Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image: Winter term 2016

Kelli Weston, MA Film, Television and Media Studies graduate, reports on the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image’s (BIMI) recent events. 

This season the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) has hosted a variety of collaborative events, from special screenings to horror film-inspired lectures. From its inception, BIMI has aimed to address a broad range of issues within an interdisciplinary context. Here are just a few highlights from the past year:

  • On October 14, BIMI hosted the annual University of Pittsburgh lecture with Adam Lowenstein, who spoke to guests about the urban spaces of Detroit, Michigan and all its implications in the recent horror film It Follows (2014). The discussion touched on the film’s framing of scarcity within an unconventional landscape and contemporary connotations. Listen to Lowenstein’s talk and the following conversation.

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  • BIMI partnered with Birkbeck’s Sci/Film on October 28 to present a special Halloween screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed by a talk from Professor Alex Kacelnick of Oxford University on the nature of birds, complete with recordings.
  • On November 4, in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research and Dogwoof Pictures, BIMI presented The End of the Line (2009), a documentary based on Charles Clover’s 2006 book of the same title about the widespread decline in fish stocks around the world. After the screening of the film, Clover was in conversation with the BISR Guilt Group’s James Brown. You can find more information about the Guilt Group on their website.
  • On November 7, with the London Korean Film Festival, BIMI presented ‘Detours through the History of Korean Cinema’ a focus on essay films – My Korean Cinema (2006) by Kim Hong-Jun and Cinema on the Road: A Personal Essay on Cinema in Korea (1995) by Jang Sun-woo –  which both explore and interrogate the history of Korean cinema.
  • On November 11, just in time for filmmaker John Berger’s 90th birthday, BIMI and the Derek Jarman Lab presented Seasons of Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger followed by a symposium the next day where a group of panellists discussed Berger’s legacy as a broadcaster, activist, artist and art critic while showing clips of his work over the years.

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  • On December 2, BIMI and Dogwoof Pictures presented The Age of Stupid (2009), Franny Armstrong’s drama-documentary-animation hybrid film starring Pete Postlethwaite about the last man on earth pondering the consequences of human apathy toward climate change.
  • On December 10, as part of the Children’s Film Club and the Irish Film Festival, BIMI screened Song of the Sea (2014) followed by a free shadow puppet theatre.
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Records of War: Film, History and the Art School

Conny Klocker, intern at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) and PhD candidate at the School of Law writes on a recent screening of 1930s propaganda film. 

As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) was showing two propaganda films about the Italian invasion in Abyssinia in 1935/36 according to a programme first presented at the London Film Society in 1937. One film depicted a Soviet account of the events from the Abyssinians’ perspective, the other from the invaders, the fascist Italian perspective.

The screening itself presented a difficult task for the two projectionists, who were doing a live montage of the films. Having to perform quick changes of 35mm film rolls, to work with two projectors at once, to rewind film rolls to the exact starting point and to turn projectors on ahead of their use to get their motor warmed up over and over again certainly includes complex manoeuvres which they performed brilliantly. In that sense, the Record of War screening could be rather seen as a performance by the two projectionists, not just as a screening.

In 1937, Thorold Dickinson, the director of the programme shown at the London Film Society, saw an opportunity to confront his ‘fashionable Sunday audience’ with a challenging screening programme. The films were shown in dialogue to each other, with one depiction of, for instance the preparations for the war from the Italian side, followed by the war preparations undertaken by the Abyssinians. The chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Italian side followed by their impact on Abyssinian civilians. This direct interaction illustrated the contradicting narratives of the same event. And the audience in 1937 was seemingly not prepared for it. As one of the organisers of this year’s event, Henry K. Miller, pointed out, 1937 was ‘a time when seeing was often equated with believing’. Film material on recent affairs was shown to the public only occasionally, for instance in cinemas before the start of the film screening.

