Archive for the ‘michael powell’ Tag

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 2

The tide was wrong in Malahide. Something about the boat was wrong. But the energy and the weather was right. We cast off from a pier in Rush, at the end of the beach I’ve spent years walking on, running round, sometimes meditating on. It was a kick to get the perspective from sea from onboard the Shamrock and then gazes turned to the island, some 20 minutes away across a millpond channel in bright autumn sunshine.

lambay island county dublin ireland

Lambay

As we approached the harbour on Lambay the whitewashed buildings came clearly into view, almost all designed by or renovated by Lutyens. I could see the one person I knew on Lambay, my connection to the place, on the pier and she gave me a warm welcome. Welcome was important in Lutyens’ designs. We were given an orientation talk on a circular patch of lawn near the buildings – the castle, the white house and the workers’ cottages. The architect considered circular forms welcoming by nature.

I was shown my room in the white house – charming, spacious, resonant of its (art deco) times. The house was built in 1932. It is symmetrical as it was built for two daughters with two large (around six children each) families, one wing each. I am writing this at the end of one wing in the library. I use posting on Simple Pleasures part 4 as a warm-up to get the writing juices flowing in the morning, a practice I devised on my sabbatical from Channel 4 in 2013/14.

There is A General Map of Ireland to accompany the report of the Railway Commissioners shewing the Principle Physical Features and Geological Structure of the Country (constructed in 1836, engraved in 1837/38) on the light red brick wall behind me. There are four glass cases of dead birds also displayed against the brick. An upright piano with Scott Joplin sheet music. A small case of books old and young, some old Penguins among some more vintage volumes. I’m sitting at a very solid wooden table, oak, which contrasts well with this old MacBook Air with a green sticker of the map of Ireland on the other side of it at the heart of other stickers including a Mod target, a Mexican skull in an American Football helmet (San Francisco 49ers colors) and the latest, from a surfing place, which says Shoot Rainbows into Fascists. I bought it in Milton Keynes when out with my brothers (alongside a quite loud summery shirt) because it reminded me of Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on his tool of choice, his guitar. On my iPad, which I rarely use, is a quotation from the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, famed for his Man with a Movie Camera (1929, within spitting distance of the construction of this house) which I first studied at University on a European Avant-Garde Comparative Literature, Art & Film module, on which I also first encountered Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The quote is:

“I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see”

as mentioned recently in my list of My Favourite Documentaries.

Woody_Guthrie singer songwriter guitarist this machine kills fascists

I was told last night after dinner in the drawing room which marks the centre of the house, along with the kitchen, about a set of documentaries made on another island, Fogo Island, off Newfoundland, Canada. They were made (as the writing mentor, Jonathan Gosling, on this retreat detailed) by a group of Toronto film students in 1967. They now reside online with the Film Board of Canada set up by Brit documentarist John Grierson. I knew its head for several years, Tom Perlmutter.

Commercial Break: Coincidence No. 476

When I just went to check when Tom left the NFBC I noticed his birthday:

Born: September 6, 1948 (age 71 years), Hungary

Today is September 6. A 1 in 365 chance I guess.

The series of short docs depicted life on the island. They were sent to politicians in Ottawa who were on the point of giving up on the sparsely populated island and winding down its public services. On seeing the documentaries they changed their minds and the island population also got to see that the remote politicians they despised did actually care about them. Care is a very important thing in life, I have decided, whether you are a teacher, a psychiatrist, a film-maker, or whatever. It becomes even more important in the age of AI and automation, as depicted very well in Netflix’s recently released doc American Factory. Care distinguishes us from the machines. (By the way, the new Terminator film (Dark Fate) is due out soon and it looks like it’s worth the watch, check out the new trailer.)

Once installed in the (other) white house – talking of which check out Netflix’s excellent Knocking Down the House, a documentary following grassroots Democrats taking on incumbent Senators in the recent mid-terms to try to reconnect the House with its people (I saw it the other night on the big screen, at Soho House, a few doors down from the building where my fascination with film was born, but that’s another story…)  – once installed, we soon began writing work reflecting on Beginning Writing.

Lambay Island Whitehouse edwin lutyens

I did my first session out in the late afternoon sunshine in the grassed yard formed by the three sides of the house. The open side looks up to the small chapel on a hill. This morning I walked around the headland, where to my pantheistic delight I saw numerous seals both on land and poking their heads out of the waves, up to the chapel. I took advantage of the Catholic space to meditate to the music of three sounds – the wind, the sea and the rain on the wood-lined roof. I doubt it was an accident that Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (as mentioned yesterday) ramps up the overwrought erotic tension of the film with an accompaniment of ceaseless moaning wind.

After the first writing session, we had drinks in the central lounge early evening before dinner in the mirror room of this library, the dining room at the other end of the house looking onto the sea near where we landed.

Earlyish night, bit of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (which I’ve been reading since 2001(!), have been thoroughly enjoying, but am still miles from the end), frapped le sac. Dreamt of the house. Up early, out for that walk and the seal watching.

After breakfast, straight into this second writing session and now my juices are flowing…

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 1

dawn london N2

view on leaving home

Day is breaking. I’m on the North Circular heading to the airport. From there to Dublin, bus to Malahide, boat to Lambay Island.

Lambay Island from the air county dublin ireland

Lambay and the beach at Rush

I’m stoked. Lambay is a mile-square island just off the coast of County Dublin. I’ve spent years admiring it from Rush beach on the mainland as my in-laws live in An Ros. The next four days I’m going to spend on the island on a writing retreat with nine other writers.

The island has been in the hands of the Baring family since around 1904 (the year of ‘Ulysses’’s action) and now two younger scions of the family run the trust which looks after it. Most interestingly it serves as a small model for sustainable living, a role forced on it by virtue of being an inhabited island but enthusiastically grasped as a purpose for the trust.

There are two particular reasons I am excited. One, the house on the island was designed by Edwin Lutyens, one of my favourite architects. Besides the Cenotaph and the Institute, local to me at the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb, he designed Castle Drago in the West Country (Devon) which I remember fondly, art deco right down to the bathroom and shower.

Two, one of my favourite films by one of my favourite writers and directors was written on the island. ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947) by Powell & Pressburger was drafted by the former in two days on the island. Here’s a previous post on this movie.

‘Black Narcissus’ (1947) by Powell & Pressburger

As I set off I’m wearing some tan shorts like the ones David Farrar [Mr Dean] wears in the film (a tad longer) in unconscious homage to the peak of writing output from the island.

Black Narcissus 1947 by Powell Pressburger movie film

David Farrar & Jean Simmons & the shorts

 

 

 

The Neo-Romantics

This is following up a pub conversation from last Friday evening. The British painters & artists referred to as Neo-Romantic include:

Paul Nash (1889-1946)

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 - Paul Nash

Totes Meer [Dead Sea] (1940-1) – Paul Nash


Graham Sutherland (1903-1980)

Pastoral (1930) - Graham Sutherland

Pastoral (1930) – Graham Sutherland

John Craxton (1922-2009)

Dreamer in Landscape (1942) - John Craxton

Dreamer in Landscape (1942) – John Craxton

John Minton (1917-1957)

Summer Landscape (1950) - John Minton

Summer Landscape (1950) – John Minton

John Piper (1903-1992)

Somerset Place, Bath (1942) - John Piper

Somerset Place, Bath (1942) – John Piper

Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979)

Damp Autumn (1941) - Ivon Hitchens

Damp Autumn (1941) – Ivon Hitchens

Keith Vaughan (1912-1977)

September (1956) - Keith Vaughan

September (1956) – Keith Vaughan

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975)

Skara Brae, Orkney (1959) - Michael Ayrton

Skara Brae, Orkney (1959) – Michael Ayrton

Henry Moore (1898-1986)

Tube Shelter Perspective (1941) - Henry Moore

Tube Shelter Perspective (1941) – Henry Moore

The movement centred on the run-up to the Second World War and the wartime, and was based in landscape painting.

In 1940 the British government commissioned artists including Paul Nash,  John Craxton, John Minton, Leslie Hurry, David Jones, and Ceri Richards, to document lives in villages and towns across the nation under the umbrella title ‘Recording Britain.’ The initiative was intended to boost national morale during the War by celebrating the country’s landscape and architecture.

