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Consider two narratives. One is from the Modern World: a car travels up a drive to a house and two men get out. They ascend the steps to a balcony to talk to the man of power, bloated with age and the fruits of living, who is taking his siesta. His gunmen see there is no threat and retire. The first man is very respectful and asks to introduce his friend – as a mark of respect. The second man steps forward and asks for the man of power’s blessing, and receives it: the man offers his hand to be kissed, and the second man kisses it. The man of power asks for his name, the second man gives it. But the man of power ‘don’t hear so good’, so the second man leans forward and tells him again, and then adds, ‘And this is for you.’ With that he takes the knife hidden under the coat draped over his left arm and rips open the man of power’s belly. The second man steps back and with the first makes his escape, not without gunfire.

The other narrative is from the Ancient World, indeed the very ancient world. A man goes to a king’s house, to the upper chamber, in order to deliver the tribute of the people under his charge. Those with him then retire, and the man says, ‘A secret word I have for you, King.’ So the king in turn sends away his courtiers. The man says, ‘A word of God I have for you,’ so the king stands up. And the man, with his left hand, takes the double-edged sword strapped secretly to his right thigh, and plunges it into the king’s belly. The king was a very fat man, we are told, and the fat of his belly closed over the blade. The assassin went out, locked the doors, and made his escape.

Speculum Humanae Salvationis, 1360

The first, as you have spotted, is from Godfather 2, a flashback to the episode in which Vito takes revenge on Don Ciccio for having murdered his father, his elder brother, and finally his mother. Aged nine at the time Vito only just escapes with his life – to New York and Godfatherhood.

The second is less familiar. For Lent I read the Book of Judges in the translation by Robert Alter. Not your normal reading, but there it is: the Bible and Lent go together. Choice episodes include the Israelites chopping off the arms and big toes of Adoni-Bezek (‘master of Bezek’): Jael driving a tent-peg through Sisera’s head; Gideon harrowing (literally) the men of Succoth with thorns and thistles; Abimelech burning a tower filled with 1000 men and women; Abimelech killed by a millstone flung from a tower that shatters his skull; a Levite man and a concubine ‘abused all night long until morning by Benjaminites’; not to mention the story of Samson which includes slaying the Philistines, being seduced and blinded, then acting the force of an earthquake in the Philistine temple. The Book of Judges does not just contain death but cruel, violent and degrading death. It is the shockingest kind of pulp fiction.

The story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon the King of Moab is as vivid and episode as any in Judges, I think because it occurs in a cool upper chamber under a veneer of formality and respect surrounding the delivery of tribute by a subject commander, a scene exploded by an eruption of violence and repulsive detail. When I read it, I instantly thought of the scene in Godfather 2 and instantly concluded that Coppola, and his screenwriter Mario Puzo, were referencing the passage in Judges. Ehud, the assassin, was a left-handed man and it was his left hand that committed the murder; when Vito approaches Ciccio he uses his right hand to kiss the offered hand, the weapon veiled under the coat draped on his left arm. But no, Vito uses the knife in his right hand to kill Ciccio, and the parallelism between the two narratives is just coincidental.

Gf 2.2

Gf 2.3Gf 2.4Gf 2.6

Yet, if one has not influenced the other, they do echo each other in their world-view, of a violence in the world that is tragic without even being cathartic. They both proclaim, “This is what the world is like,” behind our façade of civilisation and of human relations conducted with respect. The idea is so far from edifying to the extent that both stories should be shut out from our lives. Yet this is impossible to do: both of them bewitch us; we watch or read fascinated; and they have that extraordinary quality that when we have read or watched them once, we want to do so again and again, to renew our acquaintance with the ghastly detail.

