• Bricks & Words #3: ‘Fallingwater’

    What was it like to watch the most famous house in the world be built by the most famous practising architect in the world? So famous, in fact, that both house and designer were on the cover of Time magazine? Find out by the one man who, by the 1980s, was one of the few left alive who could tell you – the son of the man who commissioned it.

    In 1936 Pennsylvania businessman Edgar J. Kauffmann engaged the magnificent, mercurial Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater on his favourite spot along Bear Run, a river running through woodlands. As attuned to nature as most of Wright’s domestic projects, Fallingwater’s horizontal planes, cantilevered terraces, open spaces and autumnal colours made it part of the landscape even without the set of stairs descending from the living room to the water. Inside, nooks and crannies meld effortlessly with large open spaces, all finished in stone quarried onsite and metal painted red. Get the inside track on the construction, the problems and the pleasures of living in it afterward in this little-known but insightful volume by the man who later donated the house to the public good.

    ‘Fallingwater: A Frank Lloyd Wright Country House by Edgar Kauffmann, jr (Abbeville Press, 1986; new edition 1993)

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  • 'The Replacement'

    The BBC’s psychological thriller The Replacement, the story of a female architect feeling deposed by her maternity cover, concluded last week. Well received by critics and viewers, save some concerns over the climax, it was notable for being written and directed by Joe Ahearne, whose work I have often championed and who kindly continues to keep in contact to share his thoughts. Significantly, it marked a return to non-genre material for Ahearne after bringing Apparitions (2008) to life and adapting and directing The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012), though he is on record as considering himself a director first regardless of theme. The quality of pieces as different as Ultraviolet (1998) and Trance (2001, remade by Danny Boyle in 2013) tends to confirm this. The new Glasgow-set serial, then, also displays Ahearne’s love for the visual side of story-telling and, specifically, Hitchcockian misdirection, with unusual, subtle and often complex camerawork that is evident from the very first episode.

    As Paula settles in to the practice that Ellen is about to leave, Ahearne composes certain of the latter’s point-of-view shots with the edge of her computer monitor boldly intruding into the frame. By eliminating the mid-ground in this way the distance between the characters is emphasised without making it explict who is isolated from who. This ambiguity is critical, as the plot hinges on which if either of the principal figures is paranoid. And after all, ‘screen’ does have two entirely opposed meanings – to show and to hide.

    Ahearne is candid about this being his nod to the split-screen technique of the 1960s and 70s, and later shots include one of Ellen, seated in her car close to the camera, failing to see Paula appearing, waiting and then departing dozens of metres behind her on the pavement – both elements are in sharp focus. In another, pleasingly sophisticated example, Ellen and her husband converge at the middle level of their home having entered the frame from the floors below and above it respectively, the open-tread staircase that permits this also effectively making the shot a kind of televisual triptych.

    There are in fact lots of scenes in which things are observed partially by one character from a distance with the other party placed very small in the frame. The plate-glass windows and internal partitions of the architects’ office are also used as separating devices – as Ahearne notes in the same interview, characters are often seen but not heard, building further uncertainty despite the transparency.

    Ahearne is frank in his admiration of Hitchcock. He shows this in The Replacement with a series of shots in which the camera moves fluidly and sometimes probingly, and which are sustained far longer than the grammar of the overwhelming majority of contemporary television allows.

    In episode two, then, Ellen meets the mysterious Georgia at a corner café. Spotting the woman standing at the counter, Ellen leaves her car – and her baby – and walks inside, a Steadicam smoothly moving with her and then after her as Georgia exits by the other door and Ellen is forced to follow, her car, and her baby, now even further behind. The venue’s piped music swells then fades to underline this disconnect, nervous backward glances by Ellen reinforcing the point. That Paula then arrives in her own car and views – though never hears – Ellen’s half of the exchange that finally ensures (and Ellen’s only, Georgia remaining concealed behind the wall) adds a satisfyingly dizzying additional layer to the moment. The entire sequence is then repeated in reverse when Ellen returns to her car, and hopefully her baby, helping sustain the tension.

    Elsewhere, Paula’s unexpected arrival at the office and Ellen’s reaction is brilliantly depicted in an audacious 540 degree nodal pan that lasts for a full minute, whilst a montage of job applications is given animation by the use of continuous wipes as the transitional device. Ahearne is not afraid to tease the viewer, too, as seen in a crucial scene at Ellen’s home involving her baby. It’s rare to see a television director show such awareness of the possibilities for camera use other than the conventional two-shot, insert or cutaway, and appropriate that that knowledge is applied in service of a script that arguably calls for it.

