Thursday, December 19, 2013

'Phantasmagorical with an F': Humphrey Jennings meets Ben Wheatley

'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

Short Explorations in British Film

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.
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
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:

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.”
Jaimie Baron, 'The Image as Direct Quotation: Identity, Transformation, and the Case for Fair Use', Frames, Issue 1, July 2012
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:
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.