By Chris Rogers, 01-Mar-2014 18:18:00
The BBC’s recent documentary on the late architectural writer and critic Ian Nairn, this avuncular but passionate critic of much post-war development in Britain’s cities, showed him to be a man of great wit, energy and commitment. We need more like him today.
Watching the programme led me to the BBC’s accompanying on-demand archive of selected episodes from his 1972 series Nairn Across Britain, a televisual journey Nairn took from south the north in search of the best, worst and – quite often the most objectionable to Nairn – frustratingly bland places along the way. The reason why this last offended Nairn so much soon becomes clear – he believed in a sense of place, a sense of specificity, of towns and cities and villages being uniquely of themselves in layout, buildings and atmosphere. A delight at small touches in the built environment as much as the grand design, at the humble and simple as much as the elaborate and rich, is also apparent. Where this kind of character has been lost, Nairn bemoans it. One lifeless Leicestershire village, for example, is pointedly described as the “dead” centre of the country.
The series was a journey as much philosophical as actual, though, since Nairn was born and raised in Bedford and was middle class to the core but felt an increasing pull toward Britain’s richly evolved northern cities and their great industrial wealth. His accent shifted to northern vowel sounds – “NewCASSle” – and in the very the first episode, taking us from London to Manchester, he seems hardly to be able to get out of the capital fast enough and is soon flung north along the A5 to the Dunstable Downs.
And here we see another key tenet of Nairn’s belief; even though he railed against much of the mass demolition and redevelopment that was at that time transforming Britain, he was avowedly not a reactionary. He did not hate modern architecture, and not think the countryside was untouchable. Instead he simply wanted good buildings that were true and honest, and which fitted with people’s lives and contributed to their surroundings. He advocated for man’s impact on the landscape to be similarly straightforward in its newness, and not prissy or meek.
Thus in that first episode alone he expresses as much joy and admiration for the quirky Windsock pub, built for Schooner Inns in a fabulously mad mix of alpine chalet and Thunderbirds architecture, Willington power station, with its deliberately exposed machinery and – in Nairn’s view – too-timid colour scheme, and the then-new Newport Pagnall services on the M1, the brick and canary yellow pavilions either side of the motorway tied together with a glazed bridge described admiringly as “a tiny knot in the landscape”, as he does for the 18th century Staunton Harold Hall and church.
Nairn was also concerned for genuine communities that are served by the best, most practical facilities, especially shops. Traditional market squares feature frequently in his travels, and a revealing comparison of Carlisle’s in the Victorian past (open and welcoming) and now (sliced up by roads and anything but) is instructive. Stockport’s new Merseyway Shopping Centre, though, is praised for its square and “high class” shops but also for the way in which this is threaded into the existing streets of shops, many of which have been “turned back to front” to link in to the development.
Moving by canal toward Leeds exposes the dereliction their abandonment brought, but with the irony of their greened towpaths now being the only sign of nature in many cities. Nairn always sees opportunity, though; he likes a new housing scheme in Wigan that comes close to the canal but notes that it fails to make the most of its waterside setting, suggesting that three-sided squares of houses fronting the waterway would be nicer.
Nairn’s manner is affable and accessible but also intelligent, sharp and most of all angry – his frustration, annoyance and exasperation come across loud and clear. He is without affectation, and without pretention. It is a reminder of a time when architecture mattered because it was changing where we lived on a fundamental level and at a profoundly life-affecting scale. Things are not quite the same now, despite what we see going up all around us, but we do need more architectural criticism like this.
By Chris Rogers, 22-Feb-2014 22:39:00
I very rarely blog about films I’ve already seen, but last night I was enjoying watching Aliens (the special edition) on DVD for the first time so much (it was also a while since I’d seen it in any version) that I felt the urge. And given the film is about going back to where you’ve been before, it seems appropriate.
I first saw the film the day it was released, way back in August 1986. I’d left school that summer and at that time big films opened in London a week before anywhere else in the UK, so I was amongst the first few hundred people in the country to experience it. The film arrived on the crest of tremendous reviews, and I remember David Castell on Capital Radio being very positive. No internet in those days, of course, so imported American magazines sold through Forbidden Planet were the limit of what you could know before a film actually opened. I consumed every word I could about it and so knew the ending going in, but it’s a sign of Cameron’s talent that even with that degree of foreknowledge I still felt the film was over at the point where the dropship climbs out of LV-426’s atmosphere, because what had gone before was so exhausting felt so complete (that said, I’ve since learned my lesson and nowadays avoid everything but the trailer before seeing any film).
