Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Underwater at the Spacex

The new exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, Underwater, is all about submersion. All the works on display depict underwater worlds and their denizens, and the human incursions into and explorations of this alien environment. Several evoke the feeling of floating in this supportive medium, thicker than air, which becomes like the dream depths of the unconscious. The art reflects the responses of the imagination to this highly suggestive realm, which forms such a large part of our planet and yet is at a remove from our experience of it, a place where human presence can only ever be provisional and temporary. It is a reminder of the strangeness of the world, of the explosion of life-forms vented from its depths. There is a strong strain of the fantastic in these works, the undersea worlds being sufficiently alien to prompt visions of strange landscapes, mutations of recognisable forms and the broadcast of eerie sounds of obscure provenance. The association of oceanic depths with the subconscious has also led to some deep diving into the wide and murky sea of archetypal symbols, uncovering the embodiments of buried desires and dimly recollected illumination.

The first work you see is Janaina Tschape’s Moss, one of three videos which feature women floating in serene suspension just below the water’s surface, neither wholly of one world nor the other. All three are imbued with an air of languid and sensuous female sexuality. Tschape’s video has a slightly disconcerting, vertiginous effect in that the woman’s face which we look down upon never breaks the surface. The video is evidently, though not perceptibly, playing on a loop. We see her head, haloed in thick, mossy weeds, roll from side to side as if drifting with the rhythm of a tidal flow. Her features are relaxed in a look of pleasure and fulfilment. Rather than Millais’ passive Ophelia, waiting to sink beneath the surface into death, she is a nymph returned to her natural element. The impact of the video is slightly lessened by its proximity to the gallery windows, which let too much light onto the wall on which it is projected. We could have been more wholly immersed in its slowly rolling swell if the room had been a little darker.

Entering the main space of the gallery, you immediately become aware of the regular echoing blips of sonar, occasionally embedded in a diffuse cloud of diffuse, muffled rumbling. This extra dimension of sound, which in fact emanates from one particular piece, adds to the overall atmosphere of the exhibition, maintaining a feeling of having entered a zone separate from the world beyond the walls. In the corridor space between the main display areas, you come across the second of the three floating woman videos. This is Dorothy Cross’ Jellyfish Lake (you can see a bit here), and in this case, the film is shot from beneath the water’s surface, looking upward. The artist’s face is hidden, breathing the air as her body floats in the lake, half in one world, half in the other. It thus provides a reflective contrast with Tschape’s video, and the two works are a good introduction to the exhibition; submersion first observed from above and then experienced below at the borderlands between the worlds of air and water. Jellyfish float and pulse in a translucent dance about Cross’ head and upper torso, like thoughts made manifest. Her hair billows about her, once more resembling water weeds wafted by tidal flow, or by the currents of dreams. This sets off cinematic associations in my mind, and I recall the water weeds trailing beneath the flowing stream of his home which cosmonaut Kris attempts to replicate in the arid technological surroundings of the space station orbiting the oceanic planet of Solaris; and the corpse of Willa Harper in Night of the Hunter, rooted to her car at the bottom of the local lake with her long hair waving upwards, achieving an eerie beauty in death which her harsh life had denied her.

Turning to the right, we come across works on paper by two artists who conjure new forms to populate the Atlantics or Pacifics of an evolutionary future, or perhaps oceans elsewhere in the Universe. Ellen Gallagher’s strangely aestheticised creature is perhaps a part of some new, revivified post-human coral reef ecology, self-assembling itself from the detritus of the ocean floor; part living creature, part baroque fantasy architecture. Ed Pien covers a wall with his drawings of mutated forms. His pictures are like elaborations of doodles swiftly set down on paper as they are scooped from the unconscious. His half-formed, embryonic creatures seem either to be undergoing some violent birth or to be in the process of tearing themselves apart. They are like pages from the sketchbook of a Victorian travelling showman, recording the imaginary life of the specimens displayed in his cabinet of curiosities. The rank of sketches is best glanced over in sweeping fashion, leaving an impression of an aggressively teeming subaquatic environment, possibly contained within the confines of some laboratory tank which corresponds to the churning imaginative pool from which the artist draws.

On the other side of the room from Ed Pien’s drawings, we come across the object which is emitting the sounds that fill the rest of the gallery. This is Cut and Scrape’s Submarine II, a sculpture of a giant squid wrapping its tentacles around a submarine, which evidently takes its inspiration from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The submarine is mounted on what looks like an old telescope stand, with the telescope itself incorporated by the looks of it, and the whole tableau has the look of a magnified version of an old model kit of the kind produced by Airfix or Revell. The giant squid is fashioned from a plastic bottle and plastic tubing, the detritus of the human world, and pulses with bright, shifting LED colours, its tentacles thrashing with movement driven by a tiny motor. It drags the black, featureless vessel (a nuclear sub?), an intruder from the surface world of human rationality and empirical logic into the deeper waters of undifferentiated dream and imagination, a place where monsters dwell. This is the piece which emits the sounds which fill the gallery (from a speaker within its base plinth), and the precise definition of the sonar’s measuring blip set against the deep and billowing rumbles from the depths further delineate the divisions between these two worlds, which are also the twin halves of the human mind. If the women of Tschape and Cross’ videos take to the water with natural ease, the masculine form of the submarine has to be dragged down forcibly. The sculpture is also just enormously good fun and, in the way that any ingenious automata will, raises a gleeful smile.

The main room of the gallery houses the work of three artists. Shirley Kaneda’s paintings again have the feeling of elaborated doodles, although this is carried a little further than with Ed Pien’s sketches. Perhaps there’s something about the liquid forms of waves and bubbles which naturally flow from the unconsciously doodling hand (I know that tends to be what I produce when my mind wanders before the blank page). Kaneda’s paintings seem like frozen images, the shapes and bright, clearly defined colours waiting to be set into morphing, shifting patterns of motion once more, like the kind of liquid light shows projected behind the likes of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead in the 60s. Seunghyun Woo’s plaster sculptures, which take up the opposite corner of the room, are similarly bright and colourful, and have the feel of three dimensional doodles; forms suggested by the pouring of the plaster and then given further shape. The gloss paint with which they are dappled suggest a cheery children’s underwater world, and Octopus’ Garden, although the ill-defined shapes and their air of immobility suggest that they have accumulated many years of oceanic silt and deposit. This is a petrified garden. Daniel Gustav Cramer’s large framed photograph of a murky seabed landscape opposite has an almost three-dimensional quality, particularly in the late afternoon sunlight, and you can almost imagine that you are looking through a window at this underwater scene. The vista we look out on is bleak and arid, a post-catastrophe landscape lacking any trace of human presence, the colours of life bleached out. It provides a stark, monochrome counterpoint to the brightness of the other works in the room.

The enclosed room opposite houses the works of two artists. Klaus Osterwald’s Donatus Subaqua is a sound sculpture. Four long silver horns hang from the ceiling, their bells pointing inwards to create a sound arena within which the listener can stand. These look like fog horns, but rather than blasted warnings of treacherous conditions, they broadcast the amplified sounds dredged up from the waters of a forest lake, a barren environment created by human activity which nature has swiftly re-colonised. The clicks, wailings and chitterings conjure up pictures of all manner of creatures strange and bizarre in the imagination of the listener. These evocative noises, which could so easily be mistaken for electronic music, accompany the video which is projected onto the opposite wall, blended in with the ubiquitous soundings of the sonar. There was some concern expressed to the exhibition curator Angela Kingston following her introductory talk about this unintentional combination of separate works, with the rather painful phrase ‘sound bleed’ being used. To my ears, it was a chance meeting which worked like a dream, however. Bill Viola’s Becoming Light is a slowed down film of a man and a woman entwined in gently shifting underwater embrace involving only the lightest of contact. Light from an unseen source cast upon the shifting water and the revolving human bodies below creates shifting patterns of brightness and shadow, and the motion of the waters refracts the bodies into wavering shapes, distorting their outlines and creating an ever-changing form. This suggests an ongoing transformation affected by the medium, or emotional state, in which they are immersed. The digital clarity of the photography means that this video lacks the mystery of the murkier waters into which human forms were plunged in Viola’s Five Angels for the Millenium, which was on display in the Tate Modern for a while, and which did have its own rumbling, immersive soundtrack. Perhaps this is appropriate for a piece which casts its gaze nearer to the surface. Finally, the couple, having perhaps gained each other’s trust through their tender non-embrace, sink down into the obscurity beneath the surface waters, prepared for a deeper understanding. An air bubble released by their mutual breath slowly ascends, and bursts on the surface with the ecstatic efflorescence of an expanding ring nebula. It’s a fitting end to an exhibition in which the artists’ imaginations cause their material, as Shakespeare put it in The Tempest (always leave ‘em with a bit of the Bard), to ‘suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange’. Come along, dive in and submerge yourself.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Silver Apples in Exeter

