After all, it's just a ride….


Malick & The Art Of The Voiceover

A little something lyrical and pensive for a cold December Tuesday, hopefully it will help the spirit soar;

Terrence Malick: The Art of Voiceover from Kevin B. Lee on Vimeo.

BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001The centerpiece of the BFI’s monumental Days Of Fear & Wonder SF season is the country-wide release of the newly evolved digital print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course you don’t need me to tell you that this is one of the central monoliths of SF cinema, a masterpiece widely considered as one of the top dozen films ever made, regardless of genre. Now of course we’ve been here before as I’ve seen the film three times on the big screen since the Menagerie was launched, I’m not going to catch it on this release as I’ve already seen the film this year (I will shortly be taking another Blu-Ray peek once I’ve published this mission statement however), and I like to leave some period of big-screen reflection before going back beyond the infinite. That hasn’t warned me off the wealth of Q&A’s, discussions and other associated activity which the BFI are hosting as part of their re-release, starting with a screen-talk with the two surviving members of the mission, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, who jetted over to the UK to promote the film as part of its 46th year in operation. Once again here’s that epic trailer to put us in the mood;

Hosted by Matthew Sweet for BBC Radio 3 (not BBC Twelve which was inevitably referenced) this fantastic event had Dullea and Lockwood in fine form, ably supported by Sir Christopher Frayling and Mancunian star seer Professor Brian Cox debating and discussing the film, and anything I can say about this is rather redundant as you can delve into the full session here. Well, OK then, I’m a bit of a victim of my own obsession as there is very rarely anything arising from these sessions that I haven’t already digested, I guess when you’ve written your 12,000 word Ba Hons dissertation on the film, and have consequently read every book on the subject and every film related article in the English language since 1968 that you could get your paws on by 1996, well then believe me there are few mysteries left to explore. But it’s always fun to retread hallowed ground, and some of the questions and points raised by the audience were of a very high quality, including one members reading of the film as a metaphor for consciousness with HAL as our tool of technological evolution grappling with Dave Bowman’s human ingenuity – the first making it to the Stargate heralding the next phase of evolution, hence the reborn Starchild.

Brian Cox blew everyone’s gourds with the staggering factoid that presently our understanding is that there are something like 35 billion planets in the Milky Way alone that have Earth like habitats, and if that doesn’t pulverize your primitive mind then here’s the killer – there are 350 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Are we alone? Of course not, not when you factor in those incredible statistics, but I don’t think we’ve been visited yet or you’d think someone would have got an interview or something by now. The usual appreciation of all the effects being executed in camera with revolutionary SFX was raised with Lockwood and Dullea spilling the beans on how certain sequences were achieved, and how certain improvisations of theirs found their way into the finished epic – there is a long anecdote from Lockwood in reference to the lip-reading sequence which I won’t repeat here, suffice to say it proves just how brilliant a director Stanley was in the context of collaboration and inspiring everyone’s ideas and imaginations. For me the most insightful point came from Frayling with his emphasis on the film’s title which seems to get lost in the narrative discussions, as the film is an Odyssey in the Homeric sense, with HAL’s single eye of the Cyclops (and the original concept for the computer was a female voiced entity named Athena by the way) and the quest / journey plot driving our species back where we came from – back home to the stars.

After this astounding session on my favorite film (and another is planned this week on Christopher Frayling’s new book on the films production) how can one possibly top that you may ask? Well, there was one thing that could occur should the universe demand it, like say the opportunity to interview Frank Poole and Dave Bowman within an intimate group of four or five other critics over at the Southbank on Thanksgiving no less? Yes gentle reader, we have reached the apex of my achievements thus far, and I’m still kind of in awe at the experience. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interview ‘talent’ over the past few years at the LFF and in Toronto of course, but it’s something I’ve always resisted as it seems to be taking this hobby in a much more serious direction, and quite frankly I’ve got enough stress and grief in the day job without setting myself deadlines and workloads for what ostentatiously should be a fun exercise. I will make an exception though to meet and speak with the two leads of my favorite all time movie, so when the invitation came through a few weeks ago to attend this press event you can imagine my rather awed reaction.

