Thursday, 25 February 2010


Introduction: 'La mort d'une étoile.'
When he went, his edifices were scrawled on by well-wishers. His cheeks were garlanded with red-penned declarations that we would never see his life again. Panic had elapsed, following the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and we had fallen into a frayed acceptance, beyond hysteria. The end seemed but weeks away, and the murder of the totemic Bob seemed to reflect this.

Scene One: 'Pourquoi tournez-vous, monsieur? C'est la fin, il n'y aura personne quitte pour regarder le film'
As the news broke that Redford was murdered attempting to board a train at the Gard du Nord, Parisians took to the streets. January, 1973. Documentary-maker Jean Rouch took his camera. 'Individuals who were not old enough or brave enough to commit to the riots in 1968 were here. They were attempting to make up for something. They were responsible for most of the damage. Efforts at a greater symbolism rarely can be good if they are so preconceived.'

Scene Two: 'En Amerique la police a des fusils. Mais pas ici.'
Suicide by cop is an early verdict, which brings more riots. A man appears on camera. He is old, ninety perhaps, and has wild grey hair. His eyes are an agitated blue. 'ils l'ont tué! Les bâtards du droit religieux lui ont offert comme un sacrifice! Imbéciles!' Rouch translates: 'He says they killed him... the religious right offered him as a sacrifice.' The old man looks at the camera. In English he shouts: 'bastards! I call them religious bastards! Say what I say!'

Scene Three: 'La discussion du symbolisme de blonds, avec les cigarettes.'
The discussion of the symbolism of blonds, with cigarettes. At one point, a student breaks into English to interrupt. 'This is exactly what the world thinks we do in France! We riot, and then we sit in cafes discussing philosophical concerns.' Rouch spends the rest of the scene prompting the assembled to discover if they agree.

Scene Four: 'Déformation de personnalité.'
He had ideas above his station, perhaps. The fact that this icon had the temerity to be beautiful and a scientist upset the extremes of left and right, as well as capillary demons of the nth eye. His suggestion: That a calendar year of 400 days would suffice our needs. Stretch the year to capacity, leaving 25 year-old wrinkled people wandering the planet. This idea threatened many interested parties. Assassinations can fall into several categories. All contain traces of hero-worship. Gilles Deleuze appears on camera. 'In the death of a famous figure like this, one wonders if the abrubt event in everyone's lives is not some form of personality warp, in which we all are meshed in a non-linear paradigm; a world seen only by a third eye, not our own'.

Scene Five: 'Apocalypse Maintenant'
Psychic mistakes do not appear immediately. They fester and burn, showing up as symptoms on maps of the poorer districts. It is easy for the deniers to derail theories, pass such events off as the quirk and spite of the under-appreciative ethnic castes. Even when a rich blonde or two is afflicted with the tawdry, kipnapped and drugged and thrown insanely from a cliff, say, or being brainwashed into being unwashed and homeless, even then still their probes do not quiver unduly. How many apocalypses must we enjoy? JG Ballard suggests that 'thousands of celebrities could die in the Paris night, and our civilisation would be stronger, not weaker.'

Scene Six: 'Le ligers de Paris'
President Georges Pompidou wonders, on camera, if Redford's last will and testament implies that his safari park will be left to the French people. 'Currently, Paris' rainbow ligers are an illusion, created by a series of holograms placed in front of regular ligers. But a real one would be a great posthumous gift to the city.' Some feel that this is inappropriate. But it does suggest that our leaders have confidence that the world has some future.1

Scene Seven: 'Le hot-dog, en sautant la grenouille, Albuquerque.'
We calm down. The world does not end. Generations later can see Rouch's account of the death of the most famous man in the world, and his account of that account (recorded simultaneously). Humanity continues. In his honour, the Utah Film Festival is renamed 'Sundance'. Redford's last words are recorded as the cryptic 'Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque'.2 Who knows?

