Tag Archives: BFI

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer + Q&A with Charlie Ahearn | BFI, 18 June, 18:10


I’m properly excited about this event, so I thought I’d give it a plug here. The BFI is hosting the UK premiere of this documentary by celebrated hip-hop historian and director, Charlie Ahearn (Wild Style). Its subject, Jamel Shabazz, started out as a teenage photographer in early ’80s Brooklyn, and set out to document the then nascent hip-hop movement. According to the blurb, “Ahearn takes us on a modern day and very personal journey with Shabazz as he revisits old neighbourhoods and talks to friends and colleagues about life in New York, hip-hop culture and its 30-year history.”

Anyway, it looks great. You can book tickets here.

Here’s some more of Jamel’s work to get you in the mood.




See you there.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) | review


“It was worthwhile for what you see on the screen. Who cares if every grey hair on my head I call ‘Kinski’?”

Werner Herzog’s triumphant anti-epic concerning man’s crazed will to power – over nature, other men and adverse shooting conditions – is now being brought back to the big screen by the British Film Institute in all its compelling, insane glory.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God was Herzog’s first collaboration with genius/maniac Klaus Kinski, who works to evil, haughty effect in the role of the vaingloriously ambitious Don Lope de Aguirre. Towering, glowering, hyper-intelligent and totally unhinged, Aguirre hacks like a zealous devil through an unwelcoming Amazon on his singularly quixotic quest. With the mythical treasures of Eldorado as his goal, promises of boundless wealth, fame and power burning in his fevered imagination, Aguirre is the ostensible leader of an ever-more rag-tag group of lost conquistadors as they stumble towards their stifling Equatorial graves. With the uncomfortable nearness of the jungle translated vividly on screen, its dispassion and tactile intrusiveness so directly expressed, you imagine the film crew feeling a great kinship for this group of doomed fools as they followed their own bloody-minded leader into the unknown.

The film follows its own linear path, heading towards its destination with unremitting purpose, not so much written as bluntly forced into being. Which isn’t to suggest it is in any way brazen or simplistic. Rather, it’s incredibly nuanced, perversely conjuring poetic tragedy and weightiness through being light and actually somewhat silly. As Aguirre, Kinski’s performance is totally absurd and hilarious, but you wouldn’t dream of laughing within 20 miles of his face.

Within a barrage of sledgehammer blows, Herzog is engaging in subtle connections. Though the film is intently focused on its lead, there are some fantastic supporting characters: the noble yet short-sighted Don Pedro and his beautiful wife Inez, blind to the tide of fate that’s turning against them; the corpulent and childishly entitled Don Fernando; the grubby and sycophantic priest Brother Gaspar, calmly reshaping his influence to suit the interests of whoever happens to be the group alpha of the moment. And, of course, the Amazon itself: churning brown water framed by impenetrable jungle, untamed and unforgiving.

Herzog’s genius lies not just in his ambition. It’s in his intuitive feel for what lies beneath, the hidden nature of things. Stripping away all the bombast and bullshit he shows the stickily glistening pulse at the core. From the breathless opening shot, men and women the size of ants forging their hesitant way down a mist-swathed Andean face, he places a supposedly cultured humanity back in the cycle of that same fierce nature which for years it seems to have been deluded enough to believe it had escaped. Back in the midst, oft-vaunted civility is openly revealed as a lie.

And there’s the kicker: on some level, everything which seems alien to us about what this film portrays is actually incredibly, intimately close at hand. As remote as Don Aguirre is, a coldly burning star in the void, like all anti-heroes there’s something painfully knowable about him. Despite the grandstanding, his motives are as simple, as proximate – as inane and ultimately pointless – as our own. There’s an absurdly comedic horror that as everything falls apart he only grows more certain; that, in the face of impeding failure, he’s only more committed to what he sees as the authenticity of his actions.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God is on limited release now. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

FAKE! Orson Welles Tells Art to F-off

“Talent borrows, genius steals.”

That hallowed phrase among artists, with all its implied images of a cat-suited Andy Warhol abseiling down a skyscraper with a massive ruby in his pocket (don’t drop it Andy!), has many incarnations. It has more incarnations than Buddah, Vishnu and Bob all rolled into one. More incarnations than Bowie. So many of the great and good have voiced the sentiment that it might as well be taken as a given that your favourite creative type has had a bash at personalising it at some point. But what is the nature of stealing here, as opposed to borrowing?