So for an hour we chatted with Keir and Gary (first name terms now y’see) and they went through some of the well established anecdotes of the film and the shoot all those eons ago, no Stanley wasn’t a tyrant or an oddball but was in fact a calm and deeply curious and collaborative artist, and we even learned that Warren Beatty was desperately orbiting the Bowman part which is something I’ve never heard before. They were both quite affable and charming and threw certain questions back to us on the likes of Interstellar and Gravity which inevitably came up as comparisons (they both liked the films, although Kier hasn’t seen Nolan’s latest yet), before I stutteringly squeaked my question about how cold and robotic their performances are in opposition to HAL being the warmest and most emotional character in the film, and was this a conscious decision that Kubrick suggested during the production? They were both warm and engaging chaps, I’m choosing my words carefully but Lockwood is a bit of a firecracker, although he did cite Blade Runner as the only other SF masterpiece so I think we can forgive him his shameless name dropping and his rather abrasive yet amusing demeanor. We had a chat about the scene above in response to my question (and no they played it that subdued way as part of their professional in-universe backstories, not at Kubrick’s direct instruction if you’re interested) and on the way out of the BFI, clutching my newly acquired autographs I spotted one of the actresses from that great British TV institution Two Pints Of Lager & A Packet Of Chips. My god it’s full of stars indeed, and if you ask me nicely one day I might tell you the story about the disappearing blue scarf;

Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) The George Lucas Edition

Inevitable of course and there are a few of these doing the rounds, but this is just perfect;

Right, I’m off to the BFI for more star gazing, wish me luck….

Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) Teaser

What’s that? Oh speak up grandchildren , your grandpappy can’t hear so good these days. Oh, you want me to tell you the story of the last Star Wars Trailer? Well, it was a long, long time ago in a century far, far away, of course back in those days we congregated in communal areas and paid cash money to see films with total strangers. The world only had 2D then although colour had been something of a success, and lots and lots of portly men got very excited about a red faced demon and his two pronged ruby weapon. Yes, to be sure children we all got rather excited but that exhilaration sure didn’t last long, and now it’s all coming back again;

Just a fortnight ago I was briefly discussing the franchise with friends and I remarked that my overall feeling is that it’s just gonna be weird, and difficult to overcome seeing Hamil, Ford, Fisher and the rest back in those roles. Still, if they manage to give them a purpose beyond character window dressing and if J.J. Abrams remains a sleek purveyor of near perfectly engineered entertainments we could be in for quite a ride, with none of that auteur nonsense getting in the way of a good yarn. I’ll confess I grinned at seeing the Falcon again and the burst of Williams iconic score stirred this jaded soul, but I think we’re gonna have to wait for a full trailer to get a real feel of this ones………force.

BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – William Gibson Keynote Talk

neuromancerAnother earth-cycle, another BFI event – proceedings are suddenly starting to accelerate with the BFI’s science fiction season. In a moment of rare serendipity one of my favorite authors William Gibson has just published his novel The Peripheral and was in town as part of his global book tour, so naturally the BFI boffins recruited one of the worlds greatest and influential living speculative fiction authors to pop over to the Southbank and have a chat about his most cherished genre movies. Well, that was the plan on paper I guess, but this was really much more of a free wheeling on discussion on the definitions and constraints of the genre, with a few film clips and discussions thrown in for good measure. Hosted by SF author Nick Harkaway (whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of but it sounds like he’s quite a talented chap, and his dad happens to be John Le Carré) proceedings commenced with a CPU inevitability, as anyone au fait with Gibson’s particular brand of imagination knows he aureoles around that most transformative of our tools – the computer;

