My Journey

10.03.17 – Belfast: The Legacy of the Boyne

17308995_10158441564475323_7713256393113954575_n

“Belfast is a city which, while not forgetting its past, is living comfortably with its present and looking forward to its future.”

-James Nesbitt

In July 1690, “The War of Two Kings” reached its decisive climax along the Boyne River Valley near the town of Drogheda. The conflict emerged following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Great Britain when the Catholic King James II was deposed by the Protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange. James initially retreated to France, where King Louis XIV offered military and financial support, which James then used to begin his campaign to restore the monarchy. In March 1689, James landed in Ireland with 6,000 French troops and was immediately embraced by the primarily Catholic population. His restoration campaign soon became heavily intertwined with a movement in Ireland toward home rule. Since James found himself leading a predominantly Irish Catholic movement, he reluctantly agreed to declare that the Parliament of England had no right to pass laws for Ireland. He also agreed, again reluctantly, to restore to Irish Catholics the that were lands confiscated from their families after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, by confiscating the lands of those (predominantly Protestants) who opposed him and supported William. This parliament was later named the Patriot Parliament by Irish nationalists. The supporters of James’s claim to the crown became known as the Jacobites.

In response to James’ activities in Ireland, William sent a flotilla of warships to blockade the Irish coast as he prepared for an invasion of the island. Though it took nearly a year to organize, in mid-June 1690, William finally arrived with a fleet of 300 ships at Belfast Lough with an army of 36,000 soldiers and marched on Dublin. The Jacobites then withdrew to the south bank of the Boyne where they took up a defensive position at the village of Drogheda.  On 1 July (Julian Calendar; 12 July Gregorian), William attacked the Jacobites and forcing them to retreat in order to avoid being surrounded. Although the battle was not militarily decisive and casualties on both sides were not very high, it was enough for James to abandon Ireland, riding ahead of his army to back to his exile in France. Since he deserted his Irish supporters, James has since been known in Ireland as Séamus an Chaca or “James the shit.”

17309347_10158441568270323_4397206481798839516_n
King William III mural in Belfast’s Rowlands neighborhood

William’s victory at the Boyne, taken together with James’ flight, might have been the end of the war in Ireland. However, William published very harsh peace terms in the Declaration of Finglas, excluding the Jacobite officers and the Irish Catholic landed class from the pardon he offered to Jacobite foot-soldiers. As a result, Irish Jacobite leaders felt they had no choice but to fight until they received guarantees their lives, property, and civil and religious rights would be respected in a peace settlement. In some ways, this fight would continue on in some form or another for another 300 years.  The partition of Ireland along Catholic and Protestant lines along with the harsh occupation imposed by William has led to a long history of tension, which was renewed with increased ferocity following the end of the Irish War of Independence in 1921. In the final months of the conflict over 1,000 British and Irish were killed and 4,500 republicans were imprisoned. The fighting was heavily concentrated in the south near County Cork, Dublin, and Belfast. The violence especially Belfast, was notable for it being highly sectarian and its high number of Catholic civilian victims. The conflict in Belfast became even more intense when the Government Act of Ireland was approved, granting home rule to the south and the retention of the north. The political disagreement over the terms of the treaty led to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. After the resolution of the war, there was a period of relative stability until a chain of events starting in 1969 led to the Northern Ireland Temporary Provisions Act of 1972, was an act on carried out by the British Parliament hat re-introduced direct rule in Northern Ireland and signaled the chain of events that led to a dramatic period in Belfast history remembered as “The Troubles.”

 

In my opinion two films that best highlight the upheavals of 1970s Belfast are two very fine Daniel Day Lewis performances from the 1990s: In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997). The subject matter of both films help to illustrate the progression of the deescalation of violence that began to take place in Belfast by the 1990s, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought peace to the city after nearly 30 years of unrelenting violence. In the Name of the Father tells the true life story of the Guildford Four, four people falsely convicted of the 1974 IRA‘s Guildford pub bombings, which killed four off-duty British soldiers and a civilian. director Jim Sheridan has perfectly evoked the backdrop against which Gerry Conlon’s (Daniel Day Lewis) story takes place. Though he lives within a political tinderbox, Gerry has no foresight and no native cunning. The film’s edgy, volatile atmosphere and Gerry’s pathetic naivete make his ordeal that much more monstrous as it unfolds. A better plot summary perhaps can come from an over-the-top 90s trailer narration from none other than the late great Don LaFontaine.

The fourteen year long odyssey of the Conlon’s to win their freedom, is an apt metaphor for the decade’s long struggle for peace in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile The Boxer, another fantastic Sheridan-Lewis collaboration, can be considered a sequel of sorts to In the Name of the Father. The film centers on the life of boxer and former Provisional IRA volunteer Danny Flynn, played by Lewis, who is trying to “go straight” after his release from a fourteen year long stint in prison. With reconciliation and the uneasy promise of peace on the horizon, the message of The Boxer is perhaps best summed up by a scene later in the film, where Lewis uncharacterisically seems to break character and address his audience directly. I couldn’t upload the scene but have the quote below:

”Fourteen years I was locked up, and my feelings were locked up inside of me. And now when I get back in the ring again, you can’t imagine what a relief it is to feel the pain, to be back in the world again.”

The pain on view in The Boxer intensifies with the effort to unite Protestants and Catholics in a nonsectarian boxing club, with unflagging hatred and suspicion of the police, with children like Maggie’s son growing up in an atmosphere of time-honored vengeance, and with the high toll that violence takes on its characters. In this interview on what appears to be a no-budget cable access show, Sheridan and Lewis further elaborate on their approach toward film’s hopeful and pragmatic tone.

I first watched both of these films in the late 1990s with my father (In the Name of the Father on home video and The Boxer in theaters), just as peace talks began to take hold. At that time Belfast seemed a far off and dangerous world of uncertainty both in terms of identity and safety. Yet I also felt drawn and fascinated to the idea of a community so clearly divided along ideological, political, and religious lines. My later interest in social justice documentary filmmaking and the need to chronicle divided communities was in part influenced by my early education on the situation in Northern Ireland by my father. My visit to Belfast in 2017, nearly twenty years after the end of the Troubles and my first encounter with the idea of a community divided certainly left me with much to reflect on. The most moving and powerful experience I had during my time in the city was walking along the Belfast Peace Wall. The first peace lines were built in 1969, following the outbreak of the 1969 Northern Ireland riots . They were built as temporary structures meant to last only six months, but due to their effective nature they have become wider, longer and more permanent. Originally few in number, they have multiplied over the years, from 18 in the early 1990s to 48 today; in total they stretch over 21 miles (34 km), with most located in Belfast. Much like the Berlin Wall, the division of the Catholic and Protestant communities have since been lifted, yet the legacy of the division still is clearly visible.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Belfast West historically been the most nationalist of Belfast’s four sections, though it is only in the last few decades that the votes for unionist parties have plunged to tiny levels. The constituency is largely made of a long, slender, belt along the Falls Road and its suburban extensions, with three of the five wards from the staunchly unionist Shankill area now something of a bolt-on, with the peace wall dividing them from the rest of the constituency. The community tensions are still quite visible and the militarized walls have yet to lose their teeth. Though walking through the remnants of such a heated separation, however a common point of connection can be found in the sense of civic pride that emerged from the work carried out during the city’s heyday as the shipbuilding capital of the world and the city’s connection to one of the most famous passenger liner in history: the RMS Titanic.

Today the former shipbuilder’s quarter, has been renamed “The Titanic Quarter” in the ship’s honor. The city’s connection to the Titanic has further been cemented with the completion of Titanic Belfast the “world’s largest Titanic Museum.” Although the popularity of the attraction is obviously fueled by the popularity of the film, the museum takes great effort to showcase aspects of Belfast daily life and the situation of those who went into building the ship itself. Additionally the building is an architectural marvel in its own right and one of the best instances of modern interactive exhibit design that I have ever come across.

17353449_10158441564490323_4133039543882707420_n
View of Titanic Belfast from “The Titanic Quarter”

The angular construction on the edge of the docks appears as a glittering shard of innovative design; an external facade clad with several thousand three-dimensional aluminum plates, of which two thousand are unique in size and shape, creating a startling textured effect. The four corners of the building represent the Titanic’s bow, jutting into the sky, at the same height as the original ship, giving you a feel for the true scale of the ocean liner. On an alternative take on the design, you could imagine the building to represent a looming iceberg, symbolic of nature’s dominance over the Titanic’s steel and engineering.

The exhibition starts with Belfast’s roots as an industrial center of the Victorian Era, when it was famed as the linen capital of the world, producing huge amounts, from the flax plant, right up to bed sheets for export. The city was so thriving, that its population was bigger than Belfast’s present day number. Setting the scene, superimposed life-size silhouettes are projected on to the walls, so you share the streets with the Victorian Belfast residents as they busy themselves with daily life: walking, talking, shopping, children running and playing – you’re immediately immersed in the era, before the Titanic looms into view. Walking from room to room, you are introduced to the men who designed the most luxurious ship of her time – the designers – their names, faces, backgrounds, wages, and eyewitness accounts of what they were like as managers.


The pride that must have existed in Belfast’s ship-building docks during the Titanic’s construction appears to have lasted a century – present in the museum’s care and attention in creating an exhibition that offers technical design detail, but never overwhelming the user, simply awe-inspiring at each step. Throughout the museum there are touch-screen animations guide you through the ship’s construction in bite-sized explanations, an immersive surround animation gives you a virtual tour through the decks of the ship, and screens beneath your feet take you on an underwater journey to the decaying remains in the Atlantic depths.

Forutnately the museum offers only a brief glimpse of Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio on one wall dedicated to the Art and Culture inspired by the Titanic over the decades and James Cameron is given only a passing mention. This bold and striking museum marks another new beginning for Belfast and is well-worth a visit for anyone intrigued by the fascinating story of the city and the world famous ship it gave birth to.

