William Blake, Our Contemporary

Could Allen Ginsberg have written “Howl” without him?

By Michael Glover

The great painter William Blake (1757-1827) traveled far in the realms of gold, to borrow a phrase from John Keats, but much less far in the body. (He lived in various parts of London for all but a little more than three years of his relatively long life.)

So, where did he go when he was not actually using his legs? According to Blake himself, the only known authority, he regularly conversed with Sophocles, Aristotle, and Jesus. And then there were the angels, many of whom were also his fast friends. He had his first angelic conversations on Peckham Rye, a glorious park, still thoroughly angelic in appearance and character, in south London. Did anyone mind?

When asked after his death whether she had any complaints about his behavior, Blake’s long-suffering wife Catherine tentatively mentioned an innate predisposition to spend a little too much time “in paradise.”

“I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company,” she said

In recent years, Blake’s works have traveled quite far physically through the galleries of Tate Britain, the principal earthly depository of his delicate works in the United Kingdom. This spring, the London museum had a major re-hang. The last time this had happened was in 2013, under Penelope Curtis, its last director. That year, a dedicated Blake Room was created inside the Clore Gallery. The extension, which opened in 1987, was created to show off prized works from the enormous J. M. W. Turner bequest. Blake had his own little room carved out of it to show off a choice selection of his paintings and prints.

William Blake
William Blake, “Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils” (circa 1826)

The walls were royal blue. The space was very dimly lit because works by Blake are so fragile and so light-sensitive. His pioneering use of mixed media makes them very unstable. They are often not on show for very long.

Was Blake thoroughly embedded in the 18th and 19th centuries? Only partially.

His prints, and especially those commissioned by clients, are often thoroughly neo-classical in feel and execution. But when he was let loose to make works of his own imaginings, he was a wild thing, a freelance mythologizer, a blazing forerunner of psychedelia.

This spring the Blake Room of 2013 disappeared from amongst the Turners, and 15 Blakes did a flit to the other side of Tate Britain, in the general direction of modernity.

This is a good decision. Turner and Blake had precious little to talk about.

William Blake
William Blake, “The Simoniac Pope” (1824–7)

Blake now lives in room 7 beside a gallery devoted to a selection of works by Chris Ofili, a contemporary painter upon whom he has had a huge influence. Ofili loves Blake’s use of color, his free-flowing line, and his unparalleled ability to conjure into fantastical beings.

This decision, at a stroke, tells us a lot about Blake and his posthumous fame and reach. He was always out of key with his times. This is why he was ignored, abused, and so thoroughly misunderstood during his lifetime.

In fact, Blake feels very close to the near present. The doors of perception opened up to him almost 200 years ago. Could Allen Ginsberg have written “Howl” without him?

I recall, as if it were yesterday, one rainy evening I spent in a giant marquee at the Hay Festival in the early 1990s. Ginsberg was sitting on a chair on the stage in front of me, squeeze-box bouncing up and down on his bony knees as he sang, with painfully exquisite tunelessness, a fragment of a famous verse from Blake’s Songs of Innocence: “…And all the hills echo-ed.”

He sang it over and over, over and over, over and over, and over.

Source: William Blake, Our Contemporary

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late ’40s and ’50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

By Michael Barrett

Boring British Movies

Growing up as a callow nascent film buff, lost in the candy store of VHS tapes and TV Guide, I gathered that British films were mostly dull old things. With a few exceptions, they were talky sub-Hollywood productions, at best well-acted but lacking oomph and pizzazz and élan and je ne sais quoi. I partly got this impression from English critics, and some of the tatty VHS and TV prints I saw reinforced this idea.

As the years passed, I had to note more and more exceptions until the old canard became festooned with mental asterisks and parentheses. Today, with so many classic British films that haven’t circulated in the US finally hitting Region 1 in sparkling restorations on Blu-ray, I’m officially concluding that the spotty dismissal of British cinema is what deserves to be dismissed.

I believe three factors have been at work in promoting this fiction about boring English films. The first is that critics and reviewers everywhere seem to be blind to the qualities of their own country’s film production. This partly explains why English critics seemed dismissive of their own cultural legacy. It’s the natural result of having to sit through every uninspired local movie and getting so weary that you take it all for granted.

Thus, Americans had to be told by postwar French auteurists that Hollywood’s popular cinema was full of artistic masterpieces. Meanwhile, those same French critics were awfully hard on their own national cinema, referred to derisively as “the cinema of quality”, and only now are historians re-evaluating much of that material.

