Monday 9 February 2015

Our man in the archives

Taking a break from Alan Clarke to deal with the other AC of British film:

I watched the Adam Curtis film Bitter Lake this week. I’m not going to comment on the argument of the film, as I have no special insights into Afghanistan other than having followed the news for the last 15 years. However, a whole line of criticism has developed around the aesthetics of Curtis’ films, particularly his use of film archive, that is worth responding to. 

The internet was hailed as great breakthrough in multimedia, which it is of course. But it has also produced a revenge of the written word, and of those who believe writing is the senior service of media. Platforms like tumblr or pinterest have ended up devaluing images by reducing them to a churn; twitter actively defaces them, using pictures and video as fodder for jokes, constant fact-checking or abuse. Live-tweeting programs seems like a way of refusing to surrender to the pull of video and sound. 

The left, with its tradition of print journalism, and critical theory, created by people trained in philosophy and literature, has form here. On Photography and Camera Lucida could be seen as attempts to cut visual mass media down to size, by those who felt threatened by them. Marshall McLuhan’s career is now an academic morality tale: don’t get too into television or you will become vacuous. (The exception is John Berger who was an artist before he began writing, and has retained a positive sense of making images.) There is a Protestant and iconoclastic (in the original sense) undercurrent here.

The criticisms of Curtis’ use of archival footage and his editing techniques have some of this spirit. At work here is a misunderstanding of what he is doing. Curtis' films are histories. Almost all serious written histories are led by the use of archival sources. In practise most of these were produced, and are kept, by institutions of various kinds. So the argument that Curtis is ‘lost in archives’ or ‘or lost in the BBC archives’ is a non-criticism. His use of audio-visual sources is also close to the practise of ‘thick description’ where historians build up a picture of a past society or event by piling detail on detail and example on example. This is a methodical and rhetorical strategy, and one used by several different historians from Raphael Samuel to Keith Thomas to Saul Friedl√§nder. It should be noted that this technique involves a fair bit of direct quotation or repetition of material that the author may not agree with and is often presented without much comment. Walter Benjamin fans will see the similarity with the Arcades Project; indeed Keith Thomas has written of his admiration for that work. I can’t help noticing the link with Humphrey Jennings’ Pandemonium either – Curtis’ father was Jennings’ cameraman. This is also the technique of many works of oral history. The statement that Bitter Lake is an ‘emotional history’ is therefore in keeping with this tradition. 

This sheds a different light on complaints about decontextualisation too. This has been perhaps the complaint against thick description as a method [‘quotation out of the context’ is the standard charge]. But this is a problem of all methods: they show some things and reveal others. It is true that, unlike history writing, Curtis' films have no footnotes and apparatus: but this is true of all factual films. Having more talking head experts would not solve the problem; it would merely introduce multiple arguments from authority. 

The other point about archives is this: progress in history has generally been made by bringing new sources into play or finding new ways of looking at them. Indeed, it should be emphasised how underused television and film archives are in creating works of histories [as opposed to illustrating them.] This is partly due to the conservatism of the academic form, but also because it is very hard to get access to these archives and even harder to re-use the material publicly. Ironically therefore, the 20th century, that supposedly radical and modernist century, has some of the most conservative and restricted forms of telling its history. 

There is a deep literalism at work in criticism of his technique. People seem to want every image or video to come with captions and explanations. Or perhaps every frame has to feature Fergal Keene telling us when to feel sad. Curtis is creating a new form of multi-media history. Who knows where others will take it next?

Friday 12 December 2014

Boys from Brazil

The use of torture in Northern Ireland is well known, but this is interesting, if disturbing, further background to Psy-Ops on the BBC website.

At the Brazilian Truth Commission, which investigates human rights abuses under the military dictatorship, former torturer Col Paulo Malhaes revealed the links with the British army and security services:

"Those prisons with closed doors, you can modify the heat, the light, everything inside the prison, that idea came from England," he said.
He admitted, privately, to the prosecutor, that he himself had gone to England to learn interrogation techniques that didn't leave physical marks. The prosecutor, Nadine Borges, revealed her conversation with him.
"The best thing for him was psychological torture. When a person was in a secret place, it was faster to obtain information. He also studied in other places but he said England was the best place to learn."

  I also remember watching a documentary about SAS selection where the men had to undergo the so-called "Five Techniques" as part of the course [administered by serving soldiers of course.] So Psy-Ops' depiction of turning the techniques on your own people isn't so bizarre.

Monday 3 November 2014

Techniques (1) - walking into shot

Beloved Enemy may be the first appearance of Clarke's trademark opening: people walking (marching?) with the camera following them. Here he uses it to suggest the similarity of the main protagonists - even though they represent different interests, and different sides, of the Cold War.

The opening walking shots show the routine of the men. Each suit has his morning commute to a central London office and a diary secretary to greet him. The Russian are marked out by speaking Russian, but otherwise the quick cutting creates confusion. Someone is going to Parliament, the Russians work in a bank, but nothing is precisely established. In the wide shots we lose them among all the other commuters. Graham Crowden's character - who turns out to be a captain of industry, barks to the door man that there's a fire outside that should be dealt with. Is he the politician? Fairly soon after we learn of their real roles, only to end back where we started by the final scenes. "The viewers outside looked from Briton to Russian, and from capitalist to communist; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Sunday 26 October 2014

In the playground

My first introduction to the films of Alan Clarke was in the school playground. Clarke had been dead for some years by this point, so his films were not a regular presence on television. And of course I was not introduced to 'the films of Alan Clarke' but a film, a dirty film, "a fucking violent film": Made in Britain. The hippest music within the rock faction as school was hardcore/post-hardcore punk. 'Peter' - one of the ringleaders - had gone rooting around the more extreme end of the subculture. Having got hold of copies of Made in Britain and American History X,  he passed them around the cognoscenti like porn mags. [I don't think any of us knew it, but many of the photographs for Gavin Watson's Skins had been taken in our town]. It was some years before I connected Rita, Sue and Bob Too with the man who brought us Trevor.

For someone who could make difficult or even avant-garde material, many of Clarke's films have found an audience among the people they are actually about. They've developed something of samizdat life, similar to the one Carl described for Danny Dyer DVDs (and of course there's direct connection there via the re-make of The Firm.)

A combination of the subject matter, the immediacy and raw power of the performances, and the lack of obvious moralism or plots ( no redemptions, no learning) creates an aura around them. A distillation on film of many experiences and feelings.
 Former heroin users post under 'Christine' on youtube:

Ex-soldiers discuss 'Contact':

This can be pushed too far, of course. The packaging for the Alan Clarke collection suggests a very particular audience in mind - marketing him as a retro-subculture director which obviously does him a huge disservice.

This is problematic in some ways, but it does take his work outside of the comfort zones of Loach and Leigh  - and suggests it is strong enough to sustain several interpretations or appeal to several audiences.
Whether Mi5 uses Psy-Ops as a training video who knows?