Starting where Scott’s original ended but with the brilliantly simple yet effective twist of setting events nearly 60 years into the future was then and remains today a masterstroke of plotting, allowing much of what is actually a very simple, even clichéd story (as was that of Alien) to be efficiently accelerated. Add to that Cameron’s ability to increase tension through incident after successive incident, often presented initially as impossible to escape, and layer action sequence on top of action sequence whilst maintaining coherence, and the result is extraordinary. Both skills, by the way, can be seen in Terminator 2, made five years later. The claustrophobia of the locations also built on Scott’s work – his studio set for the Nostromo was one of the first to have a roof – and was enhanced by tight editing and good production design.
The naturalistic performances contribute greatly. Weaver was nominated for an Oscar, a welcome move given genre films are seldom recognised outside of the technical awards, though watching again it’s clear that both Michael Biehn and especially Bill Paxton deserved recognition for their supporting roles as Hicks and Hudson. Shot in London, the cast is a fascinatingly eclectic mix of A-list American actors brought over for the project (Weaver, Reiser, etc), American ex-pats resident in England (William Hope, Al Matthews – who by coincidence was a DJ on Capital Radio in the early 80s) and Britons adopting American accents (William Armstrong, Holly De Jong).
I was though struck for the first time yesterday by the rather anti-establishment, Dirty Dozen quality of the Marine unit, rather at odds with the popular image of the Corps – various fan theories can be found online attempting to explain this, but it seems to me that it merely reflects Cameron’s own background and views. He is known for his pacifist stance, and stated at the time that Aliens can be read as a broad parallel with the combat situation in Vietnam – which, as a Canadian born in 1954, he could not have been involved in himself. Ironically his techno-fetishistic weapons designs and the work of Ron Cobb and Syd Mead under his direction have had a profound and lasting influence on everything from video games to manga in setting out an utterly convincing illustration of future combat.
The special edition, of course, reinstates nearly 20 minutes of extra footage cut from the theatrical release. Much of it is merely interesting, but two major sequences fundamentally alter our perception of the film and its characters.
The extended sequence that shows the colony inhabited and bustling does nothing to improve what for me is the best part of the film, namely the lengthy, atmospheric exploration of the deserted base when the Marines first arrive – it is unsettling even today.
The revelation that Ripley had a young daughter at the time of Alien who has, by the events of the sequel, aged and predeceased her is supposed to point up her maternal feelings for Newt and give extra tang to her fight with the creatures and the Queen, but I have never found that an issue in the original cut and still feel this an unnecessary distraction in the special edition; after all, when Ripley finally does locate Newt, in tearing apart the alien resin and pulling her out, she gives ‘birth’ to her as effectively as she did her lost daughter.
I also noticed for the first time this week the subtle change in Ripley’s character as the film progresses. At the start she is passive – indeed, she is in a coma as the film opens – or reactive at best. Humiliated at the inquiry hearing, racked by nightmares, weak and indecisive, she is a wreck. Later, though, she becomes increasingly active, is compelled to act at various points in the narrative and ultimately effectively takes command of the entire surviving group on LV-426, despite reminding everyone that the mission is under military jurisdiction. Note that there are four soldiers and four rifles in that group at this point, but even when Gorman recovers consciousness Ripley keeps the spare weapon for herself. Her injunction to Hicks at the end of the film not to let Bishop leave is absurd – by now it is Hicks, the soldier, the leader, who is wounded, useless and almost out cold himself. The scene also gives Biehn his character’s final line; he will be silent from here on. It’s a highly impressive piece of scriptwriting, demonstrated especially subtly in the crucial pivot for the change – not when Ripley seizes the controls of the APC, but a few minutes earlier, when she starts to ask Gorman to tell Hicks to back up and look again at the acid-burned hole in the deck, before grabbing a spare headset and doing it herself.
On top of all this are some superb visual effects, many of which were shot traditionally with miniatures, wires and stop-motion thanks not only to the limitations of the period but Cameron’s experience on Roger Corman’s low-budget productions.
So, a true classic still, nearly 30 years on. But I’d better go, ‘cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night. Mostly.
By Chris Rogers, 08-Feb-2014 17:37:00
The BFI is currently hosting a season of screenings examining the particular aesthetic of studio-based television. Based on
First transmitted in November 1972 as part of a series of supernatural dramas entitled Dead of Night, only two other installments from which survive, it was chosen for its use of a set-built environment to create a convincing sense of claustrophobic in which a ghost story plays out, and I have to say it was an excellent choice.
Middle-class couple Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and Rachel (Anna Cropper) invite their friends Dan (Clive Swift) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay) to stay at the remote country cottage they have just finished doing up, and to which they have added all the latest gadgets. Edmund’s socialist father disapproves; Dan’s ‘champagne socialist’ journalist, on the other hand, had no problem accepting wealth as a milestone toward change. The confident rationalism of his wife, meanwhile, is subtly counterpointed by the quieter, creative talents of Rachel. As the four sit down to eat Christmas dinner, though, a series of disturbing and unexplainable events begin to occur, from the clocks stopping to the perfectly-cooked food becoming inedible. As the four try to make sense of what is happening, the past makes its presence felt in the worst way imaginable.
