Film Portraiture

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Film as a medium for portraiture has barely been explored.

Painting evolved a method of portraiture that by the sixteenth century had obtained a supreme profundity, combining the portrait as a record of appearance, at least of the powerful, and putting that person outside time and sometimes outside context, in its work of memorializing a celebration both of the particular person and of humanity in general, and the possibilities for humanity in general.

Photography then revives the art of portraiture, not to replace painting but to renew it. In renewing it, it democratises portraiture, taking it out of the ambit of an élite group with the proficiency and the painterly means to create good likenesses and the compelling presences that painted portraits can have. Now everyone’s likeness can be recorded, so that we all have a passport photo, or an identity card photo waiting to be used. Such images can appear in art photography emulating painting, or in the family snap, or in the prison mugshot, or – especially powerfully – in the grouped images of those sent to the Nazi death camps, or to the Gulag in the USSR.

What film can do is take this idea of documenting likeness and reinvent expressiveness. Renaissance painting did not freeze a face in time but, as I say, put it beyond time. Photography, with its split-second facility can freeze a face, a moment, and expression. But film can amplify these things immeasurably, giving us expression, whether settled or animated, and existing in time, not the split-second of the photograph but the face observed in time, the face in duration. Hence the radical brilliance of Andy Warhol’s film portraits (so much more compelling than his silk-screen ones which are exercises in decorating a face) because the face is directly under the scrutiny of the camera running for several minutes with no words spoken. Warhol puts his subject on the spot, as it were: what character will he or she reveal under his gaze?

Even the conventional television interview can take steps towards creating a film portrait of the person interviewed. This line of thought is prompted by coming across an interview with David Jones on YouTube. There was particular pleasure in finding this, since I have been a David Jones aficionado since coming across his poetry in the 1970s (first ‘The Sleeping Lord’ published in 1974, the next ‘In Parenthesis’ published in 1937, and then ‘The Anathemata’ published in 1952). In 1981 I saw the David Jones exhibition at the Tate Gallery which opened my eyes more fully not just to his pictures but to his lettering. Having got started then, I have regularly engaged with his work ever since, notably with the production of the ‘In Parenthesis’ opera by Ian Bell in 2016, done for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

Then earlier this year, I read the biography of Jones by Thomas Dilworth. I was under the impression that Jones had lived a life out of the spotlight, but the book rather dispelled that, doing so in various ways including by publishing a number of photographs taken throughout his life, some of which (see Google Images) are expressive and valuable in their own right.

But I wanted to see some film of him and thought this had eluded his contemporaries until I read that the BBC had done an interview with him in 1963, produced by Melvyn Bragg and made by Tristram Powell for the programme ‘Writer’s World’). What is more, I quickly found it on YouTube (search ‘David Jones Tristram Powell’).

It is twenty-three minutes long. In it Jones sits in an armchair answering questions posed by his friend Saunders Lewis, who is mostly offscreen, although we do get one or two shots of the two men in the setting of Jones’s room. (Latterly he lived in a single room that doubled both as living space and as his studio.) The camera largely chooses to go in close on Jones’s face while he speaks, either in medium close-up or full close-up, with occasional zooms between the two.

Jones’s face, it turns out, was eye-catching for being tousled, melancholic and lined with experience, and at the same time marvellously expressive as if waiting for the moment to come to life. Largely in the film it is cast down, as if we were being made privy to his inward musing, without the camera wishing to intrude too much. Here is a close-up of him listening to Lewis who is asking about his joining up in 1914.

1 enlisting

What Jones has to say is always interesting, at least to me, especially as he talks about art and sacrament,

2 art & sacrament

and ‘civilisational challenge’ as he calls it,

5 civilizational challenge

with a serious expression for these serious subjects. But the virtue of the film is its visual quality as much as for the words he speaks. Both Jones’s pictures and his words were the product of much thought and it feels appropriate on two occasions that he should adopt the pose of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’, as if on command from the film-maker.

