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

Oil and Acrylics

 

Mossed giant rocks tied together by taught, tussled creaking rope

Separated by deep dangerous meters.

Pressing the sea floor, no intent for journey’s West

The white rips and roars,

Underneath, aurora raw.

Aluminium panic sips, dips and spits

Tectonic plates inch the floor.

 

Fuel wind flutes and pecks the waves,

Like skimming stones that hit your face

Breathed in cliffs shout down ‘you fucking clown!’

‘The taxman rang’, the anchors clang

Shames tempest with metallic fangs

Have you been here?

 

My soul I paint…and what, is soul

Resolve, Repeat

Dash higher, dash lower. The steeple creeps your feet

You diamond thief

Splash fire, flash spire with nothing but retreat

Keep off my meat

Petty nuance breeds shivered thunder, crackling in my sleep

Lightening rips me deep.

Listing, breaking, twisting, shaking – my minds jukebox speaks;

‘Resolve’ spins on repeat.

 

The land of calm and battered charm awaits quick hours I keep.

Daylight; chased towers and fallen skyscrapers lick my feet

Warm, content from sleeps ascent,

I sneer down from avenues fog

Some 85 stories below – just dogs.

Resolve, repeat.

 

Rauschenberg at the Tate Modern

Image by Katie Lips (flickr) used under Creative Commons Licence 

I admit, I hadn’t even heard of Robert Rauschenberg, let alone seen any of his work before visiting Tate Modern’s current exhibition (open until the 2nd of April). In fact, I wasn’t even planning to go to this one – I was just too lazy to walk across half the building to get to the exhibition I’d really come for. So, the guy with the funny name it was.

The first thing that struck me was a large work to the right of the entrance, which several people crowded around, heads tilted in that peculiar way you see only in galleries. Automobile Tire Print consists of pieces of white paper, fastened together at their narrowest point, with the track of a car tyre running down their length. With pieces like this, Rauschenberg’s intention was to create art that questioned and disrupted the link between artist and work, for example, by having his friend drive the car. This theme was common throughout many of the other collections; an inquisitive nature that derailed artistic convention.

Rauschenberg was revolutionary. His work interrogated traditional art to the point where to look at it, you sometimes question whether it is still art at all. But of course it is, and before anyone chips in, no, a five year old would not have been capable of producing any of it. Another common narrative in his work was the tendency to combine different forms of art, crossing the boundaries of regular conceptions of the various forms.

For instance his Combines deployed paint as well as sculpture, to create hybrid sculptural-paintings. They draw you into their midst, encouraging you to consider the placement of the ordinary objects he used, and the muted or vibrant colours. This was art that involved the audience because it touched them, made them wince slightly, perhaps even made them uncomfortable. One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was a history of Rauschenberg’s work for his friend’s dance company. He created many sets and costumes for the dancers who would engage in contemporary and collective dance; from an artistic interpretation of everyday movements to engagement with the sets themselves. These dancers would have had to consider not only the art that they were performing (the dance) but also that which they were interacting with.

I’ll end this article on a rather brilliant decision of his, a perfect representation of Rauschenberg’s character. Upon realising that he had been accepted into a well-regarded art exhibition which had rejected work by both his wife and his friend, he decided to include both of their works into his own. This display of outright contempt towards accepted authorities on art is reminiscent of many previous artists and artistic movements that, like Rauschenberg, manipulated traditional standards of art and reacted against the cultural institutions of their day.

The Robert Rauschenberg exhibition continues at the Tate Modern until 2nd April 2017. Exhibition fees apply.

OCD Action: Cleaning Up Misconceptions

Image by Jez Nicholson (flickr) used under Creative Commons license

My interest in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is rooted in personal experience. For the purpose of spreading awareness however, I’m playing uninformed. To begin my conversation with Olivia Bamber, Media and Communications officer and helpline coordinator of OCD Action, I asked if OCD was simply a quirk.

“Definitely not. It’s a disorder…and I think that’s the bit that people forget. Everybody has quirks, obsessions, compulsions or rituals.” We’ve all heard someone flippantly describe themselves as ‘a bit OCD’. How is a distinction made? “The way that is characterised as being a disorder is when it has an impact on your life.”

Is everyone who has OCD clean and organised? Absolutely not. For a lot of people, Olivia explains, there are no “obsessions to do with contamination or organisation”. The themes for them are far more taboo. “They could have intrusive thoughts about causing harm or coming to harm, or sexual or religious thoughts, that sort of thing.” Consequently, these worries are rarely discussed. Even for those whose OCD is closer to media stereotypes, symptoms can be distressing.

Do people know they’re being irrational? “I think a lot of people know that, deep down, their obsessions and compulsions aren’t logical. They still can’t stop doing it, because there’s that niggling doubt all the time. OCD is often referred to as the ‘doubting disorder’. I think that niggling doubt just makes people continue to do those compulsions. So I think, generally, people do realise what they’re doing is irrational – but that doesn’t mean people can stop doing it.”

Are the things they’re doing to deal with anxiety always obvious? “No. Compulsions can be mental or physical. They might be things you can see like washing, tapping or saying phrases out loud. They could also be mental compulsions that might be things like avoiding certain situations, they could be things like asking for reassurance, so they might not seem so obvious. It could be repeating certain mantras or phrases inside your head, so definitely, there are compulsions that you can’t see as well.”

Some people with OCD have debilitating obsessions about being a murderer or rapist. Does this make them dangerous? “Absolutely not. They’re just intrusive thoughts and do not characterise what a person actually wants to think or feel.” In a survey of 293 students, 42% of females and 50% of males had experienced intrusive thoughts about hurting a family member. Intrusive thoughts are uncontrollable, and as Olivia observes, “everybody in the world gets them. It doesn’t, in any way, reflect on someone’s personality or character.” Arguably, people with these types of obsessions are more concerned with morality than anyone else. However, “pushing an intrusive thought away doesn’t help.”

What treatment helps a person to recover? “The therapy for OCD would generally try and gradually teach you to confront the thought rather than try and push it away. Because actually, often by pushing the thought away you can make it stronger. And Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is actually the therapy for OCD, would encourage you to allow that thought to come, and sit with that anxiety and actually let that anxiety go down on it’s own.” CBT, Olivia explains, “uses an element of ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) which is basically where you expose yourself to the trigger or the thought and you very gradually reduce doing the compulsion.” Some people also find that antidepressant medications (Specific Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs) make the condition more manageable; especially during the often challenging therapy process.

What causes OCD? As a charity we generally don’t talk about the cause. There is actually no known cause. There’s a lot of research being done into OCD and a lot of research into why people develop it.” Studies have found that people with first-degree relatives who have OCD are at a higher risk for developing it themselves. This suggests a genetic predisposition towards the disorder. There also seems to be a link between certain structural abnormalities in the brain and OCD. Trauma is also thought to increase the likelihood of having OCD. Sometimes, however, there’s no apparent reason. “I genuinely have heard of people with OCD who have gone to sleep with no obsessions and have woken up with loads. So there is no known cause but, actually, knowing the cause doesn’t help. The therapy is very practical and we don’t find that that’s particularly helpful.”

I’m sure OCD Action is also a help to people. When I invite Olivia to tell me more about the charity her face lights up. I can tell you a lot about OCD Action, I’ll be here for ages!” she laughs. “We are a national charity that supports anyone affected by OCD or related disorders. When I say ‘anyone’ that means the person with the condition and family and friends. By ‘related disorders’, I mean things like BDD (Body Dismorphic Disorder) and hoarding or habit disorders, as we cover a big, wide range of things. What we do is we offer support and information to those people. So we have lots of support services like the helpline, our advocacy service, a big network of independent support groups and our youth service. We also offer loads and loads of information through our website.”

 

You can contact OCDAction‘s support services by calling 08453906232, emailing support@ocdaction.org.uk, or by using their contact form

For more information about the charity, email info@ocdaction.org.uk or check out their website

OCDAction are also on Facebook and Twitter

Why I March…

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”— Audre Lorde

I woke up on January 20, 2017 with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I knew all too well that at 4:00pm GMT a new president would be taking an oath of office in the United States. Being both an American and an international student at Birkbeck, I spent the previous year worrying about first, Brexit – Would I get my scholarship? Would my fees change? Would I feel welcome in the UK?  -and second, the toxic rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign – Would I have equal rights as a woman? Would my black, LGBTQ and immigrant friends be safe?

If I felt helpless on January 20th, then I felt empowered on January 21st. With plans to attend the Women’s March on London at noon, I awoke early. I chose wool socks, pulled jeans over long johns, grabbed a hat, and picked out my warmest scarf (cashmere – a gift from Bolivia). Deciding to make feminism the theme of the day, I walked over to The Photographer’s Gallery, where an exhibition entitled Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s was on in full force. I was greeted with free entry (every day before noon – great for students!) and five floors to explore.

Two floors showcased pieces of art that I am not qualified to critique, but their striking international scope highlighted diverse ways of approaching the issue. For those of us feeling small in the face of patriarchy and wondering what we can possibly do to fight this, the fifth floor was key. A few larger-than-life light box photos and a film, Joanne by Simon Fujiwara, were compelling in the way they opposed the typical portrayal of a woman as one-dimensional. The project depicted Joanne from the perspective of who she is, rather than what she looks like. In her words, “I feel like I’m cheating if I say: I am a model, I am a teacher, I am a lover, I am an artist, I am a chameleon, I am a fighter . . . I am a person . . . I am a female.”

Joanne, in the film, watching over Joanne, the athlete, from Simon Fujiwara: Joanne at The Photographers’ Gallery

Inspired by the active role Joanne played in re-branding herself as a complex human being and feeling a bit more hopeful, I headed towards Grosvenor Square. As I neared the meeting point I saw my first pussyhat. I followed the pink ears towards the rapidly-growing crowd and was met by a variety of signs.

There were some standards being handed out: “Reject Hate, Reclaim Politics,” “No to Racism, No to Trump,” some poignant quotes: “But still, like air, I’ll rise,” by Maya Angelou, “When they go low, we go high,” by Michelle Obama, and “Women’s rights are human rights,”  from Hillary Rodham Clinton,

The true creativity of some participants was shown in more heartfelt hand-written signs, such as “Respect existence or expect resistance,” “Viva la vulva,” and “Women of the world UNITE!”. For 5 or more hours I felt the hope creep slowly back into my worldview as we gathered together, wound our way along Piccadilly, then convened in impressive numbers at Trafalgar Square (nearly 100,000 people in London alone).

Excitedly, I watched online as other groups gathered across the Western Hemisphere. The high was muted however, as a polarised stance was emerging on social media. Among the disparaging comments, a friend posed the question:

“I’ve tried looking up specifically what is being protested, but it seems exceptionally vague. Womens [sic] rights and visibility, I know, but specifically?”

It wasn’t the first, nor the last question like this that I saw, and although I like to promote research into topics that are a bit out of one’s grasp, I think friends of mine were looking for a more personal response. For them, and any others wondering:

I march..

…because rhetoric in the United States (and throughout the world) has disrespected women, demonized immigrants and threatened all minorities.

…because I want to make decisions about my body.

…because everyday sexism is ignored, denied and ridiculed.

…because I did not invite the male gaze.

…because I want every girl in the world to have access to an education.

…because female genital mutilation is STILL happening!

…because if I wear a skirt, I’m a “slut.” If I wear a low top, I’m “asking for it.” If I wear jeans, I’m a “tomboy.” If I wear makeup, I’m “professional.” If I don’t, I’m “frumpy.”

…because the first thing little girls are told is how pretty they are.

…because people of color in the US are still treated as second class citizens.

…because aside from Native Americans, everyone is an immigrant in America.

…because,  “legal rights are of limited value when they are enforced by people steeped in a culture that does not respect women. They can run for office, but can they win? They can accuse their rapist, but will the accusation stick? They can be themselves at work, but will they be promoted?” –Paul (from a forum on Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s online feminist book group, and part of her work with UN women)

…because men STILL make more money than women for the SAME jobs.

…because I don’t just want your daughter to be told she can be an engineer, a scientist, a politician, an artist, an astronaut, a CEO, a designer, an academic… I want her to be ENCOURAGED to be whatever it is that makes her happy and confident and strong.