I was delighted and a little taken aback to see that pioneers of electronic music, Silver Apples, will be playing at The Cavern in Exeter on 3rd August. The Cavern is a venue more attuned to hosting local punk bands and heavy metal nights (I’m not putting it down – just not my cup of tea) so the appearance of an act with such international cult status is a startling departure. The Silver Apples take their name from Yeats’ poem The Silver Apples of the Moon, which was also the title of composer Morton Subotnick’s (not to be confused with Amicus producer Milton Subotsky) 1967 piece of electronic music. This was produced on the early modular Buchla synthesiser, which was operated by touch sensitive pads rather than a keyboard. It also featured a primitive sequencer, which Subotnick used extensively on the recording, and the resultant rhythmically pulsating tonalities anticipated aspects of the Silver Apples sound. Subotnick’s music reached a wide audience through its release on Elektra subsidiary Nonesuch records (whose founder Jac Holzman had commissioned the piece). It no doubt reached the ears of one Simeon Coxe III, who was playing in a band in East Village, New York. He began to experiment with his own knocked-together electronic equipment, hooking up oscillators to pedals and switches, and incorporating the resulting sounds into the live performances. His bandmates were evidently of a more traditionally rockist persuasion, and it wasn’t long before only Cox and drummer Danny Taylor were left. They decided to make a virtue of such limited means, and it was at this point that the Yeats/Subotnick appellation was adopted.

Oscillating - Simeon and the Simeon
The first, self-titled LP, released in 1968, began with the song Oscillations, which was essentially a manifesto and statement of intent. Over the pulsations of the oscillators and the spiralling repetitions of Taylor’s drumming, Simeon sang ‘oscillations, oscillations/electronic evocations/of sound’s reality/spreading magnetic fluctuations/waves of waves, configurations/the folds of sound combining web to song’ (I may have misheard that last bit). The lyrics on the album are written by Warren Stanley, Eileen Lewellen and Simeon himself, and are redolent of local Greenwich Village poetics. They are rather of their time, but if you make allowances for that and don’t pay them undue attention they add an array of associative colours to the songs. Simeon became known by his first name alone, ditching the Coxe and its ancestral enumeration, and he also applied the name (with definite article attached) to his ever-growing agglomeration of oscillators, filters, pedals and switches. The oscillators stacked up and eventually reached a critical mass when 12 had been conjoined. Together, they provided a one man band of bass lines and driving rhythms, with one left free for ‘lead’ playing (as Simeon enthusiastically demonstrates in the photo). They were unlike other contemporary groups who used electronic sounds, such as The United States of America, who tended to incorporate them into a more standard rock sound. The combination with Taylor’s looping, locked groove drumming anticipated some of the defining sounds of Krautrock , and sounds at times uncannily like Can (if you see what I mean). The guitarless, stripped down electronics plus rhythm duo, so unnatural for the time in which bands had become the fixed form, looked forward to groups like Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire and the early Soft Cell (Memorabilia in particular).

The electronic sounds are leavened slightly on the first LP by a bit of melodic recorder on Seagreen Serenades, and, bizarrely enough, by some banjo on the 2nd LP Contact. The song Ruby, a collision of bluegrass and electronic psyche rock, is as bizarre as anything which came out of the psychedelicised American music scene in the latter part of the sixties. The track Program on the first LP also makes extensive use of sampling from the radio. This is an adaptation of ideas explored by John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape 4, from 1951, which was ‘composed’ for 12 radios, the score dictating the manner of their tuning. Here, such chance procedures are incorporated into a skewed pop song about listening to the radio. Whether the snatches of programmes included were indeed the product of chance (and I’d like to think they were), or were more consciously selected I don’t know. Nor indeed whether it was indeed a conscious homage to Cage (or whether Simeon was even conscious of the piece at all). It provides a neat bridge between the worlds of pop and avant-garde classical music, anyway, and it’s an interesting track whatever its provenance.

Meet the pilots - Contact cover
The second LP, Contact, adds a wah-wah pedal to the Simeon’s sound mix, and the restraint and single-minded minimalism of the first LP is left behind in favour of a wilder sound; a howling electronic storm which doubtless sent the needles on the oscillators fluctuating madly. On the first LP, Simeon sings in a pleasant light, fluting baritone. By Contact, his voice has developed more of the traditionally aggressive rock delivery and strained vocal anguish. The LP finishes with a track called Fantasies, a playful song in which the recording process is laid bare. Simeon comments on his fumbled lyrics, and announces his intention to change chords several times in an almost cabaret-style ‘wait for it, wait for it’ fashion. The cover art of Contact features Simeon and Taylor in full freak flowering, looking back over their shoulders from the cockpit of a Pan Am airplane. It would be a worrying sight for any passengers glimpsing their pilots before take-off. The LP opens with the sound of a plane roaring overhead, blending into the panic signals provided by high-pitched oscillators sounding the alarm siren. The song, You And I (in no way resembling the Yes song And You And I), goes on to evoke the frantic and enervating rush and noise of modern life in sound and lyrics. Pan Am were apparently distinctly unamused by the back cover of Contact, which depicted Simeon and Taylor sitting and playing the banjo amongst the wreckage of a crash site, and expressed their displeasure through litigation. This played its part in bringing the Apples’ flight down to the ground for the time being.

Like many pioneering acts, it took a while for their innovations to be acknowledged, absorbed and adopted. The Silver Apples awoke from their slumber in the latter half of the 90s. Simeon initially worked in collaboration with various artists, and made an album of new material, Beacon, recorded with Steve Albini and released in 1997. Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom) also made a record with Simeon, A Lake of Teardrops, and thus provided a link with the Radiophonic Workshop, pioneers of electronic music making and makeshift instrument construction from the other side of the pond; Kember had located Delia Derbyshire and coaxed her into musical collaboration in her later years. Decatur is an interesting LP from this era, the edited-down product of a lengthy improvisatory session, and a chance to hear Simeon’s electronics in a more freeform, vocal-free context. Simeon was re-united with Taylor in 1998, and the Silver Apples once more took on their original configuration. Taylor had turned up the tapes for their unreleased 3rd LP, The Garden, which finally saw the light of day. Simeon added some contemporary touches to Taylor’s drum demo recordings, making it a reflective collaboration across the decades. John Peel had always been a fan, and the Apples played at the Meltdown Festival which he curated on London’s South Bank in 1998.

It was during one of their tours in this busy year that their van was forced off the road by an unknown driver. Simeon suffered serious injuries – his neck was broken and he only learned to walk again after several years of physical therapy. He never wholly regained his motor skills, and of necessity went back to the more minimalist, streamlined style of the first LP when he did finally return to music. Taylor passed away in 2005, leaving Simeon to continue the Silver Apples as a solo and collaborative venture. A new LP, made with various musicians, is apparently due next year, as is the documentary film ‘Play Twice Before Listening’, extracts of which will be screened at The Cavern. It’s definitely a tale worth telling. I look forward to both hearing and seeing the Simeon (man and machine) in action.

Mixing It

Robert Sandall and Mark Russell in front of the Watts Towers, Los Angeles

I was sad to hear today of the death of the radio presenter Robert Sandall. He co-presented the radio show Mixing It on BBC Radio 3 with Mark Russell for 17 years between 1990 and 2007. It was something of a third channel take on a Peel show, or an aural version of The Wire magazine; an eclectic mix of experimental music which spanned the range from left field pop through abstruse improvisation to modern classical and electronica, with plenty of less easily identifiable hybrids in between. The dual presenter format worked really well, with the two, who had been friends before the genesis of the show, able to engage in an exchange of ideas, which included the odd polite agreement to differ. They were relaxed and agreeable in each others company, and tuning in, you felt like you were being invited to join an interesting and ongoing conversation. There were many great sessions, the odd trip abroad to soak up the music of a particular city or country, and even a compilation CD. Broadly speaking, Russell seemed to come from the classical and more academic end of the spectrum, whereas Sandall approached from the pop perspective. Both were hugely well-informed and wide ranging in their musical reference points, however, but still managed to retain an enthusiasm for and excitement at the discovery of the new. It seemed like a perverse act of self-vandalism on the part of the Radio 3 controllers when they axed the show, a casual discarding of almost two decades worth of accumulated knowledge and experience. It moved over to Resonance for a while, but apparently the BBC got all proprietorial over the name, so they had to go under cover. It was certainly a show which played a significant part in broadening my musical horizons in the 90s. I had many tapes compiled from the programmes, with Robert and Mark’s voices retained to inform me of the artist and track title, and therefore becoming a regular and companionable accompaniment to my listening. This was before the days of computers and broadband (certainly well before the days of my possessing such technological accoutrements, anyway) with their attendant ability to sample a wide range of music, and to listen again to programmes if you didn’t catch them at the time of broadcast. And of course, the ready availability of home computers and laptops (in the West, at least) has in itself completely changed the nature of music, both recorded and performed, a transformation which Mixing It traced over its 17 year history.

