Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (1963)

Extraordinary the impact this book had. First a series of five movies 1968-73, then a TV series (1974-5). In recent years the movie franchise rebooted, first with Tim Burton’s 2001 version and then again, with a new sequence of films (Rise of the Planet of the Apes 2011, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 2014, War for the Planet of the Apes in 2017). Just these three movies alone have grossed over $2 billion.

And ever since the original movie there’s been an impressive array of comic books and graphic novels, computer games, toys and theme park rides (!).

Why is the story so powerful? What is its hold?

Frame story – Jinn and Phyllis

It is thousands of years in the future. The planets have been colonised and interstellar travel is common. Many travel on business in fast rockets. Jinn and Phyllis are more like tourists in space, dallying in a sealed sphere whose sails can be set larger or smaller to catch the solar winds coming from the stars and drift around the universe. One day they see an object flying by, change course to collect it, and find it is a message in a bottle, a glass bottle. Inside it are sheafs of paper with a long narrative scrawled on them.

Jinn reads out this narrative which makes up the main body of the text.

The narrative of Ulysse Mérou

This text is written by the journalist Ulysse Mérou in the year 2500. He has been invited to join the space expedition led by Professor Antelle, and accompanied by his assistant Arthur Levain, which is travelling to the nearest star, the mega-star Betelgeuse.

(Although published in 1963 everything about the space trip reminds me of H.G. Wells. We are not told anything about the design of the ship or nature of the propulsion system (always the snag in space travel sci-fi). Antelle is travelling in a ship he designed and built himself, almost as if he’d done it in a shed at the bottom of the garden. And they choose Mérou to accompany them because he is good at chess. In other words the whole story has the charming amateurism of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories or Well’s earlier science fantasies, many light years remote from the reality of the vast army of technicians backed up by the state, which would be required just to take a man to the moon later the same decade.)

It takes two years to travel to Betelgeuse, one year to accelerate to nearly the speed of light, a few days travelling at phenomenal speed, then a year slowing back down. As any reader of science fiction should have picked up, the closer to the speed of light you travel, the more time slows down relative to objects and people travelling at normal speeds i.e. people on Earth. Thus, while the trip to Betelgeuse will only take the trio two years, something like 350 years will have passed on Earth. Everyone they know and everything they know will have died and changed utterly.

Arrival on Soror

When they get to Betelgeuse, they discover there are four planets circling the super-star, and one of them, surprise surprise, is the same distance from the big star as Earth from the sun, and appears to have the same gravity and atmosphere as our home planet.

Our trio takes to one of the space ‘launches’ built into the main spaceship (no description whatsoever of what it looks like or how it works) and shuttle down to the planet, skimming over what appear to be cities, with buildings laid out along streets, before landing in a clearing in a ‘jungle’.

Once again, it comes as no surprise that the air on the planet is breathable – made of oxygen and nitrogen pretty much the same ratio as on Earth.

(This is as wildly improbable as when Cavor and Bedford unscrew the door of their sphere in First Men In The Moon and discover that the moon has a breathable atmosphere, if rather thin. Monkey Planet is not hard science fiction of the heavily factual Arthur C. Clarke variety. We are more in the realm of science fable.)

They christen the planet Soror, sister to our Earth.

So the three Frenchmen get out, stretch, wander around, see birds flying overhead, are struck by how similar the trees and flower are and discover a waterfall, so they strip off and swim and wash. It feels like a film already. You can imagine the tropical sunlight dappling through exotic leaves onto the sun-kissed bodies of our three hunky heroes.

Nova

At which point there is a Robinson Crusoe moment, as they spot a human footprint in the sand. A woman’s footprint by the shape of it. And then she appears.

Being a man, Boulle casts this first alien human as a woman, and being a Frenchman he imagines her a naked woman – and the whole thing veers towards the crudest pulp sci-fi when he describes her as a golden-skinned, physically perfect woman, a goddess perfect in form and feature etc.

I shall never forget the impression her appearance made on me. I held my breath at the marvellous beauty of this creature from Soror, who revealed herself to us, dripping with spray, illuminated by the blood-red beams of Betelgeuse. it was a woman – a young girl, rather, unless was a goddess. She boldly asserted her femininity in the light of this monstrous sun, completely naked and without any ornament other than her hair which hung down to her shoulders…Standing upright, leaning forwards, her breasts thrust out towards us, her arms raised slightly backwards in the attitude of a diver…It was plain to see that the woman, who stood motionless on the ledge like a statue on a pedestal, possessed the most perfect body that could be conceived on earth. (p.23)

Mérou christens her Nova, and she strikes this reader as being the oldest pulp fiction trope in the world – the pure, innocent, scantily-dressed (in fact, naked) damsel, who will, later on in the book, be threatened by great big hairy apes – with only our gallant narrator to protect her.

But, puzzlingly, it quickly becomes clear that Nova cannot talk and is scared when they laugh or talk. She can only make quick grunting noises, almost like an ape. In fact the three Frenchmen’s smiles and laughter scare her off.

Next day they go frolic in the waterfall again, and the perfect woman returns, with a man, fine figured but also mute. More mute humans assemble. When our trio put on their clothes, the humans recoil in fear and disgust. Walking back to the spaceship our heroes are attacked from all sides by quite a crowd of humanoids, as many as a hundred, who rip and tear their clothes off. Then the mob of animal-humans proceeds to break into the space launch and destroy, rip and tear apart everything they can get their hands on. But not like human vandals working systematically. More like animals, tearing and worrying and biting at something they don’t understand.

Destruction of the ship

Having trashed the ship, the savage humans drag our heroes back to their village. Except it doesn’t even have huts, is more a random scattering of makeshift shelters, a few branches leaning against trees, just as the great apes make. Nova, as you might have guessed, has formed a bond with our gallant narrator and comes and snuggles up against him, again more like an animal seeking warmth than an intelligent partner.

The manhunt

The next morning they are all woken by alarming sounds, ululations and shouts, yes shouts, language, as of humans. The humanoids run round in a panic and set off in the opposite direction, Mérou fleeing with them.

He begins to realise the people coming behind are beaters and the humanoids are being driven – and then he hears shots, gunshots. They are being driven towards hunters out for some sport.

Mérou comes to a break in the tall grass and is flabbergasted to see an enormous gorilla wearing clothes and wielding a shot gun, taking shots at the terrified humans as they emerge from the long grass into this break.

Mérou watches a human burst out of the grass into the open area and the gorilla carefully take aim and shoot him. He hands his gun to a smaller chimpanzee, behind him, also dressed, who recharges it with cartridges and returns it to the gorilla. Mérou’s head is spinning at what this seems to say about the planet they’ve arrived on – the traditional roles of ape and man appear to have been completely reversed.

Mérou waits till the gorilla fires (hitting another human) and hands the gun over to be reloaded, and then takes his chance. He runs across the break of open ground and into the long grass on the other side. But it is only to stumble into a trap of mesh netting which scoops him and other humans up into a huge struggling bundle, waiting for the master apes to come.

Cover of an audiobook of Monkey Planet which captures the terror of the hunt, artwork by Harry Schaare

Cover of an audiobook of Monkey Planet which captures the terror of the hunt, artwork by Harry Schaare (1964)

The human laboratory

Mérou is thrown into a cage along with other naked humans. He watches in disbelief as the gorillas return from the hunt and lay out the killed humans neatly and artistically, smoothing down ruffled hair as a human hunter would smooth down an animal’s fur or feathers, arranging the corpses in aesthetic poses.

Mérou is still reeling from the way the gorillas are wearing clothes, normal clothes, hunting clothes. One sneezes and brings a handkerchief out of his breeches to blow his nose. The cages are on wheels and are pulled by a sort of tractor back to a sort of hunting lodge where the female gorillas are waiting, wearing dresses and hats. A photographer turns up and snaps the hunter gorillas posing by their kills, with their proud womenfolk on their arms. Mérou feels as if he’s going mad.

Finally the hunters clamber onto some of the tractors, and along with those pulling cages full of human captives, they set off some distance to arrive at a town. Mérou observes a grocer pulling down his blind as he opens up shop. They have motor cars, banks, shops. It all sounds like a French provincial town except… populated by apes!

Mérou is unloaded at a hospital-like building and ushered down a corridor into a cage, one of many containing single or pairs of humans bedded on straw. Over the weeks it becomes clear that they are lab animals, kept to be experimented on. The experiments are mostly behavioural i.e. the Pavlov experiment of ringing a bell and offering food to make the animals salivate, eventually just ringing the bell to produce the same reaction.

The warders – two gorillas named Zoram and Zanam – hang fruit from the roof of a cage, then put four cubes in the cage. Only Mérou has the intelligence to realise that if you stack the four boxes on top of each other you can simply step up them and reclaim the fruit. The other humans watch him with complete incomprehension. By now he has realised that the humans really are animals without the slightest flicker of intelligence, let alone intellectual ability.

Then there is observation of mating rituals. The apes place male and female subjects in the same cage and observe their mating ritual – which amounts to the male circling round the female with ornate steps… before eventually pouncing on his hypnotised prey.

Mérou swears he won’t sink to the same level when they place Nova in his cage (yes, Nova has miraculously survived the manhunt and was thrown into a tractor cage and was transported to the same ‘hospital’ and has, by happy coincidence, now been thrown into Mérou’s cage). But when he fails to perform and they take her away and replace her with an old crone, and he sees another hulking male preparing to mate with Nova, Mérou changes his mind, makes a fuss and Nova is restored to him, at which point… well… when on Soror, do as the Sororians do.

(The fact that Mérou mates with Nova fulfils the soft porn, pulpy sexual promise which has been latent in the story ever since the trio sighted her splendid naked body by the waterfall. It is as inevitable as falling off a log.)

(Incidentally, Mérou saw the body of the professor’s assistant, Arthur Levain, stretched out in the array of ‘kill’ at the hunting lodge. Of the professor, he has seen no sign.)

Befriending Zira

But it isn’t just the gorillas who conduct these experiments. A female chimpanzee attends with a pen and notebook. Over the course of her visits, Mérou manages to impress on her his intelligence, first of all parroting back to her some of the simian language, which he has begun to pick up. But then, in a decisive move, Mérou seizes her pen and notebook and draws a sequence of geometric shapes, hands it back to her and she draws some more, and gives it back to him who draws some more.

She is deeply shaken, but begins – when the gorillas’ attention is distracted by other prisoners – to talk to him. She is Zira. Her fiancé is Cornelius. She poo-poos the pompous orangutan, Dr Zaius, who has come to visit the lab several times, obviously the head of the institute who orders around the gorillas and ignores Zira’s comments.