Age in 1940

  • Paul Nash 51
  • Graham Sutherland 37
  • John Craxton 18
  • John Minton 23
  • John Piper 37
  • Ivon Hitchens 47
  • Keith Vaughan 28
  • Michael Ayrton 19
  • Henry Moore 42
Paul Nash c.1940

Paul Nash c.1940

Graham Sutherland with his portrait of Churchill

Graham Sutherland with his portrait of Churchill

John Craxton

John Craxton

John Minton

John Minton

John Piper at Fawley Bottom farmhouse c.1935

John Piper at Fawley Bottom farmhouse c.1935

Ivon Hitchens

Ivon Hitchens

Keith Vaughan

Keith Vaughan

Michael Ayrton, by Lola Walker (Lola Marsden), 1950

Michael Ayrton by Lola Walker [Lola Marsden] (1950)

Henry Moore by Lee Miller

Henry Moore by Lee Miller

Henry Moore & director Jill Craigie during the filming of 'Out of Chaos' (1943) in Holborn tube station

Henry Moore & director Jill Craigie during the filming of ‘Out of Chaos’ (1943) in Holborn tube station

Finn Fordham and members of the Finnegan’s Wake Research Seminar at Senate House, University of London got on to this subject via Powell & Pressburger:

Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus (1947)

The Red Shoes (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

The Future of Cinema as envisioned by Martin Scorsese

This open letter to his daughter was published in the Italian press at the turn of the year by Martin Scorsese. Coming from someone so steeped in the cinematic tradition it is particularly striking, not least in the way it perceives hope in digital technology. To drive home this Janus-like ability to appreciate past and future with equanimity, yesterday Scorsese unveiled a blue plaque for Powell & Pressburger on Dorset House in London with Michael Powell’s widow and his own editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. I had a memorable encounter with Michael Powell in 1985 when I set up the Cambridge University Film Society – he had been brought back into prominence then by Scorsese and other champions like Ian Christie.

English Heritage blue plaque for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Dearest Francesca,

I’m writing this letter to you about the future. I’m looking at it through the lens of my world. Through the lens of cinema, which has been at the center of that world.

For the last few years, I’ve realized that the idea of cinema that I grew up with, that’s there in the movies I’ve been showing you since you were a child, and that was thriving when I started making pictures, is coming to a close. I’m not referring to the films that have already been made. I’m referring to the ones that are to come.

I don’t mean to be despairing. I’m not writing these words in a spirit of defeat. On the contrary, I think the future is bright.

We always knew that the movies were a business, and that the art of cinema was made possible because it aligned with business conditions. None of us who started in the 60s and 70s had any illusions on that front. We knew that we would have to work hard to protect what we loved. We also knew that we might have to go through some rough periods. And I suppose we realized, on some level, that we might face a time when every inconvenient or unpredictable element in the moviemaking process would be minimized, maybe even eliminated. The most unpredictable element of all? Cinema. And the people who make it.

I don’t want to repeat what has been said and written by so many others before me, about all the changes in the business, and I’m heartened by the exceptions to the overall trend in moviemaking – Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Alexander Payne, the Coen Brothers, James Gray and Paul Thomas Anderson are all managing to get pictures made, and Paul not only got The Master made in 70mm, he even got it shown that way in a few cities. Anyone who cares about cinema should be thankful.

And I’m also moved by the artists who are continuing to get their pictures made all over the world, in France, in South Korea, in England, in Japan, in Africa. It’s getting harder all the time, but they’re getting the films done.

But I don’t think I’m being pessimistic when I say that the art of cinema and the movie business are now at a crossroads. Audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema – moving pictures conceived by individuals – appear to be headed in different directions. In the future, you’ll probably see less and less of what we recognize as cinema on multiplex screens and more and more of it in smaller theaters, online, and, I suppose, in spaces and circumstances that I can’t predict.

So why is the future so bright? Because for the very first time in the history of the art form, movies really can be made for very little money. This was unheard of when I was growing up, and extremely low budget movies have always been the exception rather than the rule. Now, it’s the reverse. You can get beautiful images with affordable cameras. You can record sound. You can edit and mix and color-correct at home. This has all come to pass.