Jaunty, dynamic, cacophonic; bustling with movement and filled to the brim with ridiculous, insane life: more caper than documentary, F for Fake, Orson Welles’ final film, about ‘hanky panky men’ in the Art World is a strange and delightful oddity that was itself partly stolen. Directly, that is, from another film-maker François Reichenbach. It incorporates document, fiction and a shred of biography. It’s been called an essay in a film (a Fessay? An Essilm?). It’s uncompromisingly playful, but nonetheless leaves you questioning it on a serious level.

True to form, it indulges in its fair share of trickery, misdirection and mischief. It delights in its style, which seems to be most every style (including some new ones). You can imagine the sphere of its influence stretching from Wes Anderson to Eurotrash television. The question it asks about fraud, the question at the heart of the film (and mirrored by questions about the film’s own authenticity), is a mind-boggling one: fake or real – what does it matter if you can’t tell the difference?

For all intents and purposes, the film’s subjects are three men and two women: the infamous international art forger Elmyr de Hory, his ‘biographer’ Clifford Irving, Irving’s wife Edith Sommer and the actress Oja Kodar. And Welles himself. All come together on the quiet island of Ibiza in a pill-popping Manumission frenzy in a true-life tale of fraud (even involving Welles favourite Howard Hughs) that’s far stranger than most fiction.

Elmyr De Hory was pretty good at copying famous artists. In fact, for ‘pretty good’ substitute ‘totally impeccable’. That is to say no-one, not collectors, nor experts, on occasion not even the artist themselves, could discern the difference. His forgeries appeared (and appear, apparently) in numerous major art collections – making a mockery of the idea that the so-called authorities know anything much at all and, in turn, pulling the rug out from under the idea of an ‘art market’, that is: a market where art is assigned a monetary value (and hence a value in terms of merit) as though it had intrinsic or inherent value. De Hory, as it transpires, isn’t the only faker in this drama, with all of the above-mentioned players getting in on the act.

Strangely, and by pure coincidence, I’d watched ‘The Banksy film’ Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time the night before the F for Fake screening. These two films serve as different answers to the same question – or, it might be better to say, two questions that hint at even bigger questions. In opposition to this fake documentary (is it?) about a man who produces fakes as a means of undermining the Art World, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary (is it?) about a man faking his way into the Art World with fake art, whilst seemingly believing what he’s doing wholeheartedly. There is one crucial difference: De Hory produces forgeries. Thierry Guetta, or Mr Brainwash as he came to be known, produces ‘originals’ that are entirely – mind-fuckingly – derivative (and of course Madonna commissioned Guetta to design her last Greatest Hits album cover).

They are each ‘stealing’ without stealing, borrowing for different reasons – and (strange to say, especially about the idiot-savant Guetta) they’re each indisputably a genius in their own right – De Hory at being someone else, Guetta pretending to be himself, through the lens of other people.

If you’re into Orson Welles, good stories, strange facts, Exit Through the Gift Shop or have even a passing interest in art, I’d highly recommend catching this underrated little gem (oh, Andy!) while it’s on at the BFI.

F for Fake is being screened at the BFI Southbank from 24th August 2012, as well as selected venues across the UK. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.

Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon

Over the weekend I watched a couple of excellent documentaries about key global anti-authoritarian figures. The first was Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which intimately tracks the activities of the dissident Chinese artist from 2008 up until 2011 when he was detained by authorities. The second was Fela Kuti – Music is the Weapona short doc from 1982 which takes a look at the legendary Nigerian musician’s passionate interweaving of performance and politics set against the backdrop of tumult in his home country. The doc is on YouTube so if you find yourself with 50 minutes to spare, here it is. Credit to unpronounceable YouTuber n3ph3dh for the upload.

On a further Fela-related note, the BFI’s African Odysseys strand continues this weekend (Sat 18, 2pm) with a screening of the documentary Fela: Fresh From Africa which focuses on his long-awaited return to New York in 1986 and features extensive, exciting live footage. You can buy tickets here.