This was a superb, enthralling 50 minutes. Dialogue in this type – and age – of drama is often condemned as stagey, but here it snapped nicely. Of the performers Petherbridge was particularly good in the early scenes, but it was Anna Cropper’s tour de force in the final act that really astonished. Gripped by some form of trance or possession, Rachel begins to intone the heartfelt testament of a woman who has been there before, whose horrific plight and death two hundred years ago – “I know the world is built by men, for I see the blood stains” – is the driver of the drama. Lying on her back, eyes screwed up and sweating, Cropper delivers a remarkable, seven-minute monologue from which Taylor cuts away just three or four times. The intimate becomes the intense, a truly heart-stopping moment that is a world away from today’s slick, rapidly-edited work.
Here, in fact, is the heart not just of the play but the thesis advanced by the evening’s hosts, post-doctoral researchers Leah Panos and Billy Smart, in their lecture afterward: that the output of the television studio in this period succeeded through principles of closeness, space(s), especially the room and our and characters’ understanding of them, and the rhythm of the multi-camera set up.
In The Exorcism all of these are visible, in the neat achievement of exposition through a tour of the house (David Fincher was to do much the same thirty years later in the clever opening scenes of Panic Room), the staring fixation on Cropper’s face, and in the pursuit of all the actors through the set. They are always on camera, in the peculiarly vivid, remorseless resolution of early video technology and being watched Panoptically in a programme shot on several cameras simultaneously and vision-mixed live as the play was performed and recorded. Both cast and crew had also to cope with the additional pressure of limited re-takes imposed by the fixed-block booking of studio time that was common in that period.
That Taylor also wrote and directed the excellent The Roses of Eyam, which I saw at the BFI some years ago and which also featured opposed ideologies in a confined setting, was another pleasant surprise, as was the presence in the audience of actors Petherbridge and Swift, the former of whom commented enjoyably on those times during the Q&A that followed.
The Exorcism is not simply a ghost story, since the plot ultimately has a political message (the deftness with which Taylor manages to combine the two is commendable), but its power to function solely as such is impressive even today. There are clear parallels with the work of Nigel Kneale, whose own ‘scientific’ ghost story, The Stone Tape, was to be shown just a month later on Christmas day but whose The Road (now lost), a tale of the future haunting the present, had been broadcast nine years before. Indeed the last quarter of 1972 proved a remarkably rich year for supernatural drama on British television; as well as The Exorcism in November and The Stone Tape in December, Terry Nation’s equally enthralling and similarly-themed The Incredible Robert Baldick: Never Come Night was broadcast in October.
The studio is a place for the imagination, said Taylor, and other genres were later explored by Panos with an intriguing selection of clips from programmes featuring relationship dramas (The Golden Road), musical performance (The Folk Singer) and nested realities (Rock Follies). I was particularly struck by The Chester Mystery Plays, starring Tom Courtenay, from 1975, which used the much-maligned technology of CSO but in an original and fitting manner to place, combine and move people, painted backgrounds and other elements on and around the screen to form a kind of stylised, animated mediaeval manuscript for the televisual age.
This was a real treat of an evening, enough to put the tube strike out of one’s mind, and a shining example of what the BFI does so well.
By Chris Rogers, 02-Feb-2014 21:48:00
Well, not quite. But it is curious how the ruined, the abandoned and the derelict have been in the news so much lately, even before Tate Britain’s exhibition of this name opens in four weeks. The lure of the building lost to time, war or ignorance, architecture that no longer functions, it seems, remains strong.
The BBC began things, with a fascinating report of an entire beach resort in northern Cyprus that was vacated by its population after the Turkish invasion of 1974 and has been unreachable ever since. Haunting phrases noting “a car dealership still stocked with 1974 cars” and “window displays of mannequins dressed in long-gone fashions” introduce personal stories that go further.
As the Winter Olympics are about to open in Sochi, Dan Snow wandered the sad remains of the bobsleigh track built for the Sarajevo games thirty years ago, hundreds of metres of cracked and stained concrete now covered in graffiti and overgrown by the forest in which it sits. An online search brings up achingly sad photographs of shattered hotels and other buildings, ski jumps to nowhere and an arrangement of triangular slabs that was once the winners’ podium, no less, but which now resembles an unloved and ignored civic sculpture.
Skiers of a different kind, meanwhile, performed tricks inside Detroit's (in)famously abandoned city
centre buildings in a video featured on the Guardian’s website, which just a few days later also laid bare the current devastation in Syria with before-and-after images showing the result of the staggering
fury of war unleashed on towns, cities and monuments. Painfully, even the world-famous, thousand-year-old Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage site perched high on a mountain outside Homs, has not been spared. Meanwhile, a criminal court in The Hague has commissioned two large scale models, one depicting the scene beforehand and the other the same scene afterward, of the location in Beirut where a bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was detonated in order to help judges understand the event.
