learn local facts. Local Fact #1: Joe Strummer played at the pub round the corner with the 101ers, before the Clash were even formed. And if there’s a ‘here’ here, it’s the Chippenham. Grocers where you can buy a red pepper at ten o’clock at night, a hardware store and a bakers, barbers and dry cleaners even. Creole, Thai and Lebanese restaurants. A constant flow of people day and night, a school and a college, bus routes into town.

At Christmas, L bought me a handful of badges with the Trellick Tower on, Erno Goldfinger’s ‘brutalist masterpiece’ that like the Barbican complex is one of the few high-rise apartment blocks to have survived London’s apocalyptic rage at elevated living to become some kind of modernist exemplar. Of course, looking casually at the image, it could just as easily be the Balfron Tower, the nearly identical one in Poplar, which Goldfinger built first and even briefly lived in to demonstrate his confidence in the new manner of housing proles. Unlikely, though: even the new new East End hasn’t reached the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach Road yet.

You see a lot of the Trellick in Much Ado About a Minor Ting, and west London is important filmic as well as musical territory. The first black British feature film, Horace Ove’s Pressure takes place along the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal. Isaac Julien’s Territories, one of the key experimental films of the 1980s, brings Carnival, race, class and the politics of local housing together in an overlapping DJ mix. It’s all a long way from the carefully restored white terraces and shopkeepers of Notting Hill. But buying a copy of Charlie Phillips dark and intriguing book of photographs Notting Hill in the Sixties (you’ll have seen his famous portrait of a mixed-race couple in the Tate’s How We Are or on the cover of London Is the Place for Me Vol.2) in the very same bookshop still trading on its moment of Hollywood fame, you realise that even radical history eventually finds its realisation in the price of a home.

But the west is no longer what it was. Take Nathan Barley. When Charlie Brooker originally wrote the character in 1999, he had West London written all over him. ‘A twenty something wannabe director living in Westbourne Grove’, he was instantly recognisable as one of the post-Trustafarian generation of moneyed pricks who had completed the cycle of regentrification of Notting Hill, filling its bars and restaurants with their self-regarding yammer. By the time of his 2005 TV debut, however, there was clearly no place for a Cunt but Shoreditch: East London had been fully transformed into the only natural habitat of privileged, posing, talentless wankers. The Mighty Boosh are exceptional in remaining funny after moving to Shoreditch, while in some kind of weird reverse-Dorian-Gray effect, Noel Fielding becomes more and more of a twat in real life.

And it’s this, at last, that makes West London liveable. Its moment is over, its history, for the moment stalled. There are no more Napoleons in Notting Hill. No panicky Harlesden-is-the-new-Willesden Time Out specials about where to live. No mass-scale conversion of dead industry into overpriced living space. It’s not unapproachably posh: some of it you can even afford to live in. Like the rest of London, council estates and Victorian housing interlock in the same easy-uneasy jigsaw. It all feels, somehow, more like real life.

Rebuilding Britain

The National Film and Television Archive is not only a collection, but also a collection of collections. The way in which the nation’s moving image heritage is collected is often by acquiring smaller collections which have already been gathered or curated: the Mitchell and Kenyon collection, for instance, or the Joye films, which both keep their own identity and become part of the larger collection.

Some of these are company collections: many large firms historically maintained film units for the various purposes of record-keeping, internal communications and pubic relations. The Laing construction company was one such company, and on Wednesday night, at the NFT, Jez Stewart and company historian Alan Thorpe presented films from the Laing (pronounced mote like Laying than Lang, apparently) collection, which have now been donated to the NFTVA.

The audience was full of Laing workers and retirees, who seem to share some company spirit: Sir John Laing was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and a paternalistic employer who rewarded loyalty to the company with a sense of belonging and staff holiday outings. Laing Company Outing 1 from 1948 has many long shots of Laing workers, and some of Sir John himself on their annual jolly by boat from Tower Bridge to Margate, enjoying themselves by the sea.

Motorway through the Lune Valley documents the construction of the Cumbrian section of the M6 past Tebay and over Shap, through to Carlisle, in the early 70s. There’s clearly enough consciousness of the negative effect of roads on the environment that an effort is made to suggest both the harmony of the new road with its environment, and the scenic appeal of driving the motorway itself (it is actually one of the most spectacular stretches of motorway in England).

