Picture of the Week #83: Louis Daguerre, Father of Photography

A (very brief) account of the invention of the Daguerreotype photographic system developed by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787 – 1851), as featured in Camera Comics #005 (1945). To see some examples of the stunning results visit the galleries of the Daguerreian Society, or click on the examples of modern Daguerreotypes produced by the artist Chuck Close at the bottom of this post.

Picture of the Week #80: Raymond Waters’ Haute Couture

I’ve wanted to revive the popular Picture of the Week feature for a while, but needed a spur to do so. A couple of years ago, I featured a beautiful artwork by Raymond Waters, which featured a print of Charlie Chaplin‘s The Gold Rush arranged with fairy lights. So, when Waters drew my attention to his latest exhibits, I was only too happy to show them off here once more. The dress pictured above is from the Haute Couture series, and is made of strips of film from Chaplin’s Modern Times: a closer view will reveal more:

As well as such bona fide classics, Waters creates vivid coloured outfits using particular films, including John Carpenter’s Vampires, which is clearly better to wear than to watch:

Waters’ commitment to treating the film itself (a disappearing commodity in the digital age) as aesthetic content in itself, rather than the raw material for the more important projected image, offers a genuinely novel angle on film history. We already carry films, in the form of memories of films, around with us at all times: making films into clothing gives physical expression to that fact, just as it manifests the longstanding relationship between film and fashion.

[Read more about the work of Raymond Waters here.]

Halloween Picture of the Week: 100 Posters of the Living Dead…

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Last week’s Halloween package of Frankenstein posters proved quite popular, so I hope this is another treat. Not for the squeamish, nor for those who don’t like zombie movie posters, here are 100 (count them!) posters from zombie films, from the voodoo-themed to the splatter-obsessed, the grave to the parodic. The zombie has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years, alongside that other staple of the horror scene, the vampire, but these lumbering undead, single-minded in their pursuit of your delicious brains, haven’t been so open to romanticisation. I hope you enjoy this massive parade of guts and gore.

Halloween Picture of the Week: 50 Frankenstein Movie Posters

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In the run up to Halloween, here’s the first of a series of scary treats for you to enjoy while you scoop the guts out of a pumpkin or a neighbour. The story of Frankenstein is one of those that has been endlessly reiterated in movies and literature, from Edison’s 1910 adaptation to Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, via James Whale’s matchless Bride of Frankenstein and Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker. There seems to be an enduring fascination with the reanimated corpse and its path towards self-definition, and the deceptively simple premise lends itself to many reconfigurations. Thankfully, this also gives ample excuse for some wonderful, often lurid poster art to tease us with sightings of the jerry-built creature. You should also pay a visit to the excellent, comprehensive Frankensteinia blog for more about the monster and his maker.

Picture of the Week #79: Gallery 1988’s Crazy 4 Cult Show

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Gallery 1988 was opened in Los Angeles in 2004 by Katie Cromwell and Jensen Karp. Since then, it has built up an avid following for its annual Crazy 4 Cult exhibition of work by new artists focused on popular cinema. Many of the ‘cult films’ beloved of the shows contributors are comedies and fantasies and fantasy comedies from the late 80s and early 90s: there’s a lingering love for Tim Burton, Back to the Future, The Goonies, the Evil Dead sequels, Pee Wee Herman, Donnie Darko and The Big Lebowski. Colourful and accessible, perhaps their attraction is that they treat with nostalgic, loving care the movies that mattered during the childhood and adolescence of the gallery’s target demographic, movies that were themselves often reverently referential to their predecessors. Here’s a sample of recent exhibits [Click on any image for a larger view]:

Picture of the Week #78: Charlie McCarthy & Edgar Bergen in ‘Nut Guilty’

I have another movie treat for you today: a complete short film starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the courtroom comedy, Nut Guilty (Lloyd French, 1936). At this point, Bergen and McCarthy had appeared in a few shorts, including The Eyes Have it and At the Races, but within the year they had landed a contract for their own radio show that would keep them on air, with huge audiences and a string of major guest movie stars, for almost two decades. Many people find it odd that ventriloquists performed on radio, but it’s not so strange. Ventriloquism is only partly about the visual illusion of two voices emerging from two separate bodies; also important is the creation of two distinct voices, and the aural illusion that you’re hearing a back-and-forth conversation rather than a monologue. Bergen admitted that years of performing on radio left him out-of-practice at hiding his lip movements (something McCarthy would often tease him about), but his banter with McCarthy is exemplary for its speed and timing. It’s also a bit saucy, and bordering on the inappropriate when you consider that McCarthy is meant to be a schoolboy delivering a stream of flirtatious innuendos.

For more on radio and TV ventriloquists, Kelly Asbury’s (the director of Gnomeo and Juliet, no less) book Dummy Days is a good start. You can hear more about it here. For now, though, enjoy ten minutes of ventriloquial fun with Bergen and McCarthy:

Picture of the Week #77: Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills


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Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’, examples of which you can see in this slideshow and gallery (click on the images below for a larger view), were taken in New York from 1977 to 1980. Sherman uses herself as the model for a series of set-ups which see her assuming the roles of various characters from imaginary movies, like a portfolio of stills from the career of an actress. Although we’ve seen none of these films, we recognise something of these character types: women on the run, waiting in a motel room for a lover, plotting a theft, regretting an infidelity – every expression, every setting, every prop is a prompt to create our own stories.  

