Down in the crypt . . .


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Last Wednesday I descended to The Tanks at Tate Modern in London, the crypt-like space made from where oil was stored in the days the building was a power station, Tate Modern’s past life so to speak.


Here there is an installation worth catching of nine screens of the work of the Thai film-maker and installation artist, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Go for the experience first of all, which is immersive: you can lie on the floor and lose yourself in time and the darkness, and soak up several screens that are separated in space at the same time. With the focus film, Primitive, one screen was on top of the other; while I have seen screens side-by-side, I have not seen this before. But putting aside the novelty, go for the images. AW has a thing about fire. You can see some young men playing flaming football, i.e. as they kick it about the ball is on fire. You can see artificial lightning flashes. These are intriguing because I thought at first they were ground-to-air fireworks, but as I looked I concluded they were activated by an electrical flash transmitted from above the camera frame, and therefore offscreen, to a lightning conductor in the ground. The ambiguity about how it was done is suspenseful, and anyway, the result is spectacular. Most extraordinary was the moment in Primitive when a figure in a white garment moves through a deep twilight landscape, and suddenly the garment bursts into flames, giving a vision of an animated flame-sculpture moving in the darkness.

I tend to be wary of modern film-making, because the technology has caused film-makers to jettison the chemistry that comes from between shots, from juxtapositions of forms and meanings, in favour of letting the camera run, and of running the risk of losing the visual excitement that editing can give. But here AW creates spectacular thrills for the camera to film, which are beautifully presented in this cavernous space.

Here is a list of the films on screen (all 2009):

  • I’m Still Breathing (11 min)
  • Nabua (9 min)
  • Primitive (30 min)
  • Nabua Song (4 min)
  • An Evening Shoot (4 min)
  • Making of the Spaceship (28 min)
  • A Dedicated Machine (1 min 35 secs)
  • Phantoms of Nabua (11 min)
  • A Letter to Uncle Boonmee

If you go, give yourself time.




Stan Brakhage – the works


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Émilie Vergé (ed.)

STAN BRAKHAGE: FILMS (1952-2003)           Catalogue raisonné

446pp. Paris Expérimental [], 65 euros, ISBN 978 2 912539 49 6

‘Catalogue raisonné’? ‘Filmography’ is the usual word to connote a film-maker’s list of films with dates and collaborators. So, why apply the idea of the catalogue raisonné, normally used of painters, to the work of the film-maker Stan Brakhage? The answer is that Brakhage was such an unusual film-maker. When he died in 2003, at the age of 70, he had more than 350 films to his name, the longest 260 minutes, the shortest 31 seconds. Up to now it has not been easy to get to grips with the totality of his work, only a portion being available on DVD. Paris Expérimental is to be congratulated on this bi-lingual catalogue that at a stroke allows an overview of all five decades of Brakhage’s career. The idea of a catalogue is apt in another way too: Brakhage was a visual artist like a painter and not a film director who collaborated with others.

This is the opening paragraph of my review of this new book cataloguing Brakhage’s large output of films. For the full review, go to:


Dachas on film 2 – Burnt by the Sun


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Image result for Burnt by the sun

Of course, Mirror (see previous post), is not the only film about dachas, families, the Russian summer and the intersection of private lives and public events. So is Burnt by the Sun, made over twenty years later. That film, made after the fall of Communism, is a bitter story about how Stalin’s Terror intrudes on the life of a family gathered in their dacha – if you are unfamiliar with the film see the plot summary on Wikipedia. It is not a corrective to Mirror, nor even an antidote, but it is a striking contrast. Personally, I am of the opinion that Mirror is the greater film, but many would prefer Burnt by the Sun.

Dachas on film 1 – Mirror


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The measured unrolling of a Tarkovsky retrospective in arthouse cinemas has been one of the pleasures of this summer, at least in the UK, and no film has been more welcome to watch in a darkened chamber on a large screen, with an appreciative audience creating a rapt mood, than Mirror.

Mirror 1

Tarkovsky strikingly said that he knew this private, sometimes baffling film – to the reason, if not to the eye – would strike a deep chord in a Russian audience. So it proved. This intersection of the intimate life of a family with public Soviet history (the episode at the publishing house in the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, crossing Lake Sivash during WW2, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, clashes on the Soviet-China border at Damansky Island in 1969 etc.) is a way many of us experience great events: where were you when Kennedy was shot, when the Berlin Wall was breached, when the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked, when the UK voted Brexit? But as important is the film’s re-creation of the Tarkovsky dacha, this plot of memory-freighted space, this bit of bourgeois property-enjoying, this summer refuge from winter misery. This element is instantly appealing to anyone who has had a family holiday cottage or a regular family holiday destination, the pleasure of first acquaintance being reinforced by subsequent encounters and renewal of the magic. I feel it especially acutely at the moment because I am editing (digitally) my 8mm film diaries from the late 60s and 70s in which Scottish holidays regularly feature.

What baffled me when I first saw the film was a failure to unravel the relationship between the different generations of the family; I learnt on subsequent viewings that Maria is mother, wife and grandmother, that the narrator is looking back to childhood before the war and boyhood during it, and then as father of a boy. Get some sort of a handle on this and you can open a door to the time layers in the film. It is all beautifully explained in Natasha Synessios’s study of Mirror (IB Tauris 2001) which also includes photographs by Lev Gornung of the Tarkovsky family at their dacha in the 1930s. Even when ropily printed, you can see what evocative photographs they are, the potency of which the making of the film has doubled.

Mirror - Gornung's photo

Gornung’s photo of T’s mother, Maria, in 1932 (above) Mirror - NS's book



The unmade film of ‘In Parenthesis’


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Transferring books from stage to screen is a staple of modern culture, but you would not necessarily choose David Jones’s ‘In Parenthesis’ to work your magic on. ‘In Parenthesis’ is a First World War memoir published in 1937 and so a little late in the day compared to Edmund Blunden’s ‘Undertones of War’ (1928), Robert Graves’s ‘Goodbye to All That’ (1929), and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ (1930). But it was worth Jones taking his time, for ‘In Parenthesis’ is the most original of these memoirs and to my mind the most vivid. I first read it in the 1970s, and have cleaved to it ever since.

Its potency is in the way it fuses the vernacular with the poetic, the realistic with the mythological and religious. It is superlative in a number of ways, one of which is the rendition of soldiers’ speech. Since Jones was a private, we are reading here the words of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ not those of the officer class. It is a mixture of Cockney and of Welsh manners and words, for Jones, whose father was Welsh (and mother a catholic) and who was born in London, served in the Welch Fusiliers recruited from London and Wales. This speech would work well on stage, or even better as a radio play – and indeed there was a notable adaptation done for BBC radio. Yet the mythological/religious element presents more of a challenge, even though it is poetry, and poetry is best spoken.

For the challenge with a stage version is doing justice to the visual drama of the story, which runs from the assembly of the Regiment in Wales, through embarkation to France and into the front line (‘cushy, mate, cushy’ as we are unreliably informed). Part 6 is about the wait for the Somme offensive to begin and Part 7 about the attack on Mametz Wood *, a bloody affair in which Jones saw his comrades mown down and himself wounded in the leg, crawling to safety with great difficulty. In the final pages the Queen of the Woods distributes garlands to the fallen soldiers, German as well as British.

In Parenthesis

from Act 2 of the opera – photo by Bill Cooper

So far the book hasn’t got its film; what it now gets is an opera, commissioned from composer Iain Bell by Welsh National Opera, and premiered by them on 13 May 2016 within touching distance of the centenary of the first day of the Somme, 1 July 2016, which is when I saw it performed at the Royal Opera House in London. Opera is wonderful for making the dramatic intensely dramatic and the words memorable through musical phrases. Nothing pierces the heart like it. To see it and hear it for the first time, without preconception, was an intense experience: the production, stage design, movement and gesture; the words sung by a cast of eleven; a full orchestra straining to make all the sounds it can muster. I knew Jones’s text beforehand but it was demanding to watch the action, follow the words on the surtitles, and absorb the score, all at the same time, and hard as it is on the composer, it was his music that I absorbed least. But salvation was at hand because two days later I listened to a broadcast of the opera on radio 3: in this case the visual aspect was absent and the sung words present. In particular the beauties of Bell’s orchestral score were able to assert themselves. Within the space of forty-eight hours I had a second intense encounter with this extraordinary work.

