Sounds good to me

Yes, it can get a little too loud for us oldies sometimes, but movie music — and cinematic sound more broadly — is such a fascinating area.

Making Waves: The art of cinematic sound
Directed by veteran Hollywood sound editor Midge Costin, the film reveals the hidden power of sound in cinema, introduces us to the unsung heroes who create it, and features insights from legendary directors with whom they collaborate.

An incredible amount of vital yet laborious work goes on behind the scenes.

A new documentary explores the underrated art of movie sound
Synchronised sound came in with “Don Juan” in 1926, and synchronised speech followed in 1927 with “The Jazz Singer”, starring Al Jolson. But sophisticated sound design wasn’t born until 1933, when Murray Spivack created the giant ape’s bellow in “King Kong” by mixing a lion’s roar with a tiger’s roar, and playing it backwards at half-speed. Cece Hall did something similar on “Top Gun” more than 50 years later. Actual fighter-plane engines “sounded kind of wimpy”, she recalls, so she concocted her own substitute from big-cat growls and monkey screeches. The producers nearly fired her for her pains, she says, but she went on to win an Oscar.

The documentary is the work of Midge Costin, a sound editor-turned-academic. It took some time to get off the ground, however — getting clearance for the samples of so many movie clips can be a costly affair.

Making Waves: behind a fascinating documentary about movie sound
The courts have since ruled that sampling footage will be acceptable so long as it’s done in the spirit of public edification, and just like that, Costin was off. Between the connections she’d made in the industry and favors called in from fellow sound people, she put together an all-star lineup of commentators. From her former student Ryan Coogler to Steven Spielberg, who named her the Kay Rose chair at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the deep bench of experts dissect scenes classic and contemporary to illustrate the great quantities of work that go into creating and fine-tuning a soundscape. Spielberg, for example, goes into the subtly expressionistic quality of the shellshocking beach invasion that opens Saving Private Ryan.

The bizarre methods by which sound effects are captured often remains a mystery, but in this music video, it’s all on show.

A brilliant highly rhythmic music sample created from abandoned industrial equipment on the docks
Multimedia artist Daniel Gourski and DJ Jonas Appel have created “Docks”, a brilliant, highly rhythmic music sample made entirely from abandoned industry equipment. Gourski and Appel creatively banged, scraped and knocked at the waterside equipment with all sorts of objects.

Gourski & Appel – Docks

Affecting and infecting movie music

In this video from Vanity Fair, director Todd Phillips talks us through a few of the opening scenes from his new film, Joker.

Joker director breaks down the opening scene

At 3:40 or thereabouts, he’s talking about what really helps Joaquin Phoenix get into a scene.

And I think, if I remember it right, in this particular scene I was playing the score for him, in the room, because – we had Hildur Guðnadóttir, who was our composer, I had her write music before we shot the movie, which isn’t done very often, and she wrote it based on the screenplay – and I wanted that because I wanted the music to really affect and infect the set in a way, really, even the camera operators, the set dressers, wardrobe, everybody to feel this music.

(That’s a name to look out for in the future.) Todd Phillips is not the first director to use this technique, however.

Why Sergio Leone played music on set

It might be too much for some people, though.

Deafening cinema sound is ruining films, claims Hugh Grant
Joker, the sinister hit starring Joaquin Phoenix, is dividing film critics. Hailed as a masterpiece by some, it has left others balking at its violence. For the actor Hugh Grant, the experience of watching at his local London cinema last week was “unendurable”, but not because of Todd Phillips’s menacing vision as director.

Grant felt high noise levels in the auditorium had made his trip to see Joker at the Vue in Fulham “pointless”, he complained on Twitter, adding: “The joke was on us”. “Am I old or is the cinema MUCH TOO LOUD?” the film star asked.

Playing hardball

An interesting discussion with movie prop designers that just had to include this iconic figure.

