Tag Archives: film

Re-remembering cinema

I was living on Havelock Road in the mid-90s when the Duke of York’s had a major refit. All the seats were replaced and, like the copies of Sight and Sound that formed the core of my filmnerd collection, the old ones found their way into the skip round the side of the cinema. Collecting one was an opportunity too good to miss: phone calls were made and friends were summoned. These were the seats of our cinematic education: worn-out chairs adorned with red heart shaped felt-patches, the seats in which we’d learned to love Godard and Hal Hartley, stubbed cigarettes out beneath in the balcony and stayed awake till 1am in to watch Tetsuo. Owning one was owning a little bit of Brighton history.

Being cinema seats, they were slightly unsuitable for use as household furniture: they had only one foot, and sitting in them required keeping a rather low centre of gravity. My friends took one each and suggested they were going to nail them to planks to form a home cinema. Mostly they languished in our rooms till we got bored of them as we got bored of Hal Hartley, and left them behind when we moved house. Shortly after they went in the skip I saw some boutique reselling seats they had salvaged: even at less than a tenner, I was outraged at this naked profiteering. Like the farmers’ soil of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the Duke Of York’s cinema seats belong to those who loved films in them.



Content, Dir Chris Petit, UK 2009

Content, Dir Chris Petit, UK 2009

This is the foregoing, redux. Chris Petit cannot let go of the Westway, a promise of modernity unfulfilled, now only a key to the past, driven over again, the camera always behind the wheel of the Mercedes, the act of driving as tracking shot. Serious bespectacled youngsters, old men in statement hats and sallow psychogeogratrices are here to see. Multiple narratives, overlapping narrators. It’s usually at this point that we come out of the dive, says Emma Matthews.

Abandoning synchronised sound means the freedom to create any narrative from the images you have. Ten horses begin the race; not so many finish. Malfated children talk about the daily drizzle of family life. Family: “a mechanism for turning life into containers of resentment”. Ian Penman returns from cyberspace to speak through Hanns Zischler about email and late middle-aged desire. A film whose writers have been downloaded.

Petit’s collection of postcards from Berlin, in all states: pre-war, occupied, DDR, post-Wende. The architect whose 1941 vision of Auschwitz as a dormitory town for German emigrants is reborn in the 21st century as the newtown non-place of Cambourne. The parallel drawn, I won’t take it further than that, says Petit. What is said after the film illuminates as much as the film itself.

Always, again driving. Driving as the inevitable Ballardian anticipation of the crash. The crash writ real, the Crisis. Beneath a Dallas underpass, the approaching panoramic rectangle of daylight a forced metaphor for the cinema screen when this technology would no longer be recognizable to the Lumières. Petit pronounces his own take on the Kennedy assassination: an inside Catholic job to martyr the philandering president.

Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember I remember’ orchestrated by a musician found online, located in Finland and encountered in Dalston. “We are imperfect readers of the texts of our parents’ lives”. The middle-aged fear is palpable, but the tone is still sharp, still Robinson. These bald men in round glasses: is Keiller, Sinclair or Petit ventriloquising this film? Where’s the resistance, someone asks. Disappearance, he replies, is dissent.

Watch it on More4 next Tuesday

Five years of cinema

Les carabiniers, Dir Jean-Luc Godard, France 1963

Les carabiniers, Dir Jean-Luc Godard, France 1963

1977. We’ve just been to see Star Wars at the Enfield ABC. Ahead of us, unknown, lie fights over collectible toys, tauntauns, ewoks, and referential homage in Gen X comedies. Even further lie monstrous sequels, and the sharpness of their disappointment will remind us how far this mythos has burrowed into our minds, but right now we’re ignorant even of where George Lucas has borrowed his hidden fortress from. Seated in the family Hillman Avenger, my mum turns on the engine. ‘I’ll have to remember I’m just driving a car,’ she says, ‘and not flying an X-wing fighter.’

1989. The Screen on Baker Street runs a midnight Friday screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I go with my girlfriend. Baker Street is alien territory to us Zone 4 types, the land of Madame Tussaud’s  and Sherlock Holmes: a night bus home, and night buses are not that great in the 1980s. The screening involves an amateur performance troupe called the ‘Fabulous Underclothes’ who have learned by heart the call-and-response to the film that satirises the satire, seizes on the clunky moments in Richard O’Brien’s script. I loved it, and The Time Warp too, but that’s not something I’ll readily admit to now.

1993. Valentine’s night at the Duke of York’s in Brighton and I’m watching Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz and Bridget Fonda in Bodies, Rest and Motion with two single female friends. The Duke of York’s is my university arthouse education, the cinema that plays Hal Hartley double bills, its spot-colour fold-out posters as commonly found on student walls as Egon Schiele’s Artist’s Wife. It’s where we see what Heli calls ‘headfuck French movies’ when we don’t get them out on VHS from Video Box. But Bodies, Rest and Motion is a dreary indie tableau of needlessly emotionally tortured twenty-somethings, and I’m almost as annoyed at having wasted the evening watching it as I am at being alone on Valentine’s night.

2001. ‘All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun’. The NFT runs a Godard season, and I see as many of the films as I can, nearly twenty: the macho sci-fi detectivery of Alphaville, the political thrills of Le Petit Soldat, the simulcast translation of Un film com les autres. The pantomime war of Les carabiniers remains my favourite, and I still can’t see why anyone likes Pierrot le feu. A weekend devoted to the revolutionary work of the Dziga Vertov Group culminates in a panel discussion with Tariq Ali, Colin MacCabe and Laura Mulvey. I ask a naïve question about cinema trying to change the world. ‘We weren’t making agitprop,’ replies Mulvey, ‘we were addressing the contradiction in cinema itself.’ Through two months I pack my head and a small notebook with reminders, connections, observations and thoughts. It’s a notebook I’ve rarely opened since.