The biblical narrative is paratactic, in other words an ‘and . . . and . . . and . . .’ narrative distilling it into a series of essential details. ‘Cut. . . cut . . . cut. . .’ Coppola’s film narrative has similar qualities: the sequence starting from the car arriving at Ciccio’s villa to its leaving in haste, the deed done, lasts four minutes and comprises some 45 shots, and the sequence on the balcony is a series of shots and reverse shots starting in medium shot and ending in closer shot (but not in close-up). As you watch for the first time, you are lulled with the heat of a Sicilian late summer afternoon, then you palpitate with unease – the rest of the film has taught you that something unpleasant is going to happen – and then you gasp at the sight of the knife being ripped up Ciccio’s front.

I first read Judges as a boy in the King James Version, its violence clear but the detail toned down by the obscurity of the language at certain points. Try Robert Alter’s translation, with his essential commentary, to feel the full starkness of the event.

Finally, I cannot help reflecting in a melancholy fashion that these are both religious narratives. The cultural Catholicism of the Godfather is essential to its atmosphere: the episode of Ciccio’s murder is followed by the sight of Vito and his family leaving church after Mass. And Judges? It is possibly the most violent, God-forsaken book of the Bible – but it is not really God-forsaken since the events happen within the total story of Israel, God’s chosen people. The Bible, like life, ‘contains multitudes’.



Goodfellas versus The Godfather


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Goodfellas poster      versus     Godfather poster

I seem to be in a gangster-film fascination at the moment, a consequence of a Scorsese fascination in the UK at present. At the beginning of March, I saw the newly restored Goodfellas in the cinema in Norwich.

This is hyperbolic cinema: a lot of shouting and over-the-top psychopathic behaviour, with performance foregrounded before all else. There were a number of sustained tracking shots (I like these), but also music getting louder all the time (and somehow particularly annoying).

And what crudity, of dialogue and of characterisation, the first perhaps shaping the second. Compare the way Ford humanises his minor characters, or the way Hitchcock ‘highlights’ his marginal characters to make them more interesting.

Look at Tommy (Jo Pesci): his monstrousness needs some inner motivation like Shakespeare gives Richard III to make him compelling. Tommy by contrast is all repellent surface, with not one iota of charisma. And Henry should surely be more like Charlie in Mean Streets, so that some inner disturbance is seen to be working in him. This would help signpost the climax to the audience. Instead the betrayal Henry undertakes just happens, rather than the audience foreseeing it – and fearing it.

It all feels twenty minutes too long. I have been looking at the crime thrillers Anthony Mann made in the late 1940s – Railroaded, T-Men, Raw Deal and so on, which are no doubt admired by Scorsese – and they are tight as a fist, sometimes under eighty minutes, and since they have a kino-fist quality they leave you pummelled.

Compare Goodfellas too to The Godfather: a satyr to a Hyperion, surely. The popular music in Goodfellas is especially crude. It is used to mark the passage of time, ‘the soundtrack of our lives’, but it is Scorsese’s life not that of his characters or even of their milieu. The Godfather on the other hand has a memorable musical theme, the Sicilian essence of which speaks volumes on behalf of a whole culture. And The Godfather has a vivid cast of characters who generate their own drama: the Corleone family versus Salozzo, the non-italian consigliere Tom Hagen,  a grotesquerie like Luca Brasi, and so on. The narrative arc of Goodfellas has Henry starting as a gangster but turning into an informer – a very good story – but The Godfather has an arc transforming Michael Corleone from war hero into godfather living in grim isolation – not just a good story but a tragic one. It is sombrely melodramatic, like nothing so much as Jacobean revenge drama, a dimension which for all its pyrotechnics is missing from Goodfellas.

A ‘Stabat Mater’ for our times


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James MacMillan’s new choral piece, his Stabat Mater, was premiered in Norwich last October and while I don’t think Norwich’s was the very first performance it was almost the first. It was performed by The Sixteen and the Britten Sinfonia, both ensembles being ones that have forged a close relationship with MacMillan in the past decade or more. The performance was outstanding . . .

. . . but then so was the original music. I am writing about it here because not many masterpieces of music have their premiere in Norwich, yet this was one of them.

