With my friend and colleague Brian Baker, I’ve been working on a series of short films for some time, shooting on digital video and Super 8. For various reasons we’ve been unable to devote much time to this project over the last year, but we were able to spend most of yesterday working on the hand-made book that will be at the centre of the next experimental short, Museum, the third in a projected sequence of four films. We have recorded a voiceover commentary and have yet to record the music or begin shooting any of the footage, but as always, it is the process of discussion and creation that is the most absorbing and rewarding element of the work.

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Academic writing can be frustrating, anxious, infuriating and slow – particularly when you are running up against deadlines you agreed to months before, and which you now realise were preposterously optimistic. However, it is also one of the pleasures of the job. I look forward to those days when I can shut myself in my office or in a room at home, sometimes wearing noise-cancelling headphones, and immerse myself in the quiet process of reading and writing.

 

For me, music has always played an important role in establishing a calm mood in which to work, but there are only certain pieces of music that I can write with. Whereas when I’m painting I can listen to aggressive, densely structured music at high volume – ‘industrial’ electronic music, heavy metal and hip hop, contemporary jazz and experimental or avant-garde compositions – the music I listen to when I’m writing has to be quiet, wordless and free of narrative or melodic incident. Writing with the radio or TV on in the background is impossibly distracting. My sense is that I use music to occupy a small area of my attention that’s not engaged by the writing process and might otherwise be wandering and bored. In addition I think that the low-level tinnitus that years of concert-going and playing in bands has left me with is masked by quiet ambient noise; I only notice it when it’s very quiet.

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Over the years I’ve found only a small number of pieces of music that work as accompaniments to writing, some of them only categorisable as music according to John Cage’s definition of music as ‘organized sound’. I’ve listened to some of these pieces over and over again – I’ve probably listened to Thursday Afternoon, Brian Eno’s soundtrack for a video installation, more than any other album I own – but in some respects have barely listened to them, as my attention has been focused upon reading and writing. Most of this delicate, immaculately constructed ‘music’ is electronic, or uses heavily processed and manipulated acoustic instruments such as the felt-dampened piano used by Arnold Kasar. The exceptions are the albums by sound recordist (and former member of Cabaret Voltaire), Chris Watson, which are montages assembled from field recordings. All of them, however, might fall within the category of ‘ambient music’, within which Eno first placed Music for Airports: music that is ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’. They are the aural equivalent of faded, out-of-focus photographs.

 

Occasionally I find myself listening to soundtrack albums, such as Eduard Artemiev’s music for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the score for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockerby Buck Sanders and Marco Beltrami, or Jo Hisaishi’s music for Takeshi Kitano’s films. In general though, the disjointedness, tonal variation and drama of soundtrack albums is too distracting when I’m trying to think and write.

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In no particular order, then, my ‘writing music’ top ten:

  • Brian Eno: Thursday Afternoon (1985), Music for Airports (1978), Neroli (Thinking Music, part IV) (1993)
  • Jean-Michel Jarre: En Attendant Cousteau (1990)
  • Hiroshi Yoshimura: Music for Nine Postcards (1982)
  • Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto: summvs (2011)
  • Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Flumina (2011)
  • Chris Watson: In St Cuthbert’s Time (2013)
  • Chris Watson and BJ Nilsen: Storm (2007)
  • Richard Skelton: Towards a Frontier (2017)
  • Rameses III: I Could Not Love you More (2016)
  • Roedelius and Arnold Kasar: Einfluss (2017)

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This is the fourth part of the list of the films I’ve watched this year although it’s not entirely comprehensive; I haven’t included films I’ve watched parts of (when I’ve come into the room when someone else is half-way through a film and sat down alongside them), and films I’ve watched more than once (where I’ve been writing on them), and I haven’t included gallery films I’ve seen during the year, which includes works by Agnes Varda, Christian Marclay, Forensic Architecture and others. More significantly, perhaps, it doesn’t include the TV series I’ve watched, which increasingly trouble the traditional understanding of TV and cinema as distinct media (in terms of the increasing narrative complexity and growing budgets of TV drama, in terms of the displacement of cinema screens as the principal platform for watching films, or in terms of the convergence of media production as film companies, TV companies and other media producers operate as entangled arms of media conglomerates).