The hardest props I ever made
It was very strange because I approached representatives of the company [Wilson Sporting Goods], and they were not interested at all. It just didn’t matter to them. I told them, “You know, we have Tom Hanks here. We have Robert Zemeckis, who did Back to the Future. We have this venue for this ball of yours that is incredible. And it’s named Wilson.” They were very polite, but not interested. I told them, “We’re depicting your product. It’s a wonderful character in this movie, and it saves this man’s life.”

At some point, I called back and got some kind of great sales rep. And she got it. She understood exactly what this was. She said, “Let me see what I can do.”

And the rest is history. So much so, that you can now buy your very own Wilson, as well as a variety of other movie-themed balls Tom Hanks might recognise.

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The thrill of seeing

We take so much for granted these days, screens are everywhere, moving images are all around us. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like before this deluge.

Our ideas about what early movies looked like are all wrong
During the first film screenings in the 1890s, viewers marvelled at moving images that had an unprecedented power to transport them to faraway places in an instant. At first, these shorts – which included glimpses of everything from Niagara Falls to elephants in India – had no narrative structure. Audiences flocked to theatres simply for the novel experience of seeing people and places, some familiar and others deeply strange, rendered lifelike and immediate before their eyes. And, as the film curator Dave Kehr explains in this video from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the images were hardly the grainy and frantically paced footage that has become synonymous with ‘old film’ today. Rather, viewed in their original form on large screens and prior to decades of degradation, these movies were vivid and realistic. In particular, early 68mm film, which was less practical than 35mm film and thus used less frequently, delivered startlingly lifelike impressions of distant realities to early moviegoers.

The IMAX of the 1890s – how to see the first movies

It’s quite arrogant of us to dismiss those early films as merely a stepping stone to our superior technologies today. You could argue that, given the quality of these new versions and the freshness of those first audiences, these movies made more of an impact than what we see today.

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And perhaps the same can apply to television a few decades later.

I love the idea of fake aerials. Of course, you can take a love of television too far.

Someone left old TVs outside 50 homes in Virginia while wearing a TV on his head. No one knows why.
“Everyone started coming out of their houses, walking around the neighborhood looking at the TVs there on the doorstep,” said Jeanne Brooksbank, one of the recipients, who lives in the Hampshire neighborhood. “It was very ‘Twilight Zone.’ ”

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More fun with fakes

More videos — from the sublime to the ridiculous.

There’s a scarily good ‘deepfakes’ YouTube channel that’s quietly growing – and it’s freaking everyone out
Russian researchers hit the headlines last week by reanimating oil-painted portraits and photos into talking heads using AI. Now, here’s another reminder that the tools to craft deepfakes are widely available for just about anyone with the right skills to use: the manipulated videos posted on YouTuber Ctrl Shift Face are particularly creepy.

Club Fight – Episode 2 [DeepFake]

The transitions are especially smooth in another clip, with a comedian dipping in and out of impressions of Al Pacino and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and there are now clips from Terminator with Stallone which look very peculiar.

Here’s that earlier article and video mentioned above, about reanimating oil paintings.

AI can now animate the Mona Lisa’s face or any other portrait you give it. We’re not sure we’re happy with this reality
There have been lots of similar projects so the idea isn’t particularly novel. But what’s intriguing in this paper, hosted by arXiv, is that the system doesn’t require tons of training examples and seems to work after seeing an image just once. That’s why it works with paintings like the Mona Lisa.

Few-Shot Adversarial Learning of Realistic Neural Talking Head Models

Jump to 4:18 to see their work with famous faces such as Marilyn Monroe and Salvador Dalí (who’s already no stranger to AI), and to 5:08 to see the Mona Lisa as you’ve never seen her before.

A Bentley on the Fury Road

Like something out of Mad Max.

Russian mechanic adds giant tank treads to a Bentley Continental GT turning it into a badass ‘ultratank’
As Kosik added giant tank treads and made other adjustments to the Bentley, he carefully documented every step of the process in a series of progress videos until the final reveal on May 8, 2019.

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Bentley Ultratank. First Run. Eng Sub.

What an incredible project. Here’s Miller’s version, a little less immaculate.

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A first look at Mad Max: Fury Road’s killer vehicles: Peacemaker
In the mix-and-match world of classic Australian muscle, the 1971–78 Chrysler Valiant Charger is something of a companion to Ford’s XB Falcon that plays so prominently in the Mad Max mythology. So in Fury Road there are at least two Valiant Chargers featured. This one, called Peacemaker, isn’t so much a Chrysler of any sort as it is some classic sheetmetal stretched out over a U.S.-made Ripsaw light-tank chassis.

Dune. Done.

So. They’re remaking Dune.

7 things we know so far about the Dune remake (& 3 things fans are hoping for)
Dune has quickly become one of the most anticipated upcoming movies. With plenty of talent and a beloved source material already behind it, there were plenty of fans looking forward to this big screen adaptation. However, with big names being announced to the cast seeming every day, excitement for the film has skyrocketed.

I thought now would be a good time to read the book, to see what all the fuss is about. All I knew of it was from the David Lynch film. It didn’t make much of an impression, to be honest.

Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world
Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

The book is over 50 years old. You can buy this collector’s edition from the Folio Society for £75, or the e-book together with its five sequels on Amazon for £1.99. I chose the latter.

Manny Rayner’s review of Dune
So that was the Dune we know and love, but the man who rewrote it now would get a rather different reception. Oh my God! These Fremen, who obviously speak Arabic, live on a desert planet which supplies the Universe with melange, a commodity essential to the Galactic economy, and in particular to transport. Not a very subtle way to say “oil”! They are tough, uncompromising fighters, who are quite happy to use suicide bombing as a tactic. They’re led by a charismatic former rich kid (OK, we get who you mean), who inspires them to rise up against the corrupt, degenerate… um, does he mean Westerners?

Dune has made a huge impact on many people, one that it failed to make on me, but then I watched this. My goodness, imagine if this had been made instead.

Jodorowsky’s Dune | Official Trailer HD (2014)

I knew Jodorowsky from watching the incredible, hypnotic Santa Sangre many years ago, and knew he had wanted to do something with Dune, but hadn’t really appreciated the full extent of his surrealist and psychedelic project until I watched that documentary. Goodness me.

And what an incredible legacy that film-that-never-was has left us. Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger’s work on Alien, for example. But also Dan O’Bannon’s collaboration with Moebius.

“The Long Tomorrow”: Discover Mœbius’ hard-boiled detective comic that inspired Blade Runner
Alejandro Jodorowsky may never have made his film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but plenty came out of the attempt — including, one might well argue, Blade Runner. Making that still hugely influential adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott and his collaborators looked to a few key visual sources, one of them a two-part short story in comic form called “The Long Tomorrow.”

The Long Tomorrow, by Moebius
As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of ‘The Long Tomorrow’. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic. When Europeans try this kind of parody, it is never entirely satisfactory, the French are too French, the Italians are too Italian … so, under my nose was a pastiche that was more original than the originals.

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And from The Long Tomorrow to Blade Runner and back to Dune, with the news that Denis Villeneuve, the director of the Blade Runner remake, will direct this new Dune remake.

The first Fury Road

Someone on Quora joked about the differences between driving in the UK and US: “in the US you drive straight ahead, ridiculously slowly, on lanes three times as wide as your already huge automobile; whereas in the UK you drive microscopic cars with 25 manual gears along roads that are made for half a car’s width, and you will do it with courage, or be shot for cowardice at the next traffic light.”

It raised a smile and got me thinking of Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, and its leisurely introduction. The chase seems positively sedate by today’s standards, but it’s a thrillingly tense ride nonetheless. Don’t tell anyone, but you can watch the whole film on YouTube.

Duel (1971)

It’s a great film, but I appreciated it all the more after watching this documentary about it, listening to Steven Spielberg explain how he tackled minuscule production schedules, truck casting and makeup, and demanding studios.

Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 1

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Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 2

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Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 3

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And here’s an interesting fan-made comparison of the film’s locations, then and now.

Duel / Duell by Steven Spielberg – then and now 2018 (Manfred Furtner)

The Luke Ascending

The Classic FM Hall of Fame 2019 was unveiled over the weekend, and Ralph Yawn Williams’s The Lark Ascending is in the top spot yet again. But don’t worry if, like me, you’re not a fan — here’s a much improved version.

The Star Wars theme combined with the Lark Ascending is unashamedly populist
Nobody saw this coming: Star Wars has never been so pastoral in this arrangement for keyboard.

The Luke Ascending – Star Wars/Vaughan Williams mashup

The image at the top of the post is a screenshot from one of the marvellous Auralnauts Star Wars Saga videos. I’m sure everyone’s seen these by now, but you must check them out if not.

Twenty years of bullet time

John Wick’s son Neo turns 20 this year. Kind of.

The Matrix at 20: how the sci-fi gamechanger remains influential
Yet objects tend to shift during flight, and in the year 2019, The Matrix has endured as both touchstone and Rorschach blot, a way for people of vastly different ideologies to make sense of the world around them. The effects are still a marvel, but the film’s ideas have taken root in a destabilized culture where conspiracy theories flourish and individuals are defining for themselves what is and isn’t real, and what constitutes freedom in a heavily monitored, highly synthetic technological space. Neo may “follow the white rabbit” into a Wonderland of personal discovery, but we’re citizens of Wonderland now, having made a second home for ourselves where the laws of gravity don’t apply …

Yet the idea of the world as changeable seems far closer to what the film’s creators, the Wachowskis, had in mind. In the time between then and now, the Wachowskis have both gender transitioned and The Matrix seems at least a subconscious reference to the evolution to come. Much has been written about the film as trans allegory, and the reading bears out in the possibility for humans to define themselves however they like, outside the fixed identities enforced by the machines. Whenever Agent Smith snarls “Mr Anderson”, it feels like a menacing taunt, his refusal to allow Neo to untether himself from the matrix and discover who he actually is. That goes beyond red-pilling, which is about the authoritarian business of telling someone how things really are, and grants them the latitude to figure it out on their own.

The trans narrative escaped me then, and escapes me still. It’s certainly a philosophical film, though.

15 facts about The Matrix on its 20th anniversary
7. The actors were asked to brush up on their knowledge of philosophy before production began.

The Wachowskis had all the lead actors read Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, Out of Control by Kevin Kelly, and Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans and Oscar Zarate in order to better understand the world of the movie. In the film, Neo actually hides his illegal computer files in a copy of Baudrillard’s book.

Not everyone’s a fan, however.

The Matrix’s male power fantasy has dated badly
It’s this attitude which now seems so antiquated – so glaringly late-20th Century. Anderson isn’t kept awake at night by war or climate change or the rise of fascism. He isn’t campaigning for equal rights – and he certainly isn’t doing any Kung-fu practice. He’s a white-collar worker whose most pressing problem is a slight dissatisfaction with ordinary office life. He is, fundamentally, a less witty brother of Chandler Bing from Friends. And they have plenty of other brothers. One is the unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) of Fight Club. The other is Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a disgruntled software programmer in Mike Judge’s cult comedy, Office Space. Both of those films came out in 1999, as The Matrix did. And as different as the three of them may appear, they all share a theme whose prevalence in 1990s pop culture culminated with the debut of the BBC2 sitcom The Office, in July 2001. The theme is that being a handsome, middle-class, thirtysomething professional is ultimately not very fulfilling. The Matrix may allude to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, to Jean Baudrillard and Jesus, but its central thesis is right there on the Office Space poster: “Work Sucks”.

Perhaps those confusing sequels were to blame for souring it a little.

The ending of The Matrix trilogy finally explained
One major theme that came to the fore as the series reached its conclusion had to do with the similarities between humans and machines. In the original, they couldn’t seem more different, but by Revolutions, programs in the Matrix are portrayed as being almost more human than our heroes, loving and happy individuals, as worthy of existence as any person. Further, characters from the first film who were firmly human or machine are portrayed in the sequels as having a little bit of both …

The humanizing of the Machines and the complimentary mechanization of Neo made for a storytelling turn that audiences weren’t really ready for. People who saw The Matrix couldn’t be faulted for expecting an ending that saw Neo winning by doing his Superman thing and eradicating humanity’s robot overlords. Instead, Neo triumphed by becoming a bridge between man and machine, sacrificing his own life for the sake of securing the future.

That’s better!

The next Marvel film is set in 1990s, and so is its promotional website.

Marvel launched a delightful, retro website to promote Captain Marvel
The result is absolutely delightful. The website taps into the nostalgia for the 1990s that we’ve seen in the film’s trailers, and features a ton of components that were mainstays of the web almost a quarter of a century ago: random animations, zany photo editing, HTML frames, brightly-colored fonts, and of course, a guestbook and hit counter.

Perfect! Now, all we need to do is switch the rest of the web back.

Should have posted this yesterday

A little late, but better late than never.

The spirit photographs of William Hope
Known as “spirit photographs”, they were taken by a controversial medium called William Hope. Born in 1863 in Crewe, Hope started his working life as a carpenter, but in 1905 became interested in spirit photography after capturing the supposed image of a ghost while photographing a friend. He went on to found and lead a group of six spirit photographers known as the Crewe Circle. Following World War I, support for the group, and demand for its services, grew as the grieving relatives of those lost to the war sought a means of contacting their loved ones.

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He was later exposed as a fraudster, but could count Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of his supporters, so there you go.

What can a linguist learn from a gravestone?
The key running theme of gravestone inscriptions is that they are for the living, and even for a more specific task: they reaffirm and reiterate membership in a group, and the beliefs that are part of the culture of that group. This does not necessarily mean that they are particularly informative about the life of the specific deceased, but they are full of useful, sometimes subtle cues about the community the deceased belonged to, and what they valued.

And what movies they liked?

The Mummy: the story of the world’s most expensive movie poster
Auction house Sotheby’s is currently accepting bids for one of three remaining original posters of 1932’s The Mummy. It is expected to sell for somewhere between $1-1.5m, making it the world’s most expensive movie poster. It’s a scary amount of money.

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I’m sure audiences at the time would have been terrified by that film, but could we say the same about this one, from Méliès? I don’t think so.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)
Short film by Georges Méliès, released through his Star Film Company, featuring demons, flames, spectres, and a brilliant array of the film-maker’s usual arsenal of tricks. As Wikipdia sums up: “In a Renaissance chamber decorated with devilish faces and a warped coat of arms, a gleeful Satan throws three human victims into a cauldron, which spews out flames. The victims rise from the cauldron as nebulous ghosts, and then turn into fireballs. The fireballs multiply and pursue Satan around the chamber. Finally Satan himself leaps into the infernal cauldron, which gives off a final burst of flame.” Enjoy!

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And I can’t imagine this scaring anyone either. Sounds good, though.

Silly Symphony – the skeleton dance 1929 disney short

So let’s end with an exploration of that devil’s interval, and how it moved from the Classical and Romantic eras into the mainstream.

Spooky music
During the 19th century, composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner cracked the code of creepiness. The sonic dread they pioneered involved two key ingredients that horror movies and metal bands still use today: a forbidden sequence of notes known as “Satan in music,” and a spooky little ditty that Gregorian monks sang about the apocalypse.

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Watching the time go by, together

I’m embarrassed to admit this is the first I’ve heard of this remarkable piece of video art. Christian Marclay’s The Clock, from 2010, is at Tate Modern till January.

The Clock review – ‘The longer you watch it, the more addictive it becomes’
When the screen says 8.23, I check my phone and find it’s telling the same time. A gaggle of clips from the 1950s and 60s signals that it’s time for the first cigarette of the day. Ashtrays full from the previous night are getting fresh ash tapped into them. Meanwhile, in a clip from the 1993 film Falling Down, Michael Douglas is in his car in a traffic jam, face tense and twitchy as he heads for a crazed rampage. And Richard Burton as a cockney gangster serves his mum breakfast in bed in a clip from – I think – the 1971 film Villain.

All these moments contain clocks – digital clocks, grandfather clocks, watches, alarm clocks or just the time on a TV newsflash – and that time is the same as the time your watch says. The Clock is a highly reliable clock. I am sure there is an art collector somewhere who owns a copy and projects it in the kitchen on a permanent loop to tell the time.

That last line reminded me of Raymond Dufayel from Amelie, aiming his video camera at the clock on the street outside, so that he doesn’t have to wind his own clocks. I’m sure that clip will be in there somewhere.

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I wonder how many people have watched the whole of Marclay’s video. Is it really 24 hours long? Does it really not have any repeated clips in it? Quite remarkable.

‘It’s impossible!’ – Christian Marclay and the 24-hour clock made of movie clips
It is a staggering, almost superhuman feat of research that has gained a cult following ever since it was unveiled at the White Cube gallery in London in 2010. The Clock’s easy-to-grasp governing principle coexists with the almost ungraspable fact that its creator, Christian Marclay, really has pulled it off, beguilingly combining the utter randomness of each individual clip with the strict form of his overarching idea, allowing everyone to meditate on time, how we’re obsessed with it, how there’s never enough of it.

There are quite a few clips on YouTube of snatches of The Clock (start watching this one at 10:15, or this one at 12:04, or this one at 2:18), but here’s a segment on it from the BBC’s Culture Show, with Alain de Botton.

Christian Marclay – The Clock

Wanting a copy of the full video? Don’t hold your breath for a DVD release, it might be a little… costly.

The Clock (2010 film): Release
Marclay made six editions of The Clock, plus two artist’s proofs. Five copies were designated to be sold to institutions for US$467,500 each under the condition that The Clock can’t be playyed in more than one location at the same time. The last copy was sold to hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen for an undisclosed amount. Within a day of premiering The Clock, White Cube received a host of offers from museums, some of which purchased copies jointly. The sale became one of the largest purchases of video art and one of the highest purchases to happen on the primary market.

Simon Stålenhag’s sci-fi to hit our screens

I was happy to read that the work of sci-fi illustrator Simon Stålenhag may be on our screens, in the not-too-distant future.

Simon Stålenhag’s dystopian art to come to life in a new Amazon sci-fi TV series
Its eight-episode run will tell the tale of the town of people who live above ‘The Loop’, a machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe. A cast hasn’t been announced, but we do know Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Know) will be directing the pilot, while Legion‘s Nathaniel Halpern and Planet of the Apes sequels director Matt Reeves are on board as executive producers.

They’re talking about his book Takes From The Loop, but my money’s on his other work, The Electric State, being the bigger winner. As I mentioned before, this one may also make it to the big screen, if the Amazon page for its Kindle edition is to be believed.

The end of cinema as we know it, and I feel fine

Following on from yesterday’s post about the precarious position of our independent cinemas and picture houses, here’s David Cronenberg’s views on the matter. He thinks cinema-going is on the decline, and he’s… not that bothered?

‘If movies disappeared overnight, I wouldn’t care’: David Cronenberg on the death of cinema
But the important distinction he wants to make is that filmmaking isn’t “dead” – it is just that cinema is no longer “the cathedral that you go to where you commune with many other people.”

Instead, you watch on your laptop, TV or handheld device. He suggests that watching a film on an iPad is closer to reading a novel than it is to the old cinema-going experience.

Pictures of the picture houses

Nice to see photos of one of our local cinemas* in the Guardian recently.

The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds
The Hyde Park Picture House, the world’s only surviving gas-lit cinema, opened in 1914. The owners of the Grade II-listed building have now been granted planning permission for redevelopment, to improve accessibility, restore the gas lights and ornate plasterwork and incorporate a second screen in the basement.

They’ve now been given planning permission for their renovation, but the grant they got to fund it was awarded almost two years ago. Patience is a virtue, I guess.

Gas-lit Leeds cinema among sites to receive heritage lottery cash
In its earliest years Hyde Park showed morale-boosting patriotic films including An Englishman’s Home, and newsreel of the war in which 6,000 local men had enlisted. The gas lights were turned down but kept on during the screenings, to combat reports of disgraceful carryings on in the back rows of darker cinemas.

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Not all of these places are so lucky. Here are some of the saddest photos I’ve seen in a long time.

9 haunting abandoned cinemas & picture houses of England
In our modern world of multiplexes, it can be easy to forget the grand cinemas of yore. Not so long ago, ornate picture houses stretched over every corner of England. Each one offered something more than a simple screen. It offered a unique viewing experience, a perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon by settling into another world. Today, many of those old picture houses stand in ruins, their projectors shut off for the final time.

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And it’s sad to see the one I grew up with is suffering the same fate.

* What others call a movie theater, we would call a cinema. A picture house sounds very grand (as is appropriate for Hyde Park), but when I was young, we’d refer to these places as the pictures. A singular noun, as in: “Is there owt good on at the pictures, or shall we go round to John’s and play on his Atari?”

Sad ending

Like many others, I’m sure, I raced through The Third Policeman in the sixth form. I’ve read it a few times since, and recently found the nerve to tackle At Swim-Two-Birds, fearful of its reputation. I shouldn’t have waited so long. Very funny-haha as well as very funny-peculiar, though I’ll have to re-read it again before I could tell you what it was all about.

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I know very little about Flann O’Brien, though. Maybe that’s for the best. According to this collection of his letters and correspondence, drink turned him into quite an unpleasant and angry man in his later years.

Yours severely: the collected letters of Flann O’Brien
In a book full of crackpottery, one of the strangest moments comes in 1965, when O’Brien suggests that the French edition of At Swim-Two-Birds be translated back into English by a serving French Foreign Legionnaire and used to replace O’Brien’s original text, which he had come to detest. In its daft way, the suggestion is a perfect example of O’Brien’s estranged relationship with language – language in general but also the language of his artistic prime, as surveyed from the wreckage of his final years …

Might a non-drinking O’Brien have been a happier and more savoury human being? Almost certainly. Might a happier and better-adjusted O’Brien have ever written anything? Impossible to say. As it is, our reaction to the unhappy soul captured in these letters will probably be, in the words of a 1965 letter, ‘halfway between a guffaw and a puke’.

By the way, At Swim-Two-Birds was very nearly a film, if you can imagine that.

Brendan Gleeson secures funds for Flann O’Brien film
Actor Brendan Gleeson has secured funding to make a film of Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim Two Birds. Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy have all been linked to the new film.

Though that now seems doubtful.

Gleeson’s doubts over Two Birds
Domhnall Gleeson has revealed his doubts over the At Swim Two Birds film. His father Brendan Gleeson is planning to make his directorial debut with the big-screen adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel, which Colin Farrell, Gabriel Byrne and Cillian Murphy have been attached to. It was originally set for release in 2010, with 14 drafts of the script already written by the actor, but has yet to start shooting.

I think I will re-read the book, though, just in case.

Very different approaches to movie music

I mentioned the upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic earlier. Whilst his Broadway musical, West Side Story, was quickly turned into a film, I don’t really think of him as a movie composer.

Here are a couple of articles about composing music for the movies.

How the iconic music of 2001: A Space Odyssey came to be
When he was finally cutting the film, he started laying in this music that he’d been amassing during post and even during production. He would watch the rushes and listen to music. In fact, one of the key catalysts was, when the MGM [head] brass flew in from LA and from New York, Tony Frewin [Kubrick’s assistant on the film], who was 19 years old, the week before the MGM brass flew in, Kubrick said, “Tony, get petty cash. Get this much money and go buy all the classical music you can find downtown.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a reflection on how the composer hears the world
This sort of spontaneous fluidity is what has driven most of the composer’s work throughout his decades-long career. In the film, we see his restless creative energy at work, as he edits and adds to tracks while sitting on an exercise ball in his home studio. He improvises on a track playing in the background by running a violin bow across a hi-hat cymbal to unnerving effect. He listens to his environment with a playful curiosity, endlessly experimenting with whatever he can find.

Leonard Bernstein at the movies

There’s going to be a film made about the incredible Leonard Bernstein.

Cannes: Jake Gyllenhaal to Play Leonard Bernstein in ‘The American’
“Like many people, Leonard Bernstein found his way into my life and heart through ‘West Side Story’ when I was a kid,” said Gyllenhaal. “But as I got older and started to learn about the scope of his work, I began to understand the extent of his unparalleled contribution and the debt of gratitude modern American culture owes him. As a man, Bernstein was a fascinating figure—full of genius and contradiction—and it will be an incredible honor to tell his story with a talent and friend like Cary.”

This article from Film School Rejects places this news in the context of other biopics, and thinks the announced intention of telling the story in five parts, like movements of a symphony, will be help the film stand out.

Jake Gyllenhaal to star in a Leonard Bernstein biopic with a twist
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is far from an expected period drama about a controversial historical figure. Instead, it unabashedly mashes up the past and present in a cheekily vibrant portrait of a young woman. David Fincher’s The Social Network isn’t just “the Facebook movie,” it is an unsettling case study that’s far more concerned about building up the enigma of Mark Zuckerberg than breaking him down into bite-size pieces for easy consumption. The fact that Loving Vincent is the first fully-painted animated feature film is a stunning achievement, literally combining the medium of film with Vincent van Gogh’s own legacy as a painter to stellar results.

And it ends with this intriguing paragraph.

In the tradition of dueling biopics, this news recalls theories that Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake is in fact itself an unconventional biopic about Bernstein — deduced from the fact that Spielberg also held a table reading for a Bernstein biopic at the same time he’s searching for his West Side Story cast. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich has mentioned the idea on the Fighting in the War Room podcast, while Collider’s Matt Goldberg surmised that the filmmaker may just do a Bernstein film first or instead of the musical. Either way, we’re getting an extra dose of the famed composer’s work.

We can only hope the film contains half as much energy as in this performance of one of his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Gustavo Dudamel – West Side Story – Mambo – Bernstein

And here’s another favourite of mine, Candide, this recording from 1960.

Bernstein Conducts Overture to Candide, New York Philharmonic

2001 was 50 years ago already?

It’s hard to believe this film is 50 years old. The Guardian marks the occasion with a piece that describes how the first audiences were baffled and walked out of the premiere, and how the critics of the day rubbished it: “trash masquerading as art”. I wonder what its own initial review was like. The article starts with news about mountains on a tiny moon orbiting Pluto.

Kubrick’s 2001: the film that haunts our dreams of space
As a result Kubrick Mons and Clarke Montes are now two of Charon’s major mountains. It is a fitting honour – and timely. The two men’s great collaborative work, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released 50 years ago this month. By putting its creators’ names on the map of Charon, at the edge of the solar system, astronomers are repaying a debt to two visionaries who reshaped our thinking about the cosmos and created a film rated by some as the greatest ever made.

As well as being a major influence on a range of film-makers, its depiction of futuristic technology caught the eye of astronomers and designers alike.

Equally intrigued were young scientists desperate to witness technology that was credible and imaginative, something that had been entirely absent from feature films until then. “The film set new standards for ‘realistic’ portrayal of life in space, overcoming decades of Flash Gordon space-westerns,” says a former teenage astronomer, Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck, University of London. “It also created a new soundtrack for cosmic spectacle – through the use of the opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and the music of Ligeti.”

One thing I love about the film is the unflinching slowness in the editing. It’s as if the whole film, and not just HAL, is trying to stare you out. Pinter would be proud of these pauses. This clip shows that beautifully, I think.

HAL 9000: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”

And that voice. Would the film be the same without Douglas Rain? Here he is eight years before.

Universe (1960 film)
After this work, co-director Colin Low worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His work on this short may have influenced Kubrick to begin his project. Kubrick chose Universe narrator Douglas Rain as the voice of the HAL 9000 computer and also hired Wally Gentleman, who did optical effects for the NFB documentary, to work on 2001.

Universe

That film starts off with a fascinating artistic impression of the moon. Here’s a slightly more up-to-date representation, care of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

Tour of the Moon in 4K