What I want now is a film version. Not one of those anaemic streamed performances to your local arts cinema that are so popular now, but the full synaesthetic experience: in addition to the words as subtitles and the music coming through a full sound system, we should get on the screen the full optical experience of the soldiers in close-up, the flash and crash of the whizz bangs at the front, a realisation of the mystical ending using the full resources of CGI. A 3-D IMAX version would do nicely. And as a film it would have the merit of being digitally available for repeated encounters.

We are still a long way from this. The opera was commissioned by the Nicholas John Trust and supported by the National Lottery and the Department for Culture. Opera is an expensive pastime and has to be subsidised. Making a film is another expensive pastime, but if it is subsidised it is only on a basis of break even and then turning a profit. Fair enough, but on this basis my film of ‘In Parenthesis’ is unlikely to get made.

* “There was some bastard woods as Jerry was sitting tight in and this mob [the Welch fusiliers] had clickt for the job of asking him to move on – if you please – an’ thanks very much indeed, signally obliged to yer, Jerry-boy.”

for a dyspeptic review of the opera by Stephen Walsh go to





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My last post (14 June) was about Little Dog for Roger (Malcolm Le Grice 1968) consciously going back to 1897 and the beginning of cinema. A day or two later I watched 45 Years (Andrew Haigh 2015), a strangled weepie about an old couple excavating a past event in their lives with great pain all round. The main reason to watch it was because it was set in Norfolk, UK, where I live, but it was stimulating enough to prompt serious reflections.

Once again I was struck by the conservatism of British narrative film. Here is a work that – quite unconsciously, as far as I can see – goes back to the first decade of cinema: plonk the camera down and turn the handle, and the actors will do the rest. This they do very well in 45 Years: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay wear suitably crumpled expressions and weep beautifully. “Actors are trained to express complexities” (Ingmar Bergman) and they do. But you can only lament the wooden-ness of the camera work, a timidity in its use of different camera angles or of the moving camera. The film cries out for close-ups since at its dramatic core is the presence (in the attic*) of old photographs. They are used as projected slides in one sequence, effectively enough, but a photograph in the hand would be so much more rivetting.

And why not use close-ups of objects in the house to show what sort of people Geoff and Kate Mercer are. They like popular music from their youth: why not show some old record covers? Think of the opening of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, or even more remarkably, the tour of Norman Bates’s bedroom in Psycho. In Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale there is a marvellous sequence in which the camera travels round Culpeper/the glueman’s study, telling us a great deal about this mysterious character.

I blame Britain’s lively, or rather lofty theatrical tradition. We turn out so many good actors and actresses, all speaking comprehensible English, that directors feel exonerated from doing more than just put performances centre stage (although Hitchcock and Powell & Pressburger never felt this way). It’s all made worse by the current fad, at least in the UK, of streaming live dramatic performance on stage to local cinemas. The theatre strikes back, with a vengeance.

* It is a rule of narrative cinema that going into the attic or down to the cellar is dangerous, which is why it happens so often. I liked the idea of the attic containing, not a corpse, but old, ignored photographs with a potent charge.

note       I write about the creative alliance between camera and set designers in ‘Film Past Film Future’, my e-book about creative aspects of the cinema, in chapter 10 ‘Interiority’. See Very cheap, incidentally.



Little Dog for Roger by Malcolm


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In 1968, the year of revolution, Malcolm Le Grice (below left) made a little film, Little Dog for Roger, which 50 years on can be seen to have had a lot of significance. First of all it went back to the beginning of cinema – acetate, film frame, sprockets – and secondly the construction of a home-made processor (Malcolm’s sketch below right) led him to the acquisition of a Debrie step printer for installation in the London Film Makers Co-operative. Out of that practical step arose the British structural-materialist film.

DSCN6515        MLG developer

2016 is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the LFMC, and in May Malcolm Le Grice had a retrospective of his work on the BFI Southbank.

To mark both these events I have done an essay on Little Dog for Roger. Go to:



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Love and FriendshipAt first sight Love and Friendship seems simple: a late eighteenth-century costume drama set in English country houses and London, from an unpublished novel by Jane Austen, ‘Lady Susan’. So, obviously a British film for the country house/period market. Second sight reveals something much more complicated. The production was financed by Arte (France), the Irish Film Board and the Netherlands Film Fund. No sign of British funding. Nor was it filmed in England, a.k.a. Austenland, but in Ireland, namely the Newbridge Estate in County Dublin and in Dublin itself. The actors and actresses it is true are British, except for the American Chloë Sevigny, but then she plays an American so that’s alright (but no Americans in the Austen novel, by the way). Nor is it directed by a British director, sensitive to all the class stuff going on and to what is unsaid and misinterpreted, but by Whit Stillman, an American, who seems perfectly attuned to all that British stuff. So, at third sight, the film returns to being utterly simple – clever and witty, in which production values do not overwhelm the film and allow it to strip away all the extras and focus on the narrative. It is Austen territory, but also the terroir of that remarkable late-18th-century sensibility of the modern era, Eric Rohmer. What is more it is aimed at a sophisticated global market and will surely do well there.



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Gidal makes you giddy. To mark the launch of a book of his selected writings, ‘Flare Out Aesthetics 1966 to 2016’, on 14 April 2016 Tate Britain hosted a screening of four of his films followed by a reception. Peter Gidal (born 1946) was a founder member of the London Film Makers’ Co-operative and propounded a firm line on ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist film’ (to take the title of his most high-profile statement, published in ‘Studio International’ in November/December 1975).

Peter Gidal early years      Gidal as remembered

2016-04-14 21.15.39-2








Gidal at Tate Britain 2016


The sternness of his writing left me unprepared for the charm with which he introduced the films that night. It derived from a riff on his expectations and anxieties in preparing for the evening, including the familiar one, ‘Would anyone come?’

They did come. We saw films both from the beginning of his career and more recently, namely Key (1968-9, 10 min), Copenhagen/1930 (1977, 40 min) and not far at all (2013, 15 min), all of these being prefaced by an uncharacteristic (I think) apéritif, Assumption (1997, 1 min), a rapid-cut series of images of the Film Co-op, overlaid with texts which were unreadable quotations from Gidal’s august predecessors whose names you could read: Augustine, Anselm, Walter Benjamin, Emily Dickinson among others. On reflection I thought its purpose was unexpected: a trip down memory Lane, a bit of Gidalian heart beating in that stern, rebarbative front.

The lesser-known (I think, but I’m not sure) film was Copenhagen/1930, which uses photographic images taken by George Gidal in Copenhagen in 1930. It started with a restless movie camera, showing then part showing, then shifting and disrupting, a still photograph of two boys. The film then got going with a sequence of the photographs which had been assembled in a large album. Was George Gidal Peter’s father? I think we should have been told but Gidal coyly ensured he did not let us have this information. The effect was not this time nostalgic but it was memorializing. The photographs seem mostly to have been taken in a public park in the centre of the city, and had a poignancy: ten years from 1930 these people were going to be consumed by the torments of Nazi occupation. One image was of soldiers marching, so you might think that it was a Fascist parade these people were attending, and they did not deserve better. But I felt lenient towards them – they were engaged in public pleasure and on the evidence of the photographs did not deserve punishment.

I may have wildly misunderstood the film, but Gidal’s films do have an element of tease about them. The early film Key is an elegant statement about the materiality of the photographic image constructed around a zoom-out from indecipherability to something discernible and then a refocusing of the image so that the grains merge into a uniform blankness. The tease comes from the soundtrack: near the beginning a minute or two of the harmonica break from Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, instantly recognisable even when played backwards and imparting a mangled melancholy to the image, a seduction offered then withheld, then near the end a heavy pounding, a muffled industrial music, an echo of the Velvet Underground in full-on Exploding Plastic Inevitable mode, again for a minute or two, grinding and un-melancholic.