159 films seems like a lot, but, as always, I’ve still watched less than half of the films that were listed on most ‘films of the 2018’ lists (and the same goes for novels and records). Godard suggests in the Histoire(s) du Cinema series that there was a point in the second half of the 20th century where it was still possible for a cineaste to have watched all of the major films released up until that point. If that was the case, it was because of the dominance of a very restricted canon of great films directed by auteurs as well as the inaccessibility of a lot of older films, but the continual rediscovery and remastering of old films alongside the steady volume of new releases means that the archive of available material is growing far faster than any one person can manage. I used to keep a journal in which I jotted down comments about films after viewing them, noting down lines of dialogue, shots, stylistic features, themes, plot devices, performances or anything I found interesting, occasionally adding little sketches. What’s remarkable, looking back over these is both how detailed they are, picking out information that wouldn’t be included in standard synopses or reviews, and also how much time I gave over to this, which leads me to wonder whether this year’s goal should be watching far fewer films more thoroughly.

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Excerpts from notebook entries on Cafe Lumière (Hou, 2013) and The Exiled (To, 2006)

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4/10/18 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi(Johnson, 2017)

6/10/18 – Of Time and the City(Davies, 2008)

8/10/18 – Unsane (Soderbergh, 2018)

14/10/18 – Detour(Ulmer, 1945)

21/10/18 – The Black Cat(Ulmer, 1934)

22/10/18 – Dragstrip Girl(Cahn, 1957)

25/10/18 – Frau im Mond(Lang, 1929)

1/11/18 – The Terence Davies TrilogyDavies, 1983)

2/11/18 – The Purge(De Monaco, 2013)

3/11/18 – Hobson’s Choice(Lean, 1953)

4/11/18 – The Man in The White Suit(MacKendrick, 1951)

9/11/18 – The Lavender Hill Mob(Crichton, 1951)

10/11/18 – The Woman in the Fifth(Pawlikowski, 2011)

12/11/8 – They Shall not Grow Old(Jackson, 2018)

16/11/18 – Purge: Anarchy(DeMonaco, 2014)

17/11/18 – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Yates, 2018)

24/11/18 – The Fallen Idol(Reed, 1948)

26/11/18 – Twockers(Pawlikowski, Duncan, 1998)

29/11/18 – Skyscraper Symphony(Florey, 1929); A Bronx Morning(Leyda, 1931); Goodbye, Lenin(Becker, 2003)

30/11/18 – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Bird, 2011)

3/12/18 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, 2011)

5/12/18 – Widows(McQueen, 2018)

15/12/18 – All That Heaven Allows(Sirk, 1955); It Happened Here(Brownlow, Mollo, 1965)

18/12/18 – Daisies(Vera Chytilova, 1966)

19/12/18 – Aparajito(Ray, 1956)

21/12/18 – Air-Raid Wardens(Sedgwick, 1943)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed(Reiniger, 1926)

22/12/18 – Game Night(Daley, Goldstein, 2018)

23/12/18 – Bird Box (Bier, 2018)

24/12/18 – The Big Short(McKay, 2015)

25/12/18 – Sorry to Bother You(Riley, 2018)

26/12/18 – Leave No Trace (Granik, 2018)

28/12/18 – American Animals(Layton, 2018)

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Looking back over these lists of films I’ve watched this year, the context in which I watched them is as often memorable as – if not more so than –  details from the films themselves. This was something that my former colleague Annette Kuhn found in her research into cinema-going in Britain in the 1930s; people she interviewed often remembered the circumstances in which they went to watch films more vividly than the films themselves, which were often a backdrop to or pretext for social encounters.  Kinshasa Symphony and Paa Joe and the Lion were both screened at the Afrika Eye North festival I helped organise at Lancaster University where I had the chance to participate in fascinating Q-and-A sessions afterwards. I saw the only known 35mm print of the obscure 1980s thriller Enemy Territory in the community-owned Royal cinema in Toronto’s little Italy area, presented as the fortnightly choice of the Laser Blast cult film society, while Wan Pipel was screened at the Powerplant arts centre on the shore of Lake Ontario. I watched Atomic Blonde on the flight back to Manchester although, because this was the budget airline, Air Canada Rouge, and the planes had no screens, I had to watch it through the aircraft’s glitchy wifi system on my phone. More memorable still, I was fortunate enough to see Haifaa Al-Mansour’s recent, moving feminist biopic, Mary Shelley in the eccentric Cinema Utopia in Avignon with my teenage daughter – the auditorium had a well in one corner – and a week later, I watched the remarkable Disobedience in La Ciotat, in the oldest cinema in the world, the Eden theatre in La Ciotat.

