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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.


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

Hitchcock Secret Agent

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

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

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

The bullet that killed Nelson


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Death of Nelson by West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene of report given to dying Nelson of victory.

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

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

Death of Nelson by Devis

Death of Nelson by Legrand

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

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

Nelson's bullet

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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So far Dunkirk has grossed $129 million (figure on 27 July) against costs of $100 million. It has done well in the UK which is what you would expect, but it has also taken around $75 million in the USA which strikes me as not expected. In South Korea it has taken almost $13.5 million (27 July). This figure is not just unexpected, since it is more than the UK, it is barely credible. (The Harry Styles effect, I am unreliably informed.)

I think the story of the Dunkirk evacuation in the Second World War in 1940 is essentially a British one, and so unlikely to travel. But Nolan’s Dunkirk film is essentially an action film, and thus has the potential to travel anywhere. It was shrewd of him to spot its potential as an action narrative.

I liked especially the way Nolan intercuts his three stories set on land, sea and air, and then as the film progresses he speeds up that intercutting in his aim of creating a visual symphony. To underpin this I found the dialogue largely inaudible (maybe because I’m 69), but it hardly bothered me. And when I could hear the words spoken by the diction-trained Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, I felt an abrupt change of mood in the film, and a drop in the temperature. On the other hand, the reading out of Churchill’s famous post-Dunkirk speech from a newspaper report is a masterstroke, as the words are read in an anti-Churchillian manner (Bressonian almost, if you know what that means) and suit the ‘desperate-heroic’ tone of the film.

Film is ideally suited to battle action. [See chapter 4 of my book Film Past, Film Future on battle films – available on Amazon.] Seeing Dunkirk made me watch the magnificent BBC/Lionsgate film, First Light, about the Battle of Britain pilot Geoffrey Wellum, since, like in Dunkirk, the aerial sequences are so terrific. Also, it made me want to re-see the BBC’s 2004 docu-drama recreating the strategic background to the evacuation and the tactical difficulties in achieving it.

Dunkirk (2017)

Brexit hell

Now, costume dramas, of which this is one, speak to the time in which they are made as much as to the historical events being portrayed. Five minutes into watching the film, I thought, “Why has Nolan made this film? Why are Time-Warner funding it?” The answer came loud and clear: it is to tune into the Brexit mood in the UK. This was a foolish strain of thought. It doesn’t account for the film’s success in the USA, never mind South Korea (although it may account for only modest box-office success in Europe). Nor does it allow for the fact that Nolan has been nursing this project for two or three decades.

The UK general election in June upset me greatly (and I have written about it in Belaboured. Bats Broken. Britain Shaken  – see Churchill’s wise pronouncement that wars are not won by evacuations made me think that Britain does not regain its poise and place in the world by its current exit strategy. But maybe it can do so after the EU exit just as the British army went on to success after Dunkirk. And then I realise that history does not repeat itself, necessarily.

Buildings and oppression


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Nowhere to go is an obscure British thriller made by Ealing Studios in 1958 and directed by Seth Holt, his first film. It is well worth catching, and has shadowy parallels with the gangster cycle Jean-Pierre Melville was shortly to embark on in France (starting from Le Doulos, 1962) such as prison backgrounds, loyalty and disloyalty, and an absence of moral judgement. It displays too a familiarity with American low-budget crime thrillers.

The film opens with a taut, largely silent prison break (as does Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle) and includes this terrific shot of the prisoner running between tall buildings to reach the wall where an escape rope awaits him.

Nowhere to go

It was Antonioni who so strikingly explored the relation of the human figure to the urban landscape and large buildings that offer a threat as much as a setting,

Notte 5

but Holt does it in Nowhere to go too in order to set a tone for the film, picking up on, for example, He Walked by Night (1948) with its terrific climax set in a sewer system,

He walked by night 3

and on The Third Man (1949) with a similar setting.

The Third Man 1



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Sam Francis, Untitled 1987 - detail       Sam Francis: Untitled (1987) – detail

Sam Francis, Tokyo 1974 - detail       Sam Francis: Tokyo (1974) – detail

Panels fm the walls of hvn

Stan Brakhage: Panels for the walls of heaven (2002)

Seeing paintings by the abstract expressionist Sam Francis (1923-1994) at a London gallery in May put me in mind of the late abstract films of his contemporary Stan Brakhage (1933-2003). There are intriguing links between the two artists. Francis is emphatically a Jackson Pollock disciple, fascinated with the techniques of flicking paint across the canvas or sheet of paper; less Pollockian in technique but Pollockian in spirit is his tactic of letting small pools of colour bleed into one another. Brakhage, to my mind, is another Pollock disciple in that Pollock’s crowded, all-consuming canvases of the 1950s, more than anything else at the time, encouraged Brakhage to use film as a mark-making process, frame by frame, that overwhelmed the spectator’s retina. In time he embraced abstraction pure and simple.

Second, you feel that Francis wants to express some macrocosmic view of the world, especially in those paintings with an ‘empty centre’ that offer a window onto infinity. He wants to emulate in paint the expressiveness of magnificent colour photographs of far-off galaxies.

Galaxy image 1

Galaxy image 2

Brakhage had similar preoccupations in his cosmic view of the world whether in the microcosm of Mothlight or the solar flares of the macrocosm in Dog Star Man, both from the 1960s. By the time of his pure abstract films of the 1990s, he pursues a fascination with light through stained glass (Chartres Series), and with the way the dull opacity of the film strip is made luminous by light passing through it. Francis too revelled in the pleasures of colour being made luminous when applied to a white background.

Both liked the colour blue:

Sam Francis, Chari Leiva

Sam Francis: Chari Leiva

Three Homerics 3

Stan Brakhage: Three Homerics (1993)

However – I should not get carried away. The way a Francis painting is perceived is in a different category  from the way a Brakhage film is perceived. You see a painting as a whole in a frozen moment even if you then choose to examine different areas of the picture. A film on the other hand is seen in time, as a sequence of parts, or if the film is made frame by frame, rather as a sequence of ‘atoms’ , and it is only when it is finished that you have a sense of the whole. The effects are very different: Francis has to be fixedly contemplated; with Brakhage you have to climb aboard the eyeball express.