In the spirit of the direction that my research has been taking me recently I am posting the first in a series of re-imagined public information films.
The sights and sounds of the 1970s are very familiar to me as I was growing up during this period. In part, this is informing and shaping my thoughts. But I am also inspired, if that is the right word, by the current political climate in the UK , with its emphasis on distance, difference and distrust. In this way, these sounds and images from then feel very very now.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Thursday, May 1, 2014
My research and thinking have been moving in slightly different directions recently and the following film is the first in a new series of audiovisual reflections on spectacle. I used to watch British wrestling on World of Sport when I was a child and ever since I have been gripped by a enduring fascination with this world of gods and grotesques, heels, faces and tweeners. Of all the wrestlers I saw as a child it was Mick McManus who most beguiled me.
Friday, January 10, 2014
Thursday, December 19, 2013
'Phantasmagorical with an F' - Humphrey Jennings meets Ben Wheatley from BF Taylor on Vimeo.
This is a low resolution response to Ben Wheatley's 2013 A Field in England created for educational purposes.
Taking its cue from the wonderful audiovisual explorations of Humphrey Jennings, most notably Listen to Britain (1942), this essay draws upon personal childhood 'voices' and uses them to create a new soundtrack to one of the key sequences in Wheatley's film. This sequence not only beautifully evokes similar images of English fields captured by Jennings in his films but also necessarily reminds us of the audiovisual relationship between the countryside and the Occult - a very British relationship which this new soundtrack aims to present anew.
This essay's presenting of this relationship is further inspired by Jennings and his desire to 'present' what he called an 'imaginative history'. As Jennings continues:
'I say 'present', not describe or analyze, because the imagination is a function of man whose traces are more delicate to handle than the facts and events and ideas of which history is usually constructed. This function I believe is found active in the areas of the arts, of poetry and of religion - but is not necessarily confined to them or present in all their manifestations. I prefer not to try to define its limits at the moment but to leave the reader to agree or not with the evidence which I shall place before him. I present it by means of what I call images.'Humphrey Jennings, Introduction to Pandaemonium (c.1948) quoted in The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology (ed.) Ian Aitken (Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 231
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Here are the first few in a series of short audiovisual pieces responding to small and personal thoughts on British cinema. In an early, exploratory and potentially even soon-to-be redacted way, I view these pieces as the unfolding elements of an ongoing 'exploded' essay on film criticism and British cinema, with each piece, 'paragraph' even, suggesting, hinting, outlining, linking, contradicting, touching on and even gently whispering my thoughts on the relationship between the history of British cinema and the history of writing about it.
These pieces are not meant to be ordered chronologically and their ordering here is purely the result of a mechanical copying and pasting process required to embed them into the post. I did experiment with numbering the pieces but that didn't quite generate the sense of an organic critical flexibility I am looking for. I have also experimented with placing all of the 'paragraphs' together into one long 'essay' but again that didn't truly create the impression I was looking for.
(A further possible way of considering these pieces is in the same way that nowadays one might use individual PowerPoint slides within a series as the starting-point for discussion and development, returning to and resting on a particular slide; by placing greater emphasis on certain individual slides than others).
One of the key ideas that links these 'paragraphs' together is the idea of juxtaposition; a very common audiovisual impulse, admittedly, but one that is still interesting and relevant enough when it comes to British films and the history of film criticism and one that is also still real enough in my mind to make me wonder what happens when I superimpose a quotation from Stanley Cavell over the ending of John Smith's The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) or when a quotation from Victor Perkins, author of that most wonderfully caustic and profoundly influential piece of British film criticism 'The British Cinema' (Movie, No. 1, 1962) is overlaid onto footage from Pete Walker's wonderful exploitation classic Cool It Carol! (1970). A further juxtaposition from the same source can be found in the layering of Perkins's famous cry for a cinema of 'style, imagination, personality and, because of these, meaning' over the wonderfully imaginative sequence from the truly great Shane Meadows film Twenty Four Seven (1997). The swirling sense of liberation to be found in this moment, aided immeasurably by both Van Morrison and Bob Hoskins, offers the perfect antidote to the strangling dogma of the words in the Movie article.
There is also something wonderfully beguiling about using a couple of lines from something as compellingly idiosyncratic as Raymond Durgnat's A Mirror for England (1970) and seeing how they compliment such a compellingly idiosyncratic film as Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar. The words of Robin Wood also acquire a prominence within this project and as the blog's title suggests 1976's Personal Views was the primary motivation for creating this space in the first place.