Taking up on this aspect, the reconstruction of the programme in 2017 (the third time that the programme has been shown in this form at all) appears timely. Although seeing does not equate with believing in today’s reality, it is rather a form of seeing but not believing. The sheer amount of film material on current affairs on offer on news portals or sometimes rather flooding one’s social media accounts might well lead to a certain degree of scepticism. Of mistrust or suspicion towards “the media”.

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However, the challenge presented to the audience in 1937 and the audience today has remained the same. It is a question of making up one’s own mind. Of consciously deciding to take a stand. And that of course, means to defend it if challenged. Today it appears that more and more people do not want to engage with their environment in that sense and most discussions on political issues come to a quick halt after everyone has repeated the most recent one-liners. Anything going further than that is rather considered an annoyance, something people do not want to engage with in their spare time.

The resurgence of such sentiments requires to be challenged. And events such as the Record of War screening can contribute to that aim. Seeing the themes coming up during the invasion of Abyssinia and the way in which they were communicated by fascist as well as Soviet propaganda, one is invited to reflect on the presentation and narration of current affairs. Of the glorious restoration of peace in Abyssinia by the Italians or the struggle for independence of the Abyssinians, trying to fight against foreign occupation and colonisation. Similarly, there are quite a few issues today which are framed in such contradicting, opposing ways by various interest groups. The question here is then, if one decides to take those narratives as presented and to repeat them unfiltered, or, if one decides to question those narratives and to take a stance.

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James Joyce on TV

Dr Joseph Brooker, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, reports on a recent film screening in celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.ulyssesJames Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) takes place on 16 June, which has accordingly come to be celebrated each year as ‘Bloomsday’, in honour of the protagonist Leopold Bloom. Celebrations in Dublin started in 1954, 50 years after the book’s setting, with a pilgrimage around the city by Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and friends; in 1982, Joyce’s own centenary, it finally started to become the wider civic festival that it is for Dublin today. Around the world, many devotees of Joyce like to do something to mark the date: only a minority dress in Edwardian costume, but many gather to read from the novel. We have held such readings at Birkbeck in recent years.

In 2017, Birkbeck’s Bloomsday celebration was distinctive: an evening screening of two very rarely seen films about Joyce, organized by Michael Garrad – a cinema programmer and graduate of our MA Modern & Contemporary Literature – with the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was heartening to see a large and engaged audience turn up to spend two hours in the dark, even on a sunny evening worthy of Joyce’s summery book. Michael Garrad expertly introduced the films, and held a conversation afterward with documentary film-maker Clare Tavernor and me.

The first film was Anthony Burgess’s documentary Silence, Exile and Cunning (1965). This black and white film of c.45 minutes was made in the BBC strand Monitor, pioneered by Huw Wheldon; the film was produced by Jonathan Miller who had emerged from the Beyond the Fringe set. The film thus exemplifies some aspects of British television culture in the 1960s: adventurous arts programming in the form of personal essay films, with auteurs and artists like Burgess given their head in a relatively free and experimental culture of programme-making. There is a risk of misguidedly idealizing a televisual golden age of the 1960s and 1970s at the expense of the present, but it seems true that certain possibilities existed then because of a less bureaucratic system. Clare commented with amusement afterwards that Burgess’s method had been ‘I’m not going to interview anybody – it’ll just be about me’. His film is indeed centred around his monologue, delivered to camera on Dublin location or as voiceover. Burgess’s voice is punctuated by others reading from Joyce’s writings, including a Leopold and Molly Bloom who both sounded lower in class status than those we have come to know from the more recent CD renditions by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan.

Burgess’s film is visually quite striking, using still images and close-ups of waves and water, as well as monochrome panoramas of Dublin Bay and scans across old photographs of the streets of Edwardian Dublin.  In its use of a kind of montage along with Joyce’s words, it struck me that the film anticipated Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, shot at similar locations and released two years later. Burgess’s exposition places strong emphasis on Catholicism as a matter of guilt and struggle, with which he – calling himself a ‘renegade Catholic’ – openly identifies. He suggests that in embracing the story of Daedalus and the framework of Homer, Joyce fled from a pained Catholic world to one of ‘guilt-free Greek myth’. After the close of Molly Bloom’s monologue, one might expect the film to end – but Burgess takes it a stage further, with a riverine passage from Finnegans Wake. Burgess’s film shows some ambition in extending its coverage to Joyce’s most challenging work.