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La Ciotat was the summer retreat of Auguste and Louis Lumiere and one of the cineaste’s treats of the trip was arriving in La Ciotat station on the platform where the Lumiere brothers shot their most well-known film, the film that Christian Metz suggested was cinema’s primal scene.

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‘L’arrivee d’un train en gare de la Ciotat’, August, 2018.

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‘L’arrivee d’un train en gare de la Ciotat’ (Lumiere, 1896)

Withnail and I is a film I’ve seen a number of times since first watching it in the wonderful Hyde Park Picture Place in Leeds when I was studying fine art at the university there. Although it’s set in London in 1969, at the time it seemed like an extraordinarily accurate account of the squalor of student life in a northern post-industrial city in the late 1980s, several years before Tony Blair’s New Labour government set about replacing student grants with loans, taking the first regrettable, culturally devastating steps towards privatising higher education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The film has become a family favourite and we even paid a snowy visit one freezing winter to the location outside Shap where they shot most of the film, breaking into the boarded-up farmhouse and taking pictures like many other cinephile pilgrims had done before us; the building was like a shrine to the film, covered with graffitied lines from the film and memorabilia left by visitors. Touchingly, our son wanted to watch the film with us the evening before I drove him down to London to begin studying on a two-year MA course at UCL, since it was a film we’d watched together a number of times, although watching it in this context this nostalgic film about landscape and driving, intimacy, departure, and loss took on a different complexion.

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2/7/18 – Trouble Every Day (Denis, 2003)

6/7/18 – Kinshasa Symphony (Wischmann, Baer, 2010)

7/7/18 – Paa Joe and the Lion (Wigley, 2016)

9/7/18 – Wind River (Sheridan, 2017)

10/7/18 – Histoire(s) du Cinema, 1b) Une histoire seule (Godard, 1998)

13/7/18 – Cairo Station (Bab el Hadid) (Chahine, 1958)

Plein Soleil (Clement, 1960)

15/7/18 – Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay, 2017)

18/7/18 – Enemy Territory (Manoogian, 1987)

19/7/18 – Wan Pipel (de La Parra, 1976)

20/7/18 – Atomic Blonde (Leitch, 2017)

Convict 13 (Cline, Keaton, 1920)

22/7/18 – Busy Bodies (French, 1933), Helpmates (Parrott, 1932), Our Wife (Horne, 1931)

24/7/18 – Un Flic (Melville, 1972)

25/7/18 – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (McQuarrie, 2018)

30/7/18 – Diary of a Lost Girl (Pabst, 1929)

5/8/18 – The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)

9/8/18 – Outrage Coda (Kitano, 2017)

10/8/18 – Mary Shelley (al-Mansour, 2018)

18/8/18 – How it Ends (Rosenthal, 2018)

19/8/18 – Boy (Waititi, 2010)

Disobedience (Lelio, 2017)

20/8/18 – Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, 1970)

23/8/18 – Sanshiro Sugata (Kurosawa, 1943)

27/8/18 – Knightriders (Romero, 1981)

28/8/18 – Sorcerer (Friedkin, 1977)

29/8/18 – It comes at night (Shults, 2017)

2/9/18 – The Meg (Turteltaub, 2018)

5/9/18 – You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay, 2017)

9/9/18 – Sanshiro Sugata, part 2 (Kurosawa, 1945)

14/9/18 – Withnail and I (Robinson, 1987)

17/9/18 – Histoire(s) du cinema 2a) Seul Le cinema, 2b) Fatale Beaute (Godard, 1998)

18/9/18 – Cold War (Pawlikowski, 2018)

20/9/18 – Surviving Desire (Hartley, 1991)

23/9/18 – Histoire(s) du cinema 3a) La monnaie de l’absolue, 3b) Une vague nouvelle (Godard, 1998)