There are still some playlists from the latter years of the show available to browse at the BBC Mixing site, and a random trawl highlights the variety of artists the show would feature; familiars and favourites such as Sufjan Stevens, Harry Partch, Fred Frith, Tod Dockstader, Jon Hassell, Charalambides, Rothko, The Residents, Max Eastley, and blimey, what’s this, and extract broadcast on 24th September 2004 of Peter Kember’s collaborations with Delia Derbyshire, made towards the end of her life, and going under the title of EAR and Delia. The last show was broadcast on 9th February and featured Sudden Infant, Twocsinak & DJ Sarah Wilson, Basquiat Strings and Seb Rochford, Deerhoof, Ergo Phizmiz, Do Make Say Think, and a collaboration between Yoko Ono and the Flaming Lips. There was also a session from Vikki Bennet’s project People Like Us (playing at the Arnolfini Gallery during the Bristol Harbourside Festival, by the by – under the title Genre Collage), whose work (though not the session, unfortunately) you can find over at Ubuweb. The final track was, appropriately enough, The Fall singing Over, Over. A lot may have changed during the years in which the show aired, but The Fall always remained a constant.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The London That Nobody Knows Except Dan Cruickshank

There were two lovely radio programmes broadcast during the recent London week on Radio 4 (which can be found here for a while) in which the inimitable Dan Cruickshank summoned up his usual breathy collection of superlatives ('wonderful', 'remarkable', 'astonishing') for a look at some of the hidden sites and stories of the capital the likes of which author and artist Geoffrey Fletcher explored in his classic book The London Nobody Knows and other writings on the city. These spanned the years from 1960 through to 1990, an era of momentous change in the capital which witnessed the sweeping away of huge swathes of its past. Cruickshank approaches everything with a charming air of slightly bewildered amazement. Of course, he's an extremely learned man and far from bewildered, but he manages to convey a sense of breathy enthusiasm and a continued delight in the joy of discovery. His exclamatory ‘Good Lord’ upon entering the old bomb shelters of St Mary’s tube station in Whitechapel is priceless, and reminds me of John Pertwee’s similarly English expression of restrained astonishment, ‘good grief!’, uttered upon entering a cavern full of writhing giant maggots glowing with green luminescence. Fortunately, Dan doesn’t have to confront any such horrors, although I’m sure he’d deal with them in an adroit manner, murmuring ‘quite fascinating’ to himself all the while. No, he meets Stephen Smith, the author of Underground London, to discuss the use of the underground system as a place of shelter during the war. St Mary’s still bears the signs of this occupation, as you can see in the video above. Smith mentions the initial attempts at discouraging the use of the tube tunnels for protection on the part of London Transport and the government. The authorities seemed to view working people as if they were already half way to becoming Morlocks, who would take to the underground as if it were their natural environment and never emerge again. Those who did shelter in the tubes were denigrated as being ‘tube Cuthberts’ (why Cuthbert should be a name to inspire shame is a mystery locked in the cultural nuances of the age) and it was strongly implied that they were of ‘alien races’. This openly bigoted designation presumably encompassed the Jews of the Whitechapel district (Cruickshank reveals that various surveys conducted around 1900 reckoned the area to have had an almost 99% Jewish population - although this sounds a rather implausible statistic). They might also have sheltered in the new tunnel of the nearby Liverpool Street station, which a London Transport latterly more accommodating to the heavily blitzed populace had surfaced over for that purpose. Smith reveals in his book that it was here in particular that Henry Moore came to take notes which would later guide him in producing his haunting pictures of huddled human forms as spectral emanations in darkness. There's an evocative sequence in Humphrey Jennings' 1944-5 documentary A Diary For Timothy which shows Londoners sleeping on bunks in the underground, hair and clothing ruffled by the breeze created by passing trains. The underground has always been a place which stimulates writers and film-makers to imagine alternate worlds branching off from its tunnels and passageways. It features in Langdon Jones' story The Eye of the Lens, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, China Mieville's King Rat, the Doctor Who episodes Web of Fear and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Yetis and triceratops on the down platform), Quatermass and the Pit, and Gary Sherman's 1972 film Death Line, based around Russell Square station and building an urban myth around the abandoned British Museum station. The least said about the more recent tube-based horror, Creep, the better.

Dan meets other London writers. Iain Sinclair, whose collection Lights Out For the Territory charts his own idiosyncratic path through London as he knows it, was there on his home territory in Hackney, lamenting the probable demise of its market, one of the last of a breed which Fletcher saw as providing the pulse of the city’s streets. His stand in for the 1968 film, James Mason, is seen wandering through Petticoat Lane market, which provides a movable stage for the hawking performers at their stalls. Sinclair Fletcher as a chronicler of that which is about to pass into history, and refers to him as a ‘poet of entropy’, which sounds very New Worlds and Ballardian. There is also a rendezvous (‘ah, there he is’) with Peter Ackroyd, author of the entertainingly anecdotal London: The Biography, who gives a guide to the history of radicalism associated with the Clerkenwell area, and Clerkenwell Green in particular (an open space in which protesters have gathered ever since Wat Tyler gathered the forces of the Peasant’s Revolt here in 1381). Ackroyd points out that it was in this area that Lenin gained much inspiration for the Russian Revolution, observing the terrible working conditions and pay of the watchmakers in the area and seeing them as a specific example of the exploitative nature of capitalism. And it was in Clerkenwell that the revolutionary paper Iskra, or The Spark, was published during Lenin’s stay in 1902-3.

The entrance to Wilton's Music Hall
Other places which Dan visits include an eighteenth century tavern in Gerrard Street, north of Leicester Square, now covered (and therefore probably preserved by) the fixtures of a Chinese supermarket. This was the place where Dr Johnson and Joshua Reynolds established ‘The Club’, where intellectuals and artists would come to discuss the burning issues of the day (or possibly just to have a drink and a pie). Just over the road in Leicester Place, a different sort of club opened in 1965. This was the Ad Lib, and as Dominic Sandbrook points out in his history of Britain in the swinging sixties, it was for a brief moment the hub of the extremely elitist swinging London scene, frequented by the likes of The Beatles and The Stones, Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey. As Peter Ackroyd points out in the context of Clerkenwell’s persistence of radicalism, certain areas seem configured (physically or otherwise) to generate certain types of activity. Dan also visits Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End, a wonderful place which I first visited on one of the London Open House weekends (renamed Open City from this year on) before seeing Marc Almond perform there a couple of years ago (you can get a good view of Wilton’s in his Bluegate Fields concert video). It’s a unique and treasurable relic of the music hall era, and someone should really direct some funding its way to prevent its further decline. Although not to tart it up too much since, as Dan points out, its aura of decay is one of its particular charms. As they come to an end, these two programmes seem too brief to do justice to an updated exploration of London’s hidden nooks and buried histories in the spirit of Geoffrey Fletcher. Surely there’s a TV series crying out to emerge from such material. Meanwhile, Dan Cruickshank ends with a summation from the heart of an urban romanticist, hoping that this London will remain one that nobody other than the observant seeker knows, since ‘while secrets remain secrets, they remain eternal’.