La Mort de Robert Redford Directed by Jean Rouch Produced by Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin Fisk Productions/BBC Films Release Date Fra: Oct 1974 US/UK: Jan 1979 Tagline 'J'étais là Quand une Etoile est Morte.'

1. Georges Pompidou died three months after appearing in this documentary. He was 62.

2. These words were the inspiration for the chorus of Prefab Sprout's 1987 hit 'The King of Rock'n'Roll', and also for the title of Stan Brakhage's 1979 short Albuquerque Frog.

Friday, 19 February 2010

TOM THE SCORER (Barry Bishopsfield, 1963)

'...Of course, I wanted to call it Statistical Breakdown, but that seems too punning, too dismissive... but sometimes I do still like it, and go to screenings of Tom... and shout out 'I should have called it Statistical Breakdown!' over the credits.' Barry Bishopsfield

Along with Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson Karel Reisz et al, Barry Bishopsfield was part of the Free Cinema movement of the early sixties. By the time of Tom The Scorer, however, he had moved away from a quasi-realist style and towards something completely his own. For while his visual grammar and subject matter may have had much in common with his peers, Bishopsfield consistently began to breach the Fourth Wall by including himself in his work. Often, his directions to actors can be heard on the finished film, and sometimes scenes are broken by actors forgetting a line, stopping and then beginning the scene from the beginning. So far, so Godard. But Bishopsfield developed idiosyncrasies all of his own: Tom The Scorer is overlaid with an audio track of his own thoughts, weary judgments made in post-production about the shortcomings of his fare. This approach is remarkably similar to the commentaries offered on modern DVDs, in which the director and/or stars of the films will talk over the film. Of course, on the DVD, this is a largely ignored optional extra, and not an integral part of the art; but it came to be central to Bishopsfield's films. And of course, on the DVD, we have a relaxed, wry director making gags and giving us unnecessary technical details; In Tom The Scorer, we hear a panicky Bishopsfield despairing about his vision falling apart before his eyes, and his anger at the confusion in his head being all but impossible to recreate on film ties in with the subject of the film: The titular Tom is a boy who is so obsessed with noting down the goings-on around him that he retreats into a near-autistic inner world of ever-growing data.

Tom begins by copying maps. He doesn't trace them, but sketches careful and accurate versions. He notes down pertinent facts: Population, size, relevant dates, languages spoken, currency. Here Bishopsfield interrupts to reflect on how when he was a child he collected coins and had some from India, Canada and Poland that could not be found for this shoot. He feels this is important to state. Tom likes cricket, Bishopsfield does not like cricket, but finds its slowness and statistical possibilities to be perfect for his metaphor, and as Mark Twain said (or perhaps did not, again my sources may not be correct) 'allow the poet his metaphor', but sadly Tom isn't a skilled enough batsman or bowler to turn out for the school side. Instead, Mr Smithson (Roger Livesey, who it must be noted, bears an uncanny resemblance to the games master who beat me thrice weekly at school, and as such bears an uncanny resemblance to the SOUND, SMELL AND VISION OF HADES IN MY HEAD and is thus more perfectly cast than anyone could ever suspect) notes Tom's eye for detail, and taking pity on him, and gives him the important job of being the official scorer for all of the school's matches.

Bishopsfield interrupts again with some statistics:

The film is 73 mins and 32.21 seconds. This is 4412.21 seconds. The film has 490 shots. The longest shot lasts for 12.43 seconds (The whirling pan when Tom is confronted by the big city).
Of the 490 shots, 201 are stationary. The other 289 involve camera movements. Number of people that appear on screen: 164. Number of people that speak: 17. Number of people that tell Tom that he needs to 'stop writing in that bloody book': 7. Number of words Tom speaks: 121. Number of words Tom speaks inside his head: 1207. Most common word: 'I' (heard 97 times). Number of times Tom writes something down in his notebook: 54. Number of minutes Tom is on-screen: 42 mins and 56.21 seconds. Amount of perspiration: immeasurable. Gallons. He found himself wondering. He liked the cinema, but he wondered how many times he had been.

