Category Archives: Films

Reading I, Daniel Blake: Screenplay and Film

I, Daniel Blake was my first screenplay, I found it quite a fascinating read after watching the film and reading lots of interviews and watching lots of Loach’s other films and writing a film review (another thing done! Whew). I might have done all of this in the wrong order, but I liked seeing where things started and comparing that to where things ended up. I liked seeing where they had stuck tightly to the script, and where actors had improvised lines. I liked how Laverty wrote their lines, disjointed, like speech actually comes. I liked seeing the sections cut, and the pieces added. You get a much better sense of the process of making a film, the collaboration involved — the extras in here, interviews and bios, add even more insight. And of course, as I always love most about reading, you can linger, go at your own pace. Sometimes I resent how films hurtle you through space and time, or like this one, drag you towards an ending you know will momentarily blot out your sun.

And of course, it was as powerful, though I didn’t cry quite as much because I find words a kind of buffer between events and my tear ducts though not my emotions. I liked that too. Still, this ending…it gets me.

Katie

They call this a “pauper’s funeral” because it’s the cheapest slot, at 9:00. But Dan wasn’t a pauper to us. He gave us things that money can’t buy. When he died, I found this on him. He always used to write in pencil. And he wanted to read it at his appeal but he never got the chance to. And I swear that this lovely man, had so much more to give, and that the State drove him to an early grave.

And this is what he wrote.

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user…. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief… I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.

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Cathy Come Home

I knew Ken Loach’s 1966 film version of Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home would be harrowing, so I saved it for a time when I had great things to look forward to. The great London weekend of ought-seventeen. Made me miss London. Sadly I am writing about it post great weekend, but it has to be done.

Also, spoiler alert. Though you can probably guess the broad outlines of how this film is going to go.

I can see why it caused nationwide controversy and outcry, can see how it connects to the formation of Crisis and Shelter — from the BFI’s description, it:

gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter a few days after the play was first broadcast, as part of the BBC’s The Wednesday Play strand.

I can see why this is a pivotal film in thinking about housing in Britain. For showing the state of it, for showing what the loss of it meant. For showing how many people sought it in vain. I loved how it abandoned the studio to take us through the city.

Clearly it showed a number of viewers (12 million people says wikipedia, for what that’s worth, a quarter of Britain’s population from the glory days of limited channels) a great deal of the absurdity of judgmental support systems when you are poor. How demeaning, how belittling, how ultimately idiotic they are. How a bit of respectful support early on could stop that terrifying descent and the loss of everything. Dignity, hope, marriage, children. The demolishing of a family. This is a battle we continue to fight, I imagine will always have to fight. People with privilege never seem to quite believe that poverty isn’t the fault of the poor, this seems the most massive of hurdles. Even when the privileged do cross it, the poor or working classes too often remain a ‘class’, a cypher, never become fully human in all their potential and possibilities and everyday kind of flaws. They are always other.

I think one of the true successes of this film, as in Up the Junction, was how Loach succeeded in bringing alive workers and those finding themselves homeless, making them real for a broader audience. These films make them entirely human. They reveal the brutal and exaggerated consequences of bad luck, the easily-trodden pathways to despair that abound in our society for those without wealth or property or connections. Above all, I loved that Cathy herself got to speak and be heard, got to tell her story.

A newly growing majority once again.

It starts though, as life usually starts….Cathy (Carol White) arriving in the big city, falling in love with Reg (Ray Brooks). Their romance is set against the housing programme of their times, as they climb up and up and stare out over the slums. ‘It’s all coming down’ Reg tells her. It is only a backdrop here, not yet the loss which will define their lives.

Like the other films, their story is interspersed with bits and pieces of others. The film goes from their from wedding to the visit of a health worker conniving with a daughter in overcrowded lodgings to get her dad put into home. It broke my heart this banal conversation about him as if he were not there even though there he sits, the clinical discussion of his incontinence and his face… oh his face trying to hold in the emotion.

The boys are coming home, she says, we don’t have space to keep him. Like he’s a pet. Yet true enough, there is no space to keep him. There is no larger house on the horizon.

For Cathy and Reg all starts out well. A flat that feels like home. Until Reg’s accident. The loss of his job. Cathy’s pregnancy. They go seeking for a room and there is nothing, and over the top of it all documentary voices discussing the lack of housing, the overcrowding. The documentary voice dissasociating itself from the very human struggles over home.

And thus begins the great descent.

First to Reg’s family’s home. Kids and laundry everywhere, SO MANY KIDS, so many pregnant women. The voices of its residents describing their lives there.

One bedroom, no married life…

You can sit on the toilet and cook your breakfast…

Reg’s mother (Winifred Dennis — poor Winnifred Dennis, the horrible racist mother in The End of Arthur’s Marriage as well) going on and on about her having done her bit, raised her own children, going at Cathy saying she’s been teaching her boy dirty habits, worrying her son so he drove off the road. That awful nitpicking voice.

Still, I liked seeing this life now gone. Hope still lived here with them.

