When Iain Sinclair referred to his seventieth birthday as an event that he had "no particular desire to record or commemorate," perhaps diffidence was at play.In fact, the 70x70 event spanned an entire year, comprising a collection of distinct screenings - a film for each year of Sinclair's life - shown across a variety of London venues, its curation a task undertaken by Sinclair himself. The selection of films, he said, would not be "one of the classics eulogised by Cahiers du Cinéma, but a charity-bin endgame, dissolution of genre. A money-laundering exercise revealing all the fault lines of Hollywood process."
Concluding an interview for Albion in early 2014, Sinclair handed me a broadsheet-style paper - 70x70's official catalogue - and explained how the process had spiralled: the initial sense of amusement involved in assembling the framework for what seemed a casual proposal from counter-cultural ideas man Paul Smith, but which had escalated into a full-scale and exhaustive writing job. The act of selection itself turned out to be arduous, while the realisation dawned that meaningful notes would be required for each film. And then there came a duty, not only to attend as many of the venues as possible, but also to create and participate in eclectic happenings along the way. One event in particular stood out - a must-see triple bill in London attended by a total of four people, three of whom were organisers for the event. "I was not discouraged," Sinclair said of the day in question. "Indeed, that afternoon felt very much like the best obituary for a certain kind of cinema and for the whole concept of travelling across London to locate the special places where films are curated." Of the achievements of the technological revolution, the creation of vast accessibility must be the most prominent. We have the keys to the archives -- the projector room door is open for our use at any time. But, despite the myriad positives, it's hard to deny Sinclair his point: convenience has come at the expense of magic.
"There should be far more Buñuel, Hitchcock, Welles," he said, discussing the finalised schedule. "There should be Bergman, Bresson, Renoir, Visconti, Pasolini, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, David Lynch, Jonas Mekas, Jean-Pierre Melville, Dreyer, Murnau, Pabst, Patrick Keiller, John Ford, Monte Hellman, Abel Ferrara. More everything, in fact. But this is how it came out. So this is what it is." Hitchcock and Welles did feature, as did Godard, Polanski, Fassbinder, Herzog and Antonioni, so the listing wasn't quite as car-boot as all that. Fittingly, the first piece to be shown was 1992's definitive Chris Petit collaboration The Cardinal and The Corpse. It's a textbook example of what happens when Petit and Sinclair join forces - the coating of storyline (graphic novelist Alan Moore is set on a determined search for a rare and possibly non-existent book) gives way to a showcase for the alumni of a group that Sinclair tends to call 'The Reforgotten.' Robin Cook (aka the crime-noir pulp novelist Derek Raymond) grandly holds court in his natural habitat (the pub), while ex-Kray associate Tony Lambrianou ("I don't like the word gangster") also has his say. Playing himself, in top form, is a character legendary in Sinclair-lore, the bookseller Driffield. "How is the cast holding up these days?" asks Sinclair, in the programme piece. "Six dead. Two incarcerated. One limping. Two come into their inheritance. One Oxford professor. One Alan Moore. And the makers pretty much where they always were, ducking and diving around the perimeter fence. Blue bags caught on razor wire."
