BEHIND THE DOOR

Newly restored and re-released on DVD/ Blu-ray 4th April, 2017

*This review contains spoilers

I’m always excited by the miraculous survival of early films and the international collaborations that make restoration and re-release possible. Sadly we’ve lost an enormous amount of Silent Era film production, but amazingly material is still being discovered, in private collections, archives, vaults and attics. The establishment of global networks and conventions to help bring this scattered material together also makes me eternally hopeful of Silent treasures still out there waiting to be found. The transformation of these fragments through restoration, honouring the vision of the original filmmakers and providing scope for reinterpretation, contribute significantly to how we see the world and ourselves.

The newly restored DVD/ Blu-Ray release of Behind the Door (1919) by Flicker Alley is the result of an inspiring international collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the Library of Congress and the Gosfilmfond (Russian national archive), with a new score composed and performed by one of the world’s leading Silent Film accompanists Stephen Horne.  It is a magnificent achievement in the preservation of international film heritage, crafted with care, attention to detail and with humanity as the baseline of musical interpretation. The level of skill from film restorers and the composer in serving the film, creating an emotionally intelligent and multi-layered experience for audiences is extraordinary and heartfelt. Behind the Door will be a surprising discovery for contemporary viewers in terms of how the shocking nature of the story is compassionately nuanced by colour, composition and sound. This isn’t just a post WWI propaganda film or one dimensional shock Horror but something more satisfyingly complex in its original Craft, contemporary restoration and brilliantly insightful musical score.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door”, image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The restoration of Behind the Door is the blessed sum of surviving elements.  An incomplete 35mm print, a roll of outtakes and a small roll of shots from the estate of lead actor Hobart Bosworth preserved by the Library of Congress were brought together with an edited export print conserved by Gosfilmofund, Russia and a copy of director Irvin Willat’s original continuity script loaned by Film Historian Robert Birchard. In the words of restorer Robert Byrne the director’s script was a significant discovery in ensuring “that the reconstruction matched the original editing sequence”, providing “a reference for the reel missing its English-language intertitles. The original colour tinting scheme [was] also restored, based on analysis of the film leaders and the structure of the printing rolls.” What we can now enjoy is “the most complete version of the film” seen since its original release almost a century ago and I hope that cinemas and festivals will enable audiences worldwide to discover it on the big screen.

In addition to the US feature restored by Robert Byrne, James Cozart, Seth Miller, Lori Raskin and Anne Marie Smatla, the DVD/Blu-ray release also includes the Russian version of the film re-edited and re-titled, documentaries on the restoration and the career of director Irvin Willat by celebrated Film Historian Kevin Brownlow, outtakes, stills and a booklet featuring essays by Film Restorer Robert Byrne, Film Historian Jay Weissburg and composer Stephen Horne. Regardless of your level of interest, there are multiple routes into the story, making, context and preservation of the film that add value to the release and shed light on why restoration is so valuable, vital and relevant in a digital world.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door” image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Behind the Door was a revelation to me on multiple levels and I’m sure that it will provide potent inspiration for contemporary artists. It also presents an opportunity for reappraisal of our relationship to early film, our understanding of history, human behaviour and current events. To some extent the film’s reputation precedes the experience of watching it. The expectations of contemporary audiences in terms of what is considered “shocking” , “gruesome” or violent doesn’t prepare viewers for the emotional impact of what is not graphically depicted on screen.  When Behind the Door was first released in 1919 it was a box office success and highly praised by critics with favourable comparisons to the work of D.W.Griffith. The sensationalism of the story and the whole notion of Horror, rooted in the traumatic aftermath of WWI transcends the period in which it was made, aided considerably by the contemporary score. Behind the Door and its sensitive restoration demonstrate beautifully that Silent Films aren’t primitive relics or the remnants of a bygone age but a living, breathing Art. The plight of the central character Oscar Krug (played by the wonderfully expressive Hobart Bosworth) as “other” has resonance on many levels, particularly in a rising tide of xenophobia circa 2017.

Jo Taylor’s photography together with the depth and emotional texture of colour tinting, a practice which was widespread at the time, enhances the tone of the film beautifully. In the opening sequence when we witness Krug’s return to the windswept coast of Maine, the hilltop scene is aglow with the pink setting sun, contrasted with the silhouettes of gravestones in deeply immersive indigo. That setting sun/ end of life colouration together with the mercifully tender voice of solo piano frames the character and gently foreshadows the arc of the story about to unfold. Later in the opening sequence the evocation of night in inky ultramarine soothes like the texture of velvet and the glockenspiel aligns with that feeling, introducing an otherworldly sense of a man revisiting the life and love he once had amidst the decaying ruin of his taxidermist shop.  The sparing, plucked sound is as fragile and vulnerable as the character we see before and within us. As Krug lights a candle the yellow glow of the interior provides an atmosphere of compassion and remembrance. “Alone, forlorn and forgotten” he sees the handkerchief of his beloved Alice and we feel as he does, in the delicately mysterious melody of the flute, the state of holding on to someone long after they’ve passed. This melody is fluidly expanded by the piano, leading us on “a back trail through the haunted lanes of yesterday”, into Krug’s past, to the town of Bartlett, Maine, 1917.  The seamless pacing of the score is perfectly in tune with the emotional gravitas of each scene and integral to our empathy with the central protagonist. Horne’s music renders the character in flesh, blood and consciousness, emerging out of the dire circumstances he finds himself in and becoming a more sympathetic character than we might have imagined.

Hobart Bosworth in “Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Although he is a demonised figure, the focus of anti- German propaganda and ultimately a murderer, Krug is also an expression of collective loss and it is the subtle restraint of the music that enables us to feel that underlying truth. This reinterpretation through sound is one of the defining features of the restoration. The scale of mechanised carnage during WWI had never been seen before. Made just one year after the war ended, an entire generation of shattered lives was the reality with mental and physical scars still painfully raw. In this context the film is arguably not shocking at all. It is that psychological perspective and historical hindsight that bring perceptive shifts to the interpretation, illuminated through sound. Krug’s extreme actions feel like a manifestation of the pain, loss and rage so many would have felt at the time. The Horror in this film is lived rather than imagined and I suspect that this, together with the propaganda element helped the film make it past the censors. In killing a German Commander, someone with whom he shares language and ancestry, Krug kills part of himself, in turn becoming the barbaric, brutal, vengeful, cruel and despised figure the townsfolk have cast him as. But surprisingly Oscar Krug is overwhelmingly a figure of grief rather than a monster. In the end love redeems him in being reunited with his beloved wife Alice (played with great conviction and sincerity by Jane Novak). That tempering of judgement towards what could so easily have been a one dimensional villain is expanded by the score. The empathy we feel for Krug almost eclipses his crime because it is effectively given a wider, deeper frame of reference. Krug’s final actions are an expression of the worst that human beings are capable of.  Whilst that is anchored to the historical horrors of war, it is also timelessly rooted in the human condition and what fundamentally drives us. The unhinged capacity for vengeance is fatally partnered with love. In early scenes Krug is portrayed as an obsessively passionate man and a true patriot willing to defend himself, his home and his principles with his bare fists if necessary. The fight that ensues is startlingly real as the escalating energy of the mob spirals out of control. The suggestion from the massed townsfolk is that propensity for violence is in Krug’s blood, accompanied by the derogatory label of “Hun”, but the lack of civilization is in the home grown lynch mob who turn on a member of their community as “other” with frightening speed.

“Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Even with the anti-German sentiment of the time, it is hard not to imagine potential identification with the suffering of Oscar Krug and returned survivors of WWI. Although part of the navy rather than serving in the trenches in the story, his shaking hands echo the tremors of shellshock. When we first meet him he is clearly a broken, destitute man engulfed in shadows, as so many were in the aftermath of the Great War. That unspoken Horror becomes the unconscious driver of his revenge for the violation and death of his wife Alice. Surprisingly here in 1919, a largely hidden war crime is depicted. Although certainly used to portray the enemy as sadistic, amoral animals devoid of human empathy, the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Alice is also on some level an acknowledgement of the wartime experiences of generations of women.  Sexual violence is a policy and a weapon still being used around the world today that cannot be relegated to history. More often than not the image of the devoted sweetheart/ wife / mother keeping the home fires burning is the one we see, with the suffering of women as casualties of war rarely given screen time. In Behind the Door Alice isn’t simply a passive love interest but a woman who chooses Krug against her father’s wishes and community, follows him to sea and becomes an innocent victim of circumstances beyond her control. We see in her interactions with the suitor her father has chosen that she has made up her own mind about her destiny and future happiness before the madness of war intervenes. Although in 1919 the atrocities of rape, torture and murder in Behind the Door were undoubtedly used as a vehicle for propaganda, for this contemporary viewer the suggestion of violence in being unseen is what powerfully takes hold. We are so accustomed to violence and gore depicted graphically on screen, that visual storytelling placing Horror behind the door for the audience to imagine is stronger and more affecting than anything the director could have shown us. Contemporary directors and screenwriters take note!

Stephen Horne’s score is resoundingly led by the film and its “visceral”, cathartically emotional” core. With characteristic grace and skill he refrains from over the top declarations of drama or pushing obvious, emotive musical buttons. His multi instrumental approach utilising the full expressive range of piano including the inner strings, thumb piano, glockenspiel, accordion and flute, provides scope for multi-layered exploration of the story, the characters and their motivations. Even in highly dramatic scenes his control is enviable with Horror communicated in a haptic way, in the finely scraped inner strings like the glint of light on a scalpel being drawn across the viewer’s skin. Sound isn’t used as a ham fisted statement of rage illustrating action, but as an exchange between the idea, the emotional core of the story and the motivations of human beings portrayed on screen. Equally the tenderness of Krug’s promise to Alice; “after the war we’ll go back to my shop” flowing into a faded rose tinted dream where love, hope and memory are entwined is conveyed by the fragile, ethereal timbre of the flute. What we feel in that moment is the characters’ shared vision and something more vulnerably real than the forced emotion and sonic illustration that dominates mainstream cinema. When interpreted in such a way Silent Film communicates a different way of seeing /being in the world and an expansively innovative creative vision. The re-release of Behind the Door is defined by the inspired alignment of the surviving film, its loving restoration and sensitive score now preserved complete for future generations.

www.flickeralley.com

www.silentfilm.org San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF)

www.stephenhorne.co.uk

7th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart in “Chicago” (1927)

Bo’ness, 22- 26 March 2017

“I am a woman and I’m full of viewpoints!” ‘Patricia’ /Marion Davies in The Patsy (1928)

After my first Hipp Fest experience last year I was delighted at the prospect of returning to Bo’ness for another sustained dose of Silent movie heaven! Regrettably I could only attend the final 3 days of the festival, but what I experienced was truly exceptional, joyously entertaining and totally immersive.  Under the starry domed ceiling of the historic Hippodrome we were transported by the quality of musical accompaniment and the wonderful discoveries, creative innovation and artistry to be found when delving into the Silent era. Every performance is unique and as a member of the audience the thrilling immediacy of the whole live experience simply cannot be bettered. There are many ways into film, but the most potent trigger for love, appreciation and preservation of our global film heritage is the big screen experience. At Hipp Fest this is supported by highly experienced musicians responding directly to human stories, characters and themes projected before them in real time. This year audiences were blessed with the combined talents of some of the best Silent Film accompanists in the world including Frank Bockius and Günter Buchwald from Germany, Filmorchestra The Sprockets from the Netherlands, Stephen Horne, John Sweeney, Forrester Pyke, Mike Nolan, Neil Brand, Jane Gardner & Co and acclaimed musicians Raymond MacDonald, Christian Ferlaino and R.M. Hubbert.

Beyond the annual festival the universality of Silent Film which crosses all borders feels like a very timely focus politically, socially and culturally. Collaborative partnerships between Hipp Fest and its director Alison Strauss, the Goethe-Institut Glasgow, the Confucius Institute for Scotland, academic institutions and archives are vitally important in terms of sharing international film heritage and enabling cultural exchange. Bringing together never seen before films, restorations, live music and local audiences is one of the best ways of preserving film for future generations by making it proudly and publicly visible. In recent years the mainstream film industry has been justifiably criticised for its lack of equality and diversity. Ironically when the industry was still in its infancy there were more creative opportunities for women and studios were assembling the finest international casts and crews to challenge Hollywood dominance. In the Silent era women were much more powerful and visibly active behind and in front of the camera than they are in mainstream cinema today, working as directors, producers, writers and actors. Pioneers of the new medium creatively developed their techniques through experimentation, with the eternal baseline of visual storytelling in light and shadow. Although Silent Film is sometimes thought of as “niche”, “historical”, or “vintage” with the tone passing fashion, every Hipp Fest screening reveals that it is so much more in terms of being progressively modern, illuminating and visionary.

My first event was a talk The Last Silent Picture Show by Geoff Brown (film historian, critic, Chief Researcher on the AHRC-funded project ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound, 1927-1933’ and a Research Fellow at the Cinema and Television History Research Centre, De Montfort University), examining the British Film Industry’s response to the advent of sound in 1929. The discussion caused me to reconsider the gains and losses from rapid technological advances in film production and publicity.  Illustrated with clips from Hitchcock’s Blackmail, “the sentimental drama Kitty, the steamy White Cargo”, and “the tartan nightmare of The Lady of the Lake” this period of transition from Silent to Sound (1927-33) is fascinating in terms of stripping the medium back to its most essential, enduring elements. The development of sound may have been inevitable, but the overnight result was thousands of musicians and international actors out of work, with the insistence that stories must be told in the “the Mother tongue”. Arguably the most successful transitions from Silent to Sound were by artists like Hitchcock, grounded in the Silent Art of storytelling. Significantly Hitchcock’s approach to the new technology was not to have it dictate the vision, but to use it as another tool for the inner trajectory of the story and its characters. As Brown suggested, in Blackmail for example a conversation round the breakfast table emphasises the heroine’s state of mind focusing repeatedly on the word “knife”. Dialogue is a vehicle for suspense in that moment, on one level ratcheting up the tension with repetition; however on a deeper, psychological level it’s the character’s guilt that speaks to the audience rather than the word itself. Silent Film has a huge amount to teach contemporary artists about crafting moving images. Technology can’t do that on its own. The gift of now, regardless of future advances, is in retaining choices about how cinematic stories can be told. Brown’s talk on Silent, sound and hybrid productions raised many pertinent questions about current technology, artistic intent and what leads 21st century film production.

Marion Davies (Centre) in “The Patsy”.

Friday night’s gala screening of King Vidor’s The Patsy (1928), starring Marion Davies, Orville Caldwell and Marie Dressler was the perfect film for getting into the 1920’s spirit and many members of the audience came along in Gatsby style fancy dress. Cloche, bowler and top hats, suits, tails and ties, feather boas, fans, sequinned and fringed Flapper dresses, gloves, black eye liner, beauty spots and pin curls helped set the scene with a friendly, welcoming buzz around the venue. The Patsy’s sparkling free spirited comedy was complimented beautifully by Filmorchestra The Sprockets: Daphne Balvers (soprano sax), Frido ter Beek (baritone, altsax), Marco Ludemann (mandolin, banjo, guitar), Jasper Somsen (double bass), Rombout Stoffers (percussion, accordion) and Maud Nelissen (piano), who also composed the score. Neilissen’s music brought a distinctive quality of worldly, feminine knowing to the central characters and their predicament, revealing musically the great unsaid in familial and romantic relationships. Brassy, exuberant Jazz was used to great effect in giving appropriate accent to the comedy on screen. This celebratory sound was charmingly contrasted with quieter, lovingly composed moments of intimacy on piano and mandolin.

The Patsy is a hugely appealing film due to the amazing comedic talent of Marion Davies, who film historian Kevin Brownlow aptly described as a woman whose “memory is clouded in myth”. History often assigns female artists the dubious honour of enduring fame by association with male partners. Davies is better known as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and her fictitious alter ego-Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane than for her talent as an actress. Davies’ 35 year relationship with Hearst was very real, but it is only in contemporary audiences seeing her work that she has the opportunity to step out of the shadow of tabloid infamy and male genius to be what she truly was, a gifted artist in her own right.  The audience response to the film resoundingly affirmed that quality, delighting in her attempts to “get a personality”, find her confident self and win the only man she has eyes for. Pat’s/ Davie’s impersonations of Mae Murray, Pola Negri and Lillian Gish, trying on the feminine stereotypes of vampish Femme Fatale or saintly goody two shoes are discarded in the end for something more authentic. Pat is constantly picked on by her proper dragon of a mother and spoiled sister, who is two timing Tony (the man Pat loves) and playboy Billy Caldwell. Her hen pecked father is seemingly the only person who sees her for the good natured, intelligent, witty and spirited young woman she is. Although she dreams of being as much admired as a stocking model, in the end all she has to be is her honest, down to earth self. This is a film of magnificent clowning and plenty of laughter, punctuated by genuine sweetness and sincerity, especially in the exchanges between father and daughter.

Silent Film provides surprising challenges to accepted norms of conditioning behaviour which are all too often frighteningly absent in contemporary mainstream content. Interestingly it is the mother figure who insists on Pat being relegated to a seen and not heard domestic role, while the masculine parental influence is infinitely more nurturing- rather like the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and her Father in Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. The visual gesture and intertitle dialogue between father and daughter makes it clear that they regard each other as equals, sharing humour and emotional intelligence. Part of the joy of this film is the juxtaposition of manners with physical comedy and freedom of expression, revealing human hypocrisy and foibles we all know and recognise. The heroine is a feisty, independent alternative to the passive set decoration women are so often assigned on screen. Davies and her character Pat convincingly carry the film, offering a Silent reappraisal of gender roles and challenging the regressively persistent idea that brains and entertainment in Film are mutually exclusive. In The Patsy masculinity can be as tender as it is strong and femininity can be a three dimensional possibility rather than a polarised cliché of self-denial and sacrifice. The Patsy or scapegoat, someone cheated of their rightful place or taken advantage of, is actually women as represented in mainstream contemporary film. This charming, 1928 crowd pleaser delivers irrepressibly buoyant fun, but also the opportunity for reflection on what constitutes box office gold in our own century.

Ruan Lingyu in “The Goddess /Shen nu” (1934)

Twenty seven year old director Wu Yonggang’s 1934 debut feature The Goddess (Shen nu) presents a very different view of Femininity in the story of a mother’s love and self-sacrifice for her child. It is a film confronting the harsh realities of poverty, corruption, class oppression and moral decay through a Social Realist / party political lens. In the background of the opening intertitle cards we’re introduced to a Feminine ideal via the low relief Neo-Classical sculpture of a woman leaning down to the child at her feet. Tellingly her body is bent double, compressed into the rectangular frame, overwritten with the idea of the “double face” of a “Goddess struggling with life”. We are then quietly introduced through small everyday details to the central female protagonist, a prostitute by night and devoted mother by day. As the sun goes down the camera moves through her rented room, lingering on her two dresses hanging from a peg on the wall, her trade makeup, a doll and baby basket. As she tentatively looks in the mirror and dresses for the evening of work ahead the camera doesn’t judge her, it humanises and dignifies her as she prepares to walk the streets to earn a living beneath the harsh neon of 1930’s Shanghai. That empathic view was supported perfectly by John Sweeney’s accompaniment, well suited to the understated grace and presence of the unnamed central character who carries the entire film. She is presented as a noble figure battling reduced circumstances, trying to ensure that her son has a better future through education, a right denied to him by those in authority because of his mother’s profession.

The sympathetic portrayal of a woman condemned by her position in life and social hypocrisy is testament to Ruan Lingyu’s highly sensitive performance. The actress herself was the victim of crippling double standards and was literally hounded to death by the paparazzi. In Art and in life the public/media moral compass was tipped towards mass consumption of adulterous scandal and generation of headlines, rather than any interest in justice or humanity. The director Yonggang was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s tale of a wronged woman Way Down East (1920), which starred Lillian Gish as an innocent girl tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy seducer and having to bear the shame of an illegitimate child. Yonggang’s central character is invested with subtlety and compassion, equalled by the marvellous cinematography of Hong Weilie and the understated skill of the accompaniment. John Sweeney consistently excels in capturing the emotional tonality of what we see on screen and was the perfect interpretative match for this film. His natural, gentle lyricism as a musician communicated the intimacy and trust between mother and son at the heart of the story. The rare opportunity to see this recently restored film was enabled by the partnership between Hipp Fest and the Confucius Institute for Scotland, supported by the China Film Archive. The special focus on Chinese Cinema through talks, screenings and performance provided an outstanding opportunity for local audiences to explore films and a cinematic tradition that is largely undiscovered in the UK and not easily accessed outside the festival.

Conrad Veidt in “The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände” (1924)

It was a great privilege to see two of Germany’s finest Silent Film accompanists Frank Bockius (percussion) & Günter Buchwald (piano & violin) performing Robert Weine’s fantastic 1924 psychological horror/ thriller The Hands of Orlac /Orlacs Hände. The feature was very appropriately paired with the 1908 short The Thieving Hand from the Eastman archive, featuring pioneering special effects and accompanied by the wonderful Forrester Pyke on piano. The ghoulish, seemingly supernatural subject matter of disembodied hands having a monstrous, amoral life of their own is actually a grounded concept given the time the film was made. The Hands of Orlac stars Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Strassny and Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Man Who Laughs, The Thief of Bagdad, Casablanca) as Paul Orlac, a renowned concert pianist who loses his hands in a terrible accident.  His devoted wife pleads for surgery so he will not lose his gift for music, but after new hands are grafted on, he learns that they belonged to an executed murderer and the nightmare begins! He starts to believe that the hands and will of the dead man possess him and that he too will become a murderer. It’s a film where belief, action, reason and the unconscious converge in unexpected ways. Having seen Frank Bockius perform for the first time at last year’s festival, I had hoped that we would again have the opportunity to experience his great talent and musical expertise. This year we were indeed fortunate to have two touring musicians from Germany with the continued support of the Goethe Institut Glasgow, expanding the possibilities for musical collaboration over several different screenings. What these performances communicated with such energy, intuition, precision and style was that Film History is resoundingly a living tradition! I hope that many more audiences in the UK will have the opportunity to experience Silent Film live as a result of this exciting and very fruitful partnership.  Post Brexit continuing to nurture collaborative relationships and cultural exchange is now more vital than ever. The audience clearly enjoyed the psychological depth of the film, courtesy of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Archive and its adept multi-textured accompaniment.

The opening melody, from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No1 in B flat minor, immediately established the voice of solo piano and the virtuosic stature of the central character. This grand, commanding theme supported by triumphant cymbals and drums evoked the scale of the concert hall in a highly charged, dramatic introduction. As the film progressed the sweepingly epic melody became increasingly deconstructed and fragmented as the darker aspects of the psyche started to take hold. When this melodic phrase is first introduced it is staid, classical, familiar and authoritative, but there is also a shadow present.  It’s the shimmering uncertainty we hear in the gentle swish of cymbals and the otherworldly suggestion of phantom strummed piano wires that undermines the certainty of what we think we know. Sound is our most primal sense and the introduction of this quietly subtle undercurrent operated just like the sound that you hear in the dark, lurking just beyond your peripheral vision. As the fear of what the hands are capable of grows in the mind of the central character, the theme morphs into diabolical variation and full Body Horror takes over with the stabbing down stroke of the violin and drumming used in later scenes. The scope of percussion to propel, amplify and inform our internal reading of a scene was deftly handled throughout. An early scene where Paul’s wife reads his letter and awaits her beloved husband’s return is accompanied by a progressive, heartbeat-like rhythm communicating the emotional current between them. There is something undeniably human, shared by the audience in that essential, percussive beat we know within our own bodies. That deceptively simple sound triggers memory, engages empathy and imaginatively connects the viewer to the story and its characters, no matter how fantastical they may appear.

Although it would be easy to lay obvious “Horror” music on top of a film like this, the handling was much more compelling due to the sound approach of the fear that lies beneath. The accelerated crescendo of the train wreck with its bursts of light and sound was tempered by gentler suspense. The main melodic theme is modified into a dreadful question mark as Paul’s wife searches for him- is he still alive? In the aftermath of the accident semi abstract compositions of dark and light, machinery, debris and human figures in silhouette emerging through smoke, invoke the Horror of an ordinary day and homecoming turned into a scene of devastation. The cinematography by Hans Androschin and Günter Krampf is striking, moving between the language of realism, expressionism and surreality. The Art Direction by Stefan Wessely and Hans Rouc brings elements of expressionistic angularity and unsettling ambiguities of scale into domestic settings. These small details like the oversized geometry of a drawing room rug or elongated fairy tale-like chairs combine with the lighting to enhance our sense of entering into a heightened reality, somewhere between the conscious and unconscious.