It is in 4 parts:   1   Stabat mater dolorosa;   2   Quis non posset contristari;   3  Sancta Maria, istud agas;   4  Fac, ut portem Christi mortem.

Each individual section has its own quality and the whole quartet contains its own dramatic progression from a plangent start to a quiet amen. The violins keen, the cellos growl and rumble, and the players slap their instruments with the bow. The violin melody is plaintive; but there are also stabbing chords like Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho. I thought too of the opening of Act 3 of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’, with its powerful premonition of darkness, and of the pain articulated in Shostakovich’s string quartets. Praise too must go to the rhythms of the Latin, words that are plain, direct, and dignified.

S Maria della Vita: Lamentation by Niccolo dell'Arca – Version 2      Version 2

Version 2

A month before the performance I had been in Bologna in Italy, and saw for the first time Niccolò Dell’ Arca’s ‘Lamentations’, a group of six sculpted figures gathered round the dead Christ (to be found in the sanctuary of the church of Santa Maria della Vita). This is in effect a visual version of the Stabat Mater, created in 1463. It is startlingly different from the normal perception of Mary’s pain in paintings of the crucifixion or the deposition, which paint tends to distance from the observer. Instead you are made starkly present. The route runs directly into our feelings via the emotions, not through our thought processes.

As ever at performances of such religious choral music I am struck with puzzlement at what this subject, whether in sculpture or in music, must mean for a secular audience, or even a Protestant, non-Marian (anti-Marian even?) one. And yet it communicates something visceral.

We live, I think, in a culture that responds more to feeling than fact, to emotion more than thought. That is why the Dell’ Arca sculpture has been rediscovered, as it were, and why a work like MacMillan’s Stabat Mater can burst through our secular carapace to an inmost response.

James MacMillan was present at the concert in Norwich and with Harry Christophers, conductor of The Sixteen, talked to the audience about the work in advance of the performance. Memorable.

The CD of the piece has just come out on the Coro label. See





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A recent ‘Spectator’ competition invited readers to submit a poem about a politician and an item of clothing. I entered but didn’t win so my  parvum opus went unpublished in the illustrious pages of The Spectator, so I publish it here. In case non-British readers were not aware, the media made a stir in the autumn of 2016 with a picture of PM Theresa May wearing leather trousers.

putin-w-rifle  mays-trousers  trumps-jacket


Being Russian, he’s out-and-out iconophile:

fur hat, fur trim, leather jacket’s his style.

Vlad the Terrible, when it comes to shootin’;

His apparel proclaims we are dealing with ‘Putin’.


What’s more, there’s a rough side to Vlad the Scary –

he loves his bare chest, all hairy and bear-y.

Clothes are needless: he wallows in snow,

embracing a tiger to show how he’s macho.


Bomber jacket commands, ‘Bomb’em to hell!’

Children . . . Women . . .  All who rebel.

His boyars must know they’ve lost the plot when

Vladimir trumpets, “Make Russia great again!”


Now, Trump’s jacket was made out of leather,

May’s trousers ditto. It prompts questions whether

they got the idea from the Vlad’s bear hide.

But it is faux. He is foe too, not on our side.


(c) Tim Cawkwell / Feb. 2017


David Larcher’s ‘Mare’s Tail’ (1969)


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“A symphony should contain the whole world” was Gustav Mahler’s comment on his music. A film that aspires to the condition of music can do the same. Such is Mare’s Tail.