Whilst the homes of those who could ill afford to lose them have been shattered in the Middle East, at the other end of a scale of tragedy it was the Guardian yet again that revealed the astonishing and pitiful state of multi-million-pound luxury mansions on Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead, some built just a few years ago, which have been left to rot by their absentee owners, grass growing on the stairs and water running through the lobbies.
With bitter irony, given what is happening in some of the countries where the owners come from, crates of bulletproof glass sit unopened at one property.
By Chris Rogers, 26-Jan-2014 12:39:00
The last of English Heritage’s exhibitions at Wellington Arch marking the centenary of the concept of ‘listing’ ends a week today. Entitled ‘Almost Lost’, it contains one gem - an astonishingly bravura 1954 scheme to erect a vast, multi-levelled glass and concrete podium over the whole of Soho, to be roofed with gardens, a dance hall and glass-bottomed canals and through which six 24-story, Y-shaped tower blocks would thrust into the air.
There were the inevitable heliports, plus parking for more than 20,000 cars.
The scheme was one of several dreamed up by Pilkington’s Glass Age Development Committee, two of whose members were none other than Ove Arup and Geoffrey Jellicoe, though it’s tempting to assume that at least some of the team were indulging in a little too much of Soho’s pleasures when they did so. And yet this was, it seems, a serious proposal, and it clearly draws on equally serious actuality, including Corbuiser’s similar scheme for the Voisin district of Paris 20 years previously but also, of course, the earliest ideas for the Barbican, which are close in concept if not scale. There are also fascinating similarities with the Paris of the future as seen in director Christian Volkman’s 2006 film Renaissance.
Other plans from the Committee, most of which were for the capital, included a 1957 proposal for Skyport One, the replacement of St Giles Circus with a 500’ tall heliport; the 1000’ Crystal 61 glass exhibition tower for north London, as featured on the BBC’s recent series Dreaming The Impossible: Unbuilt Britain; the Crystal Span of 1963, a seven-storey Modernist building replacing Vauxhall Bridge and containing a hotel, art gallery, flats, a shopping arcade, open air theatre and roof gardens - shades of the 1982 French Ministère des Finances et de l'Économie thrusting over the Seine; and the far-out (literally) Sea City of 1971 - a glass and concrete offshore city housing 21,000 people, to be anchored off the coast near Great Yarmouth and accessed from the mainland by hovercraft.
None of these ideas were ever built of course, but as ever, it’s fascinating to see just how far designers were willing to go toward a better future - at least, as they saw it.
By Chris Rogers, 19-Jan-2014 12:53:00
Visual tensions outweigh the cultural in Daniel Ferguson’s new documentary ‘Jerusalem’, the contested space of the city paralleled by a curious dichotomy in cinematographic style.
The film explores Jerusalem’s central meaning for the three Abrahamic faiths, illustrated by dramatic footage shot in, around and even above the city. Humanising the story is the testimony from three female students, one from each belief system, who live, study and play there. Farah Ammouri is introduced first, and her comment that people don’t realise she is a Muslim until she dons her headdress is a subtle note that sets out Ferguson’s method early on. Revital Zacharie’s grandfather moved her family from Poland before the war, escaping what was to come, and she is brightly enthusiastic about her origins. Nadia Tadros slings her guitar on her back as she walks through the streets to touch the Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Quite how much was scripted might be questioned, but it’s a canny move, and the three - chosen through auditions - are attractive, amiable and eloquent spokespeople. Historical perspective is given by an archaeologist, segments animating ancient texts and artworks, CGI reconstructions and Benedict Cumberbatch’s narration.
But this is billed as an IMAX film, so what does that mean for the viewing experience?
The film was indeed partly shot on the square-frame, 70mm/15-perforation-wide celluloid technology invented in 1970, and ‘Jerusalem’ at first appears a welcome return to the origins of that format and the exquisite 40-minute factual shorts that made its name. I’ve never quite understood the slight snobbery that they seemed to attract, with critics clearly deeming them worthy rather than worthwhile, and yet this misses the point so fundamentally that one has to wonder why they bother attending.
Quite simply, the combination of frame size (ten times the area of 35mm), resolution (an IMAX frame is the rough equivalent not of 4K or even 8K digital, but a staggering 18K) and the special presentation method in IMAX cinemas (a very large screen much closer than normal to the audience, who sit in steeply-raked seats) produces not just a pleasing visual effect but an actual physiological impact - your field of vision is almost entirely filled and as a consequence your mind is tricked into think you really ARE there. Your body reacts accordingly, upsetting your balance for a second or two and inducing vertigo in some shots. Even when movement is not involved, the effect is uncanny - everyone who cares about cinema should see the opening 60 seconds of The Dream is Alive, about the Space Shuttle programme post-Challenger.
The problem with Ferguson’s film, though, is that it’s shot in 3D - actual 3D, with twin-camera set-ups - and the light loss between screen and eye that is inherent to using 3D glasses sadly negates one of IMAX’s principal features. Thus I found pretty much all of the scenes of open landscapes or views of the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the various churches annoyingly dark, as though one were watching then with the brightness turned down. Flipping up the glasses confirmed it.
Given the 3D effect in these scenes is minimal anyway, with one or two exceptions such as a breathtaking aerial pass over the mountain fortress of Masada, it is hard to understand why this approach was chosen. I suspect it was to fall in line with the current trend for 3D films, apparently perceived as commercially necessary, but it’s a real shame as far as the IMAX scenes are concerned.
Perversely, then, the film is at its best in the far smaller spaces of Jerusalem, penetrating the narrow, canyon-like alleys of the Old City and recording intimate moments with the young women - Farah being dressed in her headscarf, Revital walking with her grandfather. Here the 3D really comes into its own, generating an extraordinary sensation of presence. The cameras - smaller, recording digitally - essentially vanish as a mediator and one truly feels THERE. We prowl along street markets, between pendant bolts of cloth and piles of fruit, almost brushing people as we go. In one astonishing sequence, executed in a single shot, we walk vicariously into a darkened shop festooned with thousands of brass items hanging from the ceiling and swerve one way then another, moving further into the golden-lit interior, until we find the owner at a table, deep in conversation with another. These are remarkable scenes. Similarly the low-light capability of such cameras lends itself well to night shoots, and again the 3D is very effective, rising up from a street parade to push through a network of suspended lights that appear to extend well into the audience. The luminous beauty of the ceremonies, including the respectfully raucous candlelit Ceremony of the Holy Fire inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is also haunting.
And yet… After the third successive iteration of how Easter is marked, no doubt carefully timed for equivalent duration, I did start to wish for just a little more dynamism in the film’s presentation of the city and, yes, its obvious difficulties, and when the voiceovers - until now concentrating on family and personal lives - turned to the political, I did fear what one might call the Coco-Cola finale, ‘living together in peace and harmony’. But cleverly - brilliantly, actually - Ferguson avoids this with a deft bit of visual sleight-of-hand that deserves praise for originality and the good sense to not patronise his audience.
This is an important work. Supported by National Geographic and strongly positioned as an international educational resource, it can clearly perform a useful function in facilitating understanding of a complex situation. That it also pushes visual boundaries should of course be considered a secondary function, except that it is marketed as such and so cannot avoid some criticism in that area. The digital sections are superb and well worth seeing, but the IMAX filming is undermined by the choice of 3D, which is not the best display of that format’s strengths.
By Chris Rogers, 16-Jan-2014 20:45:00
Have you ever been fascinated by the pencilled underlinings and annotations in a library book? If so, you’ll love what falls out of the slipcase when you buy a copy of the exquisitely realised new book ‘S.’, conceived by storytelling wunderkind de jour JJ Abrams’ and written by his collaborator Doug Dorst.
You will find yourself holding a first edition hardback of the 1949 novel Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka, the last published work of a writer whose previous books were by all accounts esoteric, controversial and political. It is the story of a nameless man who is abducted from a bar in an anonymous port city and who awakes on a strange ship with a mute crew whose voyages, as one reviewer of ‘S.’ elegantly puts it, “deliver him to various theatres of human conflict in what appear to be different eras of history. Is he an assassin or a saviour? Who is the beautiful woman who dogs his steps, and who is the shadowy arms dealer he opposes?”
The book is carefully footnoted - and given a foreword - by one F.X. Caldeira, Straka’s long-time translator, who gives an opinion on the text, Straka’s life and oeuvre and the views of critics and commentators; there is, it seems, no love lost between them and Caldeira, whose protectiveness toward Straka soon emerges.
These, then, are two parallel narratives, but this is only half the story. Literally.
You notice that the copy you are holding appears to belong to the library of a North American high school - there is the Dewey-coded spine label, stamps of ownership and even a list of dates on which the book was borrowed and (most recently not) returned. The title page has handwritten notes in two different styles, in an observational back and forth between two people. They are undergraduate Jen and PhD student Eric, both at Pollard State University, who have been reading the book that Eric withdrew permanently a dozen years ago which at school and making notes in the margins - speculations as to Straka’s identity, observations on the themes and actions of the book and his other works, and information about a mysterious group of writers and activists to whom Straka was connected. These notes have been made over months - years, in Husch’s case - and in differing colours and types of pen. The two have never met, in fact, and are conducting their relationship solely through this ‘dialogue’; each leaves the book in the same place in PSU so that the other can find it and reply.
