• ‘O.J.: Made in America’

    One of the dreamlike, sumptuously-composed aerial shots of Los Angeles that punctuate Ezra Edelman’s extraordinary, epic documentary – comprising, otherwise, straightforward interview footage and archive news reports – is of the HOLLYWOOD sign seen from directly above, bathed in strong sunlight; the familiar white letters are thus reduced to a barely-visible dotted line, replaced by a bold, black version of the name created by the letters’ shadows. It’s a subtle but powerful moment that effectively encapsulates the entirety of rise of O.J. Simpson, a working-class black man who inverted the usual expectations of his social and ethnic position to become a cultural icon who lived amongst the white elite. Of course, the most appalling crash then occurred, with two victims whose threads of life run – rightly – through this incredible work.

    The title conveys two meanings. Simpson was and is an outstanding example of a product, a good manufactured by a country whose very essence is that anyone can become anything or anyone by starting their journey within its bounds. And yet the very acclaim, wealth and power that helped drive that process for Simpson also played crucial roles in its disassembly twenty years later, even if some of the components of government and civil society that the Founding Fathers held so dear were found woefully wanting for their part.

    Edelman explores all of this and more from his very first scenes, which show Simpson’s college-level football success as the driver not just for a genuinely astonishing sports career but for the darker sides of Simpson’s personality, including what was to underscore much of the criticism he faced in those early years – that he was too ‘white’, both in terms of the friends he made and the causes he espoused (or failed to). Indeed the level of presumption displayed by various African-American community activists that Simpson ‘should’ play his part in the civil rights movement is astonishing, and is countered by Simpson himself explaining his belief that his race is irrelevant and that only his ability matters. This view and its alternate appear to be the key to understanding both the personal relationships that were to make and destroy him and his reactions to events in later life.

    With its five parts carefully divided to match the main passages of that life, the sensitivity of Edelman’s coverage of the young black footballer’s first introduction to the young blonde Nicole Brown at the end of the initial chapter signals that the reminder of the film will take the viewer through the entire, desperate story of their time together with appropriate restraint but no lack of emotion, and these suggestions prove to be exactly correct.

    By chance for British viewers, ‘LA 92’ (see my earlier post) provided a useful detailed background to the wider history of the struggle between Los Angeles’s mostly white police force and its mostly black clientele. Edelman of necessity is more restricted here but certainly covers this, concentrating on the bitterly ingrained prejudices that built up on both sides and how – just a few years later – each would inevitably view the murder of Brown and Ron Goldman and the trial of Simpson for those crimes through those same lenses.

    The degree of poison, bile and bitterness that is portrayed by many from both sides around this is astounding, as is the fact that very little appears to have been tempered by progression up the social scale to those in the courtroom. Thus, in a set of proceedings that would generate not one but several quotes and phrases that would live on in popular memory – The Dream Team, the trial of the century, the bloody glove, ‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ – we are presented with appalling errors by the police and prosecution, questionable decisions by the judge and manipulations of the Simpson family home to make him seem more acceptable to the predominantly black jurors. Almost no-one, then, emerges with much credibility, and much of the power of this, the core of the film, comes from the ability or otherwise of those participants interviewed to see their flaws from a distance of two decades.

    That every stage of the case, from Simpson’s infamous slow car ‘chase’ (whose actual end in a several-hour stand-off-cum-negotiation with a SWAT team is far less well known but here rendered as gripping as any thriller) to the portions of the trial where the jury was excluded occurred under the merciless glare of broadcast television – including mobile units, half a dozen helicopters and remote-controlled cameras in court – is obvious when seen like this. The corruption – in the true sense of the term – that this has engendered in the US judicial system is similarly plain, even before every bystander acquired a cell phone capable of becoming its own broadcasting studio, and must be the best proof ever needed that open justice is not the same thing at all as public justice.

    The honesty of the juror interviewed who admits acquitting Simpson as payback for the outcome of the trial of the police officers who beat Rodney King is, one supposes, laudable, but her morality must surely be questionable at best.

    Another quiet but powerful visual moment concludes the saga. With its stately pace, grasping crowds and white vehicle, the journey that took Simpson home after the trial becomes a remarkable inversion of that slow car pursuit. “People wanted to see O.J.’s last run,” explains one contributor.

    Inevitably what follows struggles somewhat to grip, with Simpson now wallowing in an end-of-career stew of hedonism and idiocy that, as noted in the film, appears like a parody of a gangster rapper’s lifestyle. Only when the film plays its final card, when a bizarre confrontation in a Las Vegas hotel room over Simpson memorabilia ends in a conviction and hefty prison term for armed robbery and more, do things return to the boil. Of course, one contributor claims the sentencing is revenge for the Brown/Goldman acquittal.

    And so it goes.

    Seven and a half hours seem too short, even whilst watching, for this awful tale. Each viewer will have their own flashes of emotion brought about by, perhaps, the childhood friend of Simpson who bluntly refused to be a witness for the defence, or the friend of Brown giving a simple speech at her funeral; the depths of Simpson’s narcissistic, self-delusional and arrogant personality are also left to the viewer to measure. Any sympathy, though, will be directed at the parents and families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, both of whom were, it is clear even with the regrettable decision by the BBC to blur the crucial crime scene images, killed in way that is the very definition of the term slaughter. Viewers will also form their own opinion on whether Simpson was responsible. Those who, like me, conclude that he was will be glad that Simpson has been in prison for 19 years and remains there today, until at least October this year.

    ‘O.J.: Made in America’ was produced and directed by Ezra Edelman for ESPN Films and is available on iPlayer; it was screened last week on BBC Four.

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  • 'The Levelling'

    The return is a powerful trope of drama. The former love, the old enemy, the retired professional, the Prodigal son; all have been effective jumping-off points for inter-relational conflict. The absorbing feature debut of Hope Dickson Leach begins at a point in the narrative – which is written by Dickson Leach herself – where both a son (Harry, played in flashback by Joe Blakemore) and a daughter (Clover, played by Ellie Kendrick) have been lost. Only the latter can actually come back, however, as her brother has died in a shooting incident on the Somerset levels family farm. And although Clover is delivered there in the initial scenes, it is clear from what follows that physical return is only part of the process of homecoming.

    As Clover renegotiates her place in the childhood world she left a few years before, sparring with her brittle, bitter father Aubrey (David Troughton) but at relative ease with workers and family friends as they repair a smallholding devastated by flooding as well as grief, she also works to uncover the truth of what happened to Harry. Here the film sinks new hooks into the viewer, as Clover presses people for their understanding and experiences, restlessly wanders the shattered farmhouse and uncovers fragments of a story that suggests very little is as it appears or was as she remembers. As Kendrick herself puts it in a Q&A after the screening I attended, “She [Clover] thinks she’s in a detective film, but she’s really in a social-realist drama.” Memory forms a large part of the screenplay, with Clover and Aubrey constantly at odds as to their recollection of the past and their reasons for decisions and the audience itself uncertain of the truth. Clues are scattered and discovered (Kendrick explained how she asked not to be shown the contents of prop bags, envelopes etc., to enhance her reaction), but the facts remain elusive.

    Neatly interwoven with this story and acting as commentary on it is the presence of animals and the manner of their depiction. Cattle, starlings, badgers; a hare, the pet dog, a pony; live, dead, caged, free. Seen in extreme close up, from a distance, in water, air and earth, they function as a mute Greek chorus on the action. The moment when Clover walks in the woods and meets, seemingly at their discretion rather than hers, two horses is extraordinary. There is, too, a clear connection that places Clover (note that name) and her surroundings within the rich vein of rural drama explored in English film, television and even art, from Quatermass to Penda’s Fen, The Changes to Masquerade, and Kill List to Wake Wood.

    Throughout all this, and appearing in almost every scene, Kendrick is simply magnetic. Whether rent by sadness or fiery with anger, she is utterly convincing and simply carries the film. Its fast shooting schedule - just four weeks - was, she explained to me after the screening, preferred by her in that it helped her maintain the intensity of her performance thanks to the absence of multiple takes. Appearing younger, perhaps, than her years works in Kendrick’s favour, connecting her character’s present more readily to its past and evoking the resilience and persistence of the teenager. Yet Clover’s toughness does not suffer either, holding her own during rows with her father – himself brimming with resentment over the loss not just of his son and daughter but also his wife, his livelihood and his future – or buckling down with the farmhands digging a ditch. Two moments bridge these extremes and remind us of Clover’s true vulnerability: her determined but heart-breaking cleansing of the room in which Harry died, domesticity horribly perverted, and a gently revealing early-morning scene, this subtly shot by the all-female crew.

    The tangled webs of these damaged individuals and their disrupted, disordered home are unravelled carefully and with sensitivity. Closure of sorts is achieved, but its ambiguity is acknowledged by Kendrick herself. Asked by an audience member whether the future for Clover and Aubrey is bright or dark beyond the final frame, she responded: “Can I ask you a question first – what do YOU think happens?”

    'The Levelling' is on general release; I watched it at the BFI Southbank, where Ellie Kendrick spoke about the film to the audience and - kindly - to interested individuals afterward.

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  • Two artists, one aim

    Five centuries ago, at the height of the cultural transformation that was the Renaissance, an ambitious 26-year-old painter from Venice trained in that city’s tradition of rich colours and improvisational composition arrived in Rome seeking commissions from the church, the dominant patron of the age. There he met another artist, ten years his senior, from Florence, who had already made his name through carefully-planned sculpture and pictures based on extensive drawings. When the two encountered an exceptionally talented man from Urbino who threatened to eclipse them both, they joined forces in an unprecedented collaborative partnership that was to last for twenty five years and is absorbingly recreated for the National Gallery’s current exhibition Michelangelo & Sebastiano.

    Michelangelo Buonarroti was the initiator of the alliance, driven we are told not by any altruistic desire to enhance the career of Sebastiano Luciani but rather as a result of his bitter hatred of Raphael Sanzio, whom critics felt the better all-round artist. Michelangelo and Raphael were hard at work on the Vatican’s extensive decorative programme – Raphael had finished his acclaimed fresco in the library, Michelangelo was still labouring over the Sistine Chapel ceiling – when Sebastiano arrived in Rome. It was then that the joint attack on the precociously talented Raphael took shape.

    Michelangelo began to supply Sebastiano with sketches and drawings that the latter could work up, overlaying the former’s precise poses and compositional formality with sumptuous colour and atmosphere. The hope, in Michaelangelo’s mind, was that the finished composite would address a perceived gap in his skills and trump anything Raphael could offer.

    Sebastiano, too, grew to dislike Raphael, criticising his actions and encouraging Michelangelo to inform on him to the authorities for his lavish expenses. The younger painter was also, it is clear, besotted with Michelangelo, almost certainly painting his portrait over the rejected effort of a rival, begging him at one stage to seek new commissions for himself and expressing his feelings of betrayal when discovering Michelangelo had agreed to this yet appeared not to take it seriously.

    The pair worked together on large altarpieces, chapels and tryptychs, with Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings pushing Sebastiano toward a more considered yet dynamic form for the final image. Sebastiano learned to combine the best of the Venetian and Florentine schools, mixing for example the softness of his home town with the sharp underpinnings of Florence, whilst his own drawings also improved. Michelangelo, in turn, adopted something of his follower’s style, the better for the younger man to follow the older but also recognising its inherent value.

    Michelangelo continued to astonish with his own works, striving to better his already powerful and originall approach to sculpture in particular. Thus when forced to abandon one life-size statue of the risen Christ after discovery of a hidden flaw in a crucial spot in the marble, Michelangelo not only returned to the same subject but contrived to better its pose.

    Ultimately the two artists fell out, victims perhaps of the ultra-competitive milieu of the Papal court. Michelangelo outlived his sometime partner by almost two decades, and it is Michelangelo of course that the world now remembers, despite the obvious debt he owes to his friend, colleague and correspondent for at least a part of that acclaim.

    The exhibition sets out all of the above and much more in a sequence of rooms that is utterly refreshing in its innovation, variety and content. Far, far more than a simple, repetitive display of paintings hung on walls, each is arranged differently, like a journey, with unexpected treasures around every corner. Each also holds items that cover one particular aspect of the story. Though not strictly chronological, the broad arc of the allying of Michelangelo and Sebastiano is nevertheless also conveyed. And, neatly, the rooms also cover the three general periods in the life of the person they mostly depicted – Christ and his birth, crucifixion and resurrection.

    Vitally, the works are shown in many ways. Drawings and sketches, finished and unfinished canvasses, actual sculpture and plaster casts, cartoons squared and pricked for pouncing; all can be seen. Both sides of many of the drawings are visible, a frustratingly rare thing that serves to reveal exactly twice as much art since paper was expensive and Michelangelo especially is well known for using every corner of every sheet as a tool. Indeed, one of his drawings is marked by something so prosaic and recognisable that one almost misses it – the distinctive ring left by the base of a wet mug or glass that has at one time been left standing on the page. Wonderfully, this decision to show so much more than usual is extended to the rear of one large oil – by Sebastiano, but to drawings by Michelangelo – on panel, unveiling rough sketches on the bare wood that confirm the piece was being made in parallel with Michelangelo’s efforts in the Sistine Chapel.

    Works once split have been reunited; others are represented by later periods’ interpretations. An architecturally-inspired wooden frame has been made afresh for one altarpiece yet incorporating fragments of genuine 16th century material; a range of digital technologies has been used elsewhere by the noted Factum Arte group to present a slightly reduced but accurate reproduction of an entire apsidal chapel.

    This wealth of materials, purposes, copies and reconstructions yields an astonishingly immersive insight into the times and methods of these artists, in a rich layering of experiences. Its focus on the why and the how, on the way these works emerged, has much of Neil Macgregor’s ground-breaking and much-missed ‘Making and Meaning’ series at the gallery at its heart.

    Fittingly, perhaps, the third man in this sometimes corrosive triangle, Raphael, appears not at all, though oddly this increases his presence. This is because the exhibition is immeasurably enhanced by the showing of letters written by both Michelangelo and Sebastiano, through which the pall that Raphael cast on the two men’s friendship can be detected. Alternately catty, pleading and analytical, they show just how powerful his influence was. The documents themselves are extraordinary, not least because a couple represent original letter and related reply, an astonishing thing to have been preserved for half a millennium.

    This exhibition is an exemplar of its type. It should not be missed.

    Michelangelo & Sebastiano: The Credit Suisse Exhibition continues at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 25 June.

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  • Behind the scenes at the BFI

    In the pretty Hertfordshire town of Berkhampsted, behind a collection of white-washed buildings reminiscent of a farm, stands a modern block in red brick and coloured steel, nestled up to which are four large, white, hangar-like sheds. Together, these buildings form the British Film Institute’s National Archive and J. Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre. Open to BFI members and guests for tours on just a few occasions each year, a ticket opens up a world of film that is unavailable elsewhere, as I found on Saturday.

