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  1. Culture
18 October 2011updated 05 Oct 2023 8:53am

Gilbey on Film: A hymn to celluloid

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

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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.

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