8 Thinker B

3 Thinker A

On one occasion he covers his left eye with his hand as he wrestles with finding the words to say what he wants to say.

11 lft hd over eye

Gesture is an important part of capturing someone’s likeness, and the film manages to find a characteristic pose of Jones’s, holding an unlit cigarette while he thought and spoke.

7 unlit cig

The most regrettable omission is not allowing us to see more of his room. There is a two-shot of Lewis and Jones,

6 settg w SLewis

which gives us some idea of the ordered clutter in which Jones lived, but I wanted some travelling shots over his studio table or round the walls, even just along his bookshelves, or sight of some personal possession that illuminated his personality. By the sixteenth century artists had become ready to include in their painted portraits some significant piece of information about the sitter as well as their likeness. The photograph can do the same, but then neither can do anything like as much as a film.

Film as a medium for portraiture has barely been explored.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

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IN SEARCH OF ONENESS

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If the cinema more than any other art is a barometer of current concerns, hopes, preoccupations, anxieties and aspirations, then the fact that there has been a spate (well, a small spate) of cloister films is significant. I do not mean dramas in monasteries, of which there are many juicy examples that tell us much more about humans than about God, but documentaries, for want of a better word, that use the camera to go inside cloistered spaces quite outside our experience and which are yet part of our history and culture. Here are some of them:

  • Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning 2005) – La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, France
  • The Presentation Sisters (Tacita Dean 2005) – convent near Cork, Ireland
  • No Greater Love (Michael White 2009) – nunnery in London
  • Jennifer (Nina Danino 2015) – Carmelite monastery in Ronda, Spain
  • three slow-TV documentaries (screened in 2017 on the BBC) about life in the British monasteries of Downside, Pluscarden and Belmont.

Into Gt Silence - procession    Into Gt Silence - mending shoe

The outstanding film in this group is Into Great Silence (above), for the making of which Gröning had to wait 14 years. The result therefore has a premeditated feel from a long engagement with the idea but also a quality of delight in what he found to film once he was inside the monastery. It also has a weight to it from its 2½ hours in length, ‘bleeding chunks’ of cloister, church and cell time.

This reflection is sparked by reading ‘Oneness’, a collection of essays edited by Stephen Platten (SCM Press 2017) about the rediscovery of monasticism in Britain, and linked by the editor to Shepherds Law in Northumberland. Shepherds Law is as much eremitical as monastic (i.e. more hermit than monk), as far as I can gather, and is being rooted in its place by the creation of a remarkable set of buildings, a work still in progress (see photographs on Google Images). The inspiration for the site came from Brother Harold Palmer, and both he and the site already appear to be becoming places of pilgrimage.

In this country religious faith is on the decline (it is alleged) and the church, like so much of our common life, seems to be suffering from a loss of confidence. The rediscovery of the monastic virtues offers a new, more encouraging side to the way we live now, and it is good that the cinema has a part in this.

For a fuller discussion of cloister films, see my book ‘The New Filmgoer’s Guide to God’ chapter 9, available from Troubador Publishing and on Amazon.

 

 

FILMING THE ANCIENT WORLD

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There is a new version of the epic of Troy currently running on the BBC in nine 1-hour episodes. It runs the risk, as in all depictions of the mythological ancient world, of making banal the potency of the stories and of the characters. On the evidence of episode one it succumbs to the dangers very readily.

