Picture of the Week #82: The World’s Most Expensive Photograph


Last year, Andreas Gursky‘s photograph of a stretch of the Rhine river went on sale Christie’s in New York. It’s not even, I think it’s fair to say, the prettiest stretch of the Rhine. You might even call it featureless, but it does at least show the basic features of a river – water, two banks, and some sky. The sky, water, and footpath are more or less the same shade of grey, though they deepen in tone, and grow progressively narrower, from top to bottom. It has a striking symmetry, and a simplicity of structure: parallel strips of colour all the way across the image, extending into offscreen space. All is not what it seems, though: the photograph has been digitally tweaked to remove a factory building and some passersby: nothing ruins a minimalist composition like the presence of an old man walking his Shih Tzu. It’s a strong, austere image, a c-print framed on plexiglass, and quite enormous at 81 x 140 inches, but you might wonder why it sold at auction for $4.3 million (beating the previous record set by Cindy Sherman‘s Untitled #97, especially since a digital photograph is endlessly reproducible. It must look great on somebody’s wall.

I’m more familiar with Gursky’s dizzyingly detailed studies like Chicago Board of Trade (above, 1999), where the minutiae of something as potentially abstracted as a financial system are shrunk into a morass of concrete but febrile activity. It is at once systemic and messily chaotic. Rhein II has a wholly different vibe. Is it a homage to, or a parody of romantic landscape painting, or just an assertion of the singular abilities of photography to “store” a fragment of a place for our future, vicarious pleasure?

Picture of the Week #81: Willis O’Brien


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On this day in 1886, Willis O’Brien was born. If you’ve visited Spectacular Attractions often, you’ll have encountered his work on King Kong (more than once – I’m nothing if not repetitive where my childhood favourites are concerned), so I thought I’d mark his anniversary with some images from designs for films that never got made. You’ll see character portraits from his Frankenstein vs King Kong, a proposed mash-up of his most famous creation, and the creature he had always wanted to portray; War Eagles featured Vikings riding on the backs of eagles to fight dinosaurs; Baboon: A Tale About a Yeti was a self-explanatory, if contradictory title (is it a baboon, or is it a yeti?), but appeared to contain a scene in which the creature wrestles with a pack of sharks; The Last of the Oso Si-Papu was another story idea that O’Brien imagined in watercolour designs, in which prehistoric beasts appear in a Wild West setting, rather like an earlier concept for The Valley of Gwangi, which was finally realised by Ray Harryhausen in 1969. O’Brien’s enduring interest in staging scenes of combat between prehistoric monsters in an accelerated Darwinist struggle for survival was the perfect excuse for his delicate and characterful puppet animations.

Build Your Own Review: The Artist


The Artist, a film so adored that the discovery that some people thought it less than awesome was considered newsworthy in some quarters. A film so sophisticated that The Daily Telegraph felt it appropriate to point and laugh at the dirty proles who just didn’t get it. The film that made it easy for pseuds to pretend they were big fans of silent movies all along, when really they were just happy to have a French movie where they didn’t have to read too many subtitles. As everybody knows, with the exception of The Daily Telegraph‘s made-up mob of baffled scousers, The Artist is a silent movie (with synchronised musical soundtrack), and this is apparently a very daring and innovative thing, because nobody watches silent movies any more: generally, people seem surprised that The Artist is not unwatchable or incomprehensible, so it is at the very least a good thing that it has swung some spotlight back onto the silent period. Will it see an increase in the sales of Douglas Fairbanks boxsets? Who knows. Whatever your thoughts on the film, it rode into town on the bank of a mass of critical acclaim, and was met with a more varied set of responses. In advance of an all-out backlash, I offer up one of my (not-actually-)patented Build Your Own Review posts. Not sure what to make of the film, and frustrated by partisan reviews? Then collate your own mixed response from the entries below. Choose mostly option 1 if you found The Artist to be a joyous celebration of filmy goodness, and mostly option 2 if you’re a curmudgeonly, dessicated old git. Probably. Continue reading

Fragment #33: Cheng Pei-Pei on Working (and living) at Shaw Brothers Studios


[In this extract from Poshek Fu's edited collection on the films of Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studios, actress Cheng Pei-Pei, best known as the fierce warrior at the heart of King Hu's Come Drink With Me (1966), describes some of the living and working conditions at the most famous and productive studios in the world.]

The martial arts film hero Ti Lung in an interview once said: “The Shaw Brothers Movietown was my paradise.” In fact, the Shaw studio was not just Ti Lung’s paradise but was the paradise of each and every young person who found themselves there in the 1960s. It was at that studio that each of us lived out our dreams.