It gets to be too much so they take another step down, to a cheaper street — people talking about how horrible these streets are, the boarded up windows, the rats, the noises from the empty houses. But there is also the camaraderie, the friends, the jokes.

This film is full of amazing views of the old two-up-two-downs. The landlady is kindly, forgives the arrears. But death takes her, and the nephew demands the money.

The council begins to come in to its incompetent and horrible own. A man explains the point system, the lack of housing (and hello Geoffrey Palmer!). They are visited by another council worker telling them their house isn’t fit to live in and he will have to evict them — they are living in one room as it is too damp upstairs for the children. His reaction when they tell him they’re being evicted already by the landlord?

Oh good, it saves me from doing what I don’t want to do.

Day of the eviction they barricade themselves in, bailiffs beat the door down, throw all of their things into the road in front of the huge neighbourhood crowd. There is no drama here really, it just rolls on relentlessly the way poverty does.

Another step down. Off to the caravan, past a long line of junked cars. A cast of brilliant characters, a sense of community. Men in the pub, women bringing in the water. My favourite quote of the film (loosely quoted mind you)

You’ll never find a louse, because we know how to thwart them. With the devil’s dung.

Another telling quote from those not so fond of the life.

Once you’re in a caravan you’ve gone as low as you can go.

With the building of a new housing development, new neighbours give speeches about slums on wheels, hold meetings, speak with all their petty fury about the caravans, and how yes that’s a traditional gypsy camping ground but these aren’t gypsies, they’re scroungers. They throw rocks thrown through caravan windows, firecrackers.

Scenes go from talking about hops, potato picking, enjoying laughter in pub to a caravan set on fire, and dead children. The hatred is shocking.

Cathy and Reg search again. No children allowed anywhere. From caravan they look to a boat. Another good quote:

people tend to deteriorate when they’re living on boat… they turn it into a slum…

And so they yield to the worst — emergency shelter, women and children only. They have to interview for it and again we are face to face with just how horrible the council is as the case worker (or whatever his title might have been) tries to catch them out in lying, to convince them that they don’t want it, that other tenants aren’t very nice. That he can’t accommodate the father, that they have to pay rent for it, that it is only one room. Treats them like dirt.

Nurse sends Reg off at the gates, and you know that this is probably the end for them. Another clinical voice

Many social workers feel that all homeless families are problem families. If they weren’t when they arrive, they are when they leave…

This place is full of even more women and children.

What shocked me, I suppose, was the same old blaming of immigrants for the lack of housing, the same horrible attempts to control the women body and soul, the same treatment of them as less than human. The same program forcing them to abstinence and hunger and the scrubbing of floors on their knees, the same as fucking Margaret Harkness (1854-1923) described in her illuminating investigations of workhouses. It shocked me that so little had changed.

So I was happy to see her get angry, see her talk back to the nurse talking down to all of them. See her snapping at the social workers snidely asking if she’s even married after telling her that her husband has stopped paying for her. Not even a thought to what that means. I was happy, but terrified too, because I knew what that would cost her. Privilege can’t bear to be talked back to. Charity requires humility and submission from its objects, which is perhaps one of the worst things about it. It is the thing I hate most.

I cried as she runs, is caught, is left sitting alone after her children are taken.

I wish that such stories remained in the past. But welcome back to 1966.

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The End of Arthur’s Marriage: Ken Loach

This post is so chock full of spoilers I could not bear for you to read it unless you have seen Ken Loach’s The End of Arthur’s Marriage (1965). Or plan never to see it.

So stop.

Now.

Have you seen it?

Right. It opens with dancing — that funny canned dancing from some 60s television program, and the faces of two old people watching. Prurient, disapproving. It’s rather horrible. And into the script written by poet Christoper Logue, and the poetic chorus sung to a very modern, discordant kind of music. Which was the first surprise.

We are the little investors
We are afraid of Negroes and Jews
We are boring, it is easy to mock us
But what would you put in our place?
… Politicians love us

There’s much more, but I can find the lyrics nowhere, and who has time to transcribe them?

And so we are launched into the story after some nasty comments from the parents, their cross daughter, and the handing over of £400 to Arthur (Ken Jones — briefly in 3 Clear Sundays) with many an admonition. It’s their life savings, it’s the reason they’ve been so miserable all these years, it’s the reason they don’t have nice things, never had a holiday. It’s clear they don’t think much of him, so I had to wonder at why they should do such a thing. It’s some kind of Orwellian test. Father and daughter walk out the door and the camera pans disjointedly over suburban rows of brick houses and endless white window frames, the occasional semi-detached, you can see the subtle class distinctions street by street in the presence or absence of bow windows, the size of the gardens.

The curious greek chorus continues:

We are not very likeable
We are not very easy to like
We work in big cities

They sing of the great lower middle classes. I thought of Erich Fromm writing about how they are the mainstay of fascism, thought of Brexit and xenophobia.

Luckily, a huge brick wall and a door and we escape with Arthur and his daughter Emmy (Maureen Ampleford) into what feels like wilderness, a grass hill, flowers — yet you find out they have escaped into the gas works. A huge hill of slag and earth and they climb to the top.