Pasolini was never like this. He made a very strong version of the gospel story, The Gospel According to Matthew, before going on to tackle Sophocles’ play ‘Oedipus Tyrannos’ and Euripides’ ‘Medea’. Like his gospel, the ‘Oedipus Tyrannos’ feels very potent in its depiction of a pre-technological age in which the sense of the sacred (il sacrale) is an integral part of the characters’ world-view. But in the end the film has its disappointments. I can think of four reasons:

1              Matthew’s Gospel is written paratactically: ‘and A . . . and B . . . and C . . . etc’. This offers an excellent template for a film-maker like Pasolini so attuned to seeing the world through images, a gift he had quite as strong as that for vernacular Italian speech. Sophocles’ play is a drama of a single time and place whose story is told through flashbacks. Without inventing a lot more incident which is not in the play, there is not enough action – as opposed to dramatic dialogue – to sustain a strongly paratactic narrative. Hence Pasolini resorts to stretching incidents out beyond their proper capacity to sustain them.

2              Even though Silvana Mangano is a riveting Jocasta, Franco Citti is less well chosen for Oedipus.

sword 2

He is superb as the bullying, vulnerable braggart of Pasolini’s Accatone, but Oedipus needs to be played by someone who is ruggedly good-looking and aggressive in manner while privately capable of showing inner doubt and anguish. It is disappointing too that the love-making scenes between Jocasta and first Laius and then Oedipus needed to be more passionate: the whole business seems to arouse her distaste when she should be a mixture of both erotic lust and disturbed self-doubt at the whole enterprise.

3              Danilo Donati was a noted costume-designer for Pasolini, working on a number of his films set in the past which could perfectly properly be described as costume dramas since it is Donati’s style that the garments draw attention to themselves. As a result, with some characters in the film we never get beyond the costumes, the most egregious example being Polybo, but Oedipus’ headgear in one scene is not much better.

Polybo 1  Oedipus

4              The modern prologue and epilogue felt very fashionable and savant at the time. However, they add nothing new, except as a way of Pasolini artfully drawing attention to himself.

On the other hand, the oracle at Delphi is wonderfully realised.

oracle 2

A quality of the sacred is to be found in the desert, and there is a potent expectancy in the queue of supplicants waiting to put their question to the oracle. When the answer is delivered to Oedipus, it delivers the necessary shock both to him and to us. This is properly paratactic, even if his tearful wanderings as he tries to absorb what the answer means are not.

One good visual idea is Oedipus making himself dizzy when he has to choose which road to take in order to give himself up to chance – in the vain hope of escaping his fate when it is in fact directing chance. Fate-directed chance you could call it.

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SLOW TV IN AN INSTANT AGE

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One of the best things on television in the past year or two has been the emergence of ‘slow tv’. I’ve now watched various programmes on the BBC under this heading. Although they may exist on other channels I’ve not spotted them. In any case the intrusion of adverts would seriously upset the rhythm, nor do I want slow adverts which would to my mind be a particularly refined torture.

I was introduced to slow film early on in my late teens encountering Warhol’s slow films, e.g. Chelsea Girls, Harlot, or his wonderful film portraits. Then there was Michael Snow’s Wavelength and other smaller versions such as Larry Gottheim’s Fogline. I am sure there are many other examples. And maybe if I searched YouTube and Vimeo I would find plenty more. Digital technology of course now makes it easy whereas back in the sixties it was much more expensive.

BBC slow television tends to focus on nature as a subject, very reasonably as the two are a natural fit. But last year they screened slow films of three Benedictine monasteries to marvellous effect (see my blog entry of Saturday 4 November 2017), again the two making a natural fit.

But their nature slot reached new heights on Wednesday 27 December when BBC4 screened ‘Turtle, Eagle, Cheetah: a slow odyssey’ (still available on iPlayer). Cameras were attached to the three creatures and we were able to enter their lives for 30 minutes each, in a 90-minute programme. The very best thing was the way music was banished, except for its brief use at the transition points, and we had to be content (and I am very content) with natural sound. Try for example the rushing sound of the air that accompanies the white-tailed sea eagle moving and drifting over the mountains and coasts of Morvern on the west coast of Scotland (where I have spent countless holidays).