Zira lends Mérou some books which he hides and reads at night. He is making progress in the simian language and is nearly fluent. He learns that Soror has only one world government, divided into three chambers, one each for the chimps, orangs and gorillas. The gorillas are still the most physical among the apes, a legacy from the days when they ruled, and they’re the ones who implement and carry out discoveries. The orangutans are the ’embodiment of science’ and wisdom except that, in Zira’s opinion, it is a hidebound, out-of-date science. According to Zira all the important discoveries have been made by the chimps.

(We know from our own planet that the human race is split into thousands of cultures and languages, with wildly different levels of technical achievement; and yet so many science fiction stories fly in the face of all this evidence and land on planets where this is just one World Government, or one Ruler, and one language, which the human arrivals quickly pick up. it’s one of the most flagrant ways in which science fiction is so disappointingly simple-minded and simplistic.)

Zira gets permission one day to take Mérou for a walk (obviously on the end of a leash and naked – he is a pet after all) to a park where she introduces him to her fiancé, Cornelius. by this stage Mérou has used drawings to persuade Zira that he is in fact from a different planet in a different solar system, and now his explanation in fluent simian persuades Cornelius as well.

But, the chimps explain, the orangutans are resistant to all change, they still teach that Soror is the centre of the universe and Zaius refuses to accept that Mérou is anything more than a performing pet. And Mérou is in danger. They have extensive labs in which they conduct experiments on the brains of humans, sometimes while they’re conscious – something to be avoided.

Mérou addresses the conference and wins his freedom

Cornelius and Zira come up with a plan: there is soon to be a scientific conference. Dr Zaius wants to present Mérou as an example of man’s mimetic abilities, as a kind of performing pet. There will be an immense convocation of scientists, and journalists, and members of the public. It will be a perfect opportunity for Mérou to step forward and address public opinion directly.

And this is exactly what he does. Mérou is brought onstage as a specimen for Zaius to put through his paces but astonishes everyone by taking the microphone, bowing, making polite reference to the chair of the meeting and proceeding to make a long, pompous and respectful speech to the members of the academy explaining that he is an astronaut from the planet Earth (drawing a map of Earth’s location). Now not even Zaius can deny the fact that Mérou is an intelligent, autonomous human being, something which defies all their science.

This understandably causes an uproar and, over the next few days, Mérou is released from his captivity, allowed to get dressed and meets other scientists to discuss his story.

Mérou can now be taken on a tour of simian society and discovers it to be in almost every respect identical to human: there are theatres, athletic games and sports contests. He is taken to the zoo and, unwisely, asks to see the human cages. There he is horrified to discover Professor Antelle, naked and dishevelled like the other human-animals, begging for food from the child apes who throw bits of cake through the bars.

Mérou begs for a personal meeting with the professor. Cornelius uses Mérou’s new-found celebrity to persuade the director of the zoo to allow Mérou a meeting with the professor, but we are horrified to see that Antelle really has descended to the level of the animals. There is nothing behind his eyes. There isn’t a flicker of recognition as Mérou talks to him. In fact this section ends, hauntingly, with Antelle lifting his head and letting out a prolonged animal howl.

The archaeological site on the other side of the world

Mérou now comes to learn more about Cornelius’s research and to share his investigation into the origins of ape society. The most salient fact about it is the way it appears to have stagnated at the same technological level for centuries, indeed millennia. Ape records stretch back some 10,000 years but then there is a complete blank. Mérou himself has spent hours speculating about how the situation came about – why are the apes in charge and humans voiceless, unintelligent animals? Is it fluke? Accident? At some point of evolution could it have gone either way and, on Earth went one way, and here went another?

Their speculations are brought to a climax by two incidents:

1. He is invited to an archaeological site on the other side of the world. (He flies there in a jet, a detail which is swiftly glossed over but gives you an indication of how different Boulle’s vision of ape society is from the ape society depicted in all the movies: in the movies it is a society reduced to medieval level, everyone rides on horses, the townships are little more than mud huts; in Boulle’s vision, ape society is exactly like human society, with cars driving along busy city streets lined with shops and, as here, jet planes taking off from airports.) Cornelius’s colleagues are excavating a settlement which appears to date from before the apes’ earliest records of 10,000 years ago. And they have found something seismic – a doll, a human doll, which is wearing not only the vestiges of clothes, but which, when pressed, says the word ‘Papa’. It is a fragment, but a fragment which confirms Cornelius and Mérou’s suspicions. The humans came first.

2. The second incident is when Cornelius takes Mérou to see the brain experiments the apes conduct on humans. The first set of these are genuinely horrifying, sticking electrodes in human brains to observe the flexing of various muscles or to bring on epileptic fits. This sequence is the clearest example of the way Boulle uses his fable to argue against cruelty to animals. Mérou is sickened and eventually cries out in anger at the torture he’s seeing his fellow humans subjected to.

The voices of history

But then there is an extraordinary scene where Cornelius takes us to nother room where electrodes have been applied to the brains of two humans. This operation makes the male patient talk, although only broken fragments of phrases he’s obviously overheard in the lab and cages. Still, it is empirical proof that humans can talk.

But it’s the woman specimen who is the real prize. Applying electrodes to her brain unlocks the collective memory of the race.

In a wildly unscientific and implausible manner which is, nonetheless, fantastically imaginatively powerful, through this woman as via a clairvoyant, we hear the voices of the humans from that long-ago era, before 10,000 years ago, who one by one record the fateful sequence of events which led to the downfall of mankind and the rise of the apes.

Various voices dramatise and comment on the way the human race became lazy and unmotivated, while the apes they had trained to be servants banded together, learned to communicate and speak simple phrases, were heard muttering together at nights. A woman tearfully admits she has handed over her house to the gorilla who used to be the maid and cleaner, and has come to the ‘camp’ of humans outside the city. Another laments the passivity and lassitude of humans. A final one describes in terror hearing the approach of a hunt of apes who don’t even bother to chase them with guns any more, but simply use whips! The woman’s story ends.

Cornelius and Mérou look at each other. So, it is as they thought. Ape culture has stayed more or less the same for millennia because it is a copy of the human culture which preceded it.

The moral of the story

If there is a moral to the story it is here, and it is about the peril to the human race of losing its drive and purpose and will to live. This kind of thing routinely crops up in mid-century science fiction although it is, I think, incomprehensible to us now. I think it was a warning frequently issued by ‘prophets’ in the West (America and Europe) against succumbing to materialism, consumerism and losing our souls, losing our thirst for the higher, intellectual life.

In fact Planet of the Apes taps into the anxiety about the Degeneration of the West which goes back at least as far Max Nordau’s bestseller, titled simply Degeneration, which was published in 1892 and which took French art and morality as demonstrating the degeneration and decline of the West. The notion that humanity got slaves (in this case, apes) to do their work for them, and became too lazy to maintain their place at the top of the tree, has a long lineage.

As far as I can see, the West has utterly succumbed to consumer capitalism, everyone in the West is addicted to their phone and its apps and gadgets and wastes hours on endless social mediatisation. And yet the apocalypse has not followed: art is still created, more books and poems and plays than ever before are produced.

The ‘collapse of civilisation’ which Boulle appears to be warning about never came.

Nova has a baby and they escape

Several scenes earlier Zira had told Mérou that Nova is pregnant with his child.

Other episodes intervene, such as the flight to the archaeological site, seeing the vivisection experiments on the humans, trying to get through to Professor Antelle whose purpose is to make the nine months fly past until Nova has her baby. Mérou christens the baby boy Sirius.

At this point things become really dangerous for Mérou, Nova and the baby. Zira and Cornelius tell him that Dr Zaius and the orangutans are winning the argument at a senior level. They are arguing that Mérou and Sirius represent an existential threat to ape rule. Already the humans in the cages where Mérou was first kept are noticeably respectful of him when he makes occasional visits back there, despite wearing clothes, something which made them shriek with horror when they first saw him. As if he is in the early stages of becoming their leader.

Similarly, Nova, after all this time in contact with Mérou, has learned to make a few sounds and the first tentative attempts to smile, to make facial expressions, something which was unthinkable when we first met her.

And, as the months go past, the infant Sirius begins to make articulate noise, not just animal cries. Cornelius warns Mérou that the orangs are persuading the gorillas to eliminate all three of them, carry out brain experiments on them, remove their frontal lobes, anything to eliminate the threat.

The pace of the narrative speeds up here, maybe because it’s becoming so wildly implausible, and Mérou writes increasingly in the present tense, drawing the reader directly into the fast-moving sequence of events.

Cornelius now tells Mérou that the apes are about to launch a manned probe into space, literally ‘manned’ with a man, a woman and a child, who will be trained to carry out basic tasks, so the apes can study the impact of them of space radiation, weightlessness etc.

Cornelius knows the chimpanzee running the programme. He’s persuaded him to do a switch.

And so it unfolds. In half a page Mérou describes how he, Nova and Sirius are smuggled aboard the ape probe, how it is launched into space, how he is able to navigate it to the master spaceship in which the three men originally travelled from Earth over a year earlier, manoeuvres it into the ‘bay’ from which the ‘launch’ had departed, the air doors closed, robots take over, and then he steers the spaceship out of orbit round Soror, and back to Earth at nearly light speed.

The punchline

And here comes the part of the book which, if you’re open and receptive and young enough, packs a killer punch.

Mérou steers the spaceship into earth orbit, round the earth towards Europe, then down through the clouds towards France, and finally brings it gently to land on the airfield at Orly airport.

Turns the engines off and sits in silence. Then all three clamber out and watch as a fire engine heads across the runway towards this unexpected arrival.

As explained at the start of the book, and reprised on the flight home, travelling at near light speeds means that while only two years pass for Mérou, Nova and Sirius, something like seven hundred years have passed back on Earth. Given this immense passage of time Mérou is surprised there seem to have been so few changes. As they flew over Paris he noticed the Eiffel Tower was still there. Now he notices that the airfield is in fact a bit rusty and dotted with patches of grass, as if rundown.

And he’s surprised that the fire engine that comes wailing towards them is a model familiar from his own time. Has nothing changed? Surprising.

As the engine draws up fifty yards from them the setting sun is reflected in its windscreen so Mérou can only dimly make out the two figures inside. They climb down with their backs towards him, also obscured by the long grass here at the edge of the airstrip. Finally one emerges from the long grass. Nova screams, picks up Sirius and sets off running back towards the ship.

The fireman is… a gorilla!

In a flash Mérou – and the reader – grasps the situation: here, as on Soror, humans cultivated the apes, made them servants, taught them the basics of language, then got lazier and more dependent on their servants who, at some stage, overthrew their human masters, reducing them to voiceless slaves, though themselves proving incapable of improving on human technology – this terrible fate has happened on Earth, too!

Frame story Jinn and Phyllis

Well. This is how the narrative in a bottle ends and Jinn stops reading to Phyllis. They are both silent for a long time. Then they both break out in agreement. Humans! Capable of speech and thought! It was a good yarn but, on this point, too far-fetched.

Humans talking! What a ridiculous idea. And Jinn uses his four hands to trim the sails of their cosy little space-sphere, and Phyllis applies some make-up to her cute little chimpanzee muzzle. We now realise that they, too, are apes. Mérou’s narrative was from the last intelligent human on either planet. The triumph of the apes is complete.

Reasons for success

I think it is the thoroughness of the fable which makes it so enduring. Boulle has really thought through the implications of his reversal, of the world turned upside down.

Details of the spaceship and its advanced rockets are trivia compared with the archetypal power of the story. What if… What if the entire human race is overthrown and reduced to a state, not even of savagery, but lower than that, dragged right back to brute animality?

I think the fable addresses a deep anxiety among thinking humans that the condition of reason and intellect and mentation are so fragile and provisional. And at the same time sparks the familiar thrill which apparently resonates with so many readers and cinema goers, at witnessing the overthrow and end of the human race. In my (Freudian) interpretation, reflecting a profound, mostly unconscious death wish, which many many people thrill to see depicted in gruesome detail on the screen and then, primitive urges sated, return to our humdrum workaday lives.

Style and worldview

It has gone down in pop culture lore that the first words the astronaut hero of the first Planet of the Apes movie (played by Charlton Heston) utters to an ape is, ‘Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!’

Whereas the first words Ulysse Mérou addresses to an ape, are spoken to one of the gorilla wardens feeding him and supervising him once he has arrived at the human laboratory-cages: ‘How do you do? I am a man from Earth. I’ve had a long journey.’

Obviously, one is a movie, an American movie, and the other is a novel, a French novel, but the two moments can be taken as symbolic of the differing worldviews of the two cultural artefacts. The French novel is full of high-flown sentiments about the nature of humanity and the human spirit. Like Olaf Stapledon back in the 1930s, Boulle considers human intelligence to be a kind of peak of creation, something of special importance and significance, hence his shock at finding the humans mute animals is all the greater. His sense of the unparalleled importance of humanity is tied to his sense of his own importance, self-love, a concept so French that we have imported their phrase for it – amour propre – ‘a sense of one’s own worth; self-respect’. This is wryly expressed in the scene where he finds himself having to copy the mating ritual of the animal-humans:

Yes, I, one of the kings of creation, started circling round my beauty; I, the ultimate product of millenary evolution, I, a man… I, Ulysse Mérou, embarked like a peacock round the gorgeous Nova. (p.76)

Nowadays, I take it there is a much more realistic and widespread feeling that humans are not particularly important, that plenty of other species turn out to be ‘intelligent’ and communicate among themselves, and many people share my view that humans are, in fact, a kind of pestilential plague on the planet, which we are quite obviously destroying.

But this book, from 55 years ago, although it is about man’s fall into a bestial condition, nevertheless is full of rhetoric about the special, privileged position of intelligence in the universe, and is full of a very old-fashioned kind of triumphalist rhetoric about the ongoing march of intelligence.

Here is Cornelius arguing with Mérou, arguing that the rise of the apes was inevitable because they have a loftier destiny:

‘Believe me, the day will come when we shall surpass men in every field. It is not by accident, as you might imagine, that we have come to succeed him. This eventuality was inscribed in the normal course of evolution. Rational man having had his time, a superior being was bound to succeed him, preserve the essential results of his conquests and assimilate them during a period of apparent stagnation before soaring up to greater heights.’ (p.148)

The idea of a Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of intelligence which you can imagine as a sort of ladder whose occupants become increasingly intelligent as you climb up it, is a basic element of the Renaissance worldview, going back through medieval texts, deriving from the systematising of late classical followers of Plato. In the Middle Ages it became the ladder which led up through the Natural World, to man, then the angels, then to God himself.

When science came along in the 19th century the idea of there being an up and a down to life on earth, of a forwards and upwards drive in evolution, was taken over by positivists and lingered long into twentieth century political, social and fictional rhetoric.

It’s gone now. It was associated with the notion of a hierarchy of races (wise whites at the top), of genders (wise men at the top), and class (the wise Oxbridge-educated at the top), all of which began to be questioned and undermined soon after Boulle’s book was published.

Also, in biology and evolution, there is now no sense at all that humans are somehow ‘superior’ to all other animals because (in the tired old trope) we produced a Shakespeare or a Mozart. Watch any David Attenborough nature documentary and you’ll see that biology, for some decades now, assumes that everything is highly evolved, where highly evolved means that the organism fits perfectly into the niche it occupies.

The notion that ‘evolution’ means some vague, half-religious drive ‘upwards’ towards greater and greater intelligence has been replaced by a notion of ‘evolution’ which is a computer-aided understanding of the myriad complexities of DNA and genetics, and how they act on organisms to ensure survival. There is no ‘onwards and upwards’. There is merely change and adaptation, and that change and adaptation has no innate moral or spiritual meaning whatsoever.

Thus reading Monkey Planet is, like reading most science fiction, not to be transported forwards into a plausible future, but the opposite – to travel backwards in time, to the completely outdated social and intellectual assumptions of the 1940s and 50s.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Purple by John Akomfrah @ The Curve, The Barbican

The Curve is the long, narrow, curving, dark, subterranean exhibition space at the Barbican. It is currently hosting several works by British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah.

The first thing you see on walking down the steps, is a massive pile of car tyres reaching to the ceiling. This gave me a warm feeling as I grew up in a petrol station which did tyre repairs and had a huge shed with stacks of every kind of car tyre then on the market. Us kids used to play hide and seek in it.

Preliminal Rites

The first pictorial display is Preliminal Rites, two enormous triptychs i.e. sets of three very big stunningly detailed photos taken in a beautifully unspoilt hilly landscape (the Peaks, the Lake District?) in which a handful of humans stand in model-like poses, wearing old-fashioned dress, and dotted around at their feet are incongruous objects, most strikingly a big old-fashioned clock face. Time. Tempus fugitSic transit gloria mundi. An old idea, but conveyed in a striking composition in stunning digital clarity.

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

A world of plastic

As you continue walking along the dark, rather intimidating space, you come to a section entirely made up of scores of old, heavy-duty, white plastic canisters hanging upside down from the ceiling, with white lights above them. The effect is of a heaven of plastic shining down, pushing down, illuminatingly or threateningly, down on all of us. I stood beneath this junk firmament and reached up my arms to pray to the universe of synthetic polymers.

Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Purple

After plastic heaven you walk through a sort of doorway into the final section where a row of comfortable benches is lined up facing an array of six enormous screens on which is playing the one-hour long video, which gives the show its overall title – Purple.

Akomfrah has ransacked hundreds of hours of archive footage from numerous sources to edit together this vast portrait of man’s impact on the natural world. The images on each screen are all different, cut from scene to scene at different moments, and sequences on one screen jump to other screens then back again, and so forth – so on one level it is quite disorientating. But on another, quite hypnotic.

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Broadly speaking there are two types of image or sequence: the archive footage, mostly in black and white, showing society from 50, 60, 70 years ago, faces, streets, cars, factories, power stations, coal mines, and so on — and a series of brand spanking new, up-to-date sequences which Akomfrah shot himself in a dozen or so locations around the world.

The aim of the whole thing is to convey the depth and reach of man’s impact on the natural world. I’ve written about this in other blog posts, the idea is simple: humanity is destroying the natural environment and wiping out our fellow species at a phenomenal speed, at a rate only matched by the previous big five extinction events in the history of life on earth.

The sixth extinction

As such we are responsible for what geologists are now widely referring to as the Anthropocene Age and biologists refer to as the Sixth Extinction.

The archive footage Akomfrah has selected is fascinating. I sat enraptured watching old black-and-white footage of coal miners working underground, of old geezers in muffled up coats walking the grim streets of some Northern town, then old men in doctors’ clinics having lung capacity tests, cut-away views of a human lung under a microscope – presumably damaged by coal dust inhalation and general pollution – a scientist kneeling down to scoop up some of the black filth lying in a gutter with a spoon to put in a sample bag. You get the idea. No commentary. No sub-titles. No explanation. Just the footage. You draw your own conclusions and make your own connections.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Beautiful world

But what lifts the film onto a completely different visual level is the astonishing, haunting beauty of the footage Akomfrah himself has shot, positioning solitary human figures in remote and stunning landscapes around the world.

These range from the vast open landscapes of Alaska and Arctic Greenland to the volcanic Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Apparently, they were all chosen as sites demonstrating climate change or acute pollution or environmental degradation – but they are shot with breath-taking, super-digital clarity which slightly overawes the ostensible purpose.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

The benches facing the screens were packed. Nobody moved. Everyone was transfixed by the haunting beauty of these truly dazzling sequences.

Ambient soundtrack

The impact is increased by the soundtrack. The music was composed by Tandis Jenhudson and David Julyan. Waves of very slow, ambient sound, sometimes rising to distinct piano melodies then fading back into washes of electronic sounds, designed to be assimilable, haunting, moody, sad and reminiscent (to me) of the slow sad music of Twin Peaks.

You can see the images, hear the sounds and listen to the man himself explaining it all in this Barbican video.

And…?

Are we meant to be happy or sad? I, personally, realised we are destroying the current environment when I read Silent Spring back in the 1970s – obviously new patterns and balances will eventually arise, new equilibriums be established, with or without humanity – but in our little lifetimes it is hugely distressing to realise how many beautiful, intricate species and life forms we are devastating and driving extinct, now, as you read this.

But what can you do? Everyone wants a mobile phone, a car, a colour TV, a home with running water and fresh food shipped in from around the world. More people want more stuff, and there’s more and more of these people – 3 billion when I was born, 7.6 billion now, 9 billion by the time my son will be my age.

I try to live modestly, avoid driving, flying, recycle my trash, cycle everywhere, but… well… I know it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. My life is an insignificant drop, a minuscule fraction of the vast pullulating population of locusts which is stripping the planet. We really are a plague on the earth.

Maybe you disagree. Either way, Purple is a really beautiful, haunting show about a vastly important topic, and it’s completely FREE!

So if you’re passing anywhere near the Barbican, set aside half an hour to drop in and be enraptured, inspired, maybe depressed, certainly affected.

Still frame from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions at the Barbican

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

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Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

The World of Charles and Ray Eames @ the Barbican

Never heard of Charles and Ray Eames before. Didn’t realise Ray (b.1912) was the wife of Charles (b.1907). Didn’t know that, as a team, they are among the most influential (American) designers of the twentieth century.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Charles and Ray Eames selecting slides. © Eames Office LLC.

Potted biography

They met in 1940 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where Charles was head of Industrial Design, married in 1941 and moved to Los Angeles. They were working on the problems of moulding plywood to make chairs and other furniture when war broke out (December 1941) and they quickly got a contract to supply a design of leg splint to the US Navy. They moved their workshop to 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, Los Angeles, which became the Eames office for the next 45 years.