A funny voiceover (I love these voiceovers, this mixing of documentary and film — a feature of everything I’ve seen so far) describing as a bureaucrat would this problem of a gas works (but not too much of a problem of course). There were Rhubarb fields here once…now just dust and cranes in the distance, industrial buildings. I have a slight fascination with gas works myself, so this has just built onto it another layer.

And so they arrive to stare at their gloomy house. Go inside and pick their way across broken floors, rubbish. Full of dismay. Encounter the agent, encounter a second family wishing to buy. (That’s Arthur on the left staring up).

While the nasty little son is propositioning Emmy and the wife is going on about tearing down walls and saying things like ‘We’re great friends of the Liberal candidate’, her husband pulls Arthur aside:

For god’s sake buy it, I can’t afford it … I buy the Times and read the Express, I’m ashamed of my parents…

The horrible couple get the house! It cuts to crowds cheering!

Neighbours, homeowners, open your ears! …  Many are called but few are chosen…

Lose the house? Arthur and Emmy are overjoyed. The money is burning a hole in his coat and you know his in-laws are right not to trust him. Awful as they were I still felt a pang. But I did quite love his idea of treating his daughter to one impossibly wonderful day. They  take a cab to the west end, walk down Oxford or Regent Street, arrive at Fortnum & Mason’s and OMG THE HATS! Again the old technique of zooming into other people’s conversations and then out again. I love it. Are those gangsters’ wives? They must be. Oh, and I forgot Ken Loach’s own cameo at the entrance.

They wander. I chuckled out loud when the watch salesman burst into song. It was extremely, and I mean extremely, surprising.

They buy a gold watch.

More songs, surprise shot of half-naked indigenous women in their village carrying out everyday tasks. That was a bit worrying really, but over all it is surreal and Brechtian and so while I had expected sadness and depression, instead I was all puzzled smiles. I enjoyed it, I mean, actually enjoyed it.

Still, there were to be honest unhappy couples everywhere. One moral is that happiness is not to be found in monogamy.

They go to the zoo. Police take them aside, walk them through huge space, white walls. But it’s not the wife’s call to the police that’s done it, but a surprise gift as Emmy is the 5-millionth ‘savage’ to visit. There is an absurd and quite wonderful homily on the horribleness of children. Another moral? But the nicest thing about this film is this father and daughter who seem so alien to the crabbed family they have left behind.

It cuts to a naked Adam and Eve running through the woods.

The narrator returns for these scenes, and others cut from a nature documentary, really it’s rather glorious. More songs, and this brilliant line:

that special kind of zoo called paradise

I don’t know quite what that sarcastic line means, but I like it. And then they buy an elephant. Of course. There forms a great parade of bright young things.

Arthur is lovely, absolutely lovely.

So they end up on a barge full of more people dancing, talking, music playing…everything the opposite of the home Arthur is returning to. The elephant disappears…I was very confused about that. I am not alone.

It all goes a little sad then, I guess it had to. Arthur drinks too much, upsets Emmy, throws the rest of the money away to float down the Thames. I was rather cross with him myself. His wife’s packed a suitcase for him and meets him at the door, and Emmy disappears inside. I worry about her, not so much Arthur who tosses the suitcase in the bushes and walks jauntily off.

I did like this film very much. Because it was so strange, because it felt so unpolished. And because it was fun. I did, however, find a great quote from Ken Loach himself, which I shall end this post on:

Yes, I was guilty of that (film). Christopher Logue, who’s a fine poet, had written a very funny, imaginative script, a surreal fantasy with songs by Stanley Myers about a man given some money to pay a deposit on a house and goes off and buys an elephant with his daughter. There were scenes involving the elephant going down a canal on a barge. There was no way I could achieve that. I could see it in my head, but I didn’t have the technique or experience to bring it off. I was the wrong person for the job, unfortunately. It was the first time I had shot anything on film too, and it was a total cock up
— Ken Loach on directing The End of Arthur’s Marriage (as found on Letterboxd)

Life is more than that house, that car, that work and more work endlessly striving for material possessions and life measured in their worth.

But money is really nice.

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Ken Loach: Up The Junction

Up the Junction is one of my favourite Ken Loach films I think. It opens with all the jubilation of youth, of girls out on the town, meeting some boys, music and booze and happy chatter and dancing and that moment when you meet someone you really fancy for the first time. Those glorious moments. Sylvie (Carol White), Rube (Geraldine Sherman) and Eileen (Vickery Turner). From pub to pool to late-night drive — one of those nights you remember. These three friends for life.

Dave (Tony Selby once again, who was killed in the last Wednesday Play, Three Clear Sundays) takes Eileen  up to the ruins where his old house used to be, cleared out with the rest of the slums and his family moved down south to Roehampton. Dave takes Eileen by the hand and climbs the pile of rubble. (But what strange magic prevents you from taking screen shots of movies these days? These glimpses are most unsatisfactory, I can’t believe no one else on the internet has obsessed about these scenes.)