Lorenza Mazzetti's Together

Lorenze Mazzetti

Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together was originally included as part of the first Free Cinema programme organised by Lindsay Anderson as a showcase for non-commercial cinema and shown on 5-8 February 1956 alongside Anderson’s own O Dreamland and Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow. Anderson, Reisz and Richardson went on to produce some of the key works of the British cinema of the 50s and 60s, with films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz) A Taste of Honey (Richardson) and If…(Anderson). But for me, it is Mazzetti’s film which really stands out from this original programme, and provides the highlight of the BFI’s Free Cinema box set in which it can be found. Mazzetti was born in Florence and came to Italy in 1952 to study painting at the Slade School of art. She received a grant from the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund after they’d seen her adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Some of the same air of alienation and everyday estrangement which Kafka made his own can be found in Together. The grant gave Mazzetti access to a 35mm camera, and as a result the film has a more assured cinematic feel than some of the other, more rough and ready Free Cinema offerings. Mazzetti returned to Italy soon after Together was completed and shown. She went on to make documentaries and also wrote two successful novels, published in England as The Sky Folds and Rage. The former (a story set during the Second World War drawing on her own traumatic childhood experiences) was made into a film in Italy in 2000, starring Isabella Rossellini, and was known as The Sky Will Fall in America.

The odd couple - Eduardo Paolozzi and Michael Andrews
Together is a film set around the Shad Thames area of East End London, which is seen through the eyes of two deaf mute friends who work on the docks and who are inseparable. They provide an outsider’s perspective, their limited ability to communicate shutting them off from the world of sound around them. Mazzetti, in the interview included in the box set documentary, admits that ‘I was the outsider’, and that through these characters ‘I was projecting my feelings’. The protagonists are played by two of her artist friends, the sculptor and pop surrealist Eduardo Paolozzi and the painter Michael Andrews, both of whom give beautifully naturalistic performances. They form a visually distinctive odd couple, Paolozzi stocky and stolid and Andrews wiry and full of nervy expressiveness. The area is full of noises (this is in part a documentary mapping the sounds of the docklands and its surrounds) but the soundtrack occasionally cuts out, inviting us to enter the silent world of the two friends and share their perspective. There is a moment in the film in which Andrews watches as the daughter of the family in whose house they lodge gazes dreamily through a window at a passing barge and smiles as if she is for a moment seeing the world as they do. Whereas Paolozzi’s character retreats into himself and lives inside his isolation, Andrews tries to reach out to the world around him. There’s a scene in a pub in which an old geezer sitting on the bench beside him engages him in animated conversation. The jazz blasting out of the juke box falls silent and we see the old boy in clear focus. Andrews, struggling to comprehend him, slips in and out of focus, with fluctuating light creating a progression of shadow and illumination which expresses the concentrated workings of his mind. The film introduces the sudden cessation of sound on several occasions, and it’s a very effective device. Stripped of the hubbub of a busy working environment and its attendant and equally bustling social life, we are able to view this world afresh, with visual senses re-awakened. When the sound crashes back in, it hits us with the force of a physical blow.

Not one of us
The film opens with a dedication to the people of the East End, but they are hardly portrayed in a warm light. They are suspicious of and unwelcoming to the two strangers in their midst, their attitude typified by the two stony-faced matriarchs who watch them arriving at their lodgings with arms folded in blunt and disdainful appraisal. Armstrong makes a hat-raising attempt at civility, but their sideways glances spell out the fact that he is ‘not one of us’. Children make a recurrent appearance throughout the film, their songs and games providing interludes between other scenes featuring Andrews and Paolozzi. The opening scenes suggest that they will be presented in a typically cute if scampish manner, but as the film progresses, they become more like the shock troops of the local community. They hang from lampposts and crouch atop stacks of barrels and crumbling walls, sending advance warning of the arrival of our two innocent protagonists, who just want to be left alone. They chalk stick figures of them onto the towering walls of dockside buildings which look like they could easily be the end product of some sinister variant of hangman. Childhood chants form the backdrop to their play, with Michael Finnegan and Eenie, Meenie, Minie Moe carrying a faintly menacing charge. These are the Bash Street kids swollen in number and looking for an easy target for their merciless childhood scorn. The rubble-strewn bomb sites which are still prevalent in the area (it was only a decade on from the war in which the docklands were a prime target) form the open spaces of their playgrounds, and they form a mini-mob of grubby kneed anarchists, with plenty of ammunition to hand. One of the children can be seen picking up a couple of bricks as Andrews and Paolozzi walk through their swarming throng. They plague and pester the two deaf mutes, pulling faces behind their backs, and darting up to and away from them, touching and poking on a dare. Several make that peculiarly English face achieved by thrusting the tongue out beneath the lower lip. It’s a gesture full of cruelly mocking intent, and one much favoured by John Lennon in the early days of The Beatles, an indication that a part of him was still lodged firmly back in the playground.

Bombsite Frankenstein's monster and brick-wielding mob
The deaf mutes have a childlike air themselves. Andrews’ character is awkward and shy but eager to connect with people, to be liked. He has an ache of romantic yearning, gazing longingly at the daughter of the family they lodge with, and at the dark-haired dancer at the fair he visits, with whom he conjures up a passionate encounter in his nighttime reveries. But his obvious neediness only succeeds in alerting the professionally attuned radar of a prostitute at the pub. Paolozzi’s character is withdrawn and expressionless, his broad block of a head creased into a look of permanently furrowed inward concentration. He has shut the world out, retreating into an inner space. He gazes at the children’s marbles, which he has scooped up earlier, in the pub, as if they contain some profound reflection of this inner world. For this odd couple, throwing contrast off each other in both shape and manner, not only the bombsites but the docks and the residential areas surrounding them are a harsh and unforgiving playground in which they have to fend for themselves. They have no gang, only each other. Just for a moment, Paolozzi turns on his tormentors and picks one of them up, shaking him above his head, his square frame outlined against the backdrop of buildings behind like an East End Frankenstein’s monster. In the original script, written by Denis Horne (with whom Mazzetti was going out at the time) it was Paolozzi’s inadvertent theft of the marbles which he finds lying abandoned in the street which prompted the children’s persecution of the duo. The plot was largely lost in the edit, however, and Horne’s co-creator credit seems more a generously inclusive gesture than an accurate indicator of his contribution.

Thames barges through a rainy window
In the end, the children’s incipient violence becomes manifest. They slip through alleys and pour through the window shells of bombed out buildings like soldiers seeking cover amongst the wreckage of war. Paolozzi has nipped off to the loo, which seems to be built into the end corner of a row of terraced houses. It’s the kind of convenience which Geoffrey Fletcher would no doubt have found fascinating, several pages of his book The London Nobody Knows being devoted to quirky lavs. Andrews perches on a wall, gazing at the light on the water in the dock basin beneath his feet. The children creep up on him and one of them tips him over to flounder in the water, his cries for help unheard by the returning Paolozzi, who looks around in puzzlement. The implication is that he slips below the surface and drowns. The final shot is of a tugboat pulling upstream, trailing a chain of empty skips. The sweet thames flows slowly on, as indifferent to the fate of these two outsiders as to any who’ve worked on its shore throughout history. The melancholy tenor of this conclusion, and of the film as a whole (much enhanced by the lonely, hushed tone and dislocated melodies of Daniele Paris’ oboe and violin based score) with its pervasive aura of menace and suspended violence may reflect something of Mazzetti’s own traumatic childhood. Orphaned at an early age, she was raised by her uncle and aunt. Her aunt and cousins were killed by the SS towards the end of the Second World War, and her uncle committed suicide a year later. She later admitted to being in an emotionally distraught state whilst in England, especially after her break up with Denis Horne, and was unable to complete her follow up project, which was to have been a documentary on the teddy boys. She managed to exorcise some of these early traumatic experiences in her novel Il Cielo Cade (The Sky Falls), which is strongly autobiographical in nature. She seems cheerful and happy in the interview included on the bfi disc.