Joyce in June is a very different artefact. Filmed in the centenary year  of 1982, it starts as a biopic of Joyce, aged 22, in June 1904. Real events are depicted, like Joyce’s drunken collapse in the hallway of the Abbey Theatre. This version of the writer is talented and witty, yet also irritating and arrogant. The depiction might be uncomfortably, insightfully close to the truth about the young Joyce, in a way easily lost amid reverence for the artist. The film enters its second phase when Joyce poses for a photograph by his friend Constantine Curran, which will become the best-known portrait of this artist as a young man. Waiting for the camera to do its work, Joyce enters a reverie which takes up the next 50 minutes of screen time. It comprises an aftermath of Ulysses: Molly Bloom’s trip to Belfast on her concert tour with Blazes Boylan, along with a number of other vocal artists pulled together from Joyce’s pages (Bartell d’Arcy, J.C. Doyle, Fanny M’Coy the wife of C.P. M’Coy from the ‘Lotus Eaters’ episode), and piano accompaniment from Stephen Rea’s character: one Michael Macintosh, a version of the most elusive figures in Ulysses. During the trip Blazes Boylan proves ever more unscrupulous, then finally receives nominatively determined comeuppance by setting fire to his boot: a spectacle happily witnessed by Leopold Bloom who has made a surprise late entrance.

Michael Garrad suggested that the BBC had filmed the story because rights to Ulysses itself were unavailable. The resulting creative work is bizarrely offbeat (given that Joyce didn’t consider the outline of Ulysses itself till later, it is odd that he is seen here already dreaming up its sequel), yet unique and entertaining. If the novel as a whole was legally off limits, its text doesn’t seem to have been, as the script is strewn with repurposed phrases from Joyce’s writing. It seemed to me that Joyce in June was among other things a more Wildean Joyce than usual: the author himself cast as an aphoristic drawing-room dandy, and his imagined narrative at times taking the form of farce. One of the many audience members at the screening was Bernard McGinley, a dedicated scholar of Joycean ephemera for decades. He reported that he had never seen either of the films: a good indication of what a rarity this double screening was, and how much obscure but fascinating material still waits to be rediscovered from the archives of British television.

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Child Be Strange: A Symposium on Penda’s Fen

Dr Joseph Brooker, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, comments on a recent symposium and screening of cult film Penda’s Fen. pinvin-text

The dramatist David Rudkin (b.1936) wrote the television play Penda’s Fen in 1972-3. It was filmed by director Alan Clarke (himself acclaimed as an auteur in recent retrospectives) and screened as a 90-minute film in BBC television’s Play For Today slot in March 1974. The play was repeated in 1975, then scarcely seen for another 15 years. Until the arrival of VHS recorders in the early 1980s, it was almost impossible for viewers to catch up with or re-view a piece of television unless they managed to be in front of the screen on the occasion of a repeat. In 1990 Penda’s Fen was at last screened again, with an introduction from Rudkin, in a Channel 4 retrospective of the work of the influential producer David Rose. Now it was possible to record works of television that came recommended for their quality or rarity, and amateur VHS copies of Penda’s Fen began to circulate. This was the basis of a gradual revival in interest in the play, which in the 2000s came to be seen as a significant instance of a certain cultural strand from the 1970s: put simply, an English uncanny. The play depicts the experience of teenager Stephen Franklin, living in a conservative household in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, whose stable assumptions are disturbed as he encounters a series of spectral figures, culminating in a meeting with Penda, the last pagan king in England prior to Christianity. As Stephen ventures through this mystical rural landscape, issues of sexuality and politics are also implicitly raised.