In the nightmare of Paul’s foggy bedroom we see the vulnerable human figure dwarfed by a giant fist threatening to crush him. It is a powerful example of visceral horror through sound and image which has distinct political associations. Accompanying this scene Frank Bockius used his elbow, compressing the air inside the drum to create an inner depth of sound of frightening physicality. Within that sound was the feeling of compression in the chest cavity triggered by Paul’s fear of the murderer Vasseur’s hands which have become his own. Something from the real/physical world is fighting for his soul and murderous, unconscious instinct is masquerading as the supernatural. The sounds created by the hand played strings of the open upright piano expose the psychology of the character, with the controlled, circular motion of brush on drum intensifying our felt sense of unease. There were times when this technique took on a spatial dimension, entering into a mind cave of madness. It was then brilliantly taken to a whole other level in a scene where the ghostly dead criminal instructs Paul’s maid to “seduce his hands” and the circling movement of brushes intensifies as she crawls towards him on all fours. The piano is introduced as Paul places his hands on her head, one hand of the piano pitted against the other, with the plucked tension of violin and piano strings internalising the struggle between good and evil.

The technique of using a drumstick inside the piano and hand played drum were particularly effective in creating a sense of dread, being overwhelmed by the will of Vasseur’s “cursed, damned hands!” Strangely I hadn’t really considered the piano as a percussive instrument before but it is all hammers and wired tautness, something Buchwald exploited to the full as a manifestation of the film’s moral dilemmas.  Paul symbolically hides the knife inside the piano and metaphorically inside his heart, but as the professor reminds him; head, heart and hands make a human being. “The hands don’t control the man”, the mind has ultimate control. In the context of the Weimar period this statement takes on prophetic relevance and profound irony. It is therefore not surprising that the doppelgänger emerges as a strong archetypal figure in the film. Whilst many cultures have tales of apparitions or the double of a living person associated with bad omens, the dark Romanticism of ETA Hoffman, Grimm’s fairy tales and Germanic folklore provide particularly fertile ground for exploration of the human psyche. The Hands of Orlac is a story about the power of belief which can bring damnation or redemption. When rationality usurps madness, Paul moves into the light declaring that his hands are clean.  I thoroughly enjoyed the spellbinding, imaginative scope of this film, equalled by Bockius and Buchwald’s arresting musical accompaniment.

“By the Law /Po Zakonu” (1926) Directed by Lev Kuleshov.

Whilst it is unrealistic to expect the same level of experience from a first time commissioned musician, as in all Art intention is everything. If an artist is fully engaged not just with their own performance but with the story on screen, then the audience will resoundingly feel it. This has nothing to do with musical style but the channelling of creative energy into something bigger than your own signature sound. Multi-award-winning, post-rock, Scottish composer and song-writer R.M. Hubbert (aka Hubby) is clearly a gifted guitarist and I enjoyed his acoustic sound, the problem was that often it had little to do with what was on screen. His newly commissioned score for the Soviet film By the Law /Po Zakonu (1926) relied too heavily on what I expect the artist already has in his back pocket when the imagery, themes and story demanded more. The film’s most striking sequences of human figures silhouetted against the luminous expanse of frozen landscape or the raw angularity of human faces in anguished close up, don’t chime with musical sequences of repetitive arpeggios and plodding rhythms. There’s real conflict in this film, in its moral dilemmas, its themes of man against nature and his/her own nature and the justice of law and religion, that is ripe for interpretation. Commissioned musicians have a unique opportunity to take an audience deeper into what they see on screen in new and innovative ways. The whole point is stepping out of your comfort zone and taking the audience on that journey of discovery with you-whether they’ve never seen the film before or have watched it multiple times. I felt as though I had discovered a film and a talented musician- just not together! Ultimately it was the visuals rather than the synthesis of sound and image that stayed with me. For this type of performance they have to equal each other, anything less than that is just a concert and in the context of a dedicated Silent Festival the difference is glaringly obvious.

“The Informer” (1929) Directed by Arthur Robinson.

Newly restored by the BFI, The Informer (1929) was a great example of international collaboration both in its original production and in live performance at its Hipp Fest Scottish premiere. Filmed at Elstree Studios by British International Pictures the creative production team included German/ American director Arthur Robinson, Swedish Actor Lars Hanson, British actor Carl Harbord and Hungarian actress Lya de Putti, with design and cinematography by J.Elder Wills, Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl. The artistic roots and filmic techniques of German Expressionism inform the depiction of 1920’s Dublin and the internal conflicts of the characters perfectly. It’s a Noirish world of light and shadow gripped by social, cultural and religious upheaval. Personal and political motives are pitted against each other and the smallest actions have life changing consequences. The semi improvised collaboration between British and German musicians Stephen Horne (piano & accordion) and Günter Buchwald (violin) was an excellent match for this technically and artistically sophisticated drama. Set in the newly independent Ireland of 1922, the story centres on a group of revolutionary activists and a fateful love triangle. It’s a brilliant Proto-Noir, fuelled by jealousy and betrayal where each character progressively becomes an informer, pursued by their fateful shadow selves and caught in a descending spiral of cross and double cross. In this first adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel the inescapable consequences of being a flawed human being are cinematically heightened.

As a film of the transition to sound period the decision to restore The Informer as a pure Silent, retaining the texture and visual depth of the original purple tint undoubtedly brings audience closer to the story. Developed in Silent mode without the static restrictions of sound recording, the camera is free to move and follow the characters, not just in terms of external action but getting inside their heads. Conscious and unconscious motivations are revealed without the addition of clunky explanatory dialogue. What Silent visual language and great musical accompaniment does best is to immerse us in the entire human predicament in a way that frees us to construct our own inner dialogues. This is a whole lot more fun than being told a story via talking heads or pushing emotional buttons through a predictably conventional soundtrack! It is also what human beings are hard wired for- to construct meaning and narrative through imagination. The sonic expression of that principle is found in the work of the best Silent Film accompanists who don’t just provide illustration and sound effects but lead us deeper into the moving image, the story and ourselves.

Horne and Buchwald’s live accompaniment took its cues very skilfully from the film’s central protagonists and their fatalistic trajectory. This musical foreshadowing is felt almost unconsciously in the opening theme, with the lilting spirit of a Gaelic lament. The melody immediately conveys an atmosphere of inevitable loss, setting the tone for the unfolding drama. Musically it anchors the story to place, the identity of the characters and the soul of Irish (and Scottish) Folk music, whose double face is sublime sorrow in song, coupled with life affirming dance rhythms. That fiery vitality transforms the main theme in the opening scene at party HQ, where the strong down stroke of the violin aligns with the hand on table gesture in close up, insistent on life through liberty. Here the main melodic theme inspires action rather than reflection, mirroring the nature and intentions of the gathering. Whilst theme and variations can be a vehicle for obvious dramatic effect in less experienced hands, there was a deeper emotional investment in play in direct synthesis with the projected image. In the very next moment we are subtly introduced to the dynamics of the central love triangle, quietly revealing itself in the solo piano as Gypo offers Katie a cigarette. It’s an everyday gesture transformed into a moment of recognition by what we see and hear musically, leading us to our own conclusions about the nature of the relationships between the three friends.  Sitting across the table from Katie who is arm in arm with his best friend, we share a moment of tender regard with Gypo that casts the die.  That quiet repose is shattered by a gunfight utilising the rumbling depths and high wired tension of the piano’s full expressive range. In the chaos that ensues, the ricochet of bullets in broken minor stabs of shrieking violin and tinkling ivories of broken glass underscore the violence. When the fateful shot is fired and Francis descends the staircase the melody follows him like his shadow on the wall, echoing his darkening destiny. As he takes to the hills looking back in a high sweet fade of pianistic regret, the flute then takes over as the lone voice of the fugitive in hiding. The choice of instrumentation and timbre comes to the fore in terms of the inner emotional state of the protagonist and the audience’s ability to empathise with him in that moment.

The idea that this story will not end well is an integral part of the film’s suspense. When the ultimate destination is revealed to the audience we anticipate the arrival without knowing the road that’s going to take us there, which is what makes the ride so gripping!  This progression towards the inevitable enters another interpretative level and emotional gear shift in a false scene of betrayal. The traditional melody She Moved Through the Fair is introduced on the accordion as Katie puts needle to the record to muffle the sounds of Francis’s escape. As the camera moves between action in different rooms of the apartment, variations in volume create a sense of physical space but also a haunted, distant quality in relation to the melody. The final notes that end the song lead the audience sonically and poetically into the ground/ grave. Even without ever having heard that song or having memory of the lyrics, its sound arc is ethereally fragile and resolves in loss. That sense of foreboding of death and lost love, moving in and out of time, is juxtaposed with what the character sees as proof of his sweetheart’s deceit, scratching away at his innards like the Buchwald’s violin bow. The filming of this sequence, where Gypo sees Katie helping Francis to escape in a mirror depth shot is immediately discordant, plunging us into his conclusion of guilt where in that moment there is none. The musical accompaniment informs what we see and increasingly feel, as jealousy overtakes him and the smoothly insidious sound of the violin takes over. He tests Katie and when she lies about not having seen Francis we see her shadow on the wall and from that frame onward we know that their three fates are tragically entwined. We feel it without being told or having it explained to us in words. Light, shadow and sound convey what is most essential in the scene. The artistry and understanding of Craft necessary to read and reinterpret film through sound is the accompanist’s greatest gift to the audience. The psychology of the music aligns with the inner world of the characters because of the musician’s honest, human and supremely skilled response to the film.

There are breath taking visual sequences in The Informer such as Gypo’s path to betrayal, the moment he sees the wanted/ reward poster and the violin staggers as  he does towards what he about to do to his best friend. The camera/ audience follow him close behind, into streets teeming with life, his fixed purpose harnessed by a harsher variation of melody as his flawed self emerges.  The sound moves through our consciousness as he moves through the world, on a certain path to destruction. When the deed is done and Gypo protests that he “didn’t do it for the money” the piano creeps softly into his conscience, perfectly in sync with the pace and emotional tone of his walk, carried in the body and his attendant shadow self. There are beautifully crafted visual elements of what might have been in the reflection of a smiling male mannequin in the shop window, contrasted with the actual exchange between Katie and Gypo underpinning another double cross of their hearts as she aids his escape. In conclusion the film’s cinematography and lighting together with the score transforms his sin into absolution through forgiveness. In the final frame we see the shadow of perfect sacrifice beneath the askew, prostrate body, like flawed humanity underpinned by divine grace. The BFI restore one film per year and I’m very glad they chose this one, however I’m even gladder that I saw it for the first time with such astute accompanists!

By way of introduction to The Informer the Hipp Fest tradition of accompanying features with shorts provided an opportunity for reflection on historical fictions and how archival footage can reveal our changing relationship with the past. A three minute British newsreel from 6th May 1916, filmed one week after the Easter rising in the fight for a free Irish state was accompanied very subtlety by Mike Nolan on piano. Viewing the sobering footage of British soldiers and smoking buildings conveying authority without explanation or justification was informed by the alternative voice of the piano. The accompaniment introduced emotional intelligence and powers of hindsight to the clip. The fake news on this day was the imagery of marching troops asserting colonial authority and control, deemed sufficient reportage on its own to reassure the British public. Seeing such events through an archival lens often forces us to re-examine attitudes and behaviours in the present, rather than simply assuming that now =progress. As a backdrop to the feature it was not just a historically linked news story but a timely reflective pause.

Laurel and Hardy in “The Battle of the Century”.

The ever popular Laurel and Hardy Triple Bill is an annual Hipp Fest tradition that always demands an encore. The universal appeal of Silent Film comedians such as Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin with their visual/ physical comedy setups crosses all generations, borders and potential language barriers. The entire world loves to laugh and there is nothing better or more restorative to the soul than collective laughter. Stan’s “thought free innocence” partnered with Ollie’s adult pomposity is a wondrous recipe for glee.  The selection of three 19 minute shorts from 1927-28 accompanied by the superb John Sweeney on piano provided a gloriously sunny afternoon’s entertainment, equal to the unbelievably bright Spring weather outside. In Putting Pants on Philip Stan Laurel plays the visiting Scottish cousin of J. Piedmont Mumblethunder (Oliver Hardy) who tries to convince him (unsuccessfully) to wear pants instead of his kilt and stop chasing women.  In The Finishing Touch Stan and Ollie are unleashed as unlikely house builders, falling foul of the law, the local sanatorium and causing unwitting destruction and hilarity. However the best was saved till last with the Scottish premiere of the complete two reel version of The Battle of the Century, recently restored by Lobster Films in France using newly discovered footage. It is always miraculous when missing film is discovered, because it can then be rediscovered by contemporary audiences with timeless enthusiasm and delight. What’s not to love about a progressively escalating finale featuring Stan, Ollie, a parked LA Pie Co van, the inhabitants of an entire town and 4000 custard pies?!

Phyllis Haver in “Chicago” (1927)

The closing night gala brought together Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) for a superlative performance of Chicago (1927). Sometimes in performance masterful musicianship, pure intuition, expert timing and unique rapport all combine to deliver something very special. Clearly they were having great fun accompanying this film and that invigorating energy was completely infectious. The bold, brassy tale of media darling and murderess Roxie Hart (magnificently played by Phyllis Haver) is a rich source of satirical comedy, even more strikingly relevant today than when the film was made. Directed by Frank Urson and Cecil.B.DeMille the story of Chicago is based on Maurine Dallas Watkins 1926 Broadway play, inspired by two separate real life murder cases Watkins covered as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. The tone is glitzy and sensational but also very cynically grounded in an age of mass media where being famous, pretty or both is enough to get away with murder.

The upbeat musical introduction set the scene for a party loving atmosphere of bright lights, big city with brash cymbals, jaunty phrasing and instrumental rhythmic refrain of “Chicago!” “Chicago!” That free-spirited optimism is paired with the intertitle reference to “a little girl who was all wrong”. The child/ woman in question is Roxie Hart who we first meet while she’s still asleep, lovingly observed by her doting husband who is busy doing chores and making her breakfast. The voice of the solo piano leaves us in no doubt as to his genuine love for his wife. As she slyly opens her eyes the sassy movement of brushes on the snare drum and the tinny sound of her garter bells her husband picks up off the floor lead us to the conclusion, without a word of dialogue, that her relationship with him is entirely one of convenience. The sonic judgement is that she is both cunning and shamelessly hollow. As Roxie’s husband Amos leaves for work he meets their young cleaning lady Katie on the stairs and trembling percussion reveals what’s in her heart. This quietly subtle, unexpected instrumentation heightens our sense of the brief, awkward exchange between them. The man with Roxie’s other garter is her rich older lover who tired of receiving endless bills for perfume, clothes and lingerie decides he’s had enough and threatens to leave her. In this apartment scene a portable keyboard above the piano stands in for the fairground –like sound of the pianola (self-playing piano) imitating joviality. The period dance tune “Ain’t She Sweet” aligns with Roxie’s annoyingly persuasive baby talk, the profusion of kewpie dolls in the apartment and is revived with mocking irony when she’s throwing a tantrum, deviously trying to get her own way or trying to throttle a rival in a hilarious prison cat fight. That capacity to tap into a character’s motivation and musically comment on it, sometimes in sharp contrast to what the character is doing to convince themselves or others around them on screen is a masterful skill.

When her usual seductive tactics fail and it becomes apparent that her human wad of cash is about to walk out the door, Roxie’s eyes narrow as piano and drum plumb the depths of her vindictive outrage. She picks up the gun and shoots her lover, then turns on the melodrama to mask her adultery in phoning her husband to come and rescue her. When he finds Roxie’s garter in the dead man’s pocket the deception becomes clear, unfurling like the inner range of the piano which deepens with his expression. As he throws the garter to the floor, silence is the strongest accent of dramatic recognition in that moment and it is intuitively given. Stephen Horne’s accompaniment for Silent Film is characteristically insightful and ingenious. The human story on screen is distilled in his music with emotional investment and thoughtful restraint. Both silence and sound have value and if high drama enters the frame then it is never translated into a clumsy, illustrative musical cliché, but something far more humanely nuanced and relatable. Frank Bockius is an equally versatile and accomplished musician, achieving percussive textures that take the audience beneath Chicago’s jazzy surface to a far more interesting psychological and imaginative space. Together these two musicians were astonishing to watch, like two halves of one mind in total unision. Their semi improvised approach allowed considered reflection within the story and freedom of expression with all parts equal to the spirit of the film. It’s the energy, artistry, imagination and commitment I hope for every time I go to a live Silent, which admittedly sets a very high bar, not just in performance but interpretation.

The range, depth and versatility of both musicians is quite extraordinary. When we see one of Roxie’s fellow prison inmates Charleston Lou (“who knifed her sweetie”) reading a book of Standard Etiquette with the chapter heading “Correct use of a knife” a pressured drum stick drawn across a cymbal helps deliver the joke.  Corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn is introduced to us by the sound of the accordion adopting his seasoned, well-heeled swagger and the flute is used, not for sweet ethereal airs but as an instrument of licentious persuasion when Roxie needs to bat her eyelashes to get what she wants. When Roxie’s husband is reduced to stealing money from Flynn to pay his wife’s legal bill, breaking a vase in his night-time raid and alerting Flynn’s butler, percussive precision takes the audience to the centre of the action. Hollow wooden beats and the hand used across the breadth of the drum surface allows us to viscerally move with them in the struggle.  Flynn’s highly amusing coaching of Roxie in how to behave during her trial is wryly aided by the plotting calculation of the piano. Instructed to wear masks of bravery, innocence, virtue and “droop” when attacked by the prosecution the sound of the kazoo accompanies her act of purity in the comical farce of the courtroom. The all-male jury are way too busy eyeing Roxie’s legs to listen to the evidence and when her defence appeals to them as “men of intelligence” the piano comments to the contrary. In Flynn’s closing argument “Heavenly bells” of judgement are actually cow bells on a passing cart outside and Roxie walks out of court scot-free, continuing to milk the publicity and posing for photographs. However she soon becomes yesterday’s news when Two Gun Rosy enters the courthouse and her husband finally comes to his senses and throws her out. The Kewpie doll and porcelain clown on the mantelpiece are smashed along with Amos’s image of himself in the mirror. On the rainy street outside Roxie sees her trial headlines trodden underfoot, a sequence borrowed by Michel Hazanavicius in his 2011 Silent film The Artist. She watches as her fame and fortune is swept into the gutter and down a storm drain. But all is not lost for husband Amos when Katie comes in to tidily console him and we are assured by the rousing, instrumental refrain of “Chicago!” “Chicago!” that happiness is just around the corner. In twelve months’ time (and counting) another Hipp Fest will be too!

Hipp Fest Website:

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/

Hipp Fest 2017 Programme:

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/Hippodrome_Silent_Film_Festival_2017.pdf

Glasgow Film Festival

15 – 26 February 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava.

One of the highlights of the annual festival calendar is visiting Glasgow each February. GFF programming is always stimulating with imaginative twists in presentation in different venues across the city. The post screening Q&A’s are plentiful, the audiences are demonstrably enthusiastic and the combination of inspired retrospective screenings with the latest releases from around the world is second to none. This year there was a lot to savour including exciting new work by emerging directors, a wonderful showcase strand of Canadian Cinema and a delightfully Noirish focus on Dangerous Dames. I’m still thinking about many of the films I’ve watched or have rediscovered over the last week including Elle, Paradise, Zoology, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Hounds of Love, Angry Anuk, Werewolf, Illegitimate, The Demons, The Levelling, A Quiet Passion, Berlin Syndrome, Lady Macbeth, Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gun Crazy, Secretary and Little Annie Rooney. The immersive experience of Film, place and people that is uniquely GFF is always invigorating and the perfect interior winter escape.

Winner of the GFF17 Audience Award Lipstick Under My Burkha had two sell-out screenings in Glasgow, ironically in the same week that the film was banned in India. Unjustifiably it has not been granted a certificate in writer/ director Alankrita Shrivastava’s home country on the grounds that it is too “lady orientated”. What’s shocking isn’t actually the content of the film which follows the lives, loves and desires of four women in Bhopal, India, but the regressive attitudes towards equality exposed by this blatant act of censorship. Filmmakers have a duty to address such basic issues as freedom of expression and human rights through their work, enabling voices that have been previously denied, suppressed or silenced to be heard. That this is perceived as a threat by those who benefit from maintaining patriarchal power under banner of tradition, righteousness or religious doctrine isn’t surprising but deeply regrettable. The main complaint against the film appears to be that women are doing “unspeakable” things in the film- like making essential life choices; seeking education, jobs outside the home, love outside of arranged marriage, the right to use contraception and to have satisfying sex lives.  As Shrivastava suggests; “our films and governing bodies tell us that women can be object of desires but can’t have desires of their own. That needs to change.”

Lipstick Under My Burkha brings into focus the increasing conflict between traditions of power and conformity vs accelerated economic development, media consumption and changing attitudes in a digital age. Globalisation and increased access to information technology promote the idea of freedom of choice and expression for all, however these rapid advances in communication don’t necessarily translate to political or social reform on the ground. Having to live an emotionally, intellectually or sexually secret life actively denies those freedoms. All four characters face consequences of judgement, ostracism, punishment and exile from their family / community by daring to dream, love or in refusing to accept the limiting role imposed on them. In the end as the characters are brought together, the opportunity of potentially supporting each other through shared experience brings hope and validation. This is something that festival audiences should never take for granted while there are still places in the world where assembling to watch a film or the act of screening it are a crime. Whether it is denial of film certification, representation of women on screen or opportunities working behind the camera, there isn’t a national film industry on the planet that could claim gender equality in 2017, which is why alternative independent film production is so vital in terms of advocacy. These aren’t just “lady orientated” stories but human ones that have a right to be heard.  An appeal has been lodged against the ban in India and hopefully success on the international festival circuit will bring many more people to this film, raising awareness, ensuring its wider distribution and promoting positive change where it is most needed.

Zoology Directed by Ivan I Tverdovsky.

Transformation of a different kind is the subject of writer/ director Ivan I Tverdovsky’s  Zoology, a wonderfully original take on the universal theme of the outsider. The story centres on a middle aged woman Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) living with her devoutly religious mother in a Russian seaside town. It’s an unrelentingly bleak and confined existence. Natasha is a lonely, isolated figure, constantly mocked and bullied by colleagues at the zoo where she works. The only warmth in her life is her own compassion in caring for her mother and her interactions feeding and petting the animals at the zoo. Then she grows a tail and starts living! She experiences the liberation of being herself for the first time, attracting the loving attention of a young doctor, together with the prejudice, superstition and intolerance of her community. Whilst the story might sound bizarre it is very much a modern fable tempered by Pavlenkova‘s subtle and completely engaging central performance. The tail becomes whatever the audience projects onto it and feels pertinently real in the questions it raises about personal and political freedom in Putin’s Russia and beyond. It’s a contemporary fairy tale with heart, soul, irrepressible joy and deep sadness at its core, where difference is celebrated but ultimately suppressed. We are reminded that conformity and belonging to an established order often trumps pursuit of personal happiness. Natasha’s acceptance by her young lover is rendered as emotionally void as her mother’s rejection because the focus is on her difference rather than her whole self. Moments of intimacy as the character begins to open up to her feelings and to those around her are particularly moving, but there is also a lot of humour making the film both hugely enjoyable and critically illuminating. Zoology is a strikingly unconventional film, focusing on a middle aged female character rarely permitted to take centre stage in mainstream cinema, but I love it most for the universally radical human value of empathy at its heart.

A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies.

Following the screening of his latest work A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as Nineteenth Century American poet Emily Dickinson, a Q&A with director Terence Davies (Distant Voices Still Lives, Of Time and the City, The House of Mirth, Sunset Song) also provided a focus on the outsider and the empathic role of the director. A witty, articulate, sensitive and intensely passionate interviewee, Davies talked about the essence of Dickinson’s poetry and personality in his “most autobiographical film” to date. He described the way that she “guarded her soul” with ruthless integrity, but was also subject to the same creative ambitions, longing and desire for recognition that all artists crave. Discovering Dickinson’s poetry as a young man through readings by Claire Bloom on television, Davies immediately went out and bought a book of her works. What he found within her poetry was a spiritual quest parallel to the lapsed Catholic in him, each trying to answer the question of “What do you do if you’ve got a soul and there’s no God?” What is inspirational in Davies’ creative approach is his humane spirit in the face of adversity; “Actors open their hearts to you and you must do the same” as a director. “You have to be open, then wonderful things happen”. His latest film is testament to the enduring power of imagination and the creativity that saves us. Wherever we may find ourselves in life, even within the confines of four walls “we have to have a rich inner life or the soul dies.”

Hounds of Love directed by Ben Young.