80 weeks to Touchdown feels even more sinister: beginning with Michael Heseltine’s announcement to the commons that a proper airport was to be built in the Falkland Islands, it’s a CoI film of the construction of the airport, starting with the valiant pontoon landing of JCBs, complete with characteristic 80s bright video, incidental synthesiser music and a chillingly Tory-sounding voiceover.

Coventry Cathedral shows Laing’s contribution to Basil Spence’s great modern cathedral: the struts and wires that hold up its enormous edifice. There’s a lot about stained glass and the craft of stonemasonry, but the most amazing thing revealed about the cathedral, fundamentally a medieval gothic cathedral in form, is that the roof forms its own self-supporting cantilevered vault: the tall and fine pillars of the nave were only put into position afterwards to hold up the wooden beans that echo the form but not the function of traditional vaulting. This is a mutation even beyond Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, where the nave’s columns still support the roof; but in Coventry all is illusion.

From the high art to low living, Where You Live is a paean to Laing’s programme of cottage estates system-built in concrete with ‘Easiform’ metal-shutter moulds. True to the form of this kind of film, it invokes vox pops from newly-installed residents to praise the ramped underpasses ideal for pushchairs, and pans lovingly across (unvaryingly white) children at play while their mothers shop. It makes to want to run immediately to the history books to find out when the estate was demolished. The film takes a surreal turn when it plays Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes over scenes of estate life (making you think the filmmakers might just not understand the irony) before rounding off with a forthright attack on the satire, and defence of the necessity of the estates as both essential housing and a place where individuality can flourish.

But it’s Taking Stock, a film from 1961, detailing (in great detail) Laing’s contribution to the postwar construction boom that makes you understand most the kind of unauthored vernacular architecture that Laing is responsible for. Here are secondary modern schools, factories and industrial estates, office blocks and housing blocks, all in a suburban sub-International Style, large windows, flat roofs and intermittent towers. A kind of low-rent brutalism: even as the ribbons are optimistically cut, these places contain the seeds of future melancholy. They are the everyday, invisible ugly buildings that we still live among today: the ones we don’t mention when we talk about architecture.

Off the list

Yesterday I was offered my column in Sight and Sound back. Nick James wrote:

Dear Danny

I’m glad to say that the position apropos your column has changed. I did over-react on this issue, but I want to take this opportunity to explain my reasoning.

Carefully argued criticism of the BFI is one thing, one-line uncontextualised personal sniping is another. It is the latter that is alien to Sight & Sound’s ethos, and that’s why we felt there was a problem of association.

However, you didn’t write the one-liner in Sight & Sound, and I agree that the issue of freedom of speech is too important to be affected by a one-line jibe, so I’m happy to offer you your column back, should you decide to accept it, along with a personal apology from me for the anxiety caused.

Nick

I won’t say much else except that the future of the BFI is indeed a matter for careful and serious, not to mention open and honest, argument.

Thank you to everyone who offered support, both publicly and privately, not just for me, but for S&S‘s editorial integrity. Sight and Sound‘s a great magazine and I’m delighted to still be writing for it.

On being blacklisted

I used to write a column called ‘Downloads’ for Sight and Sound, about online movies. It wasn’t a very big or important column, it was tucked away at the back of the magazine in the reviews section, but I enjoyed writing it, and some of the people who read it told me that they enjoyed reading it.

On Friday I got the following email from the editor, Nick James:

Dear Danny

I have some not good news for you, so I’ll get straight to business.

Since your call for Amanda to resign – something I’m sure you know she took very personally – your column, fine as it is, has become more trouble to me than it’s worth. To have someone who is on very public record of having called for her head as a regular contributor to S&S makes it look like we tacitly agree with you. We can’t do that.

The upshot is that we will pay you for the latest instalment, though it will not appear, and I’m afraid that will be that.

I’ll save any further obsequies for when I next see you.

Nick

My hurt feelings and anger aside, there are several things about this that are rather disturbing for anyone concerned about the general state of paranoia inside the BFI and the state of Sight and Sound itself.

The “very public” denunciation James is referring to is a jokey new year’s post I made on this blog at the beginning of this year. Now, I read the stats, so I know just how few people read what’s written here. Until today, the post that refers to Nevill has been read (rather pathetically) just 24 times. That’s a lot fewer people than I’ve personally had conversations in the pub with about Amanda Nevill (including Nick James) during the same time period. If you were to do the strictest, most suspicious Google search you could, that is, my name and Amanda Nevill’s name together, you wouldn’t find the post that James refers to. Contrary to her assertion in the Evening Standard, it seems that Nevill doesn’t have much of a sense of humour if two dozen other people have heard the joke.

I very much doubt that James, or even Nevill, found or read the post themselves: I suspect that someone has been on a fishing mission both inside and outside the BFI, and decided to make a point now of sacrificing someone. It seems likely when you consider the chronology. The post in question was published on the 3rd January this year. I was first asked to write the Downloads column a month later, in February 2007 for the April 2007 issue of Sight and Sound. Not once between February and now has James or any member of Sight and Sound staff indicated in any way to me that what I write on my personal blog might be an issue that affects the magazine. James’ letter on Friday afternoon (the BFI’s favourite time for delivering bad news) was the first I’d heard of it.

How does it feel to be blacklisted? Not big and important, because there are certainly people who have said more and worse about Nevill than me who continue to curate, write and programme for the BFI. Which is as it should be: an organisation with the BFI’s national importance, subject to inevitable controversy, should hardly be restricting its activities to working only with people who unequivocally personally support the director.

What I wrote about for Sight and Sound is completely unrelated to matters of the management of the BFI. I’ve probably got a few opinions about Romanian film that James wouldn’t like to condone, but they’re hardly relevant to a column that’s mostly about YouTube. What’s really worrying for anyone who cares about the BFI (as bizarrely enough I, and perhaps some of the twenty-four of you, still do) is the insane paranoia of the BFI’s current management and the very negative implications for the editorial independence and journalistic integrity of the seventy-five-year-old journal of record that is Sight and Sound.

Future City Mumbai

Tate Modern prove themselves once more capable of putting on interesting and challenging film programmes, even in the middle of a dull summer blockbuster like Dali, with a day of Patrick Keiller films ending in a presentation by Keiller himself of an installation work he produced for Le Fresnoy in Lille based around the vast gothic Victoria Terminus railway station in Mumbai.

In the installation he reproduced the virtual space of the station interior with thirty large screens and HD projectors looping footage shot in the station itself. The films were complemented by a sound design in which the unsynchronised loops triggered sounds taken from the synchronised DAT recordings, dissociated and reassembled to create a three-dimensional soundtrack. Even from the basic documentation which Keiller shows, it looks like an immensely impressive affair, one now dismantled and unlikely ever to be repeated: this is the ‘problem of the panorama’

The Mumbai piece was a distraction from his ongoing City of the Future project in conjunction with the excellent Centre for British Film and Television Studies – currently this takes the form of a DVD in which the menuing system is used as a means of exploring archive maps and zeroing in on early film, mostly phantom rides, exploring urban space at the turn of the century. Though the research is ongoing and Keiller keeps adding new film works to it, it’s a shame it hasn’t yet become a commercially available product because the rudimentary interactiveness of DVDs is better-presented than the ‘interactive’ work of many with more powerful tools at their disposal.

A form of the work will also appear at the BFI Southbank’s gallery in November (if it stays open that long). A part of the project I’ve seen previously, which involved stitching together these early illustrative actualities with intertitles into a detective/thriller narrative seems to have been completed and shelved because he wasn’t happy with it.

As he presents his work, Keiller rambles splendidly – at first it seems as if he’s beginning to flail off-topic, but what you get is a stream-of-consciousness and almost free-association of the ideas that are going on in his head, the semi-distilled version of what might become a film or essay. He takes in the Telegraph Museum in Porthcurno, the homogenisation of time in historical film, his relationship to the London Film Co-Op, ‘long-shot’ cinema, Gothicism as an ideology, and why if capitalism is presented as nature, Gilbert Scott’s St. Pancras must either be a vegetable or a dinosaur. If you read the same things he has you might come to the same conclusions, you might not. These are some of the works he mentions:

Adrian Rifkin, Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome: whose London?
Roger Luckhurst, The Contemporary London Gothic and the Limits of the “Spectral Turn”
Patrick Wright, A Journey Through Ruins
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
Philip Pullman, His Subtle Knife
David B Clarke, The City of the Future revisited
Tom Gunning, The Cinema of Attractions
Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities
Paul Dave, Visions of England

He tells us he’s working on a new Robinson film. It will be about the possibility of living with displacement rather than belonging, and may involve Staffordshire, where Cheadle (but not Cheadle Hulme) is located. Dracula will not appear unless he can bring himself to go to either Whitby or Purfleet. It’s all good news, only slightly marred by the barely-surprising-any-more ignominy that it will be supported with money from research sources rather than film production funding.