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Rock of Legend, Legend of Rock: Bob Gruen in Vancouver

 

I was lucky that Sharon Steele, a photographer friend of mine, invited to me a show in Vancouver by the legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen. She’s a music photographer herself so she had the insider knowledge about the show.

Bob Gruen is very important to me. I grew up in a very boring suburb. And when I say boring I really mean it. It was surrounded on one side by farms, on 2 sides by a big thick forest with bears, and on the 4th side by a canyon known for cougars and other wildlife. It was great in many ways but for obvious reasons parents didn’t really want us to play in the forest on our own. And there wasn’t anything else around!  Not even a movie theatre. Absolutely zip. We had to “make our own fun” which for me meant getting up in the night doing downstairs and secretly watching late night movies. I saw all the Cormans, all the Hammer Horrors, all the groovy biker movies, all the hardboiled film noir…

I guess I got used to hanging out with my imagination, which was pretty good.

Anyway, one time I was heading out on vacation with my parents and I went into a store to buy a comic book. It was a long car journey so I needed something meaty to kill the time in between fighting with my brother. But the selection was lame. Suddenly my eyes slid past Archie and Jughead, and Spiderman (yawn) to something that wasn’t exactly a comic book. It was called Creem; I picked it up. It had a lot of photos in it of people who looked frankly – by the standards of the time and place I was in – outrageous. There were other magazines on the stand – Hit Parader, and one or two others. Yes,  I blew ALL the  allowance I’d saved up for the trip and bought 3 magazines. I read and reread those zines  all the way from suburban Vancouver to Peachland to Lake Shushwap to Merritt and all the campsites in between. When I got home I took the photos I liked best and put them on my bedroom wall (mother = horrified).  Did I actually understand those articles by Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau? No, not at all. I was in elementary school! But I read a lot in general and it wasn’t any more bizarre than Brave New World, or Treasure Island which was my favourite book (and still is!).

But it wasn’t the words that made an impression. It was the photos. They showed me hard evidence of a world where you didn’t have to be lame and boring. You could in fact be edgy and fabulous. And wear whatever you liked even if it was a gender-bending freakshow. And you could have your hair any-which-way. And you could be in places like New York or London or Hollywood, and not the suburbs! And you could go there and not have to visit relatives!

And the name that appeared beside the best of the photos, the ones I was so impressed by, was almost always the name “Bob Gruen.” How could I ever forget that name? He did the mindblowing (at the time! my brother and I bowed down before it!) cover of Kiss Dressed to Kill! His pics of the Clash are the greatest ever taken of that magnificent band.

So, back to the show; I had a little chat with Gruen, who is lovely, a perfect gent (which is obvs why so many artists gave him the time to do his great shots!) , and bought myself a copy of his superb book New York Dolls. Now that’s another thing. By the time I found out about the New York Dolls they’d long been split up, but oh my god their music! And their style! I just fell for them, and am still totally fallen. I listen to them all the time (and saw them finally, many years later when they reformed, in London).  What a great, GREAT band. Glam fashion style and proper Chuck Berry rock music. Smart lyrics, killer licks.  And Gruen, again, took the best photos of the Dolls that exist.

And I still just love rock photography. Influenced by these mags, which I read right through my teens, I also took quite a lot of music photos, never as good as Bob’s or Sharon’s but good enough for my portfolio to get me into film school.

So thank you again Bob, for all the great pictures! Long make you snap that shutter!

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  1. according to Wikipedia there’s going to be documentary about the history of Creem. Hope this happens.

 

 

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Paris

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chocolate mousse and espresso 😉

Enough highminded, intellectual bloggery! I was in Paris! It was wonderful! La belle ville!

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Bière et vin à Montparnasse 😉

 

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Enjoying ‘Les Halles’

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[Léon Lhermitte ‘Les Halles’  1895 – my photograph]
Léon Lhermitte ‘Les Halles’ from 1895 is an example of a superbly cinematic painting. Painted well after the establishment of photography, it’s an astonishing accomplishment of realism and the drama of everyday life. You can really revel in Lhermitte’s ebullient depiction of the huge Paris fruit and vegetable market (this scene is in the section of  Le Carreau) – which is now replaced by a shopping centre that still bears the name Les Halles.
This painting – which is absolutely vast – 404 x 635 cm – scotches the idea that ‘photography replaced painting’ – because at the time there was no camera available that could replicate such a scene with so much depth and motion.

1895 is also as we all know, the ‘birthdate’ of cinema as we know it, the year the Lumieres made their first screening. yet it would take half a century for the movie camera to capture a scene like this.

What L’Hermitte teaches us, though, is how to to look at the scene. Not just to sieze the camera and film it, but to really look at what is going on, what is doing what and why. What does your eye ‘grab’ onto?
Les halles
[bigger version from Wikipedia]

This picture is at the Petit Palais in Paris, and you need at least 30 minutes just to look at it alone. In its vibrance, detail and combination of realism and imagination, it is really a movie!
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[the glorious Petit Palais, where you can spend a wonderful day if you’re so inclined]

As well as Les Halles, L’Hermitte made a number of excellent paintings of working people. His Glaneuses, below, might not be as well known or as atmospheric as Millet’s depiction of the common activity of gleaning, but it has a strength and power of its own.
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[Glaneuses, Philadelpha Museum of Art, from Wikipedia]

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Raft of the Medusa – the exciting disaster movie we are all waiting for?

The Raft of the Medusa,  (1818–1819) by the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) is a massive painting, well over life size. The closest thing I can compare it to is literally the cinema screen.

It depicts a true story. On 2 July 1816 (that’s 201 years and 4 days ago) the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the African coast (what is now Mauritania). Three days later a group of  at least 147 people set out on a hurriedly constructed raft. IN the 13 days they drifted, all but 15 died.  Those who survived were starved and dehydrated, and finally some of them succumbed to cannibalism.

Then as now, the press went into paroxysms of titillation, and the story was widely reported. It was also a scandal because the ineptness of the ship’s captain (and implicitly, the French Navy) was blamed. Géricault was as interested as everyone else in this story and he decided that this would be the narrative that – on canvas – would really  launch his career. And so he began to produce on the of the largest scale uncommissioned works on a modern topic ever painted. Perhaps THE largest.

Géricault did a lot of research. He got body parts from the morgue and copied them, trying to get the right shade and pulpiness of a drowned human body. He interviewed survivors. He cleverly combined Classical compositions with the dynamism that came to be called “Romantic” (I hate these labels and try to avoid them, but that’s what they call Géricault when you look him up) – and manages to convey both the pathos of the situation and the moment of hope as the survivors at the front of the raft spot a tiny ship in the distance (they ship that did in the end rescue them).  By the way, unless you go to the Louvre and see the picture in real life you probably won’t see the tiny rescue ship.

The tonality is dark and Géricault uses the dramatic lighting style associated with Caravaggio – chiaroscuro – though it is probably fair to say that the original picture may have been somewhat brighter. The  paints used at that particular time never aged very well (see Philip Ball’s brilliant book Bright Earth, on colour) so you’re not seeing exactly what Géricault painted. But clearly he did mean to have strong contrasts and dark tonality as the sea is rough and the sky is louring, though there is brightness ahead.

Aside from its film screen size, the painting is highly cinematic: dramatic, realistic, with a sense of the epic-heroic tragedy and a dynamic composition with a strong diagonal pyramidal structure. When you go and see it, you’ll really look at it for ages

So where is the exciting Titanic-like feature film based on Raft of the Medusa? It’s a  great story with everything a filmmaker would want. It turns out that there IS one, a French film directed by Iradj Azimi (1998). But I can’t seem to find it. There’s a French graphic novel that looks good. But the film seems to have disappeared. Anyone up for doing another version? I’m available!

raft

However the Raft of the Medusa I like the most is this preliminary sketch that the artist made. It’s also in the Louvre and it’s much smaller. Here we relay get to see the brilliance of Géricault’s composition and his storytelling ability

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Visual Storytelling: the podcast

http://newbooksnetwork.com/gillian-mciver-art-history-for-filmmakers-the-art-of-visual-storytelling-bloomsbury-2016/

A while ago I was invited to do an interview for podcast with the Art Historian Kristin Ellsworth for the New Books Network. The NBW is a podcaster which seeks out new publications and does interviews with the authors – it’s not just about promoting books (it’s not run by a publisher) but about promoting new knowledge.

I was pretty flattered and keen to do this anyway, but when I met Kristen online I knew this was going to be really fun! She is a great interviewer and we chatted away long after the offical ‘podcasty’ bit was done.  She’s a Professor of Art History at Cal State, so it was great to have that ‘art history into film’ conversation.

Anyway, here’s the podcast (above) It’s 47 mins long, so I’d suggest you pace yourself and maybe have a cup of tea at hand 🙂

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Swimming against a tide of Price Haggling

Artists are pressured to join the ‘supermarket mentality’ – I find this awful and does artist Glenn Ibbitson.

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Mera

With increasing frequency, I am being asked by galleries if they may be allowed to offer discounts on my works which they are showing.
The enquiry usually runs along the following lines…

 “I just wanted to let you know our usual policy on sales discounts. Firstly we do not volunteer discounts, it is only if a potential buyers asks and we feel it would ‘seal the deal’ would we consider it. As with usual ‘gallery practice’ we would not offer anymore than 10% – less if at all possible. Could you let me know if this would be agreeable to you?”

I find this grossly insulting, and I hope other artists do too. Before I had ever submitted the artwork to the gallery, I spent much time carefully pricing the work submitted as per my usual practice. After considerations of materials, time, commission and transport costs are taken into account…

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Looking at a painting through the eyes of a filmmaker

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A visual essay – click to read

podcast version – YouTube audio visual essay

or read the text here:

This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros is in the Palais de Versailles.

Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799
This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’
Let’s start with LIGHTING
Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than then any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action. Gros’s main body of work depicts Napoleon, and he did a great job of it; I will be posting more essays about his paintings.

COLOUR
Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of Napoleon’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.

RED!!
MOVEMENT
Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.

MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of Napoleon’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. However from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon. Additionally it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact even in this picture it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.
The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history, and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is itself a guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because they demonstrate very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.
Some great battles in cinema history:
Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan
The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk
Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault
Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers
Gladiator, Battle In Germania
Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner
Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift

WRITTEN BY GILLIAN MCIVER, 2017 CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International
SOME RIGHTS RESERVED YOU MAY SHARE, REPRODUCE, DISTRIBUTE, DISPLAY, AND MAKE ADAPTATIONS SO LONG AS YOU ATTRIBUTE IT TO GILLIAN MCIVER.
GILLIAN MCIVER IS THE AUTHOR OF ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS (BLOOMSBURY PRESS) 2016 AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS INCLUDING AMAZON AND THE REST

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short film review: BBC ARABIC Film Festival 2017

Today I visited the BBC Arab film Festival 2017, which is a showcase of films from across the Arabic-speaking world, presented by the BBC with the support of the City of London and involving a wide variety of people from the BBC, the Guardian and independent film production. It’s a big deal and is probably the main showcase for films from the Arabic-speaking world in the UK. Unfortunately, films from the Arabic-speaking world rarely get screened in the UK, even in London.  I don’t know why, because as a general rule London has a broad taste for world cinema and I don’t doubt that there’s a big audience out there. Certainly the screening I went to was packed, and I would be surprised if the rest of the screenings are not similarly busy. However, I wish it was possible to see films from the region on a more regular basis, in cinemas, screening events and of course on DVD.

So what did I see today? It was a program of shorts, one documentary and four fiction films and I’m going to review four of them. I discuss them in the order that they were screened today

The first film I saw was called Aida, directed by Maysoon ElMassry, a student at Egypt’s National Film School. It’s not like any film school project I’ve seen; it’s a really strong and well realized piece of observational documentary. The subject is a very old woman called Aida, who was well known in the city of Alexandria as a flower seller. For over fifty years she has trudged the streets of Alexandria selling flowers; the film shows her in the twilight of her life when every movement is slow motion without a camera. We see her getting ready to go out, as she edges slowly and gingerly down a long staircase from her upper story flat to the street below, where she pushes an old wheelchair piled with flowers to sell on the street. Each day is a repetitive, Sisyphean event. It is pathetic. Yet she is not pathetic; she is strong and proud, dignified and, we suspect, stubborn. She never speaks, and the filmmaker never directly addresses her; it is truly fly-on-the wall cinema. The camera focuses all the time on Aida, but we get a strong sense of the chaos and cacophony of the modern city, as she trundles her way through heavy traffic stopping cars to sell them flowers and cadge a cigarette. As a portrait of old age, it is sad. Yet as a portrait of human dignity it is immensely beautiful and makes us understand just how valuable human dignity is.

The second film, Jareedy, is also by an Egyptian filmmaker, Mohamed Hisham, and it is a drama set in Nubia in the far south of Egypt. A “jareedy” is a type of small boat used by the Nubians to cross the Nile, and it becomes the dream of a young boy who is haunted by the stories and cultural memory of the displacement of the Nubian people for the building of the High Dam. The most striking thing about the film is the cinematography, revealing the beauty of the landscape, the power of the river and the starkness of the sandy, sundrenched hills. The village, with its painted houses and exuberant children,  comes alive in this film, showing a world which few of the film’s audience will probably have seen (even among Egyptians, as the director pointed out during the Q&A). Again the theme of human dignity comes out, as both the young boy and the old man refuse to forget the Nubia that once was; they claim their rootedness in the land, and their insistence on memory and story is a stance of dignity.

Fate, Wherever It Takes Us is a different type of film, a personal autobiography by Kadar Fayyad. Fayyad works with NGOs on human rights issues, and issues around youth and conflict. However, she is also a refugee – a Syrian national who went to Jordan to do her master’s degree and found that her country had fallen apart when she was away. Now she lives under asylum in Amman, where she continues her work. She was invited to create an auto-portrait on film in a workshop organized by Danish film project. Fayyad use her phone camera, which leads to some very interesting experimental moments, as she muses on the concept of “fate.”  It is an immensely moving, touching portrait of an ordinary woman, little different to myself or any of my friends, who has found herself in this strange position. She speaks delicately about her state of existence at this fault line of human tragedy which is the Syrian conflict. Somehow she makes us feel as though it could happen to any of us, any time – and indeed this is true.

The final film of today’s screening was shocking and it made me cry. Yes, really. It is a drama called Mare Nostrum and was made by the Syrian filmmaking duo Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf. I really wish everybody with eyes should see this movie. It is set on an unnamed beach on the Mediterranean shore where a Syrian father rehearses over and over an agonizing ritual in the hope that it will lead to salvation. It is beautiful, with gorgeous painterly abstract moments, which are at the same time taut and terrible. The best and worst thing about the film is how recognizable it is, how much we are already aware of the story, and of the suffering and of the helplessness. Yet it is not a despairing film; it forces us to confront our own judgments and the judgments of others – particularly those voices in the media – and examine, and imagine what it takes to make such a decision. Shocking, yes; compelling, yes; essential, definitely.

 

Following the screening, there was a really interesting panel discussion featuring the filmmakers which (barring the usual complete idiot’s question – there’s always one) was enlightening and stimulating.

Out of today’s experience watching these films, it comes to me again, in a very immediate and urgent way, how important art is, and how important a tool like cinema can be to give voice and visual complexity to things which are talked about endlessly in the media.  But the nature of media discourse makes what we see/hear there almost impossible to feel. Art is not media discourse, it has much more potential to make us examine things in depth and to engage emotionally. All of the films presented today manage to do that very successfully, and this is what art is for.

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after the revolution

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[ Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Fantasy, 1925, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg]

Looking forward to seeing this show at the Royal Academy tomorrow. I’ve been to the great Russian art museums many times and am familiar with much of this work so it will be like seeing old friends, without the vodka. I’m a particular fan of the symbolist painter Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

I had a friend in St Petersburg who used to have to paint Lenins for a living, back in the Soviet Union. He had to do it, he got a salary from the government to paint Lenin all day. Every building in the land had to have at least one Lenin pinitng. Obviously he gave that up after the end of the cold war, when nobody wanted Lenins anymore. Later his work was quite a bit more like Petrov-Vodkin’s, highly symbolic.

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ABSTRACTION

Robert Linsley, “Turning Away”

“Art exists entirely within the social realm, since even to see an object as art requires some social training, namely an understanding and acceptance of conventions, and abstraction has made this fact more evident by separating art from many of its social roles. But the entirely interior space of art has a hole that lets in the air—sometimes the cold wind—of the world outside.”

 

http://tripleampersand.org/turning-away/

A fascinating article about abstraction in the present; I am fascinated by the possibilities for abstraction in cinema (not ‘abstract cinema’ but the way abstraction can be used IN narrative film an a sensorial element)… Bernard Rose’s Boxing Day is a good one, also the abstraction created by bokeh in Locke, and the opening of Enter the Void … but it’s little used because I think film makers don’t understand it well enough. I wrote about abstraction in Art History for Filmmakers  but should probably develop it a bit more.

Unfortunately I was led to this superb article  by a FB post about Robert Linsley’s death. Although I never met him, I feel the loss, after reading this eloquent and thoughtful essay.

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[Night Palette – photograph ©2016 Gillian Mciver]

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