That’s a criminally underrated picture I think, not just the subject matter but also the animation and design techniques which were decades ahead of their time – this is quite nifty for a download. I’ve met Gibson before during a signing of Pattern Recognition a decade ago, I’ve always preferred his terse, intellectual prose to that of the only other SF author I still religiously read – rest in peace Ian M. Banks. He has a mischievous, devilish imagination (where’s the HBO Culture novels Game Of Thrones equivalent eh?, that would be quite something) but Gibson’s cultural imagination is just amazing, he has an incredible mind befitting of someone who invented a whole sub-genre in just one manuscript. The discussion got into some of Gibson’s stock in trade of accreting details in his books to generate plausibility and texture, the evolution of street fashions and designs  as well as the technological speculation, a dystopian world away from the silver spandex and frontier mentality of much SF spasms. There was a great anecdote of how he garbed Pollard, the main character of Pattern Recognition in a black Buzz Rickson M1 combat jacket, and soon the letters started flooding into the real Buzz Rickson company demanding to buy the item. The problem was they didn’t manufacture this garment in that color but as capitalism demands a response to market forces they soon did, with Gibson’s blessing and acute amusement.

Ah yes, The City Of Lost Children I must give that another watch, an early screen steampunk inspiration which Gibson also helped invent with his mate Bruce Sterling and The Difference Engine. The talk then turned to Hollywood which he described as a ‘marine coral with its own complex eco-system, haunted with sharks and the wrecks of failed projects, all intertwined in their own paranoid psyches’ – like I said the man is brilliant. He recalled being mildly depressed at the tone of much of the critical consensus around Neuromancer missing the point that although it was a ‘dark, urban, vaguely dystopian’ vision of the future it still looks pretty great compared to surviving in the modern-day slums of the South America or Asia or areas of Africa, after confessing his delight for the freshness of Blomkamp’s District Nine.

Inevitably the talk turned to Blade Runner and that anecdote was downloaded, for you newbs it transpires that Gibson was a third of the way through Neuromancer when he went to see the film during it’s original 1982 theatrical release. Distraught he stumbled from the theatre a mere 15 minutes into the film, paralyzed with fear that Ridley Scott had beaten him to the punch and somehow hacked his vision of the future, and dismayed that even if he finished the book he knew it would inevitably be compared to Blade Runner which he was sure was going to a massive critical and financial behemoth. Of course the film flopped and only found its audience on VHS over the years, so he persevered and published his debut and the rest, as they say, is history.

There was plenty more but I think I’ll wrap things up here, he did touch upon his script for Alien III where he conceived the alien as a weaponised biological delivery system which unscrupulous civilizations could drop on planets and eradicate the indigenous species, before citing Prometheus as a rather ‘primitive’ work which got a round of applause from the crowd. He cited Star Wars in 1977 as not being the era of Lucas but the age of the Sex Pistols as far as he was concerned at that period in his life, and recalled subversively wearing a Vivienne Westwood inspired t-shirt emblazoned with Luke Skywalker with his eyes burned out to some SF convention, and getting quite a verbally violent response. In conclusion then another successful addition to the SF programme, and believe you me there is quite some more exciting things to come…..

Jurassic World (2015) Trailer

Or as Alan might say, ‘Jurassic Park‘. I’ve seen all three of the original beastly franchise at the cinema, I even fell asleep for some of the last one, and this reboot of the franchise has been a long time evolving hasn’t it? Still, y’know, dinosaurs;

I wonder if this will accelerate or scupper Chris Pratt’s arise to superstardom, judging by that lackluster effort possibly the latter. I mean really, real ancient creatures from the Mesozoic era isn’t enough, we have to invent a new gigantosupersaur to get the jaded public away from their smartphones and into the theatre?

Tomorrowland (2015) Trailer

Yes, I know it’s been a little quiet round here of late, in my defence I’ve begun in earnest the long climb of my Films Of The Year collation, which as usual is no small task. In that light I’ve been scanning next year’s release patterns for some potentially choice morsals, and eventually got round to catching the teaser for this;

Colour me slightly intrigued. I like the Cloonster and Brad Bird has proven his chops in the directorial department, heck I’ve not even sure if the films is based on a book / graphic novel / YA franchise / TV Series / computer game or anything. I think I’ll try to keep it that way until opening weekend….

BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – A Clockwork Orange (1971)

aco1There was me, that is Minty, and I sat in the Korova milk-bar of the BFI Southbank trying to make up my razodox what to do with the evening. The BFI sold milk-plus, or drexemal or drencrum, and oh you know what but fuck this, it might have been an amusing notion to write this review in nadsat, the futuristic argot of the cult delinquent novel A Clockwork Orange and subsequent film by a certain Stanley J. Kubrick, but following through on that impulse is pretty much impossible unless you want me to tolchok myself. Coming a mere three years after his odyssey amongst the infinite the production speed of Orange was almost cheetah like in comparison to Kubrick’s other carefully cultivated and obsessively researched projects, shot over the Autumn and Winter of 1970 and edited throughout the subsequent year he unleashed his nightmarish dystopian vision to the world in December 1971, and the controversy almost immediately exploded for him and production partners Warner Bros. due to our old English favorites – the gutter press. Those wonderful arbiters of the disintegrating morals speciously linked the film with some isolated incidents of yoofs gone wild in the council ghettos of our blighted urban cities, in fact the general climate of the period was obsessed with censorship due to a holocaust of controversial films such as Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Ken Russell’s The Devils inflating the national debate on the dimensions of screen violence, but proceedings turned a little darker when Kubrick started receiving very specific death threats to him and his children directly at their isolated home on the outskirts of London, so he initiated the unthinkable – the film was pulled from domestic screenings in the UK, where it remained banned and unseen until just after his passing in 1999.

Now that’s how you open a movie, with a deep close-up on your protagonists grinning maniac face,  identifying the key focus point in the tableau before pulling back to establish (in a trademark Kubrickain reverse zoom), a wider perspective, as Wendy Carlos screeching electronica score pummels needles under the skin with its future frosted fear. Malcolm McDowell is of course is Alex DeLarge, a psychopathic young hoodlum addicted to the celestial warblings of the great Ludwig Van Beethoven in a near future, litter choked dystopian England. Alex is arrested and imprisoned for murder after a home invasion escapade with his three ‘droog’ gang members goes horribly wrong,  and he is enlisted for a radical new psychological aversion therapy which makes the very thought of violence or criminal behavior a lacerating, neurological  ‘pain in the Gulliver’. The only problem is that the therapy has also imprinted a nauseous, paralyzing reaction to the glorious 9th of Ludwig Van due to a rather unfortunate coincidence of the aural accompaniment to the visual treatment sessions,  prompting questions around freedom of choice and repression of the human animal, the very impact of technological advance on our souls and psyches.

clociLike Alex’s deranged, fickle mind this review is a collection of thieving magpie observations and thoughts, the first response that struck me following a BFI screening was how the elegant, static, forced perspective compositions are mixed with hand-held, chaotic immediacy (operated by Kubrick himself), usually a big affront to a normal production protocol when you’d trust your operators and focus pullers to do their job and capture the staged pandemonium. It’s that oscillation between the chaotic and destructive,  of our species animal nature of fighting and fucking that is the yin to the yang of the peaks of civilization and cultural and rarefied art and decorum, a typically Kubrickian duality in which this brutal, satirical masterpiece mercilessly spears its subjects. One of the great anecdotes of the film orbits the Singing In The Rain scene, that squirmingly sung soundtrack to the home invasion and rape which Malcolm improvised on set, Stanley got on the blower to his assistants in the States after the first take and acquired the rights to the song and Gene Kelly has never forgiven him for  forever tainting the aura of his MGM classic. Some of the 1970’s proto-futurist designs are near laughable now but were stripped from the pinnacle of design and fashion periodicals of the era, although the garish nudes and pictures immediately connect to this contemporary installation. The camera work and compositions are of course exquisite, less of Stanley’s trademark dollies and tracking arrangements than subjective POV from our hapless psychopath’s perspective, pushing him into our brains like an unblinking, invisible transmission of the Ludovico technique. Like Alex the film is infused with a dangerous, impish spirit from the garish color palette to the piercing pirouette score,  with its nature versus nurture debate it also feels unique in the annals of socially conditioned SF, as I challenge you to name me a film which could loosely be considered in the same thematic vein as A Clockwork Orange from its contemporary crewmates – Barbarella,  Planet Of The Apes, The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man or even THX 1138. They are all entertaining, colorful films in their own ways but are in a different intellectual stream, the school bully with an academic affront.

