THE LAST PICTURE BLOG

OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

Posts by Stu

As a (slight but long-term) fan of London’s Saint Etienne I’d been meaning to watch the trilogy of short films they made with director Paul Kelly for some time. Examining three different aspects of London, the body of work is made up of Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? (2005) and This Is Tomorrow (2007), each one being around an hour long and a kind of wistful meditation on the changing face of the city (and thus as they deal to various extents with the past, present and future Saint Etienne’s very distinct brand of retro-futurism seems like a good fit for the soundtrack to me, for they are a band that has always looked back to classic European and American pop and also to more modern sounds of the dancefloor, albeit filtered through the lens of white pop classicists). I understand that the fourth collaboration between band and filmmaker, 2014’s How We Used To Live  a collage about 20th century living that uses British Film Institute archive footage, and which I haven’t yet watched sits seperately from these earlier works.

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Finisterre poster

Finisterre, co-directed by Kelly with Kieran Evans, is a modern take on the city symphony film, the footage darting from spots in suburban London a few of which I definitely recognised, a few that seemed familiar, many that I don’t currently know and probably never will – to more recognisable yet characterful places in the centre. The band and others, such as artist Julian Opie and musician Lawrence from the acts Felt, Denim and Go Kart Mozart (who would later be the subject of Kelly’s 2012 film Lawrence of Belgravia) discuss the places that mean something to them, which tend to be old, traditional cafes, gig venues, record shops, pubs and other places along those lines. But that’s not all; there are wide-reaching cityscapes, close-ups of boarded-up shops and everything in-between. The directors show a knack for catching small architectural details, interesting graffiti and stencils (the latter still a relatively new artistic phenomenon back then), and they use typography as a means of tracking changing times and design fashion, an approach that is consistent across all three films. It’s a fleeting glimpse of a city in flux, and it does to an extent feel like a personal one: this is Kelly and Saint Etienne’s London, primarily, not yours or mine, even if there is some overlap with the types of faces and places you see. The South Bank, Camden, Chalk Farm, Soho, Croydon… Finisterre darts from one spot to the next, knitting it all together, and the emphasis on London’s music scene and nightlife makes it seem warm and positive.

The voices of born and bred locals are more to the fore in What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, a 45-minute short about Hackney Wick and the lower Lee Valley in London’s East End (pictured top). Watching today, this is the part of the trilogy that feels to me like the most valuable snapshot, given that the area of the city it examines has been heavily gentrified in the years since it was made, and is markedly different now to how it was in 2005. Kelly spoke to the BFI in 2014 about the three films, addressing the remaking and remodelling of the era. “There was a lot of change going on in London, but we didn’t necessarily see that as a negative thing,” he said. “London was being revitalised. But we wanted to document anything that we thought was going. At the time, there were lots of places that we thought ‘We’ve got to capture this,’ but by the time we got there it would be gone. There was a sense that things were going very fast. It seems to be changing even faster now, accelerating at a pace.”

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Still from What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?

Mervyn Day the title is a rather niche reference to a 1970s goalkeeper who played for local teams West Ham United and Leyton Orient is an atmospheric portrait, proudly examining the area’s industrial and sporting past, finding plenty of time for the waterways, overgrown and neglected corners and crumbling, condemned buildings of 2005. There are hints of the present and future: radio reports of the London terror attacks are incorporated, while the then-recently successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics is referred to in hopeful terms by some, who correctly identified it back then as an opportunity for renewal, collaboration and sporting endeavour.

East London’s gentrification was already well underway by 2005. As Kelly pointed out to the BFI, it was the influx of artists taking advantage of cheap rent in Hoxton and Dalston during the late 1990s that kicked it all off, but it went through the roof immediately after this film was made. However, as one resident points out on the soundtrack, this is a part of London that has regularly seen periods of dramatic change, partly due to its proximity to the Thames and the City of London (ie the financial district). The arrival of larger numbers of younger, middle-class professionals than normal is nothing new for an area that had just previously welcomed a large influx of Bangladeshi residents, or had seen a sizeable portion of the community’s white working class families move out of London into Kent and Essex. I’ve walked around here a couple of times in 2018. Some edges are still tatty; not everything has changed.

There’s a surprising amount of dereliction on show in this film, considering how close everything depicted is to one of the wealthiest square miles and some of the most valuable property in the entire world, but it’s all shown for a purpose, to highlight lost industries, to demonstrate how things  places, communities, events  can be forgotten, or how economic shifts take place and the use of land changes. Our guide through all of it is a mopey teenage lad on a bike, perhaps a Saint Etienne fan, perhaps a future Olympian, while David Essex and Linda Robson – defiantly uncool but absolutely inspired choices of celebs who were raised in the area – provide commentary.

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DVD cover

Of the three films, I was less enamoured with This Is Tomorrow, which charts the building, role and later renovation of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but it’s still well worth a watch. The area was bombed during the Second World War; the building of the concert hall as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951 helped to put south London on the map, so to speak; and much has sprung up around it since, so it fits with some of the trilogy’s overarching themes, such as London’s changing face and land being used for different purposes. Kelly’s eye for detail is evident once again and there’s an interesting selection of interviewees, including philosopher Alain de Botton. Also present is Robin Day, one of the most significant furniture designers of the 20th century, whose seats adorn the hall. The film was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall itself (or rather the people who work in it and for it), and as such it’s more of a conventional documentary than the other two films in A London Trilogy, somehow less personal and by necessity rendering the people of London irrelevant.

I felt sad watching the three films; I see here the London that I moved to, albeit in 1999 rather than 2003, 2005 or 2007. What I should say, then, is that I definitely see the London I lived in for many years. I also felt a degree of warmth towards the films which came, oddly enough, because of Kelly’s insistence on poking around in dingy, messy corners of the capital. You don’t see these spaces committed to film too often, and I think such scenes here are part of a kind of more general, quiet celebration that I’m glad exists.

The London Trilogy is available to watch on BFI Player in the UK and can be purchased from lots of the usual outlets.

I started The Last Picture Blog – under its previous guise of Popcorn Nights – about five-and-a-half years ago. Previously I wrote for magazines and websites on subjects such as football, music and photography, and while I still enjoy those pastimes I’ve barely written a word about any of them in years. With film, though, it has always been a little bit different.

As soon as I began blogging about film the amount of movies that I watched increased exponentially, and my viewing choices and taste quickly became broader; I also found a community that I’ve interacted with online (sometimes heavily, sometimes very little, sometimes not at all), certain corners of which have provided education with regards to the history of cinema and have fuelled my desire to work through all those blind spots that existed; that said, I’ll never get through everything that I want to see, but it’s fun trying. I’ve simultaneously maintained a strong interest in new releases, from great, modern works of art to entertainingly-bad drivel. That’ll continue for as many years as I’ve got left on this spinning rock.

This blog has gone through various different changes over the years. Reviews, initially at least, were much longer and I wrote about everything that I watched. Obviously this was time consuming and occasionally it felt like a chore to keep on top of it, so after a few years I had to scale back. Reviews during the past 18-24 months have been much shorter, effectively just a paragraph or two summarising how I feel about a movie; often it’s simply edited text that I’d previously posted on Letterboxd.

My daughter was born near the end of 2016, and although the amount of spare time I currently have hasn’t changed dramatically, the way in which I choose to spend it is markedly different. Right now I don’t want to spend hours sitting in front of a computer writing (and couldn’t do so with any degree of regularity even if I did actually want to). I’m surprised, though, that I still manage to get through a film a day on average whether that’s watching at home at night, going to the cinema once a week, fitting in twenty minutes’ worth of viewing in the mornings or an hour during lunch, etc but I don’t have the mental energy or the desire to write about every single film that I see any more.

As such, it’s time for another change here. I don’t want to give up on The Last Picture Blog but it’ll have to be different going forward. One thing I do know is that it’ll be sporadic posts from now on, when the mood takes me and when I have the time to sit down and write. I hope that gives me a bit more freedom; I might write the occasional review if I feel I have something worth saying, but I’m also excited about the opportunity to move off in a different direction. Who knows what that will be. Anyway, thanks very much if you’re still reading!

Watched: 7 March

Endearing high school-set anime about a bully named Ishida who torments the new girl in his class, Nishimiya. She is ostracised on account of her deafness by other classmates, and the same children subsequently shun Ishida despite their part in the sorry affair. This contributes to Ishida’s low self-esteem, but he eventually learns the error of his ways and repents after Nishimiya exhibits constant kindness and warmth, so there’s a nice message here and there’s a certain softness to the way it’s all handled. There’s an interesting visual style going on, too, with crosses placed over the mouths of classmates Ishida has no relationship with, and director Naoko Yamada using close-ups of body parts (knees and calves mostly, which I guess could be some kind of fetishising but there may be another reason for it or cultural subtext that I’m unaware of). (***)

Watched: 6 March

Taking a cue from the silent ‘city symphony’ films of the 1920s, Alex Barrett’s document of modern London applies a rather old-fashioned style to the 21st century sights, despite being shot with digital cameras. It is filmed in black and white and is made up of four thematic ‘movements’, though these can be broken down into smaller groupings of related images or subjects, all of which is tastefully scored by James McWilliam. A large amount of footage has been carefully edited into a work that only just stretches beyond an hour, and the cinematography is fine, particularly with regard to the photography of buildings. It is evenly-paced, by which I mean the shots and the movements tend to be of roughly equal length; other viewers may feel that this is a good thing but I have a feeling I’d have enjoyed this even more had there been sudden Koyaanisqatsi-like bursts of speed and life and light and energy. Anyway, it’s certainly worth seeing if you like or live in London, or if you’d enjoy seeing a view of the city that eschews the more obvious views for sights that are likely to be missed by most eyes (including those of Londoners themselves). (**½)

Watched: 3 March

Sci-fi noir with a plodding, stultifying plot and an obvious visual debt to Blade Runner (so at least Mute looks good, with its teeming city streets drenched in neon, flying cars, etc). In all honesty there’s not much else worthy of note, except to say that old Merry Brandybuck has a stab at playing a Berlin-based robot-shagging South African future-geisha, so there’s that. It’s not really going too well for Duncan Jones at the moment, unfortunately. (*½)

Watched: 2 March

Another enjoyably low-key slice of Japanese family life from Hirokazu Koreeda, whose consistency and regularity of output means that he makes this kind of thing look easy (and also made me think that he is in danger of being taken for granted as a filmmaker until his recent Palme d’Or win at Cannes). The story here largely revolves around novelist-turned-private detective Ryota and the various relationships he has with his mother, sister, ex-wife and son, though arguably the key relationship hanging over the whole film is the one that existed between Ryota and his recently-deceased father. It mostly plays out within and around the old family home, occasionally venturing outside to unspectacular, everyday locations – though these are still somewhat intriguing to my foreign eyes – and any Koreeda watcher will know how adept he is at making films within such spaces, mostly focusing on his characters as they converse, sometimes while they carry out quotidian household tasks. There are good performances from Kore-eda regulars Hiroshi Abe, Yōko Maki and Kirin Kiki, though for some reason this didn’t grab me in the same way as the other Koreeda films I’ve seen (Still Walking, Our Little Sister, Like Father, Like Son). (***½)

Watched: 2 March

I’m glad that the cast and crew of Pitch Perfect got to make a follow-up; the first film was a feel-good treat, with Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson in particular managing to showcase their comic talents and deserving the chance to reprise their roles as the stars of college a capella singing group The Barden Bellas. However, there’s definitely a sense of second-film-syndrome hanging around this sophomore effort, which is a real shame. Jokes are repeated, there’s a half-arsed attempt to expand on the original by setting the plot within a world champtonship (as opposed to a national one) and the characters seem no different by the end of the film to the way they did at the start, as if they’ve become mere carriers of recognised catchphrases and little else. That said, those well-choreographed routines are still a lot of fun, and I like the way the naffness of a capella singing is still never challenged or acknowledged. (**)