Finally, actual items gathered by Jen and Eric in the course of their research are slipped between the book’s pages; notes written on PSU notepaper and a napkin from the campus café; postcards from Brazil; a period photograph; a faded cutting from a foreign newspaper; photocopies of letters and telegrams; even handwritten letters between the two commentators.
These are the second pair of narrators; together, all four tell the story that is - or at least may be - ‘S.’.
As you read, the tone darkens. S. finds himself in stranger and more disturbing situations, often involving life and death, whilst the mystery and paranoia and accusations of Straka’s life appear to bleed over into the ‘real’ world of Jen and Eric. As the pace quickens, questions of purpose, identity (none of the four main characters actually ever use their full real names) and destiny affect them all, with moments of yearning providing notes of lightness.
The whole is of course a more than standardly elaborate fiction, one made with the highest degree of intelligence, craft and wit. Abrams was inspired not by library books but by a novel he found in an airport containing a reader’s note urging him to pass it on to another. For a man who has often professed his pleasure at the unopened box of delights, this represented a golden opportunity to do something new and quite different from the films (Cloverfield, Star Trek) and television series (Alias, Lost) he has been involved with to date.
The obvious question for this reader/writer to ask, then, is whether it works, and the answer is emphatically yes.
Crucially, and unlike many reviews, I found Ship of Theseus itself utterly gripping, a real page-turner. The protagonist, unknown to himself though not, oddly, to others, and given the name S., is a man uncertain of his past, present or future, yet is sympathetic and involving. His unwilling journey, told entirely from his point of view, has an unsettling mood, enhanced by subtle and often shocking revelations, introduced in ways that genuinely make you gasp, as well as repetitive elements - birds, a monkey, a certain sign - that appear with the kind of portentous dread familiar from traditional horror stories. The geography and languages used, often almost but not quite recognisable, also help create a real feeling of unease, and the unifying conceit of the ghastly, possibly ghostly, ship draws on its own sub-genre, revised most effectively perhaps in Tales of The Black Freighter, the story-within-the-story of Watchmen.
Equally, the texts representing Jen and Eric convince utterly. With no descriptive passages to contextualise their ‘dialogue’, which therefore reads more like that of a play, their differing personalities have to be clear right away and Dorst cleverly achieves this on that title page. Initially incompatible, their voices gradually merge as they pursue their goal. Dorst uses the additional tools the concept permits - graphics, doodles, scribbled arrows, bold, big and underlined writing - to add nuance. Of course many novels use separated narratives and timelines, but to layer so many in such original and utterly varying ways is a real achievement.
Caldeira’s story is the thread which links the past of Straka to the present of Jen and Eric, and is an effective contribution to the overall plot. The optimism of the very final pages felt a little surprising in some ways but in truth fits the true theme of the piece and actually can’t be accused of illogicality given what has gone before.
And as for those dozen or so pieces of ephemera… The notion draws on a number of quirky fiction publications of the past but is primarily, the creators say, “intended to be a celebration of the analogue, of the physical object. In this moment of e-mails, and texting, and everything moving into the cloud, in an intangible way, it’s intentionally tangible. We wanted to include things you can actually hold in your hand: postcards, Xeroxes, legal-pad pages, pages from the school newspaper, a map on a napkin.”
It is heartening that a person so identified with contemporary moving-image culture can still think like this, though Super 8 was perhaps a pointer to one of Abrams’ true fascinations, whilst my own love of archives, of paper, cardboard and celluloid, found a real connection to the effort that has been expended here to bring such a delightfully retro idea to life.
There is also a link here to the current trend for non-fiction ‘vault’ publications, usually film or television fantasy tie-ins, which is appropriate as comparisons with film-making are deliciously unavoidable when looking at the making of ‘S.’, in effect a movie in paper form.
Thus we have Abrams as producer and director, with Dorst supplying the script. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot was the studio, in collaboration with publisher Little, Brown and Company’s subsidiary Mulholland Books. The production design was by Melcher Media and Headcase Design, with final assembly - editing and duplication, if you will - done in China.
Lynne Ciccaglione, Assistant Editor at New York-based Melcher Media, kindly - and exclusively - gave me an insight into her team’s part of this process, beginning with the ‘casting’.
“All of Eric's and Jen's notes, underlining, and doodles were done by hand (by two different individuals). We worked with our designers at Headcase Design, as well as Mulholland Books, Bad Robot, and the authors in selecting the two distinct styles for each character, as well as the colors, pen weights, etc. for each time period. Everyone involved wanted to maintain the authenticity of the reader's experience with ‘S.’, and having the notes done by hand (rather than a handwriting font, for example) was the best way to achieve that goal.
