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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Arts Week 2017: “Doing and thinking: methods in practice-based research”

Dr Maria Kukhareva, Educational Developer at the University of Bedfordshire reflects on the interaction of creativity and academia following a workshop as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017.creativity-academiaAs an interdisciplinarian (both by background and by own curiosity) I seek opportunities to be amazed by the way different disciplines and approaches interact, the conflict and tension borne out of this process, and the turbulent energy and questions it has potential to generate.

I recently participated in the ‘Doing and Thinking’ workshop during Arts Week, which gathered an exciting and diverse crowd of practicing artists, researchers, and artist-researches – both Birkbeck’s own and external enthusiasts, like me.

Here, I broaden the focus of the workshop and turn to the discourse around creativity, rigour and scholarship in higher education – and what it means for the creative practitioners and researchers, as well as the wider academic community.

“Is it alive or is it ref-able?”

What the workshop discussion demonstrated very quickly and relatively clearly, is that there seems to be a vast and deep ocean between the mysterious continent inhabited by the creative practitioners, and the equally mysterious land of “this is how things are done in academia”.

The ocean was represented by a heap of colourful cards with research (and life?) related words on our tables. As we were shuffling through them, we realised we could not agree on the meanings, values and emotions of some seemingly common words, for example:

impact (think: theatre performance versus academic publication)
serendipity and intuition as a driving force (think: visual arts versus systematic research)
discomfort and doubt (think: open creative process versus evaluation outcomes)

In fact, words and language in general continued to be the cause of frustration, namely the incompatibility of creative output (a painting, a book, a film) and the academic language accompaniment (a thesis).

One could almost imagine how creativity and its magic, so necessary for any artist’s existence, breaks into pieces on encountering the academic expectation. As if to become an academic scholar, an artist needs to give up a part of their soul in exchange for the gifts of rigour, systematic inquiry and strictly formatted self-expression and self-representation. As if the fruits of your labour can either be ‘alive’ or ‘ref-able.’

But… is this really the only way to cross the ocean?

“Follow your nose”

Let’s view creative practice – whether you are a professional artist, early researcher or an educator in any given field – as something you NEED. Whether it’s where you experiment, or where your intuition, or some other undefined drive pushes you to create news things. It’s where a part of your soul lives; it’s something that fuels your daily activity. It’s what inspires your signature pedagogy, your authorial voice and what gives it life – as demonstrated effectively by Emma Bennett, Katherine Angel and Catherine Grant.

If this is what your creative practice does, then not only does it not go against the ‘traditional’ academic activity, with its rigour, systematic approach, structure, format and language – rather, creative practice makes the academic activity possible and interesting, from teaching to publishing.

The messy, unstructured creativity with a mind of its own, should be preserved and nurtured, rather than ‘re-trained’ when entering the world of traditional academic boundaries and standards. As Thomas Fisher has pointed out, creativity can be a rigorous process.

In other words – ‘it’ needs to be alive to be ref-able.

I would like to invite the reader to consider the following questions:

  • How and where do your practice and research activity co-exist?How disparate or how close are these two preoccupations? Do they fuel or hinder each other?
  • Which one of these (research or practice activity) offers more scope for creativity?
  • How does your creative and experimental activity drive your signature approach?
  • And lastly, how can we preserve and nurture our creativity, while we are developing our academic identities and careers?

On that note, I am off to read Katherine Angel’s book!

Contact Maria Kukhareva:
@maria_kukhareva
University of Bedfordshire profile

 

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Arts Week 2017: Underground Films from the Barrelstout Archive (1968-2016)

Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers have been making underground films together performing as themselves and/or with their friends since the early 1990s.  Under the name Barrelstout Productions (formally known as Pitbull Productions), their super 8 films fashion what they like to call a ‘home-made aesthetic’. With two new films to show in the Arts Week film programme, their present count of 27 short films (or ‘quickies’, if you like) is no mean feat.  Bev (who is an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at Birkbeck) and her partner and collaborator Sara came to the Birkbeck Cinema on the first Monday of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 to show a cornucopia of queer feminist experimental films from their extensive archive.

