Posts Tagged ‘film’

The Jimmy Saville scandal broke shortly after his death in 2011. He was one of several icons of popular British culture I grew up with, revealed as false. These dubious characters commanded a great deal of trust. Indeed, we were continually fed their images, even when those who knew them, or worse, fell victim, knew their darker side. They kept quiet out of fear, perhaps, or shame.

So we don’t come from a good place, we British. We have learned to be cautious around icons of virtue. There are many, of course, who pass without notoriety. John Noakes comes to mind; Morecambe and Wise; Les Dawson; Dave Allen. These names, all popular entertainers from my youth, did not ruin my memory with parting scandal. Others did, and soured the Zeitgeist. They had us think all saints harboured dark secrets. It almost felt as if we were being taught to expect it, that goodness was always badness in disguise. It had merely yet to be exposed.

An icon I was unaware of, on my side of the Atlantic, was Fred Roberts. He came to me only recently in the biopic “A beautiful day in the neighbourhood”. This was the last film I watched in 2021. Roberts was an inspiration for a generation of American children. Featured on the cover of Esquire magazine in 1998, he was the subject of a major piece by journalist Tom Junod,

But as I watched the movie, a tainted Englishman, the spectre of Saville hung over me. Thus, I expected Roberts to be revealed as less than the thoroughly decent and Godly man he seemed. After all, is that not the way of our times? We set them up, then pull them down. But that wasn’t the direction the movie took at all. I’m not sure exactly when the redeeming moment first came for me, but I was a convert by the time we arrived at the scene in the restaurant.

Here the fictional, hard-bitten journalist, tasked with doing a piece on Roberts, and determined to find the cracks in him, is asked by Roberts to pause for a minute, and to reflect on all those in his life who had “loved” him into being. The restaurant falls quiet as everyone, casually eavesdropping, reflects, as I too reflected. Images of parents, aunts, uncles, friends, floated up from the depths of memory. They left me feeling bigger and more impermeable to life’s abrasions than before. It was a personal thing, but one we can all relate to. The movie concludes, as Tom Junod concludes in his article, that Fred Roberts was a remarkable, Godly man, who tried to make a difference.

The final scene is interesting, and mysterious. Roberts would finish his TV broadcasts at a piano, as things were being packed up for the day, and he’d play. He’d been asked, earlier in the movie, how do you deal with your own anger, your own darkness? He’d replied by saying, among other things, you can bang down on the lower notes of the piano. So we knew he was not claiming to be immune from doubts. But there are ways we can subvert the darker currents of human emotion, and rise above them. In this final scene, after he’s spent the entire movie redeeming others, he bangs down hard on those lower notes. We feel his discord, before he picks up again on a lighter refrain.

For the answer to this mystery, we turn to Junod’s 1998 essay. Portraying such a decent character as this, in film runs the risk of sinking into something sentimental. But Junod, writing in those pre-millennium times, also recognises something crucial about the times. Those were pre social media, proto Internet days. But the savvy were already joining the dots into the near future. They could see the decency of Roberts’ mission was growing ever more futile. Perhaps he sensed it, too, we don’t know, but that’s what’s hinted at in that final discordant bang on the piano.

We are left with the image of Roberts as a man, not perfect, but a good, Godly, and enlightened man, what other cultures might even call a bodhisattva. He approached life, and people, in a way that is alien to most of us. To what extent the movie accurately reflects the person of Fred Roberts, only Mr Roberts, can tell us. But I believe we do glimpse him in spirit, played as he is, with respect and reverence, by the actor, Tom Hanks.

Roberts died in 2003. The millennium was touted as a great turning point, and, in a sense, it was. I certainly didn’t see what was coming, at least not the extent of it. I did not imagine how unwholesome, how destructive of innocence, the direction of travel would be. It’s hard to watch this story of the life of Fred Roberts and not lament the way things might have been. Or was it inevitable, that his short TV slices of gentle wisdom, beamed at the young and the impressionable, would not be eclipsed by the mind-numbing, mind-bending weaponry levelled against the youngsters of today?

