Archive for Edinburgh College of Art

The Lady with the Lamp

Posted in FILM with tags , , on January 12, 2014 by dcairns

As long as I’m posting viral videos from my ex-students, it’s worth mentioning Duncan Cowles’ highly successful short short THE LADY WITH THE LAMP. Brilliant deadpan and durational comedy. In fairness to the department, I have to say that since Duncan was studying documentary and I teach fiction, I can claim zero credit for Duncan’s development as a filmmaker. Except maybe in looking unamused at his fiction ideas and highly amused at his documentary ones.

Duncan is one of those filmmakers who mines his family for stories — he’s so far made films about his dad (and his dad before him), his paternal grandmother, and here his mum. But the films do go beyond this apparently narrow range — RADIO SILENCE and SEAVACUEE use family stories to delve into history, particularly WWII. He’s one of the graduates I can say with confidence we’ll be hearing more from.

Dispelling the Shadows

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on December 20, 2013 by dcairns


As part of something called “symposium” — in which students at Edinburgh College of Art’s School of Visual Communications are shuffled together, first and second year, and students of Film, Animation, Graphic Design, Illustration, Performance Costume, Interior Design and Product Design — I had to give a ten-minute talk on “light.”

This involved talking to the biggest assemblage of students I’d ever faced. It wasn’t that I was intimidated, so much, as slightly overwhelmed. By the barrage of scent. As the students filed into the main lecture theatre, the predominance of young women who study art had an olfactory impact. The ladies of Film & Television don’t perfume to such a dizzying extent. It was like walking into Lush. A kind of claustrophobia of the nose set in. It was like drowning under waves of pong.

“Ah, the lovelies,” said my boss, Emma, when I mentioned this. “We don’t tend to get them in Film & TV.” Lest that be thought a slur, I should clarify that while the balance of sexes in the department swings erratically from male to female and back, the girls don’t tend to be of the very girly sort that you might get in the more arts-and-crafts areas of study.

Anyway, mainly what I discovered that day was that a ten minute talk is harder than a two-hour talk, and you’d better have an ending prepared. My subject was “light,” as I mentioned, and so I chose NOSFERATU as my subject.

To begin with, I remarked upon the odd fact that produced Albin Grau had set up his company, Prana Film, to make “spiritual movies.” Grau (like Murnau) was really into astrology and magic and so on. Still, a vampire movie would seem a strange project for such a seemingly idealistic enterprise (unless you’re a born-again who considers all other spiritual beliefs to be Satanic in origin).

My half-arsed theory is that Grau and Murnau wanted to coalesce and evil force into filmic form — and then exorcise it.

Graf Orlok, the vampire who isn’t Dracula for copyright reasons, played by Max Schreck, is identified from the first with shadows.


The coachman, who is Schreck/Orlok/Dracula, takes the doofus hero, the enthusiastic Gustav Von Wangeheim, for a ride through a strip of negative. During this sequence, Murnau substitutes the black horse and carriage for white ones, so they will look the same when all the toher tones are reversed. The carriage also moves as if photographed at about 8fps. The tricks of cinema are deployed in a forceful, weird and obvious way around this character. Also, Orlok’s castle is separated from reality by a strange interstitial hyperspace of negative footage, as if it were not part of the same movie, but an invading force from beyond celluloid. The negative comes before the printed film. And before the negative? Reality.

At other times, Orlok shows an affinity with cinema — he passes through a closed door by means of a dissolve, and later opens the doors by a series of jump cuts. Unlike every other character in the film, Orlok seems able to influence people appearing in different scenes from himself, via parallel montage. It’s suggested that perhaps Wangenheim is psychically connected to his fiancée Greta Schroeder, but this only reveals itself when Orlok is advancing upon him to drain his juices.

While the mythic vampire casts no shadow, Orlok casts a giant one — he is often represented solely by his shadow. And by the film’s climax, his shadow virtually supplants him. In climbs the stair to Schroeder’s room, and it is his shadow’s hand that reaches for the doorknob — his shadow apparently opens the door! And then his shadow reaches for Schroeder’s bosom, and clenches into a fist — the suggestion is that he has somehow seized hold of her heart within her rib cage, as if this shadow-hand were simultaneously intangible enough to pass through flesh, and corporeal enough to grab ahold. Of course the action is photographed to suggest he might also be clasping her breast, but I think her reaction leans more to a cardiac seizure (the word is oddly appropriate here).

And finally, being a creature of shadow, Orlok is destroyed by light. In this major departure from the source novel, screenwriter Henrik Galeen sidelines the buffoonish Wangenheim completely (to, I think, everyone’s relief) and uses the Van Helsing character, Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt), only as an excuse to get him out the way. The vampire is defeated by Schroeder, who has lured him to stay out after cock-crow. Also unlike the book, she apparently sacrifices herself for the greater good.


(Note the silhouette on the wall — note also Bulwer’s ominous gaze outwards, into the audience.)

But what happens to those who perish at the hands of the vampire? Why, they become vampires too. And it is this unfortunate loophole in Galeen’s scenario that I’m afraid has caused the spell crafted by Grau — drawing evil into the film’s substance, embodying it in a character personified as shadow, and destroying him with light — a plan to purge evil from the world and to cleanse the medium of cinema of its darkest impulses — ultimately to fail. For fail it clearly did. Look at the world. Look at cinema.


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on November 27, 2013 by dcairns


Stunning images courtesy of Paul Clipson. Paul was introduced to me by Daniel Kasman of MUBI’s The Notebook. Paul was coming to Edinburgh to visit his mum and Daniel thought we’d get along. I ended up arranging for Paul to show his films at Edinburgh College of Art and a good crowd of students showed up to get their eyes drunk on his dazzling visuals.


Paul is a projectionist in San Francisco and with his spare cash he’s an experimental filmmaker, buying up Super-8 while it’s still out there and compiling elegantly layered movies of light and colour and movement.

Paul explained that much of his aesthetic is informed by what his camera can and can’t do. It allows him to wind the film back to do double, or triple, or infinituple exposures. But it only allows him to wind back a short way. Also, the films are edited entirely with film splicing, the traditional way, so there’s no opportunity to add longer dissolves or correct anything in post. All Paul does is select, prune, arrange.


The films are shown at longer events with live music played alongside the movies but without regard to their content — the musicians typically look at their keyboards so the ways in which the films interact with the “soundtrack” are entirely coincidental, but often startling. For our show, Paul had shorter versions of his films with pre-prepared accompaniment played out of his laptop.


The film’s are visually intoxicating — by crash-zooming on city lights and multi-layering via many exposures, Paul has created his own Stargate sequence a la 2001. He’s also got an effect going I’ve never seen anywhere else — by having various layers of foreground action passing between us and our nominal subject (for instance, a girl running in a forest with trees at different distances between us and her, momentarily occluding our view) and double exposing and cutting FAST, Paul can get a sequence to the point where our grasp of film language disintegrates — we can no longer tell if, at any moment, we are seeing a single image, a double exposure, a continuous shot, or a series of edits. It’s not that it all becomes a blur — each frame seems super-bright and clear, firing into our brains like a bullet — instead, the mass fragmentation results in a higher unity (a Höheren Einheit, if you will), where all the shots and layers fuse together in one.


Afterwards, the conversation briefly turned to Theodore Roszak’s cinematic conspiracy novel Flicker, and it only struck me later that if anybody ever manages to film that tome (and many, including Gilliam, have tried), Paul is the one person who could adequately visualize the occult film techniques employed within its pages…


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