Chairs

Design of chairs and other domestic furniture continued to be a central thread of their work – an entire room is dedicated to sketches, examples and videos of the manufacture of a new style of flexible, lightweight fibre-glass chairs. Their numerous designs for efficient, mass producible, stackable, storeable chairs revolutionised design, changing the feel of meeting rooms, assembly halls, conference centres all around the world.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames - Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Stacking Chairs, 1957. © Eames Office LLC.

Interiors

Chairs are obviously only one element of interior design and one whole bay of the exhibition is dedicated to a display of the Charles and Ray Eames’ room created for the For Modern Living show, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. The commentary emphasises that the house was emblematic of a whole attitude to living. It included the pioneering flat-packed Eames Storage Units, as well Eames folding tables, plywood DCM chairs and other household accessories displayed in a clear uncluttered space. Looking remarkably like the mock-up of a living room in an Ikea superstore.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames. Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

Ray Eames. Collage of room display for An Exhibition for Modern Living, 1949. The Work of Charles & Ray Eames, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Eames Office LLC.

And interiors, of course, occur inside buildings – As early as 1944 Ray (an artist by training) was hired to design the covers of Arts & Architecture magazine, to which the pair contributed articles on prefabricated housing. The magazine then launched the ‘Case Study House’ series, by inviting eight leading designers to design and build their dream homes – think Grand Designs circa 1945.

The Eames house (1949)

One bay of the show displays architectural plans, photos of the construction and then a film of Case Study House number 8, designed by Eames, completed in 1949, and really striking for both its Mondrian-style, gridlike exterior and the cool, open, relaxed interior. The Eameses were very Californian, right from the start, in their emphasis on fun, play, curiosity.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Eames House Living Room. Photograph: Antonia Mulas. © Eames Office LLC.

Multimedia

The conjunction of architecture, art, design, photos and film is no accident – if the exhibition demonstrates one thing it is that the Eameses were pioneers of the multimedia presentation of information. The chronology of their achievements shows that each year there were developments on the furniture side (folding tables 1947, storage units 1950, wire chair and sofa 1951, stacking chairs 1955, and so on) and they also made toys and other practical items…

Glimpses of the USA (1959)

… but the exhibition is dominated by the films they made, and the multimedia presentations combining film, slideshows and music which they pioneered and perfected. A good place to start is the multi-screen installation Glimpses of the USA from 1959. It was commissioned by the US government for the first US-USSR cultural exchange. The result is a thirteen-minute film which was projected onto seven twenty-by-thirty foot screens, installed in a 250-foot diameter geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park. Must have made a phenomenal impact.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

Installation view of Glimpses of the U.S.A., American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 © Eames Office LLC.

The narrator is Charles Eames himself who, in rich slow sonorous American tones, describes a day in the life of contemporary America, with its huge freeways and soaring skyscrapers and humming computers and dirty factories and mighty dams. Accompanied by a soundtrack by long-term Eames collaborator, the Hollywood movie composer Elmer Bernstein (think The Magnificent Seven), it is booming propaganda for the American Way of Life.

Altogether the workshop made over 120 short films, you can buy a five-DVD set in the shop (as well as a CD of Bernstein’s scores for them). They are relentlessly educational and pedagogic, with titles like The Expanding AirportMathematica, the House of Science, A Computer Glossary, The World of Franklin and Jefferson.

National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium (1967)

The mid-sixties was a prolific period. One project was a film, slideshow, booklet and design for a new national aquatic museum – the National Fisheries Centre and Aquarium. One of the multimedia elements was a slideshow – playfully titled Tanks – which plays here in a darkened bay of its own, three screens next to each other showing beautiful and relaxing images of countless beautiful sea creatures, jellyfish and so on, with pleasant dopey music. I can’t find it online, but – characteristically – the Eameses made a 1967 film outlining their plans for the Aquatic centre which captures the bright confident tone.

House of Science (1960)

In 1960, the U.S. Department of State asked the Eames Office to create a film for the United States Science Exhibit, which took place at the Century 21 World’s Fair in Seattle, Washington.

‘Think’ (1964)

In 1964 New York hosted a World’s Fair and the Eameses created a huge multiscreen slide show in a large, egg-shaped structure called the ‘Ovoid Theater’. This sat above the canopy and central structure of the pavilion and up to 400 people at a time were brought up to it by means of the ‘People Wall’ built like a grandstand.

The slideshow – shown here in a dedicated room – was titled Think after IBM’s famous corporate motto. Once again narrated by Charles’s rich deep tones, Think explains how design is really only glorified common sense, that it is a systematic way of solving problems, both the technically complex and the ordinary everyday.

As a ‘humorous’ example of the latter it shows a fashionable 1964 hostess planning the perfect dinner party, analysing out the parameters and decision points she needs to take account of. Think projected animated, still and live-action images onto fourteen large and eight small screens of various shapes and sizes. Again, it must have been an extraordinary experience.

IBM at the Fair (1964)

The Eameses had a lifelong partnership with computer giant IBM and, as well as Think, produced this film as a souvenir of the Eames/Saarinen IBM Pavilion at the World’s Fair.

Note the soundtrack by Bernstein again, which – to me – combines a wide range of influences – slapstick film music is in there – with an overarching feel of The Soldier’s Tale-era Stravinsky.

Education and pedagogy

The partnership seems to have taken a steadily greater interest in education, in teaching people about good design, in trying to spread the word about how to analyse problems and reach elegant solutions. Typical titles from the later 1960s and 1970s include: The Smithsonian Institution, Babbage’s Calculating Machine, Computer Landscape, Design Q&A, Two Laws of Algebra: Distributive and Associative.

From the top of the stairs to the second floor of the exhibition, you can see seven different films all running simultaneously in different bays and rooms, and their sound and imagery tends to swamp the other artefacts, the small black and white photos, the collection of ethnic masks from India, a roomful of pioneering Modernist chairs.

Charles held a number of teaching posts throughout his career and was invited to lecture around the world, including here in London, at the V&A. One arena which combines teaching and design is The Exhibition. It was slightly vertiginous to be wandering around an exhibition about the people who pioneered the modern exhibition, with consistently creative and imaginative use of sounds and visuals anticipating the exhibition’s imaginative use of, er, sound and visuals.

The Eameses organised scores and scores of major exhibition events. Typical titles include: Mathematica: A World of Numbers, Photography and the City, What is Design?, Isaac Newton: Physics For a Moving Earth.

Powers of Ten (1977)

This eight-minute film – to give it its full title, Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero – does what it says on the tin, starting with a family having a picnic in a park by a lake, then moving up 1 metre, 10 metres, 100 metres, 1000 metres and so on up vertically away from the scene so that only a minute into the journey we are leaving the atmosphere before travelling at dizzying speed out to the edge of the universe.

This unashamedly didactic film, based on a Dutch children’s book, is quaint and interesting and innocent. The subject obviously attracted the Eameses because it exists in two distinct versions, one from 1968, one from 1977, comparison between them demonstrating the evolution of film-making technique during that period.

Conclusions

  • The films overwhelm the more traditional static displays.
  • The films give a stunning sense of the size, wealth and dynamism of American society in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • I didn’t realise multimedia, the concept of total immersion in sound and imagery, was so old. Made me realise the projection of imagery onto live bands (Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground 1967) was copying something pioneered by these very staid, sober educationalists over a decade earlier.
  • Quotable quotes. As a lifelong educator, Charles is famous for his quotes: the shop is selling numerous books, notebooks, posters and fridge magnets full of his pithy wisdom (eg ‘The details aren’t details. They make up the product.’)
  • Again and again, the books, lectures, pamphlets, films and slideshows make the same point – that good design is problem solving and that problem solving is based on having the information: we must have the means, the technology, the skills with which to process the exploding amounts of information we are being presented with in order to make the right decisions.

This awareness of information – their close collaboration with IBM and their pioneering ways of communicating and informing – explains why the Eameses are referred to as the godparents of The Information Age. One of their earliest films is the classic The Information Machine, produced for IBM’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

Optimism and pessimism

The IBM at the Fair film features speeded-up footage of Americans going about their daily business. It reminded me of the similar sequences in Koyaanisqatsi or ‘unbalanced life’, (1982), the cult movie directed by Godfrey Reggio and showcasing the music of American minimalist composer Philip Glass. But how much has changed – what a gulf there is – between 1964 and 1982! In the interim, along with the explosion of all sorts of political movements, black power, feminism, the oil crises and revolutionary terrorism, has come environmentalism and the realisation that the planet is finite and we are degrading and despoiling it at a now-measurable and noticeable rate, which cannot continue forever.

No doubt the Eameses would refer us to their umpteen films, books, pamphlets and quotes about the power of information, the ability of modern computing power to process and analyse new worlds of data and – to solve problems! But thinking about this reveals the weakness of their rationalist approach: unlimited amounts of data and the infinite computing power of the internet mean nothing unless people fundamentally change their behaviour. Although their approach can tell you how to plan the perfect dinner party or design a mass-producible chair, it cannot tell you how to wean your entire economy off fossil fuels and your entire culture away from wasteful consumerism.

Nothing can.

Audio For Travelling To, Or From, The World of Charles and Ray Eames

Related links

The Third Man by Graham Greene (1949)

Harry had always known the ropes… (p.103)

Graham Greene collaborated with Carol Reed, the celebrated British film director, twice. Once on an adaptation of his 1935 story The Basement Room. The film version of this was released in 1948 as The Fallen Idol.

Reed’s producer, Sir Alexander Korda, wanted the pair to follow up as quickly as possible and suggested a film set in post-war Vienna. Greene visited the city with Reed and progressed from sketches and treatments to writing a 100-page novella to act as the basis of the screenplay. In the preface to published editions he says it was ‘never intended to be more than raw material for a picture’. He explains that he wanted a surplus of material to create the mood and background for the director, for the dialogue they would be writing, and to have a reservoir of images and text to draw on in tricky script conferences. Interesting way to proceed.

The novella, much work later, became the movie The Third Man, released in 1949 and regularly described as one of the greatest films of the 20th century, maybe the best British film ever. To cash in on the popularity of both films the novella was published in 1950 in a volume along with the short story, The Basement Room.

The Third Man (novella)

There are numerous differences between novella and movie, which are listed in the Wikipedia or BFI articles, below. The most famous is the ending. In the novella Martins and the girl walk off arm in arm, promising some kind of happy ending. In the movie Reed held out for his famous shot of the girl walking the length of the wintry avenue at the cemetery and straight past Martins who lights a cigarette and, in the final dismissive gesture of the film, tosses away the match.

For me the key difference is the nationality of the two lead characters. In the novella both the protagonist, Rollo Martins, the writer of pulp Westerns, and the elusive central figure, the racketeer Harry Lime, are English. Not only English, they both went to the same private school. In the film version they are both Americans played by Joseph Cotten (Martins) and Orson Welles (Harry Lime).

English public school

It is a revelation to see how the English provenance of the lead characters in the novella and this shared public school friendship, changes the feel of the whole story: it seems posher and narrower. It means that at regular intervals Martins drops in memories of Harry at jolly public school, or just uses memories of school playing fields and school boys etc, all of which create a rather exclusive, very English vibe.

‘I met him my first term at school. I can see the place. I can see the notice board and what was on it. I can hear the bell ringing. He was a year older and knew the ropes. He put me wise to a lot of things…’
‘Was he clever at school?’
‘Not the way they wanted him to be. But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out  his plans.’ (1986 Penguin paperback edition p.24)

Do American thrillers worry about a character’s school days? Do Hammett or Chandler? No. This is one of the ways the novella feels smaller. And because it adverts quite frequently back to jolly schooldays, it also has a childish thread. Countless books and articles have been written about how Greene’s generation of writers was peculiarly haunted by their public school days, maybe because they were raised to conform to late-Victorian standards and then went out to take part in the mid-twentieth century which was harrowingly unlike anything they’d been led to expect.

In Auden and Isherwood and Cyril Connolly and Evelyn Waugh and Betjeman there is a constant nostalgia for childhood and the reassuring certainties of their school days. They nearly all reverted to the Christianity of their childhoods. As Calloway, the police inspector, reveals the nature of Lime’s crimes to his old schoolfriend

a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years before in a school corridor. Every memory – afternoons in the long grass, the illegitimate shoots on Brickworth Common, the dreams, the walks – were simultaneously tainted… (p.82)

This schoolboy theme emphasises that the characters – like so many English public schoolboys, apparently – never seem to have grown up. They still think in terms of the house master’s pep talk, the team spirit, and rebelling against silly insular rules. Was Martins Harry’s fag? Did he go and warm the toilet seat for him on winter mornings? The narrator, the policeman Calloway, notes of Martins, that he

has never really grown up and perhaps that accounts for the way he worships Lime… [After Lime’s funeral] Rollo Martins walked quickly away as though his long gangly legs wanted to break into a run, and the tears of a boy ran down his thirty-five-year old face. (First page)

Now he could tell that it was Harry, by the clothes, by the attitude like that of a boy asleep in the grass at a playing-field’s edge, on a hot summer afternoon. (p.43)

… two happy young men with the intelligent faces of sixth-formers.. (p.68)

[Harry] stood with his back to the door as the car swung upwards, and smiled back at Rollo Martins, who could remember him in just such a secluded corner of the school-quad, saying, ‘I’ve learned a way to get out at night. It’s absolutely safe. You are the only one I’m letting in on it.’ For the first time Rollo Martins looked back through the years without admiration, as he thought: He’s never grown up. (p.104)

[Harry] gave  his boyish conspiratorial smile. (p.104)

‘The school-quad’. The narrowness of this shared public school heritage in a way lays the ground for the narrowness of Greene’s imaginative vision. He is, as ever, beady-eyed and critical, zeroing in on the seedy and sordid about his characters: the ill-fitting toupée of the man Lime sends to look after Martins, the wide forehead and large mouth and small, stocky figure of Anna (Harry’s girlfriend), the super-clean Dr Winkler ‘creaking among his crucifixes.’ (p.52). Everywhere is dirty, shabby, claustrophobic, disappointing.

The literary mix-up

This is exemplified, though in a comic spirit, in a central issue of both novella and movie, the mix-up over Martins’ name. Rollo Martins writes pulp Westerns under the pen-name of Buck Dexter. It so happens that a famous literary writer named Benjamin Dexter is expected by the British Council in Vienna the same day Rollo arrives.

Martins stumbles into this misunderstanding, responding to his pen-name Dexter at the airport, and then milks it in order to be put up in a nice hotel and given pocket money by the Council, thus allowing him to pursue his investigations. But it is a very English joke, giving rise to continual little ironies and confusions, the kind of thing the tightly-wrapped English find hilarious, because it is about social embarrassments.

This mix-up results in Martins having to address a British Council literary meeting, a scene of downright farce played all out for laughs. But I also found it noticeable for the age and dowdiness of the English audience, waiting with ‘sad patience’ and who give ‘low subservient laughter’ as he autographs their books. ‘Little half-sentences of delight and compliment were dropped like curtsies.’ (pp.68-72) How stuffy. How crabbed. How English they are, and the scene is.

American open air

Contrast all this with the movie, set alight by its virile charismatic American stars, brash and confident that their country owns the world. Even the fact that both are, in their ways, defeated, can’t efface the memory of Lime’s superb arrogance and how handsome Martins is as he talks to Anna. Films are about images.

The fact that Martins and Lime were at school together is kept in the film, but it wasn’t a jolly English public school, it now has to be ‘a school’, an American school.

‘When I was 14 he taught me the three-card trick. That’s growing up fast.’ (The film)

Instead of arrested emotional development, instead of the implicit snobbery, the smallness and the stuffiness that come from the English side, Lime and Martins now sound like they have more in common with Damon Runyon or Raymond Chandler, they sound cool, and this change of tone liberates the movie to give the missing Lime his romantic, mythical quality. It may be the best British movie ever made but that’s hugely down to the power and freedom of its American stars and the glamour they bring.

Greeneland

On the up side, it’s the stuffiness of the novella, its English small-mindedness, which underpins Greene’s worldview and makes possible his characteristically acute obervations, the details and the tiny ironies which make the novella particularly enjoyable.

One light, in a heavily beaded shade, left them in semi-darkness, fumbling for door handles. (p.52)

It wasn’t a beautiful face – that was the trouble. It was a face to live with, day in, day out. A face for wear. (p.62)

A small child came up to his informant and pulled at his hand. ‘Papa, Papa.’ He wore a wool cap on his head, like a gnome; his face was pinched and blue with cold. (p.65)

Very Greene: crisp short sentences describing an acutely observed moment – poverty and misery (pinched and blue) mixed with the incongruous or grotesque (like a gnome). In fact, in the following paragraphs the small child becomes a demon as it points at Martins and describes in German the argument he saw him having with the dead man, until everybody in the crowd thinks Martins is the murderer.

The Third Man

The title, incidentally, comes from the mystery at the heart of the story. Pulp fiction author Rollo Martins arrives in Vienna to find that the friend who invited him over, Harry Lime, has been run over and killed. With the curiosity of a professional writer, Martins sets out to meet the witnesses and quickly discovers a discrepancy: three people claim to have seen Harry run over and killed – his friend Koch standing by him on one side of the street, the American Cooler on the other side of the street, and the driver of the jeep which hit him. They all claim that two of them carried Harry’s body inside.

But Martins talks to the owner of the flat next to Harry’s who heard the accident, rushed to the window, looked down and saw three men carrying the body. Both the other witnesses deny the existence of this third man. So – who is the third man? Because it is a verbal form, the novella is able to really build up this theme by repeating the phrase wholesale, much more so than in the movie, which is able to convey so much more with looks, angles, music.

It takes most of the novella, and the movie, for Martins to conclusively prove the third man was Lime himself, who has faked his own death because the authorities are getting too close to him and his illegal rackets.

Greene despair

Thankfully, Greene’s penchant for hammering the reader with editorialising about the horror of the human condition, the preachiness which is so insistent in a novel like The Heart of the Matter, is almost completely absent from the novella. His dismal views about human nature or modern society are mostly implicit in the storyline or characters, a blessèd relief. Although there are a handful of exceptions which show the preacher-man lurking behind the scriptwriter, just ready to resume his lecturing…

The third stiff whisky fumed into Martins’ brain, and he remembered the girl in Amsterdam, the girl in Paris: loneliness moved along the crowded pavement at his side. (p.60)

He was in the mood for violence, and the snowy road heaved like a lake and set his mind on a new course towards sorrow, eternal love, renunciation. (p.85)

Oooh getting close. Peeping out from behind the curtains. And then, towards the end of the text, the preacher does spring out at the reader brandishing a handful of Moral Truths.

For the first time Rollo Martins looked back through the years without admiration, as he thought: He’s never grown up. Marlowe’s devils wore squibs attached to their tails: evil was like Peter Pan – it carried with it the horrifying and horrible gift of eternal youth. (p.104)

And we nearly get away without any of the Catholic voodoo which is, of course, a feature of most of Greene’s fiction. Almost, but not quite, because right at the end Greene does make Lime a Catholic. Having realised Lime is a monster of amoral egotism, Martins accuses him:

‘You used to be a Catholic.’
‘Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anyone’s soul by what I do. The dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils,’ he added with that odd touch of genuine pity. (p.106)

(Pity, as we know from the long lecture which is The Heart of The Matter, is one of mankind’s worst traits. Apparently.) ,

Making Harry a Catholic, in fact making any of his characters a Catholic, lets Greene give the impression his story has an added dimension, a supernatural aura not available to mere mortal novelists and most of us secular readers. It feels too much like deploying religion as a rhetorical tool to heighten the horror, to give the reader a thrilling theological frisson. A rhetorical device, which he deploys pretty relentlessly, to add ‘depth’ to what are, in the end, totally secular stories.

Summary

This is a great, quick read, alive with Greene’s strengths: creating a strong sense of place, quickly sketching in believable sympathetic characters, a consistent eye for vivid, telling detail, a dry sense of irony, with none – well, hardly any – of the tiresome lectures about human nature and the Catholic hoodoo which mar a lot of his other books.

Related links

The movie

Trailer for the movie.

PS Allan Quatermain

Of all the things in the world to compare the labyrinth of sewers under Vienna’s street with, Greene compares it with the underground river which flows to the lost city of Milosis in the Henry Rider Haggard’s novel Allan Quatermain. Which is the second time he references it in so many books, as he also mentions it in The Heart of The Matter, where Quatermain is Scobie’s childhood hero.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

The films of Woody Allen

Woody is 79 (b.1 December 1935), has made well over 40 films (as well as writing all those books and plays and TV scripts), and is still making them at a prodigious rate: last year Cate Blanchett won best actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine and he has two more films scheduled for release this year. Woody Allen filmography. His has been an extraordinary career, packed with amazing achievements in a range of forms – standup, TV, movies, theatre, books.

My kids bought me a big box set of Woody Allen movies, I bought a few more, and set out to watch as many as I could in chronological order:

1965 What’s New Pussycat? OK, it’s dated, and Allen wanted it removed from his oeuvre – but with loads of great scenes and with Peter Sellars and Peter O’Toole and that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Richard Burton, and Ursula Andress parachuting into a sports car, come on, it’s great! My son loved the climax at the go-kart chase. I loved Peter Sellars’ half hearted attempt to give himself a Viking suicide on the banks of the Seine until Woody turns up with a midnight feast.

‘Get a sports car!’
‘But I can’t drive.’
‘So you knock down a few people – but you’ll get the girl!’

  • 1966 What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
  • 1967 Casino Royale
  • 1969 Don’t Drink the Water
  • 1969 Take the Money and Run

1971 Bananas (Colour) A series of great sketches loosely tied round the story of chaotic nerd Fielding Melish who winds up helping guerrillas overthrow the dictator of a fictitious Latin American country. When he makes love to his girlfriend as Melish, she always says’There was something missing’. A lot later, he bumps into her on his US tour masquerading as the great Latin leader, they to go bed, he eventually reveals who he is and she says: ‘I knew there was something missing’. the film climaxes with an excruciatingly unfunny scene where they get married and go to bed and a real US boxing commentator commentates on their pantomime love-making. Amateurish, endearing. (82 minutes)

  • ‘I love leprosy, cholera, all the major infectious skin diseases.’
  • The spoof ad with the Catholic priest: ‘New Testament cigarettes. I smoke ’em. [points up to heaven] He smokes ’em.’

1972 Play It Again, Sam

1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) Every bit as cringeworthy as the title suggests, it’s a set of sketches cobbled together rather like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and just as uneven. The standout sketch is the one of Gene Wilder as a serious NY doctor who… falls in love with a sheep! (86 minutes)

1973 Sleeper (Colour) Very funny comedy about Miles Monroe who wakes up from a coma to discover it’s 200 years in the future and, as a reawakened sleeper, he is wanted by the Police State which now runs America. The giant banana skin, the orgasmotron. Diane Keaton with her kooky charm (or lack of it) plays the brainwashed woman who holds absurd art parties until she sees the light and becomes an ardent revolutionary. (88 minutes)

  • Face the fact that everyone you knew has been dead for nearly 200 years.’
    ‘But they all ate organic rice!’
  • ‘Hello I’m Rex. Woof woof woof.’

1975 Love and Death (Colour) Spoof on all those Russian novelists. Diane Keaton is the woman Boris Grushenko (Allen) loves but can never attain. Starts with hilarious satire on the doltish Russian family, mutates into what must have been very expensive battle scenes with thousands of extras in costume, before becoming a bedroom farce as they try to assassinate Napoleon. Bit painful. (85 minutes)

‘You remember how to have sex, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time practising, when I’m alone.’

1976 The Front Long one about a 1950s cashier (Howard Prince – Woody) who is approached by one of the scriptwriters blacklisted during the McCarthy era to act as a ‘front’ through which they can continue to sell their work to the TV networks. The film is in a worthy cause – ie reviving memories of this bitter time – and the credits mention that many of the producers and actors in it themselves experienced blacklisting only 25 years earlier. But the emotional core of the piece is (presumably) meant to be the Zero Mostel character who is hounded to his death by the McCarthites. Unfortunately, Zero is, alas, a poor or very stylised actor, whose predicament evoked embarrassment rather than sympathy in this viewer. Similarly, the love interest – Andrea Marcovicci – is (presumably) meant to represent a serious strand in the film: she falls in love with Woody the writer and is inspired by his integrity to resign her job from the network – only to discover he is a fraud. Unfortunately, she is acting opposite the essentially lightweight Allen and so these scenes, also, do not gel.

One of the rare Woody movies which he didn’t write; an interesting attempt to be a dramatic actor in someone else’s script – which doesn’t really come off. And the payoff line, where Woody tells the committee to go —- themselves? In the real world you don’t get the last laugh against people like that. And certainly not in a ‘serious’ movie. The film fails to convey the real sense of fear and helplessness which the memoirs of the period reek of. (95 minutes)

1977 Annie Hall (Colour) Apotheosis of Diane Keaton and a film which wonderfully balances inventive, funny sketches (the scene on the balcony where their nervous conversation is subtitled with their real thoughts) with something a little deeper about relationships and love. In retrospect, the whiny, needy Allen character (Alvy Singer) is becoming irritating. Nausheous, as he would say. (93 minutes)

  • ‘There’s an old joke: there’s two old ladies at a resort in the Catskills and one says, Isn’t the food here disgusting? and the other says, yes and such small portions!’
  • ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t do teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym.’
  • ‘It’s OK I’ll walk to the kerb.’
  • ‘I’m due back on planet earth now, Dwayne.’
  • ‘Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I really love.’

1978 Interiors (Colour) Brave failure. Attempt to show a WASP family disintegrating, but the acting is strangely stylised. I don’t believe the paterfamilias at all, and much if not all of the dialogue is wooden. Maybe it’s meant to be as stylised as the empty, heartlessly immaculate interiors of the big family house by the sea where the intensely unhappy drama plays out. The father has abandoned his middle-aged wife who is breaking down as a result. Their three adult daughters struggle to cope and argue spitefully with each other. A deliberate attempt by Diane Keaton, and Allen, to shake off the kooky image of Annie Hall. (99 minutes)

1979 Manhattan (Black and white) Brilliant. The idea came from wanting to film Manhattan to the music of George Gershwin and it succeeds spectacularly. OK we’re back with Allen playing the needy, whiny, self-obsessed, amoral lead character, a man with no restraint or self-discipline who cruelly manipulates his 17 year-old lover. But it looks great. Meryl Streep is powerful as the venomous, humourless lesbian ex-wife who is writing a warts-and-all account of their marriage. (96 minutes)

1980 Stardust Memories (Black and white) Brilliant. The account of a famous film director at a weekend festival dedicated to his work in a faded holiday resort. He’s whiny, needy and wildly erratic in his pursuit of multiple women, who include his neurotic wife (Charlotte Rampling), a French woman, a foxy student. Those scenes highlight the rather tiresome Allen needy narcissism. What makes the film it visionary is the portrayal of the circus freaks who populate the rest of the film, his agents, the Hollywood producers, his fans, and the characters in his persuasive nightmares. And Rampling’s performance as the neurotic wife going mad has rare power. (88 minutes)

1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (Colour) Brilliant. Touching, funny, beautifully shot in upstate New York countryside. The 1910s setting is great. The house in upstate New York is wonderfully picturesque. Jose Ferrer as the pompous professor is greatly funny. The use of Mendelssohn’s music throughout is inspired, the obvious counterpart to Gershwin in Manhattan. And the Allen character – for once not too whiny-needy – is a crackpot inventor who gives the movie a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feel, a real magical realism tone to what is at core a familiar story of characters all being in love with the wrong person. It’s the first of a run of 13 movies which feature Mia Farrow, his muse in the 1980s as Keaton had been in the 1970s. (88 minutes)

1983 Zelig – disappointing. Black and white spoof documentary about fictional character Zelig, an odd patient who turns into the people he’s with ie believes he’s a doctor among doctors, becomes black among blacks, Scottish among Scots and so on. The film tries to persuade us he became a phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s with songs and dances and movies about him. Allen persuaded Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe and Bruno Bettelheim to take part, giving interviews as if about a real man. But the central premise isn’t strong enough to carry any of this. ‘He just wanted to fit in.’ Is that it? I was hoping it would say something about the politics or society of the time. Instead it said nothing at all and dwindled down into the love affair between Zelig and his pretty doctor, played by Mia Farrow. (79 minutes)

1984 Broadway Danny Rose (Black and white) Love the setup of a tableful of middle-aged comics who get round to reminiscing about the heroic loser agent of the title played by Allen. Manages to be dramatic and very funny as the Allen character (Broadway Danny Rose) has to go to great lengths to get the trashy mistress of his one and only decent act to attend his breakthrough singing opportunity – but his efforts draw the attention of the Mafia. It’s worth it for the scene of the party sad Danny has in his crappy apartment with his terrible acts, the blind xylophonist, the bird act with one dead parrot etc. The role of Tina Vitale, the trashy tramp tied up with the mob is, maybe, Mia Farrow’s best performance, because so unlike her usual thoughtful, timid characters. (84 minutes)

  • ‘I don’t want to badmouth the kid – but he’s a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse, and I say that with all due respect.’
  • ‘Lou you’ve got a wife!’
    ‘Yeah, but this is different – I’m in love!’
  • ‘He’s cheating with you. He has integrity. He only cheats with one woman at a time.’

1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Mia Farrow is married to a wife-beater in some crap industrial city during the Depression, whose only solace is going to the movies. Until one day the romantic lead steps down from the screen and woos her, leading to all kinds of comic scenarios. Eventually, the actor who plays the errant character flies out from Hollywood to confront his alter ego. Good example of an Allen movie which feels like an extended sketch and runs out of steam well before its (surprisingly downbeat) ending. ‘I’m married. I’ve met a wonderful man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.’ (82 minutes)

Some thoughts Many of these movies begin to flag about 40, 45 minutes in. I read he had trouble completing sketches for Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex and one or more of the others. It shows. So many of these films begin brightly with interesting setups and characters and the first few developments being funny or dramatic… but then run out of steam. Most of them struggle to last an hour and twenty minutes and that’s with numerous musical interludes. Take the music out and they’d be closer to an hour ten. At which point you wonder whether, with a bit of tighter editing, they’d make really punchy hour-long dramas…

1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (Colour) The first one which feels like an ensemble piece, with the dramatic plotlines shared among four or five characters, each given a fair share of development. And which features an English male actor. I remember liking this a lot in the cinema when it came out, it seemed like a breath of fresh air, tackling the real lives of realistic people. Now it feels dated. Michael Caine is not convincing as a financial advisor who develops a crush on his wife’s sister, inveigles her into an affair, and then is overcome with regret. His voiceover narrative is stifled and unnatural. Max von Sydow, who we revered in his Continental films, is wasted as Barbara Hershey’s older, artist, husband. (106 mins)

1987 Radio Days (Colour) Excellent. A reversion to comedy, a lovely memoir of childhood in Rockaway, New Jersey during the Depression in a big Jewish family full of characters and love and arguments, all neatly threaded round the theme of the radio programmes and songs they loved to listen to. The strand devoted to Dianne Wiest as ditzy Auntie Bea, always unlucky in her endless quest for a husband, is wonderful. Heart-warming. (85 minutes)

‘When I was a kid I didn’t know anything about classical music: I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr and Mrs Goldberg did on their wedding night.’

1987 September (Colour) Couldn’t be more unlike the above: it is shot almost exclusively inside one house in the country where Mia Farrow’s character has fled after a suicide attempt, with a would-be novelist for a lodger who she adores but who has fallen in love with her best friend, Dianne Wiest’s Steph. The film covers the long weekend when her overbearing mother, a former starlet (Elaine Strich), comes to stay with her current boyfriend. More like a Tennessee Williams drama with scenes of real intensity, and a wonderful performance by Dianne Wiest, miles away from ditzy Aunt Bea of its predecessor, showing real range and ability. The token English actor in this one is Denholm Elliott touchingly (but wildly improbably) in love with Mia Farrow. (82 minutes)

1987 King Lear – can’t get hold of.

1988 Another Woman (Colour) A wonderful study of Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) a successful philosophy professor who, through a freak of acoustics, can overhear the therapist next door from her workroom, and one particular patient (Mia Farrow) whose frank discussion of her failing marriage, worries about life etc strike an unexpected chord and, along with other revelations, lead Marion to reconsider her whole life. Not really an ensemble piece but all the other characters have real depth and development and it builds to a warm and glowing conclusion. Wonderful. Adult. Life-affirming. The token Brit is Ian Holm, more at home than Michael Caine was in this milieu, as Marion’s successful but distant cardiologist husband. (84 Minutes)

1989 New York Stories What a great idea: a story each by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody about the city that never sleeps.  What a stinker it turns out to be! The Scorsese one is sustained by Nick Nolte’s performance as a big shot, loudmouth artist, but suffers from typical Scorsese technical tricks and a whining performance by Rosanna Arquette as the tiresome Muse. The Coppola one is dire, presumably meant to be a charming tale of New York rich kids which hangs on the central performance of a 12 year-old girl who, unfortunately, proves Coppola’s gift for heroic miscasting. It was co-written with his daughter, and the music was provided by his wife. Uh-huh. Dire. The Woody Allen piece – Oedipus Wrecks – is the least bad, as Allen plays a middle-aged Jewish man harassed by his overbearing mother who, after a freak accident, becomes a vast figure in the sky telling the whole of New York about her son’s bedwetting. Genuinely funny and touching.

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors (Colour) the tale of a successful ophthalmologist (Martin Landau), his brother the rabbi who is going blind, and his other brother, the no-goodnik who consorts with criminals. His mistress (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to tell his wife about their affair. When she threatens to also spill the beans about his embezzlements, Landau mentions his plight to his rough brother, who promptly arranges for Anjelica to be murdered. Threaded through is the comic strand of Woody as a failed arthouse documentary director, in the shadow of his super-successful brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, sheepishly falling in love with Mia Farrow’s assistant producer. I remember liking this in the cinema. On the small screen it didn’t quite ring true. The scenes where Landau revisits his childhood home and sees himself as a child listening to the big family discussions about God and the Meaning of Life are clever and should be touching. But ultimately I didn’t believe it, any of it, didn’t believe Angelica Huston as the weepy vengeful mistress, didn’t believe Landau could seriously countenance her murder. It was too schematic, the actors felt too much like puppets being manipulated to bring out Woody’s familiar obsessions: is there a God or is it all just meaningless random suffering. There are quite a few, more sophisticated, less black-and-white, ways to look at the world… (104 minutes)

1990 Alice (Colour) Satire about an upper-class New York wife of a super-rich banker (Mia Farrow), their sterile, pampered life, and her awakening triggered by bumping into an attractive musician at her children’s prep school, this coinciding with her starting treatment with an unusual Chinese herbalist. In the end her conventional life falls to pieces and she has to confront her freedom, which she uses to become a ‘charriddy’ worker with foreign kids. Just as Mia Farrow has done in real life. (102 minutes)

Magical realism In Alice the heroine is given potions by her Chinese practitioner which make her invisible, let her see ghosts, and fly over New York. It’s undermentioned in the reviews – which always reference Woody’s gags, his Jewishness, New York, his love of jazz, the devotion to Ingmar Bergman etc – that there’s a transformative magic in many of these movies. It’s there in the earliest sketches, which are frequently fantastical or non-realist eg the scenes in Annie Hall where he talks to figures from the past. (This scene – the relived Jewish childhood – dominates Radio Days and features in even such a serious movie as Crimes and Misdemeanors.) Oedipus Wrecks is obviously light-hearted but the way his mother appears as a giant presence in the sky is magical, visionary. The entire premise of The Purple Rose of Cairo is that the characters in a film can climb down out of the movie screen, an entirely magical scenario. Zelig is magical in that Zelig changes anatomy to fit in with his contexts. And, charmingly and wonderfully, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy features not only Andrew the inventor’s flying machine but his strange device for seeing ectoplasm, for visualising ghosts and memories. In Mighty Aphrodite the Greek chorus punctuate the action, appearing in New York settings and having knock-down arguments with the Allen character, a dead man talks to him, fiction confusingly infects ‘real life’ as stories he’s written are dramatised and interact with the situations and people who inspired them. In Deconstructing Harry various characters the writer has created come to life and talk to him in a thorough interweaving of fact and fiction and, strangely, visionarily, Robin Williams’ character becomes blurred, soft, out-of-focus in real life. In Shadows and Fog Armstad the Magician drags Kleinman into the mirror before capturing the murderer in a magic cage. One character coments: ‘Everyone loves his illusions.’ ‘Loves them? They need them – like the air.’

Magical realism is a strong, wonderful, redemptive strand throughout Woody Allen’s movies.

1991 Scenes from a Mall (Colour) Poor. Woody only co-stars in this, the first film he hadn’t written, produced or directed since The Front. The screenplay is by Roger L. Simon and Paul Mazursky and directed by Mazursky, so we’re at liberty to find it much more conventional than a Woody movie. No magical realism, for example. Just a straight account of sports lawyer Woody married to relationship counsellor Bette Midler in LA, they see the kids off on a holiday, and go shopping to the mall on their 16th wedding anniversary where he confesses to having an affair – and the sheepdip hits the fan. This really isn’t funny. No laughs at all. Just a spoilt American couple behaving like fickle 12-year-olds and mistaking their callow superficiality for emotions, for life. (89 minutes)

1991 Shadows and Fog (Black and white) This is really odd. An hommage to the black and white Expressionist films of Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau, set one night in a fantasy Mitteleuropean city between the Wars – not unlike the Transylvania of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) – all set to the lively Weimar music of Kurt Weill. A murderer is on the loose and Kleinman (Woody) is woken from a deep sleep into a Kafkaesque nightmare where mobs of humourless vigilantes at first recruit him for their unspecified plan and then, inevitably, come to suspect him and then chase him. Why? And what is the subplot about Mia Farrow and John Malkovitch as performers in the circus who split up and have various adventures on this ill-fated night? The film is trying to be three different things: a hommage to intense European movies (fail); a nightmare of antisemitic Kafkaism (some moments of real menace); but throughout it the Woody character wisecracks as if in one of his earliest slapstick efforts (occasionally funny, sure, but mostly wildly out of place, badly undermining the previous two themes.) And, surreally, the pop star Madonna appears as the vamp at the circus. Random. Unsuccessful. (85 minutes)

  • ‘Misky is a craftsman. He performs wonderful circumcisions. I’ve seen a lot of his work.’
  • ‘They found me earlier in a whorehouse.’
    ‘Well, I’m not one to knock a person’s hobbies.’

1992 Husbands and Wives (Colour) Supposedly a serious look at two couples, played by Woody as a literature professor and wife Mia Farrow, and their best friends played by Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack. JD and SP having a trial separation during which they experiment with inappropriate partners (Liam Neeson and Blythe Danner) with lots of shouting at each other, before reconciling at the end; whereas Woody and Mia genuinely split up as he flirts with one his students and she falls in love with tall, dark, handsome Liam. The affairs aren’t even about life-enhancing sex, as all the characters experience some kind of sexual problem. The whole tedious farrago appears to be an unintended advert for how emotionally incontinent a certain kind of rich, American, East Coast liberal is. If I hear one more character say, ‘I’m so confused,’ I’m going to throw a brick at the screen. With adulthood come responsibilities, duties, and lots of work. These characters in gilded cages have pretend jobs which are window-dressing for the same endless, agonised dialogues of the deaf. ‘I think I still have feelings for Michael.’ ‘I think I have feelings for you/you have feelings for me/we all have feelings for the sofa/do you still have feelings for the shower-curtain?’ I couldn’t wait for it to end. Technique: shaky handheld camera throughout, copying its introduction into TV series in the late 1980s. (108 minutes)

Mia and Woody Vast amounts have been written about the breakdown of Woody and Mia’s relationship. This timeline establishes a few facts. For some people the revelations about Woody’s behaviour expose him as a bad guy, as fundamentally immoral. I am slow to condemn the artwork because of the ‘morality’ of the artist. Whose morality? If we systematically applied the ‘moral standards’ of 2014 (whatever they are) to artists of the past, who would escape a whipping, etc? Nonetheless, for me, in a more limited way, they undermine the claim so many of the movies make to be serious analyses of morality: even in the funny early ones the narrator is agonising about what is right, what is true, what should I do? The revelations about his private life which emerged at this period introduce the fatal doubt that Woody’s entire oeuvre is not about one auteur’s quest for wisdom, insight, moral certainty or whatever – it is in fact one long demonstration of the director’s inability to understand morality. Husbands and Wives, which was received as a peak of his mature style, now looks like the latest iteration of the tiresomely repetitive, self-centred, narcissistic inability of all most of his main characters to demonstrate any backbone, sense of duty or decency. Again and again the characters screw up their lives through a basic inability to think and behave like responsible adults. Eventually it gets tiresome.

1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery Not in the box set.

1994 Bullets Over Broadway (Colour) Very funny premise. Not quite such a funny movie, in practice. – It’s the 1920s, Prohibition and gangsters. John Cusack’s nerdy, angsty playwright (now who could that be based on?) is convinced he’s written a masterpiece. To get it performed his producer taps a gangster for funding, which comes with the string that the gangster’s useless girlfriend must be in the cast. Gangster assigns bodyguard Chazz Palminteri to chaperone her. Frustrated by the endless rehearsals he has to sit through, Chazz starts offering his own suggestions. To everyone’s amazement, they turn out to be really good. Meanwhile, Cusack is seduced by legendary Broadway actress (another great performance from Dianne Wiest) who persuades him to beef up her role. As the movie hurtles towards its violent climax, Cusack realises he’s not an artist after all, he is in love with his poor girlfriend, and he wants to return to the simpler countryside where they grew up.

1994 Don’t Drink the Water TV movie.

1995 Mighty Aphrodite (Colour) Woody is married to Helena Bonham Carter. The movie opens with them arguing about whether to have a child just like Woody and Mia argue about whether to have a child in Husbands and Wives. They adopt one, but Woody’s curiosity gets the better of him. He tracks down the birth mother, who turns out to be a sweet-natured, dim call girl (Mira Sorvinho). Woody wisecracks all the way through as if in one of his early films, while everyone else has to be stone cold straight –

‘Be more like the brave Achilles!’
‘Achilles only had an Achilles Ankle, I have a whole Achilles body.’

Poor Helena is thrown away in an underdeveloped sub-plot as she has a sort of fling with the rich backer of her new art gallery. Radiant Claire Bloom apears in a couple of scenes as the mother. Only Mira brings real warmth and depth to her role and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The magical realism/big concept is that from start to finish the movie is punctuated by a full-on Greek chorus who comment on the action, pop up in scenes in New York offices and apartments and, at key moments, burst into cheesy Broadway musical numbers. It’s sort of a good idea but, along with other elements, feels like it was made out of bits of earlier films. Comedy should be funny. This is schematic, a diagram of what should be funny but not funny in practice. And if I see one more married couple ruminating on why their marriage is no longer as passionate as the early days, or hear one more adulterous adult say, ‘I’m so confuuuused,’ I’m going to scream. (95 minutes)

1996 Everyone Says I Love You can’t get.

1997 Deconstructing Harry (Colour) American professional upper-middle class couples being unfaithful to each other. Who cares. As the content of these later films becomes more repetitive and who caresy, the casts become more and more starry: Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci and Robin Williams appear in this one! Harry Block the eponymous hero betrays every relationship by exploiting it in his fiction. More than once it’s crossed my mind to compare Allen to American supernovelist Philip Roth: both New York/New Jersey Jews, both famous for their neurotic/angsty/Jewish characters and milieu, both trying to escape their early reputation for comedy and aspiring to European seriousness, both staggeringly prolific (Woody 40 movies; Roth 28 novels and five or six story collections) and both getting into trouble for using their real-life relationships in their work. And with both, after reading/watching a few works consecutively, you feel like saying, “Can we open a window? Can we just get some fresh air and sunlight in here?”

‘Your life is nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.’
‘You know in France I could run on that slogan and win!’

A lot of scenes in this film feel reheated. The main plot is Harry’s roadtrip to his old college to get honoured, just as Woody travels to a weekend festival of his films in Stardust Memories. His therapist wife Kirsty Ally rages at him during a therapy session she is running – to the comic distress of the poor patient – just like Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives leaving the room to swear down the phone at Woody, before returning to her bewildered date. His roadtrip pal dies in the car and then reappears (dead) in the prison cell:

‘Is it better being dead?’
‘Is it better being dead? Well, you don’t have to do jury service.’

Wasn’t Love and Death full of lines like that? Admittedly, not all of them worked in those early movies, but now hardly any of them do – they seem strangely adrift. Most of these actors are good, serious dramatic actors who bring depth and power to their roles but Woody drifts among them wisecracking and undermining the plausibility and credibility of their scenes. He has a duet with Elizabeth Shue where she’s saying she doesn’t love him any more and is marrying his rival; she plays it straight; he is wisecracking and kvetching all over the place: it’s jarring. It makes you not believe the characters or their dilemmas. Which makes you not care. Which makes it boring.

The scene with Billy Crystal as the Devil in Hell is like a sketch rejected from Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex. They joke about the girls they’ve had sex with: ‘Blind girls, they’re so grateful.’ Ha ha if you’re 15. It’s tired. For a few minutes you’re watching Woody Allen – a man who writes lines which sound as if they’re funny but aren’t – trade gags with Billy Crystal – a man who looks as if he’s being funny, but isn’t.

Technical experiment: there are loads of jump cuts and the deliberate repetition of key shots eg the film opens with Judy Davis stumbling out of a taxi half a dozen times between titles. Presumably this is to emphasise the fictionality, the contrived and created nature of film. (96 minutes)

  • 1998 The Impostors
  • 1999 Sweet and Lowdown
  • 2000 Company Man
  • 2000 Small Time Crook
  • 2000 Picking Up the Pieces
  • 2001 The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
  • 2002 Hollywood Ending
  • 2003 Anything Else
  • 2004 Melinda and Melinda

2005 Match Point (Colour) Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ selfish tennis coach character kills his mistress played by Scarlett Johansson. Personally, I don’t find killing pregnant women an agreeable form of entertainment. It’s set in London. What happened to the whiny New York intellectuals locked in their claustrophobic apartments? The settings are bright and shiny and the characters repellent.

  • 2006 Scoop

2007 Cassandra’s Dream (Colour) Again in London. Did Match Point signal the end of Woody movies set in America? South London brothers Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are persuaded by rich uncle Tom Wilkinson to kill an inconvenient business associate. They carry it off, but are racked with guilt. — The script is strangely thin: in particular the dialogue is oddly baroque and stilted. I love Ewan McGregor but found him, like all the other characters, thin and unbelievable. Hundreds of better films have been made about naive young men persuaded against their better judgement to commit murder and then unable to bear the guilt. Didn’t Hitchcock milk this to death in the 1940s and 50s? (110 minutes)

2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Colour) Spain. From interviews I gather Woody thinks American no longer appreciates or understands his films. They do better in Europe and he also finds it cheaper and more interesting to film in Europe. And so the thin story of Vicky and Cristina who come to spend two months on vacation in Barcelona, ‘finding themselves’, as so may gap year students before and since have set out to do. Though the main plot is meant to be about art and the artistic temperament, the film is solidly based in a world of very expensive hotels and investment bankers and in almost every scene the characters are drinking wine or cognac from enormous wine glasses. It reeks of luxury and money. Although some characters mention their jobs no-one is shown working – it is a fantasy dreamworld where people just talk about their emotions and feelings and failed marriages and agonise over what love is. As usual. Plot: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) fly to stay with their super-rich friends in Barcelona and are almost immediately propositioned by manly Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He beds the aloof rational Vicky, thus throwing into jeopardy her plans to marry solid, safe investment banker, Doug. He then beds the romantic Cristina which leads to an extended affair during which Juan’s estranged wife María Elena (Penélope Cruz) returns to stay in the house after a suicide attempt. Cristina brings peace to their relationship, both artists flourish, Cristina learns how to become a talented photographer (the directionless woman’s art form par excellence cf Annie Hall) and there are threesomes and lesbian scenes. Eventually Cristina realises this chaotic lifestyle is not for her and, in a climactic scene, Juan is seducing uptight Vicky again when Maria Elena bursts in and starts firing a gun. Both girls realise the error of their ways. The Americans return to their big, rich, stable country leaving the Europeans to their rackety lives.

Like EM Foster’s young ladies returning chastened from Florence or Henry James’s Americans recoiling stung from European imbroglios or any number of well-off people dabbling in Bohemia for thrills and then returning to their secure middle-class existences, this feels like a very old story. Beautifully shot, well acted and completely insubstantial. It won Allen and Cruz a clutch of prizes, critical plaudits and has become one of Allen’s most profitable films.

  • 2009 Whatever Works
  • 2010 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

2011 Midnight in Paris (Colour) France. Another promising conceit. Owen Wilson is in Paris with his spoiled fiancée, and her corporate executive father and wife. Luxury hotels. best of everything. American money. Owen is a successful Hollywood writer but, of course, believes he has a great novel in him. He goes wandering the streets of Paris and, at midnight, a piece of magical realism occurs: a vintage car from the 1920s appears and invites him in and drives off into 1920s Paris where he goes to parties and bars and the flats of his heroes: in a daze he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, Salvador Dali and so on. It is 6th form reading list, it’s like the shelf of an undergraduate from the 1960s come to life. Except. When he meets his heroes – all Owen (the surrogate Woody figure) can talk or think about is – being unfaithful to his fiancée by falling in love with the beautiful young mistress of Picasso. He’s soooooo confuuused. Eventually he realises what was obvious to every viewer after the first few minutes – he’s not suited to his fiancée and they split up; and he meets the gorgeous young woman who owns a second-hand shop on a bridge over the Seine as it starts to rain and they walk off to start a love affair. Like a cliché of the American tourist, Allen has a check list of the artists and writers he has to ‘do’ – and here they all are, carefully chosen for their resemblance to their historic originals – but once he’s there, meeting them, er, what shall we talk about. Questions of technique, history, philosophy, art? Nope. My fiancée doesn’t understand me. I’m soooo confuuuuused.

  • 2012 To Rome with Love
  • 2013 Blue Jasmine
  • 2014 Fading Gigolo
  • 2014 Magic in the Moonlight

Personal favourites

Sleeper, Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, Another Woman.

Thanks Woody

Despite the limitations and repetitions which a sustained look at his work tends to bring out, it’s worth paying tribute to an extraordinarily varied and ambitious body of work, and one which contains so many thousands of funny lines, so many powerful scenes, so many visionary flights of fantasy, so much imagination and creativity. Thank you, Woody.

Related links

The Vikings (1958)

Kirk Douglas was producer on this swashbuckling movie of Viking life and love and so it is no surprise that he dominates the screen as Einar, the gorgeously handsome, superbly strong and confident son of the legendary Viking Ragnar Lothbrok (‘Hairy-Breeches’).

The opening sequence voices over rostrum shots of the Bayeaux Tapestry to give a surprisingly evocative introduction to the Viking Age, before getting straight into the rape and pillage as Ragnar kills the English king Edwin and rapes his wife. The result of this union, the bastard son who will grow up to be Tony Curtis, is sent abroad soon after birth with only a stone pendant to identify him. Twenty years later, caught and sold on as a slave, he ends up at the Norwegian base of none other than Ragnar, his natural father, and comes into conflict with Einar (Kirk), Ragnar’s lawfully acknowledged son, all three men blissfully/tragically ignorant of their true blood relationship. Kirk and Curtis are half-brothers and rivals to the death, which feels authentically saga-ish.

And the rest of the plot is the colourful story of their conflicts, particularly over the stunningly beautiful Janet Leigh, fiancée of the horrible Anglo-Saxon King Aella of Northumbria and kidnapped by Ragnar’s Vikings for ransom. And rekidnapped by Tony and taken back to England along with Ragnar as prisoner. And so on.

It’s a great rainy Sunday afternoon film. One one hand, mildly surprising they bothered to use real historical figures, but then it’s based on a historical novel The Viking by Edison Marshall itself based on sagas and the chronicles. On the other it is notably unhistorical – King Aella is reported to have died in battle with the invading Great Heathen Army, not pushed into a pit of wolves by Tony Curtis. And the son of Ragnar who led the revenge attack on Northumbria was named Ivar the Boneless, not Einar. Then again, the sources offer conflicting accounts and the sagas freely shape history for dramatic purposes so why shouldn’t a movie?

It’s a relief the film didn’t show Aella having his ribs being separated from his spine and his lungs being pulled out through his back, the torture or mark of the so-called ‘blood eagle‘, as some accounts report.

They used real Norwegian locations for Ragnar’s settlement which are breathtakingly beautiful. But dominating the film is the super-manly figure of the virile, drunk, angry, superbly confident, scarred and ultimately doomed Kirk Douglas. Watch and adore!

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Film: The Woman In Black

27 February 2012

Daisy (10) persuades us to take her to see ‘The Woman In Black’ (12A).

It really was terrifying. I had one child clutching each arm and they nearly broke them at the scariest bits. I don’t think it settled the Daniel Radcliffe debate one way or the other. He was OK, but another young actor might have been better. He looked shorter than all the other male actors. Maybe he’ll become an English Michael J Fox, a perpetual child-man.

The Woman in Black official trailer on YouTube

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