27/9/18 – Histoire(s) du Cinema 4a) Controle de l’Univers (Godard, 1998)

28/9/18 – Histoire(s) du Cinema, 4b) Les Signes parmi Nous (Godard, 1998)

29/9/18 – Days of Youth (Ozu, 1929)

‘I graduated, but…’ (Ozu, 1929) – fragment

30/9/18 – Where now are the Dreams of Youth? (Ozu, 1932)

Blackkklansman (Lee, 2018)

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Looking back at this list of films watched between April and June, there are rather more titles than would be normal for this busy time of year, but the combination of the strike over pensions and several weeks of illness meant that I had more time than usual for watching films.

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1/4/18 – Isle of Dogs (Anderson, 2018)

2/4/18 – Fantomas V: The False Magistrate (Feuillade, 1914)

5/4/18 – Taskafa: Stories of the Street (Zimmerman, 2015)

11/4/18 – Macbeth, RSC live cinema stream

18/4/18 – Manhunt (Woo, 2017) 

22/4/18 – I Wish (Koreeda, 2011)

27/4/18 – The Third Murder (Koreeda, 2017)

4/5/18 – Anti-Clock (Arden, Bond, 1979)

Vibration (Arden, Bond, 1975)

Conspirators of Pleasure (Svankmajer, 1996)

Shogun Assassin (Houston, 1980)

5/5/18 – Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)

6/5/18 – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (McKay, 2004)

7/5/18 – Deadpool (Miller, 2016)

8/5/18 – The Cameraman (Keaton, Sedgwick, 1928)

The Goat (Keaton, St Clair, 1921)

The Love Nest  (Keaton, 1922)

A Generation (Wajda, 1955)

9/5/18 – Oh, Doctor! (Arbuckle, 1917)

Mindhorn (Foley, 2016)

10/5/18 – JCVD (El Mechri, 2008)

Aaltra (Delepine, Kervern, 2004)

One plus One (Godard, 1968)

11/5/18 – Dr Mabuse, the Gambler, parts 1&2 (Lang, 1922)

14/5/18 – The Florida Project (Baker, 2017)

16/5/18 – Wittgenstein (Jarman, 1993)

The Untouchables (De Palma, 1987)

17/5/18 – Cold Fish (Sono, 2010)

The Disaster Artist (Franco, 2017)

26/5/18 – The Square (Ostlund, 2017)

27/5/18 – Murder on the Orient Express (Branagh, 2017)

13/6/18 – Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948)

14/6/18 – Lek and the Dogs (Kotting, 2018)

18/6/18 – The Duke of Burgundy (Strickland, 2014)

20/6/18 – The Kings of Summer (Vogt-Roberts, 2013)

Histoire(s) du Cinema, 1a (Godard, 1998)

30/6/18 – Playtime (Tati, 1967)

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Quite often when people find out what I do for a job they ask me what films I’ve seen recently and much of the time I struggle to name a title.  I think one of the reasons is that I watch films for several reasons – it may be a matter of teaching preparation, research for an article, book chapter or conference paper, looking for film-making ideas, curiosity, obligation, collective family viewing choices, and just pleasure. Out of interest, I decided to keep a list of what I’m watching this year. I’ve done this before, although not for a while, and it’s always intriguing to see what patterns – if any – emerge.

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1/1/18                 The War Game (Watkins, 1969)

2/1/18                 Grass (Cooper, Schoedsack, 1925)

3/1/18                  A Matter of Life and Death (Powell, Pressburger, 1946)

4/1/18                  Jabberwocky (Gilliam, 1977)

10/1/18              Hue and Cry (Crichton, 1947)

13/1/18              Songs from the Second Floor (Andersson, 2000)

15/1/18              The Grey (Carnahan, 2011)

17/1/18              Tout va Bien (Godard, Gorin, 1972)

19/1/18              Terra Formars (Miike, 2016)

20/1/18              Kanal (Wajda, 1957)

21/1/18              Darkest Hour (Wright, 2018)

25/1/18              Robocop (Verhoeven, 1987)

1/2/18                 The Greatest Showman (Gracey, 2017)

2/2/18                 You, The Living (Andersson, 2007)

3/2/18                 Under the Skin (Manskiy, 2015); Welcome to Leith (Nichols, Walker, 2015)

4/2/18                  Touki-Bouki (Mambety, 1973); Blue Steel (Bigelow, 1989)

9/2/18                  The Wall (Die Wand) (Polsler, 2012); Baby Driver (Wright, 2017)

11/2/18              Now You See Me 2 (Chu, 2016)

19/2/18              The Crucible (Hytner, 1996)

22/2/18              The Death of Stalin (Ianucci, 2017)

23/2/18              Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)

24/2/18              Sparrow (To, 2008)

25/2/18              The Business of Fancydancing (Alexie, 2002)

28/2/18              Strike (Eisenstein, 1924); Punishment Park (Watkins, 1971)

6/3/18                 Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Greenaway, 2017)

7/3/18                 Blades of Glory (Gordon, Speck, 2007)

8/3/18                 Hail, Caesar! (Coen, 2016)

12/3/18              La Silence de la Mer (Melville, 1949); Bend it like Beckham (Chadha, 2002)

15/3/18              Fantomas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (Feuillade, 1913); Estate, a Reverie (Zimmerman, 2015)

17/3/18              The Falling (Morley, 2014); Annihilation (Garland, 2018)

19/3/18              Fantomas II: Juve vs Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913)

22/3/18              Fantomas III: The Murderous Corpse (Feuillade, 1913)

24/3/18              Bridget Jones’s Diary (Maguire, 2001)

25/3/18              Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017)

27/3/18               Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh, 2017)

30/3/18              Fantomas IV: Fantomas vs Fantomas (Feuillade, 1914)

1000+ images about Louis Feuillade on Pinterest | Cabaret ...

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Afterwords is the latest short film I have made with my friend, Brian Baker. A poetic dystopian narrative fragment, it is a sequel of sorts to the short film University: a New Way of Life, and will be the fourth film in a projected series.  Afterwords is set at some point in the near future, when a scarcity of oil has led to social collapse. It follows a young woman scavenging for survival and navigating her way across this deserted landscape following the obsolete and meaningless infrastructure of pylons and power lines. Half-remembered images from infancy blend with dream images and the intermittent recollection of her mother’s voice, to guide her on her journey.

The film is saturated with references to a diverse body of apocalyptic science-fiction film and literature that includes Octavia Butler’s Parables of the Sower, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Like the previous film, it is a meditation upon landscape, engaged with the project of reframing the geography around us, viewing familiar spaces through an alienating lens. Principal reference points included the films of Andrew Kotting, Chris Marker, and, most importantly, Derek Jarman, whose cinematic landscapes are imbued with symbolic meaning, historical resonance, folk mysticism and intense, oscillating emotion.

The film was shot on Super8 film, using a Braun Nizo 561 (as used by Jarman) and a Soviet-era clockwork camera. The premise was that the visually degraded image that resulted – scratched and unstable, with variable image quality from one reel to the next – effectively conveyed the sense of social and cultural collapse that the film hints at. Indeed, the film was shot with a technology that would have been available within the post-electricity diegesis of the film: photochemical film stock and hand-wound camera. The score, which blends acoustic and electric instruments, field recordings, and voices, was intended to parallel the visual textures of the film with an aural aesthetic that is similarly characterised by distortion, glitches and scratches.

Brian has written a short commentary on the film for his own blog here.

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On Sunday morning I visited a new installation by Polish artist, Krsysztof Wodiczko in a disused cotton mill in Lancashire. The piece, a work from 2009 called Guests, consists of eight arched windows projected onto a wall, and through the semi-opaque windows we can see the silhouettes of a variety of people talking, standing around in groups or by themselves, dancing, or doing menial jobs such as operating a leaf-blower or washing the windows. They are life-sized, so that the initial uncanny impression as you walk into the dark space is that there are people walking back and forth on the other side of the wall, occasionally reaching out to the screens or leaning against them. IMG_7442.jpgIMG_7434 2.jpgOn the soundtrack, as well as a little background noise, we hear the conversations of some of the figures, discussing their situation and their experiences. Behind one window a Romani man complains about the refusal of the Italian government to recognize the Roma as a distinct ethnic group, suggesting that if the murder of 600,000 Roma people by the Nazis was recognized as a ‘Gypsy holocaust’ their official status might be different.IMG_7446.jpg

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In another window a woman talks about the situation of Vietnamese refugees in Communist Poland. A man reads poetry from a book in one window, while another discusses being interviewed by immigration officials. In a slapstick moment, a figure abseiling down behind one window slips and falls to the ground on his backside.

