Category Archives: Film

A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting

Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures

 

The French New Wave adored film to the point of obsession. The post-war accessibility of motion pictures, hitherto restricted, spawned a generation that devoured the medium in all its forms, and elevated cinephilia to cult status. The Peltz Gallery‘s current exhibition, A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting,  wonderfully evokes the obsessive nature cinema can inspire.

Within the unremarkable space are works on loan from the Cinema Museum, a former workhouse in Lambeth where Charlie Chaplin spent some of his impoverished childhood. The site now houses collections covering the full breadth of cinema.

The joy of this exhibition is the insight it offers on collectors, whose labours of love reveal obsessive natures compelled to collect and catalogue. The number of items present here is staggering, and must be in excess of 100,000, including index cards, scrapbooks cuttings and celluloid samples. The time-span begins around the Second World War and continues to the present, but some of the collected items edge close to the first talkies. The effort taken by the curator to assemble this exhibition is testament to the spirit of the collectors themselves.

Envelopes in large metal index cabinets hold fragile celluloid movie frames, and are scattershot and lack the fastidiousness of other files, which are meticulously compiled and alphabetised. Some collections are tiny, such as the 183 cards kept within one small box; others are crammed into tightly-filled rows. A tall chest of drawers built from reclaimed wood stands proudly next to a wall adorned with index cards.

Collecting inspires a love for the subject matter and opens up the possibility to consider each aspect equally, from famous names to the less glamorous characters, scattered across time. One cannot omit as a true collector. To omit is to deny a contributor’s presence within the medium, and thereby undermine the collection itself. It is perhaps this spirit that the unstoppable nature of the hobby exposes. Vic Kinson is one such dedicated collector, who amassed over 36,000 index cards, which provide the centre-piece of the exhibition.

The level of detail etched on these index cards appear limitless. Interesting morsels are sprinkled through otherwise perfunctory information on actors’ careers: Al Pacino’s card states he was once a dancer and a stand up comedian; Fatty Arbuckle was accused of manslaughter; Groucho Marx filed for bankruptcy after the Wall Street Crash; Buster Keaton was an alcoholic; Anthony Quinn’s family escaped the Mexican revolution; Lana Turner married eight times. Descriptions are enlivened by personal reflections; Susan Sarandon was a, “Sexy and sassy American leading lady”; Burt Lancaster a “muscular actor with a flashing smile tinged with menace”.

Clear throughout the exhibition is an urge to collect and collate for oneself, a record to replace a fragile and fading memory. A yellowing scrapbook of Peter Ewing lists the Academy Awards honour-roll of 1939, written with elegant penmanship, citing The Citadel as the best-acted and best-directed picture of the year. The Citadel in fact won its award the previous year, and such mistakes remind the observer that this was a human endeavour, so error was inevitable.

One finds oneself wanting to read each card, to browse each scrapbook, and to hold each strip of celluloid up to the light, but the sheer numbers are overwhelming. To do the exhibition justice would take a lifetime, as surely as the collections it comprises took lifetimes to assemble.

 

A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting will be exhibited until the 27th of January in the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square

The 13 questions: Dr Charlie Oughton

Charlie Oughton changed my opinion on so much that it’s difficult to know where to start. Teaching  media and culture-related subjects at both Regents and University of the Arts London, he combines the presenting styles of musical theatre and stand-up comedy with the informed discourse of a doctor of arts. It makes for a hell of a show.  He also writes for Real Crime, SciFi Now and Starburst (among many others), has contributed to several edited collections, and provided film commentary materials for entertainment distributors around the UK. He can often be found at international film and arts festivals.

What inspires you?
Weird things. I like things that help me see things in a different way or encourage creation. For example, in Poundland I’ll see cheap and cheerful lights that can be stripped down for use in a prop for one of my stage shows. (The most recent set ended up becoming part of a light-up dildo…all for educational purposes, you understand).