The film climaxed with a cheetah hunt. Three animals, all sibling orphans, were released on the Namibian plains and tracked hunting prey. Since the camera was attached to the top of their heads you got a cheetah eye’s view of the prey being stalked and then chased, first zebra, then a warthog (watch it go!) and then gemsbok (with serious antlers, weapons which made them unafraid to turn and face the cheetah). Disappointingly in all three cases the cheetah had to give up the chase as they had used up all their energy, so the narrative lacked the perfect end of a kill – you identify with the cheetah and want them to succeed.

I repeat, no music, and indeed no voice-over. Instead information was provided with ‘embedded graphics’ that could be read onscreen as you watched the action. You actually are getting quite close to pre-sound dialogue cinema, casting the narrative weight on the visuals, and using intertitles to back up the story. That was a golden, pre-lapsarian age, and it looks like it may be coming back in a new, sophisticated way.

Credit to the programme producer, Doug Mackay-Hope.

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A REMBRANDT CHRISTMAS CARD

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Rembrandt etching of shepherds

You could make a film of the Life of Christ based on Rembrandt paintings and etchings. Here is ‘The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds’ from 1634 (when Rembrandt was 28) etched and engraved, plus some drypoint. One of his larger etchings, by the way, but still only 26 x 22 cm.This episode from the Nativity of Christ, often portrayed rather statically, is here full of movement, movement which makes the moment seriously exciting. Naturally it contrasts brightness with shadow and darkness, Rembrandt’s speciality. In order to enhance the brightness round the angel, he has enlarged the piercing in the cloud and filled it with putti. Pity really, as I could have done without them, and I feel it breaks the Rembrandt rule of making the ordinary extraordinary. Instead he makes the extraordinary more so, thus achieving a diminishing return. However the shepherds are terrific, and the animals too, achieving a gothic level of fright. Overall the effect is of a fantastic landscape in which a fantastic event occurs.

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What a contrast to the 1651 etching ‘The Flight Into Egypt: a night piece’ (13 x 11 cm), in which the darkness presses in on the Holy Family as they flee from King Herod. Seventeen years on, at the age of 45, Rembrandt has a fuller sense of the sombreness of the ordinary world, a world that remains extraordinary.

I learnt all this from ‘Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness’, Norwich’s current contribution to civilization. It is an exhibition of the significant holding of Rembrandt etchings in the Norwich Castle Museum, running until 7 January 2018. It has a good catalogue by Giorgia Bottinelli and Francesca Vanke too.

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SLOW TELEVISION

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Monasteries and slow television are a natural fit. That was proved by three programmes on BBC4 shown over three nights in October (24th, 25th and 26th). The three-hour series was called Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery and gave us a look inside the three Benedictine monasteries of Downside (Somerset), Pluscarden (Moray, Scotland), and Belmont (Herefordshire). There was special emphasis on work as a form of prayer – activities like joinery, garment-making, bee-keeping and painting an icon. This made sense in television terms because these are visual activities, when sitting meditating is less so, unless the viewer is capable of an empathetic stillness, or unless the film finds ways of getting inside a monk’s head, not to my mind impossible. You need to find visual equivalences for stillness and emptying the mind.

Big pluspoint: no stifling music, except for the monks’ chanting in church.

In 2014 I published ‘The New Filmgoers Guide to God’ and included a section on the current fashion for taking the camera into the monastery:

“If the certainties of a rock-solid belief in the Almighty no longer seem appealing that is one reason why indirections are an attractive route to the heart of religious cinema, as if it was a maze whose centre was hidden, full of false turnings and dead ends, as if we were to keep running into emptiness. Yet there is no doubt that stories of faith and hope still inspire large audiences. What is missing is the sense of a guiding hand, of an imaginative divine universe; in effect we have become disconnected. This only makes it the more extraordinary that in the last few years, documentaries about monks and nuns have commanded a small but committed audience as if a glimpse into the monastic universe offered some key, if vicarious, insight into the proper form of human living.”

