[go to for film version]

Volatility’s up, my stock’s gone down,

My net wealth’s slipped right under.

I’ve been stitched right up, rolled slam flat

by a juggernaut of a side-wīnder.


I’m now unemployed.

I’m now dumbstuck.

I stare into a void.

The cobra has struck.


This cough and this fever are making me wonder

if I have succumbed to life’s final blunder.

Inflamed, distressed, feeling cells ript asunder:

I’m being crushed by an awesome anaconda.




, , ,

. . . on studying his blog and reading the news

‘Dear Dominic’ – or should that be, ‘Dom, hi!’ —

Thou brilliant blogger, you moved me to a space

that’s awesome to behold, right bloody marvellous,

a compelling voice, that keeps on asking why

things are as they are, and how they might differ

if we had the nous to adopt something other.

            Stop —

we’ve not been introduced, so let me be polite

and throw in, ‘How are you? I like the way you write.’

Your turn to reply, ‘Good’, and if feeling benign-

minded you could add nicely, ‘thanks, I’m fine’.

(Let’s pause there. Do you recognise ‘benign’?

Other adjectives spring to mind, theirs not mine:

contemptuous, combative, arrogant.

Being diplomatic is one thing you can’t.)

            Well —

let them miss the point, do their own heads in.

If they keep insisting, stuff them in the dustbin.

Without panicking (since that ramps up the risk),

new urgency these days impels us to be brisk.


My first is Thucydides, that fruitful read

to your mind and mine, a schooling we need.

His speakers argue that the stronger dominate,

that’s their nature – and the nature of the state.

Yet your posish is this, that the Greek is askew,

to subvert his stance, you also read Sun Tzu.

Britain evolved by winning victory, then thriving

in the aftermath. We should opt for surviving;

‘winning without fighting’ is a sine qua non

since a Third World War will destroy all we own.

The next step is to see weapons as a barrier,

we must get shot of that new aircraft carrier.

And why stop there? The past may look opaque

but we should use it if we want to make a break

from past errors. History Ancient and Modern

is the hymnbook to use to avoid Armageddon.


Dom – honestly – you’re too cavalier

with Taiwan, for which I am stiff with fear.

‘Scrap all security guarantees’ – really?

‘Use cyber to subvert China’ – merely?

Be clear: Taiwan seized will be meat and drink

to the CCP; the West may make their stink.

We made guarantees for Belgium then Poland.

We had to stop the appeasing of demand.

Their loss amounted to a brutal rape

so war it had to be, we could not escape.

            Yet —

I give up, Cummings, you may well be right.

The only way out? Duck the coming fight.

Announcing Armageddon will be as nothing

to what the real thing is bound to bring,

weeping, wailing, unappeasable gnashing.


That’s the future. Here, the UK’s cock-eyed

‘courtier-fixers’ rule us. Put them aside.

We need oligarchs as clever as ever,

but most of all tested in how to use

large resources. In fact let’s not mince the thing,

what we need now is the philosopher king

(and now we’ve discovered it’s not just a man’s

role, what’s needed too are philosopher queens).

Not half:

‘predictive reasoners’, ‘mathematical seers’,

most of all, we need do-ers, not be-ers.

Interactive minded, ‘thinking with the body’,

people we pay to root out what’s shoddy.

Until I read you, I’d not heard of ‘seeing rooms’,

thinking with our bodies is right for our times

since technology is now the perfect tool

to see most problems in the whole.

All that’s pertinent to my epistolary story:

to cut to the chase, we now have to hurry

and get our minds to see behind the mirror —

if we want to succeed in cutting out error.


“May and Hammond were too inept by far,

nor was Cameron any kind of star,

in fact no better than a curate’s egg

thanks to the presence of that numbskull Clegg.”

            Judge not. Behind-the-arras SPADs play no role

in placating The Guardian and The Daily Mail.

If our leaders are dim, ‘of ignoble mind’,

then that’s true of us too, both dim and blind.