Following my visit to Titanic Belfast, I went to back to the city center and enjoyed a few drinks at the Crown Liquor Saloon, also the location of the 1947 James Mason film The Odd Man Out. The video below is a tour of this fascinating Victorian-era “Gin Palace”, featured in the 2008 documentary The Crown Jewel. The bar also has the unfortunate reputation of being the epicenter of the bombing campaigns between both the Irish Republican Army and Ulster Defense Volunteers.

The building had been built and rebuilt over a dozen times throughout the Troubles and ultimately the best metaphor of all for the tenacity of the people of Belfast can be found in the vibrancy of the Friday night crowd that comprises of students from Queens University, tourists, and former victims and participants of the Troubles have decided to put differences aside and order another pint.

04.02.17 – Portugal: The Mirror of Life

 

16473513_10158249455710323_6222489596709104924_n

“Cinema is a mirror of life. I believe that it is not one simple mirror, there is no other! Filmmaking is the only reflection of life! As well as being a reflection of life, it is also a record of life.”

-Manoel de Oliveira

It is late in the afternoon and the sun is at last starting to break through the mist and haze of another rainy overcast day along the Atlantic coast. It had taken me about two hours by bus and another three hours of wandering on foot, but I finally had made it to the place that was once considered to be the end of the world. According to the Legend of Nazaré, in the year 1182, Dom Fuas was out hunting near the coast, when he saw a deer which he then started to chase. The deer ran to the top of a cliff and he followed. The fog was so thick that he nearly walked off the edge of the cliff, but instead walked into a stray horse that was grazing near the edge. He believed that god had intervened in placing the horse there and named the place Bico do Milagre (Point of the Miracle). During the Middle Ages this point was considered the edge of the world and Fuas declared that no further miracles would ever take place beyond it. As I watched the furious waves and terrific swells punish the rock-face beneath the overlooking fortress, I could certainly begin to understand why the city of Nazare has been such a significant draw for thrill seekers, tourists, and seekers for nearly a millennia. In standing at the place where the world was thought to end and where the age of exploration began, Portugal’s sense of self as one of constant endings and new beginnings becomes overwhelmingly apparent.

I arrived in Porto two days earlier with the plan of working my way entirely down the Atlantic coast, first to Nazare, then to Lisbon, and finishing up at the port city of Sagres – where Henry the Navigator opened the world’s first cartography school. I sadly must admit that going into my trip, other than the brief interlude I offer to my history students on the age of discovery, I knew very little about the Portugal’s fascinating and dynamic history. Additionally, I must admit an even greater ignorance to the equally captivating history of Portuguese cinema. The next five days were certainly a journey of discovery which further enlightened me to what I must consider to be one of the friendliest, inviting, and stunningly beautiful parts of the world I’ve yet set eyes on.

My arrival in Porto conveniently coincided with my recent discovery of legendary director Manoel de Oliveira (1908-1915), himself a Porto native. In a career that spanned almost ninety years (1927-2014!) Oliveira was less a figure of flesh and blood, but a fixture as timeless as the rocks and ocean swells. His life story is a truly inspirational tale of drive and persistence that I closely identify with.

59262375_manoel_de_3255146e
Manoel de Olivera, circa 1930s

He attempted to make his first film when he was nineteen, an unfocused and overly ambitious project about Portugal’s role during the First World War. After a rainstorm destroyed the film equipment he rented from an exchange, his cast and crew abandoned him, and Oliveira was left with a substantial debt to repay the damages.

 

When I was nineteen I formed a small independent production company in my small university town in Pennsylvania. My involvement in local theater circles and the university’s communication’s department gave me access to all the tools I needed to bring to life a feature-length screenplay I had written called The Filmmaker. It was intended to be a super meta behind the scenes look into the challenges aspiring filmmakers face in the emerging digital era. This description sounds much smarter than the script actually was, but I still stand by my writing as a worthy effort for a would-be teenage filmmaker. I went through the motions receiving permission from my university theater to use for rehearsal space, cobbled together a cast and crew, and negotiated with several other local filmmakers to form a collective where we would work together to produce each other’s films. Exactly eighty years after Oliveria’s aborted effort to make his first film, I too experienced my own personal disaster.

Mirroring de Oliveria’s own experience, on the second day of what was supposed to be a three week long shoot to complete my first feature film, I planned to film an elaborate scene on an abandoned railroad bridge on the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border. I had neurotically checked and rechecked the weather for that day, knowing full well how unpredictable the summers can be in the American northeast. I don’t believe a lengthy explanation is necessary, but as you could probably guess the weather forecast was wrong, and I was left holding nearly $4,o00 worth of borrowed film equipment exposed during a torrential downpour, on a bridge in the middle of a half-mile wide river. In the time that it took to repair the rain-soaked equipment, my cast and crew moved on to other projects, my credibility as a capable artist was shattered, the film collective disbanded, and I spent the rest of my Junior and Senior years of college paying an installment plan to cover all of the damages. For some such an experience would likely have been taken as a sign to pursue another career, but I have continued to persist, and perhaps more inspiring, so did Oliveria.

A few years later in 1931, he continued to dabble in the cinema, and appeared as an actor in Song of Lisbon (1933), Portugal’s first talkie. He made his first directorial debut with a short documentary film, a genre that he would continue to work with for the rest of his life.  Yet it wasn’t until 1942 when he was thirty-four, that Oliveria attempted to direct a feature film again. Aniki-Bóbó (1942), was shot in real locations, with a cast made up largely of ragamuffins recruited from the streets of Porto (only the two leading roles were filled by professional actors). Although not recognized or widely distributed at the time of its release, later films scholars hailed this effort as an early precursor of the Italian neo-realism films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica.

Now compare this short scene from Aniki-Bóbó to what is discussed in A.O. Scott’s overview of Rossellini’s landmark classic Roma città (1945).

Discouraged,  de Oliveira withdrew from filmmaking for fourteen years, concentrating instead on farming, viniculture and other business projects, many of which failed. He resumed his film-making career in 1956, after traveling to Germany to study new color techniques. The Artist and the City (1956) was another 45-minute documentary about Porto as seen by the artist Antonio Cruz. Once more his inventiveness and fascination with his hometown as a subject shines through in a very powerful way. Below is the first half of de Oliveria’s return to filmmaking and a wonderful showcase of the jaw-dropping infusion of past, present and future that Porto has to offer.

Later in life, de Oliveira was to divide his career into two phases. The first, which he called “the stage of the people”, ran from 1931 to 1971. It consisted mainly of documentaries and realistic dramas of the life of the poor and downtrodden. Although the second phase of his career is where his greatest works would come into the popular consciousness for the first time, I am at this time too far removed to see how far-reaching the mirror of our lives will ultimately extend. What I can certainly appreciate from examining the struggles that emerge from the first four decades of his life, is his emphasis on recreating the truth to be found in every-day life, as well as addressing a number of socially conscious subjects that represent what he described as “parables of human solidarity.” It is the humanism in his early career that I would most like to emulate.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Unfortunately time and budget caused me to have to abridge my overly-ambitious tour of Portugal. So after my moment of transcendence along the cliffs of Nazare, I decided to head to Libson and forgo the last leg of my trip down to Sagres. I had previously underestimated just how much there is to do and see in these Portuguese cities, so instead of rushing from destination to destination, I figured it would be best to spend my time truly absorbing one place instead of many. Once again, I have to plead ignorance in terms of knowing many films based or set in Lisbon. The only one that readily comes to mind is Wim Wender’s Lisbon Story (1994). Just as with Porto and Nazare, the landscape, architecture, people, food, and drinks were all consuming and too rich for me to process in the short time I had to explore. In Lisbon Story, Wender’s does some of his greatest work in terms of capturing each of the city’s many offerings.

As a compendium of the filmmaker’s esthetic and emotional predilections, the gently drifting Lisbon Story works better as a companion piece to Mr. Wenders’s other work than as a free-standing invention. Yet perhaps because of its complete immersion in warmly inviting city scenes, the seductive Portuguese sound of a musical group called Madredeus and an explicit reverence for the magic of cinema, Wenders has calls this his most entertaining film. Lisbon Story was financed by the City of Lisbon and commissioned as a work of civic boosterism, albeit one of exceptional contemplativeness and emotion. After committing himself to this setting, which he clearly knows intimately and affectionately,  Wenders was enthralled by the haunting music of Madredeus and made those sounds equally integral to his film. The third element was cinema, and so Lisbon Story has the pretext of summoning a sound engineer to Lisbon to complete a friend’s unfinished movie. With camera equipment ranging from video to antique invoked throughout the film, also to tries to make sense of a nation’s unique and aspirational filmmaking tradition.

As for my own Libson story, what stays in my memory the most is the experience of sitting on the grassy mound of Miradouro Santa Catarina, watching the fire fade out of the evening sky, listening to the sounds of guitars and singing and the chatter between friends—tourists and locals alike—all around me. Eating bolinhos de bacalhao and drinking red wine as I listened, all of Lisbon was spread out below before us. If every city has a signature sound, then Lisbon’s is the sound of jamming musicians on guitars. In this sense I feel that Wim Wenders had prepared me quite well for my Lisbon experience.