…because we live in a patriarchy, where “men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” –Oxford Dictionary

…because a person holding the highest office in the US has been recorded saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything …Grab them by the p***y … You can do anything.”

…because women are valued primarily for the way they look.

…because the patriarchy is ALSO detrimental to boys and men.

…because “We can not all succeed when half of us are held back.” –Malala.

…because I believe in the importance of telling the truth.

I do not claim to speak for all attendees of the Women’s Marches on January 21st (up to 2 million worldwide), but I do hope that this glimpse into one attendee’s personal reasons for marching may draw attention to the concerns underlying the movement. Studying at Birkbeck – the 50th most international university in the world – global political policies have very real implications for students who are also immigrants, women, and minorities.

What kind of entry requirements will we have? Will our status be monitored by the government? Will women in burkas or men with beards be discriminated against? We must remain vigilant – the hospitality we receive, the respect we are afforded, and the underlying equality that is the goal of feminism could be at stake.

Wondering what’s next for women’s rights activists? This is a good place to start.

All images by the author

photogallery – Canary Wharf

Places you need to try: Top Coffee shops around Birkbeck

Image by flickr user Alper Çuğun

Prufrock – 23-25 Leather Lane

The coffee here is infinitely better than one would expect from somewhere that also does great food. It’s a leisurely, open-plan room with more than enough space to spread out all your notes while you dawdle over the coffee menu and bookshelves of chocolate. Yes, as well as great coffee, Prufrock also sell enticing looking chocolate bars from far-flung parts of the world (although I admit I have never tried these, considering some are ten quid a pop). This has to be one of my favourite spots in London because of all the boxes it expertly ticks.

Walkability: Not so great. It would take around 20 minutes, so still very far off the Oxfam Marathon Walk (been there, done that) but making one’s way past huffing commuters is not always the most pleasant experience. The nearest stations are Chancery Lane and Farringdon.

Studyability: 10/10; most definitely would recommend.

 

The Espresso Room – 31-35 Great Ormond Street

By flickr user Ricardo

 

The coffee here was (as the youth nowadays say) off-the-hook, fire, peng, dank whatever term you want to insert, you insert it baby! The view on the other hand wasn’t so dank; the hospital is right in your eyeline; turn away from the coffee shop towards the street and BAM there it is. To be fair I don’t recall this bothering me too much at the time, but I guess instead of rose-tinting my memories, my brain has the effect of making them seem so much worse than they were. My mother had the most delightful cappuccino, so creamy and smooth it felt like jumping into a pool of whipped cream, instead of just taking a sip of coffee in the horrendous hustle and bustle that is London. As for my americano, I truly have nothing bad to say about it. Now onto the rest of the rankings…

Walkability: 10 mins – so very easily done

Studyability: 1/10 – unless you have a penchant for awkwardly balancing a laptop on your knees while precariously holding your coffee in your free hand, this is not the study spot for you. Come here for a quick coffee after you hop off at Russell Square and before you enjoy your walk to Birkbeck. Take your coffee and go before you’re late for class; chop, chop.

 

 

Kaffeine – 66 Great Titchfield Street; 15 Eastcastle Street

By flickr user Bex Walton (modified)

I arrived at Kaffeine (yes, that’s really the name – blame the hipster Aussies) dead on twelve, and it was packed. Walking past an appetising and enticing food counter, I was greeted by a cute, smiling little blonde. The coffee this time was an americano; full of flavour and slightly fruity, with just a hint of acidity; not always a bad thing, in this case it complemented the other flavours nicely. The only downside was that on the walk to Birkbeck, I had to pass what I could only presume from the noise to be a jungle of wild children kept hidden behind high walls.

Walkability: only 13 minutes, and apart from the aforementioned wildlings, it was a pleasant route that took me down some back streets offering a mix of independent art galleries and impressive graffiti.

Studyability: 5/10; possible only if you precisely figure out the best time to get there and grab a spot. Then figure out the most convenient time to leave before people fill it up like bees gathering to a queen.

The digital home of the Birkbeck Student Magazine