That democracy is not your cup of tea

is what I conclude, but do I misconstrue?

It’s broken somewhat, it is out of joint,

needs indeed more than just a lick of paint.

But I’m struck that you’re so stuck on Bismarck.

Clever . . . but in our system? Could he work?

Someone to replace our current ‘Hollow Men’?

So you want a Xi, a Putin, an Erdogan?

            I can feel that I’m not getting your drift,

less drift and more contrarian motion,

which I like . . .  No, love! . . .

            Start again. Let me make a firmer link

and join with you in rejecting groupthink.

Someone should do different. You are one to dare.

Good. But it makes me ask, Where

would we be if we all did different?

It may be true that’s not what you meant.

Let us have mavericks with a far-seeing eye,

the all-wise in fact, not a mere wise guy.


Well then, you’re famous, for what? The bold flight

from the lockdown. ‘Lock him up’ was what

came hot from the press and public’s strong views.

Laura Kunesberg gave full voice to our outrage

(which suits our age with its rage for outrage),

you became the headline on the front page.

In this case, however, the news was no news.

Let them stew in their juices, and take short views.

New-kid covid must have scrambled your brain —

or did old-type parental angst set in train

what you did?

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner . . .

Oh forget it, and please pass the chardonnay.

The odd bishop condemns, but God does not.

Or maybe you’re with those who think that’s rot.

Omniscience? That’s for you not the deity.

Man’s omnipotence is now new verity.


Time to go now, and yes it must be true,

Time waits for no-one, that means me and you.

            Yet –

please stay awhile, I ask, I cannot let go

without a word (or two) to the wise, just so:

“The apparel oft proclaims the man.”

Might it not help your cause to look smart?

But then you say, “To thine own self be true,”

if you want to play the more maverick part.

When it comes to who’s right, who wins? You.

            So I’m finished? No way: “Manners maketh man.”

Polonius did not say it, so I speak for him,

like lots before me through aeons of time.

I put it to you, more question then adage:

can you really not moderate your language?

This cruel abuse to skewer your opponents –

is that not tuneless, vilest song-and-dance?

It would not come amiss one tittle or jot

to season your criticism with courtesy and wit.

            Anyway, good luck in your excellent work.

You do not need me for your vital spark.

Thanks for listening and refraining from shrieking,

I for one am grateful for your speaking.

Like you, though, I have been too verbose,

but unlike you, my words are otiose –

but for one final niggle, darling Dominic

– I do not say this in the tone of a cynic,

a carper, a troller, a warrior, a critic:

but am only asking this in sorrow:

can you claim to be in charge of tomorrow?

What, above all, would help you the most

is a SPAD of your own, tasked to signpost

the rugged pathway to a humbler nature.

Be a heaven-sender, not a hell-raiser.


Wrong as usual. As I drafted this epistle

robot engineers of your dismissal

were at work. The result? It resulted

in the SPAD spat out. The media exulted

with a ‘who’s in, who’s out?!?’

Life’s greasy pole

ruins all plans for a Bismarckian role.




, , ,

I was ridin’ a plane to where the East is dark,

and found myself sinking, into a brown study:

China, all its works, all its days, its eclipse,

I found myself sweating at all that’s bloody.


False negative. China has a yen for imperial power

like all empires till now: take conquistadorēs,

take merchant venturers, proconsuls and caliphs,

history is stuffed with colonial glories.


Glories, you say! More like confusion and subjection.

Stir in as well exploitation and oppression.

The desert makes peace, so peace is a desert.

Cruelty and hardship are imperialism’s mission.

“We princelings are plotting to be strategic

by careful unveiling of naked power.

Our big plan’s backed by choicest tactic,

now is the time to open the door

since this new century is the new Han hour.

Who cares for Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan?

They’re lose-lose; we’re win-win.


“Take up a pen, you only need nine dashes,

to hoover up large supermarine charts,

Drawing a line will provoke sharp clashes,

it won’t be long before peace starts

to snap, breaking and crushing all hostile hearts.