As overplayed as it is at this stage, the going backwards to go forwards is still a fascinating critical movement and even today it is impossible not to respond to Wood's delightful notion of 'sympathy and recoil' without experiencing a similar sense of critical movement in my own work, the towards and away at the same time. So, in a small way, this blog, as well as these latest pieces, are further evidence of my attempts to create what Wood calls 'a sort of personal testament out of one's sense of vital contact' with the subject at hand. Admittedly, as I quote in the Morvern Callar piece, Wood's warning against creating our own version of the film in question needs careful handling.
At the time Wood was stating the case for the necessity and accuracy of a close reading, for staying true to the text and not allowing external influences to distort it, amid the seismic and potentially distorting shifts in film writing that were happening all around him but reworking the words today at least offers the opportunity to emphasise once again the fact that film critics should stay true to the film in question itself or, indeed, stay true to the emphasis on the film coming first. Indeed, as Wood concludes elsewhere:
A critic can only write with a deep sense of responsibility to his readers, towards art, and towards his own feeling of what matters, but his truth will still be about his own personal responses. It follows that this truth must always be provisional, subject to continual questioning both by himself and others.
Robin Wood, ‘Ghostly Paradigm and H.C.F.: An Answer to Alan Lovell’, Screen Vol. 10, No. 3 May/June 1969, p. 34-5
Writing recently in Film Moments, Tom Gunning offers a wonderful way in which we might come to understand our fascination with the 'pieces' of a film, or films, and not only their aggregation and accumulation in our memory but also their re-occurence in our thinking, and teaching, and writing. For Gunning, as for this writer:
Movies are made up of moments, which both accumulate to an end and, in a sense, scatter across our memories. If we think of a movie as something which moves continuously, following the actions of characters and the trajectory of a story, then moments might seem to mark the points along the way. But if we dwell on the sense of a moment in its singularity, it seems less to evoke the momentum of a plot than something that falls outside the story and its pace.As for trying to understand any possible effects of this series of juxtapositions we might begin, like Jaimie Baron, by considering the relationship between value and novelty. As Baron writes:
Tom Gunning, 'Shadow Play and Dripping Teat: The Night of the Hunter (1955), Film Moments (eds.) Tom Brown and James Walters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 5-7, p. 5
The value of a direct written quotation does not lie simply in its identity as such but also in its “productivity” within its new context, this productivity made no less important by its dependence on a subjective evaluation on the part of the reader. While the identity of the direct written quotation must be maintained, its significance must be transformed through its recontextualization, producing something “new.”This idea, in turn, and following the underlying rhythm of this post, returns us to David Bordwell and his discussion of the practical activity of film criticism. For Bordwell, this activity is beset by two problems. The first problem is one of appropriateness - can the critic create a compelling argument for the chosen film to be worthy of critical engagement. Between the time of writing and today, this issue has now become a non-issue but Bordwell's second problem, novelty, is far more relevant here. As Bordwell explains:
Jaimie Baron, 'The Image as Direct Quotation: Identity, Transformation, and the Case for Fair Use', Frames, Issue 1, July 2012
the interpreter is expected either to (a) initiate a new critical theory or method; (b) revise or refine an existing theory or method; (c) 'apply' an existing theory or method to a fresh instance; or (d) if the film is familiar, point out significant aspects which previous commentators have ignored or minimized.
David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 29-31
Using Bordwell's framework here would suggest that this series of audiovisual reflections fulfil more than one of these conditions simultaneously or perhaps more interestingly blur the boundaries between them in a useful way. We could easily argue that a new method is being initiated, to whatever degree we understand new in this context. We could also argue that an existing method, film criticism, is being revised and hopefully refined. Certainly, the means by which important quotations can be 'applied' to contexts within which they might not normally find themselves, the juxtapositions here, also fulfills the third condition. Finally, it is perfectly possible that new approaches of this kind will allow the familiar films to be seen in new lights and the significance of their aspects to be reconsidered.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
With this audiovisual meditation I am returning to a subject close to my heart, the British New Wave. This famous cycle of films brings to the fore many of the issues I am seeking to explore through this series of essays. Films like Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961), the 'subject' of this video essay, and others in the same series, can perhaps be best understood in terms of ideas like love, loss and longing. In part this is evident in the impulses that led someone like Richardson to make films like this one; a love of cinema, desire for difference, a longing to make a difference, to add a significant landmark to the rapidly-changing landscape of European cinema. Further, these impulses were also evident in the responses of British film critics at the time. Movie, for example, first published in 1962, loved 'other' cinemas so much that it caused them to view the British New Wave with unbridled scorn. As Victor Perkins writes in the journal's opening attack on British cinema:
The request is not for a 'correct' approach to the necessary subjects. It is for a cinema which has style, imagination, personality and, because of these, meaning.