What might seem like an exercise in fantasy, a professional game of dress-up, ends up poignantly conveying a sense of isolation, perhaps inadvertently encapsulating the limited options available to women in Hollywood; the feminist interpretation is there if you want it – Sherman shows how easily you can knock up a pre-fab female stereotype with a bit of make-up and a wig, and how readily the spectator will accept and participate in the construction and reinforcement of ideals of femininity. The staging is never glamorous, and always a little cheap and sparse, as if Sherman’s characters have been left stranded, out of time and out of context after the collapse of the studio system. From one picture to the next, she is troubled, locked in a private struggle with a story which is never explained to us; Sherman is invariably looking off screen, rarely returning the camera’s gaze, both exposed to us and simultaneously inaccessible, distant. In that sense, they offer a beautifully succinct summary of our tendentious relationship with the people we see on the screen above us at the cinema.



Picture of the Week #76: The Mesdag Panorama, Den Haag

Last year, I wrote a post about the Salzburg panorama, an amazing, vast 19th-century 360-degree painting housed in glorious surroundings at the centre of the city. This week, I’ve seen another astonishing panorama, in the heart of Den Haag. Painted by Hendrik Willem Mesdag(1831 – 1915) and Sientje Mesdag‐van Houten (1834 – 1909), it has occupied the same enormous rotunda into which it was painted since 1881. It stands 14m high, and 120m in circumference. That’s a surface area of 1680 square metres. The world’s largest panorama was recently unveiled in Zhengzhou, China, measuring over 3500 square metres. It was designed digitally, and puts its viewers on a rotating platform in front of its enormous image. But the Mesdag painting was all done by hand; the main features were sketched onto a glass drum which was then illuminated from the centre of the room to project the outlines of buildings onto the canvas and accurately record the view of Scheveningen. As you can see in the photograph below, the Mesdag Panorama building is part of the illusion of continuous space created by the picture:

Visitors enter through a staircase below the central platform. A canopy restricts their view of the roof, and the floor surrounding the platform is covered in sand, driftwood, and other debris that is designed to conceal the gap between the two-dimensional image and the space in which the viewer is standing. The trick depends on hiding the frame: this is a painting with no visible edges, and you can’t approach the canvas to inspect the brush-strokes (there’s also the modern addition of piped-in sound effects), so you are asked to view it as if you were really standing on the shore at Scheveningen, the Hague’s most popular beach resort.

It’s a superb experience, an exciting reconstruction of an earlier form of screen entertainment. I never like to force those comparisons with 3D and Imax etc. (though I have done so, and they’re there if you want to make them), because panorama existed on its own terms with its own conventions of visual spectacle, but it’s also worth considering the longer, broader histories of screen media if you want to be a well-informed, critical consumer of, or preferably participant in, today’s visual culture.

Picture of the Week #75: The Jimmy Stewart Show

Towards the end of his career, James Stewart starred in his own sitcom, which ran for just under a year (24 episodes, September 1971 – August 1972). It marked a mark concerted move into television acting (he followed it up with a TV remake of Harvey, which he had also played on stage), and saw Stewart playing James K. Howard, a professor at a small town university, with Julie Adams as his wife (you’d recognise her in the arms of The Creature from the Black Lagoon). Stewart had wanted to cast his own wife, Gloria, in the role, but NBC talked him out of it. The premise of a thoughtful man trying for a quiet life in the face of a series of domestic quibbles is a well-worn one, but Stewart is about as reliable a screen presence as its possible to find, and it’s interesting to see him in this format, even with such a short extract.

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Picture of the Week #74: 87 Filipino Movie Posters

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I have recently returned from a trip to the Philippines, and I’m itching to bring Spectacular Attractions back from its little hiatus. Unfortunately, it’s assessment season, so I have stacks of marking to get through, as well as publication deadlines for two articles and a couple of PhD vivas to conduct. It’s a busy time, but I want to try and keep something ticking over at this site as often as is humanly possible, beginning with a large gallery of Filipino movie posters, that hopefully demonstrates a wide range of styles and genres from across the last few decades of the Pinoy film industry. You’ll find the heroic, godly posturing of Fernando Poe Jr, the nation’s best-known and best-loved star, a bit of Darna, the Pinay Wonder Woman, a little bit of miniature action star Weng Weng (after whom a delicious cocktail is named), national comedian Dolphy, as well as representatives of the recent resurgence in febrile, socio-politically rapacious independent cinema by directors such as Brillante Mendoza, Raya Martin, Khavn, and Lav Diaz, which are worlds away from the pastel-coloured, airbroomed romcoms that are also in evidence here. I’m hoping that over the summer, I’ll finally get time for a series of long-mooted blog posts about this eclectic, maddening, exciting film culture (my suitcase came back stuffed with DVDs), so here is just a taster of coming attractions.