Category Archives: History
by Gareth Negus
Unless your first trip to the cinema was post-1990, it’s a reasonable bet that some of the buildings where your formative moviegoing experiences took place no longer exist, at least in their original form. That’s certainly true of me. The local three screen Cannon where I spent many Friday evenings in my late teens long ago became a Wetherspoons; the Manchester Odeon, where I saw Pulp Fiction among others, is derelict. The ABC in Hull, which I frequented as a student, is also consigned to history. And those buildings were arguably well past their prime when I was visiting them, soon to be crushed by the rise of the multiplexes.
I have nothing against multiplexes as such; anyone who recalls the sorry state so many UK cinemas had reached by the early 80s will understand why they were welcomed by so many. But there is a wealth of history to cinemagoing in this country that pre-dates their corporate approach, much of which is gone, if not forgotten.
Late last month, I attended the launch of a new heritage app for mobile phones called Lost Cinemas of Castle Park. The app was developed by a team headed by Dr Charlotte Crofts of the University of West of England, and is part of the Cinemapping project that draws on Bristol City Council’s Know Your Place. The team previously created a heritage app specific to the Curzon Community Cinema, which celebrated its centenary last year. The app mixed historical information with the stories and memories of those who knew the building, and The Lost Cinemas of Castle Park takes a similar approach.
Castle Park was once a major commercial centre of Bristol, before it was devastated during World War II. It included a remarkable 15 cinemas, of which only one, the Odeon, is still in existence, albeit in reduced circumstances (the ground floor is now a branch of H&M). The idea is for the app to be used while wandering around the Castle Park area, though if you aren’t in the area, it can also be operated manually.
Moviedrome! You either remember it or you don’t, but if you do you’ll never forget it and if you never forget it, it will stay with you forever, which is how memory works. Late on BBC2, Alex Cox’s gnarled knuckle of a head would loom out at you and introduce a film so mind-blowingly obscure or spine-tinglingly brilliant it would impress itself into your unconscious brain and lodge there like a bit of popcorn in a tender gum. In later years it would be Mark Cousins on loomy head duty, but there’s little doubt that Cox is the classic loom-monger for most. It was fertile ground for our writers, and here we present some memories of both the films and their unique, treasurable presentation…
Niall Anderson looks at a new documentary about migrant experience in London
The Road runs 260 miles, from Holyhead in Wales to Marble Arch in London. We call it the A5, but the Saxons called it Watling Street and the Romans called it Iter II. It’s still the main westward approach to London, which gave filmmaker Mark Isaacs an idea: “Just to go along the road and meet people who’ve set up homes in this stretch that’s more associated with constant travel.”
Originally conceived as a series for the BBC, The Road was going to traverse the entire length of the A5, but that was, says Isaacs, “a difficult pitch”. It was the advent of the 2012 Olympics that eventually gave the film its final 76-minute shape: “The idea of all these different nationalities converging for a few weeks on London, set against London as a migrant city from day to day: the persistence of migration in London’s history.” Continue reading this article ›
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On the 25th anniversary of its debut on HBO, Phil Concannon looks back at Tanner 88.
While campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of the 1988 primary, Republican Presidential hopeful Bob Dole ran into an unfamiliar Democrat candidate. Dole did not immediately recognise this congressman and his daughter but he certainly was aware of the cameras surrounding them, and so the two men exchanged greetings like old pals, smiled, and wished each other well before going their separate ways. That might sound like a mundane incident, nothing more than a footnote to that year’s Presidential race, but there was something unusual about one of those two men. Jack Tanner was not a real politician. In fact, Jack Tanner was not even a real person.
I’m sure you’re aware that it is Valentine’s Day tomorrow, or maybe even today if you’re reading this on Valentine’s Day. It was, as I’m sure you’ll remember, Valentine’s Day at some unspecified point in the probably-recent past. All bases covered? Good. Let’s get on with it. I asked our writers about bad date movies – the movie might not be bad, just inappropriate. Or it might have been the perfect movie but somehow the evening went wrong. Well. Here are the answers I got…
By Josephine Grahl
Fashion and the movies have a mutually rewarding relationship. Historical movies, however authentically costumed, almost always have a little something of the period in which they are made – think of the poofy, quintessentially sixties hair in Doctor Zhivago, or the 1935 version of Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo as Anna, in which the female characters attend balls in sequinned strapless vamp dresses more suited to 1930s Hollywood than to late nineteenth century Petersburg. But it goes the other way too – Dr Zhivago sparked a brief craze for fur hats and long Russian coats, and Gone with the Wind inspired a short-lived fashion for romantic full-skirted evening dresses before the fabric restrictions of the Second World War put an end to such frivolous wastefulness.
Evidence for this symbiosis is sprinkled throughout the V&A’s new exhibition of Hollywood costume, five years in preparation, which assembles some of the most memorable and iconic costumes from the last century of Hollywood film. Witness the costume in which Claudette Colbert played Cleopatra in 1934, which to modern eyes looks like nothing so much as a particularly elegant 1930s evening gown. Next to it, one of Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits for her portrayal of the Egyptian queen is a reminder of the fashion for gilded embellishment and weighty jewellery which followed the success of the 1963 film. Since the exhibition is at the V&A, it’s an interesting exercise to visit the fashion galleries down the corridor and compare the authentic period clothing with the versions produced for film – how far do cinema versions stray from the authentic? How are the shapes and silhouettes exaggerated or minimised? When a costume is made to be filmed, what effect does that have on the detailing or on the colours used?
Let me start with a confession, and head off comment-based accusations at the pass: I have never completed a videogame on a difficulty setting higher than ‘Normal’, and even then the number that I have completed on higher than ‘Easy’ doesn’t exceed single digits. So, yes, I’m not that kind of player. I will, in all honesty, never be that kind of player. But let’s come back to that later.
First, as with my earlier article, I’d like to look at videogame history (from my point of view) and the evolution of hardness. I am, in gaming terms, a fairly old hand. The first electronic entertainment gadgeridoo in our house was a Pong ripoff by Grandstand, the Game 2000, back in the dawn of the 80s. It was pretty much the worst thing ever in terms of gameplay – one player hit the square ball, the other player hit the square ball, and so on until one player failed to hit the square ball, at which point the score increased. Imagine air hockey, but without the risk of a broken finger* adding that frisson of danger. But this was the Dark Ages, before the advent of real home gaming, and it seemed like some crazy electric dream. Was it difficult? Impossible to say. Is tennis difficult?
Niall Anderson looks at Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1967 recreation of War and Peace, which is showing at London’s Renoir cinema on 7 October at 10am.
Like the novel it adapts, the single most extraordinary thing about Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is that anybody had the nerve, skill and patience to bring it off. Granted, Bondarchuk had a technically unlimited budget and the full coercive weight of the Soviet Ministry of Culture behind him (he could, and did, call in 15,000 mounted cavalry to restage the Battle of Borodino), but the politics of the film’s production don’t get close to explaining the surreal attention to detail of the resulting film – nor the fervour with which it tries to animate even the smallest of Tolstoy’s fancies.
Take, for instance, the bear. Readers of the novel will recall that one strand of the plot begins with a policeman being strapped to the back of a bear and thrown into the Neva River as part of a bohemian jape. It would have been easy for the film to just refer to this incident in passing, or to do away with the bear altogether (surely a drenched copper proves the point, whatever he’s strapped to). This is not Bondarchuk’s way. Tolstoy wrote that there was a bear, so there must be a bear. And indeed there he is, unremarked at a dining table during a loud party: one extra among a hundred.
A scene like this could easily be dismissed as a stunt, or – maybe worse – as evidence of a slightly crazed literalism. But there are too many such stunts across the film’s seven-and-a-half hours for that word to carry the necessary weight, and the literalism comes to seem like a shrewd recognition that an epic is really just the magnification of the intimate. So it was in Tolstoy’s hands, anyway, and Bondarchuk seems to have realised that to compromise on the small details would have been to compromise the whole Tolstoyan vision – and his own.
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Spank the Monkey and Clio attempted to review the BFI’s new digital archive for Mostly Film. With mixed results…
Spank The Monkey:
I love Sight and Sound magazine, even though I hold it personally responsible for the mediocre 2.2 degree I attained at university. It’s true. Much of my final year at Manchester was spent in the campus library, desperately trying to undo the results of two previous years of hedonism largely based around the university’s excellent Film Society. But during a break in studies one day, I discovered that the library had bound volumes of Sight and Sound (and its companion review magazine, Monthly Film Bulletin) going back several decades. The study breaks got longer and longer after that, ultimately leading to the Desmond that blights my academic record to this day.
I had a massive Proustian rush when I recently visited the new library at BFI Southbank, and found those same bound volumes taking pride of place on its shelves. So imagine my delight when I discovered shortly afterwards that it was now possible to access every issue of S&S and MFB online, through the newly-created Sight & Sound Digital Archive. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.
Niall Anderson pleads for people to lighten up about spoilers
The first recorded use of the term SPOILER ALERT is from 8 June 1982. It occurred in a Usenet film group (net.movies) and related to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which had been released the previous Friday. A group member called Hamilton from the University of Chicago employs the term as a warning to other users before speculating [SPOILER ALERT!] on whether Spock is genuinely dead or if he could be brought back for the sequel.
It feels strange to see a meme so fully formed a good twenty years before it hits the mainstream. But it’s all basically here, including the tendency of spoiler etiquette to skew towards cultish material. Look further in the Usenet archives and you’ll see the term being adopted as a simple matter of course and courtesy. A spoiler hierarchy also develops. Minor plot points are preceded by a throat-clearing SPOILER ALERT, while complex or major plot points tend to be translated into a substitution cypher like ROT13 (which replaces a letter with the one thirteen places after it in the alphabet). This way, you couldn’t be spoiled inadvertently.
It’s all nice and civilised, in other words, and it seems to have developed within Usenet without friction: that is to say from a commonsense recognition that not everybody who’s reading will have seen the film that you’ve seen, and would just like to know whether you thought it was good or not. The Usenet archive isn’t exhaustive or particularly easy to navigate, but of the 300 uses of the word “spoiler” I was able to find from the 1980s, none was preceded by a complaint, a tantrum, or a threat of excommunication from the community for apparently saying something too revealing. The anger and the aggression surrounding spoiler etiquette in the Net age simply aren’t there. I don’t often wish I was living in the past, but for this one topic I do.
Open a TV or film discussion thread on just about any online forum these days and the following things will happen. Someone will cry firsties, someone will call foul on the firstie, someone will propose an alternative firstie that makes an oblique jokey reference to something that happened in the thing under review. At which point someone else will appear threatening to kill you and your children if you even think of spoiling the plot. A dozen similar messages will appear at intervals until your scrollwheel goes elastic from the effort and your eyebrows knot themselves into a permanent V at the sheer bad-tempered entitledness of these people. The unintended consequence being that I now read more complaints about spoilers than I do actual spoilers.
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Continue reading this article ›