An important fixture in 70x70 is 1979's The Long Good Friday - not just one of the great London films in its own right, but one to which Sinclair assigns a kind of psychic, even occult significance. It's beyond question that John MacKenzie and Barrie Keeffe's gangland melodrama is uncannily predictive of what was about to happen to London's ramshackle Docklands, once Margaret Thatcher's government decided to grant free reign to quasi-plausible opportunists like Bob Hoskins's Harry Shand. One plan of Shand's (a man up to his neck in organised crime, who wants to turn 'legit') to re-brand himself as a respectable businessman is to develop this area of East London to cater for a future Olympic games. The Long Good Friday remains eerily accurate in its depiction of a key period, one that could be regarded as the lighting of a touch paper for today's London, and its plot correctly anticipates a great deal of what came to pass between the turn of the 1980s and the present day. Hoskins's final scene as Shand - an agonisingly prolonged moment of realisation and reckoning - is simply an awe-inspiring piece of English film history. While films such as Niagara, The Long Good Friday and Psycho represent the better-known end of the 70x70 spectrum, counted among their more obscure opposites are the likes of 1969's largely forgotten cult classic Bronco Bullfrog, acted by amateurs and directed by Barney Platts-Mills; The Small World of Sammy Lee (1962, Ken Hughes); The Dark Eyes of London (1939, Walter Summers); Too Hot to Handle (1960, Terrence Young); and Derek Jarman's The Last of England (1987). Some of these latter pieces must presumably have been rather difficult to source --more so, at any rate, than up-to-the-minute works like Estate by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2014), the selection of various Andrew Kötting films, or indeed Sinclair's own Marine Court Rendezvous from 2008. The heart of 70x70 seems to be rooted in a magical chunk of English cinematic time, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s; here we find Hangover Square (1944, John Brahm), based on the novel by Patrick Hamilton (reforgotten, following a minor renaissance in the 2000s, one that culminated in a BBC adaptation of his 20,000 Streets Under the Sky trilogy). The Criminal (1960, Joseph Losey) is notable for both its vividly frightening depiction of prison, and its perpetually brilliant star - Stanley Baker. The film was banned in many countries, and had its somewhat blatant title changed in America (to The Concrete Jungle).
70x70 culminated in a two-day event at the Barbican in London, presenting some familiar works and a small collection of films rarely, if ever, seen in public. This included a 16mm piece made in Dublin in the early sixties (with an emotive new soundtrack by sound artist Susan Stenger), and the wonderful 1967 documentary Ah! Sunflower, focusing on Beat hero Allen Ginsberg. The Barbican audience found themselves privy to the fascinating 8mm Hackney diary films, recording communal and somewhat Bohemian-looking life in a Hackney pre-dating overwhelming property prices and gentrification. Coming full circle, the final day saw a repeat of The Cardinal and the Corpse, this time in its intended role as part of a Channel Four-commissioned trilogy with The Falconer and Asylum. A selection of films made by Andrew Kötting closed 70x70, including the pedalo voyage from Hastings to Hackney, Swandown, and a trailer for By Our Selves, in which Kötting spends as much time as possible in the guise of a straw bear. He also appeared, in standard attire, for on-stage talks during the Barbican finale, as did Sinclair, Petit (the pair, at one stage, reading mixed material against an ambient London Orbital backdrop), Susan Stenger, erstwhile BBC Late Show director Paul Tickell, and others. In order to commemorate the monumental effort by all concerned, accounts of the 70x70 events have been recorded in book form, the release of which is imminent at the time of writing.--Neil Jackson
While there have been Black people in England at least since Roman times (see Staying Power by Peter Fryer), there remains a lack of general awareness of this fact.This may be because many were absorbed into the English working class, and shared its fate of obscurity.Such was not, however, the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who had the good fortune to be born into the aristocracy.Whether that fortune was really good is the subject of the new film Belle, a solid, important, and well-directed costume drama which had a very limited release, with the result that this reviewer had to wait for the DVD (a sign of the times we live in).Unfortunately, the documentation on Belle's life is so sparse --mainly consisting of the famous, joyous double portrait with Elizabeth Murray-- that the filmmakers were required to fill in the blanks.
Hard facts on Belle's origin are hard to come by.She was variously rescued as an infant from a Spanish ship, by Sir John Lindsay, or born, illegitimate, in Jamaica to Lindsay and an enslaved mother --a case which often resulted in abandonment by the father.Whichever was the background, however, Lindsay brought her back to England and entrusted her to the care of his relative Lord Mansfield, the famous Scottish judge who was instrumental in undermining the legal foundations of slavery in the British Empire.He already had the care of his niece, Elizabeth Murray, and the two girls were raised together, apparently as sisters. This conjunction of facts has tempted the screenwriter to develop the notion that Belle, who worked as an amanuensis to Lord Mansfield, persuaded him out of his reluctance to rule against the slave-owners in the case of the Zong massacre. This does not give Lord Mansfield (who had a long history as a reforming judge) enough credit: if he was the sort of man to adopt a mixed-race child, he probably also knew instinctively that the slavery system was inhuman.
The film's characterisation of Belle herself may, indeed, be completely inaccurate. We have no way of knowing whether the real-life Belle was as burdened by her race or reactions to it as the film suggests.It hypothesises that Belle was not viewed as a full member of the family (though it is muddled as to whether this was due to her racial background, illegitimacy, or both, and if so to what proportions), and that she felt inadequately loved and respected by them.Occasionally this reviewer had the feeling that the script attempts to turn the fictional character Belle into a sort of archetype of (negative) Black English experiences, an embodiment of emotions that she may not have actually felt.The peculiar position in which she finds herself in the film --above the servants but not quite on par with the family-- rests on hotly disputed evidence.Indeed, it is not possible in retrospect to determine her relative status in the household.As has been pointed out by others, certain aspects of the famous portrait suggest that her status was higher than that of Elizabeth Murray, while she also undertook prestigious tasks (legal correspondence) as well as more prosaic ones (helping with the farm animals).Trying to parse these facts for any sort of consistency is a hopeless task.
Worse yet, the script turns her into a great heiress, so that it can develop a love triangle with, on the one hand, a racist, lecherous but well-born suitor equal in social status to herself, who harbours a tendency to degradingly exoticise her, and on the other a humble abolitionist vicar's son (in reality, Dido Belle married a Frenchman) who insists on their equality --which shows a certain amount of brass on his part, given the wide gulf between their families.The set-up feels extremely artificial, as does the predictable Hollywood-style ending.In particular, the nobleman and his violent, bigoted brother are nightmarishly anachronistic creations, only a bottle of champagne away from smashing a window or hosting a racist party, and this seems to do injustice to the eighteenth century's concern with manners within one's own social circle.
One aspect of the film is even offensive, and that is the recurring suggestion that the eighteenth-century marriage market was in some way morally or legally similar to the slavery system.Belle was a well-educated woman and may indeed have absorbed the ideas of Wollstonescraft and Equiano, but it seems more than unlikely that she would have combined them in the way suggested by the film.Slavery was of a totally different order of magnitude, and this would have been apparent to the Mansfield girls, even as they sighed over their suitor problems.(Incidentally, the script and acting make the film seriously unbalanced: Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the role of Belle is so riveting that the viewer almost fails to notice Elizabeth Murray, a serious structural problem.)
An article by Miranda Kaufmann recently raised the issue of whether the overwhelming horror of the slavery system has led us to cast Black experiences in England over the longer timeframe as exclusively grim, given considerable evidence that modern-day assumptions of persecution and ostracisation may have limited application to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.In view of the unusual circumstances of her adoption and the sort of people who adopted her, this leads to a similar question about Belle. Perhaps Belle was on the whole a happy and fulfilled member of the Mansfield family, secure in the knowledge of Lord Mansfield's opposition to the slave trade.Perhaps, in fact, they loved her as much as Elizabeth Murray, and communicated this unambiguously to her.From a certain perspective, that would have been a far more radical conclusion.
Some may say that none of this matters: the key point is a major film's acknowledgement of Belle's existence in eighteenth century England.On the contrary, that is precisely why it matters.Sadly, the film has sacrificed the (unknowable, but no doubt highly distinctive) reality of Belle's experience to narrative convenience.--Isabel Taylor
Review of Andrew Kötting's In the Wake of a Deadad
In the Wake of Deadad (dir. Andrew Kötting, 2006) Finding himself having to nominate seventy films that would make up the full itinerary for a year-long cinematic event created in his honour, namely 70x70, Iain Sinclair chose a number of works by Andrew Kötting to round off the finale, with full presentation at the Barbican and a live talk on stage. The choice wasn't random, of course, so why did Kötting become the full stop on 70x70? Perhaps, on a landmark occasion in his life, Sinclair wanted the excursion to end with his own characteristic themes of humanity and family. Maybe the reasons were chronological: Kötting is a current collaborator with Sinclair. They have already made Swandown and By Our Selves, and there are more projects in the pipeline. Swandown, in which the two men board a swan pedalo in Hastings and take it 160 miles to Hackney, via the site of the Olympic Games, was the last film to be shown as part of 70x70's finale event. Before that came a screening of In the Wake of a Deadad, introduced to the Barbican audience by a late-arriving, flustered, but nonetheless good-humoured Kötting himself. "Good luck with the work," he said, walking from the room with Sinclair as the lights dimmed and the film began.
It's a slightly peculiar thought with which to leave an audience. Good luck with the work. Affably delivered though the line was, the words felt sombre. In the Wake of a Deadad is Kötting's response to the death of his father, Ronald, at the age of 65, and comprises in its entirety a book, an exhibition, and the film under discussion here. As a driving proposition for the book, Kötting sent photographs of his father to 65 people and solicited written responses. The result, in the words of one review in The Guardian, was "a terrifying biography - sometimes imagined, sometimes real - of a man so violent he once locked his wife in a freezer". Wishing the audience good luck with the work seems more understandable in this light, although the film component of the Deadad package - like Swandown, the aforementioned pedalo-centric collaboration with Iain Sinclair (and with disparate visitors, such as Dudley Sutton and Stewart Lee) -- taps more into Kötting's strong inclination towards absurdist tomfoolery. It is true to the artist that we end up with a memorable, touching, frequently humorous and human artefact. A refreshing aspect of Kötting's approach is that, while he addresses the big subjects (those things, essentially, that art is here to deal with) he largely omits the manifest art-ness that so often comes attached, like some outsized barnacle, to conceptual work. If anything, Kötting's work errs in the other direction, and can appear deceivingly light.
Iain Sinclair and his wife Anna one day observed Kötting publicly erecting a giant inflatable effigy of his dead father on a beach near Bexhill-on-Sea. That inflatable, the Deadad (and also the Deadad's own inflatable Deadad, for that matter) would set off on a recorded journey taking in homely domesticity and far-flung travel. We would come to see one or both of them ominously rising to life in a number of locations, such as the Mexican Day of the Dead festival; we would witness one of them pinned to the ground by children, employing their plasticised late relative as a bouncy castle. The unnerving groan of a small generator, which inflates the giant, eerily smiling ghosts, comes and goes throughout. We hear it in the French Pyrenees, at Kötting's decrepit but much-loved family retreat, where Deadad stands in a place that he was unwilling either to visit or to understand when alive. A blunt 'home movie' style is employed for all this, while the grinning image of the Deadad often strikes one as not exactly complimentary. Kötting himself calls to mind Gilbert and George, dressed in a suit throughout. Time and again we see him posing with an air of simultaneous awkwardness and pride next to one of the Deadads, attracting the attention of strangers. This is very much like when Sinclair spotted him on the beach, an episode that he would later recount as "a chaotic, sponsored, family-friendly invasion: of the past. An excursion to a place that is no longer there". Although not written explicitly for the purpose, Sinclair's description seems to have the essence of In the Wake of a Deadad.
Antics on the beach; the raw exposure of the book; intimacy on film - this laying bare of personal matters to the public eye can prove uncomfortable for both sides. However, this is where a sizeable chunk of Kötting's work sits, as in Gallivant, where his daughter, Eden, who has an incurable condition named Joubert's syndrome, joins her father and 85-year-old grandmother, Gladys, on an affecting pilgrimage around the coast of Britain. Eden is here, too, notably in a skeleton costume in Mexico for the Day of the Dead, and also at the kitchen table at home, where, heralded by his mechanical noise as a kind of familiar theme music, Deadad sluggishly resurrects in the corner, as if to observe what's going on. Like him, we find ourselves in the act of observation. We're examining not just a part of Andrew Kötting's life and what he has committed to film, but of our own lives, with regard to our own families. It's impossible not to contemplate these things when viewing In the Wake of a Deadad, and this is the main reason why the film leaves such a poignant impression.--Neil Jackson