The death of the soul is one way of describing the murderous couple at the centre of Australian Writer/Director Ben Young’s debut feature Hounds of Love, the most psychologically disturbing film to come out of Australia since Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998). Developed, filmed, produced and set in Perth, Western Australia, the blinding heat and light of Christmas 1987 fuels the oppressive atmosphere of a film which explodes the myth of suburban safety. Based on real crimes such as the infamous David and Catherine Birnie case, there is an unnerving familiarity of place and events in living memory entwined with the film’s fiction, together with a uniquely Australian masculine undercurrent of potential violence. Young’s exploration of women who kill as co-dependent partners of men able to emotionally control them is distilled in the character of Evelyn. Emma Booth delivers a performance of astonishing range, convincing cunning and innate vulnerability, reminiscent of a young Judy Davis. She is joined by Stephen Cummings who is absolutely chilling as her manipulative, predatory and sadistic boyfriend John. We learn that at the age of 13 Evelyn was simultaneously recruited and “saved” from a life of familial abuse by John for the sole purpose of satisfying his own twisted desire for control, sexual violence and murder. Physically slight and frighteningly unassuming to the outside world, we also see in a scene with local drug dealers demanding payment how emasculated he is, later distilled into fury. Evelyn’s ability to use identification with their female victims to control them is equally horrific in its mastered execution. Evelyn’s children have been removed from her care and the nature of the couple’s co-dependency is intensely driven with John’s constant promise of their return to her. Shaped by abuse, rejection and self-loathing Evelyn’s need to be loved is so strong and has become so powerfully deformed that the cost is irrelevant, whilst  John needs her to lure trusting teenage girls into their car in order to abduct, torture and kill them for his pleasure. When they kidnap schoolgirl Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings) on her way to a party she must turn her captors against each other if she’s to have any chance of escape.

Use of slow motion, cruising through suburbia past scenes of every day family life, places the audience very uncomfortably inside the killer’s car looking for victims, playing on our deepest urban fears of random violence from strangers coupled with the hard truth of premeditated calculation. The framing of scenes through doors and barred windows creates an atmosphere of increasing tension which becomes concentrated even further in the confined, claustrophobic interior spaces of the couple’s house. Sound is the perfect tool to communicate terror over and above the visual depiction of brutal acts or gore. It’s the primal sense we fall back on in the dark, hard wired for survival and here it is used with brilliance and restraint to suggest the escalation of violence and the warped nature of the killers’ relationship. Songs of love and Christmas celebration are juxtaposed with opposing scenes of suggested violence and foreboding. Young’s film may be low budget but this is not a cheap slasher flick as it attempts to unravel and understand the motivations of its disturbing central characters, demonstrating great promise in terms of the director’s evolving skill. What Young deliberately chooses not to show the audience is pivotal in how this film communicates directly, viscerally and psychologically with the audience. Although the subject is harrowing and the suspended tension in some scenes is almost unbearable, I’m sure that it will be continue its momentum on the festival circuit, having already won Best Actress for Emma Booth and Best Director at the Brussels International Film Festival and the Fedora Award at the Venice Film Festival for best actress in a debut film for Ashleigh Cummings.

Werewolf directed by Ashley McKenzie.

Another tough drama worthy of attention followed by a fascinating Q&A with writer/ director Ashley McKenzie was her debut feature Werewolf, part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand of the festival.  Her story of Blaise and Vanessa, two homeless junkies still in their early twenties on a methadone recovery programme will have resonance for many rural communities throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Crewed and cast locally with all non-actors bar one, McKenzie’s film highlights the lives of young people falling through the cracks, failings in government policy and the Canadian Health and Social Care system. She also addresses the void of displacement and despair experienced by so many people living with addictions, bound to each other in toxic relationships or fatally addicted to the methadone cure. The style of framing, pushing characters to the edge of the composition, amplifying their feelings of being trapped with intimate close ups or just showing their mouths speaking because that is all the person behind the counter is seeing captures their predicament beautifully. There is also the poetics of the everyday in play with improvised scenes evolving naturally, characters slotted into working shifts and the creation of spontaneous moments of reflection, like the image of the Oreo grinder in the ice-cream shop and its endless cycle of halted movement. Mckenzie commented on the Drama of addiction portrayed in films such as Trainspotting as something she wanted to avoid in terms of the mundane, deadening reality of the methadone cycle where there is a lot of waiting involved; at the pharmacist, the clinic or social security office, moving from house to house doing odd jobs to scrape together hand to mouth cash, waiting for the opportunity to leave for a better life that never comes. Although addiction comes in many forms and touches many lives in rural areas it is a subject which is not openly discussed both in Scotland and in Canada.  Werewolf is an important first step in acknowledging that struggle in many communities, asking why dependency exists and what the nature of “the void” triggering it actually is. The film doesn’t provide answers but is a very compassionate attempt to understand, opening up a dialogue based on trust and familiarity with the local community. My only criticism would be that we don’t learn the backstory of the two protagonists and what has lead them to this point in their lives. This is something which begs further exploration as projecting the substance of this local problem has global implications and also feels like the next logical step up for this promising young director.

The Demons/ Les Demons directed by Philippe Lesage.

Another talented director showcased as part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand was Philippe Lesage. His impressively composed examination of childhood fears real and imagined in The Demons/ Les Demons presented a different slant on a “coming of age” drama. Set in suburban Montreal the story centres on Felix, a sensitive ten year old boy (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) grappling with friendship, guilt, love, parental conflict and the insecurities of growing up. Lesage captures beautifully the state of childhood, separate from the adult world where the smallest detail or suggestion becomes magnified, taking on its own reality. It is a pre- internet world where information and reassurance comes from overhearing adult whispers and from peers or siblings. In spite of dangerous turns of the plot in many ways Lesage’s vision of childhood through the eyes of his central protagonist is a resoundingly gentle one, founded on innocence and the doubts we all experience in the process of maturing. The comforting conclusion of the film is that all will be well. We feel that Felix has escaped childhood relatively unscathed with the support of his elder brother and sister and the image of his parents together by the lake waving to him like a living remembrance also affirms this. Clearly the experience is autobiographically close to the director which is part of the film’s authenticity and winning sentiment. It is refreshing to watch a film that quietly explores its subject in such a measured way. Even though there is a seriously deadly threat within Felix’s neighbourhood, it does not become part of his individual story nor is it introduced for tear inducing dramatic effect. These events punctuate Felix’s world but his awareness is thankfully still that of a child sitting in the sun smiling in the final frame, an image that is reassuringly ordinary and stylistically poised.

Angry Inuk directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril.

Director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk exposes the damaging impact of the global anti-sealing movement on Inuit communities. Focusing on the diminishing economy and threatened way of life in director’s homeland on Baffin Island, located in the Canadian Territory Nunavut on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, it is a film about ancient knowledge, resilience and survival. Angry Inuk  is an important film on many levels, a positive statement about ways of being in the landscape that are traditional, sustainable and respectful, lessons that must be learned if human beings are going to survive on this planet into the next century. With the Arctic region rapidly becoming the latest international battleground for natural resources (ironically opened up by global warming fuelled by unsustainable industry, mass consumption and decades of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions) the understanding of indigenous peoples on how to sustain life and thrive in challenging conditions is of paramount urgency and global significance. This is a revealing, articulate and insightful film which offers a different type of dialogue between indigenous people, environmental and animal rights groups to address the overarching threats to all life on our planet. The Inuit way of resolving conflict, expressed face to face, de-escalated through song and resolved in laughter has something to teach us all.

Dependence on seal meat and skins to simply maintain communities living in some of the harshest conditions on earth, in the face of climate change, economic uncertainty and widespread poverty is not a luxury trade. The quiet anger of a people decimated by decision making outside their territory without dialogue or consultation demands a new kind of activism to challenge misinformation and the multimillion dollar anti sealing campaigns endorsed by celebrities. It is heartening that Angry Inuk is succeeding in reaching audiences, winning the People’s Choice Award from Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival in Toronto. The screening at GFF generated a lot of discussion afterwards and it was clear from audience comments that the film was actively changing perceptions. Angry Inuk provides evidence of a different way for human beings to exist in relation to the environment whilst also being part of a global economy and providing much needed leadership. What emerges is the inspiring and enduring strength, dignity and pride of the Inuit people, together with possible solutions for sustainable hunting, management of natural resources and environmental conservation that the world and its leaders simply cannot afford to ignore any longer.

Mary Pickford as Little Annie Rooney.

The 1925 Silent Film Little Annie Rooney starring the luminous Mary Pickford was an unexpected delight in the True North Canadian Cinema strand and one of the great joys of this year’s festival.  It is easy to see why Pickford was one of the most internationally renowned and best loved stars of her day. As tomboy Little Annie Rooney, Pickford’s superb comic timing, pure pathos and innate sensitivity is conveyed in every thought, gesture and expression on screen. As a pioneer of the Motion Picture industry she understood the power of film as an empathic medium, not just in her artistry as an actor but in her understanding of film as a screenwriter, producer, director and co-founder of United Artists with Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks. With all the debate about the lack of female representation in mainstream film both behind and in front of the camera, Pickford is an inspirational figure and a commanding presence in the history of Film in spite of the demure label of “America’s Sweetheart”. Her intelligence plays out on screen in scenes which take the audience on a journey from laughter to loss and uplifting celebration. Racial stereotyping aside, Little Annie Rooney’s heartfelt innocence and earnest sincerity may belong to an earlier and less cynical age, but it is no less relevant in terms of sentiment, Craft and cinematic storytelling. Representation of Silent Film at contemporary film festivals should never be absent or underestimated. The origins of Film and why we need it emerges in the collective memory of shadow play, illumination and entertainment. If we strip back the medium it is at base about emotional connection and audience investment in what is depicted on screen. When Annie receives news of her Father’s shooting we run the gamut of complex emotions from the child hiding under the table to adult realisation of loss and despair. It’s a deeply affecting and satisfyingly layered scene, testament to how much the audience has invested in the central characters, their relationship to each other and how we project ourselves into the frame. There’s nothing primitive about the mode of expression, nor can it be dismissed as “vintage fun” although it is that too in terms of the whole enjoyment factor.  Watching Silent Film always revives me and after watching Little Annie Rooney I think I understand why.  As a critic I come to Art to be stimulated, challenged and to understand the Craft behind it, but on a more basic level I come to it in order to feel and connect with something uniquely, perceptively human and as part of an audience I know I’m not alone. As many actors and filmmakers have suggested at recent awards ceremonies we need empathic cinema now more than ever. In that respect the Silent Era is a wellspring and I hope that the Mary Pickford Foundation www.marypickford.org will continue to make more of her extraordinary work accessible to future GFF and other festival audiences. There is so much inspiration to be found in her personal story and in what she so skilfully communicates on screen.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

One of the most confrontational and controversial films of the festival in its depiction of an exceptionally strong and equally unpredictable woman is Paul Verhoeven’s latest work Elle.  I must confess that Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Hollow Man, Showgirls, Black Book) isn’t on my list of favourite directors! In seeing Elle I was very much putting my faith in lead actor Isabelle Huppert who clearly doesn’t suffer fools in real life and is a formidable presence even in her most subtle performances. The words “fierce” and “fearless” are often used to describe both her personality and on screen potential. I can’t imagine anyone else capable of playing the role of Michele in this film; the character is very much a vehicle for Huppert’s undeniable mastery of her Craft. Here she plays a thoroughly uncompromising, wilfully intelligent and beguiling woman, the head of a successful gaming company living in Paris. As a creative meeting makes clear it’s an industry and market she excels in, comfortably directing whatever content is necessary for maximum audience consumption. This typically male creative/ fantasy space is an interesting setting for a female character who by the sheer force of her personality and obvious skill commands respect, although not without resentment from younger male colleagues. She’s supremely confident in body and mind, unapologetically goes after what she wants, including having what she defines as a meaningless affair with her best friend’s husband and pursuing a neighbour’s husband, without any question of loyalty being part of the scene.

When she is raped in her home by a masked assailant who then stalks her, Michele’s response is to pursue him although not for revenge as we might expect. It is an incredibly rare and complex role in which the female protagonist behaves against type, refusing outright to become a victim of what has happened to her. Given the subject matter it’s a very fine line to walk and the reactions from male and female audience members around me were quite fascinating in that respect. I have no doubt that the film will create controversy, but I hope that on its wider release it will serve a more essential function as fuel for debate on what Femininity means, who our Female role models actually are on screen, the casting of women in particular roles and how in denial or acceptance we cast ourselves as well. The problem here is that neither the character or her backstory are in any way ordinary and this places a certain distance between the main character and the audience. As we learn Michele’s extreme history of childhood trauma the inference is that her strength is ironically borne of psychological damage which is a weakness the Drama demands. So when she starts to behave in an unorthodox way towards her attacker, actively seeking him out, confronting and stopping him in his tracks at one point, but also becoming a participant in his lived fantasy, she’s arguably exerting control, but only as part of a very highly developed coping strategy. Part of what makes Michele tick is the art of detachment, the ability not to make herself vulnerable or to surrender her powers of self-preservation to anyone. In this way she’s able to turn the tables on her attacker almost treating him like a case study, but there’s a disarming understanding between them, identified by his partner who observes that Michele fulfils a role that she cannot. Michele declares both herself and her attacker as “diseased” which to some extent taints her strength, resilience and truth as a character.

I’ve been debating the film’s many conflicted ambiguities in my head ever since and Bravo to Huppert because no other actress could manage believability and conviction within the same story line. This is a film that raises more questions than it answers and this is largely due to Huppert’s totally invested performance. Like all great artist/ collaborators I think she lifts Verhoeven’s game considerably and it didn’t surprise me to read a recent interview with the director in which he stated that this production was so far outside his comfort zone it generated real fear in him, which creatively speaking is a good thing. Elle is a psycho-sexual thriller set distinctly outside the Hollywood vein and surprisingly there is a lot of genuine humour in the film. Family scenes are hilarious and beautifully comedic, particularly those between Michele, her Mother, her son Vincent and their respective manipulative, gold digging partners. Michele delivers blunt summations of what the audience is thinking and so the truth like castor oil is down the hatch whilst our mouths are still open from laughing. Huppert’s naturally wry comedic turns are as sharp as her handling of the film’s most dramatic scenes and this brings welcome relief in a film dealing with very dark and loaded subject matter.    Adapted by screenwriter David Birke from the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Elle (or She) is complicated, provocative, confrontational, iconoclastic and impossible to definitively classify- arguably all the things a satisfying work of Art should be. So why does it make me uneasy? Perhaps because one woman however feistily played by Isabelle Huppert still doesn’t feel like enough!

Paradise directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

Another film etched into my mind is Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival and a well-deserved accolade. Konchalovsky delivers a beautifully crafted, intensely affecting and painfully relevant human response to the Holocaust. Sadly the misappropriated extremist ideal of building a paradise on earth is still creating Horrors around the globe and the director’s strength here is in choosing to bring the audience intimately face to face with three different characters that push the boundaries of resistance, acceptance and morality.

Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is a seemingly innocuous middle aged family man who we learn is an official with the French police and a Nazi collaborator responsible for the torture and deportation of prisoners to concentration camps. He is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” personified, a figure of pitiable mediocrity, part of the complicit Vichy administration, betraying fellow citizens for personal gain and carrying out his duties without conscience or ever getting his own hands dirty. Olga (Julia Vysotskaya) is a former Russian aristocrat accused of being part of the Resistance and helping to hide Jewish children, threatened with “interrogation” leading to inevitable confession and doing whatever she can moment by moment to survive. Helmut (Christian Clauss) is a well-educated, cultured and suitably Ayran nobleman selected by Himmler to audit the death camps. Prior to the war Helmut and Olga moved in the same privileged circles, dancing on the edge of an abyss in pristine, sunlit flooded oblivion. Whatever truths or lies each character has constructed in order to deal with the hell they find themselves in are laid bare in a way that resists simplistic readings of good or evil. Everyone is inescapably haunted by these events, even if a veil of delusion is drawn across their faces. The film brings the audience face to face with just how easy it is to reduce human beings to animals or machines in the service of a higher cause. For good or ill redemption and righteousness rest upon belief.

Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015) immersed the audience as never before in the mode of survival of its main character, revealing the unhinged chaos of lives being systematically destroyed by Nazism. The emotional immersion of Paradise operates in a different way, in the confessional delivered to camera testimonials and memories of three characters whose lives are entwined by war and genocide. This quality of placing the audience in the position of counsellor, judge and witness is heightened by the use of film stock which provides seemingly time based edits. Film cuts out or dissolves into light, blurring the line between archive, documentary and fiction. Cleverly using a 4:3 ratio, 35mm and 16mm home movie type film stock Paradise recreates 1940’s historical authenticity. This isn’t just an aesthetic choice but an ethical one in terms of how the lives of the characters are experienced by the audience. Alexander Simonov’s cinematography is absolutely exquisite, fully exploiting the beauty and clarity of Black and White, weighing the soul of every frame, perfectly aligned with the film’s subject matter and mode of storytelling through disclosure. He uses the medium of photography as expanded light, creating breath taking compositions, from vivid dreams, aspirations and remembrances to the soiled sweat, filth and smoke of the concentration camp which invades every pore of your skin and stops your breath. The aesthetic is superbly poised on a knife edge, like a scene in Himmler’s office lit to perfection. It’s the blacker than black inner sanctum of the Reich with its Neo Classical sculpture consummately staged and illuminated. This atmosphere also links to the sound design. As Himmler welcomes Helmut to the SS we feel what the character feels, there’s a sickening presence in the room disguised as honourable authority. Helmut excuses himself and goes to the luxuriously appointed and spotlessly clean bathroom to vomit and hears through the ventilation system tortured voices floors below more animal than human. Although he doesn’t consciously recognise it having been blinded by Nazi doctrine, his gut response being in Himmler’s presence and to the SS brotherhood ring on his finger betrays his humanity in that moment. This is unlike any other cinematic treatment of the Holocaust I’ve seen, bringing history vividly and mindfully into the present.

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past/ AKA Build My Gallows High.

One of the features of GFF I most enjoy most is the regular series of themed free morning screenings held in GFT1. This year’s focus on Dangerous Dames with a welcome dose of 1940’s Film Noir was outstanding and thoroughly enjoyed judging by the audience applause. Given my love of films from this particular era and even though I had seen them many times before, I timed my visit to include screenings of Out of the Past (1947) directed by the incomparable Jacques Tourneur starring Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, Gun Crazy (1950) starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, looking forward to the added bonus of GFF Co-Director Alan Hunter’s magnificent introductions. How we think of the Femme Fatale and the actresses who played them, doubly framed by the studio system, is a whole other blogpost! It isn’t just the quality of retrospective films in this strand I keep coming back for. There is really nothing better that watching Vintage films with a packed house embraced by the equally vintage elliptical curvature of Glasgow Film Theatre or “The Cosmo” which opened in 1939. Waiting in line to go in or immersed in the comforting pre-screening half-light I often hear people’s reminiscences of the cinema emerging out of the chattering hum. Hearing how they met friends there- some still with them others passed away, how they courted their spouse, discovered a particular film, fell in love with a mesmerising star or simply escaped to a different reality.  For me the magic isn’t just in the story on screen but within the walls of the cinema, in all of the lives, hopes and dreams that have passed through it. It is always a privilege to be there on a weekday morning captivated by the action, romance, comedy and tragedy of what we all are. It’s the kind of connective experience that can’t be replicated on any technological device because people and place are such an integral part of the live cinema experience.  In that respect Glasgow offers something very special which is why I keep returning year upon year.

www. glasgowfilm.org/Glasgow-film-festival

La La Land

Emma Stone (Mia) and Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) in La La Land.

Stepping forwards into the global uncertainties of 2017 the world could certainly do with some light. The Hollywood Dream Factory has always excelled at manufacturing escapism of an exceptionally shiny variety. For many people “forget your troubles c’mon get happy” is what Film, particularly the Musical genre are all about. I too love an entertaining dose of dazzlement and optimistic sparkle, magnificently choreographed chorus lines, staged spectacle, toe tapping show tunes and lavish couture that momentarily convinces me that the only way all stories should end is happily. Watching The Wizard of Oz, 42nd Street, Top Hat or You Were Never Lovelier never fails to make me leave the cinema grinning from ear to ear, inwardly dancing down the street and humming melodies for days afterwards. Film musicals of the 1930’s and 40’s are an escape to a more innocent time that temporarily make me forget the world outside the cinema, entering into a kind of romanticised La La Land. Classic Hollywood musicals of the 1950’s like Singin in the Rain, Guys and Dolls or An American in Paris deliver cinematic song and dance in an understandably buoyant post war mood of technicolour brightness. Who wouldn’t be swept away by the sublime grace and athleticism of Gene Kelly dancing with every fibre of his being, or revel in the anticipation of Brando crooning “Luck be Lady” while rolling the dice? Golden Age Hollywood is full of uplifting musical distractions, Romantic, comic and delightfully entertaining. As much as I love them there is a different kind of musical I love even more. The raw energy of West Side Story that still packs a timeless punch, the poignancy and biting satire of Cabaret, the guts, vulnerability and human substance of Les Miserables or the profound truth about living a creative life that is Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Sunday in the Park with George.

You Were Never Lovelier (1942) starring Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire.

My love of musicals sits somewhere between staged theatrical spectacle and intimate cinematic close up. Similarly my highest expectation in watching a musical on stage or screen is grounded magic, the kind of creative vision that acknowledges the great undertow of life’s losses, doubts and regrets and chooses to dance on regardless, because at base (and in the words of Little Orphan Annie) we have to believe that “the sun will come out tomorrow” and live in hope. Following five star reviews, widespread critical acclaim, a record  seven Golden Globe Awards, 14 Academy Award nominations and 11 BAFTA nominations, the buzz around Damien Chazelle’s La la Land as the new musical for the 21st Century has been steadily building. Those accolades are well deserved. La la land is not simply a case of the Dream Factory narcissistically slapping itself on the back. Like The Artist, which captured the imagination of audiences in returning to the pure wellspring of Silent Era invention and storytelling, La La Land also holds up a mirror to Hollywood. Beneath their highly polished surfaces both films subtlety illuminate the industry; “That’s LA. They worship everything and they value nothing.” La La Land like The Artist is a love letter to the medium of Film, responding to the Zeitgeist of our digital, celebrity laden world, not just by tipping its hat nostalgically at films of the past in remembrance of a bygone era, but bringing that love, passion and understanding of Craft to bear in creating new work.

The sun drenched Cinemascope of La La land isn’t just sentimental Retro or optical gimmickry but imaginative reinvention, shooting in 35mm with custom lenses  because in the context of a story about living your dreams, the medium captures and transmits light in a way that digital never could. The richness of colour, light and performance is immediate, not generated or obscured by unconvincing additive layers of post-production. From the opening number “Another day of Sun”, where the camera roams through an LA traffic jam among the singing dancers with the same free floating emotive rhythm of possibility, Swedish Director of Photography Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy) creates a feeling of seamless naturalism. To achieve this in a genre where the artificiality of bursting into song is often cinematically magnified is quite a feat, but here the visuals, music and movement create unexpected continuity, immersion and brilliance. The heightened palette of colour feels real, because it is aligned with the emotional core of the film and the aspirational nature of its characters. Justin Hurwitz’s score shifts effortlessly between and strikingly beneath exuberant joy and introspective melancholy. Similarly Mandy Moore’s choreography moves through the staged environment with unassuming ease, chiming perfectly with the emotional core of scenes like Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian’s’(Ryan Gosling) beautifully understated Pas de Deux. Whilst there’s energy in abundance this isn’t aimed at putting on a show but revealing what lies at the heart of the story.  Key moments of emotional recognition are significantly slowed down and quietly contemplative in keeping with the tone and rhythm of the whole production.

Emma Stone in La La Land

Above all Chazelle’s vision is a homage to artists of all disciplines- “the fools who dream” in creating the Art of Cinema. The irrepressible spirit of this idea is expressed by Emma Stone in an audition scene where the direction within the story is to improvise, the actress performing to camera with background piano accompaniment in real time. Like Tom Hooper’s approach to Les Miserables the close up is used to wonderful, immersive effect to the point where we forget that lines are being sung rather than said. In an earlier audition Mia is acting her heart out, inhabiting the character she’s playing to a gallery of total indifference, being halted mid flow because someone wants to do a lunch order. The camera and the viewer’s investment in the scene is inches away from her face and our hearts sink with hers at the lack of respect for her efforts. It’s the one woman show that nobody’s watching. The shared experience for the audience in that moment is of rejection in spite of giving your all to something, followed by the potentially overwhelming doubt that “maybe I’m just not good enough.” We’ve all been there.

In the Griffith Park Observatory scene, an original setting for James Dean’s  Rebel Without a Cause, the viewer’s disbelief is suspended by the feeling of stepping onto a cloud and dancing among the stars because that’s exactly what falling in love feels like, unreal in the best possible way. Whilst historic film references are peppered throughout, there’s something else at work here in gaining the inspiration of the past. “Vintage”, “Retro” and “Analogue” are all around us today, adopted as marketing terms, but the fascination with the pre-digital past reflects an increasing demand for basic connections human beings can’t live without, things we can actually touch. Chazelle’s La la Land is all about that grounded sense of reality, reaching out for something in the form of waking dreams.

Ryan Gosling in La la Land.