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It is a beautiful, formally simple and thought-provoking piece that invites the viewer to think about the visibility and marginalization of migrants, the barriers and screens that we are constantly erecting around ourselves, as well as the inadvertent bravery of people forced into migration; the windows are flanked with a quote from Hannah Arendt: ‘Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples…’

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While I was keen to see Wodiczko’s work, in truth I was even more keen to visit the venue itself. The colossal textile Mill in Brierfield, which was built over four decades from 1838 sits alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal and is just a few hundred metres from the terraced house my late grandmother lived in. Like many members of that side of my family, she was a mill-worker and had been employed in that mill for part of her working life. When we visited her one summer holiday, perhaps 30 years ago, she took my brother and me for a tour of the mill when it was still owned and operated by Smith & Nephew, manufacturing bandages and sanitary towels, and I have a vivid memory of the noise of the looms. It was closed in 2010, the machinery sold for scrap or transferred to factories abroad, and it now stands as an empty shell.

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IMG_7466.jpgAt first it seems an odd location for an exhibition by a major international artist. It is poorly signposted and the mill entrance is down a steep back street, behind a vacant lot and a compound piled with old tyres and wrecked cars.

IMG_7458.jpgIMG_7460.jpgThe show wasn’t designed to be displayed in this location – it was premiered at the Venice Biennale – but at the same time it couldn’t be more appropriate since Wodiczko’s piece is an invitation to reflect upon the ubiquity of migrant experience. The setting gives the work a greater historical richness. Like other industrial centres, Lancashire mill-towns depended upon migrant labour. Vast numbers of people travelled within Britain looking for work – members of my family originally travelled north from the tin mines of Cornwall to Lancashire in search of employment – and, particularly in the post-war period, people travelled to Lancashire from other areas of the Commonwealth such as Pakistan or the Caribbean. It is appropriate that the other building that dominates modern Brierfield is a mosque; in different ways both buildings are architectural symbols of mass migration.

The title of the work, ‘Guests’, is an invitation to treat refugees with hospitality, to take responsibility for these visitors who have found themselves separated from their families and communities. It also invokes the common term for immigrants, ‘guest workers’, a term which reminds us of the debt owed to this vanguard for their labour and hardships. However, it has another meaning that interrupts or subverts this othering tendency to see refugees as visitors to a place that belongs to us, since it also suggests that we too are guests, invited into the impromptu gallery space to study the figures behind the screens, and invited into this extraordinary building.

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Displayed in the context of Brierfield mill, the work is an invitation to think about ghosts and vanishing industrial histories. The shadows on the screens are spectral reminders of the thousands of women, men and children who once came to build and work in such buildings, which were the centre of thriving communities but which also destroyed the health and shortened the lives of many of the people who worked in them, including my grandfather, who died young, years before I was born. The empty building, one of over 2500 Lancashire cotton mills, now stands as a monument both to the scale of European industrial capitalism, and to the devastation of Britain’s manufacturing industry in the late twentieth century, but Wodiczko’s piece prompts us also to think about the complex global trade networks in which the Lancashire towns were embedded. Manufacturing textiles from imported cotton and exporting the resulting fabric, they were entirely dependent upon the international circulation of raw materials, goods, capital and people; this interdependence was demonstrated visibly in 1931 when Gandhi was invited by mill-owners to the nearby town of Darwen to witness the impact on Lancashire mill-workers of the Indian boycott of British cotton products as part of the Indian independence campaign. In this respect, although the installation of this artwork is infused with melancholy, it is far from nostalgic. More broadly this work that is about mobility, impresses upon the viewer a powerful sense of transience, that we are all just guests in this moment in history, temporary occupants of these structures, fleeting shadows who will leave nothing behind us but after-images and disintegrating material traces.

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A recent, pleasingly positive review in the December 2016 edition of the online Film Studies journal, Senses of Cinema, here of Teaching Transnational Cinema: Politics and Pedagogy, the book I edited with my friend, Katarzyna Marciniak, which deals with issues around teaching and researching transnational cinema.

