The Miners’ Hymns (Bill Morrison, 2010)


I had no intention of writing about The Miners’ Hymns. My decision to watch it rested on its slender 52 minutes fitting the time I had available before leaving the house on New Year’s Eve. This was therefore the last film that I watched in 2017, and it haunted my entry into 2018, and has continued to resonate within me in the days since.

A poem without words, this film is a moving tribute to the mining communities of the northeast of England, and a lament to their fall. It opens, and later returns to, a contemporary aerial shot from a helicopter. It sweeps across the landscape, passing over steep cliffs, the green fields, and housing estates, to circle the locations of now closed pits. In contrast, the majority of the film is comprised of vintage black and white footage of the mine workers and their community. This includes stunning imagery shot within the mines themselves, men descending into the tunnels, picks striking at the coal face, carts revolving through the narrow twisty tracks. Meanwhile, children slide down the slag heaps, or play cricket in the streets. The footage is slowed and subtly edited together giving a sense of the constancy of the operations, the work as a continuing ritual through the ages, altered by technology but rooted to what has come before. Sometimes it is just the clothes worn that indicate that a cut from one shot to another spans multiple decades, elsewhere, horse drawn carts are transformed into modern machinery.

Beyond the film’s seamless editing, glue is provided by the elegiac score from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It binds the work together whilst contributing an emotional weight of its own, passing from haunting ambience, mournful vistas, until finally it soars. The electronic soundscape melds with church organ and brass instrumentation, linking it to the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, in particular the miners’ bands, and the Cathedral service that offers its conclusion. Today, while the pits are mostly gone, the Gala continues as a key event on the British trade union calendar, drawing 200,000 people in 2017, in part thanks to an appearance from Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The vintage footage begins with a panorama of miners and their families as they gather at a rally for the opening of the aforementioned Gala. It knots together multiple decades, spanning from the birth of cinema to at least the 1960s. Men and women of all ages are present, from grandparents to children holding balloons. With their elegantly woven trade union banners raised high, dignified faces, hardened through labor, turn to stare into the camera. These people are fighters. A young boy eats a sandwich with one hand whilst gripping a toy pistol in the other. Perhaps he, or even his son, will be a miner in 1984, when we see strike breakers bused into the community and pitched battles between workers and the police.

The continuities of work, tradition, and community were ruptured by pit closures, hastened by the failure of the 1984 miners strike, itself a response to a politically motivated attack from a Conservative Government. The contemporary footage reveals new suburban housing, cars on roads, but the fields, parks and beaches are deserted. There is no hum of activity. Sites that should represent community, such as Sunderland Football Club, (the site of Monkwearmouth Colliery from 1885-1993) are conspicuously empty. The pit head of the former Ryhope Colliery (1857-1966) is a now a grey scar nestling beside an ASDA supermarket. The inclusion of this store, right at the start of the film, is no accident. This grocery chain is owned by Walmart, a multi-national corporation synonymous with low wages, hostility to trade union membership, and the bankrupting of mom and pop stores. Quite the opposite of the nationally owned, community sustaining mining industry that it has replaced.

A crescendo is reached in the film’s final sequence, which sees the miners exchange their blackened work wear for their Sunday suits as they march through the crowded streets of Durham. Colliery brass bands lead the way and banners billow in the wind. When the marchers enter the crowded, yet hushed, splendor of Durham Cathedral, the camera is positioned high above, as if God himself was taking stock of all we have seen, and blessing the miners’ with his approval. Then again, it takes no imagination to view the scene as a funeral, for an industry, for a community, for a way of life.

The Miners’ Hymns is implanted so firmly into the soil of England, literally and metaphorically, that it comes as a shock that its creation is the product of a collaboration between an American filmmaker and an Icelandic composer. A testament to a way of life now almost gone, its ghosts remain with you long after the film ends.


London (Patrick Keiller, 1994)


From the formal statues of its center to the supermarkets and bus stations at the outer reaches of the underground map, Patrick Keiller spent the year of 1992 training his camera, always static, on England’s capital. An architect turned filmmaker as flâneur, Keiller is keenly attuned to the fissures of history, whilst not immune to creating new mythologies. Throughout London, a playful sensibility meets sincere anger at the ravages inflicted on the city and its inhabitants through thirteen years of Tory rule.