I don’t know. Had it not been for the Internet and the then unheard of technology of movie streaming, I would never have watched this film. I would not have learned about this man. What we’ve discovered then, in these first decades of the twenty-first century, is a way of connecting and amplifying everything that’s human, both the good and the bad of it, rather than something that is intrinsically and entirely bad. We’re just not very good at using it yet, and the cracks we see in it need to be healed somehow. If we’re wise, that’s what we’ll do, even if it takes the work of generations.

There will always be Savilles, as there will always be the likes of Fred Roberts. While it can be impossible, these days, to know who is worthy of our trust, what we can do is make a start by avoiding the trap of letting the one poison our faith in the redeeming nature of the other.

Welcome to 2022. Happy New Year.

Thanks for listening.

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The penultimate movie I watched, in 2021, was a darkly satirical offering called “Don’t Look Up”. Astronomers discover an asteroid on collision course with earth, a mass extinction event. But it coincides with another mass extinction event already well under way, which is the state of our political and media culture, and where it’s leading us. So far, from what I’ve read, it’s being called a sci-fi movie. It’s not. It’s very much of the moment, and what happens is eerily plausible, but then my span of life on earth includes the phenomenon that was Trump’s presidency, and the spectacle of the incumbent British administration. After that, anything will seem plausible.

The message I took from the movie, is those who can still relate to one another as human beings, still look up at the sky and know it’s real, and who value love and fellowship – well – you’d better cling to that, because it’s no small thing, even if your phone is telling you something else entirely. It’s also all you’ve got. It won’t stop you getting mown down with the rest of humanity in its stampede for the material, but you’ll be able to look back on your life, and feel it was worth something. The only other thing there is is this “culture”, for want of a better word, that we’ve built, lets say over the last twenty years, and which can have us look up at an incoming asteroid, and deny its existence, sneer knowingly at the science that’s telling us it’s coming, right up to the moment it strikes, then whimper uselessly, that we were lied to. What we’ve built, then, aspires to something stupid, and which crushes the life out of, well,… life itself.

It’s had mixed reviews, but I thought it was pretty much on the button. It was a sobering note to end the year on, but not altogether negative.

Individually, we’re all facing our own incoming asteroid, our own extinction event. There’s a line in the Chinese Book of Changes, that describes how some of us will approach this by denying its existence, by endless partying, pursuing surgery, drugs, botox and hair dye, all to maintain the illusion of eternal youth. Others will spend their lives crushed under the weight of it, bemoaning the harshness, and the futility of life, weeping over their lot at every chance they get. But to live as we should is to find another way, one that’s becoming harder, like a whisper in a room of noise, and it’s rarely taught, how to tune in how to age gracefully, how to mature as a human being. Part of it at least is to treasure the ineffable in what can be the all too transient and minuscule glimpses of a greater reality.

The movie ends with family and friends breaking bread around the dinner table, and asking the question: what was the best moment of your life? I took my cue from this and asked the question at our family Christmas lunch, not what was the best moment of your life, but of the past year. It’s tempting to see this past year, and the year before it, in purely negative terms, on account of Covid. But in spite of that, each of us could indeed pin-point a special moment, several in fact, and in that light, its not been a bad year at all, just different.

One of my special moments would be reaching the top of Pendle, in September, and having it to myself for a bit. There was something in the fall of light, in the colours of the sky, and the movement of clouds that day. We’re not always aware of it at the time. It’s only when we think back, we realise there was a special quality, a connection with something deeper than the surface of the everyday.

These are the times that give life meaning, their promise pulling us forwards, into life, though we have no idea when they will come again. They’re special because they’re reflective of something timeless, something of the immortal, a memory we are born with, and they don’t cost anything. It’s a glimpse, perhaps, of what the Hindu would call Brahman, the transcendent, or rather the divine consciousness, and that we are, each of us, “it”. What we’re seeing then, in moments like that, is a reflection of our own face in the crowd, and recognising it, even if we cannot name it.

But our vision, our ability to naturally transcend, is mostly hampered by the shallowness and the surrounding noise, and especially now, with the infernal din that is our “social” media, this thing that showed some early promise as a means of remotely connecting us, but which was captured by the big bucks machinery, and is now gamed simply to big us up with its false promises, persuade us the persona we project into it is the real “us”, but which ultimately makes an insulting zero of us all. Then there’s the unwholesome churn of our politics and news media, perpetually beamed into our heads, unsettling us, and purporting to be the only reality there is. But it’s not.

Just look up.

Here’s to 2022

And, as always, thanks for listening.

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I was at a junk market, where I found myself seduced by an Agfa Silette, a commercially successful camera, from the 1950’s. It fit the hand well. Instinctively, the thumb sought the lever, and cocked the shutter, finger moving easily to the release. It would have been a fine camera to use in its day. Later models, with the built-in light metering, would have been the bees knees, and the mainstay provider of pictures for the family album. I pressed the shutter, but there was no click. The shutter was broken. This camera’s journey was over. Still, the guy wanted twenty quid for it.

There’s a fashion for these things, I know, but the lenses on most of these old timers are pretty much gone now, with mould seeping between the elements. This one was heading the same way Much as it’s nice to see old tech still functioning, when it’s beyond repair, you need to let it go. There are cameras of this vintage, still in good nick, but they’re rare. And people pay good money for them. But why? Would it be for show, do you think? Did it even matter if the camera was junk? Would it simply end up on a hipster’s book-shelf, along with coffee table tomes of Ansel Adams and David Bailey?

You can still get film. Indeed, according to the marketing, it’s seeing something of a revival just now. A roll of 36 shots will cost you a tenner. You can get it processed for another a tenner, even digitised. So, twenty quid for 36 shots, half of which will be duds, and the rest murky, when ten thousand clear shots, on a digital camera, won’t cost you anything. And these weren’t easy cameras to handle. You had to know photography. Without the ability to read the light, the exposure was guesswork, ditto focusing. There was a skill to it, one your Uncle Fred, the camera buff, took pride in. But there are no Uncle Freds any more. Now everyone’s an expert, because the camera does it for you. Even the camera on a cheap phone will knock spots off this old thing.

The first, low resolution digital cameras were enough to make me abandon film, twenty years ago. I went from a sophisticated Pentax film SLR, with a bag full of lenses, to a simple, fixed focus Kodak. And what I lost on the one hand, in optical quality, I felt I had gained plenty. I could shoot a hundred pictures, review them on the camera, and delete the ones I didn’t like, thus making room for more shots, without having to change the film roll. I could apply techniques with software I would have needed a darkroom to do before. And I could print my own photographs.

Then, over those twenty years, and like all digital technology, cameras have seriously overtaken their analogue cousins. Whether in darkness or full sun, they’ll grab a usable image that would have been impossible with film. The software for post-processing is endless in its variety. It renders the dark-room obsolete, moving it onto your computer. And yet,…

I was still drawn to this old camera. It fit the hand so well? I’d disposed of my film cameras years ago, and never looked back. And if you really must have that quirky, murky, antique look, you can simulate it in digital. No need to go to the trouble and expense of reverting to film. Is it because it’s all too easy now? Do we prefer some limitation? Does the surprise of one or two cracking shots, from a roll of 36, trump the ease of a decent shot every time?

All right, I think my interest was most likely on account of a camera of similar vintage making an unexpected appearance in my current work in progress. A Voightlander. I don’t know what it means, nor why it should be a Voightlander, and not an Agfa, like this one, or a Kodak. But there it is, and it’s been teasing me to make sense of it.

It’s about images from the past, right? A way of seeing, that we’ve lost? Too much of the left-brain’s utility, while the right-brain’s existentially holistic overview diminishes, and leaves us barren, lobotomised, robotic creatures. Or am I overthinking it? The metaphors are endless and beguiling. And maybe if this camera had been a Voightlander, and working, for a tenner, I might have bought it for the vibe, though not for the use of it. As it was, I put it back.

Metaphorical explorations are best kept in the heart and the head. No sense going literal with this one. But clearly there’s a message here, and it’s demanding to be explored. I’m strictly digital these days, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s still something tempting, indeed something very much of the romantic, about those old cameras. I mean, just imagine the times they might have known, and the things they might have seen, when their eyes were still bright.

And there, I think, I have my answer.

Thanks for listening.

Header image, original source file, attribution: Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons. Crop and further editing in Luminance HDR, and Corel PP9 by the author. Edited image subject to same terms.

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