“In order to space out the margin notes appropriately and avoid overcrowded pages (even more than what's there now!), we first had to have a completely final layout of the Ship of Theseus novel. As you can imagine, just one word shifting from one page to another could move long exchanges between Jen and Eric as well.”
Lynne then described how the actual writing of Jen and Eric was created - a delicate procedure whose precious result was, if you like, the crucial camera negative of ‘S.’
“We printed the novel layout at 120% and then overlaid tracing paper onto each page, using markers to denote the crop marks for alignment and to avoid having handwriting run off the page. The handwriting had to be completed in tandem, so that Eric and Jen's exchanges could really play off each other and use the margin space creatively. A lot of passing back and forth between the two handwriters! Each page of tracing paper was then scanned and sent to our designer (Headcase) for color correction. They're the ones that made sure all of the pencil looked old/faded but still legible, the variations in ink flow, etc., especially with the aging/discoloration added to page background. These transparent TIFF files could then be overlaid onto the novel's text in our InDesign files (using the crop marks on the tracing paper as guides). Any of the edits to handwriting made later (i.e. misspellings, illegible words, etc.) were patched in by our digital production team here at Melcher Media using the same process.”
Reconnecting to the past and looking to the future feature strongly in ‘S.’, something we all in our various ways might usefully consider. That a medium of the past - albeit produced with the technology of now - is used as a platform to do seems right.
By Chris Rogers, 13-Jan-2014 20:22:00
After twenty years of liberalisation, the British Board of Film Classification finally sharpens the blue pencil once more as it announces new guidance for its assessors aimed at reducing bad language in U films and addressing confusion over the infamous 12A category. Some might say ‘about time’.
As a strong opponent of censorship with no children and you might think that an odd comment, yet for years I’ve expressed concern over the gradual, constant relaxation of what the BBFC permits in each of the main age categories for young people (PG, 12A and 15).
Back in 1983 when the old A, AA and X system was in place, and for some time after that, the boundaries on sex, violence and strong language were very clear to me and any other reasonably savvy cinemagoer. It wasn’t written anywhere you could easily see, as the BBFC (that last letter standing then for ‘Censorship’, of course) was far less open than it is today, but one knew that bared breasts seen from the front, bloody violence or a single F-word (see John Hughes’s Some Kind of Wonderful) all meant a 15 rating. You knew where you stood (sat) and it seemed right.
The problem came with the introduction of the 12 category in 1989.
Invented specifically to allow Tim Burton’s Gothic Batman to be seen by the widest possible audience after pressure from its makers the move might have been defensible, aligning as it does (just about) with the year children transition to secondary school, were it not for the fact that it was itself quickly abandoned for theatrical releases in favour of the 12A, which means anyone of any age can see the film as long as they are accompanied by an adult. The obvious problem here is the figure 12, which BBFC tries hard to maintain indicates that they think such a film is only suitable for 12 year olds but which argument is meaningless given the actual legal definition of the rating.
That filmic fudge has led to many problems. Cinema staff and adult audience members were often unclear as to who if anyone is with those youngsters behind you and whether the law has been broken by them being there. For a sustained period during the 1990s and early 2000s the BBFC greased the wheels toward that lower category for almost every new action blockbuster, not always effectively. It might have had the moral high ground to support it with Saving Private Ryan, but there was such little justification for Paul Verhoeven’s exceptionally intense Starship Troopers a couple of years before. That that film was trailed as having a 15 certificate rather gave the game away. Today, the 12A has also created the opposite situation, a slew of sanitised action films which are often quite serious in tone yet in which real people die bloodlessly, without visible trauma, which I find quite unpleasant. The climax of Iron Man 3 is a good example.
Now, it seems, the blunt scissors have been thrown away. The background research informing these new guidelines stresses parents’ concerns over ‘normalisation’, the latest social buzzword, and BBFC director David Cooke admits that “the 12A rating remains confusing for a significant minority, with up to 27% of consumers unable to describe accurately what 12A means” - this, despite the massive - and welcome - change in information made available by the BBFC whereby the rating history of every version of every film ever released can be found in its website. There is also clear concern over this horse trading to achieve a lower rating, with an admonitory reference that “The distributor’s decision to cut [A Good Day to Die Hard] for a 12A classification was [still] clearly not welcomed.”
Mind you, there remains a worrying lack of awareness amongst parents, with Ted being thought of and bought as a ‘family film’ by some poor souls and an obvious problem with parents being both reluctant to explain the facts of life but aggrieved when someone does it for them, a telling line in the paper noting that “Parents were keen that films should not precipitate an awkward conversation about something that their child would learn about in time but had not yet been exposed to”.
There is, then, plenty of work to do in the viewing rooms of 3 Soho Square, where irony is also in plentiful supply given the BBFC’s recent adoption of a cheesy strapline (Age Ratings You Trust). They’d better sort things out soon, as 'Age Ratings You Don't Really Understand Before You Go In But Then Object To A Lot After Little Johnny Screams' won’t easily fit on the title card.