2005. Watching The Ipcress File in NFT3. At one point in Harry Palmer’s adventure of deception and torture he is put in a small box and subjected to a sequence of intensely flashing lights and bizarre sound. It occurs to me that I’ve paid good money to see quite similar films in this very cinema. Somehow, the most abstract moving image pushes buttons that paintings leave unpressed. The avant-garde cinema weekend in the London Film Festival has become an anchor around which revolve screenings in pubs and art galleries around the capital, Lux’s ‘Visionary Landscapes’ at Cecil Sharp House, shorts programmes at the ICA and salon screenings in Shacklewell. Trying to learn all over again what cinema is.

Conceptual art dream number nine

I was making a series of painting on small square canvasses. These consisted of small sections of copies of other paintings, cut out and wrapped around canvas frames to form new paintings. Their arrangement and relationship to each other was important. In order to add craft to the process, I painted over the copied paintings with new paint, not going over the lines. Then I tape-recorded Nathan describing the paintings, intending to later do the same myself and intersplice our identical words in a new sound work. Instead, the paintings were burnt, producing a residue of greenish ash in a small plastic beaker. I ate the contents of the beaker while tape-recording myself describing the taste of the second-stage work, which would take the place of my half of the tape. I woke up thinking of Paul Sharits’ Word Movie.

Babylon is burning

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy, 1980

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy 1980

Sometimes it feels like independent cinema is a charity case itself, so it’s pleasantly surprising to find a new independent cinema just around the corner that sustains a South African community project on its proceeds, even if Sunday matinee tickets are a tenner each. The Lexi Cinema, ensconced since last October n the Pinkham Lighthouse, a refurbished Edwardian theatre in Kensal Rise, is the first ‘social enterprise’  digital cinema in London. Set up by entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Sally Wilton, it’s located right in the corner of North West London that suffered a freak tornado three years ago, ripping a handful of streets to pieces. It’s a strange kind of tribute to community on a heading-to-dull suburban road.

The cinema itself is a comfortable 80-seater; and the projection kit’s not bad at all: it’s set up to take the industry’s encrypted hard drives for recent releases like Telstar, but it also projects from disc, and I can finally see the point of Blu-Ray: in a small screening setting like this, the HD really makes a difference to the sharpness and clarity of the picture; unfortunately, this particular screening jerks every second or so, just enough to be noticeable on a fast-moving pan (I have a geeky conversation with the projectionist, or at least the bloke who pushes the buttons on the players, about this afterwards: he’s apologetic & thinks it’s about the aspect ratio; on reflection I reckon it’s a frame rate conversion problem; Blu-Ray discs can hold a multiplicity of different formats, codecs and broadcast standards).

But what’s on screen is far more interesting than the jerks: winding up the London on Film Festival, this is a chance to see Franco Rosso‘s Babylon, a reggae film from 1980, starring Aswad’s Brinsley Forde, and soundtracked by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s musical collaborator Dennis Bovell. The story has echoes of The Harder They Come: Forde’s Blue, an aspiring toaster with the Ital Lion soundsystem, booked for a clash with Jah Shaka, has to negotiate his way through the urban jungle and a long dark night of the soul on his way there.

The film isn’t an overt story of politicisation like Pressure or Burning an Illusion, but it presents a credible and depressing picture of a pervasively racist Britain at the end of the seventies: National Front slogans daubed across council estates, routine police brutality, and casual prejudice at work: Blue’s boss, played by Mel Smith, calls Blue a ‘coon’ and sacks him when he gets lippy. In the end Blue triumphs with a storming toast at the clash just as a police raid breaks through the doors and the credits roll, but there are no false victories: Babylon is all around. When a white woman interrupts the Ital Lion crew to tell them to get ‘”fuck off back to your own country”, Beefy yells back at her “This is my fucking country, lady! And it’s never been fucking lovely!”

Testament to South London’s unloveliness are the bits of scenery caught in the location shots: derelict Victorian terraces, waste ground and grim acres of council housing. Nobody would let nineteenth century housing like that rot today. On my way to Brixton a day earlier, I stumble across Niall O’Sullivan‘s You’re Not Singing Anymore, a book of poetry about half of which concerns Brixton. In Between Worlds, we get a bird’s eye view of the liminal zone between grit and suburb:

We’re just a few reels away from the cracking of skulls,
unshaven faces denting car bonnets,
flecks of blood, slivers of tooth, wasted beer…
But the bus that you’re watching from
turns the corner and now it’s Victorian terraces
flowering Forsythia, budding plane trees,
Audis and Volvos snoozing uncomfortably.

Then walking to the Ritzy via Suzie’s place, by the Somerleyton Estate’s barrier block (its hideous arse-backwards frontage aligned to protect the estate from a 1970s motorway that never was), the police have a family car pulled over to the side of the road and are going through the boot’s contents. Plus ça change: Brixton still hasn’t quite managed to commodify its edge in the way parts of East London have.

At the end of the 1980s, in 1991 New Departures published Grandchildren of Albion, Michael Horovitz’s sequel to his groundbreaking sixties anthology Children of Albion. Between its covers you’ll find recently-annointed laureate Carol Ann Duffy alongside John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila the Stockbroker. Not only is there a cultural baton passed from Babylon to Albion in the form of dub poetry, but the whole collection coruscates with the energy of resistance to injustice on all fronts. If Albion’s children took a poetic engagement with politics to be a kind of provocation against an age of plenty at home and war abroad, its grandchildren found the war on their own doorsteps in the form of racism, sexism and mass unemployment. Poetry like this, and films like Babylon can induce nostalgia not only for the mind-blowing dub sounds of 1980, but for a decade in which poetry, music and struggle all seemed to matter together.

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.