    Less dramatic but still rewarding for the eye is the extensive use of Glasgow locations, including the powerfully Modernist Linn Crematorium and the new Lawlor house, this last ‘playing’ the library that Ellen and Paula design. Ahearne is well served by his director of photography Nick Dance, whose crispness and warm tones make a refreshing change from the regulation gloom that signifies mood currently. Shadows are important, of course, but are largely confined to the exquisite opening titles, a kind of Saul Bass out of Maurice Binder in which silhouettes of the characters populate a model of the library strongly side-lit by washes of primary colour, the camera moving all the time. Executed by ISO Design it is, Ahearne tells me, his favourite title sequence since Ultraviolet, with some similar ideas of shadows moving.

    Aside from all this, early viewer comments referenced Single White Female (1992) as a precedent; personally, I cleave toward The Mechanic (1972) directed by Michael Winner, in which a veteran hitman thinks he's training an acolyte but the acolyte has other ideas. Ahearne, though, is clear on his inspiration: “I lean more towards All About Eve”, he emails.

    Overall, The Replacement works for several reasons; the novelty of the featured profession and location city, the excellence of the cast (especially Morven Christie and Dougray Scott), the acidity of much of the dialogue and the layering of the inter-personal, inter-familial and professional relationships that we all have to negotiate day to day. And whilst I share those critical concerns over the ending, the unusual attention paid by Joe Ahearne to what is seen on screen is highly rewarding in itself, and ensures that “the bits that interest me most with [using] the camera” will interest others, too.

    The Replacement, produced by Nicole Cauverien and Left bank Pictures for the BBC and written and directed by Joe Ahearne, is available on the iPlayer

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  • A different world

    Art exhibitions at the big public galleries in London usually focus on European works, not unnaturally, with American paintings very much in the minority. Their rarity often leads to nice surprises, as with the Royal Acadmy’s superb George Bellows show the other year. Artists from Austrialia, an even younger entrant into the Western canon than the US, receive even less exposure here. Fortunately, however, a more-or-less last-minute visit to the National Gallery’s current presentation of Australian Impressionists this weekend was a revelation, thanks to the presence of a number of luminously beautiful pictures by one Arthur Streeton.

    Essentially unknown here in Britain, Streeton is lauded in his home nation. He was one of a trio of artists who helped define its cultural identity as a settled, industrialised territory at the end of the nineteenth century. When Federation status was achieved at the turn of the twentieth, Australia could face the mother country as an equal, its cities and railways, docks and trade as impressively substantial as those in Liverpool or Manchester.

    But whereas the French Impressionists focused on those precise attributes of their own urban territories, Streeton and his friends – whilst they did record bridges, streets and buildings – largely turned their attentions to the landscape of Australia, outside of the cities. It is this, combined with his specific technique and the exquisite results that the two together produced, that have caused many to note that Streeton might best be aligned with the work of the Naturalist painters. This includes the likes of Jules Bastien-Lepage, George Clausen and perhaps Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

    The NG’s own website gives a summary of Streeton’s life, but for me it is his works that speak to the fullest. Six of real merit feature, all of which demonstrate Streeton’s particular method of working – multiple, small, loose brushstrokes which are nevertheless kept closely brigaded. The outcome is a picture that is simultaneously precise yet hazy, a hovering, diffuse reality that is perhaps the most present that I have ever seen. The deep blues of the water and greens of the trees, the yellows of the reeds and startlingly rick colours of rocks and land all reward great study.

    Some of these paintings are very large, but Streeton, like many other painters, favoured long, thin formats for some of his smaller works, oriented either vertically or horizontally. This is the influence of Japanese art, whilst the occasional cropping or snap shot quality comes from the aesthetics and technology of photography.

    This is extraordinary work, and deserves to be seen. The exhibition closes soon, so do make the effort. You won’t be sorry.

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  • White/Heat

    Almost fifty years separate Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) and Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), but these classic Los Angeles crime dramas share far more than even their genre and near-identical titles suggest. Structural, thematic, visual and other similarities abound, suggesting the persisting tropes of film noir have a relevance across the decades.

