Category Archives: Arts

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.

KubrickForLook

Stanley Kubrick | WikiCommons

This Sunday, Regent Street will become your personal time-machine of transport design

Whether you enjoy being one step ahead, curiously looking out for future innovations, or you are more of a Victorian, born in the wrong century, Sunday’s Transported by Design festival has you covered, as Regent Street divides into past, present and future zones.

For one day, this exciting festival will transform the iconic location into a spectacular display of transport design, taking you back to the Victorian times, where you can see horse-drawn buses, and leading you from the present to the future. During the day the road will be closed to traffic, marking the start of ‘Summer Streets’, which will see Regent Street go traffic-free every Sunday in July.

The free event will be hosted by TfL and the London Transport Museum, bringing heritage vehicles to the streets of Central London. Not only will this offer a window on how Londoners used to travel back in the old days, but you will also have a chance to experience classic advertising posters, maps and signage from the past.

Transported by Design - press imageThe festival will stretch from Oxford Circus to Piccadilly Circus, giving an idea of what the future of transport design may look like, while also offering great insight into its history and present.

There will be a range of fun activities for all ages, including a London Transport Museum pop-up shop, a kids’ zone, a ‘Cycle Spin Fun’ zone hosted by Santander Cycles, and ‘Moquette Land’ – a hip showcase of the colourful fabric used on the transport network.

Within the ‘London 2040’ future zone you can see, hear, and feel what transport could look like in the future, through a sensory cinema, virtual reality headsets, and a selection of TED-style talks on technology and design.

The event runs for one day only, Sunday the 3rd of July from midday to 6pm.

Images from TfL

Flashback: The BISR Guilt Group, in conversation with Patrick Marber

On the 17th of May, Dr James Brown of the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research’s (BISR) Guilt Working Group  chaired a Q&A discussion and film screening with playwright and director Patrick Marber in the School of Arts, as part of Birkbeck Arts Week.

Here, the Birkbeck community were treated to a retrospective of Marber’s multi-faceted career as stand-up comic, television scriptwriter, playwright, screenwriter and director.

As a screenwriter he has adapted his own hit play Closer (2004), as well as novels by Patrick McGrath (Asylum, 2005) and Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal, 2006), the latter earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Patrick’s love of literature became evident at the age of 15: “I wanted my books to be in the school library. I wanted to be a writer, like the people I loved. The writers who have inspired me through the years have included Graham Greene, Harold Pinter, Ian McEwan, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde and Philip Roth. I also like restoration plays. It’s important for the dialogue to sparkle.”

Studying English at Wadham College, Oxford under literary theorist Terry Eagleton, Patrick initially branched out into comedy, working as a puppeteer, and as one half of a slapstick duo with fellow student Guy Browning, then as a solo stand-up comic at The Oxford Revue: “I never wanted a proper job. I was biding my time. With stand-up, I only had to work twenty minutes in the evening! I tried to write a satirical poem but it blew my confidence and I felt defeated. I didn’t feel comfortable writing prose.”

However, Patrick was still determined to write a novel, and after graduating in 1991, stayed in Paris for six months. Returning dispirited, he was approached by an Oxford contemporary, BBC producer Armando Iannucci, to work on Radio 4’s On The Hour. Following on from this success, he collaborated with Steve Coogan on The Day Today and Knowing me, Knowing youwith Alan Partridge, where he also took on acting roles, including the delightfully incompetent reporter Peter O’ Hanraha-hanrahan. Patrick looks back on this time as an invaluable learning opportunity; “I had a seven year ‘apprenticeship’ on radio and television, I felt I had some confidence for once. I also felt better expressing myself as other people.”

At the relatively late age of 31, he made his theatre debut with 1995’s Dealer’s Choice, which premiered in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe Studio. Based on his own experiences of gambling addiction, the play is set in the repressive confines of a restaurant basement, with the final act centring around a game of poker. The play was developed in the NT Studio in 1993, starting off as, “a bag of bones”. Artistic Director Sir Richard Eyre sat in at one of his workshops, offering Patrick the chance to direct his piece for The National. It won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play, and cemented his reputation as a serious contender, alongside his hero, Harold Pinter.

“I got on with the cast really well. They were alert to the text, what they needed to say and what they didn’t need to say. I want characters who are burning with intensity, disagreeing. As a writer and Director, I don’t want it to be all ‘white’ in my work. The National Theatre is still my home. When (Sir) Nicholas Hytner came in as Artistic Director, I didn’t feel welcome. You go in and out of fashion. I’m glad Rufus (Norris) likes my work.”

Closer also had its world premiere at the NT in 1997. It is a tale of sexual betrayal, longing and duplicity, seen through the eyes of a quartet of lonely twenty-something star crossed lovers, who cross over allegiances. Closer is unflinching in its often graphic depiction of vice and misogyny, the voyeurism of cyberspace, viciousness of sexual jealousy, and the inner turmoil of one man (Dan) who veers between two women (wife Anna and stripper Alice).

Closer transferred to Broadway, with Patrick developing and directing the production for two and a half years, opening at the Music Box Theatre in January 1999. It was also staged in Paris and Prague; “I put in six different casts. I was exhausted. I never wanted to see another play again! It was very hard to write a play after it. But it was all good really. It was a blessing.

