Friday 31 July 2009

World Cinema Foundation and The Auteurs website

I found a great new website last week - The Auteurs. I found it from a link via Shooting Pictures. Once you sign up to The Auteurs you have access to lots of films, some free, and some available for a small charge. They also have interesting and lively discussion forums, online film festivals, and notebook function where you can list all the films you'd like to see and rate the ones you've watched.

They currently have an online film festival dedicated to the World Cinema Foundation (WCF). The WCF is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring neglected films from around the world – in particular, those countries lacking the financial and technical ability to do so. It was established by Martin Scorsese and it's goal is "to defend the body and spirit of cinema in the belief that preserving works of the past can encourage future generations to treat film as a universal form of expression." So, something well worth supporting then! There are currently four films available to watch online, via The Auteurs, that have all been preserved and restored with the help of the WCF. So far I've only had the chance to watch one of them but on the strength of it I will be making sure I watch the others.

The Housemaid, directed by Ki Young Kim (1960) is a tense, claustrophobic film set mainly in the confines of the family home. The story concerns a piano teacher who, when his wife is away visiting family, sleeps with their housemaid. The film starts with a young female worker in the factory professing her love for him, something which is forbidden and which resulted in her temporarily losing her job. From this point on events just seem to spiral out of his control. The housemaid whom he takes on to help out his pregnant wife has some kind of personality disorder and after seducing him she gradually takes over the household. None of the characters are portrayed as being innocent and all are seen as out to get what they want without thought to the consequences to others. I love the melodramatic style and the black comedy throughout the film thought the ending just forces the morality aspect a bit too much for my liking.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

The Old Crowd

Invitation to attend screening of The Old Crowd in Venice, California with ‘Director’s note’ written by Anderson © Lindsay Anderson Collection

I keep thinking about The Old Crowd after watching it again recently, it makes for such uncomfortable viewing and it's such a great piece of work that I feel it deserves to be considered on the same terms as Lindsay Anderson's films. I knew it was based on a play by Alan Bennett but I hadn't realised until cataloguing the correspondence what a collaborative piece of work the television adaptation was.

A little piece of context - Stephen Frears (who was Anderson's assistant director on If....) produced a series of six plays by Alan Bennett for LWT (London Weekend Television). The Old Crowd was the one that most interested Lindsay Anderson when he was asked to direct one of them.

[Plot synopsis – I realised after I posted this that I didn’t really include a plot synopsis as I got carried away talking about what’s in the Archive! Hmmn, not very good for an archivist though, not putting it in context, oops. So, what happens – George and Betty are having a dinner party in the large house they have just moved into with George’s mother. There is no furniture in the house due to a mix-up with the furniture ending up in another city. They are hosting a dinner party and the first people to arrive at the door are ‘the Slaves’, these two servants are Harold and Glyn and they instantly give off a sense of foreboding and menace. The windows in the house are covered in newspaper and whenever one of the guests arrives at the door there is an emphasis made on shutting the door, shutting out the outside world. There is a talk of a virus sweeping the country, of muggers, riots, rampant crime. All the guests arrive, including Totty, a friend they had been talking about who has just been given six months to live. The ‘Old Crowd’ are depicted as self-centred, boorish, bourgeoisie, but the ‘Slaves’ are not portrayed any better, they’re devious, threatening and opportunistic. The crack which appears in a ceiling at the start of the film is representative of the cracks within their own social group, the unlikelihood of their survival, and the cracks in society as a whole. All this is intensified by the glimpses of the camera, crew and edges of the set, making the whole thing much more uncomfortable and ‘real’ in the sense of a possible merging of their world and ours.]

In the correspondence files we have copies of the letter which Anderson originally sent to Alan Bennett, explaining that he would like to direct the play but asking if Bennett would mind if he made some changes. Then follows detailed correspondence between the two of them where they discuss changes to the plot, the script and the characters, it is also noted in Anderson's introduction to the play in The Writer in Disguise, that they met up to collaborate on the script. Every revision seems to make the play more disturbing, more satirical and more surreal. Anderson mentions Bunuel as an influence that came to his mind when reading the script, and also Max Frisch's play The Fire Raisers. I was very pleased to read this as one of my thoughts when I was watching the film was the Slaves, Harold and Glyn (played by Philip Stone and Frank Grimes, both wonderfully threatening and sinister in their roles), were reminiscent of the two intruders in The Fire Raisers. Indeed the overall feel of the play, the sense of foreboding, of events being out of their control, and yet that this lack of control was actually of their own making, their own blindness, is something that I got from both The Fire Raisers and Anderson's adaptation of The Old Crowd. In fact, thinking of it now, maybe the blindness of the piano player at the beginning is meant to be symbolic, I think it's one of those films that reveals more the more you watch it.

Lindsay Anderson, Jill Bennett and Frank Grimes on set ofThe Old Crowd © Lindsay Anderson Collection

Writing to Philip Stone, the actor who played Harold, before the film was aired on ITV, Anderson pre-empted the hostile reception the film would receive -

“I’m afraid it is fearfully sophisticated for a television “play” – in fact I have grown used to calling it an anti-television play. It will be another work I fear a few years advance of its time and one which disastrously will need to be seen more than once. And I don’t need to tell you that television isn’t designed for a product of this kind.” 28/07/1978, LA/2/3/3/4/17

There were a number of positive reviews, most notably by Alexander Walker and Tom Sutcliffe in The Guardian. These were however, overwhelmed by the slightly hysterical nature of the critical reviews, for example, Clive James writing for The Observer (04/02/1979)

"[The Old Crowd] was so unsophisticated in its presentation that it could scarcely be said to exist... People like Lindsay Anderson can never learn what people like Alan Bennett should know in their bones: that common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds".

Well I'm certainly not sure what that last bit is meant to mean but I know that 'common sense' as Clive James put it, is something which Anderson had little patience for in relation to humour. This is illustrated in a letter Anderson wrote to Melvyn Bragg where he asks ""the English tradition of Nonsense. Why have people generally lost their capacity to respond to it, or 'understand' it?" 28/02/1979, LA/2/3/3/3/9

The repeated glimpses, throughout the film, of the camera and crew are intended, in Anderson's own words "not to alienate the audiences from the drama, but rather to focus their attention on its essential - not its superficial or naturalistic - import." (taken from The Writer in Disguise, Alan Bennett, introduction to The Old Crowd by Lindsay Anderson, p164). He highlighted alienate as he didn't like the Brechtian term Alienation for the reasons outlined in the above quote. The critic Herbert Kretzmer, writing for the Daily Mail, said that these devices, intended to alienate, only served "in reassuring frightened viewers that they had nothing to worry about - it's only TV, folks!". Well, for me they did the exact opposite, making the content of the play more aligned with reality and illustrating the disturbing habits which we all have, of enclosing ourselves in our own little reality and ignoring what's going on outside.

There are a large amount of press cuttings for The Old Crowd in the file. A lot of reviews, but also a large number of letters to the editor from viewers who either strongly liked or disliked the film. It seems to have been, and will probably continue to be, a film which divides audiences into these strict camps.

Having all of Anderson’s correspondence relating to the film, all the press cuttings he collected (and was sent), the scripts, on-set photographs, production material and promotional material all together is such a wonderful resource and research tool and even from this preliminary look whilst cataloguing the correspondence, I feel like I’ve gained a much better insight into The Old Crowd. I hope quotes from Anderson’s correspondence and the on-set photographs are providing as much interest to others on here as they do to me whilst cataloguing them!

Lindsay Anderson and Rachel Roberts on set of The Old Crowd
© Lindsay Anderson Collection

Thursday 16 July 2009

'Who Do You Think You Are' - Davina McCall

The first episode of the new series of 'Who Do You Think You Are' aired on BBC1 last night and it more than justified it's prime time slot - according to figures I read today it attracted 6.4 million viewers.

I really enjoyed this one, and yes, you won't believe it, I have even found a connection to Lindsay Anderson in there (me, obsessed with my work, never!). Anyway before I reveal the connection here's a brief synopsis of the show for anyone who didn't see it (it's available on the iPlayer)

Davina McCall was brought up largely by her grandmother, as her mother was an alcoholic and in Davina's own words 'still a child herself'. She grew up hearing stories that she was descended from George IV, with a distant relative being his illegitimate son. It turned out that this wasn't the case, but her ancestor had been the King's master stonemason and had left an impressive legacy of work, along with a very divisive will which caused a number of family tragedies. I got the impression that because of her mother's unstable personality she was expecting to find more of the same when she delved into her mother's French background. However nothing could be further from the truth. She found out that her great-grandfather was Celestin Hennion, head of the French police in the early 1900's. He is still revered and honoured in France, both for his work in modernising the police force, and for his support for Captain Alfred Dreyfus. During the Dreyfus Affair, when the military captain was accused of spying and unjustly convicted (due to rampant anti-semitism in France at this time) Hennion stood up for him and according to an historian Davina McCall met with in France, the testimony of her great-grandfather was central to his defence, although he was still found guilty. Eventually, due to worldwide public condemnation, aided by a public letter of protest sent by Emile Zola to a French newspaper, Dreyfus was pardoned.

So, now to the Lindsay Anderson connection - Lindsay Anderson starred in Prisoner of Honor. This film about the Dreyfus affair was directed by Ken Russell in 1991 for HBO and starred Richard Dreyfuss and Oliver Reed. Lindsay Anderson played the French Minister of War. So far in my cataloguing I've come across a number of mentions of the film by Anderson. In a letter to an actor friend he says "I've no doubt it does a director a lot of good to find out what it's like in front of the camera." Writing to his friend Gavin Lambert he talks about having problems remembering all the lines, because he didn't feel there were enough rehearsals. He goes on the talk about Ken Russell, the director, saying "I do respect him for the way he's kept going and always, it seems, on his own terms" - something that was of the utmost importance to Anderson himself.

Going back to Who Do You Think You Are it was interesting to hear that the case, which was huge news in France at the time, was one of the very early instances of documentary film in France. Looking into this further I found an interesting website which documents all the films made about the Dreyfus Affair. It mentions four minutes of footage that was filmed at the trial in 1899 which could be the footage referred to in Who Do You Think You Are. This original footage was then used by the film maker Georges Méliès for an eleven minute film where he interspersed the original footage with reconstructed scenes. I watched this film on YouTube and I couldn't really tell which bits were the original footage, although sometimes it was obvious which bits weren't, if you know what I mean. I read that Méliès was often inspired by photographs and there is one scene in the film, where Dreyfus is arriving back from the penal colony that looks just like a photograph which was shown on the BBC programme. It's amazing how many directions one short programme can lead you in! I now want to watch more of the documentaries and films which have been made about the case.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

'Home' and film preservation

Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson on set of Home
© Lindsay Anderson Collection

I have now started on material relating to Lindsay Anderson's television productions and have just finished cataloguing correspondence relating to Home. In 1971 Anderson directed a version of Home a play which he first directed in the theatre in 1970. The play, on the stage and television, starred John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne and Warren Clarke. The television production was funded by WNET/Channel Thirteen (a public broadcasting station in New York) and was then leased by the BBC and shown on national television in Britain.

Home concerns two elderly gentleman, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, reminiscing about their past, discussing the clouds, their childhoods, and the news. The conversation is punctuated by oft-repeated phrases such as 'oh yes' 'how extraordinary!' and 'my word!'. It becomes apparent as the conversation goes on, and as two women, played by Dandy Nichols and Mona Washbourne, join them, that they are all residents in a mental hospital. The conversation continues, the characters getting upset at different points, and in the end the women leave, leaving the two men to sit on their own again, contemplating their lives 'Time passes very slowly' says Ralph Richardson as 'Jack'. It's such a moving ending and I can imagine it would have been even more so to see it in the theatre, to see these two actors on the stage.

The correspondence concerns the loss of the original master copy of Home. Anderson spends two years (1986 - 1988) trying to locate the master copy, with help from a fan, and someone at WNET. It really struck me, once again, how little control the Director has over his work once it is made. Maybe this is why he liked to exercise so much control over the film-making himself, knowing that he would lose all control once the film became the property of the production company.

Talking about making the film in a letter to the fan who helped him locate copies of the film Anderson said "That production is certainly one of my most cherished memories... It was a happy experience for all of us." He finished the letter "I do hope we are able to find a copy of HOME - for you, for me and for the rest of the world." The correspondence continues, with Anderson locating, with the help of this fan, a copy of Home in the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library in New York. Writing to them to ask if he could have a copy of their copy Anderson explains "I'm sure I don't need to emphasise the value and importance that HOME has for both Mr Storey and myself, for purely personal as well as for creative reasons." Anderson is grateful to get a copy from them but is disappointed that it's not of transmission quality - so the quest continues...

He then finds out that there may be a copy at the National Film Archive (NFA) at the British Film Institute so he follows this lead up. Luckily for him, and for us all, they had a/the master copy of Home, which had been sent to them from the BBC, and made a copy for Anderson and for WNET (WNET paid for Anderson's copy as well as they had been as keen as Anderson to locate it). Writing to the NFA Anderson expresses his happiness at finding his film "I need hardly say how delighted I am to find that HOME is not after all lost, but has been in such safe keeping all this time." It turned out that the BBC had bought a/the master copy from WNET and that eventually this copy, in line with BBC policy at the time, was donated to the NFA. The final letter in the sequence of correspondence, once again to the NFA, ends with "God bless the National Film Archive!"

Contact sheet for stage production of Home © Lindsay Anderson Collection

The lack of concern over the misplacement/loss of the master copy seems to indicate that, as a television adaption, Home was deemed less important than a 'proper' film. From the stories we hear in the news about the loss of classic television recordings it seems that this was quite common in the 1960s/1970s and there was less concern over preserving television broadcasts. Neither are there any on-set photographs in the Anderson Collection, which, given the large amount that exist for Anderson's films and theatre productions, seems a bit of an anomaly. So the photos which I've included here are from the stage production. It must have been awful, as the creator of a film, to realise that it could be so easily misplaced, and to know, as Anderson did, that such events were outwith your control, although he proves that with some determination and good friends and supporters, there can be a happy ending. Home is now available to buy on Video and DVD through Amazon, although I have to qualify this by saying it is rather expensive. It is also available to rent on Lovefilm.

Friday 10 July 2009

Exhibition at the Changing Room, Stirling

Art is not a mirror, its a hammer!
An exploration of the John Grierson and Norman McLaren Archives.
11 July - 5 September 2009
The result of a collaborative project, this exhibition will feature film and archival material selected by artists Katy Dove, Luke Fowler and archivist Karl Magee.

Grierson and McLaren film screening
4 September 2009, 7.00pm
Featuring Hitchcock on Grierson

Please join us for the screening of Hitchcock on Grierson Alfred Hitchcocks tribute to the famous documentary maker John Grierson televised in 1965. Courtesy of STV

Refreshments will be served. This event is free but please call Tolbooth Box Office on 01786 27 4000 to book tickets, as space is limited.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary

I recently found out, via another blog, about a new website set up by the National Film Board of Canada. It's called 'Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary' and it's a treasure trove of wonderful short clips of directors talking about various aspects of documentary film making . There's so many clips that I've only really scratched the surface so far but personal favourites include; Eduardo Coutinho, Interviewing: telling it for the first time, where he discusses why he doesn't ever like to meet interviewees prior to the interview; Kevin Macdonald, Jennings, Morris and Maysles, talking about the impact of these three directors on him; Claire Simon, The French Nouvelle Vague, where she talks about, amongst other things, the work of Agnès Varda, a French documentary film maker whom I had never heard of before but who I am now really looking forward to finding out more about; and Werner Herzog, I memorize the entire footage, where he talks about, surprisingly enough, how he memorises his entire film for as long as necessary then forgets it when the film is finished.

I really like the way the website is set out as well. it's really easy to use, visually appealing and the search options work really well. You can search by name of film maker, by topic, and by just browsing over the photographs of each film maker that make up the home page.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Interview for The Big Picture magazine

I recently did an interview about the Lindsay Anderson Archive for The Big Picture magazine with Jez Conolly and it is now up on their website - my first interview!

The Big Picture is a new, free film magazine (and website) that 'offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. Aimed at the enthusiastic film-goer at large, The Big Picture provides an original take on the cinematic experience. Drawing from cinema's fundamental visual power, The Big Picture turns traditional magazine publishing on its head, allowing the powerful filmic images to do the talking rather than masses of text. The Big Picture can be picked up for free from major independent cinemas nationwide.'

Here's the front page extract and link to the complete article:

O Dreamland: inside the Lindsay Anderson Archive

Kathryn Mackenzie is a member of the research team based at the University of Stirling currently working with the Lindsay Anderson Archive, a large collection of the filmmaker's personal and working papers, photographs and memorabilia. Jez Conolly asked Kathryn to shed some light on the man and his legacy as she sees it through her contact with the archival materials.

Thursday 2 July 2009

The writings of Lindsay Anderson

“there is no such thing as uncommitted criticism, anymore than there is such a thing as insignificant art. It is merely a question of the openness with which our commitments are stated. I do not believe that we should keep quiet about them.”

Lindsay Anderson, 'Stand Up! Stand Up!', originally published in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1956 and reprinted in Never Apologise: The Collected Writings (ed. Paul Ryan), p232