The Imitation Game (UK-US 2014)

Joan Clark (Keira Knightley), Stuart Menzies (Mark Strong) and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Stuart Menzies (Mark Strong) and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the point when Joan joins the team.

The Imitation Game has provoked strong views about cinema. The film is doing excellent business, mainly with older audiences. But it has also been the subject of attacks about historical accuracy and ‘authenticity’ some of which are misguided because those making the attacks don’t understand film culture all that well.

The screening I attended was quite busy for a Saturday night with an audience mainly over 50 who seemed to enjoy it. The older audience is not a surprise given the subject matter about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in World War II. The central focus is on Alan Turing and the film’s title is taken from the name given by Turing to the exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and how to define it. The two factors which mean that the film differs considerably from the Michael Apted thriller Enigma (UK 2001), set around the same historical events, are that Turing was a singular mathematician and a gay man in the 1940s when homosexuality was illegal – and the character is played by the star du jour, Benedict Cumberbatch. Given the strong box office there must be plenty of the younger Cumberbatch fans (some of whom are female fans known by the unflattering description ‘Cumberbitches’) who have turned up to see an extraordinary performance.

The attacks on the film – apart from a few clueless media reviewers who don’t understand why the film works – are represented by online pieces like the  one in the Guardian entitled ‘Inventing a new slander to insult Alan Turing’. At the time of writing this had attracted 745 comments. The ‘new slander’ inserted into the script sees Turing not reporting a Soviet spy in the codebreaking team because he fears exposure as a gay man and the spy knows this. This is the only real charge against the script – the other changes to the historical record are not so important given the difficulty of condensing a long story into a film under two hours. (This length issue too has been challenged since Harvey Weinstein’s talons are around the film for a US release and he has a track record of trying to cut European and Asian films that he acquires.) There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘Alan Turing story’ would need a ten part TV serial to cover all the ground in sufficient detail. There have been several films and TV fictions as well as documentary programmes which have covered the code-breaking activities during the war but this is the one that will reach the widest audience – the audience which before the film will know little or nothing about Alan Turing. And for that reason I think its historical ‘conveniences’ are excusable.

The ‘Soviet spy’ incident (which as far as I know is completely fictitious – although the historical character who was subsequently suspected of spying did work at Bletchley he didn’t work with Turing)) is interesting  but I don’t want to spoil the film’s narrative by analysing how the plot works. What I can note is that the film focuses on three crucial periods in Turing’s life, as a public schoolboy of 16 in 1928, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park from 1939 to 45 and as a gay man in 1952 accidentally caught up in a police investigation. The Russians aren’t mentioned in 1928 (although Turing did want to go to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and he did go to Germany) but by 1942 they were British allies, so spying activities were part of the complex power struggles between the allies over the conduct of the war. In 1952 the ‘Cambridge spies’ Burgess and Maclean had made headlines by ‘disappearing’ and their stories would become part of the Cold War debates about spies, double agents etc. over the next thirty years. The history of interest in the Soviet Union and Marxist political thought at Cambridge in particular during the 1930s is an important context for Turing’s own development but the film narrative doesn’t have time to explain this fully. (The Cambridge spies were also associated with a gay community in the university.)

Alan Turing (photo by Elliot and Fry, 1951)

Alan Turing (photo by Elliot and Fry, 1951)

The best compliment I can give the filmmakers is to say that after the screening I rushed home to find my copy of Andrew Hodges’ book, a detailed biography by a gay mathematician about a fascinating Englishman and his tragic death. Alan Turing the Enigma of Intelligence in its 1983 edition is over 500 pages of very small print with a huge reference section. It’s a phenomenal piece of writing and has deservedly been re-published. The author’s website has all the relevant publishing details.

The film’s script by Graham Moore is based on Hodges’ book and it’s one of the two main American contributions to the production (the other is editor William Goldenberg) – which is a truly global affair with a Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum), a Spanish DoP (Oscar Faura) and a French musical composer (Alexandre Desplat). British production designer Maria Djurkovic describes her work on the film in a BFI interview and, of course, the cast is British. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing very well – but then it’s almost like a Ken Loach casting decision, he fits the part so well in terms of background. The rest of the cast is good too and in terms of entertainment value, Charles Dance as the bone-headed naval officer in charge at Bletchley and Mark Strong as the MI6 man are priceless. Keira Knightley often seems to get criticised but she is actually a hardworking actor who takes a diverse range of roles and she’s very good here. Praise too is needed for the boys who play the younger Turing and his schoolfriend.

I was surprised that I enjoyed the film so much. I thought the narrative was well-constructed, moving smoothly so that there isn’t really time to think about the historical inaccuracies. My only criticism about the production is that the inauthentic shots of the railways aren’t needed and the presumably quite expensive shots of bomb-damaged London streets could be represented by newsreel footage playing in a cinema. The film is quite conventional overall and that helps it to reach a wide audience. But it also made two good points about wartime Britain and the concept of total war, i.e. the idea that everyone is involved in the war effort. In terms of Bletchley Park this meant that all the brightest mathematicians and cryptanalysts were brought together (though I suspect that the film underplays the important roles of the women in this operation) but that the young men must have faced a great deal of public criticism as they were not in uniform and seemed not be doing anything for the war effort at all (because it was all secret).

So, the story is being told about the wartime work. But the last episode about Turing in Manchester in the early 1950s is not really adequate – either about Turing as a gay man or about what he was doing in terms of artificial intelligence. The title of the film does refer to both the ‘Turing test’ and to the fact that Turing himself had to imitate a heterosexual man throughout his life, at least in public. Perhaps we can have another film about Turing in the post-war world?

The Leeds International Film Festival 2014

A screening at the Town Hall – 2001

This was the 28th festival of film held in Leeds. My impression was that this was the strongest programme for several years. Friends I talked to were mostly in agreement. Given the number of films shown, not all were completely entertaining or top line films, but there were enough to fill up the fortnight over which it ran.

The most popular film with audiences was What We Do in the Shadows (New Zealand, 2014). This is an unconventional vampire movie. And it is getting a UK release from Metrodome. Friends and colleagues also recommended a number of other films: there was the Possibilities are Endless with Edwyn Collins (UK 2014). This is a documentary about overcoming a near death ailment by the songwriter of the title: this film was highly praised by several people. This should also be available in Picturehouses venues. Another was Stations of the Cross (Germany 2014) which combines the form of this Catholic ritual with the story of a young woman, Maria. Everyone who had seen it praised it to me. It is released by Arrow on Friday. And there was Stray Dogs (France, Taiwan, 2013), one of two film directed by Tsai Ming Liang. This director has a growing reputation in the International art cinema, though it may not be easy to find opportunities for seeing his films. Roy has reviewed some of them other films in the Festival. And some of the ones previewed here were successes. Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919) made a strong impression and was well accompanied on the Town Hall organ. My biggest regret [due to a teaching commitments] was missing Goodbye to Language 3D (France, 2014) Jean-Luc Godardpushing the boundaries’ at 83 – one response was ‘brilliant’, another was far less polite about the film, someone’s ‘worst experience’ of the Festival..

One of the substantial elements in the Festival was the Short Film City programmes, including several competitions. The most prestigious is the Louis Le Prince International Short Film Competition: named after the pioneer inventor who produced film in Leeds in 1888. The eight person jury selected Art (Arta, Romania, 2014). This is probably a filmmaker’s film: I thought Chorus (Choro Dos Amantes, Portugal 2014) was the best of these films that I saw – this got a special mention from the Jury along with Greenland (Israel, 2014).

For the British Short Film Competition 2014 the jury selected Exchange and Mart commenting ‘A beautifully executed coming of age film.’ – I read the film rather differently though it was a fine production from Creative Scotland. I preferred the Audience Award: Anthony – if you can access this film save it for December 24th.

There are further details including the other competitions such as the Animation Shorts on the Festival Website. Apparently ticket sales this year topped 40,000 for the first time. It was an extensive programme and there were a few duds – one of the Iglesia films merited the description ‘a wretched piece of sexist crap’! And there were a few technical and presentation problems with some digital and digital video – what Festival did not suffer such glitches?  Overall a real success and the omens for 2015 look good. All the more important as that year will not see a Festival across the way in Bradford.

To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (UK 2014)

The old Pavilion building - autumn 2014.

The old Pavilion building – autumn 2014.

This film by Mark Fell and Luke Fowler is a commission by the Pavilion and Hyde Park Picture House. The film was premiered at the Picture House on November 22nd: there will be further screening throughout the year. The cinema and the Pavilion have already collaborated on several art projects, revolving in some way round film and cinema. The audience was welcomed by Wendy Cook, General Manager of the Hyde Park, and Gill Park, the Director of the Pavilion. Gill commented that the Pavilion tends to works that ‘rub against the grain’, certainly the case with this film. Essentially the film is an example of montage – often rapidly changing and frequently discontinuous images and sound. The material in the film is worked up from an Archive project, including photographs, reports, minutes, publicity and associated materials, to which have been added, contemporary film, interviews and contemporary sound.

The Pavilion project was sited in the Park alongside the main Leeds University Campus and opened in 1983, and has just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary.

The Pavilion was formed in 1983 with the stated aim of being the first photography collective dedicated to representing and supporting the production of women’s photography. Against a backdrop of heightened social, political and economic conflicts, the Pavilion set about turning the prevailing patriarchal image-culture inside-out.

The project has suffered ups and down, ‘a contested history’, and the loss of the original venue. That currently stands closed in the Park.

It took me a little time to get into the film but then it became increasingly interesting. The film uses 1200 black and white photographs from the archive filmed on a rostrum camera. Alongside these are a series of interview with artists who were part of or have some connection with the original Pavilion. And there are montages of material from the archive including local and more general material. And there is contemporary footage of people and places.

The photographs cover a range of subjects and settings: women’s’ activities, urban settings, the seaside, Yorkshire Gritstone . . . The parallel archive material is equally varied: minutes and such like from the early days of the Pavilion; posters and publicity; feminist leaflets and publications:

Most of the material is from the 1980s – and the local items bring back memories from that period: a shot through the window of the Victoria pub; the Hyde Park and University surrounds; a Punjabi teacher in Chapeltown; issues of Leeds Other Paper; The Video Vera project; the Leeds Animation Workshop . . .

The sense of what constituted The Pavilion and its significance relies extensively on the interviews. Each participant has selected a photograph [in one case two] from the archive. They describe this for the audience, though we only see the pictures tangentially. One participant commented on the difficulties she found in doing this.

These reminiscences include the developing work of the project: at one point an interviewee comments;

We really believed that working class women would come along and they didn’t.

Later the types of funding available favoured:

Working with the communities nearby – including Asian women and the children.

A central struggle against the objectification of women in photographic art produced examples of work in which young women were ‘demure, saucy and sexualised.’

The limitations of the industry reminded one interviewee that a woman always had

to work harder than anybody else.

The politics of feminism in the period are discussed. A young photographer commented when women criticised the work of another

I was scared of taking photographs of women because of that sort of comment.

And the politics of the colonized or imperialised countries raised questions about the autonomy of the subject, as a young woman,

someone who had little say in the photograph or how it was used.

An artist who presented a travelling exhibition of work shot on the Falls Road in Belfast recalled being arrested on the way to Rochdale and the exhibition being disrupted by a bomb threat.

The interviewees discussed theory, practice and important texts in the feminist movement. Laura Mulvey’s ideas get a mention as do the ideas and arguments by Selma James. I was intrigued by a reference to the ’Soviet Union’s first sexual manual.’ The journals and venues of the time appear, Radical Feminist, Who Needs Nurseries, The Other Cinema, . . . and the alternatives, The Kodak Girl ads, Marilyn standing over an air event, . . .

Towards the end there is a clip from the BBC Calendar in 1985 which offered a short profile the project. The presented welcomed ‘the ladies’: unperturbed they offered a concise description of the aims and work of The Pavilion.

Amat photo

The combination of different strands or changing or even competing images and sounds builds up into a strong sense of the ethos and achievements of the project. Given the ‘contested history’ there is amply space for audiences to assess and develop their own interpretations of this.

The photographs were filmed on a 16mm rostrum camera and much of the archive material is also from rostrum work. The editing of this with film and interviews builds up a complex tapestry of memories and meanings. There is a memorable shot of the camera person shot in a mirror.

Whilst the images are in a form of montage much of the sound is asynchronous. At times there is also accompanying music and rhythms. For this première the sound track was relayed directly into the auditorium with staff moving the speakers at different points. For audiences sound often lack the specific spatial sense one can gain from images: I found this particular technique imaginative and very effective.

The work of the research and production teams was headed by Mark Fell, an indisciplinary artist, and Luke Fowler, who frequently works in 16mm. This makes it a feminist project directed by two men, interesting but also contestable. Two of the participants did just this. At a few points we also heard the questions put to the interviewees and there were occasions when they also contested the nature of the questions themselves. These add to the rich complexity of the film. It also engages with the changes in the feminist movements that have occurred since the original founding of The Pavilion.

I was impressed both with the film and the presentation – I shall certainly revisit it. Happily there was a substantial audience to enjoy the evening. There are at least six more screenings at the Hyde Park Picture House in November and December. The actual film runs for about 70 minutes and is well worth the time spent.

Celebrating Female Pioneers of Animation

Give us a smile

Give us a smile

This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.

In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.

The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.

They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.

Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.

Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.

Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.

It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.

The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.

After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.

In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.

Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.

Hell Unlimited

Hell Unlimited

To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.

The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.

I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.

I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.