Monday, 20 November 2017

The Tenth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, November 2017

Dr Rory Finin, director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, organised an interestingly diverse programme for the tenth Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film on 17-18 November.  The venue was once again the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College where the audience was treated to films old and new.

As Dr Finin said, Friday’s two films were intended, in their different ways, to reflect on the hundredth anniversary of the ‘Russian Revolution’, which he pointed out was not solely Russian nor a single event.  The upheaval in Ukraine added a desire for independence to a mix containing a range of views across the spectrum about what type of political form should emerge from the chaos, creating a complex, shifting situation.

The evening kicked off with the first of two films in the festival directed by Svitlana Shymko:  The Fall of Lenin (2017), a short film dealing with the destruction of Lenin monuments across most of Ukraine – the occupied territories being of course a notable exception.   Shymko made The Medic Leaves Last (2014), shown in the festival two years ago.  The Fall of Lenin was made with financial support from Docudays UA, a distributor specialising in Ukrainian documentaries, the Guardian newspaper and the British Council.

Surprisingly, it opens with a group of serious-looking middle-aged individuals in a library with pictures of Lenin and Marx behind them holding a séance to contact the spirit of Lenin.  They actually do allegedly get through to Vladimir Ilyich (the spectre of communism?), who must have been surprised to find that there is an afterlife, something a reading of Engels’ ‘Natural Science and the Spirit World’ would have suggested to him was most unlikely.  Possessing more of a sense of humour than one suspects he displayed when alive, he claims to have been an angel in life, though not a good one.  When asked, his prognosis for the future of Ukraine is not positive.  The Ouija session gives way to documentary footage of the erection of various Lenin statues in front of restrained crowds, and a montage of destruction of such statues, of varying degrees of aesthetic merit and often already badly defaced, in front of, and sometimes by, jubilant ones.

Particularly striking is a deposed Lenin hanging humiliatingly upside down, perhaps evoking in some thoughts of Mussolini and Clara Petacci hanging from a girder in Milan.  Another with ropes around its neck invites comparisons with Lenin’s comment about Arthur Henderson in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.  There is also footage of the destruction of religious symbols by the Bolsheviks, making a link between their iconoclasm and the Ukrainians ridding their country in turn of ‘religious’ symbols in the form of the statues.  Scenes in a foundry show bronze being melted down, a shot lingering on Lenin’s face slowly dissolving.  The result is a bell, and when it is tested it rings beautifully.  The message could not be clearer.

In the final section a hand holds up old postcards of the monuments over the locations, and then takes away the cards to show what replaced them.  The variety of statuary, focusing on Ukrainian history or substituting a fountain, is a contrast to the Lenin monoculture of Soviet times.  What is missing from the film though is a sense of the range of opinions the mass removals must have generated: euphoria certainly for many, but surely regret for others.  The enthusiastic crowd is not representative of the people.  Is there now perhaps an element of ‘buyer’s remorse’ for some who feel the destruction was carried out too quickly, and an important aspect of the country's cultural heritage (not to mention its secular values) lost?  It’s a subject with profound implications for national identity, one that cannot be done justice to in 11 minutes – but then in its way, despite its brevity The Fall of Lenin’s richness does generate much to think about.

Arsenal (1929), directed by Alexander Dovzhenko is a different, sprawling, beast entirely, and Rory spent much of his introduction, as well as most of the festival programme, providing the background to this remarkable film.  I had last seen it at the 2003 Cambridge Film Festival, at the Arts Picturehouse, where there had been a Dovzhenko strand, and my verdict then had been that ‘Arsenal is the product of a filmmaker not in charge of his material’.  I had in mind the difficulty in discerning the narrative and with a visual style that was ‘bolted on, influenced by Eisenstein and Vertov [Arsenal was released the same year as Man with a Movie Camera], rather than an organic expression of the story’, and considered it was ‘trying to cram in too much’.

It was a naive view for which I apologise belatedly to Dovzhenko.  A second viewing shows he was fully in charge of his material.  The film is a suitably monumental treatment of a vast subject, and the programme correctly recommends treating it as a poem in three parts: elegy, ode and epic, noting in support of this approach that Dovzhenko was the ‘progenitor’ of Ukrainian poetic cinema.  At this remove, temporal and geographic, the episodic structure is hard to read for those more used to flowing narrative continuity, hence the need now for signposts, but the artistry is assured.

That is not to say Arsenal is sui generis.  There is a use of types, characters who represent social groupings, which we are familiar with from Eisenstein.  They often verge on, or crash into, caricature, for example the fat gap-toothed German soldier laughing hysterically under the influence of gas.  The only individual with a rounded character, and who stands in for Dovzhenko himself, is battered Tymish, late of the imperial Russian army, who is trying to make sense of the currents sweeping across his native Ukraine.  The crash of the train on which he is travelling – the engineer left behind and the passengers clueless how to operate it – symbolises the state.  Climbing from the wreckage, back in Kiev Tymish has to navigate the tensions between Bolshevism and Ukrainian nationalism.  The ambiguities in the film echo Dovzhenko’s own as a nationalist whose country is as much dominated by Russia as it was in Tsarist times.

How to break the tension between nationalism and socialism firmly controlled from Moscow?  This is where I think I had my biggest problem when I first saw the film.  At the end, Tymish, who has identified with the Bolsheviks, is confronted by nationalist soldiers.  Proclaiming himself a Ukrainian worker, thereby eliding the gap between the two identities, he urges his attackers to shoot, and tears open his shirt in an act of defiant martyrdom.  They fire, but he is impervious to bullets.  The 2017 programme argues of this scene: ‘By the end of Arsenal, Tymish rejects the zero-sum game placing his national identity and social/class identity at odds with one another’, which is spot on: in a sense, by his heroic act Tymish has transcended the difference and can hold both identities simultaneously.  That struck me as a cop-out when I first saw the film: to the Bolsheviks here is a comrade who cannot be killed by nationalists, but represents the inevitability of the revolution; to the nationalists he is a Ukrainian, who will prevail whatever may transpire.

In retrospect it feels like having your cake and eating it, but perhaps a position one could be more confident of in 1929 than in the following decade as the Stalinist grip tightened; even so, it feels as if Dovzhenko is sailing close to the wind.  After the screening I asked Rory about its reception in Moscow, thinking about the political situation and possible disfavour towards showing an alternative view of the standard narrative of the Revolution, as indicated in Eisenstein’s October a year earlier, and highlighting the failure of the Bolshevik Arsenal uprising.  However, Rory pointed out that, despite the failure of the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the nationalist Rada, Arsenal ultimately indicates the failure of Ukrainian nationalism (and the film’s reception in Ukraine itself was generally critical).  One wonders what Dovzhenko would have made of the politics of Euromaidan in his artistic practice.

Saurday’s films dealt with more contemporary, and more intimate, themes.  After another welcome viewing of The Fall of Lenin, we saw an earlier short by Svitlana Shymko, Here Together (2013).  This looks at a mother and daughter living in Portugal, where apparently there are a significant number of Ukrainians.  The mother works as a domestic, but she conducts a rather good church choir.  Her initial idea was to work in Portugal for a year, sending money home, before returning to Ukraine, but she missed her daughter Olesya, who only visited for holidays, and when Olesya decided to study in Portugal, she made the decision to settle there despite feeling the pull of home.  Her daughter is also talented musically, playing the piano to concert standard.  The pair highlight the pros and cons of living abroad: it can bring opportunities not available, or at least harder to find, in one’s home country, but it can also mean only finding work below the level of one’s qualifications and abilities.  The mass migration of workers entails loss of potential, both for the individuals and at a national level in the home country.

The final film of the festival was Dixieland (2015), directed by Roman Bondarchuk, and it was an absolute delight.  It focuses on a children’s jazz band in Kherson, about 280 miles south of Kiev.  The children begin playing at an early age and are very accomplished.  The film follows them as they practice, in a very dilapidated building, and perform in public.  These are children with talent and ambition, led by their mentor, Semen Nikolayevich Ryvkin, a gruff elderly man who is devoted to the project and his charges, and who in turn is clearly adored by them.  You sense that for some, music is a way out of a restricted life with limited prospects, and one lad goes off to boarding school where he can study music.   Even for those less fortunate, playing as a group builds confidence, and the children are shown to be outgoing and well adjusted.  Shots of kites in the sky at the beach symbolise their aspirations.  Young Polina is the star of the show, playing sax and trombone, not afraid to busk on tour and doing very well at it.

The result could have been saccharine, but it is not all about the music, and there is sadness along with the joy.  The children grow, they lose their director.  They play for him outside his hospital room and he waves down to them.  Polina visits him in his room, and it is shocking to see how thin he has become.  After Ryvkin’s death a young man steps in to carry on the work, and practice continues.  When he talks about studying in Kiev the young girls are clearly upset at the prospect of losing him.  He points out that everything changes, and this applies not least to the children themselves, who must inevitably leave the group and forge their own direction.  In Dixieland Bondarchuk has created a subtle film of great poignancy and humanity.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Arthur Brown and Jesus at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse

Thinking recently about my most influential teacher reminded me of the best music act I ever saw, which was while I was at the same school.  This was Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come (strictly speaking ‘Kingdom Come with Arthur Brown’) at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse, which thanks to a partial listing of Arthur Brown’s gigs I find happened on 11 February 1973.  The concert was a benefit for Nicaragua, though whether this was to provide relief for the devastation caused by the December 1972 earthquake, or to assist the Sandinistas’ fight against the Somoza dictatorship, I don’t know – probably the former, but possibly the latter, as there was a strong movement in this country at the time protesting against the reactionary government in Nicaragua.

It was one of a number of gigs I attended at the Roundhouse during the early- and mid-1970s.  These were on Sundays, from 2-10 pm, and each featured a number of acts.  So what made Arthur Brown’s set so memorable?  It was thanks to someone who was generally referred to as Jesus.  He attended all these events and wandered round in the intervals wearing a Kaftan and weirdly with what was essentially a mullet, handing out nuts to the audience.  He looked vaguely biblical, and was clearly a good egg, hence the nickname.  It was also amusing to say ‘thank you Jesus’ when he handed you a snack.  During performances he would often jump up on stage to dance, and as it was Jesus, and everybody knew who he was, this was tolerated and bands took little notice.  The general atmosphere at the Roundhouse was very laid back.

On this occasion Brown was giving a sterling performance when Jesus climbed up in his kaftan and began dancing at the edge of the stage.  Instead of ignoring him though, Brown began dancing with him.  They were very close together, then Brown pulled Jesus’s kaftan off him.  That could have been awkward, but mercifully Jesus was wearing underpants.  Brown got him down, face up, and was lying on top.  Then Brown shouted (and this is what made the day so memorable) ‘I’m going to fuck you, Jesus’, whereupon he simulated having sex.  This went on for probably only a few seconds though it seems longer in memory because I was gobsmacked, then Jesus got up, put his robe back on and the set continued.  I’m sure this was not pre-planned, but Jesus was relaxed about the whole thing.

Brown was on a roll because he refused to finish and the band just kept playing.  It is possible artificial stimulants were involved.  After a massive overrun the management turned the electricity off, whereupon Brown stood there defiantly shouting ‘give me power’, echoed by an enthusiastic audience oblivious to the impact Brown was having on the day’s schedule.  Eventually he gave up and the band exited the stage, leaving my sensitive teenage soul scarred by the sight of a man pretending to rut another, underpant-clad, man.  Astonishingly Arthur Brown, in his mid-70s, is still performing; one of rock’s great survivors.  Jesus’s fate is unknown.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Alec Richardson (1941-2003)

Recently I received an alert from the Red Mole website (subtitled ‘A modest contribution to the history of the Fourth International in Britain’, which frankly is far too modest) headed ‘Fancy a pint, comrade?  The post reproduces a crudely-printed ticket made for what it calls a ‘Karl Marx Booze Up’.  It continues: ‘October 1968 – A competitive pubcrawl to celebrate Karl’s 150th birthday – organised by South West London Vietnam Ad-Hoc Committee and believed to be the brain-child of one Al Richardson.’  The epic pub crawl began at Centre Point and took in a couple of dozen pubs before finishing in Hampstead.  The purpose was two-fold: to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and to raise funds for the South West London Vietnam Committee.

The idea, according to the ticket (no. 82), was to sink an alcoholic drink in every pub on the route, all of which existed in Marx’s time and were on the route Marx and his German émigré friends took on their own pub crawls.  The person to complete the course and finish a pint the fastest in the final pub would receive a ‘unique prize’.  The ticket proclaims: ‘Victory to the N.L.F.’, i.e. the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong.  To enter cost ‘half a dollar( 2/6)’;  five bob was often referred to as a dollar, reflecting times with a more favourable exchange rate.

An update to the post says the mystery prize was the brass door knocker from the house Lenin lived in in 1905, which Richardson rescued from a skip while the house was being demolished.  The winner was Peter O’Toole of the Irish Workers’ Group (so presumably not the Peter O’Toole).  I wonder where the door knocker is now.  Sadly I would have been too young to join them, but it must have been quite a sight.  I suspect there was a lot of singing as they made their increasingly wobbly way northwards.

Many people talk about that teacher who had a profound effect on their education going beyond school and helping to shape their lives.  I think I can identify two:  Someone called Ron Barrett, who taught me English at Battersea Grammar School, and the ‘one Al Richardson’, instigator of that long-ago excuse to get pissed, who was my history teacher at Forest Hill School, where he was known as Alec rather than Al.  His Wikipedia page describes him as a ‘British Trotskyist historian and activist’, which he was, but he was as well a professional Yorkshireman with an often blunt manner and an infectious enthusiasm.  He could also be very funny.

I had left Battersea Grammar (actually in Streatham) at 15, tried something that didn’t work out, lost a term’s schooling, and started at Forest Hill in January 1973 with two terms of the fifth form left.  I had been down to do a history O level at my previous school but the syllabus was different and I wasn’t able to carry on with the course.  So for two terms I sat in class with Alec’s prescribed reading, a straight diet of Isaac Deutscher.

Clearly Deutscher had a huge significance for Alec as it was reading the monumental three-volume biography of Trotsky – indeed a magnificent achievement – which caused Alec to leave the CPGB and join the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League, resign his lectureship at the University of Exeter and become a teacher at Forest Hill.  There he left the SLL and joined the International Marxist Group, but by the time I knew him he had resigned (not been expelled, as some reports have it) from the IMG because he objected to its increasing post-1968 obsession with student activism.  Ironically in the early 1980s it turned to Labour Party entryism, and Alec had always argued that the Labour Party was the key expression of working class politics and should be the focus of revolutionary activity.  He later joined and left the Revolutionary Communist League, then concentrated on research and writing.

He did not strike me as much of a party man, which may go some way to explaining why, doctrinal issues apart, he never stuck with any of the groups he joined.  There is though no doubting his commitment; in May 1968 he hitch-hiked to Paris to participate in the student protests, where he must have cut a distinctive figure.  He became a historian of the movement, interviewing Trotskyist veterans, and a prolific author and polemicist.  His major achievement was the three books he produced with Sam Bornstein: Two Steps Back: Communists and the Wider Labour Movement, 1939-1945 (1982), Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1924-1938 (1986) and The War and the International: A History of the British Trotskyist Movement 1937-1949 (1986).  In 1988 he founded the magazine Revolutionary History.

I have very fond memories of him, such as joking in class that it was appropriate for A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, published by Penguin, to have an orange spine as it was essentially a work of fiction.  He had studied ancient Greek and told the story of visiting Greece and using it, to the bemusement of the locals.  He stressed the modern Greeks were nothing like the ancient ones, so I don’t think he was too impressed by those he came across.  He had had a first in theology from Hull, but kept that quiet, and was of course sniffy about religion; I first heard the phrase ‘four-wheeled Christians’ from him.  He loved ancient Egypt, and told us it was his favourite period in history.  He was a tad sexist, and did not seem impressed by women, I suspect because he considered them lacking in sufficient class consciousness.  Appreciations of him after his death drew attention to his objection to sectional interests on the left, including feminism, anything he thought would dilute the workers’ struggle.

Sixth formers taking history would be invited round to the house where he rented a room from another teacher, and while we were supposed to be preparing for A levels he would hold forth on a wide range of subjects.  He gave the impression that teaching was a stop gap before he turned his attention to something more interesting, even though he did it for decades.  He was in fact a dedicated and inspirational teacher.  His Guardian obituary refers to him ‘earning the respect of colleagues and the devotion of pupils’, which is spot on as far as the latter were concerned.

He died in his sleep at the tragically young age of 61, but he was overweight when I knew him and never looked as if he took care of himself.  The coffin was draped in the flag of the 4th International, and his memorial meeting as reported in the Weekly Worker appropriately concluded with the singing of the Internationale.  The last time I saw Alec was in 1976 or early 1977, at a political meeting in London, where I was with people from the University of Kent.  We bumped into each other in the foyer and exchanged a few remarks, then I left to join my friends.  I’m sure many others will have warm memories of him as teacher, historian and political activist.  His influence on me was profound, and I celebrate his memory as he celebrated the memory of Karl Marx that day in October 1968, though in my case not by drinking in two dozen pubs!

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and the 50th anniversary of the famous pub crawl.  It would be nice if someone were to recreate the outing to commemorate both, but particularly Alec’s significant contributions to the cause he served in his own idiosyncratic way.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Harry Lockhart the phrenologist

Last week I had the huge privilege of meeting various Pinder/Sanger relatives on a pilgrimage to see family graves at West Norwood and Brockley cemeteries in south London, including that of my great-great-grandparents, Samuel Lockhart (1825-1894) and Hannah Lockhart, née Pinder (1826-1910).  As a result of the meeting I became aware of the book A Ticket to the Circus: A Pictorial History of the Incredible Ringlings, by Charles Philip Fox, published by Branhall House, New York, in 1959.  As the subtitle suggests, this is a history of the Ringling Brothers’ Circus.  It contains a couple of references to Sam and Hannah’s son, and my great-grandfather, Henry James Lockhart, generally known as Harry, who had worked for the Ringlings.  On p. 145 we learn that Harry was a believer in phrenologising elephants:

‘Professor Lockhart, an Englishman who had a trained elephant act on the show in the 1890's wrote:- “Elephants are selected for training when young.  The bumps on their heads are taken into consideration, for the phrenology of the elephant head is a sure index to character. A flat, low narrow head belongs to a vicious low-bred dangerous elephant. On the other hand, well rounded bumps over the eyes, a high forehead, and straight well-set eyes indicate intelligence and docility. Educating an elephant is like educating a child. You must begin training in childhood if you want them to be perfect at maturity. Patience, perseverance, and pluck are needed to train elephants.”’

Harry had been characterised as a great joker by a journalist on the El Paso Herald, so the suspicion naturally arises that he was having a bit of fun by espousing the application of phrenology to elephants, though they certainly have enough bumps to read.  Unfortunately no source for the quotation is given, so we don’t know where or when he wrote it.  The reference to patience, perseverance and pluck though was probably said in all sincerity because Harry would have been conscious of the risks involved in training elephants; his brother George was killed in January 1904, crushed by an elephant at Walthamstow, a year before Harry’s own death.

The book also contains a rather wonderful photograph of Harry dwarfed by five elephants standing on barrels, captioned ‘Prof. Lockhart, an Englishman, had a great elephant act on the show in 1897.’  It’s not to everyone’s taste these days but it must have been a remarkable spectacle.

Monday, 24 July 2017

A visit to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

Returning from a trip to Devon recently we stopped off at the University of Exeter to visit the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum (part of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, as a sign inside pronounced).  Despite it being a Saturday in the holiday we were amazed that we were the only visitors during the entire two hours we spent there.  The research centre was shut on a weekend, so no curators were around, but the museum itself is open seven days a week, other than bank holidays and between Christmas and New Year.  Admission is free.  As it was a vacation weekend we were able to park near the front door of the building in which the centre is situated, but I got the impression parking can be a problem during term-time.

Based on the collection put together by filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell over a thirty-year period, the museum has on show a small selection, about 1,000, of the 75,000 objects held by the university devoted to the moving image.  They include equipment, posters, photographs, books, magazines, toys, publicity ephemera – in fact anything connected with going to the pictures.  As well as covering the history of cinema, there is a great deal on pre-cinema, including optical toys, shadow puppets and magic lanterns.  It’s not all British and American; there is an international, or at least European, element.

Split into two main galleries, with extra cases before you go in for temporary exhibitions, the smaller ground floor room one enters first is devoted to cinema post-1910, and the much larger downstairs room to pre- and early cinema.  Thus visitors will tend to look at the more modern material before the older, rather than follow it in chronological order.  That on pre- and early cinema is grouped into peep shows, optical illusions, the magic lantern, panoramas, ‘the beginnings of film’, and so on.  Eadweard Muybridge has a case to himself.  Post-1910 cases cover filmmakers, British cinema, cinemagoing, animation, Charlie Chaplin, stars, Hollywood and blockbusters.  One would not expect much in the way of television, but the temporary exhibition, ‘Space, Astronomy and the Moving Image’, included Dr Who and the Star Trek series.

In addition to the cases there were objects on tables for visitors to try, such as replica praxinoscopes, zoetropes, stereoscopes and cards, and flick books.  Artefacts were well presented, within the constraints imposed by limited space and the necessity for low lighting, though often descriptions, particularly dates, were scanty.  However, it was possible to borrow a copy of the Bill Douglas Centre Museum Guide (2010) from reception to learn more about the collection.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum opened in 1997 with the Douglas/Jewell donation, but there have been additions by others since (including Derek Jarman’s producer James Mackay, whom I have had the pleasure of interviewing), and we noticed something from the British Film Institute’s old Museum of the Moving Image collection.  It is a shame the BFI has dispersed objects from MOMI, which closed in 1999, but this is a good place for them to reside, though Exeter’s restricted space means they can only display a fraction of what could be seen at the BFI.  I visited MOMI several times and, while I loved it, I was always frustrated that the curators failed to rotate exhibits.  I wonder if the same might be true of the Bill Douglas Museum.  If so, as it is much smaller, it will repay repeated visits less.  Of course, all the items listed on the museum’s website can be examined in the centre’s reading room.

While researchers will see the museum as an adjunct to the research centre, it is a valuable destination for the general public interested in this important part of our cultural heritage.  Those concerned primarily with the cinema in the south-west will find that the region is not prioritised (the South West Film & Television Archive is based in Plymouth), rather it celebrates cinema, its precursors and its culture, in the round.  Thanks to Douglas, Jewell and the other donors, and not least to the University of Exeter, it is a tremendously enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.