Their kisses are framed against an empty window, and the crane behind them is for the demolition of the old ‘slums’ to build new council housing, not one of today’s huge cranes for massive developments. I suppose those must also sometimes be caught in a  frame with working class teenage shenanigans, if there are any working class teens left in Battersea. It strikes me, though, quite forcibly, the contrast of these experiences of demolition and building between our generation and theirs.

I don’t know why but this was one of the most evocative series of scenes of the whole movie for me…

Forget it, I do know why. Houses lost and torn down and lives uprooted, and in the midst of this life and tragedy engendered anew? The symbolism is not lost on me. They kiss in the ruins, and it is followed by scenes of the final demolition: fireplaces and walls still covered with flowered paper stark against brick. A kid watching, face smeared with dirt.

Look at this haunting picture of a last remaining wall. Flowers lingering on the wallpaper, the outlines of rooms that once held families pried open to harsh gazes.

There is a narrative thread, but it is almost submerged within the brilliant samplings of conversations and the camera panning across faces. You are the perfect eavesdropper on multiple lives, from the kids dancing in the club at the opening, to the ladies chatting as they wash up the dishes. Again there is diversity (though these women of colour rarely get to speak). Amongst the women there exists a very different conviviality from what you see amongst the men. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes talking over manual work, from dishes to factories. Laughing. This is based on a novel by Nell Dunn — she and Ken Loach helped turn it into a screen play. She was not from Battersea herself, but lived here a while, worked in a factory a while. Perhaps that is why it still has a taste of nostalgia to it I think, a taste of idealisation, but perhaps it was just the amount that had to be sanitised for television.

It does have a great cover:

But to get back to the girls. Their conversations in amongst the snippets of conversations of multiple others all detailing the intimate details of their lives as they work making foil-wrapped chocolate santas and pistols, disjointed views of the process and the huge blocks of chocolate, the various (fascinating) machines with their whirring and clatter, the cups of tea, the chatter and the siles and always in the background the music of the 60s.

I love how these girls are embedded in this place, chatting to everyone, the laughter and bawdy talk between generations, jokes about baths. Joyce about to be married when she turns 16.

A packet of fags dropped in the chocolate. Dancing the twist  to the latest. This is life at its best, no? At least until the boss comes. At least until you get the chatty money-collector who’s tired of ‘the coloureds’. He is talking and talking, god he won’t shut up.

I’ve been out with plenty of floozies in my time, but I’ll never mention my wife to ’em…

But I love the scenes as he drives through Clapham, the brick rows of houses and women in the doorways. The glasses and kerchiefs and passersby.

It is hard to imagine this long-ago London, when Battersea power station was a power station and not an obscenely expensive setting for luxury flats surrounded by glass and steel.

Hard to imagine some of these stories. Story after story of loves and relationships and babies and abortions and death.  Heartbreak. new beginnings. Violent endings. Jokes.

Hard to imagine an abortion from a smiling sinister middle-aged women in the parlour, at a cost of four pounds. Hard to sit through a doctor talking about deaths and botched attempts and reeling off statistics. Rube walking through the woods in strange disjunction. Horrible clinical talk interspersed with testimony. I find this montage of voice and experience so powerful. The way that these moments rise up before us like icebergs and we crash into them.

And then, if we survive, they are behind us.

Back to the raucous and loud everyday, snogging and laughing and dancing down the pub. Though it’s not really all the same. But this is not a style of film that can really dig down into the ways we are broken and what we have to do to hold ourselves together.

Still I loved the women portrayed here. I love this form, with stories, so many stories, glimpses of more stories all set in surroundings that shape and are shaped by them. Surroundings now mostly lost. The three women at its centre just three among hundreds, thousands. Jokes and laughing and snippets of faces seen once and never again. Some of the lovely factory women who get a few more of their own stories, even a new love. Everyday life, poring over used clothes in a basket.

Everyday death, everyday commentary on the meaning of death. More jokes. Battersea Power station smoking as background for discussions of cremation.

It ends with Sugar and Spice and for me the song brought nostalgia for a time I never lived through, despite the fact that it is a kind of life I never wanted, that I fled from. But I loved watching them happy and walking down the London road. I wished them all the best.

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Three Clear Sundays: Ken Loach

‘Three Clear Sundays’ aired on 7th April, 1965 on the BBC’s The Wednesday Play.  Directed by Ken Loach, well, I figured it would be sad. I still hadn’t quite known what I was in for. (This is chock full of spoilers, I warn you now).

It opens though, on some lovely footage of 1960s Portobello Market, back when Notting Hill was vibrant and full of life — the Portobello Market I’ve read about but only ever seen as dying embers. It opens on scenes of honest and dishonest graft, casual racism when the barman down the local throws out a black Caribbean fellow. You’re not welcome here, go to the other bar.

Back to his mates and his jokes.

This is where it all starts, where honest Danny Lee (Tony Selby) is accosted by  a crooked copper (I love a film where crooked mean coppers are just a fact of life), belts him one. Heads off to jail.