    Both works explore the parallel yet opposed worlds of the armed robber, continually seeking the next big score to further his dream, and the law enforcer, sworn to prevent him and protect the public. In screen time terms equal weighting is given to each, and in character construction a certain blurring of the lines between antagonist and protagonist occurs.

    Though Vincent Hanna sits firmly at the moral centre of Mann’s pairing, we are clearly invited to empathise with his opponent Neil McCauley despite his utter brutality. McCauley’s brotherly devotion to his crew and late discovery of love aids this, as does his wry smile on hearing the admiration Hanna has for him. Cody Jarrett generates a degree of compassion notwithstanding his callousness, principally through his delicately-played psychosis. Simultaneously driving and undermining his ruthlessness, it allows Jarrett to also reveal a moment of humanity when he acknowledges the help of the man he knows as Pardo during a debilitating mental fugue.

    The camera is omniscient in both films, allowing the audience to see each side of this struggle, and in both the criminal is unsettled by treachery of a sort. Only in White Heat, however, are we aware from the outset that ‘Pardo’ is in fact an undercover Treasury agent; in Heat, not only is it another robber – the sadistic and volatile Waingro – who will bring about McCauley’s eventual fall, but his efforts occur largely outside the audience’s knowledge.

    Walsh and Mann are fully aware that the painstaking preparation of a bank job or other crime has its own delicious tang, and whether it is Jarrett’s conversion of an oil tanker into his “Trojan Horse” or McCauley’s co-option of a similarly massive wrecking truck for an armoured car robbery, the ingenuity and sheer level of dedication impresses.

    To combat Jarrett’s gang in White Heat, Federal agent Philip Evans deploys the full range of technology available to the lawman of the post-war era. Crime scenes are matched via forensic use of a light analyser, here rendered as a “spectorgraph” but probably intended to evoke the real-world spectrograph; a car is tailed using a complex system of shadowing vehicles and geographical references, the whole coordinated by two-way radio; and updates are shared by teleprinter. In Heat the equipment has necessarily advanced but the use of thermal imagers, helicopters and electronic surveillance just about keeps Hanna ahead of McCauley. Homing devices attached to vehicles feature in both films. Both, too, have idiosyncratic middle men, fixers or fences who set up deals and handle the proceeds. Strikingly, the Trader’s matter-of-fact references to earning a percentage on cash laundered is reflected almost exactly in Nate’s suggestion of the buy-back from Van Zant.

    This perpetual dance occurs in the urban jungle of LA, identifiably so in both instances with real locations playing themselves in many cases. With a very few exceptions, these are resolutely unglamorous places, since the city these men operate in its one of tunnels and shacks, motels and dockyards rather than tourist landmarks. Both films feature notable night sequences, shot against neon backdrops, and both stage key moments at drive-in theatres.

    Walsh experienced actual combat as a film-maker in Mexico, and served in the US Army; Mann filmed the Paris student riots and befriended policemen and criminals alike. Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts may have been influenced by any number of true crime stories from Depression-era America when scripting White Heat; Mann is known to have been based Heat on the life and death of the real McCauley, whilst it is impossible to imagine him ignorant of the appalling Miami Shootout of 1986. From this fascination with the real flowed the relative verisimilitude of both directors’ films, then, which includes the dialogue. Broadly naturalistic and almost always convincing, its acidic qualities appear in the mordant humour within Jarrett’s gang, with its knowing riffs on the word ‘dead’ or ‘death’, and the dark camaraderie of McCauley’s.

    For all their careful planning, though, chance and co-incidence affect these characters. Irrespective of how intentionally Jarrett and McCauley live their lives, it is fate that brings them down, no matter that each snatches a tiny fragment of self-determination at the very end.

    This seems quite right for the merciless, unforgiving world of the American noir, where both Walsh and Mann know that you can never go back and crime can never pay.

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  • Opening up the box

    British television drama is having a renaissance, according to many, with Line of Duty, Broadchurch and Wolf Hall often cited as evidence. This is in fact contestable (a generation ago or so ago, for example, ITV alone could boast of having made Robin of Sherwood, Lost Empires, The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, Cracker and several series of Inspector Morse, Poirot and Sherlock Holmes adaptations) but even as a debate it disguises a much more serious issue. Whilst the majority of such series are widely available on a variety of home media platforms and indeed still being broadcast, dozens and dozens of similar productions from the 1960s, 70s and early 80s linger in temperature-controlled vaults, having never been seen since their first (and in many cases only) transmission. For the creative talent that produced them and the public that, either directly or indirectly, paid for them, what can be done to increase access?