The PPH interview | David Somerset of BFI African Odysseys

African Odysseys is an ongoing monthly programme of films and events which takes place at London’s BFI Southbank, and focuses on cinema by and about the people of Africa and the African diaspora. Permanent Plastic Helmet recently caught up with African Odysseys programmer David Somerset to find out more about this successful strand.

*     *     *     *     *

PPH (in bold): Let’s start with the here and now. The next event in the African Odysseys strand is Ivan Dixon’s controversial 1973 film The Spook Who Sat By The Door (on Saturday May 26 – tickets here). Can you tell me a bit more about that?

David Somerset (in regular): Yeah, basically it’s a real cult item. It was the first film of Ivan Dixon, who was a rising star in the black American film world, and it’s been limited to bootleggers or the occasional short run DVD release. To the best of my knowledge it’s never been screened theatrically in the UK, so we’re massively excited to have it here. It’s about a black American ex-CIA operative who returns to Chicago and uses his skills to prepare his brothers for revolution. It was hugely controversial at the time – this is early 1970s America we’re talking about – so the FBI deemed it cause for concern and all but one of the existing prints were seized and destroyed. It’s a great film, really exciting.

Going back a bit, when did African Odysseys start at the BFI? 

African Odysseys started in 2007 at the BFI as a programme of educational screenings that reach out to wider audiences. I had just taken up the post and was a huge film fan. I knew of a Cuban classic film from Tomas Guiterrez-Alea, called The Last Supper about a plantation in 18th century Cuba. We showed this title to a sell out audience during the last RISE anti-racist festival in London. Speaking to collaborators such as Tony Warner from Black History Walks I said, “Why dont we get a bunch of cultural groups and individuals together and devise a programme?”. That’s the simplest explaination of what happened.

What was your inspiration/drive for the programme, and why do you consider it to be important? 

I believe in genuinely collaborative programming and not programming that is simply driven by economic imperatives – that’s why I like working in a cultural institution. I believe cultural institutions should not only think about wider audiences but also work in conjunction with them. These are both things that such institutions rarely do in a meaningful way but at the BFI I have been able to pursue this on an educational level. I also love to do this because I am constantly educated about new films, films that I have never heard about, films such as The Spook Who Sat By The Door that have been deliberately written out of history as a result of both political represssion and ignorance; an ‘educated’ elite who simply cannot look beyond the limited horizons of their education, who have never learned to think for themselves, ‘outside the tent’.

What other groups/organizations are involved in African Odysseys? 

A whole range of cultural and community organisations and individuals. Lobby groups, archives, film festivals directors, cultural activists – I couldnt begin to name them for fear of leaving some out. I dont hear from some contributors for a while and then they get in touch and say that they have a film and will we take a look at it. But there is also a core of people who attend all meetings. Some are politically driven and committed to the need to promote exposure in the face of a media and wider society that refuses to deal with representation unless its on a banal and inert level.

Where did your own interest in African diasporic cinema stem from? 

Well, I have always loved cinema per se. Diversity and creativity are inseperable and I am into genuinely creative cinema. Diaspora cinema is a difficult concept. Do we mean national cinema? Or cinema that deals with diaspora experience? Or just cinema that includes diverse, disapora casting? Its a broad category. Working with wider audiences I always look for resonant work that raises pertinent issues within a particular community, for which there is a wider discussion to be had. I am also attentive to the universal experience and if we are concerned about human rights, for example, it should be a concern for everyone and not just a particular region or background. So the ideal is to mix up audiences, share experience, recognise common ground as well as specific experience and there’s no better medium to do this than cinema.

Do you think that African cinema currently gets the respect and exposure it deserves? If not, why not?  

I think we have to begin from a standpoint that recognises the limitations to any cinema exhibition. Unless we are fortunate enough to travel to film festivals, the public get to see a minute drop in the ocean of the work that is produced on an international level. There are festivals in London and the UK and if one goes to these niche platforms, its possible to get an insight into what is being produced in Africa. And what is being produced is not getting sufficient exposure, certainly not at multiplex cinemas but also at the smaller rep chains that have become increasingly streamlined in their programming. But I hold broadcasters to account, too. In the 80s, I’m sure that an appetite for African cinema sprang from a rich output on BBC2 and Channel 4 where you could discover not only drama that represented a diversity of UK experience but also scheduled great African cinema from people such as Regina Nacro, Sembene, Cisse, Mambety – great film makers. Nigeria is doing some exciting stuff now and moving away from the admittedly popular (but local and low-budget) to the international, and doing it despite wider ignorance and with an attitude of “if you dont know about us, too bad ’cause we’re coming anyway”.