What informs you?
I spend a lot of time trying to balance the ambition of my ideas (enormous set pieces of audience involvement with handmade props for everyone, complex poetry, projections and probably an alien or two) with what is appropriate and feasible. If I am using a clapping exercise to help students understand a film-editing process, I need to check their reactions to make sure the point’s understood rather than it just being a basic involvement mechanism.

Intellectually, I get a lot of my basic topic ideas from Facebook. I prefer it to academia as it has a far wider reach and there’s increasingly crossover anyway.

Where is your favourite place?
Easily accessible? The churchyard we live next to. It’s a gorgeous building and is incredibly peaceful with the added spice that it’s frequented by lots of different people.

Alternatively, the darkened side streets of just about any city. I love the different snapshots of life you see as well as a bit of danger.

Finally, Brussels’ central square. The buildings are incredible, it’s incredibly diverse and at night everyone just sits on the floor in the square and has a good-natured drink together.

Where do you go to learn?
My flat. I tend to learn most when I can take whatever I’ve picked up and experiment with it on my own at home with the internet at hand and a bit of room to bounce around in to let off excess energy. My front room has all my books, props and a fair bit of random stuff that I can just play with.

When do you watch?
Generally at night. I tend to watch just before bed as when your eyes get droopy it can get a bit more immersive. It’s also when I’m most likely to be alone and can watch what I want…

When do you dream?
All the time. Years ago I was part of an experimental group that used dream diaries where you had to train yourself to remember and write everything down so that you could learn from it. I have very good recall and can still lucid dream if I want to.

Who is your biggest critic?
Primarily my other half. I am very populist, he is very highbrow. If I can impress him, there’s a chance my work (whether written or performed) will cover both bases. That said, I have started going back over my finished work to see what editors have tweaked and learn from it (as I tend to cover very controversial areas and sail very, very near the edge) and if I see a rhyme that could have worked better if I’d altered a word, I kick myself. It has really helped me to develop my style as I know they’re not just letting me write anything but are more than willing for me to experiment. I’ve been able to get away with paragraphs on murder written in rhyming couplets to replicate gun fire before now.

Charlie Q picWhen do you write?
I tried to get in to a normal pattern of writing between the working hours of 9 to 5. In reality I will stare at the screen and sod about on my mobile until about one in the morning when all the sudden my brain will come alive and the idea will flow. It recently took me 4 days to do a basic article I just wasn’t feeling, then about half an hour to do a really complex bit somewhere else that just came. To me, writing is less about conveying information (that’s what Wiki is for) than giving that info in a way that the scenario is truthfully dramatised in a way that gets the reader to question what they know. I use everything from technical rhetoric and poetic devices to sight gags hidden for those who read the article that little bit more carefully.  When you get a little bit tired your imagination works and it’s amazing the peculiar connections it will pick up on.

What are the best ways to make people engage?
The amygdala. The best way to engage people is to appeal to their fear or their desire. In one of my historical performance pieces on censorship I dress as a Victorian sex pest and it makes a point through its visual perversity and the fact people get off on that despite themselves.

Why must we talk about controversial subjects?
Because we live in a globalised world where we are going to come across other people who have different opinions to us. We have to live together and this gives us the opportunity to refine all of our viewpoints.

Why are people still challenged by sexuality in the arts?
Because sexual drive is so powerful. Being attracted to people can fundamentally change our behaviour, make us do daft things and completely alter power dynamics. It challenges the status quo because sometimes it goes against what was traditionally thought to be ‘the way things were done’, and science is increasingly showing that things that were previously considered as fads may have scientific backing (such as identities beyond gender norms) which may lead to a re-evaluation of a whole lot more. The arts is, after all, a sphere that is traditionally very heteronormative.

What is the greatest thing fandom can do for art?
Fandom encourages people to think about media and their relationship to what it represents. In doing so, they can begin to decide what kind of world they want to live in and what values they want to see within it. They can create their own. From there, you can begin to change the world.