Problems come when Tom's obsessive scoring holds up the game, and the crowd boo him. Bishopsfield's insertions mirror Tom's: Both want the perfect sequence of events recorded perfectly, but both find that their study overwhelms their respective subjects. When the ball is hit in Tom's direction, he hides it, all the better to give himself precious seconds to catch up. Similarly, Bishopsfield begins stopping the film at many points to explain. But this didn't prove to be enough for the director. After the film was released, to mixed reviews and general confusion, Bishopsfield took to turning up at showings of his film, carrying with him a large piece of cardboard with which to cover portions of the screen at particular points. He would also comment on his own commentaries, creating a loop of directorial uncertainty that echoed long after the final credits. Cinema-goers in Morden, Brixton and Wimbledon were especially likely to have their already over-directed fare interrupted by the director himself. In 2001, The Curzon in Soho had a special showing of the film, to which they invited Bishopsfield to recreate some of his interruptions. He sat quietly through the whole film.

It wasn't Mark Twain that said that, as I incorrectly guessed on the soundtrack. Oh no, I cannot attribute it. There is another quote that I can correctly assign to GK Chesterton, however, that goes like this: 'The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.' I disagree of course, and hope to leave nothing inside me by completely expelling all energies, true or false, into the public air.

Tom The Scorer Directed by Barry Bishopsfield Produced by Barry Bishopsfield, Karel Reisz Written by Tom Warne, Barry Bishopsfield Starring Benjamin Tot, Roger Livesey Bryanston Films/ Continental Films 87 mins Release Date UK: June 1963 US: Aug 1964 Tagline:What Is The Score?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

ваш фильм (YOURFILM), (Alex Mikhailichenko, 1922)

'Bearing witness to the proud travelogues of others is one thing, but when one can self-document a unique passage in light and colour, does one not hum contentedly? A billion subjective versions, a billion truths, surely ring louder than one.' Gilles Deleuze

What are we viewers if we are not frustrated artists who would love nothing more than to bend the onscreen action to our will? To save a hero from a low-flying blade of a masked villain (or condemn her, should her passions/face/haircut demand it), or step up and throw a piece of small jewellery into a pit so as to better help our half-pint fictional brethren (and so end a painful, long, painfully long journey)?

Such was the conviction of Alex Mikhailichenko, a Ukranian who invented the YOURFILM technology in 1922. His visionary future included the 'destruction of the passive feature film worldwide by 1930', which to his Soviet paymasters meant of course only one thing, the disrobing and slaying of Hollywood demigods. The staggering failure of the technology may disprove something, but certainly not the potency of the idea. If anything it was too good, like Houdini's disappearing elephant trick in 1918, which was received underwhelmingly by an audience who did not understand its potency of the conjurer's greatest illusion.

Utilising 'brain pads' which were attached to the heads of the audience, the action in YOURFILM was changed by the emotional reactions of the punters. What happened on screen, after the initial image of two lovers on a battlefield ('Love and War being a solid beginning for all stories', according to Mikhailichenko), depended entirely on how the assembled react. Mikhailichenko himself described the effects upon his arrival in France in 1962, in an interview with Francois Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinema:
'Always, the screen was bubbling, Dali-like in its concept but more like Monet in its colouring and blurring of fantasies. Like melting clouds... one minute our hero was running through a field, before the swaying wheat was sea. The amazing thing was that what I saw and what my neighbour saw was different... we agreed on the principles... or did we? One time a group of drunken sailors turned the story into a tawdry strip show through their bustling brainwaves, and another time, the same story reached a fetid nirvana of absurdities with one crowd of minor geniuses. I wish I could see that version again and again. But it is gone.'

While Mikhailichenko was more interested in the psychedelic uniqueness of each experience, the Soviets saw otherwise. The filmmaker suggested that the technology was the ultimate socialist art, involving as many authors as possible; but they disagreed. When Maxim Gorky returned from Italy to the USSR in the early 1930s, it was such a coup for the Soviets (a rejection of fascism and (re)embrace of communism being the ultimate propaganda boon) that the writer was given the Order of Lenin. When Gorky compared YOURFILM to the 'distracting trinkets of Coney Island', and called it 'another time destroyer, a waste,' YOURFILM's days were numbered. It was seen as an indulgence, with one prominent critic too many.
The sadness, of course, comes in the corruption. Mikhailichenko claims his technology was stolen. Eyewitnesses claim it was distorted by the Soviets and turned into a weapon, with huge disorientating projections thrown across the invading Nazis in Stalingrad. Others suggest it was stolen by the SS, co-opted after 1945 by American agencies, and subsequently seen in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Rumours among US squadrons in Vietnam were that the North Vietnamese were being tooled with brain-pads to convince themselves that they were seeing huge ten-headed hydras behind them, on the side of Communism.

Mikhailichenko despaired, and fled the USSR in 1961. 'The fact that it had no measurable purpose frightened everybody. They would rather it had a destructive existence than the vague pleasurable one I conceived.'

Subsequent nuanceless audience-decides interfaces have met with narrow success, but they are on-rails narratives that bear little relation to YOURFILM's freewheeling possibilities: The on-running Choose Your Own... series (in which each film stops at various points to allow audience members to vote for whichever pre-recorded scenario they desire) has been resurrected many times since its 1954 debut. It has survived repeated critical barragings to threaten to come back into fashion following kitschbait features by Robert Rodriguez. His Naked, Naked Sex (2004) and Six-Gun Pizza (2005) were internet-only experiments in the hilariously outdated mode, and only highlight how far ahead of his time Mikhailichenko actually was. We still haven't come near his vision, and next to YOURFILM, all simplistic technologies must cower.1

ваш фильм YOURFILM Directed by Alex Mikhailichenko Produced by Alex Mikhailichenko, Written by Alex Mikhailichenko/ The Assembled Debuted in Moscow in November 1922

1. The rather peurile Top Or Bottom? adult spin-offs quickly lost their novelty in the seventies, however, with audience members frequently taking the most savagely deviant option at every opportunity, causing the films to be little more than the same sequence of events each time (like any normal film), only with a dozen intervals of frustrated clicking on keypads. And worse, surely, is the Cliche Program, rumoured to have been used by major Hollywood studios in various films in the 21st Century. This leaves the suggestion, ever lingering, that certain Hollywood stars can no longer perform to the standard required, and that through variations of YOURFILM technologies, audiences are convinced that, say, Mr de Niro still has his chops; because, after all, we still want him to be good; that perhaps what we are seeing is an assisted performance, with our collective memories of his younger danger twisting his infertile present day efforts, changing them like an empathetic autotune. The possibility also hovers that some stars may not be real, but hazy dreams of suicides, eternally out of focus. For who can really say that they have seen Ms Sandra Bullock and truly understand her; and who can identify what genus one Mr Vincent Jones really is?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

DREAM JOB (Peter Whitehead, 1986)

'An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink drama, a nightwalk at noon through a parade of distressed Coventries, a suffocating headlock of unmedicated schlock.' Iain Sinclair

Peter Whitehead disowns all praise and all criticisms. He disqualifies even the most strenuously delicate synopsis as wide of the mark. So even the cursory one-line breakdown that follows may be incorrect, but damn it, the author is wrong: Terry Hall does star as a young Midlands teacher, and his dream life interferes with reality. And the film was titled Son of the Speedway in America, and it was titled Grue Trit in France, and Introspection in Canada, and The Substitute in Australia, and Keeping An Eye On Nothing when it appeared on video in the UK. These are facts, supported scrupulously by the many internets that care.

