PORDENONE FESTIVAL OF SILENT FILM 2018

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Italy is rich in its cities and towns. I had never heard of Pordenone, a small to medium town an hour or so north of Venice on the plain fronting the Dolomites, until I was persuaded to come to its Giornate del Cinema Muto or Silent Film Festival, an Italian gift to the world but this is yet another attractive Italian place. This Italian richness comes also from their food and their ice creams, and from their architecture, for which they have a special genius.

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Duomo by day . . .

Duomo at night 1

. . . and by night

Look at Pordenone’s Piazza San Marco with Duomo facade and bell-tower (above), and the mediaeval Gothic town hall, at the core of the historic centre (below), a portion of which was lost to Allied bombing in December 1944.

DSCN1166    bell tower reflected

But also striking was the Piazzale 20 September, a broad square with a hospital for war wounded put centre stage (see at end). This is a piece of Fascist-era (I think) architecture, with a resounding inscription: quo fata trahunt retrahuntque sequamur; quicquid erit, superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est (which being translated reads: “Where Fate keeps leading us, let us follow; whatever it will be, all conquest comes through endurance”). This is iron-clad, golden-era Latin by Vergil, the poet of Roman imperialism, who like Fascist-era architecture is in our present time suspect but whose time will surely come again. Just as good is the newly built Teatro Verdi in which the majority of the festival’s films were shown, an imposing modern building of clean lines and curves.

Teatro Verdi day

Teatro Verdi night

The Pordenone Festival had several themes, two of particular interest to me: the silent films of John M Stahl, and a scatter of Scandinavian films. I found myself being drawn to the idea of reputations, how they are received and built and knocked down. Here are five thoughts:

1              John Stahl is a forgotten film-maker, undeservedly. In the new book, ‘The Call of the Heart –John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama,’ Charles Barr, one of the co-editors, argues that his strong association with melodrama and the ‘woman’s film’ is a key to this neglect. “Those mainstays of popular cinema are no longer the object of critical scorn or indifference, but Stahl has until now hardly benefited from this welcome change in attitude.”

Bruce & Charles

Bruce Babington and Charles Barr, joint editors of ‘The Call of the Heart’, leading a discussion on the merits of John Stahl

What is more, Stahl died too early to feature in Kevin Brownlow’s ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ (1968) or to be lionized as one of the Hollywood long-distance auteurs such as Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Walsh and others.

It probably made it harder that the genre he worked in was melodrama which I once thought of as an acquired taste, but as I have got older, I find I have acquired it and can now accept that narrative implausibility can be trumped by dramatic impetus. I think Robert Bresson himself was not immune to the seductions of melodrama in which the ordinary is rendered as extraordinary; at least, his Diary of a Country Priest (1950) can be seen through the lens of melodrama, and his first film, The Angels of Sin (1943), which is set in a nunnery, even more so.

2              Ernst Lubitsch’s career has a different trajectory. The filmgoer in the radical 1960s could read about his reputation and his fabled ‘Lubitsch touch’. Consider the verdict in Georges Sadoul’s ‘Dictionnaire des Cinéastes’ published in 1965: “An able man who even when he was vulgar never lacked verve and know-how.” To me it all felt old-fashioned at the time, and in several decades of rather desultory contact with his films, I have not found Lubitsch to be my glass of tea. A screening of his Forbidden Paradise (1923) in a pristine print and with beautiful musical accompaniment of violin, piano and percussion was a chance to overturn my prejudices. It did not do so, although the rest of the audience was positively enthusiastic; my embarrassment was deepened by the fact that the screening was attended by Lubitsch’s daughter, Nicola, now an elegant and vivacious elderly lady who, in a separate session, reminisced with engaging stories about her father and her life. I felt I should treat her father better than I could bring myself to do.

Nicola Lubitsch w D Robinson & J Weissberg

Nicola Lubitsch with David Robinson and Jay Weissberg (on right), the Giornate Director

Nothing risks suffering from shelf-life like comedy. Forbidden Paradise is about Catherine the Great of Russia’s love affairs. A revolution was going on in the background, entirely free of violence; the Imperial soldiers were kitted out like a chorus line in over-the-top uniforms; the lord chamberlain advising Catherine (Adolphe Menjou) was a forerunner of Sir Humphrey in the TV sitcom, ‘Yes, Minister’. It was as if Lubitsch hid reality behind a veil of lightness for fear of confronting its tragic quality. This is a perfectly tenable position, if not my own, and it is a reflection on our present time that Lubitsch should be coming back into fashion. Reputations rise and fall, and rise again.