aco9The films proto-punk, working class council estate ethos sneers through the celluloid, it’s all so very British for an American director working with a British crew and cast, in British locations from a British writers fevered imagination. Unlike 2001’s necessary invention much of Orange was shot on location which also gives the film a naturalistic authenticity, utilizing then recent architectural erections such as the concrete oppression of the Thamesmead estate as the backdrop to his SF dystopian nightmare, and having worked with the teams at Bexley Council struggling with the monumental effort in regenerating that part of London believe me when I state that the fictional and film are not that far off in terms of unrest and malaise. The fact that the film was banned for so long gave my UK generation of cinephiles a sense of illicit thrill when we viewed such citrus contraband, the hunter gathering instinct of males to acquire, subjugate and dominate, with other meta level nonsense seeing Stanley as the isolated Mr Alexander (the intellectual portrayed by Patrick Magee in the film, whose wife is raped and subsequently kills herself)  attracting mimetic threats of actions in Kubrick’s own remote, rural estate. I’ll always remember when I attended that Kubrick day with his daughter Katarina in attendance and she was asked by a rather slimy and odd member of the audience how scary it was to receive those death threats, and she responded, slightly aghast and understandably irritated that of course it was and she clearly remembers being scared with all the attention, which is an apt reminder of the kind of bloody weird and socially maladjusted people who sometime go to these events.

aco8Why the film is so dangerous and still retains its chaotic chutzpah is that against every moral imperative you identify and root for Alex, against your moral judgment. He’s smart, he loves Beethoven, he’s our Bullingdon boy hero and the only major character in the film, a rapist and murderer who slowly comes to be to not quite sympathetic, but certainly troubling in a misplaced concern  inability to defend himself,  This is the perturbing Pandora’s box of screen representation and identification that Kubrick unleashes in the film, like the apes of 2001 it’s an almost an abstract step back in evolution, reminding us of our species penchant for violence and male privilege pack behavior which we still see in the likes of Gamergate. In terms of screen violence appealing to the base lizard instincts of the viewer then let’s be serious for one second, there’s a reason why consumers, mostly men do enjoy screen violence on a very base and perhaps unconscious level, there is a reason why video games like Call Of Duty games are so staggeringly popular – because we enjoy that mediated violence, the question is does that amelioration give a vent to those buried instincts or normalize and reinforce such behavior?  Pushing aside the fact that not one single, reputable psychological study has suggested the latter during 50 years of analysis it’s still a dangerous arena to dance in which keeps the debate and discussion invested in the film, which still weeps resonance like those bizarre eyeballs glued to Alex’s wrists.  Maybe after two SF pictures in a row, both mining social and intellectual issues Kubrick was prompted back to the depths of the 18th century and the ritualized, the civilized violence (the duels, the gaming rooms, the genesis of modern economics and commerce) with Barry Lyndon which was his next masterpiece.

acosAfter four years of production on 2001 I get the sense that he wanted to shoot quickly, moving his lean and efficient crew around existing locations within striking distance of Abbots Mead rather than construct those mammoth engulfing sets at Borehamwood or Pinewood, a writhing film anxious to slither out and constrict its audience. It’s always worth musing on the fact that Kubrick was a self-made director, no film school or even a university education for him, his early work was literally getting into a car with friends and making a film from the ground-up with a hired camera and a hungry crew, an instinctive method of creation where you have to readily adapt to the conditions on hand to mould the magic – weather, environment, the constant erosion of time. He maintained tiny shooting crews as much as possible throughout his career – an operator, focus puller, a few sound people and associated essentials – which isn’t always the impression one has when digesting those brave, bold expressionist canvasses that overwhelm in all their symmetrical, centrifugal glory, yet A Clockwork Orange is in many ways a grimy, ugly, piss sodden picture, an aesthetic absolute volte-face from the measured, operatic sterility of the previous odyssey. There is no redundancy in the picture, every scene has a purpose and strengthens the structure of the whole, building blocks of satirical and physiological strength which is remarkable when you consider the bloated economies of most movies with their engineered character beats, the formulaic algorithms of emotional plot peaks and test-screened troughs, the slavish yield to the three-act structure.

aco3Like Eyes Wide Shut  the film has a fable like, carefully heightened circular narrative where our central protagonist revisits locations and characters he had previously met in the first cycle of the film, himself changed in personality and dimension from his first revolution of his fate. It’s only by trading in that artificial arena that Kubrick is able to take a murdering rapist, the absolute psychopathic scum of the earth, remove his free will through conditioned psychological profiling and perversely make him sympathetic in such  a bizarre and disquieting fashion. This is the film that will be inscribed on McDowell’s tombstone when he goes to see what bog is like, cast after Kubrick was swiftly impressed by his calm recalcitrance in Lindsay Anderson’s Coalition government predictive If….., while several of Kubrick retinue players support the searing satire, from Patrick Magee to Adrienne Corri, Stephen Berkoff and my personal favorite the Runyanesque Philip Stone.

aco5The questions and queries are difficult – if you surgically or chemically remove an intrinsic human trait then what are the consequences of that void, and whom directs the moral calculus on the removal of free will and independent thought? Where then does the human reside in all its facets of the brilliant and brutal, constrained and contained by the apparatus of the state? Again to hark back to 2001 where would we be as an evolutionary species that has invested the technology, intellectual passion and devastating economic effort to ‘conquer’ the moon if the cold war wasn’t that overwhelming arbiter of male expansion? The oeuvre turns inwards as all social institutions come under Kubrick’s withering gaze, the liberal intelligentsia and their sudden turn to barbarity when Alex as a recurrent threat is recognized, the police drawing the violent thugs into their ranks in the reappearance of Dim, the church and their pious ineffectual sermonizing in the face of physical and social realities, a cold and calculating manipulation of subjects for continual production and consuming models. Since the establishment of the Kubrick archive scholars have been able to wallow in a wealth of material on the film’s production, using call sheets to establish which exact sequence were shot with a very specific when and where, a fascinating source of study as to how this almost guerilla filmed project was constructed in the mythological methodology of Kubrick’s perfectionist and methodical methods.

aco4Now I’m exhausted oh my brothers this being some writing of no small expenditure, truth be told A Clockwork Orange has never been my specific favorite of the Stanley canon but while putting this together over the past week or so I’ve seen it anew as a masterpiece of form, a trembling of hallowed cinema ground as the utter dregs of humanity are inverted against a humbling reach for the immaterial illusion of high art and civilization, a work of genuine subversion that matures  as the decades advance. I’ve still not properly considered the use of pure language /dialogue in the film as a metaphor for intelligence and communication (again, the silent monolith doesn’t speak) in the same way that Kubrick was attracted to the military argot of Full Metal Jacket or the socially violent forced pleasantries of Barry Lyndon, or indeed to a lesser extent in Eyes Wide Shut with the veiled threats of a deadly world beyond Bill Harford’s gilded cage, presented verbally or symbolically. To close I’ve always loved Michael (screenwriter of Jacket) Herr’s observation that his good friend may have scared himself with this still volatile film, a Promethean player imbued with social fire that disturbs to this day, a cult masterpiece that’s real horrorshow;

Mike Nichols (1931 – 2014) RIP

Ah, now that’s a shame. Only a few weeks ago I had a strange urge to revisit Wolf, Mike Nichols rather odd take on the werewolf myth transplanted to 1990’s corporate culture, just to see what he did with ole Jack from a directing perspective. I can’t say he was ever one of my favorite directors but he has made some immemorial films, known for his ability to coax great performances, and I like the fact that as someone pointed out he made a zeitgeist movie which captured its time in every one of his four decades of film-making. Personally I will never forget this film which I’m sure is pretty schmaltzy by todays standards, but man…that fucking ending;

Just a roll call of the actors he attracted to his projects – Streep, Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino,  – says it all really. Of course the obituaries are leading with The Graduate and deservedly so, it is a perfect movie and within one of my all time favorites in the top fifty every made mark. I saw it in my early teens and the soundtrack and alienated, disaffected film had quite an effect, learn more here;

BFI Archive Members Tour, Berkhamsted

Being a BFI member is a bit like being in the mafia isn’t it? Once a year they open the books, consider which soldiers have been diligent and respectful little earners and garner them with a little treat – a ‘made’ man members only tour of the BFI restoration centre and archieve in the chilly foothalls of deepest Hertforshire. This is where some of the nations audio-visual treasures are held and the painstaking pursuit of reel by reel, frame by frame restoration is conducted, such as this 1927 picture which was recently commissioned for this years London Film Festival;

A dozen or so of us were walked around the complex with tour guide in hand meeting and chatting to the technicians and boffins who preserve and the hundreds of years of material which have been collected since 1935 when the institute was established. We got to see close-up the machines that photograph the negatives one frame at a time for digitial archival purposes and computerized restoration, the soundsmiths who remove the hiss and clicks of sonic degradation (yes, the recent Nolan sound backlash came up and we all had a little chuckle), and the man who may well have the best job in the world – upon instruction it’s his job to watch and log every film in the collection for a future retrospective. For example, say the BFI want to curate a season of Dame Maggie Smith, as is currently in play at the Southbank. He receives a phone call and it’s his job to consult the archive, to collate and project every 16mm, 35mm, 70mm or whatever print and assess what is a solid enough condition to be presentable, a process which he explained watching a mere 81 of Dame Smith’s films, providing the curator with the essential information of what he could and couldn’t include in the programme. So, essentially, watching films in your own theatre all day and getting paid for it. Sweet.

Naturally I found the whole place fascinating, just a sideways glance in one of the examining rooms had film cans labeled up as The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, or the AFI’s print of Vertigo, glance another way and there was a reel from Brainstorm or Three Colours Blue. I think the area that got the most ‘ooohs’ and ahhhs’ was the special materials room where some of the ephemera of film culture was also catalogued, archived and held in trust, this is the unit which manages the film posters, the scripts, the film related personal effects donated to the institute. We were given sight of Peter Sellers childhood diaries, a final leather-bound script of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Carol Reed’s pencil annoted shooting script to The Third Man, and Lee and Cushing’s written contracts for The Curse Of Frankenstein. Oh and the original storyboard book for The Empire Strikes Back, complete with scribbled questions about camera moves and SFX choices and solutions to certain sequences. Suck it neeerrrrdddssss……

So yeah, pretty much film nerd heaven, a terrific session which I’m glad to have finally attended. Maybe one day they will open the main archieve to the public over in Warwickshire, that’s where the hundreds of thousands of prints and material is held in effectively a giant fridge, for the benefit of future generations when that old fashioned recording medium of celluloid will seem as archaic and amber as Mary Pickford or Theda Bara are to today’s generation. If you’re interested in any of the debates around digital versus film shooting or archival practices then again I heartily recommend Side By Side, a terrific documentary which lays bare all the current debates and discussions of where film culture is shifting from one phase to the next……that is, if we can even call it ‘film’ anymore….


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