How much of the programme deals specifically with Africa? 

In January we screened a doco by a new director about witchcraft in Northern Ghana. Last year’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun season at the BFI was tremendous, especially A Screaming Man which overwhelmed audiences. We also welcomed Gaston Kabore and Wend Kuuni which was a joy. I’d always like to see more. In July as part of African Odysseys we are screening a film about Algeria, Outside the Law. In August we have a doc about African religion in a double bill with a newly discovered record of the late, great Fela Kuti and his trip to NY in 1986. In November we are hoping to put together some new Nigerian films. At heart I believe people will take a chance if given the opportunity! Sometimes the industry is ignorant to its own economic criteria and miss commercial films that would actually make a good profit for them.

Have there been any particularly controversial screenings so far? 

Have there been any that aren’t? I am amazed at the discussions that come out of screenings and the different views that come from speakers and audience. The remarkable Raoul Peck’s film Moloch Tropical took aim at a sacred cow and outraged a good section of the audience. But a strongly divided audience makes for tremendous discussion. This was certainly the case with the shock documentaries Addio Zio Tom and Africa Addio. The discussions were second to none. When we all think the same way there’s no debate.

African Odysseys continues at the BFI Southbank with The Spook Who Sat By The Door on Saturday 26 May. Book tickets here, and view the forthcoming programme here

This Film Was Shot On Digital

Click HERE NOW to watch filmmaker Ian Mantgani’s instructive and moving short This Film Was Shot On Digitala timely piece which examines the impact of the onrushing “tidal wave” of digital technology replacing traditional cinema projection. One of the featured interviewees, Julia Marchese, has set up a petition to maintain studios’ 35mm archives. You can sign it here. I have, and so should you!

P.S. I swear on my life I’m not just posting this because I pop up in the credits, it really is essential viewing, and informative about an issue which many of us may not be really aware of, yet affects anyone who loves cinema.

African Odysseys at the BFI in March: Nadia Denton, Sidney Poitier and more…

A great sounding event has come to my attention, and I’m delighted to give it a little plug here on PPH.

In the Blue Room down at London’s BFI Southbank on Saturday 17 March as part of actor Tim Reid’s Legacy Media Institute programme, Nadia Denton will introduce her book The Black British Filmmaker’s Guide to Success – an indispensable volume which outlines funding, marketing and distribution opportunities for filmmakers. Denton, who is former director of the BFM International Film Festival – will take questions and be joined by special guests in an interactive morning session. The event, which kicks off at 11am, will be hosted by journalist Lisa Bent.

I interviewed Nadia last year for PPH, and if the great conversation we had is anything to go by, this is going to be an exceptional event. Tickets are only £3, are selling quick, and are available here.

That’s not all, though. Later in the day (in NFT1) comes a super-rare screening of Michael Audley’s 1957 drama The Mark Of The Hawk, starring the great Sidney Poitier as a rising nationalist leader Obam (that’s Obam), who struggles for his people’s freedom in the face of bloodthirsty colonials, disorganised Africans and a hot-headed brother. It’s a delightfully odd Technicolor curio, and will be introduced by Reid, with an accompanying short from his Legacy Media Institute programme. Click here to book tickets.

For the uninitiated, the BFI’s African Odysseys programme is a monthly strand dedicated to exploring, promoting and presenting cinema of the African disapora, regularly augmented by talks, Q&A’s and presentations. It’s long been an essential part of my cinema calendar, and I urge it to become part of yours too.

Here’s the trailer for The Mark Of The Hawk, to whet your appetite.

5th BFI Future Film Festival is underway…

The 5th annual BFI Future Film Festival is now underway at the BFI Southbank, with a full programme of film-related events and masterclasses for 15-25 year-old film enthusiasts.