3              I did not feel that the reputation of Jacques Feyder was enhanced by a showing of his L’Atlantide (1921) torpedoed in the middle third of its narrative by the dreary décors of the secret city of Atlantis and even more so by the casting of Napierkowska as the Queen, who was definitely lacking in the femme fatale department. Georges Sadoul wielded the knife in describing her acting as ‘très 1910’.

4              The fourth reputation I had to revise in my mind was that of Gianbattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), the painter of walls and ceilings in churches and palaces to enhance the illusion of heavenly space. I went on the bus tour to the nearby town of Udine to see the Tiepolos in the Diocesan Museum created from the archiepiscopal palace. Most extraordinary was the waiting room where his technique could be studied close to, and the throne room where a remarkable version of the Judgement of Solomon

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was painted on the ceiling. Like other great painters, he had the technical mastery of sky, light, fabrics, faces and flesh, and allied these gifts to compositional brilliance, taking Renaissance perspective to a more elevated level.

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the angel appearing to Abraham’s wife Sarah

Tiepolo is closely linked to the flourishing of baroque architecture, another taste I have had difficulty in acquiring. I sense that fifty years ago his reputation was perhaps not as stellar as it is now and he provides another example of the fickleness of human taste. In our present culture of hyperbole, he has become an adornment.

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staircase in the archiepiscopal palace

5              Like painters, filmmakers have to adjust to the ravages of time, a process which brings us back to the festival. Its purpose is to ensure that silent films get exposure, since without it they are never going to receive the critical judgement and appreciation due to them. Without the work of archives and the exposure of their labours at events like the Giornate we would be deprived of the opportunity of seeing the Scandinavian films of the silent era. We know about Hollywood before the coming of sound, about German Expressionist cinema, about French masterpieces of the time, about silent Hitchcock in the UK, but alongside these must be put the dramatic masterpieces coming out of Scandinavia. A film-maker like Victor Sjöström from Sweden made remarkable use of landscape and setting, and in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921) one of the great ‘bottle or bible’ narratives, silent or sound; Carl Dreyer from Denmark was represented by his Prästänkan / Parson’s Widow (1921), a delicious comedy that turns powerfully poignant by the end. But there were other film-makers as well. I especially liked Walter Fürst’s Troll-Elgen/The Ghost Elk (Norway 1927). One hopes that further opportunity can be given to showing these Scandinavian films, since their reputation is only going to grow.

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I do not quite know why but being in Italy always prompts in me bizarre reflections, so I must conclude with them:

item 1:      why should the grand Hotel Villa Ottoboni accompany its breakfasts, held in a grand breakfast room, with relentless europop? The mighty are fallen.

Item 2:      I need a decent bowl of decent muesli to set me up for the day. In this same hotel, the best cereal they could offer was coco-pops – but fear not, it was labelled brazenly as ‘muesli’. In the country that produced the two greatest writers on the gap between the appearance of power and the reality of power, namely the Roman historian Tacitus and the Renaissance thinker Machiavelli, what you read is not what you get.

Item 3:      from the outside and in the news Italy appears to be a single unified country, but the reality is that it is fissiparous. I spotted two sets of graffiti on motorway bridges: ‘Basta Italia, semi Veneti / Italy go to hell, we are Venetians,’ and then later ‘Basta Roma, basta tasse / Rome go to hell, we’ve had enough of taxes.’ Despite these sentiments, Italy is still one country, so perhaps the solution to this problem is to conclude that while Italy’s appearance is of a divided country, in reality the country is unified by its dislike of central authority.

Piazzale XX Settembre

The Piazzale XX Settembre: the date records the capture of Rome as the culmination of Italian unification in 1870. 

‘The Call of the Heart – John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama’ is published by John Libbey Publishing (see http://www.johnlibbey.com). It is distributed by Indiana UP,  and is available on Amazon. It covers all his films and I have contributed the essay on Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom (1944).