The outstanding example in this genre is Matthias Gröning’s Into Great Silence from 2005, made at La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble in France, and of an imposing length of 2 1/2 hours, a tiny but potent window into the spiritual world that the monastery is able to create.

Medns fm a monastery - Belmont

The third of the three BBC television programmes did deliver a coup de cinéma. Father Alex is shown creating an icon: drawing the outline, applying gold leaf, and painting it. The programme ends with him taking the finished picture into the abbey church to place it on a side altar. However, despite our own impulse to see the finished result, we are denied a proper view of it, but are instead given glimpses of it in a mirror, or from a distorting side angle in order to whet our appetite. We see it placed in the chapel in a long-distance view. Then we get a sideways close-up of Father Alex asperging it, i.e. sprinkling it very lightly with water, in order to bless it. He then lays it horizontally to kiss it and puts it back in place. Only now does the camera look at it full on, but we are still denied a view because Father Alex’s backside is between us and the painting. Then it comes: the monk kneels and we see revealed his icon of the Archangel Michael, glowing richly with its blue and gold, and showing a piercingly handsome face. It is breathtaking, and this was a magical way of bringing the film to a close.

Executive Producer: Nikki Parrott

Producer/Director: Luke Korzun Martin

Production Company: Tigerlily Productions

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The television programmes are still available to watch on BBC iPlayer, till around the third or fourth week of November.

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You can buy ‘The New Filmgoer’s Guide to God’ on Amazon.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

MEN WHO SLEEP IN CARS

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Small screen not large screen. Television not the cinema sometimes does things best. I thought of that seeing The Party in the cinema last weekend. Surely this would be better on television?

The Party was a specimen of The New Heartlessness, although much eclipsed in force and method by Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, hyperion to a satyr. It was also eclipsed by a television film, Men Who Sleep In Cars, shown on the BBC around the same time. Initially I thought this was a specimen of British Miserabilism, of which there is a lot about. But it turned out different. Three men spend their nights not at home but in vehicles (a Proton, a Merc, and a transit van – the car oft proclaims the man) and, while I don’t know anyone personally who does this, it is not hard to imagine it existing. (Search ‘men who sleep in cars’ on YouTube to get a sense of its prevalence.) It is a version of homelessness, and the Miserabilist Message coming our way – so I thought – was that this was a metaphor for the British condition in 2017. I repeat myself, it turned out different, I was wrong: it is a message about insomnia, and the ‘not sleeping’ is more important than the ‘car’ bit – the car just made it more vivid. As a lifelong insomniac myself, I could get a good grip on this, and if the programme was cathartic it was because I fully understood the pain involved in not sleeping.

men who sleep in cars

Cathartic? Maybe not the right word, but there is a curious reassurance in knowing there are others like you out there, who own all sorts of cars. If cathartic, then redemptive: all three men emerge blinking into the dawn ready to start a new day. That felt very true to life; it’s how an insomniac does as much as he or she does.

There was a proper visual patina to the film, using the capacity of the digital camera to film in low-light conditions, that gave visual purpose to the arrival of the dawn. There was a woman in the movie: a ghost in a white robe sort of, in effect an angel, who links all three of the men’s stories, a guardian angel in fact.

What pushed it to another level, and initially ensured that I kept watching, was that the actors spoke in verse. How ludicrous, you may think, but verse ensures a distance between subject and viewer, a barrier against mere gritty realism. That realism is established in the images, and then undercut by the artificiality of the words, not too artificial I hasten to add but definitely rhyming and fluid in their rhythms. The monologues could be published as a book and still be engaging to read, a point reinforced by my learning that it was a radio play first of all, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in February 2014.

Finally, I think there was a major theme to the narrative. In the old days, the circumstances of failure of these three individuals would be set in a Christian context, in which we would be encouraged to find comfort in religion. I think Michael Symons Roberts’s text is looking two ways: there are no comforts in religion; but its absence has left us comfortless. Hanging in the air, unspoken, is this question: should we be going back to an underpinning theory of life – call it an ideology if you like – that helps us understand the world? Our predecessors did that and called it religion.