Highlights this weekend include:


Animation and Fiction short films –  p.s. you’ve missed this one, sorry
Eraserhead (part of our first features strand) – and this one too
BAFTA presents: Short Attention Span – how to make your short stand out
Music Video Masterclass with Ideastap
Making your first Micro-feature
BAFTA: Mastering Your Craft – Producing
Visual Effects workshop
Short Film Funding networking
Blogging workshops
StarNow: Casting & Audition Website Drop-In Session


Future Film Awards – Documentary short films
Making your first independent feature
Classic Special Preview – Laura
Film Critic Masterclass with Little White Lies
Animation Storyboarding workshop
Screenwriting: Crimes and Misdemeanours with Scriptfactory
Screenwriting: What’s the Big Idea? Renewal and Rehabilitation with Scriptfactory
Routes to success – Online v Offline debate
Documentary Pitching Masterclass and live Pitch
Blogging workshops
StarNow: Casting & Audition Website Drop-In Session

Tickets are £5 for a one day pass for 15-18 year olds and £10 for a one day pass for 19-25 year olds. If you’re reading this now and don’t live too far away, a weekend pass is still worth your while. Weekend passes are available at the Box Office, priced at £8 for 15-18 year olds and £15 for 19-25 year olds.

Please note that it’s not possible to book for individual sessions – ticket holders must register for sessions they’d like to attend on the day. There are limited places for each session.

Plus, I’d be literally crazy if I didn’t take this opportunity to plug my own drop-in blogging workshop sessions, where I’ll give an introduction to blogging, dispense some (hopefully sound) advice, and furnish you with a handout.

Hey! Wha’happen?

You might have noticed PPH has been a bit quiet recently; this lack of activity can be attributed to a nasty combination of extreme business in other areas and le flu d’homme (translation: quite a bad cold that won’t go away).

However, PPH will return with exciting new content next week, and I’m also excited to say that we (by which I mean, I) will be present in my Permanent Plastic guise at the 5th BFI Future Film Festival next weekend (18-19 February) running blogging workshops. More information will follow, but it would be great to see you down there at London’s BFI Southbank, so mark it in your diaries!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this amazingly, ridiculously brilliant clip from the unsung comedy genius Fred Willard in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. “I CAN’T DO MY WERRRK!”


‘The mythological ground of Art is littered with the scattered corpses of lost heroes and heroines.’

So we might be heard to remark, downing a last pint of bitter with the rabble in our local Public House before kicking off another opium-fuelled, semi-apocalyptic night of gambling and debauchery at the Notting Hill Bear-Baiting Pit to the soundtrack of Jim Morrison as read by William Burroughs.

Our modern era tends to fetishise the Romantic cult of the tragic and self-destructive lone genius. It’s a familiar legend and often takes two distinctive forms: In the one, a young flame burns bright and fast, and is extinguished early (think Byron, River Phoenix, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Winehouse); in the second the artist’s talent is only fully appreciated after their anonymous death (think Kafka, Arthur Russell, Van Gogh, John Kennedy Toole).

In both of these forms the artist appears as an elevated ephemeral presence. Their death is often portrayed as being somehow synonymous with their art, as though in the pursuit of that art they really had no other option but to live fast and die young. Often, in hindsight, they are seen as doomed before they started: silent, enigmatic, unknowable. In the latter form (the Kafka-Russell-Van Gogh form), this inscrutable muteness stems largely from the fact that the artist was never given the chance to exist in the public sphere –limited (or no) words beyond their work, no interviews, no way of being seen from other angles; in the former, the enigma is retained and fostered through the alluring tragedy of a young death – the artist never had the chance to exist in public whilst growing old.[1]

Jean Vigo, director of L’Atalante has a little of each of these forms in him, and a third, having died both as a young and mostly unrecognised talent, and directly in the pursuit of his art.[2] The supposed tragedy of his existence[3] (which takes as its basis the assumption that the sum of a life is simply the ‘things that happen’ to a person as opposed to the journey and growth of one’s spiritual and emotional character) can lead to critical portrayals of his human qualities (and from there, his work) that are neither accurate, nor essentially in keeping with what we can tell about his perspective on the world as evidenced through his films and writings and as recalled by his friends.[4]

Here we find that Vigo belongs on a different list. On the whole the majority of critical responses linger, not on his definitive genius, but on his potential for genius. There’s often a tacit acknowledgement that what remains (ie the work itself) is in itself by no means fully expressive of what he seemed capable of.