    The Archive is the BFI’s hub for receiving, assessing, restoring and preparing for viewing its vast treasury of feature and documentary films, dating back to the very start of the medium in this country. The ‘lost’ observational films of Edwardian pioneers Mitchell & Kenyon, made from 1902 or so onwards, were conserved and scanned for new public showings here, for example, and a remarkable 10,000 films of all sorts were digitised for the Britain of Film project. Various other works, extending to – as we saw – an Op Art piece by John Smith, are currently being looked after.

    Some material is stored permanently at Berkhamsted, not least the vital magnetic masters of many productions. Each of the sheds contains about 250,000 film cans of all gauges, including 9.5mm. Stacked about three times the height of a person, they are retrieved by forklift and individually barcoded. The BFI’s precious (and precarious) holdings of highly flammable nitrate stock along with the majority of their more stable but still troublesome ‘safety’ film prints (on acetate and polyester) are housed in a frozen, dehumidified state in the explosion-proof vaults of Cullinan Studio’s award-winning Master Film Store in the Warwickshire village of Gaydon.

    When examples are requested for viewing in London, either at Stephen Street or the South Bank, they are despatched to Berkhamsted where they join their cousins in the warmer but still chill-inducingly refrigerated sheds for atmospheric acclimatisation. They are then prepared, which includes a quality check screening in the on-site auditorium, and forwarded as needed.

    Increasingly, however, the BFI is scanning such prints, thus saving on handling and transport costs and reducing the risk of damage but also allowing anyone to watch the film anywhere. This is to be accomplished by the establishment of a country-wide network of Mediateques, similar to that at the South Bank. We saw the Vario machines that make this possible, a laser and cold-source LED lighting system scanning the film in real time with automatic compensation for missing perforations and even distorted frames.

    Restoration takes place in special studios where the more traditional synchroniser and cutting bench is the dominant technology. Indeed, one I saw must have dated from the 1960s or so and was manufactured by none other than ARRI, a company better known for its cameras and which celebrates its centenary later this year.

    Carefully examining, logging, comparing and then fixing celluloid of whatever type is painstaking work, sometimes aided by wet-gate projection or scanning. In this clever application of a process familiar to anyone who wetting their finger to hide a mark on a polished wood table, scratches are temporarily ‘erased’ by running the film through a fluid medium, allowing a clear image to be recorded.

    The Special Collections store, the highlight of the tour for me, is also a help. Here, over 400 separate archives of material – stills, diaries, scripts, publicity material, documents and ephemera – are kept, donated by a wide range of film-makers, performers and companies. A wonderful display of items had been put out for us, from a shooting script annotated by Carol Reed to a costume design for Julie Christie, and from an actual Oscar (given to Cecil Beaton) to letters from Alec Guinness.

    The other side to the BFI’s moving image business runs in a separate but parallel workstream, and involves television. All of the BBC’s output since 1990 has been captured via off-air recordings at Berkhamsted as the BBC’s official archive, but the BFI also has old items from the public broadcaster. In addition, we were informed, the early 1990s mergers of the original ITV companies led to a great clear out of their own back offices. The result is that Berkhampsted has a staggering 800,000 programmes stored on well over a dozen different formats of video (the off-air operation alone has gone through four).

    The problem of format migration is therefore key challenge facing the organisation, not least because of the rapidly-reducing pool of functioning video machines and even the component parts needed to keep them working. Various consumer, semi-pro and professional-quality tapes and cassettes was laid out for us, ranging from the much-loved VHS to the massive Sony D1, so big it comes in its own snugly-fitting plastic briefcase but not removed from its domestic baby brother that it, too, doesn’t come complete with a sheet of sticky labels.

    Trusting to the latest technology, the current format of choice is LTO, a small square box of a cassette that uses just a single spool (the take-up remains in the machine) and has a presumed life of 50 years.

    Thus although one big tranche of titles – 33,000, in fact – has been ‘saved’ already thanks to Lottery funding, the apparent increase in generosity that will pay for a much larger second batch of 100,000 titles is misleading; this is only a fraction of what needs saving, and it is limited by the availability of those machines.

    This was a thoroughly absorbing morning out, giving fascinating insight into what goes on behind the screen of the South bank operation. Recommended.

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  • Bricks & Words #4: ‘The Property Boom’

    How London and other British cities were built up (literally) after the war by a new breed of smart, canny speculators and developers is the subject of this brilliant book, the subject of this month's Bricks & Words. Towers, shopping centres, offices are all covered, in the capital and elsewhere, with key chapters on the late Harry Hyams (mastermind of Centre Point), Joe Levy and more. If you care remotely about why London looks the way it does today, read on…

    This is the inside story of the post-war commercial property market in Britain but with a firm focus on London. It covers all the major deals, including the Hilton on Park Lane, the Euston Centre and Elephant & Castle, as well as the Bull Ring in Birmingham. Exactly how the developers found the road to riches is explained in detail, as is the secrecy under which the prevailing legislation allowed them to operate. The 1989 reprint adds a retrospective commentary by Marriott, a former journalist and now board member of investment company Shaftesbury. As forensic as a lawyer’s brief, as gripping as a thriller, it’s indispensable.

    ‘The Property Boom’ by Oliver Marriott (H. Hamilton, 1967; reprinted with new introduction, 1989)

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  • Arresting commission

    The Metropolitan Police has a new Commissioner and a new headquarters. Cressida Dick met the press last week but media coverage of her new base has been more low-key given postponement of its royal opening, planned for what turned out to be the day after the Westminster bridge attack in March. After 50 years in a Modernist glass tower on Broadway, though, relocation a few hundred metres east to an intriguing pre-war block originally by the civic and commercial architect William Curtis Green that was in fact built for the Met in the first place has nevertheless taken place. There is of course no public access inside, but what about the exterior?

    The Curtis Green building went up in 1937-40 as a second extension to Richard Norman Shaw’s New Scotland Yard of 1890, the force’s first purpose-built home. Clad entirely in Portland stone and in a style perhaps best described as Chaste Classical, it contrasted with the red brick turrets of its Victorian neighbour to the south yet blended nicely with E. Vincent Harris’s Ministry of Defence Main Building (1939-59) to the north; Curtis Green even included top-floor pediments, just as Harris did. A bridge linked the building to the Norman Shaw complex. Close-to, the fascinatingly individualistic detail of Curtis Green’s building emerges. This is different at each level, and includes shields complete with ‘G-VI-R’ crest, stone fillets on internal corners and a wonderful three-dimensional crown over what was originally the main entrance.

    Occupied after the war by the Met’s forensics and other technology departments and, ultimately, by a regional operational headquarters, the Curtis Green block was finally vacated in 2011. Security concerns were raised when the possibility of residential use was mooted, since both Norman Shaw blocks are now used as MPs’ offices, but ultimately a solution was generated that also dealt with the linked problem of a police headquarters that had outgrown its Broadway building, which was in any event a standard commercial block leased, modified and later bought outright by the Met.

    The competition to reshape the Curtis Green building for a new age and new function was based on a brief that required the same quality of general office accommodation as might be found in a contemporary equivalent of 10 Broadway, yet with the very specific additions of highly secure, screened entrance and exit, improved public realm and a buffer of some kind between the former and the latter. The five shortlisted firms responded similarly to the question of the reception area, all sharing a low, stand-alone pavilion forward of the main building, but differently when it came to adaption of the existing spaces and, crucially, that Curtis Green roofline – some decapitated it, others extruded it. Only AHMM, it appears, retained it.

    Clearly this was not the only reason AHMM was in the end selected, neither was the fact that the practice is rapidly becoming as prolific as Curtis Green was in his time, but its ability to flex across a wide range of civic and private commissions and respond strongly to context when doing so are likely to have been factors. Evidence of this last is seen in the design development that took place thereafter, whereby an all-glass rooftop extension was modified by the addition of Portland stone ‘bookends’ and a front wall seemingly clad with backlit glass also became calcified into stone.

    The basic elements of the transformation first outlined in 2013 remain, however, and can be seen easily in a wander around the two sides of the site that are accessible. Deeper consideration of the result is rewarding.

    The works stripped out the main floors, inserted a new central service and circulation core and added a new rear and small side extension that filled in the void of the original C-shaped plan. Useable area has accordingly been increased by 50%, although the actual number of staff and officers working at the new building is considerably fewer as a result of wider estate and organisational change. The new rear façade is dominated by a screen of deep, vertically-oriented aluminium fins in red, orange and yellow. The colour selection is patterned after the Norman Shaw blocks, although the reference is rather abstract and lacks the assertiveness of Whitfield Partners’ nearby Richmond House (1983-87) for the Department of Health.

    That said, I like very much how the new stone elevations to the north and south simplify the existing articulation and then introduce their own, complete with a staggered fenestration that supposedly reflects the functions of spaces within but which seems part of the same move. It reminds me of Francis Pym’s bold extension to the Ulster Museum (1964-72) or Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown’s Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery (1987-91) as caught in Simon Bradley’s description (in Buildings of England) of an entablature that “sheds balustrade and dentils as it goes”. My only caveat is that the Curtis Green attic pediments now appear a little 'pasted on’, whereas previously they stood out against pitched roofs that were removed as part of the project.

    The firm refers to its rooftop extension as a pavilion, even though that term is best used to describe the detached, fully-glazed extension built in the forecourt and which reconciles the brief’s requirement for “positive contact between the building and the general public” with the necessary security measures (new openings punched through the main façade allow access to the circulation core). Its semi-circular ends are reminiscent of inter-war Tube station architecture, the entire structure recalling the platform shelters that can be seen today on the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines. The cantilevered roof, striped on its underside in a manner that actually does reflect the Norman Shaw blocks, tends to confirm the analogy.

    A raised contemplation pool to its south houses the eternal flame to fallen officers, relocated from Broadway. Critic Laura Mark points out that its positioning in this way continues the line of memorial architecture that begins on the Embankment lawns of the Ministry of Defence, though this is perhaps a little conceptual given the pool’s placement at height, behind glass and as part of a secure building. Certainly, though, its inherent significance was – sadly – reconfirmed last month.

    At this point it is appropriate to examine in some detail the visible security measures that have been integrated with the scheme, which would have been of note even before that recent attack given current concerns about public/private space in general and the increasingly defensive streetscape of Westminster’s government quarter in particular. There are several, and most have been addressed architecturally rather than as industrialised add-ons.

    Firstly, the high perimeter wall of aged brick has been removed and replaced with a chest-high Portland stone plinth-cum-wall. This releases space to the pavement and supports the pool and reception pavilion but also, thanks in part to the fall of land, acts as a simple introduction to the entrance threshold. Steps connect this to the pavilion. The building’s original entrance, a squat stone ‘kiosk’ bearing that three-dimensional crown and thus resembling a police box, has been remodelled as a display case with windows cut into the sides. This clever device, along with a new version of the famous revolving sign, does work to draw the public across the forecourt, and with the new entrance off to the left, this can be permitted with only a small compromise in security. Again, though, it’s doubtful whether many will recognise the weakly differentiated tones of stone paviours as another nod to Norman Shaw’s work.

    Next, there has been remodelling of the workaday vehicle entrance to the north. New bollards, railings and retractable barriers provide obvious security, but a row of elegantly minimalist new lamp standards, a simple stone block that suggests a bench and a small planter contribute and create a far more civilised look.

    Finally, the entire length of pavement fronting the building, including its corners, is lined with the by-now standard run of closely-spaced steel bollards just behind the kerb. These appear individual but are actually connected below ground level by steel and reinforced concrete to provide a single, monolithic barrier to vehicles that is permeable to pedestrians (and, it must be said, motorbikes and bicycles).

    All of this responds well to a major part of the brief, though any prospect of reopening Derby Gate, gated in Norman Shaw’s time and closed permanently in 1967 when the parliamentary estate took over, or any of the other passageways between the buildings in this area must remain extremely remote. Even Richmond Terrace, a pedestrian way running between the Curtis Green and Ministry of Defence buildings, is subject to closures.

    Some time ago it was announced that the Met would revert to ‘Scotland Yard’ when it moved in to a revitalised Curtis Green building, no doubt to avoid any witticism about ‘New New New Scotland Yard’; AHMM’s early visuals confirm it. Even recent traditions stick, however, and so ‘New’ prefix remains firmly and indeed prominently part of the name of the building, with large free-standing letters on the pavilion roof – these, arguably, the only truly over-fussy note in a design that is otherwise a model of sober restraint.

    Re-presented in this manner, Curtis Green’s urbane but hitherto unappreciated block equips the capital’s police for another half-century at least and, architecturally speaking, once again takes its place in the sequence of Thames-side palazzos along the Victoria Embankment.

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  • 'Life' (2017)

    In Life, from director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the International Space Station is awaiting the return of an unmanned probe carrying a soil sample from the surface of Mars. Once captured, the sample will be kept in a sealed box in a sealed laboratory compartment and analysed with the aim of finding out whether the thing that has caused so much cultural and scientific speculation since the Red Planet was discovered actually exists, and if so in what form…

    Just as space is becoming increasingly crowded, so that particular orbit of speculative fiction that positions a small crew in a large vessel and isolates both along with whatever is about to unfold is experiencing rapid growth. Formerly sparsely occupied, with only 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972) and Alien (1979) arriving in over thirty years (thus ensuring that each would come to be regarded as a touchstone in the sub-genre), even later entries like Event Horizon (1997) made little real impact.

    Only after the Millennium – almost as if awaiting passage of the titular year from Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking epic – did the concept gain fresh momentum, with releases including Sunshine (2007), Love (2011), Gravity (2013). Sitting slightly outside of these, since set on planetary bodies, is Moon (2009) and a slew of productions that take place on Mars itself.

    By no means all of these films take the horror angle, with several opting for ambiguity if not actual positivity, but for Reese and Wernick it indeed is the former that propels events. After an extended (and slightly confusing) scene-setting pre-titles sequence, then, and the usual introduction to the expectedly varied crew, a detailed examination of the cellular organism soon turns into something rather more visceral – red Mars, indeed. It is here that Espinosa is at his strongest, quite literally internalising the horrors that befall the unfortunate crew members and relying principally on sound and performance rather than grand guignol visuals to do so.

    It is, though, after this that both screenplay and direction show the kind of weaknesses signalled in that opening scene and which prove to plague the entirety of the film. Several plot points appear to have been skipped or rendered so lightly that they they pass the viewer by, resulting in jumps or elisions in motivation or procedure that become increasingly frustrating and ultimately act to reduce the film to a series of episodic occurrences in real need of a more organic (as it were) justification.

    Character definition, so crucial in such a set-up, is also not what it could be. Indeed despite the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Hiroyuki Sanada (Kaneda from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine) in the cast, very few roles really take on identities of their own. A couple of pleasingly intimate moments, when both exobiologist Derry (an admittedly excellent Ariyon Bakare) and medical officer Jordan (Gyllenhaal) each reveal a very personal reason for their presence on the ISS, show what might have been but sadly these are not repeated for the remainder of the team.

    As a result the progress of Martian life throughout the space station becomes simply a numbers game, as each astronaut is affected one by one and attempt after attempt is made to resolve the situation. Those lapses in logic and continuity continue, rendering the result even more of a repetitive exercise, whilst the piece as a whole is both predictable and derivative.

    Strangely, though, something in the mix does work to make Life very enjoyable despite all this, especially in the first two acts. Pure shock value should never be underestimated in its power to entertain, and the titular organism is sufficiently novel in its manifestations – at least initially – to keep one interested. Ferguson especially is seldom less than watchable, even if her part if as underwritten as the rest.

    The ending almost redeems the aforementioned flaws, demonstrates once more the kernel of originality that lies buried below the surface of this latest entry in the sub-genre and certainly leaves a sardonic smile on one’s face. Ultimately, though, whilst life must always find a way, it cannot in this case evolve into something truly new.

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  • “A tremendous gift to the City”: Mies’s Mansion House Square, 1967-2017

    Fifty years is a long time in architecture, especially when buildings only two or three decades old are regularly stripped back to their skeletons, re-finished and even re-named before emerging to face a new future. Fifty years is a mere eye blink in the history of a city, though, especially one whose Roman core today drives economic success not just for itself but for the nation of which it is capital. These parallel perspectives come together as one stands in Mansion House Square in the City of London before Mies van der Rohe’s tower and contemplates the half-century that has passed since both urban interventions came to pass.

    Back in 1967, the calls to preserve the tight knot of Victorian buildings at the apex of Queen Victoria Street and Poultry seemed, at least initially, loud enough to prevent realisation of a scheme by one of the greatest architects of all time that would, in addition, be his only building in Britain. The condition attached to the planning grant requiring an alternate location to be found for the stand-alone bank on part of the site and the presumed difficulties of acquiring the remaining plots that comprised the whole also appeared to weigh against success.

    Fortune favours the brave, however, and a combination of unforeseen bankruptcies and acute business acumen on the part of Peter Palumbo enabled his chosen architect’s plans for an elegant Modernist office tower, a new public square and an underground shopping concourse to be completed a couple of years before declaration of the Bank Conservation Area and just months before Mies’s death.

    Those existing structures aside, criticism of the development focused on the supposed inappropriateness of a Mies tower for the Square Mile – specifically, for a location edged by a Wren church, the Georgian Mansion House (home of the Lord Mayor) and the inter-war head office of the Midland Bank, a masterpiece by Lutyens. In addition, these plus a handful of post-war slabs were all not only considerably lower than the proposed building but also finished in Portland stone. The German’s imposition of a rigorously rectilinear form for the public space as well as the building that was to stand in it was also felt to be alien to a City still following the unplanned street attern of its ancient origins. The perceived scale of the square, too, was deemed unsuitable for a densely-settled district whose pocket parks and small churchyards lend a large part of its character. And who would ever visit a daylight-denied shopping arcade buried beneath the pavement?

    The passage of time since these arguments were aired has to a large extent rendered them moot. The concourse, the square and the tower have slipped almost effortlessly into the fabric of the City of London, and this can be seen by an afternoon’s wander around all three.

    The square is a welcome breath of fresh air in the sometimes claustrophobic City, giving everyone – workers, tourists, shoppers, even pigeons – room to relax and unwind and, on a day like today, enjoy the sun (or the shade, thanks to the carefully-positioned trees). The considered placement of benches, dwarf walls, planters and flagpole – this also in bronze, and supposedly the last design decision of Mies himself for this, the last scheme finished in his lifetime – ensure visual interest. The high quality of materials used, such as Cornish granite for the paving and more bronze on the stair and escalator wells, matches the Corporation’s own requirements for new developments. Together with immaculate maintenance, performed not by the local authority but a private contractor acting for Palumbo’s development company, and an absence of extemporized ephemera, the square exudes a lasting feeling of prestige that reflects onto the occupants of the surrounding buildings as well as the tower.

    Of those, it is the Lord Mayor who has perhaps benefitted the most. With the Walbrook entrance to Mansion House no longer hidden behind the bank, which was demolished, he may now arrive and depart in full and clear view of the crowds that fill the square for the Lord Mayor’s Parade, and proceed not via forced navigation of awkwardly twisted streets but by a wide, straight private drive discreetly separated from the public areas – Mies’s idea from the start.

    Some have said that the Midland Bank has suffered from such exposure. Assuming – not unnaturally – that the width of Poultry would remain inviolable, Lutyens manipulated its façade with exquisite subtlety, narrowing the rustication by an eighth with each successive course, stretching the windows the higher they are placed in the building and stepping the entire façade back an inch with each smooth stone band, all to convey a subtle appearance of recession and height. It is true that this feels less relevant when the building is seen square-on. That said, the vast majority of passers-by will remain in blissful ignorance of such things, whilst one of the amendments made by Mies to his tower in direct reference to its context was to raise the height of the entrance canopy to align with Lutyens’s cornice line. It is, as well, unlikely to be a co-incidence that Mies placed the main entrance to the concourse exactly in line with the Midland’s own front door.

    In fact, Mies’s only real error – though it is a considerable one – is the unforgiveable intrusion of the re-aligned Queen Victoria Street into this space, slicing as it does across the western end of Mansion House Square and thus separating most of it from the tower. Surely this could have been avoided by sending the road behind the tower, allowing the latter to connect seamlessly with the square? One doubts Lord Holford, collaborator with Mies on the town planning aspects of the scheme, would have made such a move.

    But the rightness of this space is undeniable, and all the more remarkable when one remembers the acutely-angled road junction, triangular building plots and glimpsed views that stood before. The inevitable impositions caused by increased security in recent years have been achieved with the minimum of intrusion, and in an aesthetically considerate manner to boot.

    On descending by escalator to Mansion House Square Concourse, one finds it is doing brisk business despite the increase in shopping provision within the City in the last few years.

    Importantly, and as with Mies’s Toronto Dominion Centre, designed simultaneously but completed later, it is rigorously detailed in the same restricted palette of materials as the tower that it is linked to. Substantial bronze piers, plate glass display windows, travertine and granite are all to be found, extending the image of bespoke, restrained luxury from the private side of the development to the public – you too can share this, you too matter, it says.

    In conjunction with the maintenance and policing practice, the concourse established and retained an upmarket image even as the more or less contemporaneous Paternoster Square shops declined; it also anticipated the move of retail toward the more exclusive end of the market seen at Jean Nouvel’s One New Change and the House of Fraser at the northern end of London Bridge, with retailers including Dunhill, Penhaligon’s, Asprey and Hermes there at the start and remaining today. There are also more everyday suppliers, including a Waterstones, Boots and an independent restaurant, this last taking advantage of the flexibility Mies incorporated in his planning grid for the concourse as well as the tower above it. Jewellers Mappin & Webb and The Green Man pub, present at street level in the Victorian buildings, were given premises in the concourse as compensation and are also still trading. Mies mandated a standard fascia, typeface and white backlighting for all these units; what the result lacks in variety, colour and ease of differentiation when in a rush it gains in smartness. The space also gives access to Bank underground station and (under suitable controls) the vaults of the former bank.

    As for the tower itself, officially One Mansion House Square, any lingering disorientation produced by remembrance of the former layout of the area is ameliorated by discovery of Mies’s own geometry. The unfussy, repetitive form of its 6’ 6” module sits surprisingly well with all of those surrounding works, informed as they are by Classical principles of rhythm and proportion, whilst the six-bay elevation feels relaxed and appropriately ‘horizontal’. The warm tone of the bronze-clad steel and amber-tinted glass do contrast with the cool stone and grey windows of its neighbours, but positively. As the critic Robert Hughes has said, “The very artificiality, the very consciousness of Mies’s design, makes you see its opposite even more clearly than you would without it”.

    Indeed the conjunction of all of this is strong enough to elevate the building above simple existence as one of Mies’s “highly evolved set of solutions for repeated use”, as Claire Zimmerman has described this phase of his output, and is a stronger statement of juxtaposition than, say, the acclaimed but wan Economist group in St James’s, Westminster. Certainly it makes a better impression than those examples of Post-Modernism seen elsewhere in the City, whose restless and unsatisfying collision of forms and colour confirm their uninspired “scissor and paste” nature, to quote Berthold Lubetkin’s description of that movement.

    The ground floor, raised slightly and reached via asymmetric flights of (granite) stairs, is double-height. The façade is drawn back here by one bay (seen from a side elevation), allowing its four piers to continue to the ground as columns, with the lobby defined only by plate glass. The granite of the square continues through the glass to form its surface. The tower’s core is here pulled back once more, by another bay, and is sheathed in travertine, all moves seen at Mies’s Seagram Building in New York.

    Lloyd’s Bank remain the sole tenant, as has been the case since completion, though its occupancy long ago expanded beyond its international division (the same occurred at Seifert’s NatWest Tower of a dozen years later, until the company left after the 1993 bombing).

    The bank took the lease almost as soon as the scheme was announced, a commitment that greatly assisted Palumbo in overcoming those planning obstacles. Its stewardship of the building since has been exemplary. Many original fixtures and fittings are present and correct, from the signage in the lobby through the timber carrels in the main offices – still arranged in a semblance of proper Bürolandschaft – to the Barcelona chairs of the upper, executive levels. From there one can appreciate Mies’s pushing of the service core to the back (west) of the floorplate so that offices have an unobstructed vista over the square whilst those awaiting a lift can enjoy views of St Paul’s. Limited updating of the building’s systems, including electrics, heating and cooling and elements of its glazing (seals and thermal breaks) was carried out by Lohan Anderson before its dissolution, extremely sympathetically – as one would expect, given co-founder Dirk Lohan is Mies’s grandson. It proved impossible to come to agreement with English Heritage over replacement of the distinctive glass itself with a more efficient modern equivalent that did not compromise its Grade I listing, and further work on this is understood to be ongoing.

    Mies himself, by now in a wheelchair, famously attended the opening of the complex. A man of few words, what he must have felt can only be guessed at as he saw rendered at life size the beautiful model seen during the application process at the well-attended public exhibition. This might, perhaps, be compared to Wren’s Great Model, the similarly impressive large-scale miniature made to depict his planned cathedral, since in many ways the two schemes share a common audacity.

    What others thought is clear. Sir John Summerson called it “a new and splendid image for the modern function of the City”; Martin Pawley’s prediction, which I have used for the title of this piece, appears to have come true. For Peter Palumbo, who throughout the design and construction process sat in his office overlooking the site at an antique desk but with a framed image of Mies’s unexecuted 1921 design for a crystalline skyscraper behind him, his proposal to insert an ultra-modern tower into the rich historic grain of the Square Mile has been validated. After all, there can be few more arresting visual experiences in London today than seeing the Lord Mayor’s dazzling golden coach and gaily-dressed horses set against the sober darkness of Mies’s tower. A gift, indeed.

    ------------------------------------------------

    This article constitutes my response to the RIBA exhibition ‘Mies van der Rohe + James Stirling: Circling the Square’, which examines in detail Peter Palumbo’s two attempts – both hugely controversial, both involving posthumous designs – to build on the Mappin & Webb site. It continues until 25 June and should not be missed.

    Palumbo was ultimately successful with Stirling’s No.1 Poultry, completed in 1997 and listed in 2016, but I decided to focus on Mies’s design. My piece is inspired by discovery of Matthew Butcher’s brilliant ‘What if?’ for the RIBA Journal, a mock retrospective from an alternative present in which the Mies building exists – this is my own take of that idea.

    In choosing my jumping-off point, I have picked 1967 as the supposed start of construction of the scheme; in reality, it was still being considered by the Corporation of London at that time, before being approved – with the condition quoted – the following year. I have taken a fair degree of artistic licence in supposing ways around the problems that that condition and the related issue of assembling the rest of the plot actually produced, which were responsible for the delay until the 1980s.

    The information given on, and criticism of, the project itself, including most of the quotes, comes from material in the exhibition as well as a talk given by curator Marie Bak Mortensen. I have re-purposed Hughes’ comment – actually about the Farnsworth House – from the Mies episode of his 2003 BBC documentary series Visions of Space. Zimmerman’s book is ‘Mies van der Rohe – The structure of space’ (Taschen 2006).

    The colour photograph is one of those produced in the 1980s of the stunning 1:96 scale presentation model commissioned by Palumbo as a promotional tool – it appears, fully and superbly restored by SMA Design, in the exhibition. Some of my own photographs, taken there, have been rendered in monochrome to read as shots of the actual building and square. The façade detail is an online find and is actually of the Seagram Building; the lobby close-up and all of the interiors, including the ‘concourse’, and also from the web and are actually of the Toronto Dominion Centre. I have manipulated one to alter the shopfront lettering.

    My speculation on the life of the Mies tower and square since completion is extrapolated from all of the above. Other details of the wider City are real.

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  • ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017)

    Almost three decades ago, artist and writer Masamune Shirow created the manga Kōkaku Kidōtai, or Mobile Armored Riot Police: The Ghost in the Shell (1989), posing questions of humanity, memory and self against a background of geo-politics, robotics and information technology. Though later expanded by Shirow and others across a variety of media, it was filmmaker Mamoru Oshii’s anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell (1995) that became the touchstone incarnation for most audiences. Its fluid animation, dynamic camerawork and intriguing philosophy ensured that a live-action remake was posited from the outset – one critic immediately pronounced it “the kind of film James Cameron would make if Disney ever let him”. Now, finally, that iteration is here…

    Directed by Rupert Sanders from a script by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, the new release does includes material from that wider GITS universe and so cannot be considered a straight translation of the anime; it is, though, to Oshii’s ground-breaking work that Sanders’ film will inevitably be compared. Of course the writers have altered elements of all these sources in any event, and the very first scenes demonstrate this.

    Introducing the lead character of the Major (Scarlet Johansson), an opening crawl identifies her as a one-off, a successful experiment to implant a human brain into a wholly artificial body to create the proverbial super soldier. Leaving aside the simplification of the soul/ghost and body/shell concepts, both manga and anime explicitly depict the Major as a police officer, with a body or shell that is by no means unique – a point made with great eloquence by Oshii when she glimpses an office girl with the same face. The significance of each of these changes becomes clearer as the film progresses.