Junk shop installation
Lindsay Anderson proved a key influence and was generous with his help in editing the film. This was after an initially prickly meeting, in which, as she remembers in the interview, he was ‘so unkind’. He agreed to assist her if thought her film was any good and not just a load of rubbish. She characterises their working relationship in military terms, with him as a general and her as ‘a simple soldier’. Elsewhere, she describes him as being ‘tenderly rude and grumpy’, and they did become friends after this awkward start. It was Anderson who encouraged her to abandon the rigid structure of Horne’s story, and to go out and shoot some more footage of the area. It thus became as much an evocative documentary as seen through the eyes of an outsider. It’s interesting that several others of the Free Cinema films view London from an outsider’s perspective. Frenchman Alain Tanner’s Nice Time observes the night-time crowds around Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square; Robert Vas, who had fled Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1956 drew on his own experiences for his Refuge England; Karel Reisz, who was co-director on Momma Don’t Allow and director of We Are The Lambeth Boys, had left his native Czechoslovakia after the Nazi’s invaded; and Lindsay Anderson (O! Dreamland, Every Day Except Christmas and Wakefield Express) and Tony Richardson (Momma Don’t Allow) were gay and bisexual, and so effectively exiles in their own land at this time. It could be said that artists naturally tend to be outsiders, anyway, and deliberately cultivate a certain distance from that which they wish to observe and creatively transform. Casting two artists as her characters works perfectly for Mazzetti in this sense too, even if it lies outside the framework of the film’s narrative. They certainly look different from everyone around them. The dancer at the fairground looks like she too might have been one of Mazzetti’s Slade art school friends, with her left bank, Juliette Greco-esque look, bare footed with wild, dark hair and black sweater. The scenes of the two in their attic room, or browsing outside a second-hand shop, or Andrews alone wandering through the market and at the fair, reminded me of Ken Russell’s Monitor film Pop Goes The Easel, in which he follows pop artists Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips around some similar London locations.

Shad Thames canyon
The documentary aspect of the film is now particularly fascinating in its glimpses of a world which is now gone for good. The cavernous canyons between warehouses which are filled with clangorous industrial sound worthy of Einsturzende Neubaten during the film, and which are threaded with bridging walkways, are now luxury (and in this case the term really does apply) flats, as indeed is pretty much all of the Thames riverside from Tower Bridge down to Greenwich. You can see the Shad Thames warehouses on the cusp of their 80s redevelopment in the 1984 Doctor Who story Resurrection of the Daleks, in which the narrow street is the focus for some particularly violent action, with inevitable stunt tumbles from gantries. Butler’s Wharf, where Armstrong and Paolozzi are seen working, was home to Derek Jarman’s studio from 1973-79, with the adjoining Thameside terrace the stage for many of his super-8 films (including some of the footage which made it into Jubilee). His room backed onto one of the walkways across the Shad Thames canyon. Butler’s Wharf now houses more luxury apartments, with fancy eateries attached. The criss-crossing, vorticist latticework of cranes and chimneys, the barges and tugboats and cargoes waiting to be winched into warehouses are all fascinating records of the working docks. At the end of the film, we see a steam crane in action, snorting out fuming billows as it dredges the canal basin to deposit bucketloads of river mud into a waiting lighter. In the commentary to the recent re-issue of the film Separation, made a decade or so later, director Jack Bond notes of a steam crane working near to the Royal Oak pub in Isleworth that it was the last one in London at the time. So these beasts’ days were numbered even whilst Together was being filmed. There are some great weathered and worn faces to be seen, too. In the pub scenes, we get the old drunkard offering his boozy ballad, and the louche lothario by the jukebox, twisting his way through his come-on dance in his shabby suit. The ale is dark and the benches occupied with old ladies as much as young men. At the fair and in the market, there are buskers and beggars and bargain hunters scrutinising the goods with an unimpressionable eye. With this film, Mazzetti offers both a documentarist’s view of another side of London, away from the neon advertising of Piccadilly and the theatres of the West End, and a deeply personal reflection on the feeling of being rejected, of being an outsider. As the work of someone who was still a student at the time, Mazzetti is right to look back on it with pride.


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Watch Tarkovsky Free!

I feel compelled to share this with everyone.

No doubt it's being passed around the internet a lot right now, but really... it's important. All of Tarkovsky's films available to watch free online right now.


I think that's worth shouting about, don't you?

Just scroll down the page when you get there. There's a youtube clip near the top. That's not what we're talking about here. Scroll down. See the further links. It's worth it.

The Final Programme

I was quite surprised to learn that Michael Moorcock would be turning up at the BFI Southbank to participate in a Q&A session following a screening of the 1973 adaptation, directed by former production designer Robert Fuest, of the first of his Jerry Cornelius novels, The Final Programme. The programme rather patronisingly describes him as a ‘pulp novelist’ and ‘sci-fi pioneer’. Aside from the fact that Moorcock’s use of the standard components of ‘sci-fi’ tended to be in the form of pastiche and appropriation rather than innovation (although he could be said to have been pioneering in his formal experimentation), and were merely one part of a general cross-blending of genres, the implication that he is not a proper novelist belittles his considerable literary achievements. These include the Jerry Cornelius books and stories, which mythologise and reflect upon the 60s and their fallout as cogently as any work from that era; Mother London, a heartfelt and compassionate love song to the modern, post-war city and its inhabitants, forged in the fires of the blitz; the Pyat Quartet, beginning with Byzantium Endures, which manages the difficult task of sustaining a sprawling, globe-trotting narrative spanning the first half of the twentieth century, told through the unreliable and self-serving first person voice of the unlikeable protagonist; and Gloriana, his baroque fantasy homage to Spenser and Mervyn Peake, revised to some controversial effect (John Clute strongly expressed the opinion that it ruined the central symbolic thrust of the novel) in the light of Moorcock’s espousal of deeply felt feminist beliefs. The pulp epithet suggests an inherent disposability, and there are indeed a great many hastily written fantasy series which clog up the shelves of second hand bookshops and charity shops to this day. They were often dashed off to raise funds for the struggling magazine New Worlds, which Moorcock edited during the latter half of the sixties. But novels such as the historical fantasies The War Hound and the World’s Pain and its follow up The City in the Autumn Stars, The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy (with its amusing latter day take on fin-de-siecle decadance), and the alternate world Edwardiana of the Warlord of the Air trilogy are all immensely enjoyable, and written with great wit and imagination. Moorcock has now turned his hand to writing a Doctor Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles, which comes out in October. With a piratical character called Captain Cornelius, maybe this will draw some parallels between Jerry and the Doctor, both anarchistic souls who favour flux and chaos over order and stasis.

Michael Moorcock

Moorcock’s appearance at the BFI is surprising both since he tends to be resident in Texas these days, which makes appearances in the city he used to make his own more of a rarity, but also because he’s never disguised his contempt for the film and those who made it. He’s never had a good word to say about it, indeed his words tend to be very hostile. He was disgusted at the way that the underlying ethos of the book had been completely inverted in the film, replacing its fluid sexuality and moral ambiguity with leering camp, heavily accented with a nod and a wink and bringing it more in line with the rather desperate sex comedies which the British film industry was churning out. He holds forth on the subject in Stan Nicholls 1993 book of interviews with fantasy, science fiction and horror writers, Wordsmiths of Wonder. He comments that the film-makers had gone for an ‘alternative James Bond’ feel, which was completely wrong. ‘I was very depressed’, he says, ‘because they reversed a lot of the ideas. Whereas I was celebrating transexuality, if you like, or celebrating relationships that didn’t depend on the sex of the people, and celebrating the possibilities of computers and jet planes or whatever, they tried to turn it into a warning about technology. They had Jon Finch making sexist and anti-lesbian remarks, all kinds of crap like that. They were just conventional. It was like somebody takes your ideas and pisses on them. It’s not that they changed the plot, or that they may have sensationalised it. They actually attacked the ideas that are the essence of the book’. Clearly embittered by the experience (and his further semi-comical encounters with the film world are detailed in Letters from Hollywood) he goes on to observe ‘it begins to dawn that these people have a will towards producing crap’, and that ‘they’ve got the imaginations of dead newts’. More recently he has conceded that the acting is of a high standard. With Patrick Magee, Sterling Hayden and Graham Crowden in the cast (creating an associative amalgam of A Clockwork Orange, Dr Strangelove and If…) that could be pretty much taken as read. I think it unlikely that he’s come to celebrate the film, however.

I saw it many years ago and remember agreeing with the general consensus that it was a hollow exercise in surface style and throwaway action, a late, limp and instantly dated entry in the sub-genre of Bond parodies. I trust the critical judgement of my teenage self, who would have realised that it was a far cry from the source material. I was deeply immersed in the work of the New Worlds writers at the time. They brought an air of iconoclastic excitement to British science fiction, and reflected and confronted the technologised and commodified world of the mid to late 60s (and on into the 70s) with an experimental zeal in keeping with the tenor of the times. I read through the 8 Best SF from New Worlds anthologies and the paperback quarterlies which followed the demise of the magazine proper (number 5 was particularly good, as I recall). The Jerry Cornelius books and stories seemed to be at the heart of the endeavour, Moorcock actively encouraging other writers such as M. John Harrison, Brian Aldiss and Langdon Jones to use the character to their own ends (some of the results can be found in the collection The Nature of the Catastrophe). Even Norman Spinrad, a representative of the very different US New Wave of SF, tried his hand with The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde. Harlan Ellison never produced a Jerry Cornelius story (more’s the pity), but there’s a little of him in the (first) title character of his celebrated story ‘Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman’.