Although there’s familiarity in the central love story; boy meets girl and the Hollywood sunset is wasted on them as they declare their dislike for each other, there are refreshing twists in how the relationship develops. In seeing each other for who they truly are they can let go of the illusionary trappings of Romance. Within the sunshine “Someone in the crowd” could be the one who “takes you where you want to go” there is a deeper level of resonance in the universal desire to be loved. Creatively love is what brings Art to life and La la Land is all about that integrity and vital purism. Innovation is founded on understanding the traditions of your chosen discipline so that you can push them further in making new work-without knowledge of the alphabet and grammar you can’t create any kind of poetry. Sebastian’s love of unadulterated Jazz means he’ll probably never play stadiums but the music has its own life and for him it’s the only meaningful life there is. I love the fact that the film’s director loves the medium enough to create the same kind of Art and a cinematic statement all of his own in the process.

In Whiplash Chazelle gave us the darker side of being artistically driven in the musical power play between teacher and student. La La land might seem like its charmingly bright polar opposite, but along with the uplifting joy of this film there’s also sadness at the core of it. It’s in the old Rialto Cinema we see has closed down through Mia’s car window, in Sebastian’s stripped back piano solo, in the mural of fading Hollywood stars outside the bar where Sebastian plays and in the equality of saving each other’s dreams coupled with the reality of having to walk away. There are sequences that very tellingly blur the line between what is real and what we yearn for; the life we might have led, the choices we might have made and still have been true to ourselves. In many ways the film’s perfect ending feels more real than the one we might have expected based on Romantic  mainstream conventions.

There are blissfully funny moments too- anyone who grew up with the synth pop of a Flock of Seagulls in the 1980’s will love the pool side party sequence. Generation X’s and younger will also relate to an inherited world of uncertainty and the tarnished dream of opportunity that defines the so called developed world. In La La Land taking a risk, being yourself and following your dreams is rewarded, but not without personal cost. Nevertheless the film is an affirmation of creativity behind, in front and beyond the camera. La La Land is more than just a fleetingly sunny day in film land. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to have one foot on the ground and step onto a cloud simultaneously and in the crazy world we’re living in, that’s a blessing.

Karla Black and Kishio Suga: A New Order

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art  22 October 2016 – 19 February 2017

Kishio Suga Condition of Critical Boundary, 1972. Wire mesh, brick, wood, stone (dimensions variable) Installation view at Tamura Gallery, Tokyo, 1972. Photo: Kishio Suga. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

Each thing and space had belonged to particular worlds of their own before they were hand picked up by the artist and in these worlds they all had preconditioned orders labelled by nature or by people. Orders here mean ranked situations or hierarchy, whether they have certain parts in the place or not, their values, demands, qualities or quantities…my final point in making artworks is to introduce ways to see and learn about things, to perceive an existing space differently so that viewers can experience a new kind of order. If they can apply their experience with art into their daily life, the new order may find settlement there. I would like to introduce a new way of reacting (to situations) in all viewers.”  Kishio Suga, essay Between ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’ (2005)

The pairing of Glasgow based artist Karla Black (b. 1972) and Japanese artist Kishio Suga (b.1944) is inspired in terms of the questions raised about how we experience the world and the entire arena of Contemporary Art. A New Order is the first in a proposed series of exhibitions placing the work of Scottish contemporary artists in an international context. It is also the first major exhibition of Kishio Suga’s work in the UK, coinciding with his solo exhibition at the Dia Foundation in New York and his retrospective at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Part of the informal, pioneering, and experimental Mono-ha (“School of Things”) movement in 1960’s and 70’s Japan, Suga’s work incorporates everyday organic and industrial materials including stone, wood, iron, wire, glass, zinc, earth and paraffin wax. “Rejecting representation” and the “illusionism” of Western Art, he presents the viewer with “situations” where materials are placed in a specific location to explore the relationships between them, the surrounding space and the human mind perceiving them.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the plethora of contemporary artists now working with the assemblage of everyday, found objects/ materials and forget that not all Art evolves out of the same ground of intention as that which the 21st Century Art market made fertile. Although they have become synonymous the business of making Art and the Art World business are not the same thing and this exhibition provides a good opportunity to reappraise expectations of how full, empty or poisoned the Contemporary Art chalice might be. Historically Suga represents a different generational, ground breaking spin on re-assembling the world, a “New Order” of seeing,  which I think is at odds with how many viewers today may initially approach this work, having been lulled into material familiarity. The best works in this show from both Black and Suga arguably have their origins in a ground of understanding beyond an instantaneous, fleetingly bright idea or the desirous draw of certain materials. Connections are made holistically through the senses and with the dynamics or tensions of seeing present in each room. This is particularly true of singular works which effectively command the space they occupy.

Kishio Suga Left-Behind Situation 1972/2012 Installation view at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Tsuyoshi Satoh

Kishio Suga’s Left-Behind Situation (1972/2012, Stone, steel plate, brick, wire rope) is a very good example. The first thing that hits you is the smell of timber which is powerfully evocative, pieces in natural states contrasted with veneered, manufactured fragments, placed at intersections in a complex matrix of suspended wires. The primary sensation is physical rather than intellectual, which is unexpected in what might seem like purely conceptual territory. Often when encountering art installations we walk in –get the idea and walk out again; there’s nothing to imaginatively reveal itself and its game over once we read the explanatory label beside the work. What made me smile; standing on the threshold of the doorway to this work and my own curiosity was feeling slightly off-kilter. I like it when Art isn’t easy, when it intrigues or disarms me in ways I don’t expect. I don’t want to hear the punchline first or be told what to think or feel about a piece of work, which is why I avoid all text labels in the first instance to see what the work itself has to say. What I discovered in Suga’s Left-Behind Situation was a pleasing sense of precariousness in play, also seen in Interconnected Spaces (2016, Rock and rope) where the weight of a stone contained in its shadow pins down four ropes, tethered to the gallery walls. It’s strangely beautiful in its simplicity and pregnant silence. The placement of this work in the bare room made space for me to stop and pay closer attention to what was around me and where I stood in relation to the work on various levels. I began to notice circular marks on the floor, whether accidental/ residual or intentional it was impossible to say. It felt as though they were stains around where other placed stones may have stood, or perhaps they were marks left by a different artist from an entirely different show. The point was I was curious about everything in that room, including the marks on the wooden floor. The form and texture of the boulder with its aged erosion and dirt expanded my focus, framed by the tension of ropes. When I first stood in the doorway, seeing this work from a distance, I felt as though time had stopped; a moment before the possibility of ropes snapping to potentially fling the stone across the room, so where I stood in relation to it became a question mark. The large boulder felt like a living entity rather than a dead object, an opportunity for the viewer to pause and imaginatively grapple with their relationship to the raw, natural material and the surrounding man-made space. There is something very Zen about this work which doesn’t stand upon words but the dynamics of perception as an infinitely fluid process. The Art work acts as a point of reference rather than the end product representing, describing or symbolising a certain meaning. In many ways Suga’s work strips Art of its Western preoccupations of attributing value and describing meaning, reassembling materials from the real world so that the viewer can compose their own New Order.

Kishio Suga Interconnected Spaces, 2016.Installation view at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Photo: Sam Drake.

In a similar way I remember very clearly my first encounter with Karla Black’s impressive, resonant installation works in the barrel vaulted Hall of GOMA back in 2012 which floored me with their formal structure and fragile delicacy. (See “Writing” tab of archived reviews)There was so much more in play than just an idea or materials extracted from the mundane domesticity enshrined in an empty white space. The raw material of Black’s Art provoked a multitude of questions and associations, engaging all of my senses in a powerful, unanticipated way. Her painstaking, mindful construction inside that particular architecture naturally spawned layers of interpretation and went a long way to dispelling what I usually see as the Turner Prize nominee curse of endorsement. Ideas or technique by themselves are never enough, nor are they very satisfying for the viewer when seen consistently in isolation. Just watch people in contemporary art spaces the world over reacting to the work and then attempting to marry that response to the labelled attribution of value and meaning beside it. Be assured -your guts are never wrong! All Art stands or falls all by itself, regardless of what may be written alongside it.

What my guts told me about Black’s work in that moment was to pay attention- not to the branded ego of the artist (thankfully not present) which is often the only thing on display, but to the very tactile qualities of the chosen material and my relationship to them as a human being standing in that space, as part of a wider world of imagination. There is something very freeing and also grounded about Black’s approach and intentionality, aligned with the meaning of play in human development, drawn from the unconscious. In a low, horizontal work like Better in Form (2016, Cotton wool, kitchen towel) she encourages us to psychologically get down on the floor in terms of the inner child and move into a different state of sense recognition. Part of this derives from the artist’s own memories of play as a small child; contact with water and sand, but that tactile discovery of the world is universal in all human development. The colour, texture and smell of materials are potent triggers, providing immediately tangible ways into works which resist classification; what the artist describes as “almost” sculpture, painting and performance art, “pulling back” the work before it becomes the label. In Black’s own words; “I think of language as an inadequate, primitive tool. The primary function of the work is aesthetic, formal and material. What comes first is colour and form, composition and scale and then a very firm and separate second comes language.”

Before we learn hierarchies of class, culture and attributions of value, as children we all naturally respond to what we can see, hear, touch and smell with spontaneity and desire. Black’s materials; cellophane, ribbon, sellotape, plaster, chalk powder, soil and dominant palette of pastel baby blues, pinks, yellows and greens are non-threatening, comforting invitations to the viewer. They’re not visually or emotionally cold as they anchor the aesthetic to what is tacit. The shimmer of eyeshadow, lip gloss, petroleum jelly or the softness of cotton wool, polythene and powdered paint exist in Black’s pre-gendered world of exploration and discovery. What convinces is the physicality of material as an emotional touchstone, rather than its intellectualisation through language- it’s about human creative process rather than product or the artist as a brand. Black’s work is refreshingly real in that respect; only abstract in the sense that we are preconditioned to regard Art as something belonging to somebody else, divorced from daily life and the instinctual base of learning that is what we are as a species. Having unleashed my Id standing in the doorway of Gallery 3 viewing Black’s Too Much About Home (2016, Cotton Wool, powder paint, plaster powder, cellophane and sellotape), was frustrating because her work invites closer inspection through touch. The installation is grounded on the floor, extending to the ceiling and one wall, inhabiting the space like a growing organism and creating a topography of feeling in the gradated, low relief rise of teased out cotton wool and scattered pink, yellow, blue and green pastel pigment. You can see the imprint of the artist’s footprints into the middle of the work, still fresh from construction.  It’s a soft, cushion of an island with a triptych of paint suspended on cellophane above, hung from a pliable framework of sellotape, reawakening child-like curiosity, instinct and traditional painterly awareness of composition. Crisp, transparent material is contrasted with comforting hues and cloud-like cotton wool, evoking memories of childhood when we weren’t afraid to make anything. In the corridor outside a series of Black’s hung compositions present evolution of mark and form; progressing from the defined structure of cotton wool balls, flattened into a ground for gestural paint marks, Abstract Expressionist-like fields of overlapping pastel colours which then morph into singular sculptural forms; relatively small in relation to the space around them, but quietly commanding all the same. There’s a sense of play and experimentation with the base elements of Art making; colour, form, line and texture within a subtly equal tonal range.

The sculptural form Actually Mark (Cotton wool, balsa wood and eyeshadow) isn’t monumental in the way we might expect; with a totemic pink plinth of modest scale occupying a room all to itself, the certainty of its edges ambiguously fluffed in cotton wool and coloured by impermanent makeup, attended by a smaller familial blue form on guard near the threshold. The way the works speak to each other in terms of form, scale and colour is an imaginative trigger and although the artist denies gender or cultural associations with colour, they are unavoidable in the mind of the viewer; perhaps saying more about human conditioning than the artist’s intent.  Other Civil Words (2016, Polythene, powder paint, plaster powder and thread) is another example where pink and blue pigmentation isolated in knots are collectively suspended above the floor like a silent pause in an opaque web of relationships. The gentle tensions of the material pulled and knotted into formal opposition is fragile, equally poised and tethered inside a still room. There’s a feeling of slight unease, with the possibility of movement should the slightest breath of air or atmospheric change enter the space. It is a surprisingly human and emotive work made from ethereal, mundane materials and elevated; in physical height and by the act of display in the gallery space. Permanence, commemoration and monumentality isn’t the aim or trajectory of Black’s Art. Instead the focus is on the plinth upon which we place our own expectations and constructs which she encourages us to abandon for something arguably more experientially real.

The felt sense and physicality of the materials speaks when standing in the space that Black’s work occupies because the viewer’s imagination is free to fill it. There are no prescribed meanings, although it could be argued that titles dance along that tightrope. Similarly Suga’s use of Japanese ideograms attempt to resist the descriptive labelling of his Art, although in the context of a Western Gallery space arguably there will always be translations and explanations present. (Interestingly a resources room has been provided in this exhibition.) However Suga’s work is essentially about “Activation” in that what is intended is for the “viewer [to start] to think about what it means”, presenting the possibility of multiple layers of human thought and action without spoon fed conclusions. What said this better than any text ever could was the grainy profundity of Suga’s photograph of one of this fieldworks, Condition of Perception (1970, Silver gelatin print). This documentary image of the residual mark left by a stream of water down a residential Tokyo Street is, even in its spilled state, eternally fluid. That line of water invites your eye deeper into that fixed, two dimensional, but ever expanding space. In that moment captured on film there is something incredibly moving and humane about that vision, even though it is one step removed in being a record of a human action with a natural element in play. My immediate response to this photograph was overwhelmingly emotional. Significantly I felt the possibility of what was being said and the difficulty of communicating a temporary action or art work was overcome by the eye/ mind composing the image and activating the shutter. What shone through the image was intention, openness and hope, placing trust in the viewer to find what they will in that fluid movement between an element of Nature and human nature, which is hardwired to seek understanding.This is an exhibition which challenges the viewer; “I’m looking but am I really seeing- what could that element be? I want to unravel it.”

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/karla-black-and-kishio-suga/

14th Inverness Film Festival

Eden Court, 9- 13 November.

Thhana Lazović in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

Thhana Lazović in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

“Cinema is universal, beyond flags and borders and passports.” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Every time I attend a film festival non film geek friends and colleagues look baffled when I tell them that I’m about to spend consecutive days and nights sitting in the dark watching films back to back, then an equal amount of time mentally unpacking them. To a lot of people films are just escapist entertainment and they certainly can be, but what I love most about film festivals- and IFF in particular, is that they expand my mind and understanding of what an amazing medium Film can be. In the hands of the best filmmakers, past and present, seeing is a multi-dimensional, active experience rather than a passive one and the same is true of the best curation. In imaginative terms we weave our own stories into what we see on screen and the shared theatrical experience of cinema-going is also part of that creative process of identification and discovery.

Napoleon (1927) Directed by Abel Gance.

Napoleon (1927) Directed by Abel Gance.

In the words of IFF Festival Director Paul MacDonald-Taylor; “One of the most magical aspects of cinema is that it opens up a window onto the world. It shows you sights and people that you might otherwise never get the chance to experience.” This year’s IFF was full of such magic, in a way that feels very responsive to the times we’re living in; expanding the world view rather than shrinking it. In exposing audiences to lives, cultures and places, unseen or unknown, independent cinema has a very significant role to play on the global stage. While debate in the industry rages about diversity, race and the under-representation of women in film, look no further than independent films and this year’s IFF programme for a lived experience of equality without the need for branding. Held over 4 days, as opposed to 10+ at larger red carpeted festivals, here there’s no room for mediocre padding. It’s about cherry picking the best films available, irrespective of where they’ve come from or who has made them. This year’s festival presented over 50 films including 6 shorts showcases, 26 Scottish and 3 UK premieres, with a thematic focus on The Roof of the World and timely celebration of women behind the camera. The presence of pioneering archival content, exciting debuts from emerging directors, outstanding performances and provocative subject matter made this a super stimulating festival and an encouraging year for women in film. There were many highlights including The High Sun, After the Storm, Paths of the Soul, The Handmaiden, United States of Love , The Eagle Huntress and Kevin Brownlow’s magnificent five and a half hour digital restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 Silent masterpiece Napoleon to name just a few. (This might be a good time to go make yourself a cup of tea and get comfortable!)

Valentina Herszage in Kill Me Please /Mate-Me Por Favor directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira.

Valentina Herszage in Kill Me Please /Mate-Me Por Favor directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira.

IFF has a fine tradition of introducing audiences to first feature debuts by emerging directors and also providing subversive alternatives to predictably crowd pleasing  opening night fare. Set in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s debut feature Kill Me Please/ Mate-Me Por Favor is driven by teenage curiosity, fantasy and a spirit of experimentation; grappling with self, sex and death. The story centres on Bia (Valentina Herszage), a 15 year old girl and her friends over a turbulent summer. A succession of young women have been found murdered and dumped in nearby waste ground. It’s a world of dark vulnerabilities and soulless apartment blocks in which adults are conspicuously absent. Bia and her elder brother Joao, are fending for themselves while their mother pursues her own life. Joao spends most of his time at home on the internet, constructing fantasy relationships, at one point turning the focus upon the screen/camera/audience as the object of desire. It’s a film that like the fascinations of its teenage protagonists is forever shifting in and out of focus, a style of storytelling which divided the audience, but totally fits the burgeoning awareness of the central character. This state of flux is also achieved by imagery grounded in light or its absence, dreams, folklore, hauntings, and the intense ebb and flow of teenage attractions/ obsessions. It’s meant to be uncomfortable because adolescence is essentially a kind of death and particularly dualistic for young women; “Blood is life” and mortality simultaneously. The director draws upon the Giallo Horror tradition, merging that voyeuristic genre and palette with You Tube generation mobile phone selfies and music video in your face sexuality. Often the camera/ viewer is placed in the position of the killer or voyeur which is uneasy territory, but an interesting confrontation with the passivity of seeing we’ve come to expect from mainstream “coming of age” dramas. In accordance with every B Grade Horror film ever made the sex=death trope is invoked, but the heroine Bia goes out to meet that idea, challenging the concept of victimhood and objectification by actively seeking experience, which in conclusion feels like bravery on the part of the director and her heroine. In a traditional role reversal Bia’s boyfriend, who takes her to prayer meetings and wants to slow things down, isn’t demanding or aggressively masculine. Although not unmasked completely, the potential for sexual violence is tested by the female character instead, against the backdrop of local serial killings. Sometimes the imagery is disturbingly contradictory; female assertiveness VS teased out slow motion dance numbers, the female pastor in gaudy makeup and sequins preaching purity through pop music or the camera moving in and out of darkness whilst a woman is being murdered, the identity of the attacker and victim remaining hidden. In the midst of this ambiguous exploration of adolescence are the threads of an inconclusive thriller, which I suspect may have frustrated some viewers, but the serial crime here is part of an atmosphere of fear, rather than driving the narrative. The girls tell each other stories; conflate and amplify the circumstances around them, fixated on the gruesome details of the attacks and how Bia looks exactly like one of the dead girls, which in psychological terms she is. Kill Me Please is a plea to release her mature self, to find what that is on her own terms, which for young women living in the 21st Century digital age means wading through unreal realities, just like the film does. Overall Kill Me Please is an interesting twist on the coming of age genre and gender stereotypes from a promising director, seen in poetic moments such as the final emergence from the waste ground. However this first film is also too immersed in a state of immaturity to feel completely satisfying. In terms of the director’s vision, visual language/ grammar, editing, structure and the central character’s path to herself, it lacks certain cohesion and is episodic in nature; an observation rather than a criticism given the subject matter and the professional stage of development.

Garance Marillier in Raw, Directed by Julia Ducournau.

Garance Marillier in Raw, Directed by Julia Ducournau.

Julia Ducournau’s first feature Raw delivers another psychological twist on Femininity and the Body Horror genre, giving a referential nod to the excellent Canadian chiller Ginger Snaps and Brian DePalma’s Carrie in its exploration of sexual maturity and awakening hunger. Justine (Garance Marillier) goes to join her older sister at veterinary school, leaving her parents (who are also vets and vegetarians), her middle class home and the influence of her apparently cold and domineering mother. During the first week of hazing rituals Justine is forced to abandon her principles and conform; subjected to humiliating ordeals by older students including having to eat raw meat, triggering an insatiable appetite within.  It’s an institution of learning that looks more like an abandoned hospital, a cold, empty and increasingly hostile place, where figures of adult authority are almost permanently absent, allowing the students to rule each other. It’s a place to effectively lose yourself in drink, drugs and house parties, rather than find yourself- especially as a young woman. Justine’s tutor hates her because she’s top of the class, stating that her intelligence will only make the other students feel inadequate. Conformity is pitched against self-discovery, denial against freedom, in increasingly extreme ways and as the plot unfolds there are many red herrings to keep the audience guessing. Apparently paramedics had to be called to the Toronto Film Festival screening to deal with viewer feinting and wrenching, but that strikes me as the ideal marketing ploy off the back of two weak stomachs, rather than an accurate reflection of the content. The gore is actually more sparing than I expected and realistic rather than graphic. This is a refreshingly smart film where the most effective moments of tension and unease are also the quietest; like a sheet coming off a dog on a mortuary slab in slow motion, heightening our sense of something internally being unleashed. The female line of the family are contained within a polarity of behaviour and the intentional blurred lines between human and animal instinct. This isn’t a story which pivots on the physical onset of sexual maturity, but feminine psychological/ sexual maturity, so in evolutionary Horror terms Raw definitely feels like a step up from the norm. As Justine’s metaphorical hunger takes hold of her and the violence escalates, we’re shown the consequences of an environment that does nothing to feed or nurture the Female psyche. Without giving away too much the final reveal is intelligently satisfying. Ultimately Ducournau suggests that whilst we have to find ways of living with our needs and desires, denial isn’t much of a life choice! Whilst Justine is at war with conflicting aspects of herself she’s not cast in the traditional female horror role of a fleeing, helpless victim, pursued by forces more powerful than her. Although she is victimised and in spite of an inheritance that threatens to overwhelm and isolate her, she holds power within herself.

Bethany Whitmore in Girl Asleep Directed by Rosemary Myers.

Bethany Whitmore in Girl Asleep Directed by Rosemary Myers.

In complete contrast the confusion, fear and momentous change of adolescence is tackled with comedic effect in the Australian film Girl Asleep. A first feature for director Rosemary Myers and playwright Matthew Whittet, based on their acclaimed Windmill Theatre production, I’ll admit that my critical assessment of this film is somewhat clouded by my background. Being born in 1971 Australia, into a suburban middle class world of corduroy brown and lurid canary yellow, this is a film full of cultural references and triggers of childhood memories. In the late 1970’s Australia was a land of exotic pineapples and tooth picked finger food stuck in half an orange, patios paved for entertaining, the throb of disco music closely followed by electro synth-pop, all in one leisure suits with synthetic material engineered to make you sweat, panel vans with custom painted side stripes, wood veneer and shag pile carpets.  Like the central character Greta Driscoll, (played with perfectly understated bewilderment by Bethany Whitmore) I too fastened my pigtails with brown bobbles, was equine obsessed, content not to socialise (much to my mother’s dismay), had a rebellious, outgoing elder sister, refused to have significant coming of age related parties and could count my friends on less than half a hand. In consequence this film naturally resonated with me and I clearly found it laugh out loud funnier than the rest of the audience. The challenge in adapting a stage production for the screen is creating suspension of disbelief in the cinema. Whatever the viewer’s background or life experience, to enjoy this film I think you need to be prepared to be like Greta, able to access the imaginative child within; the self that you never want to say goodbye to completely, in order to stay with Girl Asleep once it starts to get weird! The problem is, unlike Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which is a fully realised cinematic vision of bright retro innocence, humour and absurdity, Myers’ film gets a bit lost in translation. I suspect that it didn’t quite work for the audience I was watching it with as it is too anchored in its recreation of a particular time and place; which isn’t really a problem if you were there, but significantly less entertaining if you weren’t. The film’s aesthetic path; following Greta Driscoll into a forest dream state of mind with strange costumed beasts, felt comfortingly familiar having grown up reading the very popular Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. There are moments of pathos and recognition; Greta meeting her leafy, decaying forest Dad reciting bad jokes that she is on the cusp of not finding funny anymore or being confronted by her younger self who she needs to integrate into the young woman she is becoming. However there aren’t enough of these universal touchstones in the film as a whole, even though the performances are heartfelt. Ultimately Girl Asleep is a positive fairy tale fighting its way out of a ground of 1970’s cultural kitsch. (I’ve had Sylvester’s disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) stuck in my head for days!) The best thing about Girl Asleep is that the girl in question is able to save and find herself, without the intervention of parents, peers or prospective romantic partners. It’s an uplifting film about letting go of your plastic horses and dancing to your own tune.