Patrick went on to write the 2004 screen adaptation, directed by Oscar-winner Mike Nichols, and starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. “As Mike said ‘It either has to be a fight, negotiation or seduction. If it’s not, it’s boring.’ Audiences want to be entertained more visually. The fashion at the moment is for effect, but there’s a hunger for new work; it’s a great time for new writers.”

Using semi-autobiographical elements within his narrative, Howard Katz (2001),  the play charts the journey of a middle-aged East End Jewish talent agent, whose life is spiralling out of control with no spiritual direction. Patrick directed, again at The Cottesloe, and played off-Broadway with Alfred Molina in the lead role. Receiving mixed reviews for its depiction of one man’s breakdown and crisis of faith, Patrick has been philosophical about its initial reception; “the press wanted me to write a raunchy play. I wrote the opposite of that, it was about my own mid-life crisis. I like the idea of ambivalence; we should be feeling two things. We don’t live cleanly. We live in a flug.”

For five years from 2007, Patrick struggled with writer’s block, while he had a variety of screenplay commissions to contend with. Patrick’s productivity now sees him write from 9pm until 2am: “After two to three hours, I know where the play’s going. I have to keep writing movies, and other things are just things to keep my hand in until the next play, which is the most important thing to me. I’d rather write less if it’s from the heart.”

Recent work includes The Red Lion (2015), a three-hander, set in the changing rooms of a semi-professional football team, where a gifted player finds himself caught between a bullying manager and a veteran player (Patrick is the Director of Lewes FC in Sussex). After Miss Julie (written twenty years ago) will be touring the Theatre Royal Bath (4-9 July), Richmond Theatre (11-16 July), and Milton Keynes Theatre (18-13 July). Based on Strindberg’s 1888 play, Patrick’s version of the erotic, psychological thriller is set in an English Country House during the eve of the Labour landslide of 1945.

Patrick’s approach to theatre making is simple; “Be ferocious, be unpopular. It’s your play. You’re the host of this party. I would encourage all new playwrights to direct and to learn on the job. The first play I directed was Dealer’s Choice at The National. All writers also need two to three good readers you can trust. Two supporters have been Sir Richard Eyre and (fellow Playwright) Nicholas Wright. My wife (actress Debra Gillett) has read every draft, every line endlessly. But I did dedicate my work to her! There’s a lot of playwrights who write but don’t know where it’s going. That’s okay. We all have conflicting feelings about life.”

Click here for more information about the work of The BISR Guilt Group.

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.

goldfish

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

Some Reflections on David Bowie

I never considered myself a “Bowie expert” or one of his crazy fans. Of course I have danced to Modern Love countless times, and cried over Heroes (with or without the overwhelming backdrop of The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and experienced Wild is the Wind on endless car drives . But always it was more like Bowie was coming into my life rather than me investigating his. Yet every time I read about him, listened to his inspiring songs or his witty interviews, I could feel his influence on me. When I first heard about his death I was sad, but at the same time I felt that I wasn’t as ‘entitled’ to grief as the people who grew up with his music. But the sadness didn’t go away; I wasn’t able to concentrate, and couldn’t help listening to the songs that everyone was posting on social media. Because there was something else about David Bowie. Something that made NASA name a mile-wide space rock after him that “orbits serenely in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter”. Something that made him orchestrate the production and release of Lazarus, his final gift to us, around his own death. Something that now makes us all reflect upon time, our losses, our loves, ourselves. That deep respect about this extra-terrestrially inspiring friend. The respect that is affirmed both by one’s life and death.

David Bowie was a visionary, a bright star but not only that. He was an amazing mind, faithful to itself. It is mostly his inspiring love of life that I am grieving and celebrating. His indelible trace and tremendous influence not only on music and performance, but also on our worldview. David Bowie was a genius, and I am lucky to have lived contemporary to him, and to now see his influence is still current and ongoing. He was as demystified as a phenomenon can be.

A friends said, “imagine how devastating it must be for all the people that met him”. I cannot imagine how lucky they were, and how painful it must be for them. Although, I think that our sadness and grief goes beyond his fascinating artistic output, because in a sense we’ve all met parts of him. Or rather, he definitely made us meet with our oddities. He exposed and enhanced our uniqueness, and as a true artist he influenced music and the world forever, showing us how to make life’s futility into fuel.

All this occupied my mind, and the morning after news broke, led me to visit his childhood home in Brixton. When I arrived there was a couple in their fifties, hugging quietly in front of the tributes. They wiped their discreet tears and went back to their car. While I was standing I saw some neighbours staring with both confusion and compassion. On the ground were letters, dolls, pictures, flowers, candles. I wanted also to leave something, but the urgency to visit this place that was haunting me had made me forgot to bring a tribute object. I searched through my pocket and found an opened party popper from New Year’s Eve. That was it. I knew that he would appreciate this gift. That is exactly what Bowie have achieved; people from different backgrounds, ages, classes and routines, finding a common ground, a bond that would lead them to his house, to his mural, to his music. Thank you David.