The two protagonists of London remain unseen. Our narrator (Paul Scofield), a cruise ship photographer, is recalled to London following a seven year absence by his erstwhile lover Robinson, to join his “exercises in psychic landscaping, drifting, and free association.” Journeying by foot and by bus, the two delve into the “problem of London”, whilst searching for the roots of English romanticism. Robinson’s character is named for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, making the narrator his Man Friday, and the city itself an island. The exiled Russian socialist Alexander Herzen is quoted: “there is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London.” The narrator considers the city is “full of interesting people, most of whom, like Robinson, would rather be elsewhere.” On a series of walks across the capital, their meditation through literature, politics and the urban environment blurs the edges of narrative, documentary and essay filmmaking, making London an engaging cousin to the work of the Left bank directors, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Agnes Varda.

Through image and narration, the past and present rub together, but this is to be no nostalgic expedition into the city of the popular imagination, as this observation by the narrator quickly confirms: “Robinson is no conservationist, but he misses the smell of cigarette ash and urine that used to linger in the neo-Georgian phone boxes that appear on London postcards.” His taste is for the uncelebrated corners of the metropolis, its street markets and shopping malls. Reflecting this, Brent Cross Shopping Center is the only location privileged with something approximating a tracking shot, thanks to the camera’s placement on an escalator.

On two occasions the couple cross paths with a pair of Peruvian musicians, successors perhaps to the foreign visitors of the past whose travels are alighted on: the aforementioned Herzon, the romantic interludes of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Apollinaire. And Monet. Mischievously delaying a cut to the River Thames, Keiller discusses the view seen from his hotel window as the camera trains its attention on a huge billboard displaying a member of the male striptease troupe The Chippendales. Of such distant travelers to the city, the one perhaps most apposite to the project of London is Laurence Sterne, a regular visitor to the city following the success of Tristram Shandy in 1759. For Robinson, Sterne’s claim that “duration is the succession of ideas which follow and succeed each other in our minds like the images on the inside of a lantern turned round by the heat of a candle” marks him as the inventor of cinema. Tristram Shandy itself is a novel built on a series of comic digressions, much as the route of the flâneur consists of one digression after another.

London contains plenty of digressions, from an excursion to the trooping of the color ceremony that marks the Queen’s official birthday, to a lunch in IKEA. More seriously, the couple are repeatedly waylaid thanks to the regular planting of bombs by the Irish Republican Army. While the link isn’t made explicit, we are invited to consider the atrocities of the IRA next to the actions of the British State when couple witness the Queen Mother unveiling a statue commemorating Sir Arthur Harris. The statue today sits largely ignored in the Aldwych but, as documented in the film, it was highly controversial in 1992. ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible for devastating attacks on German civilian centers, including Dresden, during World War Two, and protests against the monument came from both citizens of London and from German officials.

Contemporary politics give the film some of its most memorable monologues. The backdrop is an election year, the first after Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, and for Robinson, as for all of us living in London at that time, the stakes were high. He worries for his job, the libraries, public transport, and the city continuing without an elected local authority following Thatcher’s politically motivated abolition of the Greater London Authority. On election day itself, the couple observe a trio of confident young urban professionals exiting the polling station on Charing Cross Road, and late that night they stand out of place on the edge of Smith Square where re-elected Prime Minister John Major addresses the crowd. Robinson ruefully observes that “the middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because in their miserable hearts they still believed it was in their interest to do so,” before predicting a series of horrendous consequences leading to his early demise. “For the old or anyone with children it would be much worse,” he continues.

Keiller has directed two sequels to London. While Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) depart from the city to explore other parts of the country, twenty five years after Robinson and his Man Friday ventured across their island, I find myself wondering what a return to the capital might look like. Whilst I doubt Robinson would have admired New Labour (I have not seen Robinson in Ruins at the time of writing ), Blair did resolve two “problems of London,” reintroducing an elected body to the city and ushering in the Good Friday agreement, bringing an end to attacks by the IRA. Today, London faces a very different kind of terrorism. A fancy of Robinson’s, that the financial center of London might again become a destination for bohemians, was undoubtably unrealistic. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth, the well heeled City workers having now settled into the then affordable, artist filled neighborhoods of Stoke Newington, Hackney, and even King’s Cross. The last, highly insalubrious in 1992, was one to which I myself was making regular pilgrimages at the time, my nascent interest in cinema drawing me repeatedly to the still much missed Scala Cinema.