Again the documentary takes over in the passage down to the nick, the line of men waiting to be locked up. Again the casual racism, a bit of comic relief at immigrant expense  — a new inmate who’s single, though he’s shot the man who stole his wife. But he’s innocent now. Doesn’t know how old he is. Calls the copper ‘boss’, not ‘guv’. Can’t write.

But Danny Lee can’t write either. Nor can his brothers.

Some jokes at the tramp, his smell — a special disinfectant spray used on his seat.

Back to the drama.

Turns out Danny Lee is the youngest, the slowest, and the only straight in a family of fairly lovable thieves, their activities run by their mother (Rita Webb). She’s a fierce one, and never tires of repeating the moral of this particular story — the 11th commandment. “Never plead guilty.” Danny does, and see where it gets him.

Straight to the hangman’s noose.

I suppose that’s the other moral of the story — that the death penalty is wrong.

Danny’s path isn’t of his own making of course. He’s taken advantage of by some lifelong criminals, kings of the underworld — gone to prison for nothing, they ask. Couldn’t keep your nose clean? What couldn’t you do with £2000? He only dreams of a fruit and veg stall to replace his barrow, his Rosa (Finnuala O’Shannon), the baby coming, he’s so sweet and innocent…god you can see this tragic ending coming. So for the money to win this dream of his, he pretends to be crazy, bashes a guard over the head as part of their scheme to be let off early for good deeds rendered, kills him accidentally.

The story was a bit heavy handed for me, but I liked the documentary-styled bits. I liked when the criminals are raising cash amongst themselves and expand on easy money and hard-working poverty. Or when Rosa goes to visit Danny’s mother who dislikes her, says her son is too good for an ‘Irish cockney’ and offers to give her an abortion that very evening. She changes her tune when Rosa mentions her father’s offer of £500 and a caravan if she marries a man in work. I loved this glimpse into everyday life.

All of the scenes open up with a fairly mawkish Irish tune, I didn’t even notice right away that the lyrics tell of the characters and their dreams and their struggles and their failings. They bear the role of a Greek choir, the sentimentality of a drunk, the nostalgia of an immigrant and an innocence lost. The ballad of Danny Lee, his pregnant fiance,  his mother with her heart (almost) broken by her only straight son. I thought it was pretty brilliant when I found this paragraph in an article (‘Love and Justice’ — Andrew Weir, 12 Sept 1997, The Independent) about the original story’s author, Jimmy O’Connor, sentenced to hanging himself for a murder he didn’t commit:

A 24-year-old petty thief called Jimmy O’Connor was swiftly convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. It all seemed very straightforward. At Pentonville prison, he spent eight weeks in the condemned cell, listening to the air-raids and the maudlin singing in the pub over the Caledonian Road. He was to hang on the very day of his 24th birthday. But then, just two days before, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, mysteriously reprieved him.

Ah, the maudlin singing. It explains everything. It turns out that one of my favourite things about Three Clear Sundays is the man who wrote it — and the author of those poetic musical interludes? Nemone Lethbridge, his wife.

In 1959, he married someone who was his exact social opposite. Nemone Lethbridge was a pretty, upper-class young barrister, 14 years his junior and the impeccably-accented daughter of a general.

I dislike her already, but I try to reign in my prejudices.

The fact that they met at all was a reflection of the prevailing culture of the mid- 1950s, as authors and dramatists pulled back the heavy curtains on working- class life. Room at the Top and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and Frank Norman’s musical, Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, had revealed the existence of what must have seemed an alien universe to the British middle classes. And in the new medium of television, Jimmy O’Connor became the first writer to open up the hermetic world of prison and the criminal underworld to general inspection.

This seems a bit late to be claiming such a thing, noir had been doing this a long time, no? And journalists like Arthur Morrison before that, but maybe through the medium of television this is true, I am no expert. But nor, I think, is this author. Anyway, the article continues:

“It was quite thrilling, extraordinary to see,” Nemone says about these times. “I was so drawn to this explosion of talent. Things we take for granted now, like EastEnders, The Sweeney and so on, would not have been possible but for the ground they broke. It is very hard to realise now how fresh and exciting all this was.”

Nor had I ever heard of The Star Tavern, might be worth paying it a visit. I am just sad I never knew of it before as I spent a few wearying afternoons in the horrors of Belgravia wishing for a drink but fearful of stopping amongst such people.

One of the few neutral zones in the class war of this time was a pub in Belgravia called The Star Tavern, run by a semi-criminal landlord named Paddy Kennedy, who cheeerfully handed out foul insults to all his customers. They included famous figures in entertainment like Bing Crosby, the actor Richard Todd and playwright Emlyn Williams, who would mingle with upper- class bohemians, among them Princess Margaret and the gambler John Aspinall. Both groups could also experience the frisson of hobnobbing with publicity- happy criminals. Men like Eddie Chapman, the safe-blower who worked as a British double agent during the war, Billy Hill, the self-styled “Boss of Britain’s Underworld”, and London’s most prolific cat burglar, George “Taters” Chatham.