If the whole world is to be contained, you need length, so Mare’s Tail is 2½ hours long. In music, the risk would be tedium from the fact that the symphonic form is too conventional, too predictable, and too tedious, so that immense creative imagination is needed to break out of those constrictions. Mahler had it hence the power of his symphonies. In film, there are no such rules, at least not yet, so the risk for a film as long as Mare’s Tail is tedium on different grounds because the spectator has no idea where the film is going. David Larcher avoids this by threading into it, almost beneath our awareness, a beginning, a middle and an end. The film opens with a blank screen accompanied by a rising drone for some ten minutes. It reminded me straightaway of the droning E flat that opens Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, and while further parallels should not be pressed, both works signal their epic intentions by this means. The middle of the film is taken up with a trajectory of some kind, from creation, to birth, to sex, to life, to death. And there is an end of a teasing kind. Finally after much shaking of the eyeballs, a written ‘FIN’ appears on the screen. This surely signals the end (although the use of French may be meant to throw us off the scent), only for our eyeballs to receive further jolts by the interspersing of white leader with fragments recalling earlier sequences in the film.

Larcher’s challenge was to glue the whole thing together. His principal way of doing this is by the style of the film. The images are clearly visible, but not in any way we are familiar with, since he uses negative footage, re-filming, stop-motion projection, optical printing, stretched images and other means to de-familiarise the way we watch films. The same strategy is used on the soundtrack, where we can hear words spoken and we can hear snatches of music, but they come to us through a fog filter of some kind so they are muffled and distorted. We know words are being spoken but we can barely hear what. We hear music, but identification is stymied. I thought I heard Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’, but I am far from sure. There were suggestions of classical Indian music. The most identifiable piece was the tune from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony (another piece of music that contains the whole world), but it is played on unfamiliar instruments to give it a jolly, tinny, and quite anti-Beethovenian tone.

The right adjective for it all is an antiquated one from the 1960s – ‘trippy’. It invites us into a vision of the world where we feel free of anxiety. The humans that appear are beautiful people of their time, the animals, especially the frigate birds, are expressive of the wonders of the created order, and when he films a fly struggling on its back, or a fish gasping out its life in the water, or even the mass slaughter of turtles, these death throes feel free of pain. One brief sequence, filmed on the underground, shows a woman dropping down on the floor and playing dead or catastrophically ill; a young man then gets up, looks quizzically at her, crosses himself, and steps out of the carriage onto the platform. Even this death is treated as a tease. Also of its time is Larcher’s embrace of abstraction alongside the traces of the figurative and the autobiographical. By its length, the film disrupts time, and by its abstract particles, its dance of spheres and many other images that resist identification, it combines the microcosm with the macrocosm, and in doing so achieves a disruption of space.

The film was premièred at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1969, Larcher having worked on it for several years, all through the summer of love of 1967, the explosion of flower power, the elaboration of the ‘far out’ culture. “Oh in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” It must have been a temptation to place a rock soundtrack on the finished film, but even if Larcher was tempted, he quite refused it. The whole film dances on the edge of the abyss of Self Indulgence, but somehow Larcher never falls in. Avoiding the facile solution of a rock soundtrack is one of the ways he does so.

Where do his images come from? In a way, they seem to have spilled out of him in a quite unmediated way, and for a British film Mare’s Tail is most unusually linked to the visionary quality of the pre-structuralist American avant-garde, when it was still called underground cinema. Had Larcher seen any of the films of Stan Brakhage? The birth sequences instantly bring to mind Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), and the whole enterprise feels inspired by Dog Star Man (1961-4), Brakhage’s own epic vision of creation and his world within it. But this is quite speculative, and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that Larcher was making these images without any inspiration from Brakhage. What does link the film to the Americans is the ambition of his project. The 1970s work at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, of which Larcher was a member, only rarely sought to match the scale of the American avant-garde, which itself took its cue from that of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s.

What does make it British is the fact it is in black-and-white. Surely this economy was forced on him, but Larcher makes the most of it both by his technical understanding of the medium of film, and also by the fact that when colour is used, it jolts the spectator, as if the annoying suspense of waiting for colour is resolved by the relief and the pleasure of its arrival. Like many good film-makers, including commercial ones, Larcher is focused on stringing good sequences together, always trying things out. You sense that there is never total mastery, but his technique never lets him down either, as if total mastery would banish the experimental, ‘open-field’ quality which he wants to convey.

