Gilbey on Film: virtual reality bites

What happens when directors venture into cyberspace?

In the week that brings the release of Tron: Legacy, the new Disney blockbuster set inside a computer system where gladiatorial combat and neon are the new big things, I read that the 87-year-old film-maker and perpetual adventurer Chris Marker has set up shop in virtual reality. The latest issue of Film Comment reports that Marker, director of La jetée, Sans Soleil and AK, has built a museum in the sky of Second Life, that virtual world where users pilot their avatars through a plasticised parallel reality in which everything seems to be the colour of sports-casual wear on a Florida golf course (at least to these Luddite eyes).

Should you wish to explore the byways of Marker's museum, make a note of these numbers: 187, 61, 39. Those are either the Second Life co-ordinates, or the bus routes that will get you where you're going. Once you've reached the museum's skywalk, writes Film Comment's Jesse P Finnegan, what awaits you inside is a "digital Xanadu . . . strewn with cat-shaped coves, roving humpbacks, a castle keep, and a downed 747 . . . secreted hidden goodies in the nooks and crannies; animated loops, ironically reimagined silent movie posters, and a snapshot of Marker's feline alter-ego, Guillaume, visiting an SL version of Lenin's tomb".

Second Life has already hosted film premieres, but the participation of someone as esteemed and rigorous as Marker brings a hint of class to an enterprise that, for many of us, has never quite shaken its connotations of Dungeons and Dragons. (Not to mention the lunacy of users paying actual money to buy virtual real estate, in an ironic reversal of the situation that precipitated the recession – that is, actual real estate bought with virtual money.) My first thought on hearing about Marker's involvement was: "Maybe Second Life isn't a waste of time after all." This was followed swiftly by: "Peter Greenaway's going to be kicking himself when he hears about this: 'What am I supposed to do with all these bloody CD-Roms?' "

It's possible that there will always be something inherently ridiculous about cinema's dalliances with the virtual realities of cyberspace. Could it be that the art form is too much a limitless virtual reality already? Any portrait of a cyber world can only seem inhibited by comparison. Look at Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, or the original 1985 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, or the recent Coraline, or anything by Buñuel or Polanski – these films establish quickly and vividly the contours of their respective alternative existences with a formalist authority that makes, say, the Matrix sequels, or the Tron movies, seem improvised and off-the-cuff.

I've reviewed Tron: Legacy in this week's NS Christmas Special, but regardless of that film's strengths or weaknesses, it belongs to a tradition of cinematic storytelling that has to work overtime to impress and convince. Suspension of disbelief is a given when we enter a cinema – we may be handing over cash at the popcorn counter, but I always feel like I'm checking in some of my churlish everyday scepticism as well.

A double suspension is asked of us by pictures like The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity or Disclosure (which ends with a cringe-making cyber-showdown); in those cases, the correlation between the corporeal world and its cyber stand-in is so flimsy that the stakes tend to fall to the point of being negligible.

Better for a film-maker to spike the visual excesses of these brave new worlds with scepticism. When Kathryn Bigelow, in Strange Days, or David Cronenberg, in eXistenZ, ventured into the virtual, they did so not to dazzle, but to disorientate. The worlds created in those films are unsettling yet still vaguely familiar – the ad-agency gloss of the fantasies in Strange Days, the humdrum griminess (a factory, a petrol station) of the locations in eXistenZ.

Bigelow and Cronenberg showed that virtual reality offers not an escape from our daily problems and neuroses, but a mirror in which they are magnified to new and horrific proportions.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times