Push it, pour it, concrete out of sand,

put down the flag since it’s now our land.”


Emperor, stop! Allow me to mention

one special person – I mean the Dalai

Lama, embodiment of his nation,

you can’t unperson the world’s key ally

who’s a non-violent rebuke to all our folly.

We won’t turn a blind eye to travails in Tibet;

even our blank minds cannot forget.

  • *

It’s not just exercising nerveless hard power,

China deploys too Confucian thrift.

The Far East’s all bamboo but its roots are Chinese:

like an earthquake, China’s making power plates shift.


Sy Clan, Riady Clan, all those huaren,

poultry to property, protein bars to sweat pants.

We find them unpronounceably exotic and foreign,

yet we also like stocks in noodles to finance.


They don’t want, they won’t have, their boat being rocked,

especially by young pups aiming to be uppity.

Soft power, money power, hard power are combining.

“It’s our rules for fraternity, and that don’t mean liberty.”


So – all hail to the Xi, the joint is Jinping’s.

Does the helmsman seem wobbly? No way, he is rising.

What’s in his mind? Friendship? Domination?

He does look inscrutable, but is that so surprising?


Yet pause there, and ask, what’s the end beyond the endgame?

Chinaman, he say, “Tall trees attract wind.”

Out there, somewhere, some upstart’s stirring;

there’s a post-China endgame, an era beyond.


Tim Cawkwell / August 2020

[huaren are people of Chinese ethnicity living outside China]

yearning for the sixties


, ,

Nothing to do with film, everything to do with the world:



Make America great again.

Make America dead great again,


Make America dead grateful again.

Make grateful dudes deadheads again!



[credit for sparking this train of thought must go to Jason Scorse who posted an online comment on the YouTube 5-hour ‘jam only’ compilation of The Grateful Dead 1971-1983: ‘Make America Grateful Again.’ I felt this needed fleshing out.]


FILM PORTRAITURE 4: Bob Fleischner Dying


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A photograph offers us the ‘brutality of fact’, in Francis Bacon’s phrase. A photograph of a face, unembellished, without make-up, face on, is known as a mugshot, and is commonly associated with the prison portrait, quite as much brutal as factual. Mugshots do differentiate faces, but also lump people into an undifferentiated mass of the irredeemable.

Image result for mugshot

A painted portrait by contrast, while it often seeks to record the facts of a person’s appearance, does much more: it can humanise or personalise the subject, granting them a human identity; it seeks to give them if not eternity then permanence of a kind in paint, which is a material that can be so lasting. For technical reasons, a photograph on the other hand risks being unable to match that permanence even if by lighting, film stock, backgrounds, and a mastery of the technical possibilities of the camera, a photograph can have its own way of giving the subject a human personality that the viewer can respond to.

Ken Jacobs, the distinguished avant-garde film-maker, with a superlative catalogue of film experimentation and achievement to his credit – one of New York’s finest, you could say  (and still with us) – photographed his friend Bob Fleischner in 1989. In 2009 he used this material to make one of his 3-D Eternalisms, as he calls them, Bob Fleischner Dying. It is 2 minutes 42 seconds long, in colour, HD video, silent naturally. By good fortune, rather than languish in some corner unseen it is available on the internet [see below], or five excerpts are, but since each is 32 or 33 seconds along, a total of just over 2½ minutes, we have the whole piece available.

What makes it special? How is it done? Two still images of Fleischner taken from slightly different angles are stitched together in a rapid sequence some 30 seconds long. This is a lot of still images. Watching it you want to know, “this is crazy, how is it done?” It makes you gasp at the illusionism involved, it reinvents animation. You think it is just still photographs, but the whole is far too alive for that since the nose wobbles and the head bounces, and the screen dances. This is movies reinvented.