But with all the attention paid to the machinery of making movies and to the advances in technology that have led to this revolution in moviemaking, there is one important thing to remember: the tools don’t make the movie, you make the movie. It’s freeing to pick up a camera and start shooting and then put it together with Final Cut Pro. Making a movie – the one you need to make – is something else. There are no shortcuts.

If John Cassavetes, my friend and mentor, were alive today, he would certainly be using all the equipment that’s available. But he would be saying the same things he always said – you have to be absolutely dedicated to the work, you have to give everything of yourself, and you have to protect the spark of connection that drove you to make the picture in the first place. You have to protect it with your life. In the past, because making movies was so expensive, we had to protect against exhaustion and compromise. In the future, you’ll have to steel yourself against something else: the temptation to go with the flow, and allow the movie to drift and float away.

This isn’t just a matter of cinema. There are no shortcuts to anything. I’m not saying that everything has to be difficult. I’m saying that the voice that sparks you is your voice – that’s the inner light, as the Quakers put it.

That’s you. That’s the truth.

All my love,

Dad

For Adam - Michael Powell Nov.17.1985

For Adam – Michael Powell Nov.17.1985

{Scorsese’s letter reproduced courtesy of L’Espresso}

The Commonplace Book – Inspiration and Perspiration

6/8/13

Inspiration

Inspiration

Simple Pleasures part 4 was inspired partly by an Ian Dury song (via my first blog Simple Pleasures) and partly by an article from the pen of the poet Andrew Motion. In that line of heritage, I was reading Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From and was much taken with his thoughts on the ‘commonplace book’, the practice of keeping a scrapbook of quotes and thoughts which he traces from John Locke in the late 17th century through to Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), ultimately linking it to Tim Berners-Lee’s inspiration for the World Wide Web. I’ve kept these kinds of notebooks and notes for any years but being reminded of their value in creative thinking, the repository for the ‘slow hunch’ and the petri dish in which disparate but related thoughts grow together, makes me feel encouraged to write here more often and in smaller bursts. Here’s one I wrote a couple of days ago after reading about the Commonplace Book and then chatting to an old friend of mine from the Universite de Savoie, year of 83…

Mangen lake

Narration

4/8/13 Mangskog, Sweden: Sitting on the deck outside Bjorksuset (whispering of the birches), my friend Hanna’s house, this afternoon overlooking Mangen lake I was thinking a bit about Swedish neutrality in the War before Hanna told me a story from a documentary she made recently for NRK, the Norwegian state broadcaster. It was about so-called ‘war children’ in Norway (the off-spring of Norwegian women and German soldiers) and the on-going impact of the Second World War on Norwegians. Hanna filmed a woman who recently discovered her father was in fact a German bureaucrat of the Occupation, not the Norwegian man whom she had called daddy all her life, father of what had been her two brothers up to the point of this discovery in her advancing years. When she told her mother she had acted on some bothersome doubts from her childhood and uncovered her true parentage through a specialist agency her mother went nuts with her, majorly upset by having her secret unburied. And the brothers went crazy too, especially the older one who runs a big well-known Oslo-based shopping mall (he threatened to sue). In revealing her discovery the family imploded and she lost mother, (half-)siblings and extended family at a stroke. Although she acquired some half-brothers in Germany in the process. So seventy years after the occupation of Norway the dark forces still swirl, much as in France, like molten lava beneath the crust busting out when cracks appear.

Mangskog, Sweden

Transpiration

6/3/13 I’m sitting on that same deck behind Bjorksuset, listening to the wind in the canopies of the silver birches. My grandparents had silver birches which fascinated me as a child in their inappropriately named street Cyprus Avenue. Their shiny trunks punctuated the way to the red postbox twenty yards down from their house, which at the age I am recalling seemed a major journey to be let loose on alone. The sound of the rustling leaves is a constant in this beautiful place in the West of Sweden. I think ‘suset’ in Swedish must be related to ‘susurration’ in English. The whispering sea-like sound made me think of the soundtrack of Antonioni’s Blow-Up – the mysterious breeze in the trees of the South London park where the ‘corpse’ lies worked its magic on me big time. And my train of thought then headed off down the line of the sound of wind in films and pulled in to these three stops:

