Monday, February 09, 2015

PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress - 05.02.15

Down to the basement, along the shooting range and into an L shaped viewing gallery surrounding a room-sized glass box. We can see them but the encased musicians with their rows of instruments can't see us and we can't record what we see and hear because it's 'no phones allowed'.

Polly looks like she looks, all darkly smudgy eyes and wide expressive mouth. She is tiny, the skinniest girl, dwarfed by her huge guitar. Head to toe in black, her long hair is centre parted and often covers half her face. When she looks to the side the little triangle of her nose is the only thing visible beyond her thick wavy hair.

Sketchbook 05.02.15

At one point she straps on her guitar and starts to thrash out the rhythm of a song. Excitement ripples through the L.
She stands up, puts her guitar on its stand, applies lip balm and prepares to sing. It will be a guide track.
There are eight bars of intro - but she isn't sure where she is, she holds up four fingers with a quizzical expression.

The accompanying notes have an interview with Polly - she talks about the history of Somerset House and the time before the Embankment when the Thames flowed into the building.

'Heard it was 28,000' she sings, 'and watch them fade out'. Her voice is so familiar but I can't catch many more of the words. Maybe it's about drowning?

'I think that the intro was too long' says the drummer,  'I agree' I want to say.

One of the producers or engineers messes around with some cables. 'Maybe the best thing is if someone starts and then you all join in gradually' he says.
'No' she replies firmly and that is the end of that.

Hanging on my bedroom wall is a painting of Polly in the studio by Stella Vine - I hadn't thought about it before my visit - now it seems very apt. The intimate moment becomes public.

Stella Vine, Polly, 2002, oil on board

PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress
Presented by Artangel and Somerset House
From 16 January 2015
Somerset House

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rome on Film: 1940s

I've been back from Rome for a month or and am only just starting to process all the information that I took in during my time there. So I thought I would make an inventory of sorts of the 'Rome' films that I have watched and how these connect to my experience of the place. For convenience and coherence I am going to divide the films into the decades that they were released, so this first 'Rome Films' post is about films from the 1940s. One last point before I start is that this is a very subjective list of films and there will of course me many missing either because I haven't yet seen them or don't know them.

The 1940s marked the amazing rise of the Italian film industry from the ashes of the devastation of WWII. This is of course the start of Italian Neorealism, a movement which used its lack of resources to define its aesthetic. The first film on my list is maybe the most famous Neorealist film - Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945). Neorealism dealt with real things happening more or less in real time in the places that they happened. Rome Open City was released the same year as WWII ended and is about Italian partisans in Nazi occupied Rome towards the end of the war. It was mainly shot on the streets (this was partly through financial necessity) and featured many non-actors alongside stars such as Anna Magnani. Because of the scarcity of film stock Rossellini had to use whatever he could get his hands on resulting in a lack of stylistic continuity. Similarly film equipment was hard to find and I have read that old-style monolithic silent movie cameras were used. This meant that the sound was added later causing the strange disconnect that is often apparent between the actors and their speaking, something that is a bit of a trademark of Italian film.

While in Rome I visited the Museo Storico della Liberazione in via Tasso which during the Nazi occupation of Rome was the headquarters of the German SS and members of the Resistance were tortured and interrogated here. I am sure that I have read that it is the location used for the torture scenes in the Rome Open City but I can't find the reference now, nevertheless if not the actual location the cells graffitied by condemned prisoners are a direct inspiration for the scenes in the film which are really harrowing.

Graffiti on a cell wall at Museo Storico della Liberazione

The film itself has not aged brilliantly and the melodramatic drug addicted showgirl plot line and the odd comedic moments seem a bit ill judged and at odds with the film's tag as the forerunner of Neorealism. However there are some very memorable scenes, notably Anna Magnani running at full pelt down the street after her fiancee who has just been arrested by Nazis screaming 'Francesco, Francesco, Francesco'. I originally watched the film in 2012 and this is the Film Diary painting I made of one of the dramatic moments towards the end of the film.

Anna Magnani in Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

The second film on my 1940s list is another Neorealist classic - Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948). This is a more cohesive, less melodramatic film than Open City and for that reason is a better example of the Neorealist idea. It has a very small plot, one that is pretty much covered by the title of the film, and is more about the struggle that many people had to survive in post war Rome. It is also very sad and for this reason I couldn't bring myself to watch it for many years.

There are are a series of posters around the city at the sites where famous films were made, in true Roman style most of these have been defaced and now like much of the city are in a dilapidated state. I became a little obsessed with finding and photographing these. The Bicycle Thieves poster is close to the huge, thundering tunnel (Traforo Umberto 1) where the hapless Antonio chases after the thief who steals his bicycle.

I walked through the tunnel a few times, as part of a film inspired walk from the via Veneto to the Palazzo dell Esposizioni to see the excellent Pasolini Roma exhibition (more of this in a future post). On one occasion a group of chic, motorcycle riding, Italian police screeched through the tunnel and the last cop in the group somehow slid off his huge bike. Immediately a huge crowd of people rushed to his aid, I think he was more embarrassed than hurt though as he quickly climbed back on and caught up with his mates (no pictures I am afraid - I was too shy and a bit worried about being arrested for mocking the police or something).

Traforo Umberto 1 in April 2014

Traforo Umberto 1 in Bicycle Thieves (1948)

One of the strengths of Bicycle Thieves is the relationship that Antonio has with his young son Bruno, who dotes on his father and seems to be constantly trying to make eye contact with him. When Antonio chastises Bruno and Bruno's ultimate  realisation that his father is not always honest are some of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema history.

Enzo Stiola & Lamberto Maggiorani in Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948)

I won't go any deeper into Neorealism in this post but if you are interested my 2012 essay 'The Stylistic Features of Italian Neorealism' has a lot more info, especially about Visconti's early films Osessione (1943) and La Terra Trema (1948).

Thank youth Jacopo Benci for the following info : 'Via Tasso was NOT the location used for the torture scenes in Rome Open City, Rossellini filmed in a large basement in Via degli Avignonesi, near Via Rasella, but the set of the Nazi HQ/prison was indeed based on recollections of Via Tasso.'

Thursday, June 05, 2014

My Own Private Idaho

The British School at Rome is at the edge of Villa Borghese close to Piazza del Popolo. A couple of nights ago I watched Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) for the first time. I knew that it had some scenes in Rome but hadn't realised that they are mostly of River Phoenix stumbling around Piazza del Popolo. Here is a still from the film juxtaposed with my photo of the same statue.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Roman Spring

I am in Rome until the end of June on a three-month fellowship at The British School at Rome. There is so much to look at and research that it is hard to pin down what it is that I want to focus on and of course things will evolve and change over the time I am here. I have of course been watching lots of Rome based films from Neo Realist classics to Hollywood on the Tibor epics. The one that is really resonating with me at the moment is The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961), which is adapted from Tennessee Williams' novella and stars Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty. Leigh plays an ageing, wealthy American actress who decides to stay in poverty stricken, post-war Rome after her husband dies.

The film has the most beautiful colour palette and the bourgeoise interiors are brilliantly realised. Vivien Leigh's wardrobe was designed by Balmain (there is a great blog post about her clothes here) and features a couple of draping toga inspired dresses which I love. 

I have read that much of the film was filmed in a London studio but there are some sections filmed on location although I am not sure if Vivien was in Rome herself. Would be very interested to find out if she was.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Swirling and twirling through movie ballrooms

After seeing Heaven's Gate a few weeks ago I started thinking about films that had amazing dance scenes - by this I mean mass traditional ballroom type dancing - not salsa, disco jive etc. They are of course, I have just realised, all historic depictions - maybe this is what makes them so breathtaking. What they all share is amazing movement - so that as you watch you are swept up in the dancing. As someone who really can not dance this is the nearest I come to feeling what it must be like to be floating around the ballroom in a beautiful, big, swirling dress

So here are my favourites..

Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)
Bette Davis plays headstrong Southern Belle Julie in pre Civil War America. She wants to live life to the full and refuses to play by the rules. At the annual Olympus Ball she decides to wear red rather than the traditional white - this marks her out as an immoral woman in the eyes of her fellow party goers. The ballroom scene is brilliantly filmed in black and white, using Wyler's trademark deep focus to show the whole scene. The crowded dance floor feels claustrophobic and is filmed from a low angle to give us the sickening vertiginous feeling Julie has when she realises that she may have gone too far. When she steps on to the dance floor everyone starts to depart leaving her to dance on her own. Wyler's ballroom influences all the film ballrooms to come.