    Last week, a conference co-hosted by Royal Holloway University of London, Learning on Screen and the BFI examined the progress, problems and prognosis in this area. With experts in cataloguing, understanding, conserving and disseminating such material attending, as well as those simply interested in uncovering the best of British TV drama, it was a chance for all involved to share stories that were sometimes surprising, sometimes shocking but always of interest.

    The basics are pretty sobering. The archives of ITV, held in Leeds, contain over a million items and include over a quarter of a million hours of television. Of that, about 36,000 hours are drama programmes. The BBC’s equivalent, managed by the BFI, includes 600,000 individual video recordings, of which about a sixth are due to be preserved over the next five years. Just knowing what is out there is harder than you think. Both organisations maintain detailed databases, but there are gaps. Transmission dates shift or are cancelled, episodes or entire series are – infamously – physically absent in some cases and local variations in programming (which, then as now, were not confined to news and weather) aren’t always captured.

    Quite a lot of material is being made available, through a wide range of outlets. The BBC Genome provides historical schedule listings for the Corporation’s own programmes as published in the Radio Times, thanks to mass digitisation; linked to from this are about 35,000 radio and television programmes, permanently online via the BBC’s main website and another 5,000 are currently accessible for a fee from the BBC Store. Almost any item that survives can be made available for private viewing at the BFI. As a commercial concern, ITV seeks to maximise the ‘secondary exploitation value’ of its assets. Both have found considerable success partnering with the likes of Network Distributing, the British DVD producer whose growing catalogue of cult, much-loved and populist titles attests to the level of demand.

    The principal barriers are legal and practical. Anyone involved in making a television programme, whether actor, cameraman or director, will have been paid a fee, but that fee would – depending on the era – not necessarily have allowed for repeats, release for home viewing, and so on. In addition, there are rights within rights – clips of music or films or other productions used as part of a work have to be separately licensed, and can attract additional, extremely high costs out of all proportion to their length. The BFI has a special agreement with the main British unions (the Performance Alliance Licence) permitting a specific number of screenings at its London and regional venues each year, but this is not ideal. Even when all of these points are successfully addressed, softer aspects emerge, since what was once deemed acceptable to commit to film or videotape may now engage matters of taste, decency, ‘safeguarding’ or simply changing cultural taboos and attitudes.

    Prevention of the degradation of the items involved is the more pressing issue, and has been ignored by the media even as the parallel effort to save cinema features shot on decaying nitrate and other stocks has been widely publicised. Many of the programmes are held on video cassette formats that are now obsolete and whose playback equipment is itself scarce or even finite; one contributor noted that direct negotiation with a manufacturer had been needed to obtain parts. That migration (copying material to a newer format) is not only necessary once but may in fact be an unending prospect far into the future is at least now recognised, but even this is not a guarantee of life beyond initial broadcast. The BBC’s own experience with the D-3 video cassette, thought at the time to be the best option but which was subsequently found to be susceptible to degradation, has generated its own fallout.

    The benefits of all this effort were though eloquently explained. A BBC manager wanted “other people to do the curation”, whilst another speaker observed that watching TV is the least useful thing you can do with it, both making the point that it is the researchers, writers, academics and historians bringing their own viewpoints to the material that makes it come alive. Susceptible to analysis from an almost infinite number of angles, such as the cameras used to make it, the clothes worn by those in it or the words spoken around it, it is the job of everyone – including the odd informed-viewer-turned-author running his own website – to shed light on that all-important context for today’s audiences.

    The passion involved across the industries represented – broadcasting, retail, academia – was clear, but it was clear, too, that for the various initiatives covered over the course of the day to fully succeed and ultimately be part of a synergistic whole it is necessary for someone in sufficient authority at the BBC and ITV to care enough to make things happen. Until then, it’s for anyone with any interest in what led to today’s TV drama landscape to dig around, watch, buy and talk about what they love to keep those memories alive.

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  • Bricks and Words #2: ‘Crystal Palace’

    A day later than advertised, apologies.... It is impossible to overstate the achievement represented by the conception, design and erection of Joseph Paxton’s great iron and glass building, the pop-up home of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the ancestor of today’s High-Tech movement.

    McKean’s exceptional narrative – mostly, and wonderfully effectively, rendered in the present tense – covers every aspect of this cutting-edge work, beginning with Paxton’s famous blotting paper sketch during a business meeting, working through his relentless rationalisation of the pre-fabricated components and ending with the astonishingly efficient construction in Hyde Park itself, where the hoardings surrounding the site become the wooden floors of the hall and a third of a million panes of glass are installed by men on trolleys. Staggeringly, the building was finished less than eight months after that sketch was first scribbled; read this fabulous book and discover how, the make your own connections to what followed it.

    'Crystal Palace' by John McKean (Phaidon Press Limited, 1994; also available compiled with other as Lost Masterpieces, 1999, from the same publisher)

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  • The look that is 'Taboo'

    The BBC’s period drama Taboo, which concludes next weekend, has been a revelation. Though set during the Regency in a London of lavish palaces, glamourous balls and inter-personal machinations, it is a very long way indeed from Jane Austen or the Brontes. Dark, twisted, grimy and grim, it is shot through with corruption, African witchcraft and violence, as James Keziah Delaney returns from a decade away to claim his inheritance. Tom Hardy, who co-created the series, is stunning in that role, an unstoppable spirit emerging from the heart of darkness to wreak havoc amongst the establishment, renew a sexual relationship with his half-sister and play the Crown, the rebellious American colonies and the commercial giant of the East India Company against each other. An exceptionally good supporting cast includes, arguably, by the stunning production design, which gives each place a character of its own.

    The London of Taboo – which set in 1814 – includes many scenes along the Thames; indeed, with its nightmarish sequences of drowning, water torture and self-baptismal submergence, the river really does run through the entire drama. Its shelving foreshore is a bleak edge world of tough workers, shifting gravel and blackened timbers, these as broken and spiky as the characters who brood there. The atmosphere is part Turner, part Constable and all glowering. The real Thames at Tilbury was used as a location, with the walls and walkways of its famous coastal defence fortress, dating back to the 17th century, serving as the byways of Wapping.

    The isolation of Tilbury is in contrast to the bustling tourism of today’s Southwark riverside in central London where a full-size, sea-going replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde has been moored as an attraction since 1996. The vessel was used by the Taboo production team as Delaney’s own ship, as well as for a number of other maritime interiors. The Cornish port of Charlestown was also employed.

    East London’s St Mary the Virgin church effectively played itself for the funeral of Delaney’s father; similarly, south London’s exquisite Palladian villa Danson House became Delaney’s sister’s marital home. The Charterhouse lent its intricate courtyards for a number of hospital scenes.

    Importantly, some locations have also been chosen that are expansive enough to allow longer and more dynamic camera moves by directors (Kristoffer Nyholm and Anders Engström). The remarkably preserved enclave of Middle Temple was superbly suited as a stand-in for the bustling streets of Georgian London in this weekend’s penultimate episode, a character running at full tilt along a street, up some stairs and around a corner in a single shot.

    Outside the capital, one historic country seat provided for multiple realities. The south front of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, home of Jacobean statesman Robert Cecil, became the exterior of the Prince Regent’s palace, unnamed in the script but which must be John Nash’s Carlton House on what was to

    become The Mall. The Long Gallery with its sumptuous gilded ceiling was used to represent the interior, in a number of extraordinary deep-focus shots. Appropriately, the chillier Marble Hall, with its black and white chequered floor and wooden panelling, was used for the interior of the other, secular palace in the series, the headquarters of the East India Company. Its exterior was played by the Livery Hall of the Goldsmiths Company, in the City of London.

    Cinematographer Mark Patten’s gorgeous tonalities have also made the set dressings of tapestries, furniture and more come alive, whether in the boisterous scenes at a molly-house or the quieter moments. Add in such details as tattoos, make up, shoes, hats and posters, and Sonja Klaus’s production design has been the final element that makes this Taboo compulsory.

    Taboo, written by Steven Knight, created by Steven Knight, Tom Hardy and Edward "Chips" Hardy and based on a story written by Tom Hardy, concludes Saturday 25 February on BBC One but is available on iPlayer afterwards.

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  • ReView: ‘Strange Days’ (1995)

    Cast your mind back 22 years. Bill Clinton was President and John Major occupied Downing Street; both were trying to address the continuing Balkans conflict. The Tokyo subway Sarin attack, collapse of Barings Bank and Oklahoma City bombing also took place, whilst more encouragingly advances in consumer technology saw the invention of the DVD, appearance of the first widely-available web browsers and release of the first computer-generated feature film, Toy Story. All these events suggested to many that the looming Millennium might bring about a profound change in world society. Two acclaimed film-makers, both with careers in the ascendant, agreed, and the result was Strange Days, written by James Cameron (with Jay Cocks) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

    Cameron and Bigelow had begun their Hollywood rise with successful, medium-budget entries in the speculative fiction genre (The Terminator and Near Dark, respectively) released within a few years of each other, and indeed found their paths sufficiently aligned to marry soon after. That they then divorced long before production of Strange Days began seems in retrospect significant for a film that explored divisions, tensions and oppositions in a fictionalised Los Angeles over the last two days of the year 1999. That aside, a combination of Cameron’s interest in the extrapolation of real-world technology and its impact on humanity and Bigelow’s focus on marginalised individuals and groups yielded an intense focus that also addressed wider issues.

    Taken together, Strange Days appeared to be a timely and original take on an imminent future. Viewing it from the perspective of today, with the turn of the Millennium forgotten, a fresh set of socio-political challenges in America, Britain, continental Europe and the Middle East to face and the descendants of those digital pioneers embedded in everyone’s daily lives, is thus doubly instructive.

    Depicting in a believable manner a city getting ready for fireworks of both kinds is no easy thing, but perhaps the single most impressive aspect of the film on first re-viewing is exactly that. The film takes place almost entirely at night, as former cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes in an early role) goes about his business peddling Squid clips of sensory experience and trying to reconnect with his ex, singer Faith (Juliette Lewis). Since he quickly finds himself linking up with friend Mace (Angela Bassett) in her new job as a limousine driver, these journeys through the contested streets of LA become a mechanism by which vignettes of the world Bigelow and Cameron created are revealed to the characters and viewers alike.

    Fires, flares, scuffles, arrests, hustlers…. All are tightly framed by the car’s windows and never completely seen, each showing instead just a fragment of an edgy urban landscape. Crucially, they convince utterly – none feels staged or artificial, a not inconsiderable achievement in any film let alone one shot at night and set in the near future. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti shares the credit for this, and in fact only the sublime Blade Runner (1982) impresses more in this regard. Interestingly both films are set in the same city, and both also take place over just a handful of days. The swoozy, ambient score by the underrated Graeme Revell reinforces the comparison with Ridley Scott’s masterpiece even further.

    As the canvas expands, the same verisimilitude is carried through to more complex settings such as the club in which Faith works. A credible atmosphere is managed here too, forming a perfect backdrop for Lewis’s storming performance of P.J. Harvey’s 'Hardly Wait'. The New Millennium party which forms the climax of the film is the ultimate iteration of this rigorous approach, and is as authentic as the rest. It was achieved in the pragmatic manner that came to hallmark Cameron’s work, here by the production company simply marketing and staging an actual party on the streets of Los Angeles. Ten thousand attended and real bands performed, all to be incorporated into the film. Leonard Cohen is also heard in the film, presumably on the basis that if anyone could soundtrack such a tense time, he could.

    The film’s other great achievement is the visualisation of the first-person point-of-view that derives from the Squid clips. Presented as a single shot, they are hugely impressive even today, particularly the famous early chase scene that ends in a fatal roof jump. The later rape scene, involving the victim being forced to wear a Squid headset that receives the input of her attacker, was extremely – and perhaps deservedly – controversial, yet few critics seemed to recognise the near-exact precedent seen in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom of 1960.

    Bigelow has cited the centrality of both the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King trial verdicts to the concept of Strange Days. In truth, and in retrospect for me, the results of this element too have their parallels in many previous films. Certainly plotlines involving the state-sanctioned murder of agitators and a fleeing prostitute’s evidence are somewhat pedestrian. They do though have an undeniably propulsive effect on the narrative’s progress. Aided by on-screen captions indicating a timeline, there is a palpable sense of conversion as the end approaches, making Strange Days a kind of pre-apocalyptic drama.

    Throughout, the principal secondary characters engage. Mace is superb, assisted greatly by Bassett’s performance. Continually dragging Lenny out of the fire, her true feelings are clear when she delivers the best line in the film – “Pussy-whipped sorry-assed motherfucker” – with affection underlying her contempt. Lewis is similarly perfect as the ballsy, slightly wired Faith, channelling – as does much of the film’s look – the emerging grunge culture. And did I mention how good her singing was?

    It is at this point, though, that the film’s weaker elements must be considered, and here the writing of the lead character remains a problem for me. Nero simply isn’t credible as a former police officer, let alone one with the heavily militarised and apparently competent LAPD depicted in the film. The scene in which he wields a pistol for a considerable period without realising it isn’t loaded grates as much now as it did first time around, and his continual inability to outfight or even outfox his opponents irritates to a point that is surely unhelpful in such a film. This may of course be deliberate, in that Mace and Faith are obviously intended to be stronger mirrors of Lenny, but it still feels a miss-step, and that conceivably might have contributed to the film’s commercial failure. That said, Fiennes is actually excellent as the man Nero has become, the sleazy “Santa Claus of the subconscious” at the margins of society. A little additional writing and, perhaps, direction might have bridged the gap between the two Nero more effectively.

    The other major failing remains the depiction of the Squid technology itself. The size and crudeness of the headsets needed to record and play back – large, plastic crab-like devices – is at odds with technology at the time the film was made, let alone when that was projected five years into the future. And given they require the wearer to don an elaborate wig for one to remain undetected, the idea that the Squid was developed as a more discreet version of the old ‘wire’ microphone, as the screenplay solemnly tells us, is of course risible.

    I was also aggrieved first time around that no acknowledgement was made to the novels of William Gibson, since an obvious debt is owed to SimStim, Gibson’s equivalent, conceived way back in the early 1980s (it is also far more elegantly envisaged). There is in fact considerable crossover between the two Canadians’ work even beyond this one point; the Strange Days promotor Milo Gant and his two female bodyguards are dead ringers for Lonny Zone and his henchwomen in Neuromancer (1984), characters in both talk of being “jacked in”, using “trodes” that connect to a “deck”, and a casual reference to America gaining its second woman President seems almost designed to follow Gibson’s Virtual Light, published in 1993, in whose world the same office is also filled by a woman.

    But overall, this new look at an old view of a possible future was pleasingly positive. Given how far the world has moved in two decades, the film’s advertising tagline of ‘You Know You want It’ suggests we really did.

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  • 'The White King' (2016)

    The continued popularity of the post-apocalyptic film is no surprise. There is always a fresh fear to be mined for its one fundamental necessity, The Thing That Happened, whether that be war, natural disaster, man-made accident or alien invasion. With three broad formats available (road movie, revolutionary struggle or simply survival) atop this, the scope for intimate character drama or epic action is wide and deep. And, finally, the continual and rapid evolution in the capability and affordability of digital technologies allows more and more to be accomplished with less and less when it comes to realising such an idea. This, then, is the context in which The White King, made by joint writer/directors (and spouses) Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel after a novel by György Dragomán, arrives and has to operate.

    The setting is a small rural community in the Homeland, a repressive state whose propaganda – delivered through the trident icon on posters and billboards, the words of its national anthem and, most inescapably, a great statue on a nearby hill personifying the founder figure of Hank Lumber – stresses the collective, agrarian nature of this new post-conflict society. However, young Djata Fitz (Lorenzo Allchurch) is forced to stand by as his father Peter (Ross Partridge) is taken away by black-clad officials, supposedly to help with an important project but, it becomes clear, actually as a traitor. Djata and his mother Hannah (Agyness Deyn) survive in the face of neighbours’ scorn, bullying and a complete lack of information. Peter’s father, a colonel (Jonathan Pryce), and his wife Kathrin (Fiona Shaw), meanwhile, tempt Djata to his own dark side. Finally, determining to find answers, Hannah and Djata set out to confront another senior regime officer on the far side of their settlement.

    The initial impression here is encouraging. An animated film under the opening credits tells the stylised story of the nation’s founding, the tools of control are subtly and effectively introduced and wide-eyed Allchurch and fragile Deyn look the part. And yet, already, problems arise. Djata’s school has several dozen pupils but appears only as a wooden shack and a patch of open ground. The structure holding his home and those of his neighbours seems to be a loading dock rather than anything recognisably domestic, and the only other spaces we see are scrubby clearings in a forest. That events occur in the thirtieth year of the new state is stressed, but no explanation of the significance of this is given.