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COLD WAR: battles are fought at the edge of maps

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I first heard the precept “Battles are fought at the edge of maps” from a friend of mine whose father had been in the military, but I was unclear exactly what it meant. It did sound intelligent if gnomic.

I then came across it in Robert Bresson’s ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’, his collection of pensées, wise if still gnomic, distilled from his experience of film-making up to 1975 when he had already made eleven features. His formulation was as follows: “What happens in the joins [French jointures]. ‘The great battles,’ Général de M. . .  used to say, ‘are nearly always begun at the points of intersection of the staff maps.’” (The general’s name is coyly withheld – who was this genius? Actually I feel that the idea was just as likely to have been formulated as a throwaway thought by some anonymous officer, an unconsidered trifle which was then picked up and made into something more considered.)

My friend from whom I had first heard the aphorism clarified for me that it came about he thinks in the Second World War when in doing reconnaissance (since “time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted”) officers found that the area they wished particularly to study required two maps side by side, or even four maps corner-to-corner, because as sod’s law would have it the particularly interesting terrain, the terrain of particular concern for the battle to come, was right on the edge or at the corner of the map. (The problem is solved now by the maps all being digital so one can choose where to have the centre point.)

I can understand this militarily, but confess some puzzlement as to what Bresson was thinking. My interpretation is that it is in the juxtaposition between shot A and shot B of a film that significant meaning arises: at the point where the shot changes, i.e. the joins, the spectator is pitched into a new development, or the unexpected, or sudden enhanced anticipation of what is going to happen.

The general idea continues to have traction: the gnomic can somehow be mesmerising. Lo and behold it is the epigraph to Michael Ondaatje’s new novel ‘Warlight’ in this form: “Most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographical maps.” In the acknowledgements this is credited to ‘a remark made by Robert Bresson during a filmed interview’. That brings the two strands together: the idea somehow current in the ether and the name of Robert Bresson. Roll over, Général de M.

Well I remain uncertain as to quite what Bresson meant, and wish he was still alive so that we could ask him. I think it may also relate closely to the precision of his film-making, especially in the reconnaissance stage, but also when he was improvising on set. Does it refer to stripping away everything to leave some essence?

Although Pawel Pawlikovsky’s Cold War could not be described as Bressonian, it does have that sense of precision that you find in Bresson’s films and which can be such an unexpected ingredient of compelling story-telling. I particularly admired the way that the narrative made jumps forcing the spectator to fill in the gaps, without ever at any point making this too difficult. It shares too with Bresson the quality of compression that makes the film much larger than its 88-minute length. In a hyperbolic age, this is extremely valuable.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

FIRST REFORMED second time round

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This film (see previous entry) continues to stick in my mind. At the end of July I attended a service at St Paul’s episcopal church at Port Townsend, in Washington State (tip of NW corner of USA, looking out on Puget Sound). My Anglicanism is very much Catholic But Reformed, but this Rite 1 communion service was emphatically Protestant, very much focussed on the Word. Just like First Reformed I thought. The church even looks a bit like the one in First Reformed.

St Paul's Port Townsend

Subsequently I dreamt up a Stem of Bernanos, like the stem of Jesse:

Stem of Bernanos PDF [click to open]

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

FIRST REFORMED, SCHRADER REINVENTED

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Paul Schrader was born in 1946, so he is 72 years old and maybe feeling the chariot of death pressing on behind. While there is time he needs to make not just another film, but to revisit his youth in all its intensity: the rigour of his Calvinist upbringing, the life-changing discovery of moving images, the heady atmosphere of radicalism engendered by US involvement in the Vietnam War.

So, obviously, he must go back to Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, art-house deities of his youth. Schrader belongs to that cine-literate Hollywood generation that emerged in the 1970s – Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas and others – only his cine-literacy was as much in the European arthouse film as in commercial or pulp film-making. As a measure of his precocious obsession, he published a book on Dreyer, Bresson and Ozu in 1972 at the age of 26, and when he got down to script-writing and later directing, their intensity informed his narratives. His main protagonists are ulcerous, and it seems in character that Schrader started his script for Taxi Driver while hospitalised for ulcer treatment in 1972. Travis Bickle wrestles on behalf of us all.