V. F Perkins, 'The British Cinema', Movie, No. 1 (June 1962), pp. 2-7, p. 2
Sight and Sound, the other key journal involved in these debates, was longing for British films to be able to take their place alongside other positive developments in European cinema like the nouvelle vague. Such was their desire for this that they initially championed films like A Taste of Honey before ultimately realising that the cycle had run its course. As Penelope Houston, the journal's editor wearily concludes:
[Compared to a cinema] headed by Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Demy, Rivette etc., we are fielding a second eleven and that is all there is to it.
Sight and Sound, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 1962), p. 5
But ideas of love, loss and longing are not the sole preserve of embittered and battle-weary critics and this what makes films like A Taste of Honey so interesting. As I have already begun to explore with my previous video essays, these ideas can be seen to be at the heart of key areas of postwar British cinema. The film's central character Jo, played so wonderfully by Rita Tushingham, is the embodiment of these ideas and the film charts her success, or otherwise, in coming to understand how ideas of love, loss and longing relate to her. This helps to explain part of my reasons for making this latest video essay, as I seek to demonstrate that Jo is not where she wants to be and is forced by the day-to-dayness of her life to imagine that she is in fact somewhere else. In this way, I have used two later films starring Rita Tushingham, Richard Lester's The Knack ... And How to Get It (1965) and Desmond Davis's Smashing Time (1967), to develop a new 'reading' of A Taste of Honey.
However, this only explains part of the impulse for creating this video essay. My other concern here was to note the stylistic and thematic trajectory that British films followed during this period. Inevitably, the sights and sounds of the British New Wave came to be seen repetitive and overused and the tone and tenor of British films changed as audience tastes and society itself changed. As Jeffrey Richards writes:
Sober realism and earnest social comment gave way to fantasy, extravaganza and escapism; black-and-white photography and Northern locations to colour and the lure of the metropolis; Puritanical self-discipline to hedonistic self-indulgence; plain truthful settings to flamboyant, unrealistic decorativeness.
Jeffrey Richards, 'The Revolt of the Young', Best of British (eds.) Antony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards (Blackwell, 1983), p. 159
As Jo sits and dreams at her desk, the colour sequence from Smashing Time has been inserted to not only further develop my 'reading' of A Taste of Honey but to also extend this 'reading' outwards from the film to consider the changing face of British cinema in the 1960s.
For example, the feature of recurring faces across the history of this period and their relationship with geographical shifts in industrial activity is another interesting area for exploration. As Alexander Walker notes:
The British cinema had been moving geographically ever closer to London since the 'social realism' of the early 1960shad obligatorily located nearly every major film hundreds of miles north of the metropolis. It appeared that when Julie Christie had boarded the train south at the end of Billy Liar she had brought the British cinema along with her in the baggage van. A capital city is always a magnet; but it is extraordinary how many of the 'social realist' movie characters do an about-turn and reappear, often played by the same actors and actresses, in films that are more or less built on the dream (sometimes the nightmare) life of the metropolis. Thus Julie Christie, the liberated shop-girl of Billy Liar, turns up as 'Darling', the good-time girl; Rita Tushingham moves out of grimy tenement reality in A Taste of Honey and into the bleached-out limbo-land of The Knack.These are early days and these are early thoughts...
Alexander Walker, Hollywood England (Harrap, 1974), pp. 289-290
For Further Reading
John Hill, Sex, Class and Realism (BFI Publishing, 1986)
Film Moments (eds.) Tom Brown and James Walters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Robert Murphy, Sixties British Cinema (BFI Publishing, 1992)
BF Taylor, The British New Wave (Manchester University Press, 2006)
Alexander Walker, Hollywood England (Harrap, 1974), pp. 289-290
Friday, May 4, 2012
For the next addition to my series of audiovisual meditations on love, loss and longing in British film, I have taken two so-called 'composed' Powell and Pressburger films, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and re-composed them. In this way, I'm using one film to read another or, indeed, each film to read the other.