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.

CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER/MINDEN PICTURES
Show Hide image

Eyes on the peaks and a heart in the valley

During the summer months, the Swiss Alps offer one of nature’s most gorgeous spectacles.

Usually, whenever I arrive in Switzerland (where I am currently enjoying a brief summer respite), I cannot wait to ascend to the top of the nearest peak, whether on foot, or by some kind cable car, or a combination of the two. At this time of year, the flora seems more interesting the higher I go and, to my mind, few sights are as beautiful as a high Alpine meadow in full flower.

A possible comparison might be a desert at its most floriferous, but it is hard to predict when that occasional abundance will come. If you get to the mountains between June and late July, one of the most gorgeous spectacles in nature is close to guaranteed. Some years are better than others, but there is something about wandering an Alpine meadow, or crouching at the edge of a mountain chasm to peer down at a clutch of faintly scented mountain flowers, that renews the spirit.

The other great pleasure in being up, as opposed to down, is the view. Everyone appreciates that view, even if it is only from the visitors’ centre or the café terrace: the land laid out all around, its most intimate secrets revealed, sheep and people and houses like tiny specks on the valley slopes. The river is a ribbon of light, making its way through the lower meadows, past the cement works and the little Valais towns, each with its own shop and train station, its people polite and reserved, speaking a variety of German that most German-speakers barely understand. When people here meet, they say not “guten Tag” but “grüezi”. Goodbye is “Widerluege”. If you can remember how to pronounce it, there is a delicious, cheesecake-like dish called Chäschüechli. However, my favourite titbit of Swiss German is that, whereas Hochdeutsch has one term for walking uphill (“aufwärts gehen”), Swiss German has two: “uälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill” and “ufälaufe”, which means “to walk uphill and get to the top”. Or so my Swiss friends tell me – although, in matters of language, they do like to play games.

True or not, this is an important distinction, especially here in Valais. At the top are the Blüemlisalphorn (3,661 metres) and Weisshorn (4,506 metres) peaks, which are out of my range, but even the less demanding ones (the gorgeous Illhorn, for instance, which rises to 2,716 metres) can be a challenge for the occasional hillwalker that age, desk work and appetite have made me. It’s worth it, though, for the views and the flora. Or so I thought – but there are some who would agree to disagree.

Rainer Maria Rilke discovered the Valais region in 1919 and returned there to live a short time later. He was drawn by the beauty of the landscape, the flora, the simplicity of local life and the view of the mountains – but he rarely climbed to the top, preferring the valleys and the slopes to the peaks. A favourite place was the Forêt des Finges, on the floor of the valley. “Outside is a day of inexhaustible splendour,” he wrote to a friend in 1921. “This valley inhabited by hills – it provides ever-new twists and impulses, as if it were still the movement of creation that energised its changing aspects. We have discovered the forests – full of small lakes, blue, green, nearly black. What country delivers such detail, painted on such a large canvas? It is like the final movement of a Beethoven symphony.”

From Finges, one looks up and sees the mountains. It was looking up, rather than looking down, that seemed to give Rilke the power to renew his vision. It was here that he finally completed the Duino Elegies, among other works. His mind reached for the peaks but his home was in the valley. He asked to be buried in the village of Raron, where the church is perched on a rock above the river: a choice spot from which his soul might gaze upwards to the delectable hills.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt