• 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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  • Coming home

    For one more week, five of the six paintings that made up the final submission to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition by the great Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton – including the iconic Flaming June – can be seen together again in the place that they were made. Reunited in Leighton’s exquisite home and studio, now a museum, for the first time since they were readied for that show 122 years ago, this represents a unique opportunity to see a remarkable body of work by one of the towering figures in British art.

    Leighton’s position as perhaps the most passionate, productive and important representative of his time and culture is virtually unarguable. Educated in Germany and Italy, creatively, financially and critically successful, tireless in his promotion and support of young artists and President of the Royal Academy for almost twenty years until his untimely death in January 1896, Leighton was the first and to date the only artist ever to be raised to the peerage.

    Each year he spent several months abroad, sketching and researching, before returning home to paint in the lavishly decorated home that he commissioned from architect George Aitchison and in which he lived for decades until his death, extending and altering it as needed.

    Though he never married, had no confirmed offspring and never had overnight guests (there is only a single bedroom in the house – his own), Leighton was immensely sociable and frequently welcomed visitors for soirees, to see his work and to talk. On ‘Show Sunday’, he previewed the works he was about to send to the Academy; on 7 April 1895, noted photographer Bedford Lemere recorded the six pieces that comprised his 1895 submissions. It is this that forms the starting point for Leighton House Museum’s superb show.

    On the left, two small paintings. The uppermost, A Study, is the only one of the six that could not be included – remarkably, its whereabouts have been unknown almost since it was painted. Safely present, though, is Candida below it, a generic bust (not a portrait) of a woman dressed in a diaphanous gown against a deep red velvet-like background. An essay in colour and form and carefully non-specific in terms of its setting (chronological as well and geographical), it falls under the Aesthetic Movement. Practically, it is typical of the kind of small, relatively easy work that Leighton produced for prompt sale. This picture was in fact withdrawn at the last minute for that reason.

    One of Leighton’s tall, narrow panel pieces is next. Named after the Latin for tears, Lachrymae captures a woman of antiquity in grief; the urn – captured, as was done by other similar artists, from actual archaeological evidence – contains the ashes of the departed. The dark palette reflects the subject matter, both offset and emphasised by the sparkling glitter of sunlight flickering through the trees in the background.

    With The Maid with the Golden Hair, Leighton turned to a lighter but not frivolous matter, namely a woman at her pastime. Here the colours harmonise with the theme once more but for a very different effect.

    The tone changes again with ‘Twixt Hope and Fear, a striking composition whose modern, even erotic pose startles as much today as it would have done in 1895. Once more the background is muted and plain, drawing attention to the figure. Its sharpness or focus (the terms are deliberate; Leighton and his contemporaries were well aware of the new science of photography and exploited it in several ways) is seen in the fingers of the woman’s right hand, outlined against the chair’s backrest and the looming paleness of her left arm. The texture of her fur is also notable.

    Finally, of course, there is Leighton’s Flaming June, the 'Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere' given its home for the last 50 years in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. This luminous image of a woman sleeping on a Mediterranean terrace has become one of the most famous of the Victorian era. Arranged around the house for this exhibition is a range of Leighton’s superb preparatory drawings, showing the origin and evolution of the work. The pose itself derives from sketches made for two other works, and appears – almost as a teaser – tucked away as a marble bas relief in the finished version of one. Also for the show, the painting is accompanied by a tiny, loose but richly-made colour oil sketch by Leighton, plus a rare full-colour souvenir print of the final picture, made available to the public for 10 shillings a year after its 1895 debut. Though not universally regarded at the time, this early example of marketing an artist’s image perhaps prefigures its near-universal popularity today.

    In front of the picture itself, the three hues of red stand out – a wine colour for the drape, a tawny orange for another and the bright citrus of the woman’s dress. The scintillating water in the background, though reduced to a thin strip, frames her beautifully, and the glowing, thickly-textured clump of flowers to the right adds a colour accent. For me her face is less resolved than it could be, especially compared to the recently-discovered sketch, but overall the work’s power cannot be denied.

    To bring all of these together again after so long – from public galleries in Central and North America and three private owners – is a real feat, their presentation, in the same arrangement as the Lemere image and alongside a keyed version of same – a coup de theatre. The latest in a long line of carefully-curated displays that continue to illuminate the skill and working methods of this formidably talented artist, and another excuse to visit his red brick home with its jewel box interiors, a last chance to see this show should not be missed.

    Flaming June: The Making of an Icon is on at Leighton House Museum until Sunday 2 April

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  • 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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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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