This is obviously a very confusing standpoint. If Vigo did not produce the goods[5] then is his legend founded wholly on the tragedy of his death? And if this is indeed the case, could we all not be appreciated many years after we die?

It is clear that the ‘tragic’ reading[6] of his life might initially have been the only reason Vigo’s films, not only continued to linger, but also gained a significant following in the decade after his death. But it is clearly only possible to consider his legend from the perspective of what is there to be seen. Similarly, to speak of the films Vigo might have made had he not died so young, as many rapt fans are wont to do, is as pointless an act of imagination as to speculate on, say, what a Unicorn might enjoy eating for breakfast (pancakes).

‘As for L’Atalante, there are as many ways to love it as there are ways to love.’[7]

L’Atalante is the kind of film that fans tend to whisper about in tones of hushed reverence. Those who don’t ‘get it’ decry it loudly as over-rated nonsense. Some postulate that Vigo’s previous film Zéro de Conduite is his real masterpiece and more truly representative of his anarchist social-political character. It’s an argument that has raged since L’Atalante’s 1934 press screening, subsequent theatrical recut, and ultimate commercial failure: is it actually any good? Or just flashes of a good film? And does it represent Vigo the man? In this context, I think it appropriate to comment from a particularly personal standpoint on what it was about this curious, strange and tender film that affected me.

As a first-time viewer what really strikes you first about the film is the lightness of directorial touch. Vigo wasn’t purist avant-garde, but a firm advocate of socially committed experimental cinema. From this standpoint we get a lot of documentary-esque shots of barges and the French canal system. Vigo’s director of photography was Boris Kaufman, who went on to win an Oscar for the cinematography in On the Waterfront, and if there was to be nothing else worth seeing in the film it is stunningly shot.

This very authentic sense (one might consider it as an expression of Vigo’s social conscience – for example, the film uses shots real unemployment lines to touch on the economic crisis of the time) is offset by a tremendously playful script and warm, open performances from the cast. Much has been written about the tour de force performance Vigo coaxed out of Michel Simon as the old Seadog Pére Jules, but Jean Dasté as the inexperienced, clumsily-loving Jean and, in particular Dita Parlo as the by turns innocent and curious, erotic and feline Juliette are stunning. There’s an abundance of comedy throughout the film. On the kinds of issues that, even today, are often naturally approached from a moralising and judgemental position, the film is surprisingly neutral. This neutrality makes it feel strangely contemporary – not even contemporary – something still existing beyond, in a more enlightened future. Its approach to gender relations, and in particular its approach to the idea of what love might be or mean is way ahead of its time. It could almost act as a manifesto on gender equality.[8]

On paper Vigo’s last film is a very simple love story (‘run of the mill’, as described by film blogger James Travers). The script – a nothing piece by a man called Jean Guinée – was given to Vigo by his producer and ardent supporter Jacques-Louis Nounez with the intention of keeping him out of trouble (Zéro de Conduite had been banned for subversive content)

This original screenplay was so stolid and moralising in tone that the radical Vigo apparently exclaimed: ‘What the fuck do you want me to do with this – it’s Sunday school stuff.’[9] But some days later he had suddenly and unexpectedly become excited at the idea of filming it, having apparently found a way to operate within its template.[10]

In fact, all he ultimately kept was the bare bones of the plot. All the moralising overtones of the Guinée script were not simply abandoned but operated against. Out of a traditional Romantic tale full of petit-borgeouis moralising, Vigo created something that could easily be called subversive. By eschewing the traditionalist moral ‘lessons’ of the parable, whilst keeping the traditional format of the plot, Vigo transformed a rather conventional love story into simply: love, rendered.

Don’t write love poems…’

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that love is the hardest subject to breach – it’s necessary to wait until one’s talent is fully formed to even think of making an attempt.[11]

Vigo is often described as a visual poet. In contrast to what might be implied when critics write extensively of his potential, his talent was certainly fully formed at the point of making L’Atalante. Alone, the film stands as an effervescent affirmation of non-judgemental love – a testament to the necessity of independence and equality. Considering the time it was made, but also the incredible difficulty of the shoot (Vigo directed most of the film from a stretcher) and his relative inexperience, it’s quite an astonishing achievement. As Marina Warner notes in her fantastically perceptive book for the BFI: ‘Vigo’s complete transformation of pessimism into hope fulfils the conditions of classical romance, of course, but it also proposes a modern strategy to the dilemmas of life and love, as opposed to morbidity and misogyny. Paradoxically, his romance represents a turning away from romanticism.’