First Reformed draws on two particular films, Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne/ Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Nattvardsgästerna/ Winter Light, and the Reverend Toller is in a lineage that begins with the young curé of the Journal, and moves to Pastor Ericsson in Winter Light. (Bergman claimed to have been tremendously fond of Bernanos’ original novel, and had seen Bresson’s film of it seven or eight times before he made Winter Light.) Watching First Reformed, I felt blissfully happy to see that this noble line had not been extinguished.

First Reformed

So – First Reformed consciously, deliberately and imperiously starts from Bresson and Bergman, and in the Facebook age, Schrader asserts a deeper historical continuity about human corruption and the compelling need for salvation. The film is Pascalian just when I thought we had forgotten how to be so. Big question: do you believe in the environmental apocalypse to come? Big answer: it is better to say yes, since if you’re right you will do something about it. Anyway, can you dare bet it won’t happen in view of what we are doing to the planet? This is a version of Pascal’s Wager, and, as Bresson said in 1965, “Pascal is for everyone.” We are predestined for destruction, and although Toller argues that humans cannot predict the future, you have a sense that having wrestled like Jacob with the angel in the person of the young environmental activist Michael, he cannot get rid of the idea that the future is determined for us, and it is grim. This engenders not doubt about the existence of God (as with Pastor Eriksson), but doubt that he can ever forgive us.

For a Hollywood film, it is extremely spare. Admittedly Ethan Hawke plays Toller, well known to audiences from a lot of films, especially those of Richard Linklater, but, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he manages to offload this baggage. At any rate to me the rest of the cast are unknowns, and certainly unfamiliar. Although Schrader is closer to the Bergman mantra, “Actors are trained to express complexities” than to Bresson’s idea of the actor as ‘model’ who is “involuntarily expressive”, yet with his small cast of characters Schrader manages to echo in an authentic manner the whole society Bresson conjures up in Journal.

I watched the film wondering whether it would end with Bernanos’/Bresson’s “All is Grace” but Schrader steers it convincingly in his own non-slavish direction. And the boldest, super-contrarian move he makes is to film his story in the 4:3 format of classical cinema, which in an age of hyperbolical wide-screen film-making especially catches us out, reminding us that this format has not been bettered for allowing the intense, microscope-like gaze of the camera.

The big theme of the film is apocalypse. The narrative not just reinvents the curé’s psychosomatic cancer in Journal, but Michael’s pessimism about the environment rhymes with Persson’s fear of nuclear destruction in Winter Light. It rhymes too with the central idea of Bresson’s most pessimistic film, Le Diable probablement / The Devil Probably, which in the face of man-made environmental catastrophe rejects the church, Marxism, outright libertarianism – and other nostrums – in favour of suicide. Is this too melodramatic? But then so many powerful dramas and films hinge on a melodramatic premise, and in First Reformed the idea makes for compelling viewing. It poses too a central challenge for theists. A director as Bible-literate as Schrader manages deftly to bring in the counter-arguments to outright pessimism: the apostle Paul’s “The whole of creation is groaning for release from bondage” (Romans 8.22) and God’s words in Job chapter 38.4: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” But are they a sufficient counterweight?

How all this comes to a climax should be discussed as well, but I shall refrain for fear of revealing the ending. Suffice it to say that Schrader unexpectedly moves into Tarkovskian territory with the levitation from Offret / The Sacrifice, but then goes beyond it, and miles too beyond the Bressonian universe, with a magical sequence of digital film-making. You almost wish he had done the whole film in 3-D.

Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky are central figures in my New Filmgoers Guide to God, published by Matador in 2014, available on Amazon.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

 

Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and what they can teach film-makers

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Short films on Vimeo – there’s a lot of them out there. Some are even good, and you can ‘like’ them, and choose to follow the filmmaker. But, to make a generalisation, very few of these film-makers have thought enough about ‘form’.

Form can be imposed at two points: the editing bench springs first to mind, which is where Eisenstein, the author of the celebrated ‘Film Form’, placed a particular emphasis. But it can also be imposed in the camera, at the moment the film is being shot. This is Stan Brakhage’s major contribution to film aesthetics: even if he did not discover it, yet in view of the magnitude of his corpus, it is where the idea was most explored.