What exciting project are you working on next?
I often write for the magazine Real Crime which allows me to challenge readers to think about culture while being deliciously sleazy and hopefully entertaining  in the process. In terms of film, I am a co-organiser of film festivals including the Dark Mills Film Festival, am appearing at the Nine Worlds Geekfest and will be covering FrightFest again in August. I also have a few film projects I’ve acted in coming out, though I’m hesitant to say what they are until they’re on the shelves, so to speak.  That’s aside from teaching my regular courses in media, culture and film at a couple of different universities and a few bits of academic publishing.

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The 13 questions : Tod Davies (Writer)

Tod Davies might be not be a familiar name to many of you reading this piece, but she is better known than you may think. Have you seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? She wrote the script with Alex Cox (and they had to fight for their work to be recognised). Have you heard of the Arcadia series of books? Snotty Saves the Day and Lily the Silent? She wrote both, and they have made marks. Then of course you may have heard of the cooking memoir Jam Today? After being a fan for quite some time, I decided to launch my new series of artist profiles with the amazing Tod Davies…

What inspires you?
People telling new stories, ones I haven’t heard yet—or even thought of.

What informs you?
Oh, books, books, books. Which are the vehicles of story. But stories of all kinds, really. Fiction and nonfiction…news. Mostly though, Fairy tales. Legends. Myths. Fantasy that is content rich really informs me. I get more information about human desires, potential pitfalls and goals, from rereading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy than I do from any collection of magazines and bestselling nonfiction. Although it would have been helpful if he’d included more women’s desires, potential pitfalls etc. Thank the goddess for Ursula K. Le Guin and Madeleine L’Engle.

Where is your favourite place?
My home in the mountain forests of Oregon.

Where do you go to write?
In the winter; the comfy chair by the woodstove. In the summer; a chair by the stream under the old trees in the National Forest behind my house. Otherwise, my study. I really have to write longhand for first drafts. And my handwriting is appalling, even without my balancing the clipboard on my knees.

When do you write?
All the time, actually. But my scheduled time is from about 2 pm to about 4 or 5 pm. That’s when all the machines are shut down. Unless I’m putting stuff into the computer, anyway.

When do you dream?
All the time. Awake. Asleep. Half awake. Half asleep. I do sometimes think I actually exist in some kind of borderland. It always astonishes me to find when other people don’t. Or they seem to say they don’t, anyway. I’d love to hear from others about this.

Who is your biggest critic?
My dear husband. Also my not so dear superego.

Who makes you angry?
People who use others to make themselves feel powerful, superior. As my hero/heroine says in Snotty Saves the Day, the strong need the weak to make themselves feel strong. But the weak don’t need the strong. So, really, who is the weaker?

Why are libraries important?
You want to talk about a softball question! My goodness: they are the repository of story, of course. The place you can go to read (and tell) stories of all kinds. They are the creative motor of culture. No lie.

Why must we talk about art?
Why must we talk about life? Art, truly engaged with, is about the questions that matter to us as humans: “Who am I?” “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What is it good for us to do?”

Do you feel that story telling is natural to human beings?
Not only is it natural, it can practically be said to be our actual biological function. As bees make honey, so do we make stories. Our entire world is a story that we have built over the aeons. It’s made up of the symbols coming from the within that we have applied to the without. There is no human path without the story. The story IS the path. And art of all kinds add to the story.

Can we discover and rediscover a story via its retelling?
Anyone who has reread a beloved book after a time away from it knows that you have a new experience…the older and more experience, the more one sees in beloved things (and people, one hopes). Any real work of art has so many facets that can’t be grasped in one reading, one seeing. It’s a living thing. Living things can be endlessly rediscovered. If we’re willing to open ourselves to them, anyway. Which is always a question.