Following the 1755 earthquake which devastated the city and indirectly brought about a prolonged period of national decline which resulted in a serious of foreign invasions and reduction of national prestige, the city of Lisbon still managed to hold to and maintain its sense of civic pride and unique festive identity. It is still very much a city of enlightenment and discovery. Despite the greater stability that emerged following the 1974 revolution the nation still treads through a very precarious political and economic situation, yet this balance of of progress and regression presents a fascinating national culture, which I look forward to further examining through the lens of cinema.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

22.01.17 – Be as Ourself in Denmark

16265508_10158194028725323_5491438639353897360_n

“Be as ourself in Denmark.
This gentle and unforced accord
Sits smiling to my heart, in grace whereof
No jocund health that Denmark drinks today
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king’s rouse the heavens shall bruit again,
Respeaking earthly thunder.”
– Claudius: Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 2
Following my inspirational visit to Switzerland earlier in January, I returned to Belgium with an even stronger resolve to explore as much of Europe as time and money would allow. I’ve been asked by friends quite often lately how I am able to afford these trips, and no I haven’t sold a kidney or anything like that. Most of my travel so far has been fueled by a combination of unchecked financial recklessness and careful consideration of flight and hostel room costs. I am a very low-maintenance traveler, and since these take up anywhere between two and four days, there is no need to pack excessively, spend much on a six bed hostel room, or worry about high-end cuisine. You may notice a lack of food references in this blog, not for my lack of enjoyment of a good quality meal, but instead because I’ve made it a priority to put social and cultural engagements higher on my spending list. What I’ve set out to do from this point on is to use skyscanner.net as a tool to find the cheapest flights out of Brussels and book the flight before I can change my mind. The result as you will see in this reflection and future posts, have so far been nothing but positive.
dogma-95-collage-1024x798After completing the latest draft of an article and also in the mood to celebrate a recent publication notice I had received, I decided to take a short weekend trip (one hour flight, 17 euro round trip) to Copenhagen. I did not plan much in the way of what I hoped to see, excepting for a Sunday excursion to Kronborg Castle, about an hour north of the city and best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I also booked a tour of the Nordsk Studio in Copenhagen, which at one time was one of the leading centers of film production in Europe. Other than that, the opportunity to trek through the streets of the city and retrace the footsteps of Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Anderson had more than enough of an appeal. In terms of Danish cinema, my exposure has been relatively limited to aspects of the Dogme 95 movement led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. The “vow of chastity” taken on the part of filmmakers involved in the movement is truly an inspiration in an effort taken toward artistic purity that was quite influential to my time as an aspiring independent filmmaker.
Of the Dogme 95 filmmakers, I must admit that I am only familiar with the films of Lars Van Trier. In fact the first film that I watched when I came to Ghent was his Dancer in the Dark – also my first exposure to Van Trier’s style. As a recent student of Derrida’s conception of deconstruction, I can certainly find and appreciate elements of such a philosophic approach from a filmic perspective in Van Trier’s films. This can be broken down into four key principles:
  1. The present is always complicated by non-presence. Derrida calls this form of “minimal repeatability” found in every experience “the trace.” The trace is a form of pre-speech and pre-writing, since language in its most minimal determination consists in repeatable forms.
  2. The origin of an object or idea is immediately divided, as if they fall into division, accidents, and empirical events which have always already taken place. Derrida calls this kind of origin “origin-heterogeneous”: where “the origin is heterogeneous immediately.”
  3. Whatever is given is given as other than itself, as already past or as still to come.  Faith, perjury, and language are already there in the origin.
  4. Every experience then is always not quite on time or, as Derrida quotes Hamlet, time is “out of joint.” Late in his career, Derrida will call this time being out of joint an “anachronism”. With this in mind the phrase “out of joint” by Derrida’s definition, alludes to the notion of universal justice: (i.e. being out of joint, time is necessarily unjust or violent.)

With these four components in mind, I’ll present this brief overview of Van Trier’s films and demonstrate how Derrida’s deconstruction applies in his work.

Another modern Danish filmmaker who I am also receptive to than Van Trier is Nicholas Winding Refn. Although in certain ways I feel that Refn’s style is less bold than Van Trier’s, there are elements of the deconstructive influence of the former Dogme 95 movement, in his highly stylized presentation of the human experience. Perhaps as a much needed palate cleanser after the very intense montage presented above, I’ll show one of the more low key moments (and personally my favorite of the film) from his landmark film Drive (2011). After seeing this movie I became obsessed with the band College and kept the soundtrack on constant repeat for much of the Spring 2012 semester.

So what aspects of Danish life and society have influenced this urge to challenge typical genre conventions? Whether it be Van Trier’s bare-bones approach to cinema, or Refn’s over-stylization of classic cinema archtypes? From the outside, we can revisit Shakespeare’s outsider perspective of time in the far north as existing “out of joint.” With my visit to “Elsinore” (Helsingør in Danish), I hoped to shed further light on these elements. This can further be deconstructed by looking at the contrasts in which Kronborg Castle, the real life inspiration for Shakespeare’s Elsinore, has been represented on film and how it compares to the way it is presented to tourists and visitors today. It is unlikely that Shakespeare himself ever visited Kronborg Castle in person, but in Hamlet he does refer to Kronborg Castle as the location of Elsinore. So with this in mind, the actual sense of place presented in film adaptations of Hamlet have had a varying degree of differences in the way the castle itself is presented. I’ll start with a few pictures from my behind-the-scenes tour of the reconstructed 15th century castle.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now let’s compare this polished and High Renaissance/Early enlightenment era rendition of the historic Kronborg with the smoke and fog of Lawrence Olivier’s Elsinore in his version of Hamlet (1948).

But the castle’s size, once established, could have been taken for granted. The long tracking and dolly shots down stairs, around pillars and along corridors only slow down the tempo, with the result that Ophelia’s mad scene, for one, is less effective than in the more congested traffic of the stage. The model ships, too, are both unconvincing and superfluous. It may sound an odd and ungrateful thing to say of a man who had made two superb films running, but the truth is that Olivier still uses the camera to achieve effects that a stage producer might aspire to if his stage were big enough and money no object. His work will gain a great deal when he learns to forget stage entrances and the slow gathering of players, and cut or dissolve from one scene to another in full course. A drama of enormous vitality and excitement is played out in a museum.

Let’s contrast this to Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet (1996), which perhaps more so than any other Shakespeare adaptation has attempted to not only bring the play’s full four hour length to life, but by creatively resetting the play in 19th century Denmark, had set out to reproduce the actual splendor of Kronborg Castle.

My second and (sadly last) full day in Denmark involved an even deeper search into the essence of Danish “out-of-jointness.” What about the way in which the Danes themselves have examined their history and constructed their identity through a shared past? The answers to my question came to me at the National Museum of Denmark.

For a crash course in Danish history and culture, spend an afternoon at Denmark’s National Museum. It has first claims on virtually every antiquity uncovered on Danish soil, including Stone Age tools, Viking weaponry, rune stones and medieval jewellery. Among the many highlights is a finely crafted 3500-year-old Sun Chariot, as well as bronze lurs (horns), some of which date back 3000 years and are still capable of blowing a tune. There are also  sections related to the Norsemen and Inuit of Greenland and an evocative exhibition called ‘Stories of Denmark’, covering Danish history from 1660 to 2000. Among the highlights here are re-created living quarters (among them an 18th-century Copenhagen apartment) and a whimsical collection of toys, including a veritable village of dollhouses.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With this broader overview of the history of Danish life and culture, I feel that we can perhaps get closer to the sense of rebelliousness that comes from existing on the edge of continental European ambitions and the Scandinavian frontier. Perhaps the story that best represents the dual natural of forward thinking and repression that Danes have often made the effort to come to terms with can be found in Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (2012). The film tells the incredible true-life story of the relationship between the mad Christian VII of Denmark, his wife Caroline Matilda and their royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee attempts to impose an coup from within the government and for a brief 14 month period introduces a series of reforms and progressive changes to the regressive and superstitious ridden Danish society of the late 18th century. It is a useful allegory in which again the ideas of identity and history can intersect onto the screen in an engrossing fashion.

As the sun began to set and with only a few hours left before I had to take my red-eye return flight back to Belgium, I thought I would take advantage of the suprisingly warm and sunny evening, and take a stroll to Assistens Cemetery, where I was able to pay pilgrimage to one of my favorite thinkers, Soren Kierkegaard. When reflecting on his life an experiences in a society that was both progressive and regressive in the same manner that destroyed Struensee a generation before, Kierkegaard’s proto-existentialist musings are also a product of his own place and time. So I’ll sign off with this quote from him on the identity of the individual, a quote and perspective that I have attempted to present in different fashions throughout this blog and one I hold very close to my own beliefs:

“Most people are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others, frightfully objective sometimes – but the task is precisely to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others.”

16265255_10158194059955323_4577310808430967992_n

15.01.17 – Switzerland Stopover

16142406_10158149048665323_6601446530540278061_n

“Switzerland is a small steep country, much more up and down than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo style of architecture.”

-Ernest Hemingway

After an extended holiday break and a much needed return to the United States, I made it back to Belgium in early January, and within a week was already feeling quite restless. The inspiration for my journey into Switzerland came to me during my flight from JFK to Brussels, where one of the inflight offerings was the recently released biopic on Lou-Andreas Salome, a woman known mostly for her affairs with turn of the century intellectuals such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Rilke, and later work with Sigmund Freud. I was quite taken by this film, not only for its service in bringing to light the life and work of a person who instead of being the witness to history and associate of great men as often portrayed, was in fact an active participant in the major philosophic, literary, and psycho-analytic movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I particularly enjoyed about the film’s portrayal of Salome’s life long struggle not only for her own intellectual and creative freedom, but also her unwillingness to give in to the expectations and obsessions of the men she involved herself with intellectually. Her famous rejection of Nietzsche and the subsequent blame his sister placed on Salome for her brother’s eventual decent into madness is well-addressed in the film, with a revised perspective in which Nietzsche himself is reduced to suffering from “nice-guy syndrome.” It’s an overplayed corrective for sure, but as I’ve discovered in my own research into silent film actresses of the same period, an all prevalent occurrence. You can find the film’s trailer here, there are no subtitles, but the German title cards and the dynamics of the exchange should be pretty straightforward in conveying the film’s overall message:

58c628d7ecbf0cfd9008868e5c351fa6
One of the less risque pictures taken with Salome, Ree, and Nietzsche.

The scenes in Lou Andreas-Salome (2016) that struck me most were the scenes set in Switzerland, particularly the sequences involving her, Paul Ree, and Nietzsche. So with the film in mind, I decided to make the trek to Sils Maria, and satiate my inner nineteen year-old nihilist. Since this was Switzerland in January, only part of the path way was open to tourists. Yet the path to the tip of the peninsula leads past picturesque bays and corner to the Nietzsche stone, which is inscribed with verses from “Thus spoke Zarathustra.” The stone is situated at the tip of the peninsula, which was once a favorite-spot of this famous philosopher, who spent many summers there. I also paid a brief visit to the Nietzsche-Haus, which has turned into a small museum with comprehensive exhibits that set out to document the philosopher’s life and work. What I thought was quite cool is that the House is also a guesthouse, study and research center, which keeps the museum dust from settling over it. The Nietzsche-Haus Foundation provides scholars and culturally interested parties an opportunity to stay and do research at the House for a maximum of three weeks with the goal of promoting lively discussions among the researchers. Sadly the weather prevented me from having the transcendent mountaintop experience he often wrote about. So instead I’ll have to rely on Alain de Botton to demonstrate what I was hoping to experience:

The next morning I took an early bus up to Zurich, where I had about a ten hour layover before catching a night train back to Ghent. The whole way I was simply awe-struck by the scenery and finally fulfilled in seeing more snow in my 36-hours in Switzerland than the entire winter I spent in Belgium. With limited daylight, I made the most of walking through as much of the surrounding mountainside as possible. The most rewarding view of the city came after I reached the top of the Üetliberg, and took a nearly two mile trek downward toward the center, with increasingly rewarding views both as I ascended and descended. Another highlight of my limited time in Zurich was a visit to “Clouds” a cocktail bar 35 stories up, that provided a breathtaking view of the city and surrounding scenery. My wanderings through the city were nothing short of experiencing a full-on winter wonderland.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Later in the evening, with only a slight amount of time to left to kill, I made a short visit for a drink at Caberet Voltaire. This was a nightclub founded by Hugo Ball, with his companion Emmy Hennings as a cabaret for artistic and political purposes.  Events at the cabaret proved pivotal in the founding of the anarchic art movement known as Dada.

In recent years, the building which housed Cabaret Voltaire fell into disrepair, and in the winter of 2001/2002 a group of artists describing themselves as neo-Dadaists, organised by Mark Divo, illegally occupied the cabaret to protest its planned closure. They declared that it was a signal for a new generation of artists to align themselves with a revival of Dada. Since then the cabaret has once again become a sought after tourist destination with plenty of performances, parties, poetry evenings and film nights. For more of an idea of what Cabaret Voltaire offers its visitors both past and present, feel free to look over this BBC Culture Review of a film night held at the cabaret last year.

Although my visit was brief (which also means this entry will also be mercifully short) and I feel that I only had yet to scratch the surface of this amazing and visually stunning country, my short time in Switzerland did much to help reinvigorate my creative and intellectual aspirations as I being the second half of my year abroad. I was reminded of the inspirations that come from travel as well as following in the footsteps and artists that extend beyond the world of film. Also after my short time here, I feel that I can completley and whole-heartily disagree with the moral-relativist argument that Orson Welles’ Harry Lime put forth in The Third Man (1949). Where the first part of the scene is downright shocking, his historical justification for progress had always been something that I’ve mulled over in my head, particularly his remark that in 500 years all Switzerland had produced was “the cuckoo clock.” Although a stunning scene which I regularly annoy friends and family alike by quoting, after visiting Switzerland, I’ll once more have to revise my statement and include that Switzerland has far more to offer than Harry Lime could have anticipated.

01.12.16 – Experiencing Expressionism in Berlin

15319079_10157906668125323_5600858686524777230_n

“Berlin is the newest city I have come across. Even Chicago would appear old and gray in comparison”

– Mark Twain

It was about eleven in the morning when I woke up after a brief three hour nap I put on a change of clothes, bunched up the ones I wore the night before into my backpack, washed up and checked out of my hostel. After wandering through the cold December night for hours on end, my colleagues who I decided to part with my colleagues who I’ll admit have much more stamina than I do when it comes to going out. Perhaps its because living in the United States, you are essentially conditioned to start winding your night down no later than two in the morning, maybe get a greasy snack, and be home and in bed by three. The notion that “nothing good ever happens after 2 A.M.” has essentially become a mantra for bargoer. However I’ll admit that in Berlin, the inverse is true and things only start to get interesting after two in the morning. Although the night was more low-key than previously expected, my expectations for the extremes that a night out in Berlin would be like were perhaps unrealistically set after watching Sebastian Schipper’s thrilling Victoria (2015):

Although our evening did not go to the heist-movie extremes of this modern masterpiece, it still was a whirlwind culmination to a long and exciting day that started at Babelsberg Studio in Potsdam earlier that morning. My visit to Studio Babelsberg was a pilgrimage of sorts, on one end it is the oldest large-scale film studio in the world, yet it is an active film set with many major international15268035_10157906647815323_7226624550775341177_n productions filmed there on a regular basis. The  Masters Degree students in UGent’s Communications Department organized the field trip, while I and several of my fellow CIMS colleagues decided to travel to Berlin and join in on the fun. We rode the S-Bahn out to Potsdam without incident, except for the fact that we ended up on entirely the wrong side of town. We tried to enter the studio from back entrance (pictured left) yet were chased away by security. Knowing all to well the expectations that come with German efficiency, there was an added urgency to make it to the studio and meet with the students in a timely manner. After our small group completed an frantic impromptu 5k run along the outside of the studio, we finally were able to flag down a taxi which took us the rest of the way. Needless to say, our tardiness was not appreciated by the grandmotherly tour guide who had been forced to wait an additional five minutes for us to arrive.

I’ll admit that the tour itself was not as compelling as I expected. For one thing, despite the fact that we were a group of Dutch and English speaking students, the tour was conducted entirely in German. The closeness between German and Dutch helped most of the students understand about one half to a third of what the woman was talking about, while my dumb monolingual self was resigned to look around and soak in the environment. I am particularly drawn to the studio’s early history, which perfected a similar mass-scale production method that was only matched by the Hollywood Studio system which emerged during the same period. The first photo on the left shows a replication of the original 1911 glasshouse studio built by Deutsche Bioscope.  Throughout the tour I was able to identify numerous set pieces, props, and facades from so many movies both old and new, that I could not help but feel immersed by the presence of place. The cinematic significance of Babelsberg is too extensive to mention in a blog entry, so instead this short promotional should help to summarize the experience:

The highlight of my time at Studio Babelsberg came after the tour was over and the students left. Although we are supposed to be the responsible Ph.D. students chaperoning the less experienced Masters students, we felt so underwhelmed by the tour, that we decided to sneak behind the scenes afterward and explore the off limits set pieces on our own. I managed to channel my previous experience working in production and  purposeful walk as we meandered through a live film shoot, although we attracted the stray look from a teamster or crew member, we kept at such pace that we were never stopped and questioned. Because we were sort of trespassing there are no pictures to share from this part of the tour, but for anyone who has ever been on an active film set, you likely know the sense of the fake and fanciful that comes from walking through hollowed out buildings, watching actors stage scenes, and artificially move through the artificial world they are currently inhabiting. It was exhilarating and made me miss my previous life as a line producer quite a bit at that moment.

The next stop on our whirlwind German cinema tour was to the Deutsche Kimemathek Museum für Film und Fernsehen. This was by far the most impressive film museum I have ever visited, it even knocked my previous favorite the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens completely out of the water. The Deutsche Kinemathek officially opened in February 1963. Its founding director was Gerhard Lamprecht who over the decades had meticulously put together an extensive collection of films, documents and equipment. The City State of Berlin acquired this collection and then handed it over to the new institution for its preservation and use. Since September 2000 – as Filmmuseum Berlin – it has been able to present a part of its collections in the Permanent Exhibition Film. It invites visitors to make a journey, thematically and chronologically arranged, through German film history. Another main focus of the Permanent Exhibition is the relationship between Berlin and Hollywood. Special exhibitions complete the program.

IMG_4840
The Deutsche Kinemathek is located in the newly constructed Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz. The smoky Christmas ice-show played at the entrance of the museum truly contributed to the mood

The museum is designed to take you on a chronological tour through the entire history of German film production. It pulls no punches and does not shy away from the darker periods of national film production either. My experience was quite interesting since I made the mistake of starting on the the bottom floor, which took me through the latest developments in German cinema, and then gradually moved backwards through the exhibitions and through time. It was a surreal and almost overwhelming experience in that sense. As the album below indicates, the range of topics covered, the special exhibitions on science fiction films, and the Marlene Dietrich exhibit were all among the topsy-turvy highlights of this fascinating collection of national cinematic treasures.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From looking at the death mask of F.W. Murnau, navigating the upside down world of Dr. Calligari, experiencing the madness of Klaus Kinski while navigating the treacherous Peruvian rain forest in the Fitzcaraldo, or absorbing the set pieces of Fritz Lang’s utopic/dystopic Metropolis, there truly is too much to list in a single entry. If there ever has been a place in the world that could have or has effectivelyre given Hollywood a run for its money, it is Berlin. It is a city of contrasts, contradictions, all wrapped in a young nation with a complicated and divisive history. Fredrick the Great’s capital is without question not only an extraordinarily photogenic and organized city, but Berlin ability to reinvent its past and present, all the while making adjustments for an irresolute future is reason enough for filmmakers and film lovers to keep coming back.

 

20.11.16 – Napoleon’s Invasion of Southbank

napoleon-1927-screening

“Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven fera des films…toutes les légendes, toutes les mythologies et tous les mythes, tous les fondateurs de la religion, et les religions mêmes…attendent leur résurrection exposée, et les héros s’entassent à la porte.”

(“Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films …all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all the founders of religion, and even the religions … await their resurrection, and the heroes at the gate.”)

-Abel Gance

This post is in part a follow-up on my earlier entry on Waterloo where I repined the lack of cinematic attention paid to The Napoleonic Wars. Here I’ll make an attempt to describe what was the most exhausting, challenging, at times frustrating, but ultimately engrossing and rewarding moviegoing experience of my life. As discussed in my last entry, my main reason for coming to London was to attend the Cinema and Memory Conference, however an added bonus was that the week of the conference also coincided with the wide release of the latest restored version of Abel Gance’s landmark epic film Napoleon (1927). In November 2016 Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow and the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive unveiled a new digitally restored version of Abel Gance’s cinematic triumph. Aside from playing at cinemas across the U.K. with an orchestral accompaniment of Carl Davis’s awe-inspiring score when the film was also made available on BFI DVD/Blu-ray and BFI Player. If you want just the slightest taste of the power and majesty of this restoration take a look at the trailer below:

The premiere took place earlier that month at the Royal Festival Hall, where Davis’ score was accompanied by a performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Unfortunately I missed both the initial premiere and a special retrospective held by none other than Kevin Brownlow at the BFI earlier in the week. Before I describe my own experience watching this jaw-dropping exhibition, it is only fitting to share at least in part, the incredible story surrounding Brownlow’s fifty year long journey to bring this silent classic back to life. Brownlow recounts the full scope of his story in a 2013 interview in The Guardian. Here he recalls the moment over sixty years ago in which he first encountered the film that would go on to change and ultimately shape his life.

It was 1953 and I was still at school. I’d borrowed a silent French film from the library for my 9.5mm projector. It was by Jean Epstein and it was awful. So I rang the library and asked if they had anything else. They said they had Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. “Oh that will just be a classroom film,” I said, “full of engravings and titles and all very static…But when it arrived, we played it on the wall and I’d never seen anything like it. This, I thought, is what cinema ought to be. I realised what I had was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use. So I started advertising in Exchange and Mart until I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it.”

However even after Brownlow got a hold of the six reel version of the film, he learned that he had acquired just the tip of a five-and-half-hour long iceberg. Brownlow was so inspired by the beauty of the fragments he had seen that he reached out to the film’s director Abel Gance to learn about the whereabouts of the rest of the film. Made just at the end of the silent film era, it was hailed as a masterpiece but dismissed by exhibitors as too long, and too impractical  to be shown to mass audiences. (Gance’s definitive cut which was only exhibited a handful of times in the Spring of 1927 ran close to nine and a half hours.)

abel-gance-and-kevin-brownlow-1967_0
Abel Gance (left) and Kevin Browlow (right) in 1967. Photo credit: bfi.org

The film was eventually cut down into shorter versions which ran anywhere between ninety minutes and four hours, but because of the butchering entire scenes disappeared and were presumed to be lost and by the time Brownlow discovered Napoleon in the 1950s, only fragments of the film remained. More tragic is the fact that the film does not cover the entirety of Napoleon’s life, but instead takes viewers from his early life up until 1796 and ends with the decisive Battle of Montenotte. After nearly ninety years of experimentation, the film’s famous “triptych sequence” was carried out in all of its intended glory at the BFI screening I attended. The climatic battle scene involves the simultaneous projection of three reels of silent film arrayed in a horizontal row, making for a total aspect ratio of 4:1 (3× 1.33:1). Gance worried that the film’s finale would not have the proper impact by being confined to a small screen, and  thought of expanding the frame by using three cameras next to each other. This is probably the most famous of the film’s several innovative techniques. Though American filmmakers began experimenting with 70mm widescreen (such as Fox Grandeur) in 1929, widescreen did not take off until CinemaScope was introduced in 1953.

The method Gance developed was coined “Polyvision” by critics and was only used for the final reel of Napoleon, to create a climactic finale. Filming the whole story in Polyvision was logistically difficult as Gance wished for a number of innovative shots, each requiring greater flexibility than was allowed by three interlocked cameras. When the film was greatly trimmed by the distributors early on during exhibition, the new version only retained the center strip in order to allow projection in standard single-projector cinemas. Gance was unable to eliminate the problem of the two seams dividing the three panels of film as shown on screen, so he avoided the problem by putting three completely different shots together in some of the Polyvision scenes. When Gance viewed Cinerama for the first time in 1955, he noticed that the widescreen image was still not seamless, that the problem was not entirely fixed.

triptych-on-screen-3
The Battle of Montenotte “triptych sequence” shown in three seams.

After two decades of restoration work and a practice of cinematic archeology on a scale only matched by the boldest treasure hunters, Brownlow’s collaboration with Gance unveiled a five hour 35mm ‘definitive version’ of the film at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979. Gance at just a month shy of turning ninety, made the journey to Colorado to and watched the film from his hotel window. Despite his limited mobility, it is said that he rose and stood through the entire final reel with the restored ‘triptych sequence.’ Despite the lack of music and the piercing cold of the outdoor screening, the event is a revelation for its audience. Francis Ford Coppola provided his own butchered re-edit of Napoleon the following year and the story goes that Brownlow was so horrified at his edit that he compared Coppola to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

In the four decades that followed the 1979 Telluride “premiere”, Brownlow has continued his groundbreaking efforts as a film historian and preservationist. His passion and love for silent cinema is truly infectious, as well his ongoing pursuit make aware the truly dynamic and immersive aspects that silent specatorship entailed. In 2010 his efforts were rewarded with a honorary Academy Award. I came across his acceptance speech online several years ago while I was fumbling around for a research specialty early in graduate career. You can see his entire acceptance speech below, it is truly inspiring and in many ways helped to give me a sense of direction and purpose as to why this period of film history is so significant and necessary to be restored and reinvigorated.

As for the experience of watching Napoleon in a theater, which included an accompanying orchestra and pull out screen to display the entire triptych sequence, it was something on par with seeing a natural wonder. In an earlier post I described how the experience of the Mona Lisa smile is something that can only be made possible when you put the selfie stick down, push through the crowd, walk up to the painting and allow yourself to concentrate. A theatrical screening of Gance and Brownlow’s (by this point it truly has become both men’s film) Napoleon requires no such level of concentration. The forcefulness of Davis’ revised score, the striking visual imagery, and all around atmosphere of being surrounded by only the most committed and passionate of silent film buffs, is entirely absorbing. I won’t go as far to say that the five and a half hours flew by, the film’s length is readily apparent, and I certainly was grateful for the occasional breaks given, but similar to a daylong Netflix binge-watch session, I was compelled to want to delve further into the story and see what happens next. This type of serious moviegoing is not for the faint of heart, and I would say that by the end of the screening nearly half of the audience had bowed out and left. Similar to running a marathon, or century bicycle ride, this movie requires stamina and more definitive commitment. I can’t go as far as to recommend that everyone sit through and engage with this film in its entirety, it is quite taxing, however to even take in a few of the sequences and experience at least a piece of this masterpiece is a truly trans-formative experience. It seems as if the BFI understands this aspect of viewership and provides would-be viewers a very useful list of can’t miss scenes.

The tragedy of Napoleon is in the fact that Gance had intended to create further installments of his film, which would have carried Napoleon’s epic story all the way through to Waterloo and his last days on St. Helena. The name Waterloo has since become a word synonymous with the idea of an individual meeting his or her ultimate obstacle and to ultimately be defeated by it. I say this with all irony intended that Abel Gance met his Waterloo with Napoleon. However after seeing his ending triptych sequence in all its cinematic splendor, I can’t help but think of the 360 degree film Waterloo XXL that I watched at Memorial 1815 in Belgium, and imagine if it could perhaps be considered the final completion of Gance’s unfulfilled ambitious vision. On the other hand the film’s staying power and the success of Brownlow’s restoration is nothing less than a triumph. It is a message to the world of the power and influence that the film industry’s silent past continues to wield, along with the tireless efforts of preservationists and historians who continue to work to give it a voice.

18.11.16 – Italian Cinema and Memory in London

https_cdn-evbuc-com_images_25111593_101528216213_1

“I think cinema is the memory and the imagination of the country. Take the memory and imagination out of an individual, and he stops being an individual. I think it’s the same thing for a country.”

– Phillippe Falardeau

I’ll never forget the feeling of trepidation, uncertainty, and doubt I experienced when I sat in on my first class in graduate school. It was a Introduction Historiography course taught by Dr. Robert Cassanello at the University of Central Florida. Five years removed from that class, I may have reimagined his initial introduction to the class into something right out of the opening scene in The Paper Chase.

This class pushed me to what I felt at the time was the furthest extent of my mental capacity, as week after week I became submerged in an endless array of historical theories, perspectives, and approaches. As soon as I buoyed above the crest of one wave, I was immediately washed away by another blast whether it be from E.P. Thompson, Lawrence Levine, Carlo Ginzburg, Richard Hofstader, or Leopold van Ranke, to name a few. As I and my other classmates drowned ourselves in reading assignments and interpretive essays, we each gradually felt as if we were to be overcome by the seeming endlessness our field of study had to offer. Without hope and with unfocused vision we fumbled on through a seeming disconnected array of perspectives handed down to us mere mortals from on high by the supreme academic deities who would go on to become our patron saints. Perhaps it was out of pity, but most likely by design, about halfway through the semester we had a very frank discussion as a class in regards to how we will be able to navigate the labyrinthine Library of Babel that is the field of historical studies. Dr. Cassanello’s advice was straightforward, simple, and direct: “Eventually it all circles right back to where you started.”

Over the next two years as I worked toward finishing my Master’s degree, that kernel of advice remained tucked away in the back of my mind. Through all that time I sought the moment were I would return to the beginning and when I would see the knowledge I had gained through new eyes. As promised, I experienced a small but momentous amount of familiarity during my preparation for Capstone exams and later while writing my Master’s thesis. Another moment of profound clarity came from reading Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery’s landmark Film History: Theory and Practice, which did much to help me untangle the intricate web of methodological approaches that exist within the field of film history. Furthermore their work helped to inspire me to pursue this particular field as my topic of study.

As I transitioned from an uncertain Master’s student, to only a slightly secure  Ph.D. candidate, the circular nature of my field of research became increasingly apparent. The touchstone moment came in June 2015 when I presented on my research at the HoMER (History of Movie Going Exhibition and Reception) Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Here I was able to meet and sit in on panels with many of the authors who had influenced my research, including Robert C. Allen. One of the most memorable sessions I sat in on, was a panel titled “Reconstructing Post-War Italian Audiences: New Perspectives and Methodological Challenges.” This panel was the first time I was exposed to serious scholarship on how a national cinematic identity is defined by historians. I was especially inspired by Danielle Hipkin’s oral history of older Italian’s film memories, John Sedwick’s use of statistics and local newspaper publications, and Daniela Treveri Gennari and Silvia Dibeltulo’s use of GIS mapping to understand distribution patterns. These new approaches reminded me of the tidal wave sensation I previously had felt at the start of my graduate career. I was also significantly influenced by Catherine O’Rawe’s message that interpreting subject realities and medium realities, are not just a source of additional information, but instead are a means to convey the history and identity of a place and ultimately transcend meaning beyond their intentions.

You can learn more about this fascinating project here.

With this background in mind, my return to the United Kingdom in November 2016 was an important reminder that I have at  very least completed one full revolution around my field of academic study. I was invited to join in on a one-day seminar with a focus on Cinema Memory and Audiences at the University of London, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Cultural Media. What I enjoyed most about this opportunity was that I was able to witness firsthand the progress and setbacks that the Italian Cinema Audiences Project had experienced over the past year and a half since I first was introduced to their work.

I particularly enjoyed the latest oral histories that were shared by the ICAP, both for the enjoyable content, but also for the insights the participants offered. I also couldn’t help but to add my own snarky commentary on some of the interviewee’s reminiscences.

screenshot-2017-02-14-14-32-49

Ultimately the aim of the workshop was to bring together researchers, practitioners, curators and cultural organizations from different backgrounds so that they can share ideas and their experiences of working in areas related to cultural memory, oral history and digital technologies. This was also accomplished by way of introducing a few projects that operate with a similar methodology as ICAP. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed at the workshop, feel free to view the recording of the presentation below:

Dr. Anne Fee of the University College of London, shed a fascinating light on the class-power dynamics of Parisian working class cinemas during the interwar period, while Dr. Richard MacDonald of Goldsmith’s College shared the complex cultural rituals that developed in outdoor cinemas in Thailand.

The last third of the workshop involved a series of seemingly unrelated but surprisingly interconnected projects. Katherine Ford of The Cinema Museum in London discussed a well-being program called The Gentleman’s Cake Club. According to Sarah Culhane’s write up of the project (see link) the initiative is described as such:

“Attended by a small group of local men, the club provides a social space where participants can meet and chat. The group is facilitated by Ford who, in addition to providing tea and cake, uses an iPad to support the men’s conversation. The conversation generally unfolds organically and Ford allows it to go in whatever direction the men take it. Frequently she will use the iPad to ‘illustrate’ some aspect of the discussion by checking a fact or showing the group an image or video related to the topic of conversation. She explained that occasionally she also uses the iPad as a device to ‘unblock’ the conversation if the men are less talkative. A simple thing like checking the weather for the next day can be enough to get discussion flowing again.”

Following a similar thread, Ana Salzberg of the University of Dundee presented the ways in which the a care home can be used to establish a cinematic community. She discusses how Scottish care facilities attempt to re-create the cinematic experience for residents as a way to prevent loneliness and boredom, and foster social connectivity. She suggests that recreating the sensory experience of the cinema emphasized by the drawn curtains, popcorn, and big screen – allows residents to enter into particular pleasures of spectatorship. In turn this approach intensifies certain emotions, memories and sensation, and enhances their present experience too, acting as a form of care towards present-day forms of embodiment and connection.

Simon Hopper’s discussion on “The Power of Memories” was yet another riveting talk, which I encourage you to watch at least in part:

Dr. Cahal McLaughlin’s presentation did not directly correspond with cinematic memories per se, but it applied many of the best practices that can be used in conducting a successful memory project. His discussion on the Prisons Memory Archive curating a  collection of 175 filmed walk-and-talk recordings with those who had a connection with Armagh Gaol and the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. The recordings were made in 2006 and 2007. The range of participants includes prison staff, prisoners, relatives, teachers, chaplains, lawyers, doctors, probation officers and maintenance workers The recordings capture how everyday life was impacted by the conflict and builds a rich tapestry of the story of the prisons, just one of the many stories from the conflict.

Ironically enough, the last presentation: Alasdair Hopwood’s discussion on The False Memory Archive was not recorded, so it may not have really happened. Based upon fascinating scientific research that demonstrates how susceptible we are to false memories, Hopwood offered us a unique collection of vivid personal accounts of things that never really happened. Opening with a display of digitally manipulated photographs of UFO sightings, Hopwood’s work evocatively reflects the way we creatively reconstruct our sense of the past, while providing insight into the often humorous, obscure and uncomfortable things people have misremembered. Altogether each of the topics addressed during this day-long event intersected in ways that may not have been immediately apparent had I not of benefited from taking my first full revolution around the field of film history. As I continue to develop my own questions and approaches toward better understanding cinema’s regional dynamics, I increasingly rely on workshops and panel sessions such as these to help me stumble toward that elusive, vague sense of understanding that only comes after a multi-light year galactocentric orbit.

Since this post is already running a bit overlong, I had to cut short the travel component of this week’s entry. However, building on my new found appreciation for urban street art, I’d be remiss not to share with you some highlights from my wanderings through London and trip to Banksy’s hometown in Bristol over the course of the weekend. For those of you not familiar with Bansky’s work, I’ll just leave this here:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

08.11.16 – Gaudi Go to Barcelona

14907091_10157759176685323_8257954457163763999_n

“The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”
-Antoni Gaudi
On the morning of September 11, 1714, French and Spanish forces under the command of King Philip V successfully overpowered the last pockets of resistance from Barcelona’s urban militia. The Catalan leadership, abandoned by their British and Dutch allies, and in the face of an overwhelming occupying force, formally surrendered to Phillip’s army. This defeat represents the end of the Principality of Catalonia as a political entity, as its independent institutions and legislation were suppressed and replaced by Castilian ones in order to establish an absolutist government. This event is  commemorated today as the National Day of Catalonia, known in Catalan as the Diada Nacional de Catalunya.
The notion of Catalonia as being an entity separate from Spain neither begins nor ends with the events surrounding the War of Spanish Succession. With the exception of a handful of government buildings, any presence of Spanish identity is essentially non-existent. Moreover, the pivotal role Barcelona played in resisting the Franco regime, along with the countless blights and blemishes that have taken place Catalan and Spanish relations over the past three hundred years, has led to the Catalan people to form a fascinating sense of cultural autonomy. Although I could immediately perceive the people as being naturally warm, outgoing, and friendly, there is an insularity that can be quite difficult for an outsider to grasp. As I immersed myself in the city’s sprawling, tragic, and beautiful history, a tapestry of incredible tales of heroism, cowardice, betrayal, creation, and resistance unfurled before me. Whether it was looking over the ramparts of Montjuïc Castle (where Lluís Companys bravely declined a blindfold and cried ‘Per Catalunya’ as he stood before a firing squad from Franco’s Civil Guards), discovering the genius of the art and architecture of Antoni Gaudi while wandering through Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia, learning Catalan heritage in the El Born district, getting lost in the Gothic quarter, and taking in all the incredible street art found on the doors and windows of so many buildings, the story of Barcelona is one with many layers, with an essence that is seldom captured to the fullest extent by filmmakers.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ironically it has been Spanish language filmmakers such as Pedro Almodóvar (a Castilian) and Alejandro Iñárritu (a Mexican), who have in my opinion directed the two films that have come the closest to touching on the complicated insular identity most Catalans are reluctant to share with outsiders. Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About my Mother) (1999) is at one end a complicated homage to Hollywood filmmakers and American playwrights. He relies on numerous inter-textual references ranging from the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Alfred Hitchcok, to the plays of Tennessee Williams, and the writings of Truman Capote. He also incorporates the poetry of the Republican poet and freedom fighter Federico García Lorca (a Granadan), all the while making explicit use of Barcelona’s endless array of jaw-dropping facades. Almodóvar imbues his Harlequin-novel-meets-Marvel-comic-book melodramas with something more than a wink and a smile, and it is beguiling. A.O. Scott’s overview of the film (see below) best encapsulates the dynamics of beauty and pain that the film addresses, as well as how a combination of approbation and cultural determinism can combine into compelling capture of Catalan identity on the screen.

Iñárritu’s Biutiful (2010)  is by no means an easy film to get through. Movieseum’s list of 18 Films You Would Never Want to Watch Again,  summarizes the polarizing response to the film.

“The combination of the dark and disturbing world matched with [Javier] Bardem’s ever-worsening situation marks this as one of the finest films you’ll never, ever want to see again.”

14963388_10157774972015323_217576115981584211_n

While Almodóvar ulitilizes imagery from Barcelona’s vibrant surface to further accentuate the tragedy of his story, Iñárritu pulls no punches in showing the desperate, unclean, ugly, mundane, and perilous aspects that can be found in the city as soon as you step away from the sanitized tourist strip.I came across this piece of artwork while I was browsing through the Gothic Quarter with friends, and feel that it best represents Barcelona’s dual nature. “La Calma” is the tourist-friendly, musically inclined, outgoing, and marvelous facade the Catalan people are able to put forth in an effort to make visitors feel welcome and connected to their home. “El Caos” is seldom shown in any explicit way to outsiders. It takes a filmmaker such as Iñárritu and an actor of the caliber of Javier Bardem, with their innate humanist sensitivity to actively explore the chaos within. In the interview below you can see Iñárritu explains how these factors that influenced the decision to set his film in Barcelona.

There is of course a third Barcelona, which is closer to the one I experienced and likely most visitors will: the escapist Barcelona. Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) (another Javier Bardem vehicle) and Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) are films made by non-Spanish speakers, with English and French spoken respectively as the dominant language in each movie. A controversy arose with Vicky Christina Barcelona when the the Barcelona City Hall and the Catalan Regional government each contributed half a million Euros to the film’s production. The use of public funding on Allen’s self-described “love letter to Barcelona and from Barcelona to the world,” frustrated many citizens who felt that their tax dollars could have been better spent elsewhere. Woody Allen’s self-obsession is no secret and it is the narcissism of his films which make his great ones great, and his not so great ones teeth gratingly unbearable. For the record, I would place Vicky Cristina Barcelona . That being said, the narcissism demonstrated in the film is quite insightful of the city’s visitors who only tend to experience the “La Calma” and not the “El Caos,” since they tend to view the city only by way of their own reflection. The film’s photography scene is a superb example of how Scarlett Johanson’s Cristina entirely disregards the surrounding landscape, architecture, or street art, as a subject in favor of her companion Penelope Cruz’s Maria Elena.

Another example of a self-obsessed visitor to Barcelona is Romain Duris’ Xavier in L’Auberge Espangole. Xavier comes to the city to study on the Erasmus program and his story incorporates the romantic elements of living in “Spain” (the emphasis on Xavier living in a ‘Spanish Apartment’ is itself problematic for reasons mentioned earlier), while coping with the calm and chaos of sharing a crowded apartment with other international students. It is a fun escapist film and the sequels that followed, Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle, remind me of a more sprawling version of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. On the other hand, despite the cultural experiences Xavier undergoes during his year-long stay in Barcelona leaves him with very minimal opportunities to directly connect to the city. As the film’s trailer demonstrates, Barcelona serves as a magnificent backdrop for the film’s romantic comedy element, yet a disconnect is immediately apparent  when several ‘Spaniards’ ask the French speaking Xavier if he speaks Spanish (he doesn’t and does not learn much as the film progresses). This exists not only in terms of Xavier’s lack of cultural immersion, but also because he  is too focused on his studies and love quintangle, to see Barcelona as anything more than a place to escape the everydayness of his life back home. Furthermore the fact that Xavier is not spoken to in Catalan, and the fact that the language is sparingly used throughout the film, demonstrates the wider outsider perspective that Barcelona and Spain are in fact one in the same.

Considering I was only able to spend three days exploring this fascinating city and indulging in its many offerings, I write this with the knowledge that the three different Barcelona’s I discovered are just the tip of the iceberg. I could very well imagine there being a different Barcelona for every day of the year, each one having its own insights and aspects of struggle, success, romance, pride, and subjugation. As the political situation in the region continues to develop and the cries for separatism become even louder, perhaps more filmmakers will eventually take heed of the city’s multifaceted identity.

14956522_10157774987245323_6956587805740446368_n

31.10.16 -Passing Through Praha

14910539_10157739136120323_8356548787756581772_n

“Prague never seems to let go of you, this mother has claws. We ought to set fire to it at both ends, and maybe then it might be possible to escape.”

-Franz Kafka

It was at about 6:30 in the morning when I decided to give up on the half sleep I’ve been attempting since boarding an overnight bus in Brussels about ten hours earlier. Constrained by budget, but also a sort of laziness in not wanting to excessively plan every detail of my trip, I decided to book a student tour that took care of all the essentials. The cost might not have been too heavy on my wallet, but the physical heaviness and disorientation I then felt as we crossed the German border and into the Czech Republic, was enough to curse my choice of travel and second guess the entire trip. The ride itself was further aggravated by a particularly aggressive angry haus-frau type lady bus driver. I also did not think through the type of students who would undertake such a torturous tour or how they would cope with a lack of sleep and ten hours on the road, which essentially turned our tour into a hell ride with increasingly drunken Erasamus students hosting a make-shift party on the bus, with the bus driver at least once every fifteen minutes screaming out through the intercom to tell some one to sit down, and at one point even attempted to leave a portion of the group behind who took too long at a rest station in Germany. By the time morning came, the party may had died down, but the lingering smells and resentment from the night before left me seriously questioning why I put myself through such an ordeal.

Within the hour the sun began to rise and the road opened up to us, giving me my first real view of the surrounding countryside, and it was at that point I began to realize that the destination would be well worth the journey. I have a passing knowledge of Czech cinema, as much as any general cinema survey had provided me with, which means I knew about Czech expatriates such as Milos Forman and Miroslav Ondříček, and mostly through their later Hollywood work. However about a week before I jumped on that bus which took me into an endless Eastern European night, I watched two films at the Ghent International Film Festival that piqued my interest in going to the Czech Republic.The first was Eat that Question, a documentary on the life of one of my favorite musicians, Frank Zappa. Both musically, and more importantly his efforts to battle censorship have in a great many ways influenced the underlying philosophy within my own research on film censorship at the turn of the last century. The documentary features an extensive thread that covers the cult-underground following of his banned albums by young Czech students in the 1980s. After the revolution in 1989, Zappa was invited to Prague and celebrated as a national hero. Although I do not have the clip available, here is footage from Frank Zappa’s last in person concert. Here you can see a people energized and hungry for change, open minded, and ready for new ideas and the chance to tear down the old and build up the new.

The second film was a special restored screening of Ikarie XB-1 with my CIMS colleagues at the Ghent Film Festival. The film premiered in 1964 and it’s black-and-white aesthetic is truly gorgeous. As I read up on the film afterward, I learned that certain film critics argue that the look and feel of Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have been possible without this monumental influence. Moreover, it turns out that Kubrick even toyed with titling his film Ikarie as well, but out of reverence to the source material decided to distance himself from it.

The surreal nature of Czech science-fiction is not limited to the 1960s either. One of the earliest and greatest works of futurism was a play titled Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) by Karel Čapek. This work is credited with being the first time the concept of a robot was introduced into popular consciousness. In fact the entire plot of the play centers around the chain of events that lead up to, during, and after a robot uprising that exterminates

375px-capek_play
A scene from the play featuring three of Capek’s robots.

the entire human race, with the exception of one man. As Simon Pegg’s At the World’s End astutely points out, the word ‘robot’ in fact originates from the Czech word for slave. Capek’s influence also likely extends from the figure of the Golem from traditional Jewish folklore. (Prague has one of the oldest Jewish Quarters in continental Europe.) Of course another famous contemporary of Capek, Franz Kafka, made his own contribution to surrealism and reactionary writing to the dehumanizing aspects of modernity and the rise of the bureaucratic state. This clip from Orson Welles’ dizzying adaptation of The Trial in essence helps to summarize the over complicated structure of Czech society, as well as how its people attempt to cope with its constant identity pull between Eastern and Western Europe.

So as my sleep-deprived and disoriented self joined my student group on an arduous forced walk-tour through the city, led by a disinterested young girl, with even less sense of direction or interest in the surroundings than my fellow hungover passengers. Yet in looking back, especially with my knowledge of how Prague has been presented by literary and cinematic elite, this slightly off-kilter introduction to the city was perhaps the best way to learn about it. Over the next three days, however I would begin to un-peel each of the contrasting layers of this fascinating city. From the Soviet-block architecture in the outskirts, to the beautiful Baroque city center, there was so much to take in.

14955983_10157739126210323_5270624730826268621_n
These Czech robots must be stopped before they kill us all!

From my first taste of hot wine to trying goulash, to the surreal street performers (which included raving glass walkers, fire eaters, and asshole whistling robots), I could certainly sense the fascinating fusion of cultures that emerge in a cross-road city such as Prague. As my Instagram pictures will attest, the dizzying nature of the city was all at once entrancing and strange.

One of the absolute highlights my wanderings through the city was a visit to the John Lennon Wall. In 1988 on the 30th anniversary of the failed 1968 coup, young Czech began to write grievances on the wall, which would lead the groundwork for the Velvet Revolution roughly one year later. The movement these students followed was described ironically as “Lennonism” and Czech authorities described these people variously as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism. (Sound at all familiar yet?)

14681666_10157739180920323_1949177217402263569_n
Lennon Wall, October 2016

The wall continuously undergoes change and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of new paint. Even when the wall was repainted by some authorities, on the second day it was again full of poems and flowers. Today, the wall represents a symbol of global ideals such as love and peace. The feeling of walking along it’s ever-changing graffiti, with fellow-free spirits who have an open and compassionate mind, all the while having buskers playing Beatles’ hits and Lennon’s solo work, was transcendent and did much to help to restore my faith in the human race as I prepared for another potentially disastrous 12 hour bus ride. So in reflecting further on Capek, Kafka, Zappa, and Lennon, I can understand how and why Prague has recently been considered within the film industry as “The Hollywood of the East.” It is a city of stark contrasts of Germanic, Russian, and nationalist influences, that dizziness and uncertainty, along with a fascination with the great cultural freedom fighters of the 20th century is very much why Prague will never let go of you. About a week later I went and watched Stephen Soderbergh’s at times confusing and disorienting, Kafka (1991), and yet after visiting Prague and walking the Charles Bridge for myself, certain aspects of his film, and the four artists mentioned above all seemed to come together in a certain synergy. The atmosphere of the post-Soviet Czech Republic, juxtaposed with a recreation of modernistic past, demonstrates why Prague continues to be one of the most fascinating and confusing cities in Europe.

13.10.16 – Waterloo XXL

14725545_10157689911655323_1482663386564406358_n
View of Lion’s Mound Memorial and Waterloo Panaroma

“On coming out of the chapel, a well can be seen on the left. There are two in this yard. You ask, Why is there no bucket and no pulley to this one? Because no water is drawn from it now. Why is no more water drawn from it? Because it is full of skeletons.”

-Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Later in life, when Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was asked to comment on the accuracy of his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo in his seminal novel Les Miserables, he  explained, “Il va sans dire que nous ne prétendons pas faire ici l’histoire de Waterloo, nous ne sommes qu’un témoin à distance.” (It goes without saying that I do not pretended to [write] history of Waterloo, we are only a distant observer/witness.) To Hugo Waterloo was an enigma. Similar to Tolstoy’s efforts to reconstruct the legacy of the Napoleonic Era in War and Peace, their general narrative fluctuates between a variety of embellishment, re-enactment, and adaptation. As with any  work of historic fiction, a certain degree of liability comes on the part of the author when carrying out adaptation of any sort. Whether in literature, artwork, or cinema the liberties taken by the author should in a sense provide the best possible representation of the period in question.

During the nineteenth century the historic fiction novel contributed to the public’s engagement with the past. This was accomplished through myth building, folklore, and factual reconstruction. The twentieth and twenty-first century has witnessed a shift toward an emphasis on visual media to reenact the past, initially through cinema, but more recently with interactive computer programs, video games, and virtual tours. History as drama and history as document are, in their standard forms, linked by this notion of the screen as a window onto a realistic world. It is true that the documentary film-with its mixture of materials in different time zones, with its images of the past and its talking heads speaking in the present -often provides a window into two (or more) worlds. But whether fiction or documentary those worlds share with each other and with history as drama, an identical structure and identical notions of document, chronology, cause, effect, and consequence. Which means that in talking about how the mainstream film creates its world, it is possible to make significant points that apply equally to dramatic film, documentary film, digital reconstruction, video game, etc.
In his essay, “The Historical Film as Real History” Robert Rosenstone argues that visual media represents an significant shift in the emphasis for creative representation of a historic event.
“Written history is, of course, not devoid of emotion, but usually it points to emotion rather than inviting us to experience it. A historian has to be a very good writer to make us feel emotion while the poorest of filmmakers can easily touch our feelings.”
Rosenstone makes the case that even a mediocre filmmaker is better equipped to move an audience to identify with characters and events in the past. Yet as with the novel the medium is certainly faced with several major limitations. All works of historic fiction according to Rosenstone include elements of:
  • Alteration
  • Compression
  • Invention

Yet each medium is also constrained by various limitations. There is no perfect vehicle for transcribing the past, each has its advantages and its drawbacks. In the case of mainstream cinema, historic films consist of six key elements, both to the advantage and determent of the subject matter addressed.

  1. The mainstream film tells history as a story, a tale with a beginning, middle, and an end. A tale that leaves you with a moral message and (usually) a feeling of uplift.
  2. Film insists on history as the story of individuals. Either men or women who are already renowned, or men and women who are made to seem important because they have been singled out by the camera and appear before us in such a large image on the screen.
  3. Film offers us history as the story of a closed, completed, and simple past. It provides no alternative possibilities to what we see happening on the screen, admits of no doubts, and promotes each historical assertion with the same degree of confidence.
  4. Film emotionalizes, personalizes, and dramatizes history. Through actors and historical witnesses, it gives us history as triumph, anguish, joy, despair, adventure, suffering, and heroism.
  5. Film shows history as process. The world on the screen brings together things that, for analytic or structural purposes, written history often has to split apart.Economics, politics, race, class, and gender all come together in the lives and moments of individuals, groups, and nations.

  6. Film so obviously gives us the look of the past-of buildings, landscapes, and artifacts- that we may not see what this does to our sense of history. So it is important to stress that more than simply the look of things, film provides a sense of how common objects appeared when they were in use.

Which brings me to this week’s excursion to Waterloo. When faced with reconstructing the history of a site with such a monumental legacy, any interpretation is going to face the dilemma that Victor Hugo faced, “La bataille de Waterloo est une énigme.” However the filmic representations event perhaps most responsible for shaping the modern European state are somewhat lackadaisical. Where much of the great literature of the second half of the nineteenth century directly or indirectly intersect with the events of Napoleon’s 100 days, films of the twentieth century have been surprisingly lackadaisical in their representation of what is such a perfectly cinematic moment in history. Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970) is perhaps one of the most notable exception. Although an impressive spectacle, (his use of 15,000 extras for the battle scenes is truly awe inspiring), the film’s plot and narrative is sadly lackluster. See the trailer below to get what I mean:

Released in 1970, Waterloo is a war movie that had some pretty big stars, and also won a few awards. Yet in the decades since, it’s been all but forgotten. Which is a tragedy, since its ridiculously epic production is one of the most amazing stories in cinema history.

When I say epic, I mean epic. Waterloo is a movie that at first looks big and explosive, but once you know the scale and the story behind it, its battle scenes become something almost more than cinema; you admire them as much for their engineering as their art. The film is based on not just the Battle of Waterloo, but the entire campaign leading up to it, which later became known as the “Hundred Days”. It runs a little over two hours, and in that time covers a bit of dancing, a bit of talking and a lot of fighting.

In almost every scene, everything looks too big and too lavish to be real. Enormous palaces, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of extras, ridiculous amounts of artificial lighting, more explosions than a Michael Bay movie. Only, it was all real, and was somehow paid for with real money. To make a movie this big today would be prohibitively expensive. To make one this big in the 1960s seems impossible. In the traditional way of making movies, it was! There was no way in hell a studio would be able to afford to make a movie that was going to require so many men, so many effects and so much gear. So producer Dino De Laurentiis didn’t make the movie the traditional way. He went to the Soviet Union. Despite this being right in the middle of the Cold War, and despite the film being a Western production with British and American stars, De Laurentiis was able to strike a deal with the Soviets that meant they could not only film Waterloo in the USSR, but would pay bargain basement prices for their access to Russian men and equipment.

There had never been a movie quite like Waterloo, and given the costs, will likely never be again. The final bill was around USD $40 million, which by 1970 standards made it one of the most expensive movies of all time. Had it not been shot primarily in the USSR, it’s estimated it might have cost two or three times that amount, which would have pushed its budget into the territory of “lol nope are you fucking kidding me.”

If you’ve never seen it, and are now very curious about it, you should know that Waterloo isn’t the world’s greatest movie, which may explain why it’s faded form people’s minds over the years (as has the lure of the Napoleonic Wars in general). Some of the dubbing is shocking, even from big stars like Christopher Plummer, and almost every scene not involving the battle itself (or at least the dramatic intro showing Napoleon’s first exile) is tedious as hell.

So why hasn’t Waterloo been given the treatment it deserves? Considering how often Civil War and World War II narratives are revisited by filmmakers, what is it about the Napoleonic Wars that remains so off putting to producers? There are plenty of narratives that can be constructed that go beyond just the showdown that took place between Napoleon and Wellington. One of my favorite movie monologues contains a story set in and around Waterloo, that could be a movie in its own right. Imogen Poots’ speech in this scene from the seriously underrated Comes a Bright Day (2012), captures the range of possibilities that this battle can present in dramatic representations. (Please excuse the Italian subtitles, this was the only way I could tag the scene I wanted, but it’s really a great performance worth seeing.)

So on to the battle’s epicenter, two-and-a-half miles south of Waterloo town. You will have been seeing it for a while; the 141ft conical mound with lion on top sticks out as much as anything sticks out in Belgium. Erected after the battle, to honor the wounded Prince of Orange, it’s an imposing item – though purists complain that its construction distorted the battlefield. Purists also complain about other scars on or about the British lines: a hotel, snack bar, gift shop and cinema room for Waterloo-related films.

Meanwhile, pride of place will go to the brand new, and vast, Waterloo Memorial experience, created underground in the shadow of the mound. Due to open on May 21, this was an off-limits building site when I visited recently. But it promises much: 10 galleries, films, an 80ft curved screen to place visitors at the center of the action, with the floor moving as artillery roars. The early 20th-century Panorama nearby is a 360ft, 360-degree fresco through which Ney’s cavalry charges at Britain’s gallant infantry squares. It’s a broiling, brawling, engrossing work as powerful today as when completed in 1912.

14731372_10157689910445323_2375555644559798554_n

View of Panorama building from the Top of Lion’s Mound

There are several fascinating parallels between Dumoulin’s panorama and Waterloo XXL, where the same questions of adaptation raised by artists, filmmakers, and authors all intersect. The dimensions of this huge fresco are awesome and worthy of its dramatic subject matter. The concept behind the Panorama dates from the 19th century. It is a huge and elegant building designed to display massive paintings of up to 110 m by 14 m. Panoramic paintings generally represent famous battles, religious events or landscapes. The Panorama is a unique visual theatre, offering visitors an opportunity to escape into a different world. The Panorama of Waterloo illustrates a key moment in the raging battle. Its huge size, the portrayal of the soldiers, the weapons and the period costumes make the fresco come to life. Its display in the round leads to total immersion inside the image, making visitors feel like they are at the heart of the action, caught up in an epic saga. The sense of perspective and three-dimensional reality are remarkable, and there is a real feeling of movement and emotion. A soundtrack of clashing swords, cavalry charges, cannonballs, bugles and the cries of the infantry plunge visitors into the heat of the battle. This Panorama was restored in 2008, and is an important piece of historical heritage because it is one of the few that still exist today. In the early 20th century, these kinds of historical reconstructions were almost ubiquitous, but they have since become less and less common.

img_3038

In the period before the great epic film, works such as this sweeping panorama were the only way to attempt to recreate the action of the battlefield. The experience is quite mesmerizing, as a your senses are assaulted by a series of sound effects and atmosphere building that allows your imagination to come to life. In walking through the panorama I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, specifically his documentary depiction of Picket’s charge. He relied on many images from the panorama of the battlefield at the Gettysburg museum, and the accompanying sound and connection of images is startling. In an effort to further reconstruct the day that changed European history, the museum has also recently unveiled an extravagant 4D reenactment film of the battle. It is quite an impressive spectacle to say the least, and a fascinating fusion of nineteenth and twentieth century techniques of historic adaptation.

The film is screened on a 180 degree panel, with cutting edge 3D effects, supplemented by a sound system that comes up from under your feet. Where I experienced an imaginative immersion while viewing the panorama, the level of direct engagement that the filmmakers are capable of involving their audience is unparalleled. The scope and grandeur or the 15 minute short film is as impressive as the efforts made in Bondarchuk’s Waterloo, minus the melodrama and scenery chewing. Instead I liken the experience to being just short of standing on the battlefield between the two armies and bearing witness to history unfold. The freedom you have to explore different panels that extend beyond your immediate range of sight help to provide an even more impressive sense of spectacle.

In the Thick of Battle! accomplishes in fifteen short minutes what has eluded filmmakers since the time of Abel Gance. That being a succinct and clear recreation of a watershed moment in European history. Where novelists have often relied on Waterloo as a  plot point and in turn have manufactured countless narratives and recreations of events of June 18, 1815, filmmakers have struggled to successfully do the same. What is it about film as a medium that has prevented Waterloo from receiving a proper narrative treatment? Which elements of the day’s events fail to fit into Robert Rosenstone’s formula of a historic film’s need for alteration, compression, and invention? Yet as project such as In the Thick of Battle! have demonstrated, Waterloo can in fact be recreated in a very real way through alternative formats. Ultimately I feel that it will be with the visual mediums of the twenty-first century such as virtual reality battlefield tours, immersive video games, and other alternative formats yet to be imagined, that will at last recreate Waterloo in a way that will take us from distant witness of an enigmatic event to active participant in one of history’s greatest turning points.