In 1961, I immigrated to Hong Kong from Shanghai. In order to find a group of friends who shared my passion for performance, I enrolled, in 1962, in the Performing Arts Training classes at the Shaw Brothers South China Experimental Drama Center … When we entered the Center, our paradise still seemed a long way off. Little did we know that we were entering through its main gates. Continue reading

Tom Waits for No One


Today, Tom Waits released a new single, and announced a forthcoming album (containing his first new material since the massive Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards from 2006) scheduled for release on 25th October. To celebrate, here’s a reminder of John Lamb‘s innovative animated short, Tom Waits for No One, which features a rotoscoped avatar of the singer performing The One that Got Away. Using the Oscar (Scientific Technical Achievement, 1978)-winning Lyon Lamb Video Animation System (devised by Lamb and Bruce Lyon), five cameras were set up to record 13 hours of footage; 5,500 frames were then painted, frame by frame onto celluloid acetate.  Continue reading

Picture of the Week #72: Scopitone


This is actually several pictures. In January I spent a few days in Berlin, and was lucky enough to have access to the archive of the Filmmuseum. The main museum is in the Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz, but I also visited the archive where the bulk of the items are stored. I was not allowed to photograph the miniatures, puppets and other objects I was examining in the collection (except to say that, at one point, I held in my hands the golden idol from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark – it’s much heavier than a small bag of sand; several were produced for use in various shots), but I did get a tour of one of the back rooms where hundreds of cameras, projectors, lights, speakers, microphones and other cinematic apparatus are kept. It’s an incredible collection, and a shame there is no museum big enough to put it all on display. One of my discoveries, and by “discovery” I mean something that plenty of people have always known about but I’ve only just noticed, was the Scopitone, invented in France in the early 60s, originally assembled from surplus WWII aeroplane parts.

Continue reading

Fragment #13: Rudolf Arnheim on ‘The Sad Future of Film’


[In this 1930 essay, Rudolf Arnheim provides a corrective to the rhetoric of progress that saw the addition of sound and colour as incremental steps towards increased realism at the cinema. He mourns the loss of the ineffable distance between the image and the real that is lost in the slavish adherence to simulationist aesthetics.]

Film is not an art of the masses, except that it must amass a profit at the box office. Those who try to be lovers of both the people and art – a difficult double calling these days – have hailed film as the illustrated bible for the people. The esoteric pleasures of the art of printing are now to be surpassed by the (equally nutritional) visual instruction provided by the living picture, whose lessons are thought to be best suited to making an impression on the eye of the common man. The developments of the past two years have made this whole pious swindle painfully clear.

For the people would rather have pictures than a bible. They can be educated, but not these days – not so long as the work needed to earn their daily bread is either nonexistent or so overtaxing that the worker drops dead tired into bed at night. The discovery of living photography, of an easily manufactured picture of reality, fit in perfectly with the legitimate need of the employed, from the messenger boy up to the factory director, for distraction and amusement. Thus a cult of the image quickly arose, one that has since turned into a spiritual epidemic. Everywhere that there had been words – that is, thoughts – there was now raw, pointless viewing.

The film industry, as purveyor of such visual amusements, has never been in good stead with the film artists. Similarly, it became apparent that, to a certain modest degree, the desired product could be produced not only by untalented but also talented artists. Thus arose the flattering legend of the great artist as the darling of the people … No sooner did sound film appear than bluff triumphed over quality, and from one day to the next the people’s darlings saw their life’s work in question. The wide country road of film art, whose lovely goal was becoming ever clearer in the distance, was closed for technical renovations, with a detour erected on a bumpy path over the fields. [...] One may welcome the appearance of sound film, but the unscrupulous strangulation of an entire branch of art, the violation of talented and inspired artists, remains a scandal. Silent film was not ripe for replacement. It had not lost its fruitfulness, but only its profitability. Especially when we understand that sound film is more than just an addition to silent film, that it is, rather, an artistic activity unto itself, we ought to reject the popular opinion that it represents an “advance”, one automatically condemning the previous method to the compost heap. Sound film is not an advance, but a new thing entirely – and that is undoubtedly a mixed blessing.


The patron saint of the visual arts has switched over from Saint Luke to the electric company, and the results look it. The world public, just as powerful as it is uneducated, wants film to look more and more like reality. At the cinema they look for the sensation of the waxworks, the ventriloquist – the doll looks and talks like a man! Similarly, technicians see their task as being to conquer sound, colour, and space, and they’re going to reach their goal damned fast. We allowed silent film time to bring at least a couple of well-formed products into the world. From here on in, however, Progress will be in an even greater rush. It will trample the unhatched eggs of sound film with its seven-league army boots, and then it will be obvious to even the most well-meaning opportunist among film lovers that film’s latest achievements cut a better figure in the patent registry than in the annals of art history. [...]

Even if it should be possible to perfect the technology of coloured film so that the colour no longer controls the director, but the director the colour – something that will take a long time, dragging out the production of more or less watchable sound films for another number of years – even then, nothing will have been gained. Rather, one of those qualities of the camera that makes film art possible will be lost again, since every artistic creation demands that distance from reality which Progress is trying to remove.

Rudolf Arnheim, ‘The Sad Future of Film’ (1930) reprinted in Film Essays and Criticism. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Picture of the Week #54: Felix the Cat Merchandise


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For no good reason that wouldn’t bebetter described as a whim, this week I bring you some bits of Felix the Cat merchandise. Many of these come from items located in the Bill Douglas Centre for History of Cinema and Popular Culture, which I’ve namechecked here many times before. The Centre has excellent holdings on animation history, and a particular section devoted to the cartoon cat created at Pat Sullivan’s studio in 1919 (credit for the original design is disputed between Sullivan and Otto Messmer). The range and depth of Felix merchandise is testament to the character’s popularity, as well as his transferability – the simple design made him a powerful graphic logo that was instantly recognisable whether on a poster, a mug, or a knitting tool.