Another nostalgically packaged period piece is Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, although sadly it reduces its complex subject to a conservative love story pitched to a Merchant Ivory audience. Asante’s previous feature Belle was much more subtle and affecting in its exploration of race, class and gender. The story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Ruth Williams, a London office worker he married in 1947 (with powerful opposition from the British, South African, South Rhodesian governments and both their families), is frustratingly narrow as depicted in this film. As always David Oyelowo is a wonderful screen presence and lights up every frame, but Rosamund Pike has nothing to do within the confines of the script other than look besotted, bewildered and fulfil the traditional function of giving birth. The story revealed during the closing credits of the couple’s whole life together and how their lives actively challenged racism is a thousand times more interesting than the saccharine romance we are served. The film is very pretty to look at, but I intensely disliked the quintessential Britishness of the language; cloaked in politeness, which feels like a double betrayal of its subject. Seretse’s treatment is reduced to quips about sherry and British government officials are portrayed for their pomposity, rather than brutal calculation, commercial exploitation and greed.  It’s a film made for a mainstream audience that doesn’t feel true to the urgency and relevance of the issues it is trying to address. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the script than sourcing authentic  tea dress fabric. To be fair I suspect that the film is a victim of politics, production values and box office marketability rather than a lack of integrity on the part of its director. It also feels like a very engineered, neat policy statement by backers in the face of industry criticism, which seldom creates great Art. My feeling is that the world is ready for a more progressive telling of Seretse and Ruth’s story than what this film delivers. Undeniably it is a great love story, but it is also significantly more than that. Critically the clue is in the title as to the sentimental tone and genteel delivery of the film’s message. When I compare A United Kingdom to outstanding independent films which dominate the rest of the IFF programme, its faults are amplified. It isn’t a bad film, just a well-meaning one and that isn’t enough to satisfy.

Have You Seen My Movie? Directed By Paul Anton Smith.

Have You Seen My Movie? Directed By Paul Anton Smith.

You Tube generation mash ups, or appropriating historical or found film footage and reimagining it, has become a very popular genre on the internet in recent years. There’s a whole lot of it floating out there in cyberspace, ranging from the most rudimentary splicing of favourite film moments to music on bedroom laptops, shared with friends and occasionally going viral, to Artist Film with a greater emphasis on Craft and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of the medium. Paul Anton Smith’s Have You Seen My Movie? assembles clips from hundreds of films from different eras and all over the world. It encapsulates the experience of cinema going, the cinema audience beholding itself and triggers memories in the mind of the viewer; not just in terms of films/ titles seen, but acknowledging cinema as a theatrical and essentially social environment. Photography and film are inexorably entwined with human memory and although the film is loosely structured around a linear path; from buying a ticket to emergence from the cinema, its meanderings and final sequential comment on film are thankfully a bit more complex. The dovetailing of several different clips overlaid with singular pieces of dialogue effectively expands the viewer’s frame of reference and range of associative meanings. Arguably we go to the cinema communally to experience some kind of journey and self-reflection, whether that is escapist or confrontational. Cinema is a space where we grow up, fall in love, are entertained, educated, participate in social etiquette and where we go to immerse ourselves in projected dreams, hopes and desires. There are plenty of stars and iconic screen moments in this film that film geeks will love, but the focus here is really on the audience and the human face; the interactions with what is on screen and audience members with each other. Have You Seen My Movie?  doesn’t have the editorial rhythm or thrilling momentum of György Pálfi’s Final Cut- Ladies and Gentlemen (winner of the 2012 IFF Audience Award), but moves in and out of time more loosely, allowing moments of connection to surface within the viewer. Having worked on The Clock, (video artist Christian Marclay’s looped 24 hour montage of scenes from cinema and TV which operates as a clock through real time filmic references) Smith’s composition is less fully formed in terms of his ideas and technique equalling each other. There are glimmers of something less dependent on personal association and more universally poetic emerging in the final sequence; which for me is a meditation on the so called “death of film” in our century and the increasing loss of picture houses in cities around the world. We lose film and we lose ourselves because our memories are bound up in that decaying, celluloid world, however Smith’s parting visual statement also contains a glimmer of hope. The final montage sequence begins with a child stealing promotional photographs from Citizen Cain through the caged grill of a movie theatre entrance, followed by a masked, dance like scattering of dreams from Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, the snow globe falling to the floor to the mute utterance of “Rosebud” in the final moments of Orson Wells’ Citizen Cain, Moira Shearer’s feet in spiralling pirouette in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes ,dancing herself to death,  a scene of a graveyard and finally we see the child running off into the night with the stills before the projector stops. Whether the films these clips are taken from are known to the viewer or not, the director’s final commentary in this concluding sequence speaks of death, regret and loss. Equally the figure of the child coveting still images from a timeless film and running away with them feels like a reflection of Contemporary Art; an ever increasing Net of visual material, scoured for breadth of content rather than depth of retrieval, until the child grows up and learns what to do with it. It isn’t enough for an artist to simply appropriate and reassemble. For a film or art installation to timelessly stand on its own, it needs an evolving foundation of Craft, integral to the film making process. I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Anton Smith’s Have You Seen My Movie? because at heart I’m a film geek. Movie-going has always been part of my life from a very young age and cinema is invested with my most intimate memories. Films like this are therefore a very rich source of visual, emotional, cerebral and sensual triggers and I’m sure I’m not alone in that respect. However in contemplating seeing Smith’s future work I’m reminded of Orson Wells’ comment about the “eloquence of cinema” being “achieved in the editing room”.

Movie going memories are at the centre of the three year Major Minor Cinema: Highlands and Islands Film Guild 1946-71 project www.hifilmguild.gla.ac.uk , a collaboration between the University of Glasgow and University of Stirling, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The Highlands and Islands Film Guild grew out of the Scottish Film Council’s pre-war programme of making non-commercial 16mm films available to rural areas with the intention of improving leisure facilities and social cohesion. The project aims include “building an oral history archive of cinema audiences and operators” and “exploring the creative possibilities of memory and oral traditions” with an open call for anyone who would like to contribute to the project during 2016-17.  These aspects of collaboration, creativity and research were the basis for two events at IFF; a 16mm programme of screenings typical of those that would have been shown by the film guild in village halls, featuring Scott of the Antarctic (1948), a newsreel, cartoon, an information film and readings of “newly commissioned works inspired by memories of cinema going”, followed by a half-day creative writing workshop. Led by poet /writer Nalini Paul and writer /film academic, Sarah Neely this Saturday morning session included guided exercises with the direct stimulus of archival material, cinema memorabilia, filmic artefacts and 16mm projection, together with shared memories of cinema going from round table participants. It was fantastic to hear people’s perceptive experiences and kick start the creative process of writing about one’s own cinematic memories in such a supportive environment. It would have been great to further develop this work with the group over several days and I think everyone who participated thoroughly enjoyed it, giving us plenty to explore and refine on our own. Something that emerged from discussion and reminiscences were the connections with family, social interactions, communities and the cinema as a place not just of sight and sound experiences, but for smell, taste and touch as well. Significantly what was happening around us, our stage of life and who we went to the cinema with, were just as important as what was on screen. The session was much more than reminiscences in a warm haze of nostalgia. Creatively accessing our cinema-going memories was a way of coming to terms with those we’d loved and lost, reliving defining and sometimes comic moments from our youth, reassessing our relationships with home, family, community and nationality, all with cinema as the catalyst.

United States of Love United States of Love / Zjednoczone Stany Milości directed by Tomas Wasilewski.

United States of Love United States of Love / Zjednoczone Stany Milości directed by Tomas Wasilewski.

Human relationships come under an emotional microscope in Writer /Director Tomas Wasilewski’s United States of Love / Zjednoczone Stany Milości. His previous feature Floating Skyscrape screened at IFF 2013 and it is exciting to see such a leap of stylistic development in his latest film. Although the title suggests optimism it’s sharply ironic, an examination of states of love, united in obsessive dysfunction, the antithesis of life giving passion. From the opening shots the bleached emotional tone is set by hue; a chilled palette of blushed blue and green monochrome like a dead body with all the blood drained out of it or an aged, tinted photograph. Director of Photography Oleg Mutu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, In the FogIn Bloom) composes imagery perfectly in sync with the impossibility of love and doomed aspirations of the film’s protagonists. Sequences are framed with brilliantly expressive use of the human body, often cut off by the composition, leading the viewer deeper into the experience of the central characters. With experience written on the body at pivotal moments, instead of actor’s faces, it is easier for the viewer to project themselves into the frame in a way that maintains ultimate tension within a scene. We’re used to love stories told in deliriously absorbing close up flesh tones, what we’re given is perhaps something more honest, in terms of the annihilating disconnect of desire, love and passion when it is unrequited, a projected illusion or a lie.  Although this is a icy film in terms of its emotive pitch, the performances by its four lead actresses are astonishing, delivered with emotional intelligence that challenges what some audience members perceived as a misogynist film. Although what happens to his four female leads is brutal and unforgiving, I think Wasilewski’s focus is more expansive than gender alone. Very nuanced performances give his characters a depth of life that resists such a reductive interpretation. Admittedly these are undesirable depths and that we probably don’t wish to see or acknowledge. Like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, it is painfully raw, disturbing and ultimately full of despair. But in creating such a bleak vision of the human condition, identity and relationships, the director actively challenges our idealised aspirations of what love is and also very importantly acknowledges collective scars of repression. Whilst the story centres very personally on four women whose lives are entwined, historically the story is set at a very particular time; 1990’s Poland, with the promise of freedom from the newly established democratic government after years of repressive state rule.  It would be a naïve director who would portray such a period as a door of freedom and possibility simply being opened. The past always needs acknowledgment before a future is possible and sometimes scars are too deep to be healed, deforming the idealised love we crave, seen in the lives of Wasilewski’s four main protagonists. Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) is a school principal, whose six year affair with a married man comes to an end with his wife’s death. Still desperately obsessed with her lover she tries to get him back through his daughter, ending in circumstantial violence and tragedy. Her icy manipulation is matched by her lover’s, a doctor who in violation of his profession reacts to her pitiable cry of “I’ll do anything” (for you) with the suggestion of suicide. It’s a relationship in which neither side will ever attain what they need from the other, as each is a distorted projection of the other’s desires. Iza’s younger sister Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) is a dance and fitness instructor and former beauty queen whose husband is away working in Germany for the promise of a better life. Desperately lonely but wearing a mask of cheerfulness her path crosses with her neighbour Renata (Dorota Kolak), a middle aged English teacher who becomes fixated on her and lives alone in an apartment full of canaries. Kolak’s performance is incredible; constrained in sadness, cunning, self-gratification and yearning. It’s a deeply disturbing performance in which Marzena’s unconscious violation at the hands of a predatory photographer is compounded by Renata’s pleasure in attending her naked body. It is a death to Marzena as we have come to know her throughout the film; as a kind and compassionate young woman, giving birth to something twisted and monstrous in the heart of her covetous older neighbour and changing her life forever. This subversion of female behaviour as innately nurturing, caring and giving is extreme and all the more shocking for its quietly considered, patient reveal. When combined with earlier scenes of Renata teaching poetry and speaking of “pure” love, Wasilewski raises the very awkward question of what love actually is. Throughout the film we see lives devastated by the promise of things which weren’t real to start with- which turned my mind back to the euphoric promise of of the Berlin wall coming down and to the current state of Europe. Although this is a film that will divide audiences it is not devoid of empathy. In Agata’s story line we see a woman, stuck in a loveless marriage and suffering from depression who becomes obsessed with a young priest as an object of unattainable, idealised love/desire. That idealisation is also reflected in a bible class where children are told that “love will be the most important thing in your life” with all the ironically attendant constraints of religious doctrine. Julia Kijowska’s performance conveys Agata’s longing and desperation, with clever sound design of dogs barking when beholding the priest a very effective conveyance of rabid, obsessive desire; the kind people try to fill the void at the centre of them with. She initiates sex with her husband that is ferocious in its intensity but devoid of any mutual feeling, expressing her need to connect in a sheer act of desperation as she pleads with him; ”touch me”, “look at me” , in what is an utterly heart breaking scene.  The United States of Love is a thoroughly engrossingly, deeply sad and affecting film, elevated by excellent performances from its four female leads.

Thhana Lazović and Goran Marković in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, Directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

Thhana Lazović and Goran Marković in The High Sun/ Zvizdan, Directed by Dalibor Mantanić.

Winner of 12 international film awards, Croatian director Dalibor Mantanić’s The High Sun/ Zvizdan is a humane, compassionate and ultimately hopeful story of forbidden love and the impact of war in the former Yugoslavia, told over three consecutive decades. The three couples in this trilogy of interlocking stories; Jelena & Ivan (1991), Natasa & Ante (2001) and Marija & Luka (2011) are all played by the film’s two astounding lead actors, Thhana Lazović and Goran Marković.  With breath taking intensity and poise, they inhabit their roles rather than playing them; from innocence to world weary experience. They convey shattering fragility and incredible strength with minimal dialogue, revealed in their eyes, facial expressions and gestures. We aren’t told or shown everything that has happened to Natasa/ Ante and Marija/ Luka but we resoundingly feel it, in the full emotional gravitas of the actor’s performances. In the points of connection between these three love stories, there is a sense of the randomness of fate, depending on the accident of which side of the border between two Balkan villages and which generation the characters belong to. The inference is that the story could also be our own in a different time and place. In the hands of this director the love that brings people together against all odds, circumstance and in spite of cultural difference is greater than the ethnic hatred that divides them. The High Sun is inspirational in that respect; love is hope, the one thing that enables us to survive and give our lives meaning. Mantanić acknowledges loss and suffering out of which the possibility of new life emerges and in so doing finds a path through history, memory and remembrance of human atrocity. This intelligence is applied equally to both sides as we see the motivations and inheritance of the characters, their families and communities. One of Mantanić’s great strengths is in what he chooses not to tell the audience. Natasa’s reactions to Ante tell us everything we need to know about her bodily experience of war and her profound need to connect with him in spite of that trauma in order to keep living. Such scenes are extreme tests of faith and trust, where characters clinging to life have to learn to live again, something they cannot do without each other. Mantanić’s vision as an artist is big enough to acknowledge decades of hatred and trauma without judgement, transcending national borders and ethnicity. He is also able to shine a light on the unseen experiences of women; Natasa who sinks down in the small dark gap between houses and the anguish of her mother who cannot be anything but strong, in denial of her own experiences, trying to rebuild their lives. The reverberations run so deep, through the body and into the soil. In spite of its daunting subject matter The High Sun is a beautiful film crafted with care, humanity and hope which I can be nothing but glad to have seen.

Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard in It's Only the End of the World, Directed by Xavier Dolan.

Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard in It’s Only the End of the World, Directed by Xavier Dolan.

The great unsaid of familial relationships is brought sharply into focus by French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes.  It’s Dolan doing what he does best; finely observed, cathartic explorations of relationships between mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, absent fathers and conflicted male identity.  Following the critical triumph of his last film Mommy he has assembled an amazing cast including Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux and Nathalie Baye. Adapted from the stage play by Jean-Luc Lagarde Dolan reveals a claustrophobically close unit of estranged individuals, brought together by Louis, (Gaspard Ulliel) a terminally ill writer who returns home to his family after 12 years in order to tell them that he’s dying. Cassel and Cotilard play their roles to perfection as husband and wife; he as a tightening coil of anger and resentment towards his brother, she the only one of the family ,as outsider sister/ daughter in law, who hears and sees through Louis’s defensive silence.  Reunited with a sister (Léa Seydoux) he hasn’t grown up with,  a brother  who hates him and a mother who sees what she wants to see in the assembled family, there is simply no room for Louis to speak or be heard. The food is prepared and arranged for hospitality, intimacy and sharing but there is no existing dynamic between the characters to feed any of them. The excruciating awkwardness of people belonging to each other without real contact or understanding, waiting for admission into each other lives and incapable of communication is heart rending in its truth. It’s Only the End of the World has the set focus of a stage play but the performances and Dolan’s writing, direction and editing make it a compelling film in its own right. The director provides his characteristic focus on lives and primary relationships in close up, thankfully easing up on borderline music video use of soundtrack in this latest film. Use of light and avian symbolism in the closing scenes bring a sense of resolution and closure for the main character, aided by Ulliel’s consistently understated performance, but what we are left with is a sad truth about how alone we can be in a room full of blood relatives, both reinforcing and perpetuating the foundation of Louis’s decision to leave. The action centres on a single day in these character’s lives and just like many family gatherings the focus and energy naturally implode with all the pent up histories between parents, children and siblings, coupled with the need for a perfect celebration of togetherness.  In consequence it is a film that viewer’s will either identify with or find completely unrelenting in the forced intensity and dysfunction of the interactions. Yes, these people aren’t particularly likeable and they probably don’t belong in the same room together, but they are also human; too frightened to engage in anything but habitual role play, extinguishing the possibility of change or finding the love, comfort and support which they each need, but are unlikely to find with each other. Although in many ways I prefer Dolan’s previous film Mommy which offers humour, acceptance and connection in greater supply, Dolan’s evolution as a director is something I will continue to watch with interest.

After the Storm/ Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku, Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

After the Storm/ Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku, Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Written, edited and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda After the Storm/ Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku delivers a characteristically tender and knowing  vision of family life in contemporary Japan.  Consistent with the domestic focus of his previous work (Nobody Knows, Still Walking, I Wish, Like Father Like Son, Our Little Sister) he proves himself a worthy successor of Yasujirō Ozu’s finely observed and sublimely subtle naturalism. Here Kore-eda delivers a resolutely quiet and equally revealing film about love, regret and waking up to find you’re not living the life that you’d hoped for. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a writer whose first prize winning book 15 years ago was also his last. He’s forced to work as a private detective; spying on cheating spouses and finding lost pets to support his gambling addiction, inherited from his Father and Grandfather. He’s estranged from his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) who he’s still in love with and desperately wants to reconnect with his young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Taking refuge from a typhoon with Ryota’s mother (the brilliant Kirin Kiki) provides the catalyst for an unlikely reunion between them and acceptance of what has come to pass. The entire cast are wonderful with familial bonds, humour, tensions and truths between them perfectly realised. After arguably taking a slight creative dip in his two previous films, this is a lovingly crafted return to form and along with I Wish, one of the director’s best films to date. Like Ryota’s reply to his son’s question; “Are you who you wanted to be?” Kore-eda’s answer to the audience is; “not yet- what matters is to live to become what I might be” and in creative terms it feels like he’s almost there.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman /Forushande , Directed by Asghar Farhadi.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman /Forushande , Directed by Asghar Farhadi.

Another distinctive and accomplished director focusing on family centred drama is Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, A Separation, The Past), a cerebral director whose characters are typically constrained culturally, by circumstance or both. His latest film The Salesman/ Forushande brings together parallel stories, on stage and screen, with emotional points of intersection and recognition between them. A young married couple; Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced out of their Tehran apartment building by its imminent collapse, taking refuge in a recently vacated apartment managed by a friend from the theatre they both work in.  In the company’s latest production the couple are starring as Willy and Linda Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, under the watchful eye of state censors. After moving into the apartment Rana is subjected to an assault when she mistakenly lets someone in, believing them to be her husband. Later they discover from neighbours that the previous tenant was a prostitute (or a woman who had a lot of male visitors- in this world the two are synonymous) and it is assumed that Rana’s attacker was therefore a previous client. In a climate of denial to friends, neighbours and family that anything has actually happened; and with guilt, fear and the impending threat of judgement, it becomes increasingly hard for the viewer to tell what the truth is. Clearly traumatised by what has happened, Rana is unable to function or to seek help as disclosure is too shameful and as several characters affirm, her fears that the police will not do anything and blame her for the attack are well founded. Not surprisingly when subjected to the extreme pressure of these circumstances, coupled with keeping face, maintaining honour and wearing a mask for the benefit of others, cracks start to appear in the marriage. Emad is consumed by finding Rana’s assailant and taking revenge, while his wife turns in on herself, doubting her own actions and assuming responsibility for what has happened to her. By the end of the film the identity of the perpetrator brings further questions about truth and oppression, as we begin to empathise with characters in ways we do not expect and doubt our own judgement. Farhadi is a master at reflecting universal human experience, magnified by a very particular cultural lens and effectively calling the audience’s beliefs and assumptions into question; “I believe that the world today needs more questions than answers. Answers prevent you from questioning, from thinking…If you give an answer to your viewer; your film will simply finish in the movie theatre. But when you pose questions, your film actually begins after people watch it. In fact, your film will continue inside the viewer.” The artifice of the play, the deception and truth behind the fiction makes The Salesman a fascinating study of lives fractured by repression.

The Handmaiden / AH-GA-SSI , Directed by Park Chan-wook.

The Handmaiden / AH-GA-SSI , Directed by Park Chan-wook.

Male sexual repression is contrasted with burgeoning female sexuality in Park Chan-wook’s erotic thriller The Handmaiden/ AH-GA-SSI which adapts Sarah Waters’ award-winning novel Fingersmith, relocating the story from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea, an era of Japanese Colonialism. In keeping with the director’s previous films (Stoker, Lady Vengeance, Old Boy)  there are elements of sadism and pushing sexual boundaries in keeping with the director’s statement that; “Certain subjects may no longer be taboo in cinema. But there are ways to treat them that still create shock”. His last film and first Western crossover Stoker played with expectations of the feminine very successfully and introduced stylistic elements of Gothic, which are thematically and aesthetically refined in The Handmaiden. It’s a visually sumptuous and opulent film, written like a beautifully crafted puzzle box and with more humour than we might have come to expect from its director.  Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as a handmaiden to Hideko ( Kim Min-hee), a Japanese Heiress who lives with her domineering and abusive Uncle, a collector of erotic antique scrolls and books which he has been forcing his niece to read at soirees/ performances for male nobles from a very young age. The new maid is a pickpocket recruited by the leader of a criminal gang to infiltrate the household and assist him in his plan to disguise himself as a Count, seduce, marry, rob the heiress of her fortune and have her committed to a madhouse. It’s a plot twisting story of subterfuge in the Film Noir tradition, a planned escapade which starts to unravel when Sookee and Hideko discover their feeling for each other.  There are scenes in which female bodies are arranged and displayed with unrealistic  symmetrically for a male gaze, which when coupled with the film’s overall aesthetic feels rather self-indulgent on the part of the director. However this is at base complex tale that restrains and releases its audience on multiple levels and is therefore satisfying to watch, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Park Chan-wook is a controversial director by nature but that doesn’t extinguish the eroticism or the political subtext of this work in terms of dominance / submission and independence / colonialism.  It is as much about Korea under Japanese occupation as it is a love story between two women or a crime thriller, we’re just not accustomed to seeing female desire explicitly depicted on screen and therefore it can appear shocking. Personally I think it’s one of his best films; audacious, well-crafted, more holistically distilled in its vision than previous work, an effectively telling combination of East and West, a compelling depiction of multifaceted Femininity, love and human sexuality in all its delight and darkness. It’s provocative rather than shockingly violent or extreme when compared to earlier films like Old Boy. Infiltration of the Feminine into his work on a variety of levels has enriched it considerably. (Male artists/ filmmakers take note!)

Paths of the Soul/ Kang Rinpoche Directed by Yang Zhang

Paths of the Soul/ Kang Rinpoche Directed by Yang Zhang

One of my favourite films this year and part of The Roof of the World thematic strand of the festival was Paths of the Soul/ Kang Rinpoche by director Yang Zhang. This exquisitely beautiful film follows the 2000km pilgrimage of a group of villagers across Tibet to Lhasa and the sacred Kang’s Mountain. From the opening shots a way of life is established in the rhythm of meditative song and prayer, which the viewer becomes progressively immersed in. In many ways this film is a gentle invitation towards a different way of being in the world, making Western values and pursuits seem absurdly trivial in comparison and expanding the idea of spirituality into the everyday. Regardless of the viewer’s spiritual or religious beliefs Paths of the Soul has universal appeal in being grounded in something very basic in terms of our existence- our connections with each other which is the key to sustainability. In accordance with tradition, the pilgrimage is “for others and for everyone” – a completely different trajectory of being that illuminates the rampant self-gratification of 21st century urban life. That is not to romanticise rural life in Tibet which like the pilgrim’s road is shown to be extremely hard, it is simply that the intention behind making the journey is fundamentally different to what drives our increasingly globalised, unsustainable consumption. Mobile phones have reached these mountains, but their primary use is communication with relatives who have remained at home during the extended period of pilgrimage. Shot over the course of a year this film is a thoroughly immersive experience, encompassing birth, death, joy and sorrow, accepted as part of life. The beauty of the landscape and humility of human scale within it put life into perspective. Pilgrims share goodwill, tea and rest, prostrating themselves to kowtow along the road with “a bump on the head” as “proof of piety”. There is a subtle, guiding presence of light throughout the film, not only in the natural environment but in people who for the most part seem happy and content with their lot in spite of hardship. When the road floods they kowtow right through it, smiling as they go, drenched and laughing, no one is excluded or left behind, encouragement is given from the youngest to the oldest member of the group. It’s a physical and spiritual marathon of tenacious endurance, made possible by faith and their care for each other. These qualities are openly shared with the audience and an absolute gift to a chaotic and conflicted world. At the film’s conclusion in darkness and submerged in the primal immediacy of sound, polyphonic voices transcend all belief systems or denominations, communicating the best of what we are as a species. It’s an invitation to join and carry that spirit of prayer and being out into the world. Above all else I loved the baseline of this film which is not ethnographic or religious but simply human.

Another delightful film in the Roof of the World strand was The Black Hen/ Kalo Pothi directed by Min Bahadur Bham, the first Nepali film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival. Set in a small war-torn village in Northern Nepal during a temporary ceasefire, two young boys; Prakash and Kiran are separated by class and caste but are determined to remain friends. They join forces to find a lost hen, a pet given to Prakash by his sister who has been recruited by Maoist forces. In spite of the obvious tensions, precarious circumstances of civil war and divisions within the community this is a charming film, full of warmth, humour and insight that often only a child’s eyes, or the child within the adult, can perceive.

The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bell

The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bel.

Also from the same thematic strand The Eagle Huntress was the well-deserved winner of this year’s IFF audience award, designed by Isle of Harris-based artist Steve Dilworth.  It is a thoroughly uplifting, feel-good documentary for all ages, exploring humankind’s essential connection with Nature, the relationship between father and daughter, changing traditions, gender equality and identity, with a powerful message about realising individual potential. Set in the Altai mountains of North-western Mongolia 13 year old Aishol-pan is training to become the first female Eagle Hunter in a tradition handed down from father to son for over 2000 years. 12 generations of her Kazakh family have been Eagle Hunters; a mantle of responsibility, honour and bravery which “is not a choice” but “a calling in the blood”. One of the most touching aspects of Aishol-pan’s story is the relationship with her Father who is also her teacher and guide. As she descends on a rope to an eagle’s nest his parental fears for her safety is are palpable and when she has ascended with the 3 month old eagle chick whom she will raise, it is incredibly moving to hear her father’s comment; “it’s a beautiful bird that matches Aishol-pan”. The bond that she has with her eagle is based on reverence, care and love  and her radiant, determined character is very much the heart of the film. What we see is the proverb of “what a baby sees in the nest it repeats when it grows” in action. There is a family tradition illuminated here of equality from both her parents, a belief in a woman’s right to choose and shape her destiny and the essential equality of boys and girls. This environment and the influence of the natural world create such positive strength within Aishol-pan as a young, capable and very driven young woman. We watch her growing confidence in being loved and nurtured by her family, enabling her to overcome community elders’ opposition to her calling and equipping her to face life’s obstacles. As the Eagle Hunting festival competition approaches and when she undertakes the winter hunt to prove herself the audience is rooting for her all the way. Director of Photography Simon Niblett captures human intimacy and the breath taking expanse of the Mongolian steppes and mountain scenery in equal measure. It is an outstanding documentary which I hope that millions of young girls worldwide will have the opportunity to see. My only criticism is clumsily grafting the pop song by Sia “you can do anything” onto the film, which is unnecessary since that statement is so visibly present throughout its dramatic trajectory.

As this year’s audience award winner demonstrates, there is an appetite for the unknown and unseen which begs further development and investment. Film is a powerful communicator and we have never needed the Arts more to expand perception and connect with the world like we do today. When I look at the quantity over quality approach that seems to govern the country’s largest, most celebrated and heavily funded film festival and compare it with what this one consistently delivers on a mere fraction of the budget, IFF sets an amazingly high benchmark.  Funding/ resourcing constraints and the positioning of the Eden Court Cinema in the Arts centre venue as a whole has always meant that the festival emphasis is primarily on screenings, rather than education, discussion and debate- which is a shame because the content is so incredibly stimulating year upon year! Admittedly there’s strength in keeping the festival small, however people are drawn to cinema by communal experience and more opportunities (and time) for audience members to socialise between films, discuss what they’ve seen, participate in filmmaker Q&As, attend creative workshops, masterclasses, talks by industry professionals or academics would add to that essential dialogue, deepen the level of exposure and also increase engagement with EC’s year round independent film programme. Having attended this festival and many others around the country over the last decade, my expectations of IFF each November are always high and consistently exceeded. Thanks to the curation audiences can be assured in taking a chance on the unfamiliar; experiencing entertaining, profound and unexpected visions of the world.

www.invernessfilmfestival.com

Paul Nash

Paul Nash Nocturnal Landscape (1938, Oil paint on canvas, 76.5 x 101.5, Manchester Art Gallery ©Tate)

Paul Nash Nocturnal Landscape (1938, Oil paint on canvas, 76.5 x 101.5, Manchester Art Gallery ©Tate)

Tate Britain, 26 October 2016 – 5 March 2017

Forty one years after the last major Paul Nash exhibition, Tate Britain has brought together 160 works drawn from 60 private and public collections for this extensive, timely and fascinating retrospective.  Best known for his war art and Surrealist landscapes, this exhibition illuminates lesser known aspects of Nash’s practice including his photography, collages, 3D assemblage work using found objects, writings, poetry, print making and book illustration. It is an exciting opportunity for reappraisal and discovery of many aspects of the “unseen” in Nash’s trajectory. Literally unseen are Nash’s double sided painting; Circle of the Monoliths (1936-7, Oil on canvas) and The Two Serpents (1929, Oil on Canvas. Private Collection) which have never been exhibited and the newly discovered assemblage sculpture; Moon Aviary (1937, Cedarwood, ivory, stone, bone. 500 x 253 x 150 mm, Ernest Brown and Phillips Ltd) believed lost for over 70 years. However it is Nash’s visionary “unseen” which powerfully reveals itself throughout, highlighted by exploration of his creative process and the juxtaposition of his work with significant objects, archival materials and the work of his contemporaries. One of the best rooms in the show “The Life of the Inanimate Object” is also one of the most unexpected in terms of revealing Nash’s imaginatively fluid process, with his work seen alongside that of fellow artist Eileen Agar (1899-1991). The dialogue between them; personal and professional, the free associative techniques of collage, assemblage and liberating spirit of experimentation combine all of Nash’s passion, vision and lifelong reverence for Nature, reflecting humankind. In the context of this room the artist’s fusion of objects in the landscape and the crafting of his compositions is brought to life; making pure, unconsciously logical sense. Other dimensions also emerge beyond Nash’s individual paintings; the artist as an advocate, collaborator and spokesperson for the British and International Avant-Garde in a time of unprecedented political, social and cultural upheaval. In the “Unit 1” reconstruction room featuring works by John Armstrong, Tristram Hiller, Edward Burra, Edward Wadsworth, Ben Nicholson, John Bigge, Barabara Hepworth, Henry Moore and in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 focus, we see Nash in a national and global field of reference. It is hard to imagine that generational lifespan of memory: having survived the First World War and living one year past the end of the second, experiencing the madness of one annihilating conflict, only to see the world plunge headlong into another with the rise of Fascism.  Nash’s work grapples with that psychological / cultural crisis in a unique and very British way. There is a sense of inherited tradition and emotional reserve, the simultaneous absence and presence of the figurative in Nash’s evolving way of seeing that is distinctive, insightful and progressively contained in the formal structure of his compositions.

Paul Nash, Circle of the Monoliths c.1937–8, Verso: The Two Serpents (1937-8, Oil paint on canvas, 710 x 920 mm, Private collection.)

Paul Nash, Circle of the Monoliths c.1937–8, Verso: The Two Serpents (1937-8, Oil paint on canvas, 710 x 920 mm, Private collection.)

In one of his earliest works The Combat (1910, Pencil, ink and wash. 356 x 258 mm. Victoria and Albert Museum) Nash depicts an angel with sword drawn, descended upon by a dark avian form; half bird of prey, half human against an eternal night sky. They are suspended above what feels like an immense hill, defying the actual scale of the drawing, with finely rendered lines of ink creating a minutely detailed piece of defended earth. Nash was irrepressibly drawn to Nature from a young age and for him it was imbued with living spirit. The Buckinghamshire countryside was a retreat for the family in an attempt to improve the health of his mother and as a child Nash spent time on his own and with his siblings in the nearby woods; a place of solace, play and imagination. The Combat introduces the Divine struggle between good and evil, influenced by the symbolist works of William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Nash’s way of seeing through Nature represents “an inward dilation of the eyes” that enabled him to perceive the “Genius Loci” or spirit of place in the landscape and also the aspirational nature of humankind reflected within and without.

In the beautiful nocturnal mindscape The Pyramids in the Sea (1912, Ink and watercolour on paper. 336 x 298 mm. Tate. Purchased 1973) Nash seamlessly transforms water to sand and sand to water in a dreamlike flow of lines, tinged deep midnight blue/ black. Rhythm and movement preside in the surging tide, governed by the moon overhead, with two man-made pyramids shadowing the swell of dune-like waves.  The Falling Stars (1912, Ink, Pencil and wash on paper, 370 x 230 mm. Private Collection) and The Three (1911-12. Ink, chalk and watercolour on paper. 393 x 279 mm. Private Collection) are equally poetic as Nash moves from symbolic illustration in his earliest drawings to a more abstract style of communicating ancient, divine presence in the landscape. In The Falling Stars Nash’s marks of foliage upon the mystical gathering of entwined trees reads like musical notation. The viewer is conscious of a human eye and mind perceiving the immensity and mystery of the natural world. In The Three a trinity of towering elders in the form of trees, their foliage and heads conjoined as if in counsel, cast long shadows over the field. The mid-level horizon line, positioning of the reimagined figurative group and a flock of birds about to wing out beyond the frame, create a sublime feeling of height, space and light which is both physical and metaphysical. The anchor, dominant presence and ancestral knowing within that space of mind are the trees, a recurrent motif in his work. For Nash the English countryside was “full of strange enchantment. On every hand it seemed a beautiful, legendary country, haunted by old Gods long forgotten”.  Like Blake’s poem Jerusalem there is an imperative in Nash’s oeuvre of reimagining and building a new world; “the mental fight” of divine creativity cast in a moral chasm between “dark satanic mills” and visions of a “green and pleasant land.”  For Nash this linked strongly to pre-Christian ways of seeing and being in the landscape. He was drawn to the human mark; to Iron Age forts and stone megaliths as objects and places of collective remembrance and to a mystical, poetic tradition in British painting, printmaking and illustration. Equally Nash was aware of contemporary developments; the work of the Vorticists, who in 1914 declared a new urban aesthetic; “The New Vortex plunges to the heart of the Present – we produce a New Living Abstraction”.  This hard edged adaptation of Cubism celebrated modernity, rejecting the over-refined poetics of past British Art. But the glory of the machine age and advancing technology also brought the horrific reality of mechanised warfare and mass killing the likes of which the world had never seen before. WWI destroyed Vorticism’s angular jubilation. By its end Western civilisation as it was known had imploded, with over 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. Nash was to produce his own form of ‘living abstraction’ in response to the age and his wartime experiences. Evolving his own visual grammar, Nash fulfilled a broader role as witness for a generation in a way that no previous official war artist had.

Enlisting as a soldier in the Artist’s Rifles in 1914 and sent to the Western Front in February 1917, a trench accident and broken ribs effectively saved Nash’s life. Whilst he was sent back to England to recover, nearly all the men in his unit were slaughtered at Passchendaele. He returned to the front as an official war artist in November 1917 and the following year created many of his best known works, moving beyond documentation of the conflict to create an unprecedented public record of warfare in terms of loss. Nash’s experiences in WWI shattered everything that had come before and in the irony of his most celebrated work We Are Making A New World (1918, Oil on canvas. 711 x 914 mm. IWM Imperial War Museums) we see a decimated landscape of body and mind; torn by shrapnel, cratered by bombs, a churning mess of mud and splintered, dead trees. The blood red sunrise casts a singular blinding eye of light over man-made devastation. The land is wounded flesh, extending to heaven;

“Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous mockeries to man,… black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds…The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow…the black dying trees ooze with sweat and the shells never cease.”

“It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls” -Paul Nash, letter to Margaret Nash, 13 November 1917.

Paintings such as The Ypres Salient at Night (1918, Oil on canvas, 714 x 920mm, IWM Imperial War Museums) depict zig zag fissures of torn earth in the trenches, an emotional geometry that enters a sky ripped apart in After the Battle (1918, watercolour and ink on paper, 598 x 733mm IWM Imperial War Museums) and many of his post war landscapes of the 1920’s and 30’s. It is both a psychological wound and a compositional device, leading the mind’s eye  powerfully and emotionally into the painting. The subterranean world of The Ypres Salient at Night is darker than natural night, lit with hues of acidic green from an overhead explosion and reducing human figures to a few huddled, fractured silhouettes. Time feels suspended in eternal  purgatory. The Menin Road (1918, oil on canvas, 1828 x 3175 mm, IWM Imperial War Mueseums) is the battlefield perceived in the cold light of day; tiny scattered figures at the centre of the painting dwarfed by  the ruin of that engulfs them on all sides, as far as the eye can see. Burned hollows of human trees, twisted metal and a foreground swamp of fathomless debris create an apocalyptic image of modern warfare and its aftermath. Oppressive cloud and shafts of light lance the sky in opposition to the agitated curvature of clouds defined and held somewhere between daylight and darkness. The “road” of the title, all of the certainties of the way ahead through life, have been obliterated, like the hopes, dreams and lives of an entire generation. Originally commissioned by the Ministry of Information for a Hall of Remembrance, there is an overwhelming inner silence in this painting which still arrests the viewer today. Although its dimensions cast it in the role and tradition of a heroic, commemorative history painting, no belief in “God, King and Country” could justify what Nash shows us through lived experience in this image.

Paul Nash. Wood on the Downs.(1930, Oil paint on canvas, 715 x 920 mm,Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. Purchased in 1960 with income from the Murray Fund.)

Paul Nash. Wood on the Downs.(1930, Oil paint on canvas, 715 x 920 mm,Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. Purchased in 1960 with income from the Murray Fund.)

In his post war work Wood on the Downs (1929, Oil on canvas, 715 x 920mm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) a gathering of trees and their canopies are melded into a protective front, the curvature of foliage a response to the battering of Nature’s elements. Rolling hills in the background and a white winding road give the impression of hope, but the dominant presence in this work are a huddled mass of slender trees. It is impossible not to think Nash’s lost comrades or survivor guilt when contemplating this image.  In the post war period Nash suffered a breakdown and moved with his wife to Dymchurch where he painted seascapes and the Romney Marshes. The enormity of the sea is an overwhelming force of memory for Nash, having almost drowned, and he paints it defensively, as something to be held back or contained like the memories and life experiences that threaten to drown us. In Night Tide (1922, Ink and watercolour on paper, 381 x 559mm, Private Collection c/o Robert |Travers, Piano Nobile Gallery, London) the frozen waves are sharpened into solid sculptural curves, with the seawall barrier supporting the shadow of a lone figure.  Winter Sea (1925-37, Oil on canvas 710 x 965mm, York Museums Trust-York Art Gallery) is one of Nash’s bleakest works with menacing, cruel waters resembling planes of sheet metal; a tonal highway of dirty green, brown and white leading the eye into an eternal path, with a hollowed indentation of earthen sky where the sun should be. The mood of this work feels very much like an emotional and psychological precursor to Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-1, Oil paint on canvas, 1016 x 1524mm, Tate, Presented by the War Advisory Committee 1946) which expands Nash’s inner vision of Dymchurch to the whole of Western civilization. What has always affects me so deeply about this work is the transformation of Nash’s wonder into industrial wreckage; an expanse of bluish grey seemingly without end, inferring an ultimate ending. When viewing Nash’s photographs of wrecked, fallen aircraft at Cowley Dump near Oxford in 1940 the tide of materials is painfully real. Totes Meer (Dead Sea) recalls the uncanny silence of the battlefield, with the fallen wings of enemy Luftwaffe bombers visible under a waning crescent moon- or is it an eclipsed sun? Either way time in mortal terms is rendered meaningless. The twisted metal creates an oppositional current of movement and unnatural waves; a pale, barren echo of the sea transformed into a desert.

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41, Oil on canvas, support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1946.)

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41, Oil on canvas, support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1946.)

There is a popular misconception about Surrealism, that it represents a dreamy escape into fantasy and unconscious desires; it is however, in the best hands, highly confrontational in terms of Self, evolving out of the protest that was Dadaism. The Self isn’t just the individual as we have come to define it in 21st Century popular culture but also collective in nature. Nash writes about the “unseen” in his landscapes as a form of perceptive self-awareness, grounded in reality;

The landscapes I have in mind are no part of the unseen world in the psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies visibly about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.” -Paul Nash, ‘Unseen landscapes’ Country Life, May 1938.

During the 1920’s and 30’s Nash’s Art becomes stylistically distilled; with the introduction of found objects into his paintings, division of the picture plane to suggest shifting perception/ simultaneous viewpoints and the fusion of organic and man-made elements to create a heightened sense of Genius Loci. The De Chirico exhibition held in London in 1928 inspired Nash to explore an architecture of mind that we see evolving in still life paintings such as Token (1929-30, Oil paint on canvas, 51.4 x 61.2, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). In this image the found object is pushed into the viewer’s foreground, suspended on an easel, positioned in the corner of a room with a telling background of referential frames. An oval plaque of figurative Classicism in the form of a featureless mother/ goddess and child recede into what feels like the interior of the wall. We read the image in relation to the love token, with the gilt frame and uprights of the easel layered behind the foreground stack of object, notebook and canvas. It is a finely balanced composition, semi Cubist in spirit, no doubt linked to the Nash’s visits to France in the 1920’s, but with a feeling of shifting perspective through time, the artist grappling with the art of painting and alternate realities within the picture plane. Similarly Opening (1930-31, Oil paint on canvas, 81.3 x 50.8mm, The Daniel Katz Family trust, London) grasps the mettle of structural composition in a series of framed thresholds. A glimpse of seascape can be seen in the distance, but it is the shifting nature of interior ways of seeing that are invoked by this work.  Poised Objects (1932, Pencil, chalk and watercolour on paper, 55.9 x 37.5, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford) also alludes to perceptive clarity through abstraction with the projecting eye like a lighthouse, guided by creative process.

In Room 6 The Life of the Inanimate Object we see Nash’s diverse use of media with objects such as driftwood, stones and bones having their own life force and entering into his compositions. With fellow artist Eileen Agar there is a sense of a symbiotic relationship; between them and in the artist beholding Nature. Agar’s collage and frottage on paper composition Philemon and Baucis (1939, 52 x 39, The Mayor Gallery, London) together with its mythology is telling in that respect. In Swanage (Graphite, watercolour and photographs, black and white on paper, 40 x 58.1, Tate. Purchased 1973) Nash’s use of collage creates a mindscape of figurative megaliths out of pieces of photographed wood and bone, pioneering his formal and visionary approach to landscape painting. We also see this in Still Life on a Car Roof (1934, Photograph, digital print on paper, printed 2016, Tate Library and Archive), an arrangement of objects juxtaposed with the surrounding environment in three dimensions, then photographed by Nash in black and white. The composition of paintings such as The Archer (1930-1937-1942, Oil on canvas) and Event on the Downs (1934, Oil paint on canvas) make total sense in the context of this room as the artist moves with ease between different media; crafting his visions fluidly through collage, photography, found objects, assemblage, drawing and painting. Although Nash’s landscapes are branded Surrealist for their unexpected juxtaposition of land, sea, objects and architecture, when seen in the context of Genius Loci, ancient human marks in the landscape and his studio practice they feel more like realism in perceptive terms. This heightened reality also has a collective element which is rather different to the 21st Century marketed image of Surrealism as a dreamy, escapist brand.

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 679 x 1016mm, Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946 ©Tate.)

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 679 x 1016mm, Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946 ©Tate.)

Nash naturally found his place in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which included works by Magritte, Picasso and Ernst. However the dreams he explored, not surprisingly given his wartime experiences, were grappling with the nature of the self, reality and truth. Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 67.9 x 101.6. Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946) illustrates this beautifully in the bird of prey beholding itself, overlapping frames, reflections, and the expansion of interior windows positioned in the landscape. It’s a fusion of alternate realities played out inside the conceit of a two dimensional painted surface. It contains and expands how we see as human beings- as a confrontation with our own natures, reflected in and beheld by an inner spirit of Nature. The reflection of the bird of prey stares back at the viewer, with abstraction functioning as a focal tool, unconsciously pulling a fractured world and soul back together to make sense of its darker self. It acknowledges the mystery and uncertainty of life, but also the possibility of new ways of seeing and being in the world in response to individual and collective trauma.

Towards the end of his life cycles in Nature, the marking of the seasons in the old ways; the Solstice and equinox, create a kind of repose in Nash’s work. In many ways he comes full circle and asserts his place in a long tradition of visionary and ancient land art in Britain. As his own life was ending he returned to the guiding forces of nature; sun and moon and the ritual landscape. In Solstice of the Sunflower (1945, Oil paint on canvas, 71.3 x 91.4, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Gift of the Massey Collection of English painting 1952) Nash aligns the path of the sun with the flaming fire wheel of the sunflower and the ancient pagan practice of rolling burning bales. In its companion piece Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945, Oil paint on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4, British Council Collection) a different aspect is invoked in the decaying foreground sunflower and its eclipsed light above that still extends like a halo of hope around the soul and the world. In 1943 Nash discovered Scottish anthropologist James Frazer’s comparative study of mythology and religion The Golden Bough, which in many ways validated Nash’s lifelong felt sense of the landscape. The end of WWII in 1945 and Nash’s declining health also inform these final summations of life, Nature and the human condition. He presents us here in 2016 with a vision of humanity relative to Nature, in full knowledge of our capacity for annihilation and for the creative, aspirational light of renewal. Nash’s greatest legacy is remembrance, of the fallen in wartime certainly, but also in the movement of the seasons and ancient human marks on the land that still speak to us if we only stop and listen. In the end, as Nash’s work illuminates, creativity is the only thing that saves us.

www.tate.org.uk

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond

Jane Fradgley "Within", (2012)© the artist.

Jane Fradgley “Within”, (2012) © the artist.

Wellcome Collection, London

15 September 2016 – 15 January 2017

“Bedlam” is such an intensely loaded word in the collective imagination, beyond the institution of Bethlem Royal Hospital, that it is hard to dispel images of Gothic Horror, cruelty, chaos and spectacle from the mind in relation to it. Having become “a mythical domain of the mad” to those outside its walls, embedded in centuries of folklore, song, visual art, film, literature and colloquial language, the expectations of visitors to this exhibition presents something of a curatorial challenge. Defying preconceptions, potent mythologies and ancient fears, this is a show where lived experience of mental illness, provides much needed insights, enabling individual voices to be seen, heard and felt. The history of asylums and treatment of mental illness worldwide holds a mirror up to society, reflecting our laws, dominant beliefs and projected fears. It isn’t naturally comfortable territory confronting that which we do not fully understand, within ourselves or in others. With history held at a safe distance, every generation believes itself to be more enlightened than the last, advancing scientific knowledge and technology, mapping the mind and penetrating deeper into its mysteries. In many ways Art and Science are united in their innate curiosity and desire to address the eternal why of what we are as human beings. What drew me to this Wellcome Collection exhibition was the possibility of what it does best as a culturally vibrant and engaging space; creating intersections between “Medicine, Art and Culture”, generating discussion, debate and essential unanswerable questions; in this case about the nature of mental illness and the concept of the asylum- an equally loaded word in contemporary society.

The tension between “protection and restraint”, the interests of the individual and the community they belong to (or are excluded from) are ever present, rooted in the subject and history of Bethlem Hospital. “Is mental illness – or madness – at root an illness of the body, a disease of the mind, or a sickness of the soul? Should those who suffer from it be secluded from society or integrated more fully into it?” Individually and collectively what does “well-being” look like in an actual or visionary sense? Co-curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Mike Jay Bedlam: the asylum and beyond explores these questions in the juxtaposition of over 150 objects, archival documents, photographs, films, sculpture, drawings and paintings, including historical works by William Hogarth, Adolf Wölfli, Vaslav Nijinsky, Richard Daddand work by contemporary artists; Eva Kot’átková, Shana Moulton, Javier Tellez, Jane Fradgley, Dora Garcia, David Beales and Erica Scourti. What is inspiring about this exhibition is the enduring power of creativity; enabling protest, understanding, reappraisal and the possibility of positive change.  There is a resounding sense of shared humanity, resilience, and irrepressible spirit in the content of the show; in the ways that underlying questions about how we perceive, define and treat mental illness are illuminated by individual artists, writers, scientists, philosophers and participants. Reflections are consistently thrown back to the viewer; about our capacity to provide “care, refuge and sanctuary” in the age we now live in and within ourselves.

Engraving of exterior of the hospital at Moorfields. c.1900-07 c Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Wellcome Collection.

Engraving of exterior of the hospital at Moorfields. c.1900-07 c Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Wellcome Collection.

