Ah, Sunflower!

To the Renoir to see Iain Sinclair and Robert Klinkert’s 1967 film ‘Ah Sunflower!’. The film is semi-legendary, an important part of the Sinclair narrative. He’s written of how the cash he received from the German TV company WDR paid for his Hackney house. The story of the filming became Sinclair’s first (self) publication ‘The Kodak Mantra Diaries’.

The Renoir is sold-out, midday Sunday. I see Iain in the foyer, and we briefly talk about my film of Nick Papadimitriou, ‘Beyond Stonebridge Park’, that he has kindly screened excerpts of at ‘City of Disappearances’ events. I foist a copy of my Wycombe book, DVD and DHPS newsletters upon him. When I point out the Nodules of Energy reference that I took from his ‘conversation’ with Will Self at St Luke’s in 2004, he seems amused by the application of this formula to High Wycombe rather than Bunhill Fields.

He’s enthusiastic about the gathering, the numbers, the energy enlivening the corporate monocultural concrete of the newly de-generated Brunswick Centre. We should stage another Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation, at the Roundhouse, 40 years after the original, open up the secret London, an all-nighter, Iain says. It seems plausible, it seems like the right moment, the backdrop being Iraq rather than Vietnam, Blair for Wilson.

Sinclair introduces the short film selection as “what some people might call ‘Deep Topography” – a term outlined by Nick in our film. He adds the definition that it’s a “going back into the City and looking at it in a kind of structuralist way.”

Ah, Sunflower!, exceeds expectations, the casual camerawork, the capturing of Allen Ginsberg in full flow delivering mantras and propositions of a kind of psycho-politics that seems ripe for realisation.

Iain’s 1972 film ‘Maggid Street’ gets a rare outing, a surreal Brakhage-inspired gothic tale, a minor masterpiece. Sinclair has hours more of unscreened 8mm footage waiting to be unleashed, Bolex diaries of Hackney’s transformation in the 70’s.

There’s talk of re-staging the event somewhere, in one of the Curzons. If you don’t make it, the DVD is available from The Picture Press (mailto:info@thepicturepress.co.uk. Beat Scene has also republished ‘The Kodak Mantra Diaries’ (I think Dolly Head Books has one of the ultra-rare originals).

Iain Sinclair will also be at the NFT on Feburary 27th interviewing Andrew Kotting after a screening of Kotting’s new film ‘Offshore (Gallivant)’ – book early if today’s anything to go by.

Iain Sinclair has written about the experience of making the film on the Guardian’s arts blog

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Waves of Disappearance: cinematic topographies of the North Eastern frontier

I’ve written an article on the topographical films of Leytonstone (and the Lower Lea Valley) for UEL’s ‘Rising East’ journal of East London Studies, which you can read here.

In the course of the research I came across a couple of other filmic E11 references: a Bollywood film called ‘I….Proud to be an Indian’ (2004) set in a late-seventies Leytonstone terrorised by Nazi skinheads. And a 1963 film directed by Joan Littlewood, ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’. There was also a sitcom in 1999 ‘Small Potatoes’ starring Tommy Tiernan, “Ed Hewitt runs the shambolic Screen Dreams video shop in Leytonstone, east London. He has a media-studies degree but is underachieving, consoling himself with the thought that video rental is part of the media business. His working day is enlivened (and/or complicated) by visits from three friends – sex-obsessed Rick, who works in his family’s chemists shop; aspiring photographer Juliet; and the vague Benett, currently working as shoe-hire boy at a bowling-alley.” Apparently it was another failed stab at producing a British ‘Seinfeld’ (a colleague, who also lives in Leytonstone, tells me that it was actually quite good).

I’ll be developing another project with Cathy, in Maidstone, for Architecture week in July. We’ll be posting stuff here as we go along. There’s already a link to the Wycombe work in the figure of Benjamin Disraeli, who failed to get elected as MP for Wycombe 3 times before taking the Maidstone seat.

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Ken Loach in Leytonstone

Probably the greatest living English film-maker is shooting his latest film in the backyard of one of the greatest dead English film-makers. Ken Loach has been spotted around the backs of buildings on Leytonstone High Road shooting his latest film “These Times”. There was a snippet in Time Out recently:
As he turns 70 – the Times disparagingly referred to him last week as a ‘pensioner from Nuneaton’ – Loach is about to embark on one of his most ambitious films yet: ‘These Times’ (again written by Laverty) will be a contemporary story set just outside London. It’s not an easy project. Loach’s search for authenticity, often casting non-professional actors, is no mean feat in a city of 7 million. But the director is clearly excited: ‘Everything that’s going on in the world is represented somehow in London.'”
It’s apt that in order to make the definitive film about London, Loach sets it on the city’s fringe. When seeking to gain a perspective on the nature of a landscape artists have often ventured out to the Edgelands, as Iain Sinclair proved so brilliantly with London Orbital, Andrew Kotting with his fantastic film ‘Gallivant’ and Jonathan Raban in his book ‘Coasting’.

After writing this post I stumbled upon Loach’s crew parked up in Harrington Road. They were naturally a bit cagey and didn’t give much away apart from saying that the film isn’t specifically set in Leytonstone but ‘East London’ generally. They pointed out where the filming was taking place, above a shop about 3 doors up along the High Road from the junction with Harrington Road. Some of Loach’s ‘non-professional’ actors were lurking nervously outside on the cold street having a fag and rubbing their hands together.

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Moleskine and The Family Friend

Two treats from Italy this week. Yesterday a package arrived from Milan from Modo e Modo containing a new Moleskine in replacement for my current notebook with the pages falling out in great chunks. I followed the guidelines on the excellent moleskinerie site, sent in a description of the problem along with photos. Monday I received an apologetic email from Modo e Modo followed by a new notebook yesterday. Very impressed.

Monday I caught Paulo Sorrentino’s new film ‘The Family Friend’ (L’amico di famiglia) in the London Film Festival. Visually very arresting, set in a town of De Chirico arches, fascist state architecture, a landscape made famous by Fellini. There is a scene, a beauty contest, which seems to directly reference the public celebration depicted in ‘Amarcord’. I’ve been in such places, descibed them in an unpublished travelogue. It’s the other side of Il Bel Paese. The foggy flatlands of the Po Delta. A land of small (abusivo) apartments built outside the walls the historic town centres, along streets with broken pavements and the incessant sound of farting Piagio Bravos and cholic kids. A very long way from the sun-drenched olive groves of Chiantishire. Sorrentino’s central character is the kind of person that feeds upon the unhappiness that festers in such places. A grotesque little man of apparently without a heart who refers to himself as Geremio ‘Heart of Gold’, a moneylender, a Shylock, a Fagin. He preys on the poor and the vulnerable and is ultimately undone by hitherto unknown feelings, for woman he has abused, not unlike Zampano (Anthony Quinn’s character) in ‘La Strada’.

Metaphors are laid on metaphors – women playing volleyball in slowmo, a naked girl sleeping in the park, the choosing of ‘le bomboniere’, the gold foil wrapped chocolates that Geremio eats. After an hour totally immersed in this world I found myself strangely unsatisfied at the end despite the retribution meted out to the heatless Geremio. The final chapter seemed to hurry to its conclusion, too keen to provide a simple resolution. It was close to being a great film, it’s a brave adventurous effort that may struggle to find an audience outside the cinephillia of the LFF.

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the tower behind the tree

I’ve become slightly obsessed with the view from my bathroom window. It’s a glimpse of a tower block that sits behind a tree and is beyond the roofline of Norlington School for Boys that dominates the vista. The window itself is not a grand affair, it’s the small one at the top of the frame, but it’s head high and everytime I go into the bathroom my eyes become drawn to this horizon then lock onto the tower. It started off as merely an intriguing sight, but has since gained a greater hold over me. Now I feel that it is trying to communicate with me, calling out, transmitting a signal that so far I can’t unscramble. When I had to get up in the middle of the night to comfort one of the children it appeared there as a strip of light, the illuminated stairwell, suddenly I didn’t mind so much being woken at 3am.

I have so far resisted the temptation to visit it up close for fear of disappointment. I would like it to remain as a slightly unfixed, unreal location, a floating tower, a bit like the ships that I used to watch sail across the horizon at night from my bedroom in Collaroy, Sydney. There is every chance, that up close, I wouldn’t recognise it that it would continue to appear as a point in the distance.

It is only recently that I realised that this tower could be a manifestation of the one in John Smith’s classic film ‘The Black Tower’. That film had infiltrated my consciousness years before I moved out here, half a mile from Smith’s house and the location of the film. Maybe it drew me east from Islington. Called me over from the high ground of Penton Mound to a similarly elevated part of London. Maybe I should make a film as Smith did in order to understand my relationship with this mystical object. Although I think I’ll just keep gazing at it from the bathroom window for now.

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Finisterre

I eventually caught St. Etienne’s psychogeographical film about London ‘Finisterre’ at the ICA the other week. The band and directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans openly acknowledge that their project was a response to Patrick Keiller’s classic, ‘London’. In the year that Patrick Keiller was shooting his seminal film ‘London’, Saint Etienne recorded their second album ‘So Strong’. Both film and album captured a raw slice of the capital in 1992. Keiller’s film set against the backdrop of John Major’s election triumph, IRA bombs and Black Wednesday, just as St Etienne’s album was an audio tour of Greasy Spoon cafes and cold Kentish Town pavements.

Keiller’s influence is immediately apparent in the opening sequences of Finisterre. We see static establishing shots that are ‘London’s’ signature and hear the voice of an unseen, un-named narrator as with Paul Schofield’s perfect dry delivery of his account of excursions taken with his former lover Robinson. In Finisterre it is never obvious who the ‘flaneurs’ of the piece are, we merely see a train arriving from Croydon at 06:01. Suburban boys out to explore the capital. It is implicit that this is the story of the band’s journey through London.

The other key inspiration is the James Mason fronted film of Geoffrey Fletcher’s book ‘The London Nobody Knows’ with it’s celebration of the forgotten and neglected city of the sixties; Chapel Market, Percy Circus, Gin Palaces, public loos. We see Bob Stanley in a café flicking through its pages.

As the film unfolds these influences recede as other characters are introduced delivering their meditations on London. Artist Julian Opie, who designed one of St Etienne’s album covers, the guy at the record pressing plant where their first single was committed to vinyl, Vic Godard punk hero and postman.

The London we see is invariably the one inhabited by the band their collaborators, Hackney, Islington, Highgate, Soho. In this sense it represents more of personal topography than a ‘state of the city’ film essay that Keiller achieved. The references here are more towards the films of John Smith, particularly ‘Girl Chewing Gum’ and ‘Black Tower’.

The personal element to the film becomes its most compelling aspect rather than its stylistic homage to Keiller. The voice-over delivering lists of observations and associations reminiscent of the hypnotic prose of Hackney writer Iain Sinclair’s dérive reports from the unseen city. Fused with the visuals it constructs a palimpsest of the capital in 2003 much as Keiller’s film captured ’92.

Islington gets good coverage in the film: Percy Circus, the old dairy on Amwell Street, the world’s most uninviting dentist’s on Copenhagen Street (with a hand-painted sign in shaky letters), Packington Estate, Barbican, the Water Rats on Grays Inn Road, and Lubetkin’s Bevin Court with its famous stairwell.

The new St. Etienne album is named after a block of flats on the City Road, Turnpike House, and their follow-up film to ‘Finisterre’, ‘Caff’ featured the Golden Fish Bar on Farringdon Road, the recently deceased Alfredo’s on Essex Road (now S&M), and the Rheidol Rooms in Rheidhol Street.

I showed Bob, Pete, and Paul (another Wycombe boy and onetime member of Heavenly Records band East Village) my battered copy of Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ which they hadn’t seen and earned me a copy of the DVD (which is on sale now) – well worth its place next to my copies of ‘London’, ‘Galivant’, and ‘London Orbital’.

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