Do we understand ourselves and our world via the stories we tell?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And we need to go on understanding it and interacting with the stories and with our world. It’s a dance. We ARE the stories, the world is the stories. Or, as Yeats says, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”

Spotlight on Alex Cox

Acclaimed British film maker Alex Cox has just released a new book entitled Alex Cox: Introduction to Film. This action packed book defies convention, just like its maverick author, who discusses at length the intricacies of genre, camera angles and production values. Learning the rudiments of film making at UCLA, Los Angeles, in 1977, Alex has created some of the most innovative and iconic British masterpieces of the eighties and nineties, and is responsible for cult hits including Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986) and Walker (1987). His work as an independent film producer still packs a powerful punch thirty years later, but I wondered if Alex was the person to reassert his views on film studies from ‘the other side of the fence’. Many studying Film and Media at Birkbeck may question if they have all the tools to equip themselves throughout their studies. However, the Birkbeck community is lucky to have outstanding teaching across The Department of Film and Media, as well as amazing film institutes around Bloomsbury including the Birkbeck Institute of The Moving Image at 43, Gordon Square and Bertha Doc House in the Brunswick Centre.

After a successful stint teaching film studies as a lecturer, teaching production and screenwriting at The University of Colorado in Boulder, Alex Cox set to work writing his new book. I sat down with Alex alongside fellow film maker and Birkbeck Film and Media undergraduate Jacob Watkinson for a full and  frank discussion on the reasons behind such a bold project.

 

Is there too much theory in film studies?

I feel within academia there is a tendency to obfuscate and use impenetrable language. The general public don’t talk like this. They find it difficult, and the student more so.

Does this then discourage students?

It should. What I have found is that students start to use these terms. The first time I heard ‘diegetic music’ was when I first taught at The University of Colorado. When I first heard that I didn’t know what the student meant. Then I realised he meant ‘source music.’ I felt this was an issue.

So the book is correcting the vocabulary of the student?

Nobody working on a film knows what ‘diegetic’ means. If you are in academia then of course you know, and the book is correcting that. Source music makes sense to the film people, and diegetic music to the academic.

You don’t mention in the book of crossing the line, the 180 degree rule, the shot reverse shot – is that because it’s instinctive?

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Crossing the line is rare. Sometimes it occurs, but it jumps out at you. Either the Director or the Cinematographer notices it. In my last film, Bill the Galactic Hero (2014) we realised we had crossed the line, but normally you would do it. Shot reverse shot is instinct. A person looks to the right of the camera, another person to the left. It’s engrained in you, there’s no need to discuss it further.

I found it refreshing that often in academic circles, the director is the star of the show. But you didn’t choose to portray the director as one.

In a way the director should be the star of the show. It’s like a christmas tree light. The tree is covered in beautiful baubles without which it wouldn’t be a christmas tree. There is only ever one fairy on top of that tree. I think that should be the director. But if you think about auteur theory and who is the auteur, the example I give you is The Wizard of Oz. It’s not one single director that is the auteur. It has five or six directors. They kept getting replaced.

Gone With The Wind had the same problem. It had multiple directors, but nobody could be considered the true auteur of the film.

They took Victor Fleming off The Wizard of Oz and put him on Gone With The Wind. He did direct the bulk of the film. I would probably say the auteur was David O Selznick, who produced it. It would be seen at the end of the project, and so it’s his film.

It becomes interesting when you compare the work of legendary directors such as Hitchcock and Selznick.

Yes, it is interesting. You have two powerful film makers and creators going head to head from different cultures. This caused problems, and it challenges the standard theory of film history. I wanted to speak honestly about this problem.

You have the book broken down into making a film, with chapters on things such as productions and scripts. This is very different from the standard analytics of, say, mise-en-scene. Is this essential for modern film makers?

You need to know all the functions, whether you are a film maker or a critic. I don’t know what a best boy does – what do they do?  They use a grip and push things around. It is important to know what they do, and who they are responsible for.