    True, things perk up with the journey to the estate of General Meade (Greta Scacchi) – we see open country dotted with apartment blocks emblazoned with vast entreaties to think of DUTY or FAMILY, then reach a Modernist dwelling with armed guards and fitted out with clearly advanced technology – and the confrontation that occurs therein, but instead of presenting a convincing contrast to the no-doubt-enforced backwards/backwoods existence of the masses, the entire sequence is awkward and unfocused, something that proves to affect the remainder of the film.

    Throughout, then, scenes are stilted and fragmented, but not in a way that suggests this is deliberate. Too much happens in isolation, with too little organic linkage to what came before or after. Incidents occur but are promptly forgotten. Thus one character is stabbed, but the injury is ignored and invisible in subsequent appearances. Djata and his friends live in fear of two local thugs, both significantly older, yet nevertheless play with them. A chess-playing automaton in Meade’s house captivates the chess-playing Djata, but the importance of either the game or the machine (or the film’s title) is not clear. Djata dares to meet a hulking watchman living in a fenced-off wood at the foot of the hill, but all that follows is an impenetrable conversation that ends – bafflingly – in a hug, and the grim contents of a fabled cave are explained only as “not for children”. The significance of a dragonfly hovering in the opening scene is not established. There is little sense of how much time has passed. Nothing, in essence, hangs together, making it difficult to invest in the story. The lack of any real emotion in the performances hardly helps, though Deyn does moderately well and Pryce convinces as a bullish, intimidating veteran. The eclecticism of the casting – often a plus in such films – seems a barrier too, with a mix of nationalities, accents and approaches failing to gel.

    The penultimate scene, in a crematorium, and the closing shots – intended, quite plainly, as the impassioned climax to the journeys of two heroes – unfortunately left me astonished and amused in equal measure as opposed to moved.

    What comes as real surprise is that the source novel is by a writer brought up in Ceaușescu’s Romania, surely a background ripe with potential. Yes, that blighted country’s socio-political landscape is clearly borrowed from in part, but that the overall result of this adaptation is so uninspiring is baffling. It also seems odd that a dystopian film shot in Hungary could end up being quite so starved of visual richness, but that indeed is the case. That the film is evidently of modest budget is not, regrettably, an excuse – imagination creates opportunity and both Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Colm McCathy’s Girl with all the Gifts (2016), to take two obvious recent precedents, demonstrate this. Ultimately though the real fault and disappointment is that too much of the content is opaque, uninvolving or just plain unconvincing, with neither plot nor characters really worth spending any time with. Sadly, then, this White King made me feel like resigning from the game.

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  • Bricks and Words #1: ‘Carscapes’

    Today I’m starting something new; on the last Friday of each month throughout this year, I’ll be choosing and saying a few words around a book about or involving architecture, cities or the built environment that I’ve found compelling, useful, beautiful or thought-provoking over the last couple of decades or so. They’re a real mix, including fiction, works with a political slant, populist publications and conventional monographs – the mosaic below gives a few hints. Not all are in print, but they can all be tracked down easily enough through second hand book shops, online resellers or specialised public reference collections. Each is well worth the effort. We start with…

    Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England by Kathryn A. Morrison, John Minnis (Yale University Press for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with English Heritage, 2012)

    No single invention has had a greater impact on this green and pleasant land than the car. A century of building, selling, keeping, using, parking and scrapping the automobile has left a fascinating legacy of structures associated with each of those stages in its life cycle, and this superb book, accessible but thoroughly researched, tells the complete story. It records powerful, amusing and workaday examples of what one could call ‘carchitecture’ from across the nation, from destination restaurants overlooking motorways and hotels perched on top of multi-storey car parks to Art Deco showrooms and filling stations that look like cottages. You can also explore the country’s last surviving mechanical car park, included thanks to a tip off from yours truly. The book grew out of an in-depth thematic survey of the subject, and it will open your eyes to the myriad of buildings that we have designed solely because of the presence of the car. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the next drive you take.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Books

How to Read London

A crash course in London architecture

My new book is now on sale. It reveals the hidden gems of London's rich built history whilst celebrating the well-known landmarks. From shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village's Deconstructivism, from Royal palaces to pleasure palaces, and from extravagent banks to Modernist apartments, over one hundred buildings are featured.

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