The Final Programme presents Jerry as he would like to perceive himself - an embodiment of the spirit of the mid-sixties in all its technological optimism and pop energy. He goes on to become a representation of the deterioration of that spirit, with other characters emerging to embody new hopes, which they are able to give more stable form. The four novels in the Cornelius Quartet, the central pillars of the mythos, convey the sense of a world reconfiguring itself in an age of flux and chaos. The characters who play their part in effecting this reconfiguration are manifestations of archetypal forms (and popular fictional types) playing out the latest act in an eternally recurrent masquerade. Jerry, his sister Catherine, her sometime lover, the temporal adventuress Una Persson, and the decent relic of faded empire, Major Nye, are ranged against the forces of order, control and repression, represented by Jerry’s brother Frank, Bishop Beesley and, above all, Miss Brunner. Miss Brunner is often seen as foreshadowing the rise of Thatcher. Moorcock acknowledges as much in his introduction to The New Nature of the Catastrophe (an expanded edition of the original collection of Cornelius stories by other hands), whilst denying any powers of augury on his part. ‘If, through Mrs Brunner’, he writes, ‘we conjured Baroness Stoneybroke out of Mrs Thatcher, I apologise. I still feel a little chilly when I note how close Miss Brunner and her primitive programmes, her briskly simple-minded solutions, were echoed in the words and policies of the Petite Corporale as we knew her in her hey-day. She led a gang of hypocrites and rascals whose response to the shock of the new was to try and stamp it out or, when that failed, appropriate it to their own crude uses’.

Moorcock would later formalise his troupe of characters, whose fates remain forever intertwined, in terms of the stock cast and reversals of fortune of the Harlequinade, or Commedia dell’arte, the underlying pattern of which becomes particularly clear in the final volume, The Condition of Muzak. Jerry himself is too volatile and selfish a character to create anything permanent in the world. He is both a cheerily amoral trickster, gliding along on the currents of the zeitgeist, and a self-absorbed depressive, helplessly caught up in and overwhelmed by the changes in those self-same currents. His persona flickers between Harlequin and Pierrot, from cocksure mastery to pitiful abjection, as the players in the masquerade swap roles. The film entirely fails to grasp this mythic dimension, which should have been clear by the time of its shooting, since three of the novels in the Cornelius Quartet had already been published. The books’ archetypes were reduced to crude charicatures, going through the motions against a backdrop of gaudily colourful sets. These dovetail with A Clockwork Orange in presenting a very 70s vision of the future, shiny pop surfaces covering an all-pervasive air of seedy decay. Robert Fuest’s designs betray his origins (both as designer and director) in the world of The Avengers, and also follow on from his creation of the archly camp art deco horror comedies featuring Vincent Price as The Abominable Doctor Phibes (another case of style taking precedence over content).

Moorcock on set with Jon Finch

Jon Finch seems wrong for the role of Jerry Cornelius. He has the vague appearance of the Jerry of Mal Dean’s New Worlds illustrations, but brings the same sour, humourless and slightly thuggish characteristics which he displayed in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Polanski’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Frenzy. Jerry is essentially the eternal adolescent, with the energy and charisma of youth combining with a concomitant tendency to retreat into a shell of despondency. Finch is not the person to capture this mercurial quality. Given the ascendancy of glam rock at the time of the film, it would have seemed natural to portray Jerry as Bowie or Bolan figure. Indeed, Bowie’s turn as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth a couple of years later, in which he conveyed a mixture of innocence and growing worldliness, mania and melancholia, suggest he would have been a good choice. The world of the Cornelius books also seemed particularly suited to the culture surrounding the emergence of punk. Derek Jarman’s Jubilee captured some of their spirit, and Jenny Runacre’s self-appointed modern day Queen Elizabeth, known as Bod, was a variation on her role as Miss Brunner in The Final Programme. Jarman also shared Moorcock’s fascination with the esoteric and mythologised aspects of Elizabethan England, as John Dee brings the Queen through time to witness the future of her realm. Moorcock recast the Sex Pistols film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle as a Cornelius book, changing the title to Gold Diggers of 77, in reference to the depression era musicals of the thirties.

The alchemical wedding of Cornelius and Brunner - Mal Dean's illustration
The end of the film departs from the book in a fundamental sense. Moorcock has Jerry and Miss Brunner merge in a modern, technologised alchemical marriage. The result is a beautiful hermaphroditic composite. ‘A tall, naked, graceful being stepped out. It had Miss Brunner’s hair and Mr Cornelius’s eyes. Miss Brunner’s predatory jaw was softened by Jerry’s ascetic mouth. It was hermaphrodite and beautiful’. In the film, this marriage produces an apelike throwback, bent over with knuckles scraping the ground. This inversion seems to have been effected merely to produce a parodic reversal of the end of 2001, with its evolutionary leap to transcendence. At a stretch, it could be read as a comment on the decline of the ideals of the sixties, and the onset of a weary nihilism. This ignores the emergence of genuine and lasting radicalism in the 70s in the form of feminism and gay rights, however. As Dominic Sandbrook points out in his excellent two volume cultural history of 60s Britain (comprising Never Had It So Good and White Heat), the sexual politics of the late 60s counterculture were dictated by the men who dominated it, and who were far from revolutionary when it came to maintaining the traditional roles of women in bed and kitchen. Even Moorcock, who subsequently embraced feminism, ruefully reminisces (in Wordsmiths of Wonder) that ‘we should have been examining what effect we were having, because half the people involved were wankers when you came down to it’. Perhaps the creature who emerges in the film is a more honest portrayal of the wider realities of sixties countercultural bohemia, then. But in the context of the book and the Cornelius mythos, it’s still essentially wrong. In The Final Programme (extracts of which were first published in New Worlds in 1965, at the height of Swinging London optimism), Jerry wanders amongst the tables of a pop art amusement arcade, and observes happily that ‘the true aristocracy who would rule the seventies were out in force: the queers and lesbians and the bisexuals, already half-aware of their destiny which would be realized when the central ambivalence of sex would be totally recognized and the terms male and female would become all but meaningless’. In the light of such a manifesto, the emergence of the grinning, guttural ape at the end of the film can only be seen as a betrayal. After the credits have rolled and the lights have gone up, it will certainly be interesting to hear what Michael Moorcock has to say about it some 37 years on. He’ll be there after the screening at 8.30 on Tuesday 10th August.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff - Cameraman

I went to see the prosaically titled The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff – Cameraman at the cinema the other night, a film which now sadly stands as a tribute to the great cinematographer, who died last year. Cardiff is a great subject for such documentary treatment, being a congenial and modest man, with an amused anecdotalist’s ear and an apparent ability to get on with pretty much anybody, even stereotypically irate Hollywood tyrants such as Henry Hathaway. And of course, there is the unmissable opportunity to see examples of his work on the big screen. The Powell and Pressburger films were the undoubted highlights of his career, and it’s all the more remarkable that these were the first films that he shot as principal photographer. The scenes from A Matter of Life and Death, with June tearfully listening to David Niven’s Peter as he pours forth a final rush of romantic eloquence from his crashing plane, and Black Narcissus, with Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth gliding through the corridors of the Himalayan nunnery like a demented spectre before appearing at the outer door with a stare of focussed hatred and red-eyed wildness which could melt the surrounding snow in a wide radius, never fail to send a shiver down my spine. The emotional impact of both is hugely amplified by Cardiff’s expressionistic use of colour; the red glow in both the airplane cockpit and the radio communication room; and the red of Sister Ruth’s dress and eyes set against the whites and muted pastels of the nunnery and distant mountains. Although a dvd is set to be released on 19th July, these really do benefit from being seen on the big screen. As do the original films, of course. A revival of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is doing the rounds as an accompaniement to the documentary, which looks like it will show off Cardiff’s Technicolor to dazzling effect. A Matter of Life and Death is also being screened at our local Picture House. In most moods, I would cite this as being my favourite film of all time (for reasons outlined in previous posts). It does seem to be the default choice of Powell and Pressburger for screening outside London, however (last year’s re-issue of The Red Shoes aside). It would be great to have been given the opportunity to see Cardiff’s work on Black Narcissus this time (it is being shown over the Summer at Somerset House, for all you big city folk). Indeed, I’d love to be able to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on the big screen again, or lesser known Powell and Pressburger gems such as the lush rural melodrama Gone To Earth, the brooding and intense The Small Back Room, or the dreamy evocation of the Kentish countryside A Canterbury Tale.

