Jean Vigo by Hannah Lamarque

In the obituary of Jean Vigo in 1934 it was stated that he was to be missed “not just as a director but as a poet of living images”. Indeed, Vigo is commonly associated with the poetical. The dream-like images of his work reflect the introspective thoughts of his characters and it is for this reason that I am so drawn to his works. Although the plots of Vigo’s films centre on socio-political themes, the ways in which they are captured speak to another place in which the unspeakable is demonstrated. The Bill Douglas Centre has a number of pieces of original French publicity material, as well as books on the work and life of Jean Vigo, largely within the Roy Fowler collection.

Despite Vigo’s critical standing in the film world today, at the time in which they were released, they bore little consequence to the development of a French cinematic voice. Vigo died suddenly in 1934 after having contracted TB during the filming of L’Atalante on the French waterways. It is only since the French new wave that Vigo’s authority has truly been felt in the film world after his works influenced François Truffaut’s cinematic vision. During his short life, Vigo made four films, only one of which was a feature length production. Indeed, whilst L’Atalante (1934) is perhaps his best remembered film, Taris (1930), A Propos de Nice (1931) and Zero de Conduite (1933) also feature his trademark poetic realist style, which highlights how the socio-political environment affects the individual. Poetic realism is further characterised by the way it reframes real situations through a stylised cinematography. For example, L’Atalante is constructed of both a linear narrative and the non-narrative dreams of the characters. When the central figure searches for his wife, he dives into the river. Through the water, his wife’s image is superimposed. Manipulating reality as we know it, poetic realism predominantly depicts individuals who live on the margins of society, contained by a fatalistic viewpoint.

 Publicity sheet

L’Atalante publicity sheet EXE BD 49766

Whilst the majority of critical readings situate Vigo’s use of poetic realism as a tool which undermines the French social elite, the style also represents his own search for a new cinematic voice. Vision and looking are prime characteristics of the works of Vigo and poetic realism enables him to affect the world depicted on-screen through the manipulation of cinematic techniques. Looking at the world in this way, the audience is faced with an alternative image of the place in which they exist.

Taris, Vigo’s first film, portrays celebrated French swimmer Jean Taris. Despite his social standing, it is only when viewing the underwater shots that the audience is able to consider Taris as he truly is. Whereas the interior scenes are focally restricted within the building, underwater space appears without end, allowing Taris complete freedom in his movements. Unlike the world above, the water is an area which encourages the introspective meditation Vigo hunts for through his cinematic voice. Whilst Vigo’s world topples the reality around us, it also deconstructs cinema as a technical form. Searching for a new way in which to represent the world, Vigo displaces film as a literal art form, employing montage and superimposition to reconstruct reality. Vigo also unsettles the cinematic ‘fourth wall’, allowing Taris to look directly into the lens.  By doing so, Taris interacts directly with the audience and suggests that cinema is characterised by one’s personal response to the images on-screen. As we look into the lens, we are met not with an all-encompassing truth but rather, a reflected image of our own humanity.

Whilst Taris represents the stylised reality of a real person, Vigo’s only feature L’Atalante depicts a largely realist portrait of a newly married couple. Despite this, Vigo’s method of filming the narrative captures the young, tempestuous love of the couple within poetics. L’Atalante is characterised by restricted vision. Not only does the watery setting perpetuate this by seeming to continue without end but also, it emotionally distances Juliette, the young bride, from her husband, Jean. Whereas Jean is most comfortable on the boat, Juliette’s discomfort on the barge is dominant within the narrative, affecting the emotional core of the film. Whereas the water served as a site of unencumbered freedom for Taris, in Juliette’s mind, the inability to define a static land mass represents the aimlessness of life on the boat. Although reluctant to admit it, Jean soon realises that Juliette’s presence is integral to his sense of self. Vision is also rooted in Vigo’s camera. In L’Atalante, we do not directly see Jean and Juliette’s world through the camera lens. Instead, the camera becomes an unseen character, following the narrative from a distance. Vigo’s lens is also meandering, epitomising Jean and Juliette’s search for identity in its pursuit for meaning through images. The camera exists in a ‘non-place’ and yet entirely defines how the audience perceives the material world.

 Taris screenplay

Images from Taris in The Complete Jean Vigo Screenplays EXE BD 38271

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L’Atalante lobby card EXE BD 49763

Vigo’s camera in A Propos de Nice, a short documentary film, is characterised by the same rootlessness as that of L’Atalante. Whereas L’Atalante depicts the introspective crises of the central characters, in A Propos…, Vigo uses the camera to accentuate his own social commentary. Focusing on middle class tourists, the film portrays the bourgeoisie as living without aim. Following the curved shapes of Nice’s municipal buildings, the camera is aesthetically giddy, void of a fixed point. Whilst much of the content is seemingly innocuous, Vigo’s use of montage contains an acerbic wit by positioning the holiday makers alongside wild animals. Indeed, it has been suggested that the film “not only condemns a particular social situation and its values but also calls […] for an overthrow of the society itself” (Marina Warner, 12).

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Zéro de Conduite lobby card EXE BD 49760

Zero de Conduite similarly addresses the repositioning of society, depicting a boarding school as a microcosm for society at large. Anticipating Lindsay Anderson’s If (1968), the film follows a group of young boys as they plot and stage a pillow-fight coup, overthrowing their disciplinarian school masters. Highlighting the air of anarchy, the film rejects the singular character studies of Taris and L’Atalante, and instead focuses on shifting points of view. Real space is deconstructed and repositioned by the alternation of over-head shots and ground-level scenes. The world in Zero de Conduite  is unsteady; there is no stable place in which the audience can focus as there is no consistency to the boys’ lives. All of Vigo’s films demonstrate his attempts to define the visions of his characters. In his works, the protagonists try to reappropriate the space around them for their own needs. Despite this, his spectre remains beneath the surface of his films and as his characters search for meaning, so too does Vigo. Despite his short cinematic career, it is apparent that, had he continued to work, Vigo would have shown much more of himself through the images of his films.

‘All Work and No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy’: The Lighter Side of Stanley Kubrick by Chris Grosvenor

Stanley Kubrick was a director who, perhaps most prominently in the latter part of his career, came to be defined by his demanding yet mysterious persona; one crafted through years of troubled productions, and a generally reclusive nature. He very rarely gave interviews or made public appearances, preferring instead to lock himself away in his Xanadu-like home in Hertfordshire, working away on films, many of which were destined to become masterpieces. His films, as it has often been claimed, did the talking for him.

In this sense,the subject matter of Kubrick’s filmography is one of sombre, often profound observations on humanity, dealing with subjects ranging from war, social taboos, behavioural conditioning, criminal underworlds, the fragility of the family unit and, in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), ‘death, infinity and the origin of time’. Can any other directorial output be said to cover so much ground? The scope of Kubrick’s films, paired with his cold, detached cinematic style certainly shapes a certain reading of his cinema; largely as very serious. 

However, alongside the serious, scholarly discourses surrounding Kubrick as an auteur, there exists a lighter, more playful body of ephemera surrounding some of his greatest films. There are a number of examples of this in The Bill Douglas Centre.

To begin this small exploration of such artefacts, one baffling example, can be seen in the 7” single for I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor, a single which combined the military chants of Full Metal Jacket‘s Sgt. Hartman character with a pumping guitar and drum track. Composed by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian under the pseudonym Abigail Mead, this musical oddity becomes even more endearing upon learning that it reached number two on the U.K. Pop chart upon release. Certainly at odds with the kind of items one would normally associate with the work of Kubrick, its proves an interesting example of the attempt to make a notoriously difficult type of film a commercial product.

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Perhaps of greater interest, however: the aforementioned 2001, a film of great visual power and philosophical awe, spawned a Marvel comic book in 1976. It is difficult at first to grasp how a film like 2001, a film which radically departs from the more conventional adventure-based narratives of the sci-fi genre, can be adapted for the graphic novel medium which usually favours more hyperbolic content. The comic, however, does make for an incredibly interesting read, above all, as a curiosity. The bulk of Kubrick’s version is surprisingly kept intact within the (now fading) pages of the comic book. Instead of constructing its own visual style, many of the panels make direct reference to scenes from the film itself. Its a text abundant with nostalgic reverence for a film which had only come out 8 years prior to its own publication.

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Moreover, the comic makes an interesting use of original dialogue; sourced in parts from abandoned drafts of the film’s screenplay, as well as Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name which was released in conjunction with the film. During scenes in which little or no dialogue is heard within the film, the comic in contrast supplements such sections with dialogue or exposition; an effect which more than often undermines the power of its filmic source material. The scene in which astronaut, Frank Poole’s oxygen supply is cut short and ejected into space by the menacing HAL 9000, a scene in which only the pacing breath of fellow astronaut Dave Bowman is heard, the panels of the comic, feature such garish lines as:

 ‘Frank Poole screams in vain! The Killing pressure increases with relentless rapidity… Then, the screams stop as life stops… Frank Poole dies in space’.

 This kind of melodramatic rhetoric is littered throughout the comic; Part 2 of its narrative outlandishly titled ‘The Thing on the Moon’. Used to initiate and promote a short-running 2001 comic book series, this artefact, confusingly stands as a testament to Kubrick’s eye for cinematic visuals, whilst simultaneously undercutting his story-telling ability; the comic feebly attempting to explain and characterise the incomprehensible monolith, the enigmatic centre of 2001, in order to be more accessible to, what we can presume to be, its target child/teen demographic.

Alongside these artefacts The Bill Douglas Centre also has a range of other Kubrick related memorabilia, including posters, postcards and books on both himself and his films. The Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts in London holds a mass of material from his productions and the BDC holds some publicity cards they have produced, such as this one from A Clockwork Orange.

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One of the most poignant discoveries to come across is the souvenir leaflet from An Academy Tribute to Stanley Kubrick held at the BFI in 2007. Featured within this document is copy of a letter signed by then Prime Minister Tony Blair which begins:

 ‘Stanley Kubrick was a cinematic visionary. His films were daringly innovative and beautifully crafted. He was often controversial, but always moving and thought provoking’.

 In my opinion, whilst the aforementioned artefacts may prove interesting to academics and researchers in their rarity or peculiarity, I’m thankful that it was always the films which ‘did the talking’, even if they were ‘daring’ or ‘controversial’, and not plethora Jack Torrence action figures or A Clockwork Orange boardgames. Kubrick’s filmography is one that, broadly speaking, transcended such commercialisation leaving items like the Full Metal Jacket single or the 2001 comic book, certainly of interest, but at the same time jarring and uncanny.

 Chris Grosvenor

See Chris’s own blog at https://projectionreviews.wordpress.com

 

Making our film for the Bill Douglas Centre by Olivia Luder

I realised just how brilliant the Bill Douglas Centre was at the end of last year. As a first year English student, I had been full of the conviction that I wanted to work in film and television. I had taken a film studies module, become Screen Editor of Exeposé Online and had generally watched as much Netflix as I possibly could. However I felt that my practical engagement with film was lacking. As much as I’d enthused over my favourite Werner Herzog and forced those around me into loving The West Wing, I hadn’t actually done anything immensely proactive myself.

Both with this concern in mind and a small chunk free time before final exams, I emailed Phil Wickham, curator of the Bill Douglas Centre, to ask about volunteering. To my surprise, he encouraged me to make a short film to promote the Bill Douglas Centre. Wanting practical filming experience and having enjoyed visiting the museum, I was more than happy to take up the task.

After proposing a few ideas, it was decided that the film would feature two new visitors to the Bill Douglas Centre and follow them as they toured the museum.  Once I had corralled flatmates and friends into forming my crew and begged the ever-wonderful Joe and Olya to let their first visit to the BDC be filmed, we were off.

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A tight schedule meant we could only film for a few hours on one day. This presented several limitations: we didn’t have enough time (or battery life!) to film pick-ups or extensive b-roll, and Joe and Olya’s visit was dictated by the shots and interviews we needed to get rather than objects they wanted to see. It was also a lesson in how a series of shots may look organic on-screen but be convoluted and tricky to set-up, though the general rigmarole of filming became something we all quite enjoyed grappling with. The editing period was also limited to a few days but again we enjoyed learning how to make an interesting and lively film from the many shots we filmed.
 
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While various issues did occur, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. My crew, consisting of Leo, Jon, Jess, Emily and Izzy, were enthusiastic from the get-go. As it was a new experience for all of us, it was nice to see where each of our strengths lay and discover how much fun both figuring out shots and filming them could be. With the goodwill and trust of Phil Wickham, we had been given complete freedom with our filming and we all enjoyed exploring the vast range of creative decisions we were able to consider.

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The Bill Douglas Centre proved itself to be an incredible resource and the film only touches on the various exhibits and artefacts. That we were able to couple filming with learning about the history of cinema and see our camera beside a ‘cinématographe’ and its other predecessors made it particularly special. Learning about the Magic Lanterns was just as intriguing as the more recognisable memorabilia upstairs of which Harry Potter and Disney were favourites, Furthermore, both Joe and Olya came away genuinely enthused by the museum’s contents which was an important goal of the film itself.

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While I do hope the film reflects the hard work put in, my main aim is that it does inspire people to visit the Bill Douglas Centre. Having given me such an empowering learning experience, I know first-hand how fantastic it is not only as a museum and research centre but as an educational tool. If you are interested in film or are just looking for a way to enrich your studies, make sure to take advantage of how valuable a resource the BDC is.

I would like to thank Joe, Olya, Leo, Jon, Izzy, Jess and Emily for joining me and bringing their dedication and enthusiasm. Most importantly, I would also like to thank Phil Wickham and the entire Bill Douglas Centre for giving me this opportunity which I know will prove fundamental to any future projects I embark upon.

The film is now on the BDC’s facebook page and on youtube under ‘The Bill Douglas Experience’.

A ticket to the dream palace: Teaching modern British cultural history at the Bill Douglas Centre

A  ticket  to  the  dream  palace:  Teaching  modern  British  cultural  history  at  the  Bill  Douglas  Centre  by David Thackeray, Lecturer in History, University of Exeter

 

Ask  any  History  student  starting  their  second  year  at Exeter  which  module  they  find  most  daunting  and  they  are  likely  to  say  ‘Doing  History’.  For  the  first  time  you  are  faced  with  the  prospect  of  conducting  an  independent  research  project  in  which  you  have  to  fashion  a  question  and  select  a  range  of  different  types  of  primary  sources  to  consult.  There  were  certainly  some  eyebrows  raised  when  my  students  learnt  that  there  were  over  70,000  items  to  consult  at  the  Bill  Douglas  Centre  for  Fiilm  Studies.  After  all,  many  had  not  heard  of  the  centre  before  moving  to Exeter.

 But  why  should  this  come  as  a  surprise?  Film-going  was  arguably  the  main  leisure  activity  in  Britain  during  the  first  half  of  the  twentieth  century  with  cinemas  according  weekly  attendances  of  nearly  twenty  million  during  the  1930s.  But  film’s  importance  went  beyond  these  mere  figures,  it  was  arguably  the  main  medium  for  the  development  of  popular  culture.  As  the  resources  of  the  BDC  vividly  demonstrate,  film  generated  an  enormous  range  of  ephemera:  cigarette  cards  of  movie  stars,  fan  literature,  magazines,  postcards,  and  innumerable  adverts  for  fashion  products.  The  current  ‘Film  and  the  rise  of  female  consumerism’  exhibition,  curated  by  History  students,  provides  an  excellent  introduction  to  the  ways  in  which  cinema  pervaded  everyday  life  and   influenced  social  identities  in  the  golden  age  of  film  culture  during  the 1920 and 1930s.

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   Teaching  at  the  BDC  provides  a  unique  window  on  these  lost  worlds  and  an  opportunity  for  students  to  consult  a  wide  range  of  sources  which  they  are  unlikely  to  uncover  elsewhere.  Moreover,  it  is  enormously  fun.  Most  students  have  seen  and  enjoyed  The  Artist,  but  at  the  BDC  they  can  learn  about  the  silent-age  stars  who  inspired  the  film,  such  as  Clara  Bow,  the  rags-to-riches  ‘It’  girl  who  came  to  fame  after  winning  a  magazine  talent  contest. 

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 To  date,  I  have  organised  seminars  at  the  BDC  focusing  on  gender  roles  in  inter-war  Britain  and  social  change  in  the  1960s,  but  there  are  a  range  of  other  potential  uses  for  the  collections  beyond  the  confines  of  British  history,  as  evidenced  by  recent  student-led  exhibitions  focused  on  African-Americans  in  film  and  the  depiction  of  Chinese  culture  in  cinema.

  Moreover,  being  the Exeter  History  department’s  Employability  officer  over  the  last  year  has  made  me  more  aware  of  the  value  that  the  BDC  holds  in  providing  students  opportunities  to  develop  transferrable  skills  beyond  the  confines  of  the  undergraduate  curriculum.  As  well  as  organising  an  exhibition,  and  undertaking  independent  research  projects,  students  from  my  course  have  volunteered  at  the  BDC,  cataloguing  incoming  items,  supporting  school  visits,  and  contributing  to  this  blog! 

    The  BDC  is  only  part  of  a  vibrant  film  culture  in Exeter  promoted  by  organisations  such  as  the  Bike  Shed  Theatre,  Campus  Cinema,  the Exeter  Phoenix,  Ignite  Festival  and  the  Picturehouse.  After  a  successful  start,  I  hope  to  see  next  year’s  group  of  students  use  this  blog  as  a  means  to  talk  about  their  experiences  using  the  BDC’s  collections  and  to  discuss  their  research  projects.