The book suggests that film making is a team game. Is this essential and relevant to both film makers and critics?

You claw your way to the top of the tree, and then you have to give it up. This is because you can’t do everything, even though some feel you can and are taught so. Director Robert Rodriguez wrote a book about it called Rebel without a crew.

Did you think it was ridiculous to think he did it all by himself?

It is a collective act, formed of many people. He had a crew, and a big one at that;  from the stunt men to the visual effects guys that worked on the picture.

Isn’t this like you suggest ‘the hubris of the director’? The directors (and auteurs) of the nineties, were guilty of this.

Yeah, but even Stanley Kubrick was very guilty of this. He was an auteur director, but someone lent me Doctor Strangelove and Terry Southern’s name was tippexed out as a writer. Removed. Who would have done that? Stanley Kubrick of course. Sometimes directors have to have more. I suggest that sometimes it is driven into you.

Do you feel that your book is setting out to stop young film makers becoming an auteur?

It’s interesting because out of all the film schools I have been involved in, there wasn’t the problem as to who was the writer or director of the film. You get one to write the film, and the other one to direct the script. Maybe they could get someone from the business school but on the whole that doesn’t happen. I didn’t see it happen in the US but it may happen here.

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Stanley Kubrick | WikiCommons

Review: Taxi Tehran

In Taxi Tehran, director Jafar Panahi takes the audience on a different kind of road trip through the streets of Tehran, drawing a portrait of the Iranian capital. During the ride, hidden cameras record the events and conversations taking place.

The opening scene is captivating, presenting the streets of Tehran from a driver’s perspective; lively, filled with old, colourful cars such as the Paykan (an Iranian-­made Hillman Hunter) and dominated by constant traffic.

In the following scene, the taxi is hailed first by a man, and shortly after by a woman who is going in the same direction. The phenomenon of “taxi sharing” is widespread in this busy city, unless you insist on having the taxi to yourself.

A heated discussion breaks out between the pair on whether or not it is right to hang thieves. While the man is convinced this is the right action in order to set an example for others, the woman emphasises that there are already too many people being sentenced to death and that it is necessary to look at the circumstances which turn people into thieves, such as deep poverty.

The next passenger recognises the driver instantly, and claims to have delivered films to his house in the past. This scene sheds light upon the matter of the distribution of films from the West in Iran; those critical of the Iranian government are banned under the regime’s censorship rules. These actions aim at preventing Iranians from watching films considered hostile to the values preached by the ruling government.

Yet western music and films seem to be widely available in Iran, as the following scene shows. The passenger turns out to be a film dealer. He leaves the taxi in a quiet residential area and comes back with a young customer, who begins to choose from a bag of banned films. He claims that by doing this job, he is carrying out cultural work, as the people in the country would otherwise not have these films available to them.

After rescuing two goldfish from a broken fish bowl for two elderly women who claim their lives depend on getting them to a certain spring on time – Panahi finally gets to pick up his niece, Hana; a bubbly, outspoken young girl, who discusses the rules of film­-making with her uncle and tells him what they have been taught in school about “unscreenable” movies and what it takes to make them screenable: women should wear a veil and ties, and Iranian names should be avoided for the good guys. Instead, they should have Islamic – thus Arabic names, ­and ideally a beard. No political issues should be discussed within the film. “Sordid realism” is also not welcome, as there are realities the government does not like to be shown on screen.

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Along the way, they spot a friend of Panahi and give her a lift. The woman turns out to be human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has represented Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and many imprisoned Iranian opposition activists. Nasrin has previously been imprisoned herself in the infamous Evin Prison, a facility mainly filled with political prisoners and intellectuals. She has been banned from practising law for 10 years and, like Panahi, is not allowed to leave the country.

At the conclusion, Nasrin warns her friend with the words “they are watching us”, and describes the situation as “a jail outside”. Before leaving the car, she adds: “They make your close friends become your worst enemies.”