So, is the film formless? Yes, but it is immersive and keeps drawing us in. Watching it, you can fall asleep certainly, and when you wake up you are re-engaged. It needs to be seen projected on a screen in a black space in order that we are properly underwater. In the end, its depiction of the whole of creation has an omniscient, life-affirming quality.

But I am still to discover why it is called Mare’s Tail. So what?

[Mare’s Tail was screened at the Close Up cinema in London on Sunday 15 January 2016.]

London Film-Makers’ Co-operative: the first ten years


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I’ve done a review of ‘SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT: the first decade of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative 1966-76′ edited by Mark Webber and published by Lux at the end of 2016. Read it here.


The London Film-Makers’ Cooperative (LFMC) was the counter-cultural distribution centre for underground/avant-garde/experimental/artists’ films that morphed into a place where films could be developed and printed outside commercial operations. It was collectivist in spirit, as enshrined in its various constitutions, and as borne out in practice.

It is a vivid part of vivid times, and this book offers some signposts to how its contribution to film culture may be assessed. Well worth reading.

Courtroom drama rules in 2016

What were the most arresting films I saw during the year? I have three, not seen in the cinema but on television – and all made for television. What made them striking to me was their tautness. They may have had too much coercive music but I did not notice because they focussed on telling the story efficiently and dramatically. All were about events that happened in real life, and use documentary footage or a documentary style to forge the narrative. All three involved legal enquiries – so they are in the courtroom drama genre.

The first was the documentary about the Hillsborough disaster from 1989 at the football ground of Sheffield Wednesday FC when, as a result of incompetent handling of the football crowds, 96 fans died and 766 were injured. The documentary was simply called Hillsborough and was two hours long. It was first shown in the US in April 2014, but legal reasons only allowed to be shown in the UK on 8th May this year. It was directed and produced by Daniel Gordon, and co-produced by ESPN and the BBC. Its principal focus was on the legal battle to reach a reasonable version of the truth of the event: who was to blame (principally the police) and who was not (principally the fans).

The second was – but I can’t remember the title! It concerned the shooting of a young black male by a policeman in either North Charleston, South Carolina or Charlotte, North Carolina (though I can’t remember which!). It reconstructed the shooting and focused on the subsequent legal trials of the police officer who fired the fatal bullet and the trauma for the families of the victim and of the officer. It was shown on UK television around October this year.

The third was Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan. Duggan had been shot by police officers in the course of arrest for being in possession of a handgun. The shooting occurred in August 2011 and was a contributory cause to the London riots, especially in Tottenham, in the weekend following. The shooting was a dramatised reconstruction and the interviews with those involved were done with actors impersonating the interviewees. Extensive use was made of evidence submitted in the court hearing into the incident. Both in substance and form it had a strongly documentary feel. Directed by Jaimie D’Cruz, produced by Shanty Sooriasegaram. It was first shown on the BBC in December this year.

Sometimes fiction cannot match what real stories can offer, especially in the current style of emotional and visual exaggeration with which fiction is treated. Audiences love courtroom drama, but the fictional one would be hard put to beat the televised courtroom scenes in my second example. But gratifying the viewer like this may make for good television; it does not make for good justice. In the UK, television cameras remain banned from trials, and long may that continue to be the case.




1971 revisited


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In 1971 I made an 8mm film called Sketches for the Creation, drawing on my understanding of the films of Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson and Bruce Baillie for its inspiration. I was 23 at the time.

This year I had it digitized and have produced a new digital version, slightly reduced in length and with some brushstrokes of sound (nothing coercive, naturally). It is 12 minutes long.

If you are interested in seeing it go to:

Antonioni: more De Chirico


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I watched Antonioni’s film N.U. (that is,  Nettezza Urbana or Dustmen), one of his short documentaries which he made in 1948. Towards the end comes this image:


And on Tuesday I revisited Deserto Rosso / Red Desert from 1964. Here is what Giuliana sees from the window when she pulls back the curtain following her tortured love-making with Corrado:


We are in Ravenna but I cannot identify the round building. I suspect it is well-known – any suggestions, anyone? (Is it the base of the S Apollinare Nuovo campanile? but it doesn’t feel right to me.)