To attempt to go into further depth about this film would surely take a much longer article, and would, I’m afraid, make something of a love poet of me. In that sense it might also (and with justification) be read as contrary to the (somewhat contradictory) point this author offers, and in steadfast opposition to the advice of Rilke – my skills notwithstanding. Best then to leave on one last quote from one of the film’s other admirers:

‘L’Atalante is a film whose feet smell.’

So said Francois Truffaut, and I can’t think of a more fitting appraisal. This statement is not simply an affectionate comment on the fact that the film is flawed. It touches on Vigo’s inclusion of a hardened reality and a social/political message at the heart of a love story. It also implies, indirectly, the film’s most subversive message: that there is joy to be taken from the smell of feet. More, that there is nothing really beyond the fact that nothing is perfect: the willing acceptance of flaws is all there is. Idealisation, then, is a misnomer when real life is so much fuller.

The difficulty in writing about L’Atalante has not been finding words. Quite the opposite: the difficulty for me has been attempting to present a balanced and realistic portrait of an actual film that can actually be seen in an actual cinema – within the confines of a word limit, and without going overboard with my evident enthusiasm.[12]

Finally I would say that, especially when considering the absence of a current DVD edition of the film, L’Atalante’s extended run at the BFI Southbank should be a cause for celebration. I would recommend anyone with a passionate interest in film to take the opportunity to see this on the big screen.

[1] The most debilitating disease affecting artists is, of course, age (or McCartney Syndrome as it’s better known). This illness strikes the taste functions primarily, eventually leading to an overload of the dignity system, until it’s finally revealed that everything we thought we admired and appreciated about this person was in fact a total lie, the once-was genius definitively weathered away in a storm of tabloid filth, leaving only the Madame Tussauds grinning waxwork exterior, carted out at awards ceremonies as some kind of human accessory to younger, more successful artists, themselves already hard at work destroying any public goodwill… For notable exceptions to this rule, see David Bowie who has managed to exist as a very public figure whilst retaining his enigmatic status and aging, for the most part, with great dignity (Backstreet-Boys-meet-Liberace 90s stylings aside).

[2] Vigo died from septicemia, sustained as a consequence of the months of intense work the filming of L’Atalante took on his already frail, tubercular body, before the film was ever released.

[3] From anonymous beginnings as the weakly and incognito son of a murdered former anarchist and entrepreneur to an inauspicious end at the tender age of twenty-nine, leaving behind a wife and young child.

[4] It’s interesting here to note that the act immortalisation works on the basis of emotional preservation; using tragedy and pathos as a tool we mummify the artist, their life and their works, in the cultural consciousness. Hence an artist who has not lived a tragic life is harder to elevate. Conversely, the press will often be seen hounding troubled stars to their deaths. Artists of supreme talent in Western society have taken on the mantle of the sacrificial lamb or martyr; this is evidenced by the public reaction before and after their deaths.

[5] See film critic Gilles Jacob writing in the magazine Raccords in 1951 for an argument against falsely perfecting the image of Vigo.

[6] Which can be seen taking root in an obituary written by the actor and screenwriter Frédéric Pottecher and published in the magazine Comœdia 2 days after Vigo’s death

[7] Paul Ryan, Jean Vigo: The Ghost in the Vanguard.

[8] For comparative purposes, see Cathy Landicho’s fantastically incisive recent article on this site about gender roles in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Also, compare this to an article written about L’Atalante by contemporary internet critic Dennis Grunes in 2004 (you’ll find the paragraph I’m thinking of specifically as the third from the bottom of the page, beginning with the words ‘On the other hand…’

[9] Marina Warner, L’Atalante (p.9) quoting Pierre Lherminier from his book Jean Vigo.

[10] ‘The madman straight-jacketed’ as Michael Temple puts it.

[11] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

[12] And without having mentioned any specific scenes!