Turns out the daughter-of-a-general and author of those maudlin verses had defended characters like the Krays:

she began to make a name for herself defending East End “faces”. “The East End thugs tended to get into big fights on Friday nights, ” she recalls. “When it came to pleading for them in the morning, I was usually the only one available. I defended many of the East End names of the day: the Kray twins, Red-Faced Tommy, Freddie Foreman, Frank Mitchell – the so-called `Mad Axeman’. I always got them off and, to begin with, I thought it was because of my brilliant advocacy. It was only later I realised all the prosecution witnesses had been terrified into silence.”

Was it only later? Was there that much translation needed between classes and their realities? The article argues that yes…

Fishman became a convert to O’Connor’s cause, and a friend and helper in getting him work on Fleet Street, where his speciality was the life stories of crooks: he ghost-wrote such gems as Burglar to the Nobility and I was the Priest of the Underworld. For Fishman and other Fleet Street editors, Jimmy was like a foreign correspondent reporting from the underworld, someone who could interpret for them news and even language they could not understand themselves.

I confess, it’s all very safe true-life flirtation with the glitz and glamour side of organised crime. I prefer in the end the depictions of its costs. The deaths of many a slow young man talked into something by someone slicker and more ruthless, the child growing up without a father, his mother without the man she loves or a chance at the future she hoped for. They’re the forgotten side of such crime that leaches off the system and calcifies into just another of its pillars. Criminals that always do prey on their own no matter the legend.

So back we turn to ‘Three Clear Sundays,’ and Danny Lee waiting in his cell, confessing his sins. We turn to perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, yet the most banal, as the hangmen practice their knots and their touch on the lever. As they talk about their everyday lives.

The end is still a shock.

The final scenes black with white lettering, quotes about the process of hanging, its effect on the body, how men do not always immediately die. A final quote from Arthur Koestler.

Down with the death penalty, you must agree. And still, cheekily, the original moral comes through — “Thou shalt not plead guilty”. Turns out that is the title Jimmy O’Connor used for his 1976 autobiography. I am almost certain this is him on the back of this book.

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Production Designer Ken Adam: the architecture of villains, corporations and government

Ken Adam designed the iconic sets for Dr Strangelove, which we were at the Arnolfini to see, and it was very cool to see the original drawings of the war room. Kubrick cut the sho of the whole from the film to maintain its claustrophobic feel, but it was pretty awesome:

Not only that, but Adam drew it as a second attempt to please Kubrick who was staring down over his shoulder.

I learned too that the war room table was covered with green baize, to instill the feel of a poker game, amongst the actors at least.

But of course Ken Adam also designed a a multitude of Bond films in the 1960s and 1970s, and Addam’s Family Values,  winning two Academy Awards for best art direction. There were some other fascinating facts in the talk by Christopher Frayling at the Arnolfini, I hadn’t even known that Ken Adam’s family had fled Berlin in the 1930s:

  • Ken Adam was one of just two German citizens to fly RAF fighter planes in WW2;
  • his parent’s sports shop in Berlin, designed by Mies van der Rohe, equipped a number of mountain films (but none of Leni Reifenstahl’s);
  • he went to school with Wernher von Braun;
  • architect Norman Foster was deeply influenced by Ken Adam’s design of Bond villain’s lairs and volcano bases;
  • Ken Adam was a student at the Bartlett school of architecture and planning in London

It made me wonder to myself why it is I love architecture and cities, and yet never paid much attention to set design, and what that might tell us about the emotional affect and signification of space and building.

And of course, films are highly influential in their turn. I’ve heard this about Metropolis, about Blade Runner. But of course some of Ken Adam’s incredible and evocative sets influenced modern corporate architecture, the villains of today.

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Short Film and Radical Resistance: Bristol Radical Film Festival 2016

Bristol Radical Film FestivalHeaded down to the Old Malt House in Bristol yesterday to catch a piece of the Bristol Radical Film Festival — the programme of shorts. With over 2000 submissions, the films they chose were wonderful indeed. In many ways short films face the same challenges as short stories — creating something to hold the attention, convey a message. To open up a character in a very short amount of time, or perhaps rather than a character a city, an aspect of human nature or action. These last featured in the opening film One Million Steps (Eva Stoltz), and this turned out to be my favourite. In truth what I loved most, though, was the feeling of the whole, seeing so many different kinds of film exploring various aspects of resistance. Still, this was brilliant and beautiful and expressive of so much in a very unique way.

An exploration of a city and its people through the sharing of the unexpected joy that dance can bring in the face of poverty and the destruction of the old and beautiful to make way for neoliberal development. From their website:

“Rhythm as a universal language, inspired us to meet with a city and its habitants through the rhythms of the steps we take in our lives. We chose Istanbul as our destination, a city of extreme contrasts that is over 2000 years old and subject to the expansion of a neo-liberal economy. What pressures does this generate? What becomes visible when we look at the daily steps and movements of the habitants?