    What follows, on the other hand, is a faithful, subtle and beautifully lyrical interpretation of the ‘shelling sequence’ that began the anime. As neurons grow and artificial skin flows, shots are bathed in blocks of glowing colour to an ambient soundtrack by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe that includes tantalising phrases from Kenji Kawai’s powerful and much-loved 1995 score. It turns out to be the most persuasive moment of the entire film, though closely followed by the next, which again borrows from its precursors.

    As the Major literally gate-crashes a night-time meeting in a tower block with a balletic backward dive from its roof and a swing through a window – achieved, quite clearly and logically (since the Major is not Superman), by a tether in the anime but seemingly by magic here – her thermoptic camouflage suit disrupts first the holographic advertisements decorating its exterior and then the shattered glass, all three dissolving into a slow-motion kaleidoscope. It’s a dazzling and powerful moment, and leads to a wuxia-style gunfight that nods to the 1995 anime but incorporates the robotic geisha from Oshii’s sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004).

    It is from this moment on, however, that the amendments to and departures from the primary source start to intrude and frustrate, whilst never attaining a coherence that might allow the film to stand on its own merits.

    Thus whilst Shirow and Oshii (through Kazunori Ito’s screenplay) had the Major and her team as an internal security force working mostly with other government departments but sometimes finding itself their unsuspecting puppet, the new film replaces this thematic and prescient richness with two very tired cyberpunk tropes, the unscrupulous corporation and the evil superior. Unhelpfully the latter is not even well defined, being named ‘Cutter’ in the film but ‘Secretary Cutter’ in promotional material, suggesting a governmental link, and is performed (by Peter Ferdinando) as a cliché. Such a lack of confidence is particularly disappointing in the wake of, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), whilst if anything of Shirow’s and Ito‘s writing is relevant to today’s post-Snowden/Assange/Trump world, it must surely be this. Having the Major branded a terrorist at a later stage feels like forced relevance..

    Far more concerning is the ‘search for her past’ backstory given to the Major, or rather the fact that the character is actually deemed to need a backstory at all. Although a previous life is alluded to in the manga and the anime, in neither is where she came from anywhere near as critical as where she is going and what she might be becoming. Sanders’ film soon becomes weighed down with these questions and a pursuit of their answers that is not only uninteresting and derivative (of RoboCop (1987) and The Bourne Identity (2002), to name but two scripts) but which ought to have been redundant given the many possibilities set out by Shirow.

    With the film now forced to explore two plot points that are already depressingly familiar, it becomes less and less interesting for the viewer, not least due to the lazy and often clunkily repetitive and expositional dialogue. There is nothing here to compare to the highly effective blend of accessible meditation on life and convincing personal interplay that characterised Ito’s words, or indeed the variant but still occasionally resonant English-language version (by Taro Yoshida) with which Oshii’s film was released in the West.

    Even the crucial tech-speak sounds awkward and unreal although, having established the Major’s specialness, the film does at least forge a clear and consistent continuum that starts at humans with minimal cybernetic enhancements (including Togusa, the Major’s colleague, nicely played by Chin Han), progresses through those with extensive robotic additions and then has the Major firmly at its opposite end, but its depiction is often crude. This is seen most obviously in the nightclub scene, with various patrons sporting metal arms and jaws that seem to have been inspired by the world inhabited by Mad Max rather than the Major. Here, too, in fact, is a clue to one of the film’s other flaws. A decision was made to bring Shirow’s and Oshii’s worlds to the screen as though realised in the time they were originally made, that is the late 80s and early 90s. There are therefore no cell phones or internet, cars are deliberately dated, and so on. Wireless technology is also absent, which whilst allowing the franchise’s signature visual image of nape sockets and connecting wires does make for a disconcerting reaction from any viewer expecting a film to be of its time rather than the time of its inspiration.

    And, again, one problem leads to another, since the film as a whole adopts a hopelessly confused and over-busy styling when depicting the place in which it is set that leads – ironically – to the same loss of identity that afflicts the Major.

    The manga was located in the fictional New Port City, Japan and the anime a future Hong Kong; both were highly effective in building a sense of place. Sanders choses to be carefully non-specific about his environment in terms of its location and name, a perfectly valid choice but one that nevertheless still requires a believable vision of metropolitan life to be forged. Unfortunately he fails to do this. Almost every shot of the city, whether skyline or streetscape, is a seemingly random confusion of ideas and images, including neon, smoke, vehicles, colour, vast holographic advertisements and even giant fish ‘swimming’ between buildings. Many appear taken from filmic speculative fictions of the past forty years. There is no unity, no chance for the eye to rest and absorb the detail beyond fleeting impressions and no reality. The ‘gaps’ between production techniques – models, CGI, locations shooting – are plain and add further clutter. It is clear that Sanders must have been aiming for the dense yet permeable texture of Blade Runner (1982), but what he has ended up presenting is the frenzied and unoriginal chaos of Judge Dredd, released the same year as Oshii’s film.

    Film-making has moved on, and the material also sometimes demands a different approach. It seems clear here that taking an existing city and enhancing it just a little would have been far more productive and yielded a far better atmosphere, emulating for example the sharp clarity of the city shown in Michael Bay’s The Island (2002, underrated in this respect and co-incidentally also starring Johansson), the Tokyo glimpsed briefly in Inception (2010) or Vincenzo Natali’s Cypher (2002). Parts of the film were shot in Hong Kong, with the distinctive Jardine and Bond buildings visible, and a few shots do work – a down-angle of a canyon between buildings, an amphitheatre cemetery – but these are rarities. The wildly varied tonality of Jess Hall’s cinematography hardly helps.

    Overall Sanders’ shot choice and camera placement are uninspired and flat, another irony given it was Oshii’s importation of Western movie-making’s direction to the anime format that secured his recognition. Re-watching Oshii’s film today still reveals surprises, imagination and moments of great beauty.

    BELOW: Selective focus, deep focus, composing for the frame - Oshii's anime

    Sanders does seek to echo Oshii in his recreation of the two other action scenes from the 1995 film – the garbage truck firefight and the spider tank battle, and the results speak volumes as to the profound cognitive dissonance that plagues the film.

    Though initiated in a different way, the first duly unfolds in line with the anime, with Sanders matching Oshii almost shot for shot and once or twice achieving exactly that. The second, though, probably the most-anticipated sequence of the film from a purely visual standpoint, is a failure. Shot in low-contrast darkness that produces the opposite problem to the cityscapes – the eye now searches for anything at all that it can register – and again tied in to a storyline that itself irritates, it has none of the ferocity of the original even as Johansson adopts the exact same poses. And as the effective climax to the new film, the scene contains the final betrayal of the Shirow/Oshii/Ito original.

    Shadowing the Major throughout has been Kuze, essentially brought in from the GITS television series as a personification of the Puppet Master/Project 2501 (bizarrely rendered here as ‘2571’) from the first anime. Admittedly well realised for that purpose, with artistically-marked armour/skin, an elegant bodily artificiality that extends to his voice and a good performance from Michael Pitt beneath all of this, the bewilderment that ensues when Kuze is revealed not only to be that other well-worn SF trope, the failed prototype, but also someone with a particular link to the Major is profound. Their joint past, explained and resolved – especially in the case of the Major – in some extraordinarily mawkish scenes, is a spectacular misjudgement even if logical in the strict context of the film.