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This is a short blog post I wrote for the Sociological Review blog on the satirical coverage of  Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. This is obviously partly influenced by Roland Barthes’s essays in Mythologies – ‘The face of Garbo’, for example – but also by a frustration with the lacklustre and inadequate response by satirists to the rise of the far right across Europe and the vicious xenophobic and fascist discourses we have seen entering the mainstream of British political culture over the last two years with little resistance, reaching a head with the campaign to leave the EU in the referendum this summer. Confronted with figures like Trump, Farage, Orban, Erdogan, Le Pen, Wilders, Duterte or Putin, it seems that satire may be worse than useless.

This was originally published on the Sociological Review blog on Nov 18 2016 as part of a suite of ‘rapid response articles’ on Trump’s campaign and the improbable prospect of a Trump government.

Trump’s body

Bruce Bennett

Donald Trump’s physical appearance has been the predictable focus of much of the satirical commentary upon the US presidential election. Cartoonists, comedians and journalists have derided him for his eccentric style, implying an equivalence between his questionable sartorial judgement and his political shrewdness. It is a convention of satirical cartoons running back to the 18th century that the moral corruption of a politician or public figure can be expressed through a grotesquely distorted caricature, their psyche betrayed by their exterior form, and in this respect, Trump is rich material. In a period in which politics has been dominated by photogenic, well-rehearsed professionals, he cuts a rather haphazard figure. However, while he might amuse or repel – or, crucially, do both at once – he remains a compelling spectacle. Trump is a semiotic salad, an assemblage of incongruous, clashing elements that would normally have been smoothed out and homogenized, but instead slide over and jostle with one another, never quite cohering into a single figure. In part it is this undecidability that has made him impervious to satirical attacks, but a principal shortcoming of the satirical handling is that disapproval of Trump is aesthetic, a disgust at his style rather than at his policy statements.

 

Perhaps his most fascinating feature is his hair. Dyed blonde, gelled and blow-dried into a sweeping quiff, it appears to be an attempt to conceal thinning hair. However, while it might suggest an anxious preoccupation with retaining a youthful appearance, it is so mesmerisingly artificial that it is completely unconvincing. Moreover, in its narcissistic brazenness, it has become an immediately identifiable visual signature, as recognizable as Chaplin’s toothbrush moustache and bowler. When Trump allowed the US comedian Jimmy Fallon to run his hands through Trump’s hair at the end of an interview on The Tonight Show (Sept. 15th), its distracting function became clear; but as well as drawing the attention of the interviewer and the audience away from his political programme, his hair exemplifies the paradoxical persona that has made him so resistant to abuse – its patent artificiality makes the 70-year old billionaire more authentic than, say, the multi-millionaire celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro, who have lined up to ridicule him. Its obvious artlessness implies that nothing is being concealed.

 

In a memorable formulation, film theorists David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson propose that the Hollywood cinema aesthetic is ‘excessively obvious’; all of the formal and stylistic elements of a Hollywood film, such as editing patterns, lighting, cinematography and production design, work to make the meaning of the film as comprehensible and unambiguous as possible. Trump, too, is ‘excessively obvious’, and this is what makes him so disarming. While the critical commentary on his campaign has been preoccupied with the question of subtext, perplexed by the conundrum of how to reconcile his contradictory statements or how to determine whether his provocative claims are calculated lies or the product of ignorance and misunderstanding, it is increasingly clear that the absurdities and hyperbole, the insults and inconsistency are all crucial to his appeal.

 

His perma-tanned face appears to be the product of some combination of make-up and UV tanning bed, and the pale circles around his eyes left by protective goggles highlight the vivid orange of the rest of his face, making its artificiality clear. It is a similarly excessive assertion of distinctive inauthenticity (and, therefore, a sign of authenticity). However, along with his carefully sculpted hair it highlights a more surprising feature of Trump’s persona: a curious mix of masculine and feminine codes, a bricolage of macho bravado, vanity, and emotional sensitivity. Over the past few months the British comedian Peter Serafinowicz posted a series of videos on YouTube, grouped under the title ‘Sassy Trump’, in which he revoiced Trump’s interviews and campaign speeches with a camp impersonation. This defamiliarising technique draws attention to the vocal tics and rhetorical tropes used by Trump, but while Serafinowicz’s impersonation sounds little like Trump, it does reveal a certain ambiguity of gender that is normally submerged beneath his leering misogyny. As Serafinowicz has realized, Trump makes continual reference to his own feelings, complaining at how hurt he is by criticism, and his campaign speeches are delivered with melodramatic theatricality. His repertoire includes pouts, frowns, facial contortions expressing anguish and astonishment, and fastidiously dainty hand gestures.