The BBC just raised its game for a moment.

note: it occurred to me too that the tone of the film is not that far from Kieslowski’s Decalogue, made for television of course and a Polish version of miserabilism made redemptive.

Credits

text: Michael Simmons Roberts

producer and director: Susan Roberts

director of photography: Tim Baxter.

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LIFE IMITATING ART? HITCHCOCK’S SECRET AGENT

Art first: in Hitchcock’s The Secret Agent the hero Ashenden, a British spy, and his partner, ‘The General’, have to meet a contact, clandestinely and mysteriously of course. The contact is waiting in a church. Ashenden and the General arrive and find the church empty except for a strange drone filling the space, and a figure that appears to be playing the organ. They approach but when they put a hand on the organist’s shoulder, he topples backwards, dead!

Hitchcock Secret Agent

Now, life: at the age of 67 the distinguished French composer and organist, Louis Vierne, played his 1750th organ recital. At the end of it he slumped over the console as his foot hit the E pedal. He had died in the saddle, as it were.

You would think that Hitchcock heard this news and thought it would be a magnificent idea to use in his film. Unfortunately it just will not work. The Secret Agent was released in May 1936 and Vierne died in June 1937.

So, not art imitating life but rather life imitating art. Except it doesn’t quite: Vierne died of natural causes, albeit in a macabre manner; the film organist died of strangulation. So – a striking coincidence, but no more. Still enjoyable, though.

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The bullet that killed Nelson

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Death of Nelson by West

I saw an exhibition last Saturday called ‘Nelson and Norfolk’ at Norwich Castle Museum. Everyone in Norfolk knows that Admiral Lord Nelson was born in Norfolk and went to school in Norwich, but this fact may have escaped others not born in or not living in Norfolk. Never mind the Norfolk connection, it is a fascinating exhibition, really about the creation of the Nelson legend.

So, in Nelson’s case, given the choice between fact and legend, do you only print the legend? Not quite: in his case the facts firmly underpinned the legend. It made me think of a Death of Nelson film, on the lines of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, that is to say from the different viewpoints of those involved.

It opens in the midst of the Battle of Trafalgar, all smoke, fire, destruction, dead and dying, above all action from the still living (a bit like the film Dunkirk). The camera in a long crane shot comes to focus on a French soldier preparing his musket and crossing himself. He inserts the little round bullet, he kisses it, he shins aloft the mizzen mast carrying the musket (not easy, surely?), and proceeds to scan the decks of the Victory seeking suitable targets. Then he spies the Admiral himself – or is it the Admiral? Yes, it must be, he’s only got one arm. So he manoeuvres himself to a good position, except Nelson keeps moving about a little, and his officers and midshipmen keep getting in the way, so will he, won’t he get his shot in before he loses his chance. And then the way clears, the Admiral stands in view, the music comes to a crescendo. The Frenchman shoots; Nelson sinks into legend.

After the Long Shot, a Middle Distance view. Rewind. Do the same scene viewed by a British midshipman running messages, clearing a passage and so on. We watch the midshipman watching Nelson and then gasping when he sees him shot. (It’s a ‘Where were you when JFK was assassinated?’ moment.)

Rewind again. This time it’s a close-up view, from Nelson’s close friend, Captain Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s shock: he quickly looks where the bullet came from and sees, from a long way off, a Frenchman exultant in the rigging.

After Nelson is struck, we get the doctor’s view, choosing not to remove the bullet because the case is hopeless. Nelson only has hours to live.

The dying Nelson asks for a progress report on the sea battle. Flashback to him briefing his admirals before the battle. Digital/animated reconstruction of scenes from the battle in the manner of contemporary marine painting. Narrative up to point where Victory tangles with Redoubtable. Scene of French officer ordering sniper aloft with orders to pick out Nelson.