It is sobering to consider the many lives diminished or destroyed by successive ages of dominant beliefs and institutional policies; voices lost or wilfully silenced in the societal microcosm of the asylum. In this context the refrain of “our voices will rise” from Those shuffling feet from the past (3.25 min spoken word audio) by Frank Bangay is particularly poignant and powerful in its advocacy. Part of the Our Voices audio companion to the exhibition; a collaboration between Wellcome Collection, members of Core Arts and artist Jessica Marlowe, this direct communication of lived experience informs how the viewer interprets the objects on display. These interviews and testimonials introduce audiences to experiences that may be unfamiliar to them; of locked confinement, altered states of being, encounters with Psychiatry, the responses of loved ones and the effects of medication with honesty, dignity and humour. The immediacy of these voices add layers of interpretation, touching on objects in the exhibition across time and creating very direct connections with the viewer/ listener. As a result we are unable to relegate mental distress outside ourselves as “other” or to the past, because the voices, memories and associations they generate are within our own heads, experienced in real time.  In this regard sound is a particularly potent trigger. As I listened to Steve McCann’s recollection; Introduction to Psychiatry 1974 (3:45mins) punctuated by a seemingly distant, echoing turntable rendition of “You with the stars in your eyes” the intense personal memory of the speaker fused with the universal experience of being taken back to significant, defining moments in the past through a song, smell or bodily sensation. Whether the lived experience is one shared by the listener or not, the mode of communication is directly relatable. When a memory is retold in such a spirit of openness, it is impossible not to respond in kind; establishing, in a small way, the kind of relationship between the speaker and listener that is also the foundation of talking therapy. With headphones on, the viewer is stilled and imaginatively present in the moment of recollection. The experience reminded me of Carl Rogers’ trinity of core conditions or attitudes that create a therapeutic environment:  unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy. Opportunities for this type of reflection within the exhibition are important in a addressing the negative branding, social stigma and isolation of mental illness which endures to this day, particularly in the context of a digital age so lacking in the cultivation of empathy.  One of the enlarged self-help cards in Erica Scourti’s Empathy Deck sculptural installation accurately declares; “Empathy is the great connector of humanity. It’s either there or it isn’t and right now it isn’t.” Another dimension of this work is Scourti’s twitterbot that responds to tweets with unique digital cards; an automated form of divination, self-help and reflection. In our current post-asylum age of dualistic connectivity and alienation via the internet and social media, the “automation of empathy, friendship and care” “replacing (actual human contact and face to face) services” is an ongoing concern. In a hugely expanded “marketplace of treatment, medication” and “often inaccessible” “support options”, the exhibition “interrogates and reclaims the idea of the asylum as a place of sanctuary and care.”

Erica Scourti, "Empathy Deck", 2016. Courtesy of the Artist. Commissioned by Wellcome Collection.

Erica Scourti, “Empathy Deck”, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist. Commissioned by Wellcome Collection.

One of the most affecting interrogative statements in the exhibition is a series of samplers in linen, cloth and thread made by Mary Frances Heaton (Unknown- 1878). Heaton was a music teacher admitted to Wakefield Asylum in 1837 with “epilepsy and delusions of an affair with Lord Seymour”, her employer. She remained imprisoned there for 36 years, her spirit sewn into every stitch she made; defiant marks on the fabric of a society where class and gender kept her in branded confinement. Her sewn and measured words of protest against her incarceration reach across time, expressing heart breaking loss of love and liberty; “In its blackest, most heart sickening, most confirmed, most important, most unequivocal and most extraordinary form- whereby the world is reduced to a blank and the brevity of human life is the only consolation the heart can ever know…” Reflecting on Heaton’s circumstances and pleas for assistance (which never came) including an appeal to her female sovereign, brings profound sadness, but her words -which could so easily have been destroyed remain and as long as they do she will never be silent. Perhaps surprisingly my overwhelming response to Heaton’s embroidery was hope, because standing in front of those framed, stitched documents of self-defence and preservation, there is the opportunity for the viewer to become a witness and advocate. Ironically the words of Thomas Tryon over two centuries earlier aptly describe Heaton’s world as “a great Bedlam where those that are more mad lock up those who are less”. Even today being “not of sound mind”, “insane”, “normal” or “abnormal” is a matter of perspective, social norms, medical diagnosis and the law, all of which are subject to human ethics and judgements in a particular time and place. The moral question of care remains a contentious issue, reflected in the architecture, language of treatment and successive models of reform. In Roger L’Strange’s proclamation of “Bethlehem’s (Bedlam Hospital’s) beauty, London’s Charity and the Cities glory” (Sept 16, 1676) there’s the inference of how civilized, moral or compassionate we actually are (or not), based upon the design of built environments and institutional care. Three distinct ages in Bedlam’s history; 18th Century “Madhouse”, 19th Century “Lunatic Asylum” and 20th Century “Mental Hospital”, extending into the 21st Century space “Beyond the Asylum”, are represented in the exhibition, charting prevailing attitudes. The 1810-1811 design of patient James Tilly Mathews which won a competition for the rebuilding of Bedlam included a kitchen garden and extensive notes linking the architecture and grounds to patient routines. This lived perspective, considering the conditions necessary for mental well-being and potential recovery, find their contemporary equivalent in The Vacuum Cleaner and Hannah Hull’s Madlove: A Designer Asylum.  This  “collaborative project with designers Benjamin Koslowski and James Christian, illustrator Rosie Cunningham, and over 300 people with lived experience of mental distress” revisits and reimagines “the asylum as ‘a safe place to go mad’“, asking the question; “ What does good mental health look, smell, taste, sound and feel like? The display includes a dialogue of process, scaled model of the ideal asylum and individual responses to what “the perfect day in an asylum might be”. Associatively the question is brought back to the viewer; What makes you feel good and gives you comfort? What is mental wellbeing for you? There were many relatable responses, like Wesman’s “visit the kitten room” –just the thought of such a place made me smile! Interestingly contact with Nature was a significant part of wellness in participant’s model asylums. The visitor activity of the pocket Asylum is also part of this collaborative work and another element to be taken away, perhaps to be rediscovered by chance or need in a wallet, handbag, desk or coat pocket. Making sense of our own perceptions and responses to mental illness when we encounter or experience it, in the relative safety of the exhibition space or in everyday life, involves significant shifts in perception, self-awareness and deeper levels of empathy.

"Madlove Designer Asylum." (2016) Rosemary Cunningham’s illustration of James Christian and Benjamin Koslowski's Madlove-designs,. Wellcome Collection.

“Madlove Designer Asylum.” (2016) Rosemary Cunningham’s illustration of James Christian and Benjamin Koslowski’s Madlove designs. Wellcome Collection.

Although Eva Kot’átková’s large installation, Asylum, (Mixed media, 2014) presents the viewer with a seemingly disarming “chaotic archive of inner visions” it becomes transformative as you move around it, bringing the viewer into contact with something more intimately human; the “psychological and physical effects of restraint”. Based on the artist’s research visits to the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital in Prague, the subdued lighting creates a quiet, contemplative atmosphere encouraging focus on clusters of found objects, text, collage, assemblage and metal sculptures that emerge out of the large central table/ plinth.  Like a black matt of unconscious, elevated ground, associations, memories and experiences expand and contract in the same way that states of mind alter perception. Metal bars are a recurrent trope in a largely monochrome three dimensional palette, animated by moments of warmth and muted colour. It’s a shadow world of the self, an exploration of the head expanding into the dimensions of a “house, palace” and “castle”, then shrinking into solitary confinement by shifting perceptive states. The body becomes visually fragmented; the head as a metal cage, mouth open like a doorway with steps leading up into it, heads bound in wire or defined by metal bars and the single mute line of a mouth. A collage bisects an abstracted cranial orb into positive and negative space, separated and simultaneously aligned. There are eyes with bars across, a heavily protective wall with eye holes and figurative assemblages with individual features cut away or eyes taped shut.  The visual language and techniques are those of Dada and Surrealist Art; of protest, dreams and alternative realities, but instead of flights of imagination or desire, this archeologically excavated collective subconscious is bound in restraint. There’s poignancy in turning that associative visual grammar of freedom back in on itself, communicating a very anchored sense of how mental illness affects human beings. This work could be seen in terms of desolation- but it is also a window to lived experience, with scraps of text illuminating how the mind creates protective barriers and hiding places within.

Eva Kot’átková "Asylum" (2013) Installation view at Kunsthalle Baden Baden 2014 Courtesy of Meyer Riegger Berlin Karlsruhe and Hunt Kastner Prague.

Eva Kot’átková “Asylum” (2013) Installation view at Kunsthalle Baden Baden 2014 Courtesy of Meyer Riegger Berlin Karlsruhe and Hunt Kastner Prague.

Kot’átková repeatedly presents the body and mind as a vessel, symbolised by ancient clay jars, vases or a coiled labyrinth juxtaposed with the organic internal structures of shells grafted onto the human body; forms drawn from Nature’s design. There’s a sense of the base elements of human beings; in the presence of primitive masks, birds, bats, monkeys and in the physicality of abstracted bare metal backbone and simple figurative forms on the table, stripping back human beings to the nervous system and our attendant “fears, anxieties and phobias”. Unexpectedly it is not a bleak, fixed vision but an imaginatively fluid one which I found myself returning to several times. Moving around the perimeters of the room, drawn in by the relationships between different elements that surface, emerge and are then lost from one moment to the next mirrors life’s experience. As a result there’s a sense of fragility and vulnerability on display, together with the harsh realities of confinement and restraint within and without as part of the human condition. It’s a play of shadows that confronts what we all are; collections of memories, artefacts and visions.

"The Rakes Progress" Plate 8 Scene from Bedlam with Britannia, William Hogarth 1763 c Trustees of the British Museum.

“The Rakes Progress”- Plate 8 Scene from Bedlam with Britannia, William Hogarth 1763 c Trustees of the British Museum.

Projected onto the wall in the left hand corner of this first room is a 1925 16mm film transferred to digital; the Procession of St Dymphna from the community of Geel in Belgium. This illumination returns the viewer to the origins of the asylum as a place of sanctity and refuge linked to religious belief, sacred duty and pastoral care. Since the 13th Century a tradition of care in the community, with those affected by mental illness boarding with the residents of the town and becoming integrated in everyday activities, has become a model but also a collective vocation. Within the legend of St Dymphna, patron saint of mental illness and emotional distress, there is suffering and trauma based on cruel circumstance; her Father’s madness and incestuous delusions which cause her to flee her home in Ireland, seeking safety and asylum in Flanders.  Flight to this previously unknown territory has a parallel in “the mind coping with the unbearable” by reimagining the world within and without. Founded by Alderman Simon Fitzmary after his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1247, Bethlehem Hospital’s origins, like those of the community in Geel have a moral and spiritual root. Similarly the York Retreat, established in 1792 by William Tuke and the Society of Friends (Quakers), was founded on a belief in compassion for fellow human beings, providing a therapeutic framework for social integration, healing and well- being; not just for the individual but in a wider cultural and spiritual context. This vision of care and responsibility is starkly contrasted with images of the asylum such as   Hogarth’s 1763 engraving; Plate 8 A Scene from Bedlam  from his series A Rake’s Progress where he cements the Britannia coin into the wall turning critical focus back on British Society as a Bedlam. The central protagonist Tom has lost everything, his fortune, liberty and his mind. His steep descent; the result of vanity, greed, excess and the latter stages of syphilis, presents a moral, cautionary tale; his body and mind mirroring the health of the nation. Hogarth’s biting satirical vision of class, hypocrisy and deprivation is presented like a cinematic storyboard or play. Tom’s fortunes have progressively turned; the class he was part of now mocks him, seen in the well-dressed lady and her maid in the background visiting the asylum for amusement. He is oblivious to the love that has stood beside him in every frame, the figure of Sarah who still cares for him in spite of his now desperate circumstances. In the context of this exhibition Hogarth’s image of Bedlam takes on a different meaning over and above the 18th Century moral judgement of its protagonist.  Wealth and position are meaningless in the face of human suffering and mental distress; any one of us can be made destitute, regardless of who we are or the circumstances we were born into. The illustration isn’t a vision of Gothic Horror even though it is an earthly vision of hell. This quality can also be seen in the 1814 Broadsheet etching by George Cruikshank of “James Norris, (misnamed as William) chained to the wall by his neck for ten years”. The emphasis is on the calm and subdued resignation on Norris’s face, rather than tabloid caricature. The insanity portrayed in this image is the society that treats human beings in such a way, akin to slavery. It is an early Nineteenth Century public call for reform, highlighting institutionalised neglect and collective responsibility.

Vincent Van Gogh, "LHomme à la pipe"1890 c Trustees of the British Museum.

Vincent Van Gogh, “LHomme à la pipe”1890 c Trustees of the British Museum.

Turning the tables on visions of madness, Vincent Van Gogh’s etched portrait of Dr Gachet; L’Homme à la Pipe (1890) accompanied by the artist’s observation; “ He’s very nervous and very bizarre himself” brought a smile to my face in its defiance of the Romantic myth of the mad genius artist. Equally the dignity and clarity of Richard Dadd’s portrait of his psychiatrist; Sir Alexander Morison 1779-1866, Alienist (1852, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland) is an arresting example of one human being beholding another. It is also the doctor seen through the eyes of his patient. Morison holds his top hat before him in salutation to the artist/ viewer, with no power differential elevating the subject. It is an image of an aged, vulnerable man, rendered with Dadd’s characteristic care and minute attention to detail. Morison’s gently furrowed brow and steadfast gaze meets our own as equal. He stands before his estate, a book and white cloth in his other hand, lines of cloud drifting in an uncanny state of natural order in the pale blue sky above. His grey suit, dishevelled hair and kindly mouth, ever so slightly raised at the corners, convey the stature of a friend or fellow patient, rather than an eminent psychiatrist treating the afflicted. It is a highly empathic image, depicting the regard of one human being for another, regardless of class, condition or circumstance. It is also an intensely moving work in the understated positioning of the figure and the way that compassion is engendered in the heart and mind of the viewer as our eyes meet Morison’s.

Richard Dadd "Sir-Alexander Morison,1779-1866. Alienist", courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Richard Dadd “Sir-Alexander Morison,1779-1866. Alienist”, courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Henry Hering’s photographic portrait of Richard Dadd in Bethlem at work on his painting Contradiction (1857) also turns the tables of expectation, presenting the image of a professional artist before his easel, rather than an afflicted patient. This is very much in keeping with the desire for progressive reform and cure, seen in Hering’s “before and after” photographs of individual patients on their admission and release from Bethlem Hospital. Richard Dadd’s fastidious, obsessively detailed paintings of fairy folk are well known, but here he conveys a very grounded sense of recognition in the portrait of his doctor, appealing to the contemporary viewer as an enduringly humane presence.

Henry Hering, "Richard Dadd at his easel" (1857)courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Henry Hering, “Richard Dadd at his easel” (1857) courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Film has a very interesting interpretative and documentary function in the exhibition, investigating the blurred lines between clinical and art practice. Co-directed by Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, Abandoned Goods (2014 , 35mm, S16mm, HD) is a visual essay  exploring “one of Britain’s major collections of Asylum Art containing about 5,500 objects (paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculptures and works on stone, flint and bone) created between 1946 and 1981, by about 140 people compelled to live in the Netherne psychiatric hospital in South London.”  Commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and the Maudsley Charity the film combines archive, 35mm rostrum, and observational photography exploring the ambiguities between clinical material, art therapy and revered art objects in their journey from asylum to gallery. “Outsider Art” has always been a contentious label with the language, exhibition space and market often framing the identity or intentionality of the artist in terms of freakish novelty. The film’s title “Abandoned Goods” is extremely apt in human terms as until it is commodified such art is usually hidden. Borg and Lawrenson’s visual essay highlights individual voices, opening up debate about collections of creative work made in a therapeutic context and asserting the validity of human expression in all its forms.

Javier Tellez "Caligari and the Sleepwalker" (2008) c the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann.

Javier Tellez “Caligari and the Sleepwalker” (2008) c the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann.

Javier Tellez’s reimagining of Robert Weine’s Silent Expressionist Classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920); Caligari und der Schlafwandler / Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008, Super 16mm transferred to video, 27:07 mins) is a fascinating exploration of categorisations of “normal” and “abnormal”, using patients as actors, participants, commentators and witnesses. The ethical considerations in making such a film are considerable and made it an uncomfortable watch at times; even though interviews with the actors anchored the director’s overall aesthetic in the language of documentary. The lines between who are the artists/ filmmakers/ actors and who are the institutionalised patients/participants are deliberately blurred. Tellez plays on multiple levels with the translation of the German word for mad; meaning “shifted, not where it is meant to be,” suggesting a spectrum rather than a polarised judgement about “normal” or “abnormal”, sane or insane. The clinical function of creativity vs the cinematic tradition of the director as auteur creates a certain tension. Crafted in the chiaroscuro of the original, with the sleepwalker Cesare recast as an Alien, who reveals that our planet is an illusion and the intergalactic territory we strive towards (his alien star) is a psychiatric hospital. Sound dialogue is delivered via blackboard German into (English) subtitles, an interesting twist on the silent tradition of explanatory intertitles. The blackboard is simultaneously a barrier to direct communication and a tool for dialogue,  learning and teaching. Tellez picks up on the original film’s conclusive reveal; where the Doctor as a figure of authority and state is actually the straightjacketed patient, a reflection of Germany during the Weimar period and the rise of madness that was Nazism. Whilst elements of the film are playful, feeling semi-improvised and experimental, the historicised visuals of Caligari and the Sleepwalker also create a retrospective feeling of unease, with thoughts about the actual fate of the film’s collaborators had it been made in the 1920’s as opposed to 2008 shifting perception. It is however, a film of light over darkness; “How do you perceive the world around you?” Cesare the sleepwalker/ alien answers; “Through love.”

Javier Tellez "Shering Chess" (2015) Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.

Javier Tellez “Shering Chess” (2015) Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.

The sculptural installation Schering Chess (2015, Mixed media) by Javier Tellez also embraces provocative ambiguity in a static game where the chess pieces are reproductions of Pre- Columbian figures used by the pharmaceutical company Schering to advertise its treatments during the early 1970’s. Figures representing different mental illnesses, labelled with the corresponding Schering treatment are displayed on a board resembling hospital lino with the pawn pieces taking the form of fragile eggs. The oppositional chess pieces, one side comprised of red earth, the other rendered in pristinely artificial, manufactured white are held in a display case, facing each other off in a controlled environment.

As with many Wellcome exhibitions Bedlam: the asylum and beyond is accompanied by an enviable programme of cross disciplinary special events, an extended exhibition catalogue in Mike Jay’s publication This Way Madness Lies- The asylum and Beyond (Thames and Hudson) and a parallel exhibition curated by Sam Curtis, ‘Reclaiming Asylum’, being held at the Bethlem Gallery, from 21 September– 11 November 2016. Although for many people the subject of mental illness remains overwhelmingly dark, this exhibition shifts the emphasis away from the idea of affliction to acceptance and optimism through shared human insight. In consequence the overall tone of the exhibition is resoundingly hopeful. Again I am reminded of Maslow’s pyramid and Carl Rogers’ concept of self-actualisation projected into the wider sphere of society; “When I look at the world I’m pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.” What this exhibition celebrates is the natural tendency of human beings to strive towards light and understanding through creativity, even in the most extreme circumstances of trauma and distress.

www.wellcomecollection.org

Scottish artists inspired by the sea

Joyce W Cairns "Farewell To Footdee" (Oil on panel 122cm x 183cm)

Joyce W Cairns “Farewell To Footdee” (Oil on panel 122cm x 183cm)

The Sea- Scottish artists inspired by the sea

17 September – 29 October, Kilmorack Gallery, by Beauly.

Kilmorack Gallery’s latest exhibition features work by some of Scotland’s finest artists inspired by the convergence of land, sea and memory. Forces of Nature and mind are powerfully brought together in an exciting show including work by; Joyce W Cairns , Steve Dilworth, Kate Downie, Lotte Glob, Marian Leven, Will Maclean, Allan MacDonald,  James Newton Adams, Mary Bourne, Ruth Brownlee, Helen Denerley, , Gail Harvey, Janette Kerr, Sian MacQueen, Lynn McGregor, Illona Morrice and Beth Robertson-Fiddes.

On entering the gallery Lotte Glob’s large ceramic tile seascapes; Seascape, Seascape – Tidal and Seascape Stormy Sea, unleash an incredible intensity of colour in a molten fusion of elemental forces and raw materials. Brilliant ultramarine and turquoise create a feeling of depth that the viewer cannot help but dive into. In Seascape-Stormy Sea, water, earth, air and fire meet, unite and divide; cracking and separating like a microcosm of the earth’s geological record. There’s a sense of mindful physicality in this artist’s work based on being in the landscape in the most expansive sense possible. This is combined with a lifetime’s understanding of Craft, unsurpassed in her chosen discipline. Along the coastline of the UNESCO Northern Highlands Geopark that the artist calls home, the ancient Lewisian Gneiss rock, 3,000 million years old, meets the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. Shore, land and mountain are a rich source of found materials, transformed by fire in Glob’s masterful ceramics.  The strength, beauty and delicacy in her work is visibly distilled in Flower of the Sea; a living being of fired clay; anemone-like fingers extended around blooms of glassy blue/ green rock pools, tempered with the hue of a subsiding tide of red kelp. In Rock Flower, an outcrop of white clay blooms emerge from what feels like a monumental cliff face, a fused piece of immovable white stone balanced on top of the sculpted clay in counterpoint with the pale, mortal transience of flowers. The handling of materials and form is supremely sensitive and a celebration of an artist at the top of her profession. Reef is another superb example, a rocky outcrop emerging from a disc of ocean which feels like the entire globe; minerals and pigments ebb and flow to the edges of the ceramic, into the deepest sea of mind, time and space imaginable. Another signature piece is Secret Pool; a sphere resembling a meteorite flung from space, which when opened reveals an interior teaming life forms, shoreline colour and vivid joy. Lotte Glob’s responses to her environment are pure and instinctual; her spirit is as adventurous as the experimentation in her Art and in walking the landscape she has come to understand Nature and human connectivity with the environment in ways that never fail to inspire. She’s an artist who always makes me smile for the wisdom, vitality and sheer energy of her practice, intimately connected to the Northwest land, sky and sea from which she is inseparable.

Lotte Glob " Flower of the Sea" (Ceramic)

Lotte Glob ” Flower of the Sea” (Ceramic)

One of the most moving works in the exhibition is Farewell to Footdee (Oil on panel 122cm x 183cm) by Scotland’s most significant figurative artist, Joyce. W. Cairns. In many ways the painting is an act of commemoration and remembrance, a strikingly poignant composition of memories which make a life. In frozen white, blue greyness, articulated by the pure warmth of cadmium /vermillion a masterful sense of composition emerges, in the structural diagonal and vertical uprights of the washing line, refracted light on the icy ground and the emotive placement of the human figure. As with all of Cairns’ work we are pushed psychologically to the edge of the frame and beyond it; by design, the distilled palette, the interior positioning of the figures and by the artist’s innate sensitivity. The acute subtlety of winter light upon the rooftops and gently nuanced expression on the face of the foreground female protagonist portrays a moment of vulnerability and sadness at the end of an era. The painting also acknowledges profound loss; of those who have passed, phases of life and aspects of self. Around the foreground protagonist’s neck is a medal of honour, engraved; “Footdee 1979-2014”, marking the artist’s departure for Tayside and a new chapter in the battle of a creative life. I always try to refrain from purely autobiographical readings of this artist’s paintings, because my sense of her work is that like all Great Artists she always transcends herself. It is true that most of Cairns’ female figures physically resemble the artist and that many of her paintings respond to life in the old fishing village of Footdee and the port of Aberdeen, past memories and familial experiences, but equally her field of reference is more widely European in painterly terms and in subject matter.  In her extraordinary body of work; War Tourist, Cairns certainly begins the journey re-tracing her Father’s steps through WWII Europe, but the visual statement that emerged out of this research over the following decade crosses all borders into contemporary conflict, the nature of war and the eternal human condition. There are few artists that share her command of large scale figurative composition, save German Expressionists like Beckmann and Grosz.  It’s the emotional gravitas and conscience in her work that is immediately and monumentally striking. Look closer and the balance of elements in her compositions are breath taking; a perfect synthesis of instinct, control, ideas and technique. Cairns’ familial memories are ever clothed in wartime dress, like the younger sister in red beret, gloves and shoes, who looks on in the mid-ground as the foreground Self departs the scene. However Farewell to Footdee is more than an image of individual/ autobiographical commemoration, remembrance or grief. The head and shoulders of the central female protagonist connects powerfully with the viewer’s space and the sense of loss we all feel when we leave part of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and in the people we have loved. Her tilted hat, crowned with a white boarded cottage whose chimney almost transforms it into a house of worship, carries emotional weight; like the posture of the tiny female figure leaned within the doorway, head downcast and hands in pockets. Time collapses into the line of cottages that frame an inner courtyard of the soul; the yellow warmth of light from open doorways in the background illuminating scenes of romance, isolation and loneliness re-enacted in the farewell.  It is impossible to see this painting and not be affected by its raw, profound emotional stillness or by the artist’s consummate skill.