Now compare music. The same challenge exists: how do you impose form on a sequence of sounds? Western music answers this differently, since it has some eight or nine centuries of history behind it (assuming, arbitrarily I concede, a starting-point of Gregorian chant). Those centuries have been used to explore expressiveness of effect, but also to explore expressiveness of means. Composers have asked themselves questions about how to juxtapose notes, sequences of notes, sections of music – as it were, words, sentences and paragraphs.

Film is 120 years old, but has it concerned itself with these formal questions? Not nearly enough, because film is assumed to be made from representing persons, objects, dramas. It is not: it is made from frames and shots and sequences.

Music is made in the head, in itself, of itself. Film can be made in the head, but for the most part it is made from what is in front of the camera. It may be made ‘in itself’ but it is assumed mostly to be made ‘of something else’.

This train of thought is prompted by hearing the pianist, Cédric Tiberghien, perform John Cage’s ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ at Snape in Suffolk on 12 June. This is music made in Cage’s head, seemingly outside the Western tradition since he took his inspiration from Eastern philosophy and the sound of Eastern music. He wanted to break the listener out of the expectation which he or she brings to the music, in order to enlarge their understanding of the world. However, Cage did not jettison Western music. For a start he used the pianoforte – and then radically amended its sound world by the idea of the ‘prepared piano’.

Cage prepared piano - June 2018

This ropey image shows the piano prepared by the insertion of screws, nuts, bolts etc. between the strings to alter their timbre and make the piano sound more percussive, a process which Tiberghien said took him five hours. As we peered into it before the concert began, someone said, “Isn’t that fabulous?” – before she had even heard the noise the piano would make. Then someone commented, “Look at those screws. It’s hard to get that kind these days.” When I took this photo, someone asked, “Did you get a photo? People will never guess what it’s of.”

Secondly, the title ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ looks to Western compositional tradition, an AABB structure going back to 17th/18th-century sonata form, at least for thirteen of the sixteen sonatas. It is in the interludes particularly that Cage breaks away from this (which is why they are interludes). And the overall structure is a formal one: sonatas 1 to 4/interlude 1/sonatas 5 to 8/interludes 2 and 3/sonatas 9 to 12/interlude 4/sonatas 13 to 16. Listening to it brought to mind Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, whose ‘thirty variations reiterate the harmonic implications of the same bass in thirty different forms’, so that when at the end the opening melody is brought back, we hear it differently. It feels cyclical.

I think cyclicality is a part of the Sonatas and Interludes. I read that it starts and ends in G major, although in my musical ignorance I could not hear that, except subconsciously perhaps since when the piece came to a close you could feel a sense of a journey completed.

So, is hearing the Goldberg Variations a cerebral exercise, and hearing the Sonatas and Interludes an ‘emotive’ one? No, since they are both cerebral, and both emotive. At Snape, in a darkened auditorium (where I could not read my notes to give me an intellectual way into the piece), I listened transfixed to the sounds, the clusters of sound, and each of the twenty pieces, and experienced a direct communication across the darkness from the pianist’s hands to my brain processing what my ears were hearing. This was underlined by the softness of the sounds as a result of the dampening and detuning provided by the piano being ‘prepared’. The result is much more piano than forte.

This served Cage’s purpose well. Drawing on ideas he had read in the work of the Indian sage Coomaraswamy, he wanted to convey eight ‘emotions’ (humorous, angry, fearful etc.) that led the novice to a ninth state, that of tranquillity. I could not hear any of the eight emotions, except perhaps anger, but you get a strong feeling of tranquillity being the core of the piece, its purpose and its effect. Again, Cage (I think) rejects the Western idea of ‘programme music’ for an ‘atmosphere’.

Sonatas and Interludes therefore looks both east and west, an idea confirmed by Cage’s very helpful comment that the bell-like sounds are from Europe and the drum-like sounds – metallic, wooden, dampened, detuned maybe – are from Asia. This is what makes it such a major work, straddling a divide between east and west, a bold attempt at global synthesis, suitable it may be considered for a country that had just fought a major war on two fronts, Europe and the Pacific – and had won. The USA was opening itself to the world, in effect was de-isolating itself.