The face shown is full on, the skin wrinkled, the hair greying at the temples, dark sockets for eyes. A mugshot? In fact the very opposite, not the brutality of fact but the poignancy of fact. Fleischner had been cameraman on Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra made in the early 1960s, and in 1989 was dying. Not only that but he was doing so at the same time as Jack Smith, the delirious star of Blonde Cobra, and maudit film-maker of the film maudit par excellence, Flaming Creatures. Jacobs wrote of his film portrait: “Bob allows his sick and fading image to be caught in stereo photography,” and in an interview he referred to the “close witnessing of Bob’s death” and the fact that it so disturbed him. [For these quotes see the Electronic Arts Intermix site: and ‘A Critical Cinema 3: interviews with independent film-makers by Scott MacDonald.]

The film therefore is nothing other than an elegy for his friend: “the man of mystery, so banal in some ways, so unexpectedly ‘on’ when the situation demanded.” You do not need to know all this background to appreciate the film except perhaps that Fleischner had been Jacobs’ companion-in-arms while he was alive. Yet the important point about the film is the way it shares with portraiture in painting a common denominator through the ages. Its subject is human mortality, the way portraiture preserves humans that are now vanished, about the decay of flesh (Rembrandt, below left), about the skull beneath the skin (Velázquez, below centre) and about capturing not so much a likeness as a texture of flesh and bone (Francis Bacon, below right).

Image result for Rembrandt      Image result for Velazquez pope        Related image

Jacobs’ film seeks to join this illustrious company in extending the parameters of film to “come onto the nervous system” in the way Francis Bacon wanted to do in his portraits. He gives a much more precise and illuminating description of what he was doing than I have been able to do above, in describing his ‘Nervous System Performances’: “Using short film sequences projected as a series of stills, the Nervous System operates on the temporal and spatial differences between two near-identical film-frames that are often only one frame apart from one another in filmic sequence.” Latterly his particular preoccupation has been with seeing in 3-D. He writes [ two-eyed-paintings/], “The Nervous Magic Lantern came about after working twenty-five years with two stop-motion projectors side by side that held near-identical film-frames for long periods of time and overlapped their separate images on the screen via a spinning shutter.”

There is one other dimension that needs mentioning, that of memory. The photographs were taken in 1989, but it is only twenty years later that Jacobs makes Bob Fleischner Dying, as if it needed that length of time to gestate. First that allowed Jacobs to discover how to make it, as if the science needed to catch up with the art, which it did in twenty  years. But second, the film illustrates a commonplace human experience: coming to terms with the death of a friend can take time. On his own admission Fleischner’s dying had disturbed Jacobs. In recording the moment, in getting inside it, almost in getting under its skin, Jacobs perhaps finds an accommodation of a kind with the experience that had eluded him for twenty years. In a way it constitutes a resurrection for Fleischner.

To watch the film search ‘Ken Jacobs with Eternalisms’ on Vimeo and next search ‘Bob Fleischner Dying’

Other entries in this series:

  • Film portraiture: David Jones – 15 April 2018
  • Film portraiture 2: Tacita Dean – 3 May 2018
  • Film portraiture 3: The Hitch-hiker – 20 Nov 2018

Film Portraiture 3: THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)


, , , ,

We are six minutes into the film, when the hitch-hiker gets into the back seat of the car, his face in dark shadow. By this stage we know a great deal about him. We have seen one killing told in bits: feet, car number-plate, dead victims, no faces. These are all ‘accidents’ of the hitch-hiker’s persona. So do we then get to see his substance, namely his face? Well, we get it at one remove when we are shown a photograph of the man on the front page of a newspaper under the headline, “Be on the lookout for this man!” and we learn his name, Emmett Myers.