Scene of report given to dying Nelson of victory.

A series of tableaux of the Death of Nelson: was it like a photograph, unglamorous fact? Was it like a catholic apotheosis on the lines of a Deposition from the Cross? Was it on the orlop deck (a public spectacle)? Or in the stern cabin (a private spectacle)? The fact that it is public is important for the legend.

Armitage, Edward, 1817-1896; The Death of Nelson

Death of Nelson by Devis

Death of Nelson by Legrand

End with news of the victory and of the death of Nelson being brought to the Admiralty in London. After the sound and fury, silence.

Final sequence: the bullet that killed Nelson is extracted by the doctor from the corpse of Nelson – gruesome, Baconian close-up. What to do with the bullet? Hardy takes the bullet and resolves to mount it in a locket and give it to the King. The final image is of this sacred relic on display in an exhibition in the Queen’s Collection.

Nelson's bullet

‘Nelson and Norfolk’ is on at the Castle Museum in Norwich until Sunday, 1 October 2017.

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DUNKIRK REVISITED

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Seeing Dunkirk  a second time made me spot something which had passed me by in the IMAX image-blitz of the first viewing (see previous post). Nolan deals with three time-frames in the film: a week for the infantryman, a day for Mr Dawson and his boat, an hour for the flight of three Spitfires, and they all come together at a key point around three-quarters of the way through the film. To cope with this, Nolan puts the narrative on pause: we see a Heinkel attack a minesweeper from the air, then we cut away to something else, we then resume the narrative (actually Nolan has wound it back slightly, I think) from a viewpoint in Dawson’s boat. Secondly, the film’s cross-cutting is far from simple since the three stories on land, on sea and in the air are being shown ‘simultaneously’ but did not happen all at the same time.  I hadn’t glued these things together when I first saw the film, but now I have at least a little.

I like time puzzles in films so I like this one, but there is another pleasure because it connects the film to some of Nolan’s others which opt for a labyrinthine manipulation of time and memory: Memento, The Prestige, Inception.

Still pursuing the auteur theory after all these years, I watched The Prestige again to see if I could see how one film-maker made both it and Dunkirk. They share top production values of course, as they do with a lot of Hollywood films. Prestige is much more labyrinthine, and consequently for all the fascination it engenders rather heartless, not an adjective that applies to Dunkirk. However, they do come to some degree from the same mind, although this is significantly complicated by the fact that Christopher’s brother, Jonathan, helped with the screenplay for Memento and Prestige. If Dunkirk is less labyrinthine, is that because Jonathan was not involved in the screenplay? I doubt it because Inception, Christopher Nolan’s most intricate film about time and space, did not involve his brother.

As it happens Prestige has a strand quite of its own. Is it a metaphor – I am sure other commentators have picked up on this – for the invention of the cinema? The film carefully makes sure that the spectator understands the trick behind each illusion of magic, while still preserving the magic. The birth of the cinema, which like the setting of Prestige belongs to the end of the 19th century, is both a mechanical process (projecting each image for a fraction of a second) and a scientific one (the phenomenon of persistence of vision on the retina means we see differently from a camera mechanism). We want the illusion created by moving images but once you know how this comes about you ‘see’ film is a rapid sequence of images.

One of the earliest filmmakers, the Frenchman George Méliès, was a magician before he was a film-maker. Prestige enjoys showing us conjuring tricks as if filmed in real time when film-editing makes them the easiest thing in the world to re-create. But the film narrative, in its pursuit of the Tesla transporter, wants to tell us, just as Méliès did, that there is a magic (or so it seems) beyond the magic: the trick is that there is no trick.

I had to re-see Prestige to get some sort of grasp on the film, and no doubt need to re-see it again to get a better one. Will Dunkirk need these repeated viewings? Maybe, but one would do it more for the pleasure and excitement of images than to fathom what is going on.

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