Cage is therefore very much of his time, and it is also true that his originality allowed him to be fascinated and seduced by an Asian sound world, notably the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia. After Cage came the Japanese Toru Takemitsu, a master of ‘Japanese sound’ influenced by French musical impressionism, Debussy, Messiaen and others. And his rain music evoking rain-drops on water, patterning it to the eye, and resonating it in the ear, is very close to the sound world of the Sonatas and Interludes.

So, it was a wonderful concert. But as someone interested in film, I was envious: why cannot our film-makers do something like this? Take Brakhage’s Text of Light (1974, 67 minutes). This is an abstract film composed entirely of light patterns, but any sense of form eludes me. You can admire its textures and their variety, and the idea that “All that is, is light”, but where do you enter this work, where do you leave it? In defence, Brakhage might invoke the idea applied to Sonatas and Interludes, that Cage is “following a system, but he has no idea where he is going” (see James Pritchett in ‘Six Views of the Sonatas and Interludes’ at  http://rosewhitemusic.com/piano/writings/six-views-sonatas-interludes/), but this is admirable only up to a point, for where is the system being followed?

So, going back to Vimeo. Too many of the films I have been looking at feel too experimental, too random. There may be virtue in jettisoning Western ideas of order, tradition, proportion, a classical architecture as it were, but as I watched and admired these films I longed for those ideas to be brought back. But because film has not got all those centuries behind it, it lacks the grounding which Cage had in launching his experiments.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

My film diaries

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Finally, after fifty years, I have launched my film diaries as a dvd. I started a film diary in 1968 when I acquired a standard 8mm camera, and laid it down in 1987 having compiled some 6 or 7 hours of film edited down to 5½ hours. The material lay in a cupboard dreaming . . . until in 2015 I began to get it digitized, then re-edited it and added voice-over and music. Three years later I had a 3¼ hour diary film with a title: LIGHT YEARS – THE FILM DIARIES OF TIM CAWKWELL 1968 TO 1987. By March I had this in dvd format and by April it was all cased and shrink-wrapped. There is even a 20-page booklet to go with it. And so, on 9 May, at the Poetry Café in London, I was able to launch the dvd to an invited audience. It is now available online from Lux (go to: http://bit.ly/LIGHTyrs) and you can see a taster on Vimeo (http://bit.ly/LYtrailerVimeo) or on YouTube (http://bit.ly/LYtrailerYT).

Here are some images from it:

LY M 5  LY T 4

LY horse

LY Siena 2

The film is divided into three main parts and 25 individual short films. Each can be watched on its own or as part of a whole, a visual self-examination over 21 years.

As I say, available from LUX: http://bit.ly/LIGHTyrs.

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

FILM PORTRAITS 2: TACITA DEAN

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The National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition of film portraits by Tacita Dean. It runs until 28 May 2018.

The first one you see is the trademark profile of David Hockney with his trademark circular glasses, and an even more recognizable trademark – a cigarette smoked without inhibition or self-consciousness. Love him, love his cigarette. There are a few edits of this sixteen-minute film so that we also get some idea of his studio in Los Angeles where he was preparing a selection of painted portraits for an exhibition in London. The screen hangs in the middle of a dark spatial cube with the film projected from a corner and the beam angled at 90 degrees by a mirror onto a backlit screen. This effect was terrific.

Sixteen minutes. When did I last spend sixteen minutes at one time looking at a painted portrait? The answer is that I never have. To see this exhibition you need to give at least an hour and a half to watching all the films one after the other – assuming of course that is what you do, which is not what I saw the trickle of visitors doing.

So what is the right length for a film portrait? Too long and the experience just becomes tedious; too short and it fails to become immersive. In the latter case why not have a series of photos? For example Mario Merz (2002), one of Dean’s first portraits, is 8½ minutes long. We start by being teased by a shot of Merz’s face in shadow, but in due course our wish to see the face properly is granted, and at the end we see him shuffling in his garden, poignantly enough since the film was made a year before he died. His prop was a pine cone because he was fascinated by the Fibonacci Series (Google it). Would it have been the same if we had seen four photographs: face in shadow, face in sunlight, garden, pine cone? At least the film draws us into spending time in his presence provided we are patient, whereas a few photographs would be viewed in a minute or so, and leave a different impression. A photograph gives a likeness; a film portrait can give a likeness but also an atmosphere.