The film could almost be seen as a literary adaptation, since a lot of the material is familiar from Cardiff’s autobiographical volume of reminiscences of his life in film, Magic Hour. This has an introduction by Martin Scorsese, and it is only a few minutes before his inevitable appearance on the screen. He talks in his usual rapid, intense sentences, which tend to come to a sudden halt during which he inserts a nervous smile, as if self-consciously trying to bring a touch of levity to his almost violent expression of his passion for cinema. Despite his ubiquity, Scorsese’s presence is always welcome, as his knowledge is genuinely comprehensive, and his enthusiasm infectious (it seems rather churlish to suggest that he could do with being a bit more critical on occasion). The anecdotes which Cardiff both tells and sets down in writing have become fixed in form through the telling, and have reached a state of performative polish which makes them work perfectly against the backdrop of a photograph slowly panned across or zoomed in on, or as the prelude to a suitably chosen film extract. His position slightly outside the magic circle of stars and directors, whilst still being in close contact with them, gives him a degree of perspective which allows for fresh insight, free of the distortions of self-mythologising ego. Any slight embellishments, natural in the telling of a tale, can be forgiven in the light of the sheer range of his experiences in the film world, which date from the silent era right up until the time at which the documentary was filmed. There are scenes in which he is working on a recent movie, expressing his reluctance to retire and his hope that he’ll have a heart attack and die on the job (he has an unsentimental sense of humour, with a healthy instinct for the absurd).

Cardiff was born into an itinerant theatrical family, who toured theatres and halls as a variety act with him in tow, and soon taking to the stage himself. His reminiscences of his early life give a fascinating insight into the continuity between and intersection of the worlds of stage and screen. In Magic Hour, Cardiff tells us that his father, a comedian, performed on the stage with Charlie Chaplin in a Fred Karno show. When he met him much later in life in Switzerland and asked him about this, he was delighted to discover that Chaplin still remembered this show, and had clear recollections of working with his father. Cardiff’s parents took roles as extras in films whilst ‘resting’, and he relates the thespian scam of creating a circulating queue when collecting the day’s wage of a guinea, with a variety of disguises adopted to accumulate extra coinage. The camera picks out wee Jackie sheltering between the arms of his father, a dapper bow-tied and boatered figure, in a group photograph taken in front of the Hippodrome, and again, sitting at his side, in line with a black-face troupe at the seaside (a real sign of changing times).

Cardiff gravitated towards screen rather than stage, working his way up through the industry after early opportunistic experiences as a child actor gained through accompanying his parents in the search for roles as extras. He went from clapperboy to focus puller, to working on camera teams at Elstree and with Alexander Korda at Denham Studios (where he also worked on the special effects unit for Things To Come). He was a self-educated man, his early peripatetic lifestyle offering little opportunity for more settled schooling, and was an avaricious reader with a real thirst for learning. This autodidactic drive gave him an unorthodox range of reference points, which were well employed when he was examined by a board of big studio cheeses looking to select someone to send over to the USA to learn how to operate the new Technicolor equipment. Cardiff cheerfully admitted to his complete lack of technical knowledge, but impressed them with his appreciation of the representation of the effects of light in paintings by the Old Masters. He got the job.

Cardiff gives us a guide to this hulking piece of equipment, which is shot as if it is a monumental sculpture in enamelled chrome, which in a way it is now - a monument to a bygone age. This very unportable technology was hauled around the world at the behest of the eccentrically wealthy travellers the Count and Countess von Keller, and there are some marvellous pieces of footage shot at a variety of exotic locations. There’s the Taj Mahal, an Indian temple covered with sensuous wall sculptures, and Vesuvius, which was undergoing a minor eruption at the time, which resulted in burnt shoe soles and a significant shortening of the tripod of the very expensive camera equipment. Cardiff also lugged it onto the seas for the semi-fictional wartime drama Western Approaches, made for the Crown Film Unit in the style of the documentary movement. The footage from this was stunning, with the waves of the Irish sea swelling above the tiny lifeboat in which Cardiff, his equipment, director Pat Jackson and several merchant seamen were crouched. These scenes resembled a World War Two restaging of Hokkusai’s famous print The Wave. There’s a glorious shot of the sun on the sea’s horizon, whose colours were achieved using a combination of filters and film development techniques, and which strays slightly from the documentary ethos to express a more poetic realism. It’s a foretaste of the imaginative and unabashedly romantic uses to which Cardiff would put the Technicolor process.

Jack and Michael Powell on the Burrows
He was given the perfect opportunity to apply his painterly eye by Michael Powell, who noticed his camera work on the scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which he conjures the heads of the Colonel’s hunting trophies onto the walls of his house with the crack of a gunshot until every space is filled. Powell was sufficiently impressed to offer an impulsive invitation to shoot his next film. This was to become A Matter of Life and Death. Although not strictly his debut (he’d shot The Great Mr Handel in 1942) this was an impressive film to be involved with so early in his career, and he brought all the knowledge he had accumulated to bear, both in terms of his technical expertise and of his appreciation of the use of the representation of light in painting. Set designer Alfred Junge tried to impose his own ideas of how to light his backdrops, but Cardiff stood his ground and did things his way. The contrast between the black and white, bureaucratic heaven and the vibrant colour of the Earth and the Universe allowed him to demonstrate that he could master the chiaroscuro gradations of monochrome and the enhanced realism of the Technicolor palette. Marius Goring’s famous line ‘one is starved for Technicolor up there’ could almost be seen as a small tribute to the sensuous quality of Cardiff’s colour photography. Photos of Powell and Cardiff on the dunes of Braunton Burrows above the wide expanse of Saunton Sands are testament to the closeness with which the two worked. One anecdote which underlines the pragmatism with which Cardiff approached technical challenges concerns the creation of a mist which gradually clears to reveal the landscape of sea and sand. He achieved this through the simple expedient of breathing on the lens. The fact that I now know that what I see on the screen is the dissipating condensation from Jack Cardiff’s breath, the transient imprint of a moment of his life, makes the scene even more magical. It provides an appropriately evanescent borderland between Heaven and Earth, life and the afterlife, black and white and Technicolor. Through the incidental improvisation of an effect, it creates a small poetic enhancement of the film’s meditation on the precious and fragile beauty of human life.

Cardiff went on to shoot Powell and Pressburger’s next film, Black Narcissus, which furthered his burgeoning reputation as a supreme cinematic colourist. In the documentary, he emphasises the degree to which various painters have influenced his cinematography and approach to lighting. The interiors of Vermeer, with figures engaged in the unremarkable minutiae of daily domesticity or simply lost in thought obliquely highlighted and etched by shadow via light slanting through windows, were a particular model. The muted tones of the nunnery are reminiscent of Gwen John, who herself painted several portraits from 1913 onward of nuns from the Order of the Sisters of Charity in Meudon, near Paris, where she had settled (whether Cardiff was aware of these I don’t know). This restrained palette is predominant throughout most of the film, before it is violently disrupted by the vivid primary colours which burst forth when Sister Ruth’s suppressed desire explodes into madness. Cardiff points to the expressionist reds and greens of Van Gogh as being an influence here.

Gwen John's nun
His love and knowledge of art was another facet of his self-education, and played a major part in forming his ideas of colour and lighting (and its corollary, shadow). He sits in front of paintings in the National Gallery and extols the virtues of the Dutch masters, the Impressionists and above all Turner. As he contemplates Rain, Steam and Speed (the richly atmospheric painting of an approaching train crossing a viaduct), he observes that he would have been a great cinematographer were he alive today. Cardiff ushers us into his own studio and shows us a selection of his own paintings, in which he copies the styles of his favourite artists. He is typically disparaging about his efforts, claiming that this is merely his way of analysing the work of his heroes and discovering how they achieved their characteristic effects. The results are, nevertheless, nothing to be ashamed of. He is completely in thrall to the great artists, and it is they, rather than other cameramen, who seem to have been his greatest inspiration. In Magic Hour, ostensibly a memoir about his life in the film world, he devotes considerable space to his encounters with various artists, such Utrillo, de Chirico (certainly an influence on parts of the Red Shoes ballet) and Braque. He also runs into Jean Cocteau, an artist who leapt with a light and airy step between the varied worlds of theatre, poetry, art, music, ballet and, of course, film. He seems overawed at the prospect of meeting the elderly Jane Avril, the model for some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous depictions of Montmartre night life. Alas, she died shortly after he learnt of her whereabouts, and the meeting never took place.