Joyce W Cairns "Messerschmitt Over Footdee" (Oil on ply, 152cm x 122cm)

Joyce W Cairns “Messerschmitt Over Footdee” (Oil on ply, 152cm x 122cm)

In Messerschmitt Over Footdee (Oil on ply, 152cm x 122cm) Cairns assumes the role of an ARP (Air- raid Precaution) warden. Pushed into the foreground she is flanked by WWII ephemera; Lucky Strike cigarettes, anti-gas ointment and a gas attack leaflet arrangement of museum pieces.  The phosphorescent glow of the sea merges with the sky in the heightened perspective of the composition. The illuminating presence and bisecting geometry of searchlights, lighthouses, washing lines and the boundaries of the safe harbour are invaded by an enemy bomber. Again the central protagonist is positioned in the foreground, standing in the viewer’s space as witness, clutching a wreath of poppies to her chest.  Out of a first floor window a woman waves a union jack, whilst below a naked female figure emerges from an illuminated doorway. The idea of “keeping the home fires burning” and the anxiety of war on the domestic front can be seen in the pallor of her expression, articulated by the memories , stories and artefacts gathered by the artist, assimilated within her psyche as part of the War Tourist retrospective body of work.

Steve Dilworth "Throwing Object" (Burr elm, wren and bronze)

Steve Dilworth “Throwing Object” (Burr elm, wren and bronze)

A series of hand held objects by Isle of Harris based artist Steve Dilworth provide a very tactile experience of forms, materials and energy drawn directly from land and seascape.  Throwing Object (Burr elm, wren and bronze) transforms the viewer into a participant in its natural beauty and crafted allure. The organic form of honey coloured elm feels like it has been freed by the hand of the artist and the touch of the visitor, with the worn glow of patina we might see in an ancient church pew, smoothed by generation after generation. With carved hollows for the fingers it is designed to be held and has a visceral, irresistible, gravitational pull. Once held it feels comforting as the object’s centre of gravity aligns with your own, like a divining rod for the soul. This piece containing a small bird and held together by bronze fits comfortably in two hands as an object of contemplation or in the violent trajectory of one, it becomes a superbly balanced to “psychic weapon” of protection. The aged wood, once living bird and a metal, comprised mostly of conductive copper, create a unique flight path of intentionality and energy. The form feels organic but also like a human artefact and its gravitas can be felt in the ambiguity of its potential use. It is weighted in the interchange of crafting its two halves; for defensive action on the one hand, or meditative thought on the other; tendencies for creation or destruction which are both equally generated in moments of connection between Mother Nature and our own nature(s) as human beings. All of these associations flow from the intimacy, duality and ambiguity of an object which is not sculptural or a visual art in the traditional sense, but connecting with something deep, subconscious and essentially primal through the universal language of touch and collective memory.

Steve Dilworth "Deep Water" Water (Harris Stone, seabed water and whale bone, 10cm high x 17cm x 12.5cm )

Steve Dilworth “Deep Water” Water (Harris Stone, seabed water and whale bone, 10cm high x 17cm x 12.5cm )

This timeless quality can also be found in Deep Water (Harris Stone, seabed water and whale bone, 10cm high x 17cm x 12.5cm ) a drogue form of high contrast dark and light , grounded in the weight of solid stone and the depth of the emotionally conductive element held within it. Its hollows are curiously orbital and the delicate ridged line on top echoes a natural curve ending at the base of a skull, or the sleek skinned form of a sea mammal. The combination of water from the seabed off Rona, whale bone and Harris stone is inspired, with flecks of metallic starlight made visible by shaping and polishing. Seal Oil Stone (Harris stone, beach stone, copper, seal oil, 11cm high x 20cm x 18cm)  also illuminates the value held within in the vial of seal oil which glints like precious gold, encased in the hollowed interior of a large beach pebble, eroded by waves, and coils of conductive copper. The speckled surface of the stone, green oxidisation of the copper and glimpse of the object’s interior through a birth canal-like opening gives this work the feeling of a newly discovered ancient fertility object, borne of the sea.  The instinctive combination and alignment of materials which has its own dynamic flow in the artist’s studio, translates directly to the viewer through the nervous system. The form of the object is rich with associative triggers for the imagination and in this way, as with all of this artist’s work, the visitor/ participant completes the object.

The pure energy of liquiform water and solid stone is distilled in Wave ( Harris Stone, 18cm high x 20cm x 9cm) an incredibly compact curvature that seems to encompass the lunar origins of tides and the dynamism of a concentrated form turning in on itself. The natural qualities of Harris stone become flecks of salt spray in shifting seams of green, while the precarious power of a crashing wave is folded into stone. The material is transformed by the idea, energy and presence of Nature. The thinned spine of the object and its asymmetrical base playfully pivot the deceptively simple core form in a singular moment of recognition, preserved for all time.  On closer inspection the convergence of convex and concave facets reveal themselves as the light and the viewer’s position changes. The edges are shaped with characteristic precision, sharpened to the touch and the sense of dynamic movement is extremely powerful, vastly exceeding the physical dimensions of the object.

Will Maclean Voyage of the James Caird- Elephant Island (Painted wood and resin, 82 x 72 cm).

Will Maclean Voyage of the James Caird- Elephant Island (Painted wood and resin, 82 x 72 cm).

The expansive mindscape of the ocean is the subject of Will Maclean’s Winter North Atlantic (Painted wood and resin, 124cm x 105cm x 5cm) and a fine example of his work. (Reviewed previously as part of the Fiaradh gu’n Iar: Veering Westerly exhibition, IMAG, georginacoburnarts Blogpost 09/03/16.) Maclean’s exploration below the surface is realised with great subtlety in the abstract box composition Voyage of the James Caird- Elephant Island (Painted wood and resin, 82 x 72 cm).  Here the layered surface evokes the monumentality of a frozen wilderness, inscribed with human/ drawn marks of circular navigation and weighted plumb lines.  To the right a small rectangular cutaway reveals a line of swell and landscaped horizon conveying an emotional sense of movement within the expanse of the extreme Southern Ocean. The ice flow palette, which moves and melts before the eyes, encompasses a God’s-eye view and an interior window perspective penetrating the surface of the painting/ box construction.  It is a perfectly balanced abstract of painted, drawn and constructed elements referencing history and the spirit of human exploration. The journey made by Shackleton and his companions in the small boat the “James Caird” from Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands to South Georgia in the Southern Ocean was a feat of courage and persistence. Maclean’s rendering conveys a state of mind and human vulnerability in relation to the environment, in the face of Nature at her most unforgiving. He achieves this in the drawn/ incised marks of a human hand and in the use of found materials, recovered debris from generational tides of human experience. In the presence of such a work we are brought face to face with the human scale of all our endeavours.

Kate Downie "The America Ship" (acrylic and ink on canvas, 167cm x 160cm)

Kate Downie “The America Ship” (acrylic and ink on canvas, 167cm x 160cm)

Kate Downie’s The America Ship (acrylic and ink on canvas, 167cm x 160cm) is a wonderful exploration of human and natural elements framed by the skewed perspective of a small boat enduring a swell. In an interior lounge space two figures sit apart from each other, staring out into an absorbing grey sea of their own thoughts. On the coffee table between them; a precariously poised model of a ship balances upon an elongated shadow of deepest blue. The coastline spills into the room and Downie’s ink drawn marks are fast, bold and gestural, rendering the figures with dynamic stillness. The ochre ground of the floor anchors the ebb and flow of life and relationships, while the ship’s wheel above spins like a hand of fate between the two figures. It is an image of human connection emotionally on board a model ship with the exterior environment brought into the domestic space to unexpectedly rich expressive effect. Part of what convinces in this work is Downie’s direct drawn response, characteristically invested in her subject.

James Newton Adams A Pocket Full of Fish (Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm)

James Newton Adams A Pocket Full of Fish (Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm)

James Newton Adams has contributed a series of strong compositions to the exhibition including As I was Going to St Ives (Acrylic on canvas, 86 x 96 cm) and In the Company of Birds, (Acrylic on canvas, 87 x 87 cm), injected with Newton Adams’ characteristically whimsical streak and naïve style, tempering what is a harsh human existence carved out between land and sea. One of the most interesting and affecting works in that respect is A Pocket Full of Fish (Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 97 cm) Newton Adams doesn’t often depict the female figure but here his expressionistic rendering of a pregnant woman with a baby standing beside the absence of her partner, his orange fishing overalls suspended from the clothes line, is an insightful and socially charged image of inevitability and unrealised hopes. The pocketful of fish in her partner’s overalls feels like a consolation prize, rather like the bundled child tucked nondescriptly in her arm like a lifeless, sleeping doll.  The mother’s bleak expression, mouth pinched shut like the red peg in her hand and with a hint of shadowed bruising around her eye, expands the in the pervasive mood of the composition. In the background a male figure plods, head bowed, along a depressively level horizon of road. Characteristic use of strong primaries; red, blue, yellow , together with the monochrome weight of white and black which delineates figurative scenes of coastal village and domestic life, give Newton Adams’ paintings a certain edginess and emotional height uniquely his own.

Mary Bourne "Cloud Mass Over the Sea" (Ink wash on paper)

Mary Bourne “Cloud Mass Over the Sea” (Ink wash on paper)

Edginess and emotional height is realised in a very different way in Peter Davis’s Edge of the Storm (Watercolour and pigment on paper, 50 x 70cm) in the tonality of forces; dark and light, pitted against each other in the still calm before the storm. This is beautifully realised in the bisected composition and expert handling of a fluid and notoriously unforgiving medium. What is captured very potently is the threat of the storm, the tension in the moment before the onslaught; that very particular angry blue/grey temper of Scottish skies which is part of the internalised character of Northern land and seascape. The way the pigment is suspended, preserved in its once liquefied medium, also conveys the anticipatory moment, that heaviness, which contrasts beautifully with a shining horizon line of light over the sea. A zen like economy of expression also infuses the ink wash of Mary Bourne’s Cloud Mass over the Sea, a wonderful dance between form, fluidity and reflection. In Red Cloud over Sea (Ink wash on paper) Bourne combines strong marks bled into the edges in a marriage of accidental and controlled marks, capturing one of Nature’s meditative moments. Her low relief sandstone and palladium leaf sculptures; Beach I, II, III (each 30 x 30 cm )present not just an effective abstracted play of light on the sand in three dimensions, but the understated simplicity, of leaving the door ajar for the viewer’s own imaginative experience of the shoreline; triggering memories of walking on sand among glinting pools and the dancing light of the sun.

Allan MacDonald "Great North Headland" (Oil on canvas, 40 x 152 cm)

Allan MacDonald “Great North Headland” (Oil on canvas, 40 x 152 cm)

A master of light and landscape painting in the Northern Romantic tradition, Allan MacDonald’s Great North Headland (Oil on canvas, 40 x 152 cm) is a triptych which celebrates divinity in nature, conjoined with a human heart and mind beholding it. The massed energy of turbulent seas are realised in an invigorating palette of ochre, orange, red, green, umber and white- the physicality of cold salt spray and the heat of sublime spirit animating it, seen as underpainting or ground emerging through the layered impasto. A progressively more abstract immersion Form and Void- Beauly Firth (Oil on board) is bolder and confidently intuitive, with large flat foreground brush marks, white ground shining through and a blaze of resiliently hopeful blue.  The paint handling reveals the artist’s direct response to the enormity of Nature; land, sea and sky, which comes from working outside in all weathers.  In Malestrom Eshness (Oil on board) a fury of waves crashes against the coastal cliffs- raw power, green, white, umber and furious grey, like the livid eye of stillness at the centre of a raging storm. These works aren’t seascape scenes, but richly interpretative paintings, demonstrating a commitment to craft and belief with the artist’s brush marks testimony to that all-encompassing devotional energy.   They are also very physical responses to an endlessly challenging environment. The artist doesn’t distance himself from the life force of nature all around him but actively goes out to meet it with all his perceptive faculties, not just what can be seen with his eyes. In consequence the viewer feels as if they too are standing on the edge of the cliff; in the grip of an essential dynamic between humankind, Nature and the eternal mystery of the sea.

All images by kind permission of Kilmorack Gallery.

http://www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

Joseph Beuys A language of Drawing

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

Andy WARHOL (1928–1987) Joseph Beuys, after 1980 Print, screenprint on paper, 126.30 x 117.10 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London 2016.Image: © Tate / National Galleries of Scotland.

ARTIST ROOMS:  Joseph Beuys A Language of Drawing, 30 July – 23 October

Richard Demarco & Joseph Beuys/ A Unique Partnership, 30- July – 16 October

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), an enigmatic figure in the history of twentieth century art whose concept of “Social Sculpture” feels urgently relevant.  Beyond the historical context of post war Germany; his belief in the ability of each human being to use their innate creativity to build a better society remains aspirational and politically charged. Parallel exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) provide the opportunity to explore and re-evaluate Beuys’s work, legacy and his relationship with Scotland as part of a wider sphere of European culture. Joint ARTIST ROOMS holdings from the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate have been brought together for the first time in Joseph Beuys- A Language of Drawing, featuring over 100 works from 1945 to 1984. Complimenting this significant survey of Beuys’s drawings is Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys: A Unique partnership; an exhibition of objects, photography, film, posters, recordings and original correspondence exploring the collaboration between Beuys, Edinburgh gallerist Richard Demarco and the impact of Scotland on the artist’s practice. Beuys’s choice of media and raw elements are invested with intentionality and his delight in playing with language.  He utilised his drawings as “reservoirs” of ideas, often preceding what he described as “actions” in performance, teaching and political activism. Using a wide variety of materials; graphite, ink, industrial “Braunkreuz” oil paint, watercolour, newsprint, leaves, bone, hare’s blood, felt, fat, stone dust, clay, zinc, lime, copper and iron oxides applied to paper, card, metal and wood, Beuys’s drawings are a wonderful window into the endlessly fertile ground of the thematic obsessions, concerns and beliefs that define his art.

It feels very timely to go back to the Beuysian origins of the phrase; “everyone is an artist”; to extrapolate the real aspiration behind it from what it has become in the popular imagination. In the 21st century access to technology has given many the capacity to create and perform online to an increasingly global audience. In this environment seemingly anyone with a platform is an artist. But having access to new tools to express and project your own desires doesn’t constitute “cultural democracy “(or progressive civilization) on its own. Having the purchasing power to buy the latest upgrade is a profit making trajectory that doesn’t necessarily equate to the growth of awareness and conscience needed to actually use it. Joseph Beuys declared that “the creativity of people is the real capital. Art=capital” and he was right, however the word capital in the 21st century has been reduced to only one meaning; monetary wealth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary art world aligned with the language of advertising. In looking at Beuys you have to re-examine how we define art and culture and completely re-evaluate the role of the artist as compliant agent or resistant activist as part of the wider question: “what is Art and what is it for?” The striding Western Hero in La rivoluzione siamo Noi [We are the Revolution] (1972 (phototype on polyester sheet, with hand written text, stamped (based on a photograph by Giancarlo Pancaldi), GMA 4563, SNGMA) cast Beuys resoundingly as the resistant activist. Although the cowboy swagger is arguably part of the artist’s mythical persona, within his statement that “everyone is an artist” there is also the assertion, commitment and intentionality of building a better society. Significantly there is a sense of collective responsibility underneath that iconic hat.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Ohne Titel [Untitled], 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on canvas, 233 x 227.5 cm. ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.Image: © Antonia Reeve / National Galleries of Scotland.

Beuys understood the power of mythology which is why, in the story of him being rescued by a group of nomadic Tartars, he rolls himself in insulating fat and felt; an act of psychological survival after being shot down in the Crimea during WWII whilst serving in the Luftwaffe. Although criticised for the lie of being rescued by a tribal culture, the truth still resides in the myth. Shamanic is a word that gets used a lot around Beuys, however he is iconic not for the cloaked mystery of his artistic persona or for the celebrity treatment of becoming a Warhol multiple, but for his actions; “My art is my teaching” was how he described his own work and his art expands way beyond gallery walls. He was a passionate advocate of the capacity of art to heal individual and societal wounds and like other German Artists of his generation, used his language of drawing as a way of coming to terms with the atrocities of Nazism and human complicity, including his own. From the end of WWII he was actively reclaiming the language of his homeland; the idea of the gesamkunstwerk; the total work of art, which had been misappropriated in Wagnerian proportions during the Nazi era. For Beuys this was an ideal within and without, a synthesis between different disciplines, a total work of art as bound to human life, manifest in the concept of “Social Sculpture”. Psychologically he was his own gesamtkunstwerk;

“I outlined a new biography in drawings. I had already conceived the idea of a social work of art upon which I am still working”. (Joseph Beuys, 1980).

The idea that people can use their creativity to bring about positive cultural, political, economic, ecological and social change is an eternally hopeful premise for reconstruction. The imperative then was a world visibly in ruin in the aftermath of industrial scale warfare, genocide and the age of the atom bomb. The imperative now is displaced humanity, global corporate rule and impending ecological disaster.

In the poignant drawing Dove, Food, Rainbow (1949, Graphite and watercolour on card, AR00095 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Beuys uses simple linear graphite and white washes of watercolour on a raw, textured ground of found card, to create a feeling of profound lassitude and hope. The bowed head of the dove linked to the promise of a rainbow which has not yet burst into colour and the mountainous horizon is both a statement of loss and aspiration. When I think of Beuys I think of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs and belief in the motivational capacity of human beings for self-actualisation and self-transcendence.  As a follower of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings, there are elements of ethical individualism and spiritual science that become integrated Beuys’s in the trajectory of his drawings.

Beuys can be seen as shamanic in his depth of awareness; of the nature of mythology, culture and the universal tribe of humankind. It’s what makes the simplicity of Acer Platanoides (1945, Leaf on paper, AR00630, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) so revelatory; a fallen leaf on paper, felling the then blackened mythology of the German forest to the ground.  Out of the fascist cry of “blood and soil”, Beuys leads the viewer back to the possibility of survival and growth through creativity.  Nature in Beuys’s work is very much in the German Romantic tradition of Friedrich– we are always aware of a human mind beholding it. Beuys’s drawing The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains (1953, Graphite on paper, 3 parts. ARTIST ROOMS, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Lent by Anthony d’Offay, 2010. AL00196) acknowledges and crystallises that dynamism. There is a human presence in all his drawings, whether they are figurative or not. A fluid horizon of hare’s blood, fat transformed by human warmth, a symbolic battery of positive and negative forces, the flow between masculine and feminine, reason and intuition, present meanings sensed and felt in the action, rather than seen. If you go looking for the artifice of beauty in this artist’s work then you are destined never to find it. The beauty in Beuys lies in belief and aspiration. His connection with Scotland and interest in Celtic mythology shares a kinship with the bardic tradition of creativity as a source of transformation and renewal. His drawings are the process, sometimes unrealised actions, part of the trajectory of a life and linked with many others. This clearly presents a problem for some art critics and viewers hunting for explanatory meanings, traditional linear narratives or illustration. There are many works in the exhibition that document actions where the artist’s presence was vital and equally many drawings and objects that stand apart from the myth of the artist, transcending their maker. Beuys challenges traditional/ art historical classifications, his art was as much about founding the green party, lecturing, teaching, performance and the energy of raw materials as it was about the fine art practices of drawing, sculpture and installation.

In Richard Demarco’s essay Ex Cathedra; he refers to performance art as: “ essentially a form of drawing through what Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist called La Poetique de L’Espace. Performance art reveals 20th century man’s need for ritual. The artist’s work through performance art can be linked to that of the ritualist, alchemist, priest and master of ceremonies and guide and explorer, of all the secret places normally hidden from view, which we need to know to truly inhabit a living space, both interior and exterior.” (A Unique partnership-Richard Demarco / Joseph Beuys, P70 Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh2016)

Tails (1962, Oil paint[Braunkreuz], graphite and felt AR00654 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) is a very potent expression of the artist, ritualist, alchemist, priest/ shaman and explorer, half human half animal, in the process of transformation, rendered in bloody, earthen pigment. The elongated scale of the figure gives it a monumental presence and the gestural marks have the feel of an act of worship written and illuminated on ancient cave walls. The oil based Braunkreuz paint Beuys often used in his drawings was in industrial/ domestic use in Germany at the time, it is also a play on words- translated as “brown cross” anchoring the earth bound pigment to faith, the floors/ foundations of people’s homes and to the world of the everyday. It is a powerful material anchor to what may seem a highly fantastical image. Another fibrous layer in this drawing is a sewn hole of felt heralding ritual rebirth which the figure appears to bow before. The Shaman’s Two Bags (1977, Graphite, crayon and ink on paper, AR00129, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.)  is another example of the artist’s preoccupation with humankind’s interior and exterior life, above and below, uterine in form and crowned with antler.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986) Witches Spitting Fire, 1959,Graphite and oil paint on paper, 20.70 x 29.70 cm.ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© DACS 2016.

Beuys’s treatment of the feminine in his work is extremely interesting as a manifestation of creative and destructive potential. In Witches Spitting Fire, (1959, Graphite and oil paint (Braunkreuz) on paper, AR00109, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) the squatting armless figures engulf the ground of the drawing in a frenzied dabbing of reddish, brown marks in stark contrast to their lithe, dellineated bodies. The energy of the drawing is intensely visceral; channelling a deeply instinctual and uncontainable drive. The female figures consume the space they inhabit with the associative pigmentation of blood, soil and excrement. The mystery of the female body is amplified by the male artist’s gaze in Pregnant Woman with Swan (1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper AR00114, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Here the swollen female figure in silhouette contains the ghostly masculine form of the child/ swan. The head is bowed limply in a Freudian twist; vulnerability held within the body of the Great Mother. The form echoes stone age Venus figures, the earliest depictions of fertile human body and imagination in clay.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

Joseph BEUYS (1921–1986)Pregnant Woman with Swan, 1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper, 27.60 x 21.30 cm. Permanent Collection: ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.© DACS 2016.

A drawing such as this has universal resonances regardless of what has been written alongside it. There is a perception of Beuys, reflected in James Fox’s most recent programme; Who’s afraid of conceptual Art? screened earlier this week on BBC4, of being bafflingly abstract or (through the eyes of art historian Fox) allegorical. However I would argue that Beuys’s work is neither too obtuse to be accessible without written explanation, nor does it operate on a level of representation discernible only to scholars. Actions like 7000 Oaks (1982), where Beuys initiated the planting of 7000 oaks, each paired with a basalt stone in the city of Kassel, has spread to other cities around the world; a collective creative act of live sculptural installation, green politics and urban renewal. I think what Beuys was about expands exponentially when seen outside a typical gallery space. This was very much the intention behind Beuys’s first exhibition in the English speaking world; Strategy: Get Arts hosted by Richard Demarco at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970.

The underpinning conceit of Fox’s documentary was that audiences require explanation in order to understand conceptual art, or rather the ideas behind it. As I made my way through the ARTIST ROOMS exhibition a group of young art students came in; “You can draw anything as long as you explain what you’re doing!”, declared one of them, laughing and pointing to the text label beside one of Beuys’s drawings. The student and his three giggling companions exited quickly, their laughter following them down the stairs.  On one level I understand their response. For a group of immature, white middle class art students the urgency of having civilization as they knew it destroyed before their eyes wasn’t part of their life experience  and nor is it mine. Thankfully we have not been faced with the physical and psychological necessity of rebuilding life as we know it. In such a context Art isn’t a subject to be studied, it becomes an imperative; because in truth it is our only means of human reflection and survival, an idea that is articulated beautifully in Schitten (Sled) 1969 (Wooden sled, fat,, felt, belts, torch, No 47 in an edition of 50) . This piece derived from Beuys’s larger installation- The Pack (1969); a Volkswagen with 24 sledges flowing from the back of it like a team of huskies, each with a felt blanket, a lump of fat and a torch, has a curiously powerful human presence. Beuys commented; “In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.” Seeing this singular, editioned object of endurance and exploration displayed in a glass case has the effect of relegating it as a dead historical artefact, when in imaginative terms it is the creative key to human survival for the journey ahead; the sled to move across the wasteland we find ourselves in, the protective insulation of felt, the sustenance of fat, a torch to illuminate the path ahead and human warmth to transform the world around us. Although both exhibitions are text heavy there are other ways of presenting Beuys, as part of a wider discussion of where we’re all heading. The artist’s interests and concerns were wide ranging; art, mythology, anthropology, history, science, ecology, alchemy, Nature and all of these are combined in the gesamkunstwerk of his life’s work.

Beuys’s Pyramidales Bild (1979, Oil paint on printed paper, AR00687, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008) encapsulates his philosophy in its synthesis of ideas, beliefs and materials.  The pyramid is a multifaceted form in relation to Christianity, Theosophy and Steiner, but what is so interesting in this drawing is Beuys’s use of newspaper print and the way that the halo of fat bled into the paper defines and transforms our reading of the more rigid structure within. In this vertical diptych the geometric forms are almost architectural and the fold of the newsprint holds a sun-like apex of fat. These drawings resemble a built structure/ environment but also the human body. The feeling held in this drawing is the softened rigidity of form and feeling. There’s an emotive sense of spirituality and hope grounded in a real world of possibility. This is communicated not by an illustrative, narrative imagery, but by the combination of thought and raw, found, everyday materials which are reconfigured, crafted in an apex of human aspiration, continually striving towards light.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/artist-rooms-joseph-beuys-a-language-of-drawing