Next, we see another killing, same pattern: shadow of hitch-hiker on road, car pulling up, hitch-hiker getting in (but no face) then night, a dead body being rifled, hitch-hiker’s feet walking away, car driving off. It turns out that this is all overture to the main event: away from home on a fishing trip, Bowen and Collins are planning to stop in Mexicali. They should have, but chance decrees they drive through it and out of it, chance metamorphosing into fate. The camera dissolve shows feet, then cuts to headlights, the silhouette of a hand hitching a lift, the car coming to a halt, the hitch-hiker getting in. (Note that by this stage it is not ‘a silhouette’ or ‘a car’ or ‘a hitch-hiker’. We are being forcefully told how this drama is going to unfold.) In a front view we see Bowen and Collins, with the hitch-hiker in the back, his face still in the dark. Bowen offers him a cigarette, and in reply a gun in close-up comes into view, glinting in the light. Only at this point do we get to see the face, the soul of this demon: the camera dollies in onto the hitch-hiker’s face moving into the light.

Pulp fiction at its sharpest. A man’s feet introduce us to someone who is always on the move, the part standing for the whole. But it is a cheap shot too, since you only need to do one take of a man’s feet standing by the side of the road. The concept gives speed and low cost, essential B-movie film-making. Second, you show his face except you don’t since it is in the dark. The close encounter only comes when you show the face harshly lit up as he moves forward on his seat. It’s kinda mean, to put it in mild terms. This is chiaroscuro film portraiture that grabs the attention.

This is how The Hitch-hiker begins, a quintessential black-and-white film from 1953. The face moving into the light is the idea probably (but who can be certain?) of Nicolas Musuraca, a high-quality film-noir cameraman. Hats off possibly also to Harold Wellman credited with ‘photographic effects’. The synecdochic opening, plunging you into the story even while the credits roll – as near to in medias res as you can get – is the work (probably) of the director Ida Lupino, one of the very few pre-feminism women in Hollywood playing a creative role behind the camera. It feels telling to me that ‘The Kings of the Bs’, an excellent anthology of material about Hollywood B-movies published in 1975, does not even mention Lupino in its list of directors. Definitely Kings not Queens.

Back to Emmett Myers, robber, murderer, hitch-hiker, into whose clutches the innocent Collins and Bowen fall. In the Westerns of the 1950s – I think especially of Budd Boetticher’s cowboy universe – the decent hero outwits the bad man. But this is a film noir, not a film blanc. Myers has complete mastery over Collins and Bowen, not just physical because he has got a gun and they have not, but psychological: he has the evil brains and nerve to bend the two innocents to his plans, and refashion American manhood not in a heroic but a Satanic image. Musuraca and Lupino let the camera revel in the situation.

Lupino directed five films between 1950 and 1953 but then went into television. More’s the pity, she could have been a contender.

Although the titles at the beginning credit the screenplay to Ida Lupino and Collier Young and an adaptation by Robert Joseph, IMDb says Daniel Mainwaring wrote the story for the film uncredited. If this is true, he is a link to Musuraca since both had worked on Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947).

One intriguing sequel to the film is this. When I saw Myers’s face I thought I recognised it. Only when I spotted that he was played by William Talman did things click into place. Talman became well-known on TV as Hamilton Burger, the hapless DA who is regularly outwitted by Perry Mason in the TV series. (Mason was played by Raymond Burr, himself turning over a new leaf like Talman, having previously been the terrifying heavy in Anthony Mann’s Desperate and Raw Deal.) In the TV series, Talman’s face becomes familiar and therefore ordinary, so it took Lupino’s innate intelligence to see what his face could really convey, and Musuraca’s brilliant lensing to fix it on film.

-The film is on YouTube in a reasonable enough albeit imperfect copy: go to

-Lupino’s credits as a film director include:

  • 1949: Not Wanted (uncredited; co-produced and co-wrote)
  • 1950: Outrage (also co-wrote)
  • 1950: Never Fear (also produced and co-wrote)
  • 1951: Hard, Fast and Beautiful
  • 1953: The Bigamist (also starred)
  • 1953: The Hitch-hiker (also co-wrote)

– Two other posts on film portraiture from 2018 are at 15 April and 3 May 2018.




, , , , , ,


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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 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).

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.

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]



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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.