Quoting extensively from the script then:

Continuation of monologue, Scene 5: I walk into the classroom, second floor of a prefabricated hut. The class are in the middle of a test. I take off my hat, coat and cycling gear and when they're done I introduce myself as Mr S, which is the name of one of the teachers that taught me. I decide to start a six-a-side football tournament, so I get some chalk to keep score and a whistle to referee, and call for two teams. They pick their own names. Hillsy's New Sailors win the first game 6-1, the goals initially being sofas (which the goalkeeper for Hunter Toner, Mimi, is very confused by when lying on the sofa full-length doesn't prevent the first two goals), and I referee fairly and well, except for when I place the chalk in my mouth, thinking it is the whistle. I find I may also need an assistant, as each moment the cataloguing of details I need to mark on the board seems to grow- first just the goals, then the goalscorers, then the yelow cards, then the number of fouls, then the number of house points I'l give for good play, then the number I'll give for fair play. All are marked with what is now a small piece of wet, chalky rubble.

Mr S's first name is Terry, just like the actor that plays him. This always creates a frisson of danger, as if events on screen could be real. Other moments that break through the drama include Terry humming along to a song on his walkman that sounds very much like 'Man at C&A' by The Specials.

Continuation of monologue, Scene 9: Halfway through the game, the goals become car boots and the goalkeepers decide to sit inside them, like machine-gunners in bunkers. Every time someone scores, I ask them their name. A girl who slams home a consolation rebound for Hunter Toner looks remarkably like Leslie, a boy I went to school with. Other kids clearly are ones I went to school with, preserved at fourteen: Bunto, Hillsy, Crossy. Bunto wants to play in the second game, despite having an ankle in plaster. He is not changed into his kit, but believes he'll be able to play: He just needs to wear a big boot or motorbike crash helmet over his foot. Wanting to ingratiate myself with him, as I might have done at school, I concede to his request, but I suggest he play in goal. He tells me he'll be fine. Hillsy, now apparently my age, and wearing a great three-piece suit with overcoat, asks me why he still feels like a tramp next to me.

Terry's father was a speedway rider. We know this because of the way he fondles the photograph of a man on a bike. Terry's father is dead. We know this because of the way Terry fondles the photograph of a man on a bike. Speculation: Memories of watching his father become an obsession, initiated by a child who bears a startling resemblance to a young Terry. The more mundane his day, the narrative seems to suggest, the more his memory life interferes.

Meanwhile, the kids are forming into teams for the second game. To my left, there appears to be nine kids, and to my right, many many more. I tell them both that I want only six on each side. The group to my right- three older girls and a gaggle of smaller kids- don't budge, and the older girls cross their arms. I approach one, becoming strangely angry, and wave an imaginary yellow card over her head. Only six, I tell her. She protests, telling me that they all look after each other out of school, and do everything together. I feel lonely, lacking a group. Then Ms Golden turns up, a popular young teacher. I become aware that she is my wife.

Ms Golden (Jenny Seagrove) is not Terry's wife, but he believes so. She is kind and concerned, and takes the approach sympathetically. She tries to help Terry secretly, without bringing attention to his problems. On another occasion, over coffee, Terry tells her about how he has been buying extra lamps for his bedroom because the lighting in his dreams is too dim, too musty, he can't quite see everything and everyone that is there. She indulges him. We hope they will develop a relationship.

She sits down to watch us. I am aware of my lack of patience with this lot, but can't stop. I ask them if they really want to play this game, and if not, then what would they prefer to do? Mr S, I hear a voice behind me say. Ms Golden puts her hand on my shoulder. Why don't you take a break she says. I give her a look, before turning and walking into the gym's main room. I look up and see the bikes, sliding round the corners. There is no noise in the room, just the bikes silently running in an endless circle at full pelt.

Dream Job Directed by Peter Whitehead Written by Peter Whitehead, Sylvie Host Produced by Tom Witness Starring Terry Hall, Jenny Seagrove ITC Entertainment/Samuel Goldwyn Films Release Date UK: Nov 1986 US:N/A Tagline: 'Terry got a Dream Job, but now he's dreaming on the job!'