With a small crew, we filmed for a week in April 2013. End of May 2013 country wide protests broke out and our initial questions suddenly became visible and audible everywhere. Not only did the movements of the people in the streets change – protesters and policemen pressing through the streets, people occupying a park to prevent it from demolition, banging pots and pans out of windows at 9pm – but people seemed to ask themselves different questions: how will this continue? How do I want to live and relate to my fellow citizens? What will be my next step?

Through the changing sounds and movements in the city, we felt a peaceful and creative resistance against a system that has alienated itself from the people and their needs. In the film we see through the eyes of the dancer how people reclaim their living space and fight for a piece of freedom. The dancer is a-political and playful at first, but then she discovers her affinity with the people in the protest and uses her dance as a powerful expression of solidarity.

There is so much here about life, music, daily resistance and extraordinary moments of resistance. So much about what it means to live with the destruction of neighborhoods as context — a blog post on the Istanbul places lost since filming is here.

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This was followed by Silent Country (James Wren), a look at the future where even Bristish-born children of immigrant parents are being hunted down. I found it quite gripping — also curious that in the discussion afterwards some expressed that it needed exposition at the opening to set the scene, and that it was confusing. The curious thing is that Mark and I thought perhaps there was too much.

The Tomatoes Tree (Armin Mobasseri) — the struggle of two immigrants to cross the next border, the jokes and small talk of travel and the amazing contrast of this journey with that of the tourists wandering around taking pictures with their ipads.

cartel2No Te Conozco, Pero Te Necesito Para Cambiar El Mundo [I don’t Know You, But I Need You to Change the World] (Libres Films) — A wonderful short documentary on Rexiste, a political action group using art and action to challenge power in Mexico. I watched this and realised suddenly how many opportunities we missed when we were organising in LA, to use film to expand our strategies and our solidarity. Also, drones are being used in fascinating ways. But I could imagine the ladies breaking out the stencils after seeing this.

tumblr_ni52vmeeel1u6zqu4o1_r2_1280Cthulu Regio Entropy (Flavio Carvalho) — This one minute film is awesome with its accompanying text, bewildering without. ‘A probe launched. A flyby over ‘Cthulhu Regio’ in Pluto. Data lost.

The Movement (Shawn Antoine) — on the Black Lives Movement, but it gave too much time to the white lady talking about all lives matter, the footage from only one small protest…

Streets of Parliament (Lottie O’Connell) — I liked this combination of footage and views across East London. Not just because I love East London. But I sought what I knew in the montage, and thought it fit in well with the other types of short we were watching…

Pirates are the Best Customers (Alex Lungu) — I love infographicky sorts of things, and this was interesting enough, but if anything could have been said not quite to fit, it was this. That bit where the corporate executive is bouncing off the artists like a trampoline though? Amazing.

Austerity (Ranos Gavris) — a powerful short film returning to the world of narrative, character and resistance, a very slow, moving view into the meaning of crisis in Greece. The director was there, as well, and it was good to hear him speak about it.

Tree (Director: Sadegh Akbari, ArtDirector: Mohammad Zare, Storyboard: Masoud Sabahi) — I loved this animation, it was a brilliant way to end. There is nothing online about it, but here is a view of the story board

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And the animation itself…

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It’s very short, wholly darkly unexpected.

Short film is such an amazing media, I really need to remember to take more time, seek more of it out.

For more on film…

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Oleksandr Dovzhenko: Arsenal

Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 silent film Arsenal. Amazing.

I loved it, it is something that will haunt me I think. I found it intensely moving and powerful — the images, the anti-war message. I didn’t understand much of what else the hell was going on. Which makes its power all the more epic in a way. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.

We saw it at Bristol’s Watershed, Guy Bartell of Bronnt Industries Kapital had composed a new soundtrack for the film. Modern. Evocative. Brilliant. It may have had much to do with the way this film held my heart.

It is the end of WWI. Soldiers fighting. Soldiers returning home.

It is about famine.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalAn emaciated woman stands head down, leaning against a home alongside the street. I saw her standing there, mourned how hunger has stripped her of attractiveness, has reduced her to bones and sagging skin, emptied her of desire. Yet then an officer comes up to casually take her breast in his hand. Everything revolts against it, they way she is thus made into an inanimate sexual object to be dominated by the likes of him.

She does not react at all. He has found her wanting perhaps, he wanders away.

Famine. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. I cannot imagine myself in this.

A woman stands listless and still, her children screaming and pulling at her. They scream. Finally she begins to beat them mechanically. Arm rising and falling.

A man does the same to his emaciated horse. Murderous. Kicking and striking until he falls over in his weakness and rage.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of the hungry. The violence of the powerless against those even more powerless.

This is despair.

The violence of war. Young men. Bright smiles and clean white teeth in rictus grins surrounded by earth and ash.

The survivors have fewer teeth.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalOleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of war, the breakdown of mind, the stripping of humanity. Soldiers travel along trains through these particularly Russian montages of faces and spinning backgrounds. They march and march. They pose against the sky in the poses of toy soldiers, faceless, anonymous, placed and ordered by someone above.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of them. The killing. The bayonets and the rifles, jagged silhouettes.