Blow-Up (1966): the wind in the trees makes the park where the photographer (David Hemmings) accidentally photographs a dead body weird&wonderful – I always meant to visit that location, I’ll have to rewatch the movie then make the trip this autumn

Ryan’s Daughter (1970): The eponymous Irish colleen and the English captain make illicit love among the bluebells in the West of Ireland and what David Lean shows us is the strong breeze shaking the treetops above them

Black Narcissus (1947): Michael Powell set nerves on edge in this English Romantic Technicolor tale by having the Himalayan wind blow constantly through the mountain-top convent in which a nun gradually succumbs to an irreligious magic

In all three (the last one in too sparse a landscape for leaves to accompany moving air) the whispering of the wind brings the magical and mystical to the scene.

Susurration

Susurration

At the nadir of my teenage years, when I retired to a room with David Bowie and Jane Austen to see me through, just like Renton prepares the room for going cold turkey in Trainspotting, Wild is the Wind struck me as a uniquely Romantic song a bit apart from his others, with a touch of epic, majestic magic.

Wild is the Wind David Bowie

Aspiration

The song was actually written for a film of the same name made in 1957 and recorded by Johnny Mathis. Bowie was inspired to cover it by Nina Simone’s version. It is to be found on his 1976 LP Station to Station which neatly brings this thought-train to its terminus.

Like the leaf clings to the tree
Oh, my darling, cling to me
For we’re like creatures of the wind
Wild is the wind, wild is the wind

A wed wose, how womantic

Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus

Kathleen 'The Lips' Byron in Black Narcissus

Kathleen Byron in Black NarcissusKathleen Byron in Black NarcissusI’m a Romantic at heart. I love the paintings of Johns Minton, Craxton and Piper (as gorgeously gathered at the Barbican in 1987 in A Paradise Lost). And I love Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor red. I was saddened to hear of his passing yesterday – he was one of British cinema’s greatest. I met him once a couple of years ago at a tribute in his honour at BAFTA – and the honour was mine .

When I first saw it in my 20s, I was really taken by Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) with James Mason and Ava Gardner, for its 50s surrealism and its Romantic colour. Cardiff shot it for the literary maverick Albert Lewin (who also made the off-beat The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)). It reminds me of the graphic style of Abram Games, my mum’s teacher and mentor, designer of the quintessentially 50s Festival of Britain logo.

Much though I admire A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948), it is the third great film he shot for Powell & Pressburger that I reckon marks the highpoint of his career – Black Narcissus, for which he won an Oscar in 1947. How can you forget Kathleen Byron’s bright red lips?

I was fortunate to encounter Michael Powell – it was in Cambridge in 1985 at the Arts Cinema (then in Market Passage)  when I was at college. I had set up the University Film Society and he visited with his Mrs, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, for a screening of Colonel Blimp. I have his autograph on the Arts Cinema programme on my Wall of Honour – alongside my signed picture of Neil Armstrong (swopped for a signed Damned single with editor Mark Reynolds), and photos of Chaplin, Muhammad Ali and Gandhi. Powell and Cardiff were perfectly attuned in their neo-Romantic outlook.

On the plane back from Dublin this evening I read he spent two years developing a script for my beloved Ulysses in the early 60s but it never came to anything. I reckon it is filmable but you’d need to stray a long way from Joyce (but not in spirit) to pull it off. I organised a 16mm screening of Joseph Strick’s 1967 effort with Milo O’Shea in my 20s for some reason that entirely escapes me now.

Cardiff was born on 18th September (1914) a date which has a special meaning for me – but I’m not telling you why. The point is we’re connected – 18th September, Elstree, The Archers, Lewin. (Powell was born 30th September, Lewin on the 23rd and Madeline Kahn on the 29th, significant clustering vibe here.) Cardiff was a real craftsman of my grandfather Ian Harris’ generation and had that special English Romanticism. I was struggling all day yesterday as I left England for Ireland to pick anything out of St George’s Day. Those red crosses of St George all over the pubs were just an unsettling embarrassment. But Cardiff’s red shoes, red rose (in Life & Death), red lips have the quintessence of what is great about England. In the words of Lili von Shtupp, with her distanced Teutonic view across the water: A wed wose, how womantic!

A Matter of Life and Death

Kim 'The Lips' Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death

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