As is usual with Barrelstout screenings, on arrival we were given a brightly coloured (this time pink) hand out that carefully listed the evening’s running order of films with brief synopses, as well as information on Bev Zalcock/Pitbull Productions/Barrelstout’s complete filmography dating back to Zalcock’s suitably titled first film Untitled, from 1968.

In the programme notes, they write: “Our film influences are various, ranging from Early Cinema, Soviet Montage, The American Underground and the best elements of Exploitation Cinema. We like to think that our films try to pay tribute to key moments and movements in cinema’s history, as well as our own lives. They are, we hope, experimental, comical and maybe political”.

Bev & Sara whipped through nine films with pithy intros in just over 60 minutes, so instead of reviewing each film shown, here are a few personal highlights from the evening.

The programme started with Rose Tinted (2007) a tender homage to American artist Joseph Cornell’s experimental collage film Rose Hobart (1936). A delightful, theatrical, found footage piece that merges avant-garde and feminist film theory where Anita Ekberg is re-worked into the narrative to create a feminist consciousness and, arguably, a feminist aesthetic.

The Deep Purple Film (2012). Courtesy of Barrelstout

The Deep Purple Film (2012). Courtesy of Barrelstout

Following on was a film from Bev’s teenage years The Deep Purple Film (2012), described as ‘autobiographical moments in Bev’s adolescence’.  Set to Nino Tempo and April Stevens 1962 hit tune ‘The Deep Purple Song’, this poignant film that plays with abstraction explores feelings of isolation, family and identity through an archive of family photographs. “It is what academics would call the transience of memory”, Bev postscripts with a wink at the film’s introduction.

At a running time of 9 minutes, The Psycho-Delic Trilogy was the longest film of the evening, consisting of three wonderful shorts (two which were world premieres) that deftly focused on the experimental tropes of colour, light and rhythm. Southwark Spring (2016), a psychedelic landscape film shot in Bermondsey, burst pink and white blossom out of the frame. Shot on slide and transferred to super 8, this nature ‘quickie’ is a celebration and memento to the glorious primary colours only captured on analogue.  Sara Gets Carried Away (2017) is a remake of Sara Gets Carried Away (2007), a structural film of sorts, in which the film’s medium is explored. Real ITV footage of Sara being dragged away by the police at an NUJ demonstration is repeated on a loop with music from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), evoking a semi-meditative yet strange atmosphere. The final film in the trilogy Liz – Moments in Transfigured Time (2017) was a moving portrait of one of Bev’s oldest friends Liz. With a nod to Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), the film is a tender study of long-term female friendship. Lovingly captured through a simple shot of Liz sitting on a sofa drinking red wine, the film evokes early memories of their time spent together “when we were young, listening to Beefheart music”, Bev adds.

The evening’s screening was a delight. The cinema was full of Bev and Sara’s long-term friends and collaborators (Carol Morley, Cairo Cannon, Val Phoenix), as well as new audiences. The specialness of a Barrelstout screening is that due to copyright infringements none of their films are available on line. “We can’t show stuff online” Sara says, “as we would be dragged to the clink”, so they need to be watched collectively in a cinema. Regardless of the heated debates about the future of cinema coming out of Cannes right now regarding Netflix, to come together to experience Barrelstout’s particular aesthetic of queer feminist punk cinema feels radical, resistant and restorative, every time.

“We want our films to be enjoyed and we want to convey the enjoyment we experience in making them. To misquote Marilyn Tweedie “We require filmic pleasure!”

Some Barrelstout films are available through Cinenova, otherwise contact them directly.

Selina Robertson is a film PhD candidate in FMACS,  School of Arts at Birkbeck.

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