 

Trump reportedly favours very expensive, off-the-peg Italian suits, but the shiny, navy blue two-piece business suits he has worn throughout the campaign were consistently ill-fitting and shapeless. With trousers that are slightly too long and boxy jackets slightly too large, they hide the contours of the body beneath suggesting a soft, shapeless, indulged body, rather than a disciplined, gym-sculpted hard body. It is by now a well-established convention that politicians and political candidates must demonstrate their capacity to cope with the rigours of political office through public displays of physical fitness and dexterity – cycling, jogging, riding horses, playing football. However, while the comparative health of Clinton and Trump was a significant issue during the campaign, Trump’s authentically fleshy body constitutes a refusal of the dominant corporeal aesthetic.

 

The out-sized suit is complemented by a brightly coloured tie – Republican red in the later stages of the campaign – that is also too long. The combination connotes masculine, phallic power, but, comically, the symbolic over-emphasis of excessively large clothing creates the converse impression that the 6’2” man inside the suit is smaller than he is. Indeed, one of the insults that seems to have particularly bothered Trump (and Trump appears to be extremely thin-skinned and vindictive), is the observation that he has tiny hands. Graydon Carter described him as a ‘short-fingered vulgarian’ in the satirical Spy magazine in 1988, and Marco Rubio, his rival for the Republication nomination, reprised the insult in a campaign speech earlier this year, prompting Trump to insist in a television debate that neither his hands, nor indeed his genitals were small: ‘I guarantee you, there’s no problem’, he assured viewers bizarrely. ‘I guarantee it’.

Image result for trump maga hat

The final component of the uniform is a red, white or camouflaged ‘trucker hat’, emblazoned with his campaign logo, ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’. Worn without a tie, brim pulled low over his eyes, this again involves the montage of disparate codes, a $5000 executive suit paired awkwardly with the demotic $25 headgear in a patronizing gesture of common-ness. But it is the obvious awkwardness of the symbolism that makes it effective, a performative acknowledgement of the theatre of politicking.

 

Of course, Carter’s real insult was that Trump was a ‘vulgarian’, a crass arriviste whose displays of wealth revealed a dearth of cultural capital. This exemplifies the aesthetic disgust that has been a consistent feature of the satirical commentary on Trump and, as has been the case throughout, this snobbish slight misses the point. To regard Trump’s stylistic shortcomings and mis-steps as a sign of his incompetence is to think too literally, and to misunderstand the institutional system that Trump embodies. In the early 1970s, Michel Foucault described a system of neoliberal government he termed the ‘administrative grotesque’, wherein the people in positions of power ‘were ridiculed or made abject or shown in an unfavourable light’ (Foucault 2003: 13). However, far from undermining them, to attack and deride these figures has the converse effect of legitimizing their position, making their hold on power more secure. The fact that individual representatives of the system may be ridiculous or spectacularly incompetent simply justifies the efficacy of the system they represent, suggesting that it is such a well-designed administrative system that an arrogant bigot can manage it just as effectively as a visionary professional politician – and perhaps even more effectively. The administrative grotesque, Foucault writes, is:

 

a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited (Ibid.).

 

Indeed, in the wake of his election it is all too clear that the caricature of Trump as a monstrous, laughable figure has been utterly counterproductive, deriding him as an eccentric outsider and failing to understand his intrinsic relationship to the dominant political system. It is not the case that satirical attacks on Trump have been ineffective; on the contrary, every cartoon, comic impression and sardonic newspaper column has moved him steadily closer to the powerful position in which he now finds himself.

References:

David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson (1985). The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. (London: Routledge)

Michel Foucault (2003). Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, ed. Valerio Marchetti (London: Verso).

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