Madame Bovary (Vincente Minnelli. 1949)
Jennifer Jones plays the beautiful, ambitious and very foolish Madame Bovary. When she receives an invitation to a society ball she swiftly ditches her homely, doctor husband, to become the belle of the ball and dances with an unending supply of society men. When the charming and handsome Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) asks her to dance, her head spins as he swirls her (and us, as the camera takes her point of view) around the dance floor. When she (and the rest of us) start to feel dizzy and eventually faint there is an extraordinary sequence where the host orders that the servants smash the windows to allow her to cool down. This is all done in Minnelli's trademark super stylish way.

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
The film begins at Harvard with a new class of graduating students. Their final ball is a huge open air extravaganza befitting of a film that bankrupted a studio. The camera starts by circling the group of dancers before getting right into the middle of them, gliding and drifting around just as they do, getting faster and faster and more claustrophobic as the Blue Danube speeds up. It is spectacular.

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)
After only meeting him once Anna (Keira Knightly) encounters Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for the second time at a ball where he orders her to dance with him. As soon as they face each their eyes lock, in classic romantic encounter style, and nothing else matters. Wright brilliantly depicts this by making the dancers around them freeze and start moving as if they are in another world altogether. Vronsky lifts Anna up and holds her there for just too long before they dance a curiously formal dance where they raise their arms and place them against each other whilst never breaking eye contact with each other. It is intense.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Paul Nash and Dymchurch

Paul Nash first visited Dymchurch, a seaside town on Romney Marsh, Kent in 1919 and he found it to be ‘a delightful place with much inspiring material for work’. He returned numerous times and even rented a cottage to help him recover from a breakdown after his experiences of WWI.

He was particularly impressed by the vast sea wall at Dymchurch, a man-made structure designed to protect the Marsh from flooding from the sea.

In 2011 a new seawall was built at Dymchurch - it is impressively futuristic but still somehow retains the atmosphere that is embodied in Paul Nash's paintings and etchings.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Wild River

Two of my current fascinations Montgomery Clift and Elia Kazan come together in a film I saw as part of the BFI's Montgomery Clift season last night - Wild River (1960). As with all the films that these two great artists have made it did not disappoint.

It was a really important film for Kazan who wanted to imbibe the lead character Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) with all the idealism that he himself had in the 1930s. Chuck works for the TVA and thinks he can make people's lives better by implementing a scheme to dam the Tennessee River which will prevent floods and provide electricity. The only fly in the ointment is that some people don't want to sell the land that needs to be flooded to allow the scheme to go ahead. Glover travels to Tennessee to smooth things over, sees that things are more complex, upsets the status quo by employing a black labour force at equal pay, falls in love with one of the 'enemies', and gets attacked by a mob.

The other stars of the film are Jo Van Fleet who plays the unmoving matriarch Ella Garth and a luminous Lee Remick in one of her first film roles who plays her granddaughter and Glover's love interest Carol.

The film looks great - shot on location in Tennessee the landscape is vast and the skies are always blue (whenever it isn't raining). Jo Van Fleet is also very good as the feisty old lady. But of course it is Monty and more surprisingly Remick that hold the fascination for me. Their faces are so enthralling and their personas so captivating that I wanted them on screen the whole time. Their affair is depicted in a wholly unusual way - nothing explicit is ever shown but the erotic tension between them is palpable. A comment from the IMDb message board explains one such scene...

I like the scene where Clift tells Remick not to walk around in front of him, then she goes to the cupboard at the back of the room and gives herself a splinter, only then does Clift embrace her. I like the way it is staged, it is unusual for the emotional height of a scene to take place so far from the camera, it feels more genuine than if they were just shot in ever tighter close ups.

In fact Clift rushes to Remick when she exclaims in pain and proceeds to vigorously suck her finger before they embrace - wow.

Apparently Kazan originally wanted Brando for the part (because as he says he wanted Brando for everything at the time) and Marilyn was mooted for Remick's part. This would of course have changed everything. Kazan says that he altered the emphasis of the film to fit Monty - he realised that he couldn't convincingly play the dominant partner in the relationship with Remick and so he switched things to make her take the lead. This makes the film very different from standard 1950s fare and very contemporary.

The film didn't get much a release in 1960 as the studio didn't think it would find an audience and it is generally pretty much unseen. If you get the chance I wholly recommend it.

As for Monty I'll leave you with these words from Trevor Johnson's intro to the BFI's Montgomery Clift season. ... 'He lived fast, he died young, and he remained cool enough to have The Clash write their song The Right Profile about him…. "That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!".