    Traducing the ending from the anime and manga in favour of a path to self-fulfilment that is all-American rather than very Japanese is the final insult, though it may provide justification, if any is required, for the casting of Johansson in what has been seen by some as an Asian part. Given all of this, it will come as no surprise that one of the most powerful and specifically relevant images of the anime, the Tree of Life from the climactic battle, is reduced to literal window dressing.

    Johansson is reasonably effective but the is under-written and trite; strikingly, her choice of and performance in Lucy (2014) now seems less like prescience in relation to a future live-action GITS and more like insurance against it going wrong. The similarly promising presence of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano as Aramaki, the Major’s commander, also proves exasperating; in an ill-defined role, he shifts uneasily from sage-like pronouncement to heroic gunfighter and suffers a final scene that makes little sense. Pilou Asbaek as Batou, the Major’s back up, fares better but none of the other members of Section 9 make any impression.

    Deeply unsatisfactory in every sense – as a remake of the anime, as a film with any real freshness and as a mainstreamed Hollywood-ised product – Sanders’ film proves to be less than the sum of its parts. It jettisons unpardonably the nuanced discussion of life, death and what might come after that are fundamental to the anime or manga, and has no self-sustaining vision that is the maker’s own in compensation. Whilst it is possible, still, to understand the desire to make such a thing, it must be accounted a failure.

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  • At home

    Though I mention it too late, in all likelihood, for those not already booked to take advantage of its remaining performances, the brilliance of the site-specific theatrical event staged at Leighton House yesterday evening to mark the return home of Flaming June deserves a special post. Delving into the complex web of known relationships Frederic Leighton had whilst speculating intelligently on their unknown aspects, The Muse – written by Katherine Tozer and directed by Nick Barber, both of Palimpsest – yielded an absorbing, intimate, atmospheric and ultimately emotional night of live drama in extraordinary surroundings.

    It is about 1880, and we are about to eavesdrop on an evening at Leighton’s home. It is part of the insular world of the Holland Park Circle, as the tight group of painter-neighbours became known, with its bespoke studio-houses commissioned from the best architects of the day and frequent exchanges of ideas, pictures and visits. With the audience sitting around two sides of the studio where Leighton created his works, events unfold more or less in real time.

    Quiet yet focused, neighbour Mrs Emilie Barrington (Tozer) appears, dressed in mourning still for her infant son and smarting at rejection of a different kind after the Royal Academy sent back her own paintings (“I burn all my failures”). Installed as a kind of informal housekeeper, she helps Leighton (Andrew Wincott) despite his sometimes off-handed responses and, it becomes clear, has her own feelings for him.

    Dorothy Dene (Tegen Hitchens) – aged about twenty, tumbling red curls, vivacious – arrives in a fuss, late from a performance in the West End and eager to tell Leighton everything. He, though, is eager for her to change so that he can arrange her in the pose of Andromache, the widow of Hector from Greek mythology, for his new painting (which now hangs in Manchester Art Gallery). Later they are joined by French singer Pauline Viardot Garcia (Nina Lainville), here to help Dorothy prepare for her next big role as tragic prophet Cassandra, and Leighton’s good friend Giovanni Costa (Marco Gambino), whom he met in Italy decades ago.

    The interplay of ideas, beliefs and urges that emerges over the next hour or so reveals deep and complex motivations, centring on the Pygmalion-like transformation of working-class Ada Pullen into alliteratively-renamed actress Dorothy. Importantly the moral rightness of this and the cost to all involved is explored, through some sharp, sometimes bitter, exchanges. “I’ll be over the moon with a Browning quote,” enthuses Dorothy as she beseeches Leighton to sing her praises in a letter to the writer; “One month posing, the next floating pregnant in the Regent’s Canal,” warns Costa, after forcing Ada to restage a speech in her true voice. “You can speak in your new voice and move at the same time,” advises Pauline, shrewdly.

    That the real Ada was left without parents at an early age and forced to support her siblings allows us to see Leighton as a source of income and a father figure to her, though at least one other reading of their bond is obvious. “Unclasp me!” she calls from behind the screen provided for models to change; posing nude thereafter whilst talking nineteen to the dozen, her attractiveness to the unmarried Leighton needs little imagining. “I should like to be a siren,” muses Dorothy of a potential future part, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she already is. “It’s quite easy to pretend to be married; we both enjoy that,” confesses Leighton, later. “Until bedtime,” snaps Costa.

    In fact it gradually becomes apparent that often-conflicting feelings are born by more than one participant in this drama, with Costa concealing jealously over an apparent cooling of his friendship with Leighton, an allusion to sublimated desires of another kind toward the Italian on the part of the great painter himself and those similarly-concealed yearnings of Mrs Barrington, beautifully expressed in her wistful observation that she can see “Sir Fred’s studio from her window…if I keep the trees trimmed.”

    Indeed, Tozer is able here to construct not so much a love triangle as a love pyramid, with Leighton at its tip, such is the void of information about his private life. The result is rich and involving and – importantly – never disrespectful or flip.

    The pressures of fame, the need for but price of publicity and what we would now call the marketing of celebrity are also discussed – there were, it seems, both cigarette cards of Dene and a dress-up children’s doll – and once again Costa’s words bite: “Is she listed as ‘tragic muse’ on the payroll?”, he wonders acidly.

    After a heated argument between Costa and Leighton the play climaxes more peacefully with a neat moment that provides one possible answer to the question of how Flaming June came to be. In reflecting on his own flaws, Leighton describes himself as being two men, the one open and generous, the other “observant, unmoved, odious”. Tozer allows Dorothy the final line, yet in a manner that acknowledges Ada.

    This was a superb production. Tozer’s text is layered, nuanced and tight, referencing a number of incidents in Leighton’s life and crafting realistic personalities for the others. Her own performance showed great stillness but with a core of determination; Gambino switched effortlessly and convincingly from suave aesthete to passionate fighter. Holding centre stage for much of the time, often literally, Hitchens essayed the triple personas of Ada, Dorothy and Cassandra seamlessly, mixing childlike enthusiasm, wit and self-reflection.

    Twenty years ago a very different but conceptually related piece entitled Relentless Perfection: An evening with Frederic Leighton was staged at the house as part of the centenary celebrations. This audience was led through a house that had been dressed, draped and lit as carefully and luminously as one of Leighton’s paintings, observing a series of vignettes including a visit from an eager young artist in the dining room and stories from the explorer Richard Burton, Leighton’s friend, in the famous Arab Hall. It, too, ended with a live staging of the artist’s most famous picture. Importantly, however, Leighton himself never appeared, manifesting only as a voice. Given the intervening period has seen the restoration both of Leighton’s reputation and of the house itself, it seems appropriate that Leighton should be fully visible in this new production. Perhaps, with lost works resurfacing at Melbury Road, new scholarship and productive research too, another two decades will see the truth of what Tozer and Barber propose finally surface in a third such engagement with the past.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Chris will be giving four free public talks for the London Festival of Architecture 2017 this June. Entitled Rebuild << Rewind, they reveal how successive buildings erected on the same spot for the same patron have preserved memories of the City of London’s ownership, activities and pathways in their architecture.

Click the hyperlinks to book or discover more about the talks, which cover a private bank, a craftsmen’s guild, an insurance market and a commercial firm and show fascinating architectural connections – including fragments, routes and even rooms – across three generations of rebuilding in the last hundred years at each site.

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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