Both images make of the urban landscape something oppressive, although the second one is more subtle about it. Both echo the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico – see previous post.

Antonioni’s Metaphysical Cinema


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In Antonioni’s La Notte, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) is in his study, aimless as usual, much as he drifts throughout the film. When he bends over his desk, a painting is visible on the wall behind him, not just any old painting but one by Morandi.


Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) is famous for his obsessive painting of grouped bottle and vases, an idea which preoccupied him all his life. He lived in Bologna, down the road (well, 50 kilometres) from Ferrara, where Antonioni was born and brought up. When Antonioni left home it was to go to study Economy and Commerce at Bologna University. There he began to develop his interest in art and theatre which led him to the cinema and Rome.

Did he encounter Morandi’s pictures during his time in Bologna? And in doing so, did he connect them with the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico, whose brief sojourn in Ferrara from 1915 to 1918 led to a number of his key paintings? If there is a metaphysical school of painting, De Chirico and Morandi are its most notable figures. But what connects them? De Chirico’s troubled reality is populated by architecturally strong but unadorned buildings: arcades and porticoes, such as Bologna is thronged with, especially attracted him, and in some of the Ferrara paintings the brute majesty of the Castello Estense. These townscapes are depicted with strong if colliding perspectives, and by their unexpected juxtapositions, they produce a surrealism before Surrealism. In the streets and piazzas figures are silently frozen in time. Morandi’s bottles and vases are in the ‘still life’ genre but stillness is an absent quality. He paints them so that they jostle with each other as if they were not always comfortable in each other’s presence. I have always thought of them as people, or at any rate objects with distinct characters of their own.

What connects the two painters? De Chirico turns the urban scene into a still life; Morandi takes stillness and sets it quivering. So, in that respect they contradict each other. On the other hand the atmosphere of the paintings in both feels melancholic, and often unsettled, even troubled. The ordinary aspect of things and of places is replaced with something spectral in De Chirico’s case, and in Morandi’s with something disconcerting. Both take everyday reality and make of it something strange, and it is in this I believe that they earn the title of ‘metaphysical realists’.


Film criticism has for some time now made the connection between Antonioni’s visual style and Metaphysical Painting, and I am especially grateful to Donato Totaro for alerting me to the echoes of De Chirico in Antonioni’s films.

While Antonioni’s film-making mindset was forged by the neo-realist films being made around him, and the intellectual atmosphere in which they were created, from the beginning his feature films looked for a different appearance of the world than the purely realist one. When filming interiors, he was very attentive to objects as adding a specific tone to a scene, and when he was filming places, or rather spaces, he wanted – and found – a new photographic language to depict people within them. There are echoes here of the exploration of perspective by Italian Renaissance painters whereby people were placed into a grid of lines. Antonioni sees the world if not geometrically then as planes and shapes to which his figures must conform themselves, rather than the other way around.

Can we speak of Antonioni as an exponent of metaphysical cinema because he was drawn to the metaphysical painting of De Chirico and Morandi? This feels insufficient. Nor is he ‘metaphysical’ in the sense of Bresson, Tarkovsky or Kieślowski, to take three important names who all look beyond realism for a spiritual realm. (See my essay ‘Kieślowski before Kieślowski’ at: However, Antonioni’s metaphysical cinema is close to the concept of ‘metaphysical rebellion’ that Camus proposes is the proper position for artists of all kinds, as articulated in his book L’Homme Révolté / The Rebel, published in 1951. This rebellion is a “necessary blasphemy against the created order” which disputes “the end of man and of creation”. In Antonioni this did not produce revolutionary rage as it did in some, but it did produce a deep melancholy about human relations and human purposes. This attitude allowed him to distil something essential about the twentieth century.