Women starving, standing, staring at the ground. Until the soldiers come home and find their wives’ carrying their new babies. Kto….who? Rape you think, loneliness, a favour for a scrap of bread.

The violence against women, children, animals, the earth untended, the men…they all give and take. Those behind it all, those responsible for it you never see, only their representatives in health and uniform. For the rest life reduced to fear and pain and hunger. A clinging to dust.

That is what I understood. And against this background a frenzy of soldiers, of crowds, of soldiers’ return and WWI’s end. The good guy:

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalYou follow him and a kind of narrative emerges around his appearances. A worker. That is all he will answer, from the Ukraine but above all a worker. This, then, is a kind of stand against the nationalism burgeoning here, the declaration of the Ukraine. The nationalists portrayed as silly and weak and bourgeois. But one of the guys yelling at the crowds sure looks like Trotsky. Maybe Trotsky just has that kind of face.

Is it all right to kick and kill the bourgeois in the street? a member of the crowd at a political rally asks.

Later on we receive the answer — why yes, yes it is.

I confess, that was one of my favourite bits. But it all gets confusing here, sides and sides and me sitting there trying to piece together everything I know about that time, Nestor Makhno and his guerilla wars against every army that came against him — in alliance with the Bolsheviks until they wanted to annex the Ukraine, and then fighting against them. None of that is in here. Just wealthy nationalists against whom the workers must unite. Made with Bolshevik money, what else could it be?

But really, the story feels so secondary it does not even need to be there, it is complex and patchy. The rebellion at Arsenal? I had no sense what that was all about (though I acknowledge this would be very different for those who knew, who had lived this context). This feels deeper, more poetic, more thematic than that. A meditation on exploitation and violence and the suffering it causes through technique and through image. Women staring at the earth, uncaring. These tableaux of powerful violence and despair. They felt almost like dance, more than a tinge of expressionism.

Amazing to see it on the big screen with live accompaniment.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalOleksandr Dovzhenko: Arsenal

There is a great deal more background, history of the film and of Dovzhenko here on this quite amazing site. Me, I just wanted to capture why I found it so compelling, so powerful. But there I found this, an extraordinary painting from Diego Rivera of Frida Kahlo handing out guns at the Arsenal uprising that I too have to share…

ArsenalFactoryriveraSomething to come back to. And the rest of the trilogy to watch.

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John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

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Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

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John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…

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Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov - The Man with A Movie Camera 1929Just saw Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and had one of those moments where you realise just how splendid a film of the city can be. One of those moments where everything changes about how you see film.

(An aside: The first film I remember doing that was Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) which my Uncle Milton showed me when I was 17 or 18, and the last film that I remember doing that was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and that was seven or so years ago…

Funny that they’re all from around the same time.)

I haven’t seen the other city symphony films, have only vaguely heard of them (but always meant to track them down). Some say that this is the best, and I believe it — on a foggy Sunday afternoon when all too often I enjoy a little snooze, I sat entranced at scenes of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa seamlessly edited together.

But what I loved is that the cameraman (as courageous hero) and the woman editing the film itself (women fill this film, working everyday women) — as well as its initial audiences — are always present, reminding you of how reality is moderated, cut up and represented in film.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is not neutral, the process is anything but seamless. There are many shots that go from still to moving pictures, playful and charming. It reminds you constantly how it is you see what you are seeing, that choices are being made. It takes you from the everyday into split screens, kaleidoscope effects, occasional stop-motion and surreal compositions of eyes and watchers and movement. Unlike many a black and white film I have seen using such effects, they improve the whole. They give a sense of the city as mediated by our own vision and the vision of others. It challenges us to think about not just what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.

It does this with exuberance, not with pretension. In 1929. With the few avant garde films I have seen from the 1960s onwards, I find the lack of pretension amazing and most wonderful.

All this, and then oh…the life of the city that it shows. Cities as we shall never know them now, full of trams and horsecarts and early automobiles. Pedestrians everywhere. Life brimming over its streets not dominated by fast-moving traffic — that piece of my brain obsessed with transport adored this aspect of it, down to the woman pouring oil in the tram tracks in the very early morning.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is a film of movement and labour and social leisure — unsurprising in a film that of the soviet revolution just before Stalin’s crackdown. It shows people in these aspects of their lives — at work in factories and mines, a ceaseless flow of associative editing from beauty shop to laundry to automated spinning wheels to film editing to operators connecting calls to typewriters to beaches to babies being born and funerals and movements through the streets. Life filling these great boulevards, (but very little in homes, nuclear families, neighbourhoods, a telling political and social focus)…

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The factories were the not the most popular of screen grabs, but can I just say again how wonderful to see the screen full of women. A few of them of that beauty that usually finds it way to the movies, but most of the beauty that does not. Smiling, laughing, making cigarette boxes, walking and telling stories and working and bearing children.

Most wonderful. I shall enjoy seeing it again, and know I shall see much more.

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