Expressionist reds
Cardiff went on to shoot one more film, The Red Shoes, with Powell and Pressburger. His Technicolor cinematography reached new heights of gaudy expressionism here, especially in the celebrated dance sequence in which Moira Shearer puts on the red shoes. The air of heightened expressionism is enhanced by his close-ups of the faces of the dancers, in particular Moira Shearer as the rising ballerina Vicky Page. Their exaggerated stage make-up, designed to make an impression at a distance, distorts their features and makes them look as if they have just stepped out of a painting by Munch or Ensor. The Red Shoes isn’t one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger films, perhaps because I have little interest in the high culture world of the ballet in which it is set. Powell himself would display an increasing tendency to breath the elevated airs of the classical art world, with adaptations of Die Fledermaus (transformed into Oh! Rosalinda and updated to post-war Vienna) and Tales of Hoffmann (much admired by George Romero and Martin Scorsese, but not so much by me). Apart from anything else, these marginalized Emeric Pressburger’s gift for characterisation and storytelling, which were of paramount importance to the partnership. Perhaps he was admitting to the failure of his high art pretensions when he had Moira Shearer murdered by the scopophiliac cameraman protagonist of Peeping Tom. He did go on to make an hour long film of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in 1964 for German TV, however. Powell always claimed that The Red Shoes was about being prepared to die for one’s art, a view repeated as orthodoxy here. But Vicky doesn’t die for her art, but rather through the mental torment caused by the competing attempts to control her exerted by Anton Walbrook’s dictatorial svengali Lermontov and Marius Goring’s Julian, her jealous young composer husband. The love story between Vicky and Julian doesn’t seem remotely passionate enough to inspire the wildly operatic act of self-immolation which forms the film’s abrupt conclusion. Marius Goring is frankly more convincing (and certainly more charming) as the foppish Conductor 71 wielding his barley sugar walking cane in A Matter of Life and Death than as an artist and lover who would drive a woman to despair and death.

Kathleen Byron
Moira Shearer is one of a triumvirate of Powell and Pressburger leading ladies in the film, and it’s great to see both her, Kim Hunter and especially Kathleen Byron, all of whom, sadly, have now passed away. During his years working in Hollywood, Cardiff enjoyed warm friendships with many of the most glamorous actresses of the era. He seems to have been the sort of person in whose company they naturally felt comfortable, and in whom they felt they could confide. Marlene Dietrich took a shine to the young Jack when they were both working on Knight Without Armour at the Denham Studios for Alexander Korda. He was fascinated by the way in which she directed her own lighting, applying her make-up to best advantage of its shadows and reflections, ending with a light sprinkling of gold dust in the hair. Cardiff evidently learnt from Marlene, and he discusses the great beauties with whom he worked with a coolly analytical eye. He falls under their spell yet also manages to maintain the degree of distance necessary for his work. His own photographic portraits are wonderful, although he dismisses them in a typically offhand manner as being the products of an amateur. The full face picture of Audrey Hepburn, whose dark eyebrows he finds a particularly distinctive feature, adorns the film’s poster. Marilyn Monroe specifically asked for him to take her picture, and the resultant portrait is gorgeously sensuous even by her standards, with windblown hair straying across her face. It was apparently Arthur Miller’s favourite photograph of her.

Personal portrait gallery
Cardiff also took super 8 films on set, and these give a fascinating insight into the informal behaviour of actors and actresses whose images have been fixed by their screen roles, or presented in carefully pre-determined contexts such as magazine shoots or Parky-style interview schmoozes. Some seem little different from their screen personae. John Wayne still wears his cowboy gear and practices his gunslinging, even when he’s in the Sahara to play the role of foreign legionnaire. Ava Gardner seems broody and a little sad. But Sophia Loren comes to vivid, gleeful life. Seeing her act up to Cardiff’s camera with such playful ebullience, it comes as little surprise to read in Magic Hour that they had a very close relationship, a chaste semi-affair conducted in secret on the set of the otherwise forgettable 1957 film Legend of the Lost. Cardiff also filmed Kirk Douglas doing his own stunts on The Vikings, tiptoeing lightly across the oars of a longship (and falling in the water) and climbing up the gate of the castle perched vertiginously above the Croatian cliffs and sea (which stood in with surprising conviction for the Norwegian fjords). Douglas broke with his general reluctance to be interviewed since his stroke in 1996 to take part in this film, and this, together with the participation of many others, is a testament to the respect and affection in which Cardiff was held. The contrast between Douglas’ frailty and age in his contemporary interview and the youth and physical daring evident in the old super 8 films (those stunts look genuinely dangerous) has an inevitably poignant effect (something which seems to be ingrained in the super 8 medium). Cardiff gives short shrift to the idea that cinema is inherently tragic, however, having fairly brusquely gone along his row of photographic portraits and pointed out how many of them are dead.

Ava Gardner in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
Cardiff established himself as a major colour cameraman in Hollywood, and even if the films weren’t always of the finest quality (the 50s weren’t really a vintage era for American cinema) his visual contributions were always striking. We get to see glimpses of War and Peace (with its cavalry charge and dream-like duel in the dawn-lit snow), the fantasia of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (with Ava Gardner’s otherworldly siren), a sped up run through a highly complex ten minute take in Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, and of course, The African Queen, which offers its own rich fund of anecdotes based around the trying conditions of its shoot, with crocodiles and rapids and other hazards. Lauren Bacall, who accompanied Bogie for the filming, is on hand to provide wry recollections. Everyone got dysentery at some point, since the water filter from which they were drinking was singularly failing to effect any filtration whatsoever, leaving them to drink pure African river water. Bogart and John Huston remained unaffected, however, since they only drank whisky.

It’s fair to say that Cardiff’s work as a director, which occupied him through the 60s and into the 70s, never rose above an efficient journeyman quality, and often the material on offer was simply bad. Sons and Lovers, the DH Lawrence adaptation to which most attention is paid here, was well received by the critics in its day, but has not gone on to be thought of as an enduring classic. Scorsese’s reply to a question about Young Cassidy, the Irish-set film which Cardiff took over from John Ford, is ‘I’ve got a print’, a reflexive response which falls short of his usual instantaneous effusion. Cardiff puts up a half-hearted defence of Girl On A Motorcycle, his attempt at an erotic reverie with Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon, claiming that some of its notoriously awful dialogue made more sense in French, but the US title, Naked Under Leather, gives a more honest account of its appeal. Unsurprisingly, no mention is made of his final directorial effort, The Mutations (1973), a woeful horror movie in which meddlesome youths poke about in a suspiciously ill-attended fairground, a-la Scooby Doo, and fall foul of Donald Pleasance’s experiment-happy mad scientist, who turns his failed hybrids into sideshow freaks. Tom Baker leadenly plays his hideously scarred assistant, walking with patent henchman lurch, fresh from working with Pasolini on Canterbury Tales and biding his time before the call up for Doctor Who a year or so later. It’s worth seeing only for period 70s London detail and atmosphere (and attitudes).

Perhaps realising that he had reached rock bottom with a film which took a prurient interest in showing real sideshow freaks, Cardiff returned to working as a cameraman in Hollywood. The films he made in this final period are hardly the stuff of legend, and are interesting chiefly in the complete contrast they offer with the cinematic climate of the decades in which he had previously worked in this capacity. There’s a certain perverse fascination in discovering that the man who shot Black Narcissus, Under Capricorn and The African Queen was also behind the camera for Rambo 2: First Blood, Conan the Destroyer and The Awakening. At least the latter, a turgid adaptation of Bram Stoker’s dull novel The Legend of the Seven Stars (Hammer did it slightly better – and with a much catchier title – as Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb in 1973), allows for the participation of Charlton Heston. Cardiff’s work was never less than efficient and professional, however, and he maintained a high reputation which kept him in constant demand. There’s something lacking in their flat photographic realism, however (other shortcomings of the films themselves notwithstanding). Perhaps his greatest work was done in the artificial environs of the studios. It was here that he could create his own romanticised and highly coloured visions of reality, cinematic dreams which endure to this day.