Guillermo del Toro exhibition

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My main reason for going to LA (do you need a reason?) was to visit the Guillermo del Toro show AT HOME WITH MONSTERS at LACMA. I have always been a fan of his films since Cronos was first released and I went to the cinema to see it.  I love his artistic vision and strong sense of aesthetics. He is a film maker for whom the title “artist” is fully justified.

But i also went see exactly how a major museum creates an major exhibition that pulls together fine art, cinema and popular culture. And I have to say, it is a triumph. The show features all kinds of things, from fine art to historical artifacts, strange compelling things Del Toro has collected, prints by the master Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, comic books, film clips, props and maquettes. Glorious introduction to the stimulating cornucopia of visual elements that make up a movie! Wow!

The show travels to Toronto and Minneapolis but NOT the UK, which is a pathetic oversight on the part of our museum culture… However I think that the show could/should/must stimulate curatorial interest in mounting sjhows of this nature, that integrate cinema inot the musuem space ina  truly meaningful way.

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seen on Hermosa Beach (blast from the past)

I was in Hermosa Beach in August, and I was amused and charmed by this. Cali punk graphics used to decorate a municipal utility.

It reminded me of my mis-spent youth, and I’ve seen all the bands listed on this  carapace.

Seriously good fun.


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I was watching Intolerance and noticing how Griffith shot so much of the film using differently shaped frames. The normally-rectangular frame is masked and the frame becomes circular, triangular etc. Also sometimes Griffith uses dramatic lighting to create a frame. It’s quite dramatic and effective.

So I got to wondering exactly what is behind the iconic shapes that we respond to when we are composing a film frame: the rectangle, the circle, the triangle and so on. And why are diagonals “dynamic”?

Composition books don’t tell you the “why”, but I’ve been interested for a while in the idea of “sacred geometry;” this suggests some possible answers. I got interested in it when I read about the relationships between mathematics, optics and alchemy (developed well in Laura Snyder’s book “Eye of the Beholder.“)
“Sacred geometry” today sometimes seems to belong to the “New Age” tendency, and is rarely discussed in relation to art and never in relation to cinema. yet it has a long and very signficant history. It certainly goes back to ancient time, the Egyptians and the Greeks and others, and was also referred to in the Renaissance by da Vinci, Kepler and others.

Deleuze also talks about Griffith’s geometry, noting how “a very fine image in Griffith’s Intolerance cuts the screen along a vertical which corresponds to a wall of the ramparts of Babylon; whilst on the right one sees the king advancing on a higher horizontal, a high walk on the ramparts; on the left the chariots enter and leave, on the lower horizontal, through the gates of the city.” but he doesn’t offer any insight as to WHY these verticals and horizontals affect us.

Watching Intolerance the other day made me realise that perhaps it’s necessary for film studies to investigate and think about how geometry and the symbols it connotes pervade our visual culture and how they are employed in cinema without our being aware of it.
[this blog post is part of my think-process as I develop my current research proejct “Between Realism and the Sublime: History in Cinema and Painting” and follows on form my recent book Art History for Filmmakers (Bloomsbury 2016)]


Skinner, Stephen (2009). Sacred Geometry: Deciphering the Code. Sterling.

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film screening

Hi everyone. If you are in London, come down to the Hackney Attic on August 28 at 7.30 pm. TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND is screening at the Hackney Attic Film Festival alongside several other fine films in the Documentary Shorts programme. It will be a great evening! Best of all, it’s FREE!


Tickets bookable here:

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reading about seeing




reading this, “Eye of the Beholder: Jan Vermeer & Antony van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing”
Loving it..

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thinking about realism and the sublime

two paintings of similar (not the same) events: people fighting in the streets of Paris

The first painting is by Eugene Delacroix, LIBERTY LEADING THE PEOPLE, depicting the fighting in Paris during the 1830 revolution. Delacroix did not himself participate in the Street fighting but he knew plenty of people who did. Writing to his brother about the upheavals, he wrote if I cannot fight for the revolution at least I can painted. This is an example of a painting with sublime action. There’s a sense of rapid intense forward movement led by the symbolic figure of lady liberty and the surging crowd behind and around her which occupy the upper portion of the picture feel as if they’re about to hurtle out of the canvas. If you go and see the picture itself hung on the walls of the Louvre its immense size really does give a sense of everything about to fall on top the viewer.


[source: self]

There’s something definitely sublime about this, something overwhelming, dangerous, frightening – the kind of delicious terror that Burke wrote about. At the same time, because it’s an artwork we – like Delacroix, who’s painting it – don’t have to actually be there, risking being wounded and trampled on like the figures in the lower part of the picture. Off to the distance on the right-hand side,  we see the massing troops of the regime with their heavy weaponry,  which is also frightening.



The second painting is much less well-known, it is Horace Vernet’s Street Fighting on the rue Soufflot 1848, a depiction of the June days of the 1848 uprising in Paris when the workers rose up against the regime to protest working conditions.
I don’t know much about this particular historical incident, nor why Vernet chose to painted except that Baudelaire refers quite disparagingly to Vernet  as a “journalist.”  And we can certainly see that what we’ve got in this painting is something much more documentary-like and concerned with actually showing us what it might’ve actually been like to witness the Street fighting. Vernet’s picture is not theatrical: there is no heroic Phantom of Liberty leading the charge; in fact the composition itself is not structured in the highly dramatic pyramid that we see with the Delacroix.  Instread,  it’s much more diffused;  although there is a big, dramatic diagonal in the running through the centre of the painting with a number of converging lines, there isn’t a single dramatic focus. The most eye-catching detail in the painting is the red flag of the workers juxtaposed against the white Sacre Coeur. Vernet’s intention here is much less clear; what is he trying to persuade us? He is not trying to involve us in some kind of heroic identification with the figures. Instead he shows us something quite dreadful: the  civil guard shooting the workers and the workers hurling huge stones of the guard.* Yet for all its lack of theatricality and emotion it’s a compassionate vision. We see the destruction of the city; we see the clear inequality between the shirt-sleeved, unarmed workers and the uniformed armed guard.

A film I’ve always admired that has a great street violence scene is The Baader-Meinhof Complex directed by  Uli Edel and shot by the great cinematographer Rainer Klausmann  (who shot one of my favourite German films Head-On). In an early scene, protesters get caught up in extreme violence when they are attacked by both police and militants. It’s terrifying.

All three works have something strong to tell us about street fighting – when violence engulfs the city’s streets and there is no where to go, nowhere safe to run. And all three are based on eyewitness accounts.


* According to Wikipedia “Things did not go peacefully and over 10,000 people were either killed or injured, while 4,000 insurgents were deported to Algeria.”

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head’s up

My head’s been full of the unwelcome “Brexit” debacle in Britain – the referendum where  a slight majority of folk decided to leave the European Union – bringing total instability ot the nation on every level. For a ton of reasons I do not agree with the result, but it’s out of my hands. Maybe more on that later…

Today I suddenly realised that I have to deliver my first ever paper at a proper academic conference – something I never expected to do, ever – next week, and so I’d better get cracking and let politics be politics …

It’s a paper on cinema and painting as an exchange of cultural value, and I’m going to be talking about how this exchange works in two films – Tarantino’s  Django Unchained, and one of my absolute favourite films of all time Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt. I’ve written about this extensively in my book, so the paper is a kind of shorter version of that.

I really love Meek’s Cutoff for many reasons but one of them is that I’m transfixed by the “humans in landscape” visual that she achieves in many of her films, and the profundity that generates. Reichart is THE first real heir to the great Michelangelo Antonioni.

The composition, colour and tonality and lighting of Meek’s Cutoff owes much – whether deliberately or not – to the works of the French realist  Jean François Millet.

Jean-François_Millet Gleaners Wikimedia Commons



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seeking the sublime in Paris

“the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

OK so I’m going to go and do some research in Paris soon. Am going to bunk down in the Large Scale 19th Century Paintings room in the Louvre and analyse what’s ‘cinematic’ about them.


[Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, wikimedia commons]

However back in the day, these gigantic pictures  were often exhibited more like movies: in darkened rooms, covered by a velvet curtain, tickets and at timed entry points.

I’m researching the relationship between realism and the sublime in these pictures and how this relates to the relationship between realism and the sublime in cinema, in films that present historical subjects.

Gericault researched the subject of his great painting, Raft of the Medusa, very thoroughly. he ended up knowing more about the real life shipwreck and the resulting cannibalism than even those who had survived it. Yet when he came to painting it he didn’t try to just replicate the scene, he made it truly terrifying yet awe-fully riveting. Cinema (and present day high-quality TV) does the same thing.

I’m presently compelled by the dramatic fact-ion of Black Sails, for example – a heady mixture of realism and sublime, of historical and material research and high-drama fictive imagination.Many people have been similarly stirred by Gladiator, for instance – a film famously inspired by a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.


[Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, wikimedia commons]

Ridley Scott therefore had Gérôme, uncredited, on boards as a kind of proto production designer.  It was Gérôme who imagined and worked out how the picture the roaring crowds at the Colosseum and the dire moment of imperial whim over life and death. He exhaustively researched Ancient Rome, but he also must have had a pretty sage understanding of how crowds operate.

Imagine how Gericault might have  production designed for a blockbuster film or series of the Raft of the Medusa story! The writer Jonathan Crary pointed out that about the only in depth research the painter didn’t conduct, was sampling a bite of human flesh from the cadavers he was studying to see what drowned flesh looked like.

“…whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling … ” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Of course, Burke also noted that “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions.” And he is right: it is precisely our personal ignorance of what it would be like to experience being shipwrecked on a  raft and forced eat my colleague’s dead flesh (hint: awful) – or what it would be like to be a pirate in the early 18th century Caribbean (hint: horrible, by today’s luxe standards)  – that make these scenarios appealing through the medium of art.

So, let’s see what I find. Am not just going to look at Gericault and his friends in Denon 77- I’m also going to see the many dramatic murals that are spread around the city. Paris has many more interior murals than London.

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celebrity, status and consent. Complexity and toxicity.

What struck me as I followed (in a desultory and not overly committed way), the recent Canadian trial where a well-known celebrity was accused by women with whom he had had brief relationships, of brutal violent behaviour, was that almost every woman certainly for my generation, recognized this pattern.

If it did not happen to us personally, we have all known female friends who have, in confidence and clearly with a deep sense of shame (shame, incredibly, for themselves), who experienced something similar. Being invited out by a man to whom she was attracted, and the date going badly wrong.

This is not about ‘men’ and ‘male entitlement’ really. Quite honestly, most guys are fundamentally decent, and they treat women perfectly fine.  But in cases such as this one, the man behaved in a way that by anybody’s set of standards is absolutely brutish.

Imagine being asked out by somebody, going out on a date, getting romantic and then just at the most intimate moment the man pulls back and punches you in the head.

I actually really cannot imagine this, yet I actually have heard stories similar to this from people I know and trust. Sudden inexplicable violence accompanied, bizarrely, by endearments alternating with threats. A strange, toxic combination. How is anybody supposed to know how to deal with that? It is confusing, and distressing. Especially when the perpetrator acts as though it is perfectly normal. The women who confided similar stories to me were full of self-doubt. ‘Were they imagining it? Did they somehow caused this behaviour? Is it really that bad? Maybe that was just an aberration because actually in all well other respects he’s a really nice guy.’

When I heard stories like that from friends, the only advice I could really gave was to not see the guy again; in most cases they followed that advice and it was all forgotten; quite often the information about the guy’s behaviour was secretly shared among women and we just hoped that the guy would somehow stop doing it, or  – or what?

This case is complicated by the involvement of a high status individual, in this case a celebrity. The attraction of high status and celebrity cannot be discounted. We are exhorted on a constant basis to admire celebrities, to look up to them and to find them  much more desirable (including sexually desirable) than ‘civilians’.

I have to be really clear about this because it’s really important. We cannot discount the importance of status in this and similar cases. By the way I’m not conflating status with celebrity. Celebrities have fame, but not necessarily status, and this is particularly true of females. Status is something that society very infrequently gives to women. The celebrity in this case had high status, the imprimatur of the national broadcasting agency (which as we’ve seen in the UK, gives quite a lot of impunity).

The status thing also goes a long long way to explain why the women did have contact with the perp after the events. Disbelief is one factor (“did it really happen?”). Another is, “did I provoke him in some way?” Still another, most common,  is “I must have given him the impression I was up for  it – even if I wasn’t, so it’s my fault.” All of this underpinned by the culturally-reinforced belief that “he’s a celebrity/high status individual, higher status than me , stronger than me so he is by definition in the right.”

Status or celebrity also seems like a kind of insurance policy: a person wouldn’t really behave extremely badly because they’re so famous and everybody would know. Surely by now we know that’s really not true at all. Even after this trial, and thinking back on similar trials, there are still plenty of people out there who are willing to support and stand by a high status perpetrator. I’m thinking of Mike Tyson, William Burroughs, Bertrand Cantat and others, all fully rehabilitated, their victims forgotten. *

Unfortunately the law is a blunt instrument and is really incapable of dealing adequately with complicated situations such as this one. I suppose probably the outcome we have is the only one that could’ve been expected under the circumstances. Although not criminally convicted, the celebrity in this instance has been exposed as a deeply brutish individual who can no longer be considered fit as a public persona. Who wants to hear his voice on radio or see his face on the television screens ever again? Who would consent to being interviewed by him? Not an awful lot of people I imagine.

I really hope that the case makes everybody think.

Women, we really need to examine much more deeply the way in which we are attracted to high status individuals. This is something deeply embedded in the female psyche, and I’ve seen it and even experienced it myself (luckily at a remove). I’m thinking of women having crushes on their professors, bosses and so on.   This makes us extremely vulnerable. We have to start fundamentally accepting that we have to judge and value people purely as individuals and leave their status out of it completely.I’m not going to pretend that this would be easy. We exist in quite a toxic climate of traditional attitudes towards status and its connection with patriarchy, and a wholesale mass worship of celebrity. But then we don’t have to behave like sheep. We can think for ourselves.

Most importantly, we also collectively need to think about how abuse and assault and sexual assault is addressed broadly within society. What is consent? How do we measure it? What is consent IN sex, not just consent TO sex? When is sexual violence okay? In this case there does not seem to have been clear indicators that violence in sex was to be on offer. Does that then mean that, by consenting to sex, the women were consenting to violence in the bedroom? At this point we probably need to have some guidance from the BDSM community.

Unfortunately sex education never includes a discussion of the specificities that might come up in sexual activity. Just yesterday I read about an evangelical preacher who took it upon himself to spank the (female of course) members of his congregation as part of their religious practice. Although I laughed like a drain at the story, seeing it as evidence of religious hypocrisy, when I thought back on it, I thought it really disturbing. Did they freely consent to this, or were they brainwashed by a high status  person (in their community)  to accept it?

Nobody, not a male or female, gets properly educated in sex education about anything other than penetrative sex, avoiding sexual diseases and pregnancy. We don’t know how to talk about it, we don’t know how to explore it in a safe way, we don’t know how to refuse and reject it firmly (and with the backing of the law). Frankly, if somebody punches me in the face they’ve assaulted me. The fact that they did it while we were about to have sex doesn’t actually negate the fact of the assault. Yet apparently maybe it does. If the perpetrator says that I consented.

It’s interesting because the idea of consent in assaults outside of the bedroom doesn’t ever really come up. In these  I can’t remember ever hearing in any other context that  “it was OK because the victim was fine with being punched in the face.”** I suppose one of the problems is that the cases weren’t ‘sexual’ assault in the usual sense, they were regular old assault that took place during consensual sex and which the perpetrator justified as being part of  the sex.

Which makes those who are championing the accused need to take stock. How about if your sister, daughter or friend came to you and said “I was making out with this guy and he suddenly just hauled back and punched me in the face” – how would you feel? What would you say – “Oh that’s OK; it’s OK to be punched in the face if you agree to make out with the guy, because that’s just “rough sex” and any guy is entitled to expect that.” No you wouldn’t. You’d be appalled.
So, food for thought. I do think that it’s great that these things are starting to come out to the open and giving us a way to getting to talk about them. I do think  the recent exposure of celebrities at the BBC has been good. I think that the exposure of this celebrity at the CBC is good. There’s no point  wasting our energy on slagging the judge or talking about whether or not the victim’s testimony was credible. I’ve heard too many similar stories. It is credible – totally credible, sadly familiar and deeply depressing – but it doesn’t really fit with the narrow requirements of a legal case. So let’s move on from that and move forward and think about what really matters here – the impunity given to high status person and the lack of clarity about ‘consent’ – and maybe try to do something about it


  • Notice how, despite being convicted,  they are more attractive than Jimmy Saville or Rolf Harris? Maybe because they abused adult ‘consenting’ women?

    I’m also thinking about the much-feted national-treasure rock star who sexually used my 13 year old friend; the predatory guys in bands or band management; the charismatic professor. NOT ONE OF WHOM HAS EVEN BEEN CRITICISED, NEVER MIND PROSECUTED. And they will never be. Because their behaviour was fully approved by everyone by the sanctity of  status. They just did what society  told them they were entitled to.

** people sometimes refuse to press charges, but there is no discourse of  “permissible assault” – outside of ritualised sport of course!

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magic hour

Britain’s museums are full of art that offers endless inspiration to today’s film makers. From material history (what the past looked like) to appreciation of the power of colour and composition, art can inform moving image production in so many ways.
Tate Britain has many fascinating paintings maybe not all of them in the great ‘canon’ of world art, but inspirational nonetheless. I’ll be off to the Art and Empire show next week, can’t wait.
However this one here is one of the great masterpieces in the Tate, John Singer Sargent’s “Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose”. He painted it during magic hour one autumn, in the garden, only a few minutes per evening to catch the fleeting perfect pink light. ‘Magic Hour’ greatly inspires film makers too – Jack Cardiff called his (fascinating) autobiography Magic Hour, and Terence Malick famously shot most of Days of Heaven during Magic Hour, meaning that the film took ages to complete. Like Sargent, Malick had a very limited amount of time to catch the light.
I don’t think you can reproduce ‘magic hour’ with digital technology. I have never seen a decent reproduction of “Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose.” Nor have I seen anything quite as stunning as Days of Heaven done with digital. *
I’ve written more about ‘magic hour’ in art and film in Art History for Filmmakers.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887

John Singer Sargent; Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose; © [Tate] Photographic Rights © Tate (2014), CCBYNCND 3.0 (Unported), a link back to the material
* (Lee Rose and John Toll’s work on Vanilla Sky (2001) – film –  comes pretty close to perfect.)

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