Another relatively early work is Michael Hamburger (2007) made in the author’s Suffolk cottage, a film that comes closest to a conventional film portrait, except that its capturing of the atmosphere of the house and garden as much as of Hamburger himself breaks out from these conventions. Hamburger was a poet and translator, but the film particularly focuses on his interest in the different varieties of apples he grows and the orchard belonging to the house. So weather is important in the film and it ends with a shot of a rainbow over the house, a sacralizing event.

There are disappointments. Providence (2017) is shot on anamorphic film (which produces a wide-screen ratio of 1 (height) to 2.35 (width), effective enough in the case of Michael Hamburger) so that Dean can juxtapose the actor David Warner in profile, filmed in the UK, with hummingbirds filmed in Los Angeles. If you wonder about this juxtaposition (and there is no obligation to do so – just accept it) you have to be told in the caption that Warner loves hummingbirds. This is at the same time banal (who would not love watching hummingbirds?) and annoying (why do you have to read a caption to learn this? Could this information not be incorporated in the film in some way?). I had my own private disappointment with the film, which is not Dean’s fault. I have still a vivid memory of Warner as Henry VI in The Wars of the Roses at Stratford in the early sixties, and as Hamlet at Stratford in 1965, playing him as a disaffected student and thus chiming with the mood of the times. Seeing this low-key film of him somehow felt flat: I wanted him to launch into Shakespeare. Still, there is an interest in seeing an actor onscreen trying not to act. Was Warner deliberately trying to avoid performance? This is an interesting point about all film portraiture. Perhaps even with painted portraiture it could be said that Titian’s subjects (for example) could all be said to be performing. Photographic portraiture on the other hand is just as good when it captures the subject off-guard, a technique that Degas and Lautrec, for example, tried to make use of in the nineteenth century.

Nor could I be bothered with Manhattan Mouse Museum showing Claes Oldenburg arranging objects in his studio. My indifference may have had more to do with observation fatigue on my part as much as a lack of interest in the subject, which I concede might be very revealing to Oldenburg fans.

That fatigue was partially caused by trying to take an interest in the 29-minute film portrait of Cy Twombly (Edwin Parker, 2011), made in Twombly’s studio in Lexington, Virginia but being hardly familiar with his painting I somehow could not rouse any great enthusiasm. The film certainly had a characteristic gentleness and respect for its subject and the glimpses of his studio made him feel elusive, which is probably the point. Similarly elusive was the visit he makes with two friends to a restaurant in Lexington which was a desultory affair reinforced by their inaudibility as they made conversation. Dean also shows in the exhibition fifty or so underwhelming photographs taken in Twombly’s studio, especially disappointing.

The best in fact came last. A large space, which I measured as roughly 35m long by 13m wide is given over to a six-screen installation of a film portrait of Merce Cunningham (Merce Cunningham performs Stillness, 2008). Here is a rough sketch of these six screens and the projectors to show how the spectator could wander around the space:

Tac Dean installation of Merce C portrait

The film loop is relatively short because it is of Cunningham ‘listening’ to the composer John Cage’s piece ‘4 minutes 33 seconds’, a silent composition except that it is not silent because it makes you listen to ambient sound, which in this case is coming up from the New York street below, emphatically ambient you might say. With the six soundtracks going in one space, plus the sound of six projectors, the effect is positively raucous. Between them these six projected films of Cunningham make up something of a hologram, a definite virtual presence in a way the other portraits are not, and by far the most immersive work of all.

In the end I realized I was fatigued by watching all these elderly men, since of the eight works shown only GDGDA (2011) is of the relatively young female artist Julie Mehretu.

I should not be telling Dean nor the NPG about their business but I did want more variety of portraiture: more people, not just celebrated elderly male artists. And I wanted shorter, sharper, wittier films. I was disappointed too by the number of technicians involved for each film. For example, I counted eight for the Hockney film portrait plus a number of laboratories involved, which made the film seem overdetermined. Surely these film portraits can be made with someone operating the camera, someone doing the sound, and Dean making it all happen in the way she wants?

 

http://www.timcawkwell.co.uk

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

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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