Gilbey on Film: A hymn to celluloid

Tacita Dean's Tate Modern installation is all about texture.

I've felt an intimate connection to celluloid since the days as a child when my father would run our single-reel excerpt of Jason and the Argonauts on a tiny home projector every Sunday evening; in that pre-video era, or at least pre-video to families of moderate income, the only way to own a movie was to buy it on Super-8 in 20-minute chunks. The sweet, slightly sulphurous smell of the warm projector was oddly soothing; the rapid ticking that the film made as it passed through the projector was like the amplified purring of a colossal cat. Those details were as much a part of the viewing experience as Ray Harryhausen's herky-jerky skeletons dancing across our living-room wall. Indeed, there seemed to be a correlation between the noise of the projector and the undead warriors' bones clacking together as they wielded swords that looked too heavy for their puny arms to lift.

So far, so Long Day Closes. But I say all this only because celluloid has been on many people's minds this past week with the unveiling of Tacita Dean's Film in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The work has been praised, extravagantly by Adrian Searle in the Guardian and more level-headedly by Richard Dorment in the Telegraph , but my reaction to it was much closer to that of my NS colleague Rachel Cooke in her underwhelmed review in the Observer.

The scale of Dean's hymn to celluloid (the religious connotations are not accidental) is something to behold. It's important that the frame is vertical like a strip of film -- we see the sprocket holes running down each side of the image -- rather than horizontal in the manner of a cinema screen; in this way, it prioritises the shape of the celluloid over that of the space on which it is usually projected, implicitly arguing for the sanctity of the material itself rather than the image. Our usual film-watching eyes are realigned by the unconventional vertical screen so that we are thinking as we watch about the very nature of the film stock.

That's just as well, since the images seem to me both banal and forgettable. The work dominates with ease the vast hall's far wall, and commands the space impressively, but my first impression is that the content recedes even as you're watching. I didn't take notes. I wandered in with my eldest daughter early on a crisp weekday morning, and we sat on the concrete floor and watched Film a few times through. It's fitting to see a work engaged so strongly with memory in that space, when so many ghosts of past installations are only a breath away, particularly the filled-in crack in the floor from Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, still visible snaking its way toward the screen.

Once Dean's 11-minute film had completed its first revolution, my attention wandered toward that cemented-over crack, and I found myself drifting into memories of walking along, over and around Shibboleth with my children on various occasions ... so in that way Film became, for me, an interesting catalyst for time-travel. But please don't ask me about the images which Dean had assembled: the argument for the importance of celluloid was made by the texture of the work, not by the symbolism-to-go of the eggs, snails, escalators and eyes photographed within it. A film playing in the Turbine Hall need not make any sort of immediate impression; it should merit and maximise the space in which it is staged. The rest is up to time.

After leaving Tate Modern, we trotted off to a screening of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, coincidentally another work rooted in the magic of another age. Goodness knows the world has become accustomed to the spectre of a poor Woody Allen film, but the acclaim which has been heaped on this, and the news that it has become Allen's most financially successful film (a statistic which can arguably be attributed to the presence of its star, Owen Wilson), are doubly depressing.

The itinerant screenplay, which has Wilson's character visiting 1920s Paris by means of a time-hopping taxi, amounts to a blank, witless parade of ... well, I was going to say whimsical middlebrow jokes, but "jokes" is a bit strong. If carefully nursed by a more inventive and less calcified writer, they could conceivably blossom into jokes one day. Wilson meets Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein. He gives Buñuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel (that's quite a slight: doesn't Allen think Buñuel had the imagination to come up with it himself?) The sum total of the movie's wisdom is that we all think that the past was better, but that the present has its own worth and magic if we could but notice it. Allen is close to defunct as a filmmaker but he may have a future in the fortune cookie business.

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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser