Search results for: jim cook

Film Education Pioneer Jim Cook (1942-2019)

Jim Cook in the late 1980s, reading as usual, on a Barcelona balcony

Many film studies students and even their lecturers today will probably not know the name Jim Cook. I’m proud and privileged to say that he was my colleague and my friend for almost 45 years and I know just how important his contribution to film education has been. Jim was born into a working class family in Warrington and remained a proper ‘Lancashire lad’ throughout his life. After a degree at Birmingham University in the early 1960s Jim spent some time in France and then returned to take up teaching English in London at Stationers’ Company School in Hornsey and the Jewish Free School. Throughout his time as a student, Jim had enjoyed his pursuit of two favourite forms, jazz and blues music – preferably live in pubs and clubs – and film, both Hollywood and European art cinema.

In the late 1960s Jim joined the Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT) which from 1970 published the journal Screen and the separate Screen Education Notes. Jim quickly found himself on the SEFT Committee for 1968/9 and on the Editorial Board of Screen by the start of 1970. In those early days, SEFT publications were often concerned with readings of specific films that might be useful in classrooms and profiles of important directors (at a time when forms of auteurism were very strong in nascent film education provision). They were not yet concerned as much with pedagogy or with the politics of educational access and the culture of the classroom. It is significant then that Jim Cook was one of the SEFT members who contributed to a discussion about classroom film teaching that took place at the annual SEFT Summer School in 1969. The discussion was transcribed and appears in the January/February 1970 Screen. It was Jim who challenged the orthodoxy of the time (thematic approaches) and asked the difficult questions: “Where do we go from here?” It was also Jim who encouraged SEFT to continue to develop teachers’ groups outside London and to encourage those teachers to organise themselves rather than rely on the SEFT office all the time.

At this time major changes were taking place at SEFT and within the British Film Institute’s Education Department. Partly this was a result of major changes in personnel in both organisations and, with those changes, new ideas about the relationship between a publicly-funded body and a membership organisation which received support from that public funder. In the midst of this Jim Cook found himself Chair of SEFT from 1971-2 and responsible for a series of difficult negotiations. At the end of this process SEFT had become a different kind of beast with a clear sense of exploring new theoretical work in film and the BFI’s re-named Educational Advisory Service (EAS) was more clearly aligned to supporting teachers in the field. SEFT was also better resourced and in a stronger financial position.

Jim was appointed to a position in the Education Advisory Service of the BFI in 1973 with responsibility for developing film (and eventually ‘media’) education work with adult students. This covered at least three distinct but related activities. The BFI was partnered at this time with the Extra-Mural Department of London University and a four year programme of evening classes had been developed which enabled students to undertake assessed work and to sit an exam each year in pursuit of a qualification in Film Studies. Each 2 hour class ran for 24 weeks and included screenings and seminars. Classes were held on BFI premises in Dean Street, in Soho preview cinemas and at a number of other locations in London. The tutors comprised BFI staff and others chosen from the small group of film academics then teaching in a limited number of education institutions. In most cases staff worked in pairs and developed ideas about team teaching. This in turn led to discussion of pedagogy during meetings of all the tutors and introduced students to the idea that ‘authority’ figures don’t have all the answers – since the tutors sometimes themselves thought differently about approaches to film study and how to read the films.

As the Extra-Mural provision developed it was claimed that this programme of classes constituted one of the largest film education programmes in Europe. Jim Cook had a leading role in developing the programme as he also had in helping to set up one-off events such as Weekend Schools and crucially, the development of the annual BFI Summer Schools which became of great importance in the 1970s and ’80s. The BFI had run summer schools for several years but in the early 1970s they became more concerned with introducing new theoretical work in film. Organising the schools became a major focus for the EAS from 1972 and for several years they were held over two weeks at the University of Stirling with its wonderful Macroberts Centre Cinema and with support from the Scottish Film Council. They attracted international delegates and pushed forward theoretical ideas for anglophone film studies. The BFI took over the Summer School’s education role from SEFT and SEFT then began Easter Schools specifically for teachers in schools and colleges. Jim’s other main BFI role was to seek to develop adult film education in the regions and the nations of the UK supporting and stimulating local initiatives. In all these activities, Jim will be remembered for his enthusiasm, his wide knowledge of film and his ability to build networks – as well as his prowess in ‘free dancing’ and general carousing during late night relaxation at the disco.

In the early 1970s, with film and media studies still barely established in any sector of UK education, there were not many ‘academic’ books about film and certainly few which attempted to develop film teaching or to suggest new forms of classroom/lecture theatre work. Members of SEFT and the BFI’s Education Advisory service did not face the imperative to publish research findings as part of their employment contract as lecturers. But they did have a responsibility to publish guides and discussion papers to support the film education ‘project’. Jim took his work seriously and he contributed papers for day schools, seminars, summer schools, teaching packs, guidance notes and articles for journals distributed by SEFT and BFI Education.

In 1979 Jim co-edited a BFI pamphlet with Mike Lewington on Images of Alcoholism, drawing on an event at the National Film Theatre and in 1981 he edited, with Alan Lovell, one of the ‘BFI Dossier’ Series, No. 11 Coming to Terms with Hollywood dealing with US politics in the 1930s and the later period of HUAC, McCarthy and blacklisting in the 1940s and 50s. Again this was linked to an NFT season of films. Jim edited a second ‘Dossier’ in 1982, No. 17 Television Sitcom. In 1994, a year after he left the BFI, Jim edited another collection for BFI publishing, alongside Jacky Bratton and Christine Gledhill, on Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen, again based on an international conference in London in 1992 on which the editors were members of the Organising Committee.

Jim Cook left the BFI in 1993 after 20 years in post. The BFI was changing, partly because of the changing funding context. Education too was changing. Film and media courses had been widely established in formal education, but the wider aim of media education for all was still some way off and the future for adult education and informal learning opportunities was beginning to look much more difficult. For the next few years Jim performed various roles including supervising dissertations at the Institute of Education in London, acting as an External Examiner at what is now London Metropolitan University and teaching film at the University of Warwick, which required onerous commuting. In the midst of all of this he also tried to write the novels he’d pondered over for several years. Sadly these attempts didn’t reach publication.

Jim gradually moved out of formal contact with the BFI and eventually out of London to join his partner Ulrike Sieglohr in Stoke-on-Trent, developing his friendships with her colleagues at Staffordshire University. He retired from teaching in 2002 but still enjoyed his cinema visits and the chance to discuss the films he saw. I learned a great deal from Jim. I had enjoyed teaching with him on the Extra-Mural courses and later I loved discussing the movies we’d just seen, at Cornerhouse and then HOME, in the fabulous traditional pubs he seemed to have found for our trips to Manchester. Adios compañero!

Screen Education – from film appreciation to media studies by Terry Bolas (Intellect 2009) was an invaluable resource for the early history of Jim Cook’s role in film education. I am also very grateful for help from Christine Geraghty and Ulrike Sieglohr in providing both information and guidance in compiling this tribute to Jim’s work in film education. 

To the Ends of the Earth (Tabi No Owari Sekai No Hajimari, Japan-Uzbekistan 2019)

Yoko in Samarkand

I had mixed feelings watching this film. I was confident it would turn out to be well-made, intelligent and probably provocative as a recent film by Japanese auteur Kurosawa Kiyoshi, but I started it without too much prior reading. My first thought was about a Zhang Yimou film, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (China-Hong Kong Japan 2005). In that film, an older Japanese man undertakes a trip into a remote part of China in order to record a performance by a local folk artist on behalf of his son, an ethnologist who is too ill to finish his work. In Kurosawa’s film, a young Japanese woman works as the presenter on a reality TV travel programme and her latest brief is to visit Uzbekistan where her producer-director hopes to find interesting local attractions around which he can construct brief clips of his presenter interacting with an alien culture and its people. She leaves behind her boyfriend, a firefighter.

Yoko releases a goat that she discovered tethered in the city.

My initial sense of trepidation proved to be justified. This is a strange film which seems to be pursuing several different possible narratives and different approaches which didn’t really come together for me. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some interesting sequences as well as some sections which certainly seemed like more familiar Kurosawa territory. We follow a small Japanese crew – a producer-director and a two man camera and sound crew plus the presenter and an Uzbek-Japanese translator. In their quest for interesting material they search for a possibly mythical fish in a large lake and try some authentic Uzbek cooking in a roadside diner. In both cases, the Uzbek translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov) sets up the scenes with puzzled local people – a fisherman and a woman cooking in her diner. In both cases the presenter struggles to perform her task, putting on the proverbial ‘brave face’ for the camera, developed into an over-cheery performance. We realise fairly quickly that the presenter, Yoko (Maeda Atsuko) is going to be the central character in whatever narratives emerge. This J-pop star has built up a long list of film and TV credits in the last few years and I found her performance quite remarkable as she appears childlike one moment and sophisticated and elegant the next. But perhaps it would be useful to think about Japan and Uzbekistan first before grappling with what else Kurosawa offers us in this film.

Visiting the market in Tashkent . . .

The most damning review of the film comes from Tony Rayns in Sight & Sound. Bluntly, he sees this as sentimental twaddle but he does make some useful points about Japanese culture and its post-war relationship with overseas travel. This film is a co-production between Uzbekistan and Japan and it celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations between the countries and 70 years since one of Tashkent’s most famous sights, the Navoi Theatre, was decorated by Japanese POWs (captured by Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War). This latter event is worked into the narrative in the closing section. These kinds of commissions are always problematic for auteur filmmakers, who clearly don’t want to make a banal ‘official’ film. Kurosawa’s script here tries to turn the references to the Navoi Theatre into a kind of personal quest/triumph for the presenter Yoko and on that score I think I agree with Rayns that it doesn’t work. I’m no judge of Japanese popular music but I felt that Maeda Atsuko’s voice just isn’t up to the demands Kurosawa places on it (which include performing in a fantasy sequence).

. . . and the Novoi theatre.

Uzbekistan must be one of the least known and least understood countries on Earth as far as much of Western culture is concerned – and indeed, Japanese culture. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film set in Uzbekistan before (though neighbouring Kazakhstan has produced several seen internationally). Kurosawa’s film features mountain landscapes, the capital, Tashkent, and the second largest city, Samarkand, the historic city on the Silk Road. Tashkent in particular seems like a city combining Islamic and Soviet architecture in distinctive ways and the Russian influence in the country, which lasted for perhaps 180 years, seems to match the British presence in India over a similar period. Rayns refers to the ‘primitivism’ of Uzbek culture with those scare quotes underlined to present a critique of Japanese attitudes. This does raise the question of the different elements in the film and ‘how’, or rather ‘if’, they can come together. Is the film primarily a critique of those reality TV shows in which a celebrity presenter travels around ‘exotic’ locations? Or is it a character study about a young woman in a difficult job who feels alone in a foreign country? Yoko is certainly presented as being apart from the four men who make up the rest of the TV group. There is a suggestion that she is the star of the group but she is treated badly and arguably subject to abuse by the insufferable director who seems indifferent to the potentially dangerous situations he pushes her into. On the other hand, she doesn’t really attempt to bond with the other three guys who are generally supportive. The most successful part of the film for me (apart from the glimpses of life in Uzbekistan through the camerawork of Ashizawa Akiko) are those scenes in which we feel Yoko’s sense of being alone in an anonymous hotel or on the streets of a crowded and unfamiliar city. This rang true and I’ve certainly experienced similar feelings. But Yoko’s unguided trips, which turn into three separate ‘adventures’, also offer Kurosawa the opportunity to develop his more usual unsettling atmosphere associated with horror films as Yoko stumbles down darkened streets or runs through a crowded bazaar. It could be argued that these generic touches support the drama of Yoko’s story but in a way they seem to me to undermine the attempted critique of the ‘Japanese abroad’ or the reality TV crew whose ignorance simply makes us angry.

I think I’m out of step with many of the reviews I read which generally praise the film. As I’ve indicated, there are many good things about it, but it doesn’t seem to add up. I think you have to be very careful with this kind of culture clash narrative. Though Japanese tourists in Asia carry the legacy of Imperial aggression in the 1930s/40s (which has still not been worked through enough in some countries), the post 1945 generations are usually accepted as being non-aggressive with no specific agenda. On the other hand they wouldn’t want to be seen as ignorant, insensitive and non-caring. Kurosawa’s characters are in danger of fitting those descriptions, especially the director and to some extent Yoko. On the other hand, Uzbekistan has an authoritarian political system and is one of the worst countries for human rights issues, including slavery in its cottonfields, a very long-running issue. Kurosawa was taking on a very difficult task. I’m not sure what could have improved the film but his approach – discovering things as the shoot went on, might not have been the best way to approach the production.

To a certain extent, I did some research about Uzbekistan, but prior to the shooting, I didn’t go to Uzbekistan and look for the details. If I really wanted to learn about Uzbekistan in detail, I’d have to do it for years. I’d have to spend time living there and learning the language. But that was not my aim for this particular film. My aim was not to make something particular to Uzbekistan, but something that could happen anywhere, to anybody—myself included—somebody who doesn’t know anything about the country that she or he goes into, and struggles mightily at small clashes between cultures. That was my aim for this, which is why I didn’t go do research beforehand on location. (from the interview conducted by Lawrence Garcia for MUBI Notebook, September 2019)

Honeydripper (US 2007)

Keb’ Mo’ as the mysterious Possum, the ‘spirit’ of the blues. (Is that a National steel guitar or a dobro? Sounds great either way.)

If there is anyone who deserves to be called an ‘independent’ it is John Sayles – or rather the working group that includes Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi, composer Mason Daring and several others (e.g. Mary Steenbergen and Tom Wright) who join for individual projects. Sayles’ films are unique in their conception and execution. They don’t follow fashion and in a sense they fall between the mainstream and the arthouse, pleasing professional critics in neither for much of the time. But they do please the small but discerning audience who pick them out. There are few other filmmakers who could do what Sayles does (write, direct, act and edit and then promote), but what is most important is that he asks questions through his actions. The two questions that arise with Honeydripper are: who says films have to be fast-paced and dramatic to be entertaining and why is it not possible to get films with an African-American cast of this calibre made (and distributed) on a regular basis?

The ‘Honeydripper’ is a modest music venue on the edge of a small Alabama town in 1950 in which a ‘magic moment’ – the arrival of a new young electric blues guitarist – acts as the climax of a story about the redemption of a central character played by Danny Glover. The central focus on a single character is unusual for Sayles. Not that there isn’t the familiar Sayles ensemble of characters whose narratives intersect, but they are all subordinate to Glover and none of the other narratives has the same depth or complexity (as in Lone Star, City of Hope etc.). Partly this is because the pace is so slow. Yes it is slow – noticeably so – but the pace allows some nuanced and warm playing, especially by Charles S. Dutton. I could watch him for hours and I was reminded of the sheer pleasure of his performance in Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune. Not only is it slow, but there is little dramatic narrative action. Instead there is a tension about the iniquity of the Jim Crow situation and the economic pressures on the Glover character that runs through the whole narrative keeping a kind of sharp edge, but never pushing the narrative to a dramatic climax.

I think that Sayles could improve his films by not doing the editing himself. Things could be tightened up a little without losing the overall pace. But I wouldn’t like to lose the minor diversions. I loved the two young boys who wander into scenes and who play with their dummy musical ‘instruments’ and the incidental anecdotes about the origins of black music and the sly jokes about the mythology of the blues. Sayles is a clever writer and I was intrigued by the two sequences between the white characters (the sheriff and the ‘poor white’ woman made good) and the central black characters. Sayles doesn’t openly criticise the Jim Crow world. Instead he let’s us observe its impact and he portrays the white characters as quite complex. Does the sheriff turn up at just the right moment to save Glover (even while he is exploiting him)?

The reflective tone is also a consequence of the look of the film – a warm nostalgic glow (although I did wonder if some of that was derived from the digital print I watched which in some of the night time scenes seemed to lack sharpness and contrast) and the overall refusal of a realist aesthetic. So, some of the picturesque scenes were just too beautiful, others too ‘clean’ and others had a pronounced ‘theatrical feel’. I take all of this to be deliberate, but the clincher is the presence of the blind blues guitarist who seemingly appears only to the young man and to Pinetop (Glover). This character is the ‘soul’ of the blues, the ghost of previous musicians and acts both as Pinetop’s conscience and the younger man’s mentor.

I saw Honeydripper in the week of Bo Diddley’s death and it was noticeable that Sonny’s homemade electric guitar was square just like Bo’s. I confess that I had expected much more emphasis on the supposed ‘creation of rock ‘n roll’ in the film. But there was plenty of music, including the gospel tent singing and the references back to the big bands that were part of Pinetop’s career. As I came out of the screening, I overheard at least a couple of people saying that they hoped there would be a CD. I’ve always had plenty of time for Mason Daring’s work, so I hope they do manage to sell a few soundtrack albums.

The second question that Sayles prompts concerns the paucity of African-American films in wide distribution. From the online complaints, I gather that Sayles has struggled to get distribution in the US and according to IMDB and UK Film Council stats, it would seem that the UK launch on 18 screens almost matched the US platform release at its widest point of 19. I’m guessing that the digital print in the UK had some UKFC support. We don’t get African-American films (by which I mean those with African-American cultural content as a narrative focus) very often in the UK and their release is usually restricted to around 30 prints in the major cities. We are still waiting for Denzel Washington’s second directorial feature The Great Debaters and it will be interesting to see what kind of release that gets if and when it arrives. I wonder what would happen if Denzel and Forest Whitaker were prepared to work with Sayles on the kinds of budgets he can raise? Honeydripper reputedly cost $5 million mostly raised by Sayles and Renzi themselves. Looking back, some of the most interesting African-American stories and characters that I can remember have been in Sayles’ films, including James Earl Jones in Matewan, Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish and Joe Morton in Lone Star and many others. It was bell hooks in Reel to Real (Routledge 1996) who allowed that Sayles created more radical black characters than many more conservative black filmmakers. I’m not sure that Honeydripper works overall, but I do think that the range of representations of characters and community and the insights into aspects of African-American cultural history mean that it deserves to be more widely seen and studied.

Here’s a useful interview with John Sayles.