The film feels much more loaded with meaning than you initially expect, as did not far at all from over forty years later. Gidal called it in his notes “different yet the same, but not”. This is a film of sky with clouds and inevitably recalls his Clouds of 1969 (that is the ‘same’ he refers to), but it is also different, as he says. The camera zooms in and out of the clouds, goes into focus and out again, the screen goes into white-out and blue-out, then lo and behold, a vapour trail comes into sharp focus, streaking across the sky, and the diffuse dematerialization suddenly focuses on something signifying: this distant vapour trail is on the surface of the film and therefore ‘not far at all’. The film shifts up a gear and we see some vivid footage of the sun’s corona revealed during an eclipse. I was suddenly back in the ‘oh wow, far out’ era of Jordan Belson and the Brakhage of Dog Star Man, in a word, cosmic – except it was far from far out, Gidal is telling us, but instead not far at all. As if to destroy any cosmic intention, the soundtrack starts with an alarm (which woke me up after the silent forty minutes of the Copenhagen film) and then takes up a pounding, industrial noise during its length. Tubular bells it was not, on purpose I felt.

My review of Gidal’s ‘Flare Out Aesthetics’ can be found here:

Key can be viewed at Lux Online:




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This extraordinary film reached the cinemas in 2015, and even reached Norwich in February of this year. Unlike a blockbuster, it has taken its time to make an impact.


I have read some reviews, although I am far from having seen lots of them, but the ones I did see have been silent on one aspect. If it is an aesthetic law that a work of art set in the past always tells you as much about the period in which it was made (i.e. now) as the period in which it is set (i.e. then), what does The Assassin tell us about the present? It is made by a Taiwanese, and is a Taiwan-China co-production, and what it tells us is that for a large country, e.g. China, to destabilise a small country, e.g. Taiwan, is a mistake, morally but also politically. The status quo is disrupted at peril.

The story of the film is the dispatch of the assassin, Nie Yinniang, by Princess Jiaching to Weìbó province in order to murder Tian Ji’an, the jiedushi (military governor) of Hamdan prefecture within Hebei province. This is a move by the Tang Dynasty to increase its power. The film tells how Nie Yinniang then rebels against this order. Why? Ostensibly because her heart tells her to spare Tian Ji’an who it turns out was once betrothed to her as a peace move between the Court and Weibo. But there is a strand of political expediency in her thinking too. Her puppetmaster has tried to instil in her the idea that ‘the way of the sword is pitiless’, but Nie Yinniang argues that since Tian Ji’an’s son is so young, to kill Tian Ji’an would bring chaos to Weibo.

The historical source is a story by Pie Xing called ‘Nie Yinniang’, written in 9th-century China, and covering recent events since Tian Ji’an was jiedushi from 796 to 812. But the film works at several levels, and strict historicity is probably the most marginal.

  • It is a martial arts film.
  • It is a ‘love story’ about the complex relationship between Nie Yinninag and Tian Ji’an.
  • It is a story with a moral: don’t destabilise, be prepared to stand up to power.
  • It is a contemporary fable: ‘China, hands off Taiwan.’ Keep the status quo.

Interestingly, on this last point, Wikipedia tells us the film cost the equivalent of US$14.9 million. By 2010, the director Hou Hsiao-Hsien had assembled a budget but in the end over half of the film’s final budget came from China. This is intriguing: were the Chinese producers of the view that China-Taiwan relations should not be destabilised, or was it more Machiavellian still, that this is a propaganda film through which the Chinese Communist Party supported the film’s message as a cover for the fact that it sought, if not to destabilise Taiwan, then to act in an overbearing manner towards it? After all, the situation between China and Taiwan is a bomb waiting to explode.

A final inscrutable, perplexing thought: Weibo is the brand name for the Chinese micro-blogging website, that is to say the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. So ‘Don’t destabilise Weibo’ (the province) means ‘Don’t interfere in Weibo’ (the microblog). No doubt all parties readily deny such a connection, but if you believe in the secret life of cinema, then you can relish this thought.