Following a DVD and Blu-Ray release in May 2016, the revival of Penda’s Fen reached its peak with a high-profile screening at the British Film Institute on 10th June 2017, preceded by a whole day conference about the film, supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The conference and screening were organized by Matthew Harle and James Machin, who both completed PhD theses in Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities. They had assembled a full day of presentations about the film from speakers including David Ian Rabey, author of a monograph about Rudkin’s drama, and Adam Scovell, whose recent book Folk Horror indicates one way to categorize the film. Given the traditional – but now certainly shifting – gender balance of fandom in cult TV and film, it was not very surprising that a majority of speakers were male; but substantial contributions were also made by three women scholars: Carolyne Larrington, a Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, who among other things raised the question of the place of women in the film; Yvonne Salmon of the University of Cambridge, who spoke on the recent assembly of the canon of ‘Occulture’; and Beth Whalley, a researcher from King’s College London who brought expertise in medieval history to bear on this late twentieth-century work.

Birkbeck’s Roger Luckhurst opened the day by situating Penda’s Fen in a ‘polytemporal 1970s’ of texts that combine traces of different periods, suggesting that such combinations were often a response to periods of social crisis. Characteristically of his work as a cultural historian, Luckhurst did not discuss Penda’s Fen in isolation but as part of a cluster of other texts from the period, including the 1977 children’s TV drama Children of the Stones and the fiction of Alan Garner. Such texts became increasingly familiar reference points during the day, as an ‘eerie’ version of the 1970s materialized through the mists of cultural history. Recent ideas of sonic ‘hauntology’ and the comic period spookiness of Scarfolk Council are relevant co-ordinates, though they also risk anachronism in being imposed on a work composed, as Luckhurst pointed out at the close of the day, from a richly educated post-war sensibility.

Speakers brought specific angles. Craig Wallace (Queen’s University Belfast) compared Penda’s Fen to other legends of sleeping kings who will return in times of crisis – not least King Arthur. Andy W. Smith (University of South Wales) set the play in the context of Manichean religion. BFI programmer Will Fowler and experimental poet Daniel O’Donnell Smith (another Birkbeck graduate) offered responses which were at times openly subjective and personal.

Carl Phelpstead (still another presenter based in Wales, quite suitably for the play’s geographical setting and interest in Anglo-Welsh encounters) situated Rudkin alongside other writers, including Geoffrey Hill and, fascinatingly, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Riders of Rohan were said to be based in part on Mercian history. Phelpstead’s clear and erudite presentation was accompanied by images of the region today, lush and green yet also peppered with quirky details, taken by his brother on a research trip. Beth Whalley also showed us images of a trip to the real Pinvin, inspiration for the play. Her paper brought together not just a detailed account of the work itself and a comparison with Hill’s King Offa, but also the natural history of fens as material environments, and new emphases on their social history in medieval times. In its interdisciplinary range Whalley’s was one of the day’s richest presentations.

Yet amid all this emphasis on the content of the play, I was particularly intrigued about another aspect: the play’s place in the history of television and the institutions of the BBC. This was addressed by David Rolinson (University of Stirling), who explained that he had put together a day-by-day calendar of the entire creation of Penda’s Fen – the kind of obsessively complete coverage one might just about expect with Guernica or Citizen Kane. Through research in BBC archives, Rolinson had unearthed extraordinary materials: letters from writer and director; details of a wrap party after shooting dubbed Penda’s Fun; duty logs recording viewers’ calls and letters to the broadcaster (often expressing dissatisfaction, in the age of Mary Whitehouse). Such material is a valuable addition to the discussion, giving us a salutary reminder of how the play’s mystical aura was in fact generated by mundane work within conventions of television production of the time.

The event closed with a Q&A conference call to David Rudkin at his home. As his rich voice with its Ulster traces resounded through the darkened theatre, the effect was akin to a séance: an apt image of communication for this ‘unburied’ work.

 

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