Sunday, 28 August 2011

Fool's Paradise: Les Oakes (1938 - 2000)

This is a little film I made in 2000 about Les Oakes' private museum at Hales View Farm just outside of Cheadle, Staffordshire:

It was the first film I shot on 16mm - the negative was telecined straight to DV and edited in Brighton by Andy Starke - one half of Mondo Macabro and now Kill List producer. 

I grew up only few miles from Hales View Farm. Both Les and his museum made quite an impression on me when I was growing up. He used to erect buildings from designs scrawled in crayon on cornflake packets:

In the pantheon of object fetishists, Russia had Eisenstein, the Caucasus had Paradjanov, Poland had Borowczyk and the Czech Republic has Svankmajer.

England had Les Oakes:

When I first got hold of a Bolex camera my plan was to make a short film about Les and his circle - tradesmen, farmers, gypsies and bare knuckle fighters. Les was good friends with Bartley Gorman - the 'King of the Gypsies' who Shane Meadows made a documentary about in 1995:

I spent a few days shooting in the museum and recorded interviews with some of Les' friends in and around the area. Then Les was killed in an accident. He was on his way back from an auction when he got hit by a car.

There are some shots from Bruno Schulz's 'Book of Idolatory' - I had a set of prints framed on my wall and I used to run off the reel ends filming details from them.

Mavis, Les' wife, died a few years ago and her sons auctioned off some of his collection. This biography is taked from the catalogue:

"Les Oakes was born on 21st March 1938 at Lower Grange Farm, Cheadle, Staffordshire. 

At the age of 7 he was attending auctions with his Grandfather buying and selling horse-drawn vehicles and memorabilia, he was also buying and selling pigeons and ferrets from his school locker. 

At the age of 11, whilst attending Cheadle Secondary Modern he had, unbeknown to his father, amassed over 70 horse-drawn vehicles and stored them at various local farms in and around Cheadle where he worked in the evenings and at weekends to pay for the storage costs.   

Upon leaving school at the age of 15 he carried on  farming with his father whilst attending more auctions to add to his growing collection. 

To make the money to enable him to buy his vehicles and memorabilia he built wooden sheds out of ammunition boxes and sold them to the people of Cheadle and the surrounding areas. 

In 1965 he married Mavis and moved to Hales View Farm, Cheadle, Staffordshire where he continued to farm cows and sheep.   

Whilst farming, he continued to attend auctions collecting more horse-drawn vehicles and other memorabilia to add to his collection. He also ran an Architectural Salvage business reclaiming various items from demolition sites which he sold and also  re-used in his buildings at Hales View Farm as and when further storage facilities where required for his ever growing collection. 

By 1970 he had started constructing the buildings at Hales View Farm to house his collection that was spread around local farms around Cheadle.  

Les also owned 3 Shire Horses all black with four white feathers with which he attended agricultural shows around the UK. 

He carried on attending auctions and increasing the size of his collection up until his tragic death in 6th September 2000 when returning from an auction.

By the time Les passed away his collection consisted of approximately 600 horse-drawn vehicles of various sizes and types including Gypsy Caravans, stationary engines and vintage vehicles and memorabilia from the past 100 years which is now held in a private museum at Hales View Farm."

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Short Life, Long Death: The Making and Unmaking of 'The Silver Globe'

The first couple of minutes of the Silver Globe documentary.

In addition to Zulawski, it also features interviews with cinematographer Andrzej Jaroszewicz and the late Magdalena Teslawska.

Before she died, Magda gave me some production photos from 'Na srebrnym globie', which now feature in  the documentary. 

Here are just a few:

Magda and one of the sherns...

On the left Jaroszewicz wears a rather excellent crew T-shirt, Zulawski with camera on the right... 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Partisan Studios, Minsk

Come and see where 'Come and See' was made...

Belarusfilm, 'Partisan Studios', February 2009: 

New studios under construction - Russian TV mini-series are / were shot in Minsk because it is / was cheaper:

Displays at the film museum:


... and some Socialist realism near the Brest Fortress:

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Eisenstein, Argento and the Occult

In November 2008 I travelled to Riga to present Monolog at a Butoh festival. I spent a whole day tracking down pretty much every single building designed by Sergei Eisenstein’s father, Mikhail Osipovich. Here are photos of just a few:

For a time Isaiah Berlin lived in this building:

Behind the baroque facades, these buildings were pretty banal: 

While taking these photos, all I could think about was Varelli, the fictitious architect in Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980):

Inferno features a plaque stating how Gurdjieff lived in Varelli’s New York building - the house for Mater Tenebrarum.

There has been much speculation about the relationship between Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatskaya, the founder of the Theosophical Movement.
Blavatskaya emigrated to New York in 1873 - Might Blavatskaya have partly inspired the 'Varelli' character in Inferno?

(Sergei) Eisenstein was certainly familiar with Blavatskaya.
In 1921 Eisenstein became a member of a Rosicrucian Lodge in Minsk founded by ‘Bishop Bogori’ - Boris Zubakin.
Later, when Eisenstein moved to Moscow, he became a member of a Masonic lodge, along with the theatre director Valentin Smyshlyayev, Pavel Arenskii (son of Anton) and the Mikhail Chekhov.
Eisenstein assigned part of his library to the ‘imprecise sciences’ (magic, cheiromancy, graphology etc.), including a copy of Eliphas Levi’s The History of Magic.

In his memoirs, Eisenstein writes of putting ‘as much ground as possible’ between himself and the Rosicrucians, Steiner and Blavatskaya.
However, it is worth noting that Theosophists like Blavatskaya shared an interest in comparative religion with many of the figures whose work Eisenstein engaged with in the period following 1928: the archeologist and linguist Nikolai Marr (whose ideas on the syncretic origins of language, derived from Aleksandr Veselovskii, bear certain parallels with Gurdjieff’s teachings - Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, founded in 1919, was supposedly influenced by Marr's ideas), the Classicist Olga Freidenberg and the biblical scholar Israil’ Frank-Kamenetskii.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Borowczyk's Archive

Earlier this year I had the chance to look through Borowczyk's personal archive before it was archived at the Cinémathèque Française. Here are just a handful of items:

This is one of Borowczyk's lithographs from the early 1950s. Usually drawings like this would have been printed in magazines like Szpilki, or 'Pins'. In Borowczyk's posthumously published autobiography, he claims that he never drew caricatures, and referred to works like this as 'satirical drawings'.

A storyboard from The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal

The Beast...

La Marge...


Treatments, scripts and drawings for numerous unrealised projects - these are in addition to the projects that Argos Films deposited at the Cinémathèque Française after the death of Anatole Dauman.

L'amour parfait reappeared in various forms from the late 60s and throughout the 70s and 80s...

During the 1980s Borowczyk researched a film about de Sade:

A chastity belt from the Ancestral Mansion project that Borowczyk was going to film in England with funding from the (Peter Sainsbury era) BFI Production Board:

La Gioia - one of the many projects Borowczyk tried to get off the ground in the early 90s: 

Various newspaper cuttings and articles, including this article on Charcot from a Polish magazine: 

Paintings and drawings, including this (unpublished) book of comical watercolours of animals:

In short, Borowczyk's legacy is ripe for reappraisal.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

video of 'Monolog' rehearsal (2007) and Ela Rojek's Canterbury paper (2009)

The Millstone Around My Neck: Anna Planeta, Monolog and the ‘Grotowski Tradition'

Elzbieta Rojek, June 2009 

There is a Polish joke about a soldier and a psychologist – the psychologist shows the soldier various pictures and asks him to say what he sees: 

SOLDIER: Ass! Ass! Ass!
PSYCHOLOGIST: You’re sick! You see only asses!
SOLDIER: No! You’re sick! You keep showing me asses!

As a performer invariably consigned to the ‘Grotowski tradition’, I sympathise with the psychologist of this joke… 

Monolog ia a twenty-minute electro-acoustic performance, which shows Medea’s inner conflict in the moments before she kills her children.

It has been presented at a number of international festivals (Lublin, Yerevan, Skierniewice, Kiev, Gotenberg, Lwow, Riga, etc. ) where it was received in a wide variety of contexts – ‘women’s monodrama’, ‘kinetic sculptural music’ and ‘butoh dance’ – to name but three examples. 

Nevertheless, in Poland Monolog was firmly situated within the ‘Grotowski tradition’.
Featuring ‘rich’ lighting, costume and sound effects, Monolog was conceived as a conscious reaction against what Leszek Kolankiewicz dubs ‘ethno-oratorio’ performance – which we (Daniel Bird and I) feel has degenerated into empty formalism - where gnomic fragments of archaic text are interspersed with ethnic song. 
Has the magnitude of Grotowski’s reputation become a burden? 
Are certain Polish commentators subject to a form of ‘critical tunnel-vision’ in which all non-naturalistic performance is refracted through the prism of Grotowski’s legacy? 
If Polish practitioners are to take lead from Grotowski, then should they be taking cue from his radicalism and not imitating his theatrical form? 


We were interested in the spoken word as performance - its sound, as the product of movements, not just in the tongues and lips, but gestures too.

The starting point for Monolog was Greek metre - the idea that there was some correspondence between metre and rhythm. Rhythm could be demarcated by footsteps. Different rhythmical patterns could correspond with different emotions. 
A line of Ancient Greek might hold little semantic value for any given audience, but it was a playground for the performer to explore the interrelationship of rhythm, emotion and thought. 


When we first started work on the performance a classicist, Mikolaj Szymanski, transliterated parts of Euripides' text for us and broke them up into syllables. Daniel joked that it looked like Dadaist sound poetry. And that's how the idea came about - to treat the monologue from Euripides' Medea as Dadaist sound poetry.

So this was one idea, 'inner dialogue' was the other. Medea's monologue is essentially an internal conflict - 'to kill or not to kill'. 

We rehearsed in the old medical academy in Lublin, a space which had no electricity or running water... But it was a space nonetheless, and while far from perfect, was enough to accomplish something...


We started with the idea of drum like shoes, and once they were made we worked out what sounds they made, and how it was possible to move in them... 

We broke the monologue down into syllables, and the syllables into vowels and consonants, as well as raw exclamations, out of which we fashioned little etudes of 'primal' sounds and movements... 

We passed a toyshop on the way to the space everyday, and one day Daniel bought a spinning top. Then we ordered fifty, and, stealing from Ligeti’s metronomes, we made a kind of requiem for spinning tops... 

It made a sound, or rather sounds, and i tried singing with it. So i was fighting with  movement (difficulty to walk on platform shoes), fighting with  language, fighting with noise, etc... 

The one thing we were both fighting against was iconography... The movement between such fixed icons often risks being entirely arbitrary. In fact, it was the spaces between such icons, these schemas, the movement itself, that interested us. That's why Laban came up with his notation, because any iconographical breakdown of a dance cannot capture its dynamic - this is why any attempt at reconstructing choreography from vases is futile - of course, one can respond artistically, but it can never have any 'academic' value.  


If I have drawn on some ancient Greek concept, it would be meta-kinesis - non-mimetic gesturing that is the result of kinetic impulse and emotional expression.


When Monolog was programmed as part of a festival of 'women's drama' in Kiev National Theatre in 2007, I persuaded Centrum Kultury in Lublin to give us a black box studio space for a one week to rework the performance.

The first thing we did was to give the performance a simple dynamic. Antoni Libera said that the costume for Monolog reminded him of Billy Whitelaw in Footfalls. Daniel gave me Beckett's text, and the basic movement of walking to and fro seemed appropriate here. Walking to and fro seems the basic action of indecision - It was very natural for me, when i try to make decision, I walk!

Second, we reduced the number of spinning tops from fifty to five. The idea was that Medea walks to and fro, and that playing with the spinning tops was a kind of nervous action, and that slowly the polyphony builds. Incidentally, the five tops had five different tones. The drama created the music...

Third, we added several boundary microphones, we always wanted to do this but we never had the technical resources. Then we also added reverb, which extended the spinning top tones as well as adding an 'big' feel to the proceedings. 

Fourth, we added a prop - a stainless steel kitchen knife, which visually clarified the performance - the spinning tops, knife and woman. It becomes the three basic units in the performance.

We simplified the lights to make it look like a horror film. We used one profile light to create a corridor of cold light that lit the spinning tops, and added three soft blue spots directly above Medea's path, which created a kind of shutter effect. The effect was cinematic - the performer and not the technician was constantly cutting and thus manipulating beams of light, casting shadows.

(C) Elzbieta Rojek 2009