By Chris Rogers, 08-Jan-2014 18:06:00
Psychedelic propaganda posters from Cuba are on show for another fortnight at Shoreditch’s Kemistry Gallery; startling, provocative but also terrific works of art in their own right, they are a real insight into another political time.
Following Castro’s revolution in 1959, the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) was formed to show how far the newly-Socialist republic’s support was being extended around the world, at a time when many countries and peoples in the developing world were fighting a range of battles. OSPAAAL issued a regular journal acting, as Kemistry puts it, as noticeboard, guide book and lifestyle magazine, and many issues included a poster. It is a selection of these posters, emphasising what were perceived as the close cultural as well as political ties these other countries had with Cuba, that form the exhibition.
Produced mainly in the 1960s and 70s, the posters use the full range of contemporary graphic design techniques then current in the West, Castro making it clear that the message was Socialist, not the art. Plain backgrounds, bold colours, juxtaposition, nested repetitions of the same image and reversals were all used. Many incorporated or adapted found pictures, ancient art or photographs as a basis, often subversively. There are clear links to the Pop and Op Art movements in general as well as specific artists such as Andy Warhol, Abram Games, M.C. Escher and even Maurice Binder, whose title sequence for the film The Wild Geese echoes several OSPAAAL productions. Limited lettering, usually in more than one language, often formed an integral part of the design.
The results are dazzling in their power and style. An Arab in a headdress appears normal, but closer inspection shows his eye to be a rifle muzzle. Zaire dollars peel back to reveal reportage photographs of conflict. ‘Saigon’ and ‘Korea’ are stencilled over and over, their aggressor countries’ national flags visible beneath gradually changing to their own. Two women in traditional African dress draw a bow and aim a gun, a baby on the latter’s back.
Most strikingly, President Nixon appears as a vulture complete with Dracula-type fangs, ripping a bloody hole in the map of Vietnam; a Renaissance painting of a haloed Jesus shoulders a rifle; and Alberto Korda’s iconic portrait of Che Guevara is repeated in ever-smaller iterations and colours against a map of Africa.
Frustratingly there is no catalogue at the show and no hand list either, so flipping through a couple of publications on the desk and some online research is necessary to identify the artists, of whom Alfredo Rostgaard appears one of the more important, and additional examples of the many hundreds of posters produced right up until the start of this century.
This is a small show in a small gallery, but it’s free and if you’re in the area, do pop in.
By Chris Rogers, 04-Jan-2014 21:39:00
Fans of the late Ray Harryhausen’s fabulous movie monsters will have enjoyed
There’s a scattering of facts, to be sure, but this is really a chance for some imaginative scenes in which Attenborough interacts with the beasts - and in 3D if you have the gear. Thus a giant ape - the size of Mighty Joe Young, rather than King Kong - that may have inspired the yeti legend lollops through the galleries before sitting imperiously on wall, the amazing feathered reptile archaeopteryx pops out of its fossilised remains and soars through the hall, the dodo (of course) says hello, and the great diplodocus that dominates the museum’s central hall comes alive.
As with the BBC’s landmark Walking with Dinosaurs, the CGI mimics live action filming techniques, including slow motion, bullet time and so on. The whole thing is done with some wit, too; Attenborough feeds an orange to the dodo, only to get pecked for his trouble, chases a very cute baby sauropod around a lab and offers a fern branch from the arched bridge to ‘Dippy’, as the staff call the diplodocus. A 25’ long constrictor snake is first glimpsed behind benches and signs, bumping into the latter as he slithers along, whilst the big moa bird pecks its way out of its glass display cabinet.
The tone is resolutely family-friendly throughout; small children (and nervous adults) might find the snake a little scary, but Attenborough is quick to point out that it is wrapping itself around a fibre glass model, whilst elsewhere the moa escapes the clutches of an equally large eagle, and the vicious sabre-toothed smilodon is only ever rendered as bones and it brings down its prey off-camera.
Surprisingly although the museum’s founder, Richard Owen, is shown and discussed several times, there is no mention whatsoever of its architect, the prolific and talented Alfred Waterhouse. This is a real shame, as no other building in London celebrates the Victorian age of innovation, with its magnificent stone and metal hall, whilst also embodying absolutely its purpose, with its hundreds of sculptured creatures (living on the west wing, extinct on the east) running up and down the walls and columns outside and in.
Still, it’s an original, enjoyable programme, the best sequences of which - an archaeopteryx and a modern-day dolphin, its convergent evolutionary descendant, ‘swimming’ in a race through the grand hall as though it were full of water, and all the animals shuffling back to their cases as the sum rises - bring a real smile.
The programme is repeated on SkyOne tomorrow, Sunday 5 January, and this, Thursday 9 January.
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