Similarly, the upstarts of New German Cinema, in an understandable attempt to differentiate themselves from a compromised past, swept out “Opa’s kino” or “grandpa’s cinema”, and it’s been taking a while to examine that legacy. I think we’ve been slow to study Franco-era Spanish cinema for similar reasons, and pre-war Italian films. In Russia and China, there are times when it has been policy to avoid praising specific eras.

I fancy certain critics in Hong Kong or India have had to to be informed of the value of much of their blatantly commercial cinema by foreigners. Even today’s American reviewers are more comfortable dismissing mainstream Hollywood in praise of foreign films. Perhaps upstart critics in Brazil or Bengal shall one day inform Americans of the masterpieces of superhero cinema. This brings up the second factor: the passage of time tends to make things more interesting, not less, contrary to what people have long assumed about “dated” cinema.

In addition, a third factor is more specific to English culture, where it’s considered bad taste to toot your own horn. British cinema has been created by vulgar self-promoters like J. Arthur Rank (literally banging a gong) and brassy boots like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger or Hammer’s Michael Carreras or the Kordas (imported Hungarians) or Anatole de Grunwald (imported Russian) or the imported Yanks of Amicus (it helps to be a bloody foreigner), and they faced whiffs of critical sniffery about the sort of thing that just isn’t done.

But then, there’s the work. The British Film Institute and others have been beavering away, restoring their country’s legacy, because it’s all they can do, poor dears, and the results are continually dropping our jaws and making us rewrite our impressions of drab British cinema. These thoughts are triggered by yet another handful of British postwar classics of the late 1940s and ’50s arriving on Blu-ray to put paid to the old libels. Let’s take the films in the order of public unleashing.about:blank

​Brighton Rock (1948) Director: John Boulting​

Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock (1948) (IMDB)

This dark Catholic gangster thriller opens with a statement that might have been crafted by the Brighton Chamber of Commerce. We’re told that Brighton is a wonderful vacation spot an hour from London, but that between the wars it had “back alleys” of crime that caught police attention. “This is a story of that other Brighton — now happily no more” avers the prologue, as though such things are gone with the war, and a headline quickly establishes that the story takes place in June 1935.

Maybe so, but the extensive location shooting also makes the movie a documentary of postwar Brighton as a tatty pleasure-land for the lower and middle classes. This detailed and populous film, shot in expressive high-contrast black and white, provides a rich snapshot that seamlessly mixes location and studio work. It’s normal that studio sets provide all sorts of angles and shadows, but even the outdoor locations are presented with distortion and clamor.

Scripted by Graham Greene and Terence Rattigan from Greene’s 1938 novel, which he called one of his “entertainments”, the film is loaded with Catholic dialogue and symbolism, sometimes carefully underlined. For example, both the villainous Pinkie and his naïve girlfriend identify as Catholics and believers, with Pinkie declaring “Atheists don’t know what they’re talking about” and “Of course there’s a hell.”This recalls Mephistopheles’ famous statement in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Just to make sure every viewer makes the same connection, another character quotes this later in the film. And when Pinkie commits a significant malapropism by referring to a “suicide pax”, his background as an altar boy requires him to spell out that “pax” is Latin for “peace”. Such underlining could be heavy-handed but it’s mostly delightful for recovering English majors.

Wait, we’re forgetting the story. At 17, Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough) is a cold, affectless gangster who has assumed control of his little four-man racket since the death of a previous leader he loved. After being introduced in a moody, shadowy title portrait excerpted from later in the film, Pinkie makes his first appearance in the story as a pair of hands playing cat’s cradle. The hands are jutting up into frame, tangled in their string, foreshadowing the hands of Harry Lime poking up through the sewer grate in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), another thriller by Greene. These be-stringed hands might make us think he’s going to strangle someone, but he never does.

He does, however, push a journalist to his death from a thrill ride (called Dante’s Inferno!) in the movie’s most vivid and terrifying set piece. With glowing ghouls and ghosts flashing subjectively in the viewer’s face, this nerve-wracking and extravagantly edited sequence almost anticipates 3-D. For a moment, Brighton Rock turns into a horror film. Apparently, some English critics of the time found it objectionably horrible because of two razor-slashing scenes — that crossed a the line into depraved violence.about:blank

Aside from the details of Pinkie’s troubled relations with his three followers (we might call them disciples, although they don’t prove that disciplined, and there will be a Judas), the film details his relations between two diametrically opposed women who seem to fill him with horror.

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