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, 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.

My film diaries



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: and you can see a taster on Vimeo ( or on YouTube (

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:



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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?

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.



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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.





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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit to the programme producer, Doug Mackay-Hope.





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Rembrandt etching of shepherds

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Medns fm a monastery - Belmont

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

Executive Producer: Nikki Parrott

Producer/Director: Luke Korzun Martin

Production Company: Tigerlily Productions


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


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



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

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

men who sleep in cars

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

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

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

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

The BBC just raised its game for a moment.

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


text: Michael Simmons Roberts

producer and director: Susan Roberts

director of photography: Tim Baxter.