In a subtle and simple way, Panahi manages to give insight into the daily issues Iranians face under the strict regime. While addressing serious concerns, he manages to introduce them in a light-hearted and comic way by displaying the casual, at times curious conversations of the passengers he chauffeurs across the capital. He plays himself, but slips into the profession of a taxi driver who patiently listens to his passengers’ conversations with a constant amused smile on his face. To his customers’ surprise, he does not charge them for their trips.

This film shows the essence of life in Tehran, while critically reflecting upon relevant topics. With this documentary, Panahi once again lends his critical voice to the Iranian people. Taxi Tehran won the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin film festival and Panahi’s niece, Hana Saeidi, accepted the award on his behalf, as he was prohibited from leaving Iran. In spite of the banned from making films by the government, Panahi proves that he will carry­ on fighting for freedom through his work.

Review: The Hateful Eight

Set in post-civil war 19th century America, The Hateful Eight begins with John Ruth, played by the brilliant Kurt Russell, riding by coach to Red Rock, to see his prisoner hanged. In an incredible Oscar-nominated performance, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Daisy Domergue, the prisoner with a $10,000 bounty on her head, dead or alive.

Caught in a blizzard, the coach cannot continue, and they are forced to take refuge in Minnie’s Haberdashery, which already has a number of lodgers. John becomes suspicious that somebody is not who he says he is, and so the story unfolds.

The movie has all the grandeur and style that you would expect from Tarantino. It’s shot in 70mm, a format that has been in decline since the seventies, but the results are impressive; the opening shots of snow-carpeted landscapes are stunning. Although most of the movie is set indoors, these scenes look particularly dramatic in the wide screen format. This visual treat is combined with an atmospheric soundtrack. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Original Score.

The dialogue in the opening scenes is a little dull and lacklustre. It lacks the wit and imagination that is so memorable in work such as Pulp Fiction. But once we arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the pace picks up and the scenes are entertaining and smart. There are also some standout performances from the cast, including Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren, and the lesser-known Walton Goggins as Sherriff Chris Mannix.

Like most Tarantino movies, The Hateful Eight has attracted controversy. It has been accused of sexism due to the excessive violence towards Daisy Domergue. When she is beaten by Kurt Russell’s character, you can feel the audience in the theatre tense up with each deafening blow. Throughout the film, her face becomes more and more bruised and bloodied.

But audiences see violence in cinema all the time without considering the ethical implications. Violence between two men and even violence between two women does not typically trigger debate. So why is this different?

Perhaps it reminds us of the past inequality between men and women that we would rather forget. Throughout history, groups of people have oppressed other groups using force and brutality. So when we see male violence against women, it simply cuts too close to the bone. We immediately empathise with the victim and want to condemn the person committing the violence.

Conventionally, violence against women in cinema is portrayed in a way that is unambiguously negative. The audience is clearly meant to empathise with the woman. In particularly violent scenes in films such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we know that the female is a victim of violence and there is no question that the person committing the violence is doing something unacceptable.

The Hateful Eight differs in that Daisy Domergue is not an innocent victim who has unjustly fallen into the hands of a violent man. She is a provocative, foul-mouthed and racist bad guy (or girl, I should say). It is not obvious that as an audience we are meant to empathise with her.

If the prisoner had instead been male, it is difficult to imagine that it would have caused any controversy. Daisy is hateful, like most of the characters in The Hateful Eight. But she gives as good as she gets. She is as dangerous and threatening as her male counterparts and that is what puts her in the same league as them.

Overall, The Hateful Eight is a rewarding, violent and blood-spattered adventure, despite the slow beginning. The scenes are visually stunning, and performances from the cast are brilliant. But I don’t think it’s sexist. In fact, it shows audiences something that is not often seen in cinema and that is a female antagonist who is as hateful, witty and violent as the rest of the male cast.

 

Image by DavidianSkitzou – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0