From the children playing in the street by their council estate to the Notting Hill Carnival, Patrick Keiller focuses on a London defined by its diversity. This is a city that welcomes millions of incomers every day, be they commuters from the suburbs or stray musicians from another continent. It is a city that has welcomed those, like Alexander Herzen, forced to flee their own country, whilst colorful figures such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, and so many names unknown, have added their own patchwork to the metropolis. Viewing the film today, one of Robinson’s most poignant laments regards the Londoner’s fear of Europe. Brexit, and the weakened Conservative government seeking to usher it in, would surely loom over a new version of London. Robinson might get cold comfort from the knowledge that the closed vision of Britain which narrowly won the referendum was roundly rejected by the inhabitants of its capital.


Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973)


By the time Nicolas Roeg came to Don’t Look Now, his third narrative feature, his interest in the intersection between spirituality and fragmentation, narrative and formal, was already well established. His debut film, Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell), sees a working class gangster finding his identity fracturing while he hides out with bohemians delving into Eastern mysticism. In 1971’s Walkabout, the Australian wife of a successful executive negotiates the shiny appliances of her suburban home as she reminisces on a teenage trek through the outback with an indigenous boy who is on a spiritual rite of passage. On their journey, she undergoes a sexual awakening that collides with a culture beyond her understanding.

That Don’t Look Now, an adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier short story, has similar concerns is suggested in the midst of its tense opening sequence, when the camera pauses to catch the title of a book cast aside: Beyond The Fragile Geometry Of Space. The words alert us that here the basic rules of physics do not apply, that time and space themselves will be disrupted. They further hint at two forces at work within the drama, the natural and something existing outside of our rational everyday world.

The rupture hinted at by the book title has already been encountered within the first two shots of the film, although we aren’t yet aware of it. In the first we are outside, watching rainfall splash into a pond surrounded by long grass. The second brings us indoors, where sunbeams pierce between window slats. Each image is taken from a different time and place. This fragmentation captures that manner in which memories may be recalled, appropriate in that Don’t Look Now concerns a couple whose grief holds them in the past. Yet, at the point at which the film’s narrative begins, these two images occur not in the past but in the future. Time is not linear, it may shift backwards or forwards without warning.

Don’t Look Now famously begins with the accidental drowning of little Christine, of which her father, John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) appears to have had a premonition prompted by the appearance of a blood-like streak of liquid on a photograph. An unspecified amount of time following this, he travels with his wife Laura (Julie Christie) to Venice, where he is commissioned to work on a church restoration. The city they find themselves in isn’t the crammed tourist mecca of repute. With the season at an end, the hotels are closing. Rats congregate at the water’s edge beneath crumbling passageways. One character considers Venice as “a city in aspic. Left over from a dinner party. All the guests are dead and gone.” That a serial killer is on the rampage, with bodies being pulled from the depths, does nothing to leaven the atmosphere.

The film proceeds, less with outright scares than with a palpable sense of dread. It is aided in this by Clifford’s razor sharp editing, Pino Donaggio’s hauntingly evocative score, and an embrace of ambiguity ranging from the supporting characters to the disquieting blurring of the natural and the supernatural. Not least, an eerie repetition of elements create echoes throughout, evoking the nature of memory again. The most obvious of these are perhaps encountered in those opening shots, the blue of the pond (behind the blue lettering of the credits) and the red of the sun. These colors crop up regularly, notably in the sequence of Christine’s drowning, where rapid crosscutting splinters the narrative into shards, contrasting her red coat with her brother’s blue jacket, the blue pond with a red bike and from there to the sky reflected in a shattered mirror. Simultaneously, Laura sits in a blue shirt in front of a roaring fire whose reflection dances on the surface of a table, much as the reflection of the red coat does in the ripples of the pond. Later, John negotiates Venice wearing a red scarf submerged into a deep blue coat. Their hotel room combines red wood with blue wallpaper and fabrics. Mirroring Christine, the city itself, its many churches filled with red carpets and lighted candles, is slowly sinking into the water.

Colors are imbued with symbolic properties. That red signifies danger is clear well before dashes of the color start to appear disconcertingly in the background of Venice’s scenery. Blue commonly represents faith. The symbolism of the color comes into play in Venice, when Laura goes to the assistance of two Scottish sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic claiming to have ‘seen’ Christine sitting between her parents. The parents respond to this news differently, John with angry denial, a comforted Laura by seeking out a church to pray in and a priest’s hand to kiss.

Rationality and faith might sometimes be considered conflicting positions, but in Don’t Look Now the difference is blurred. A second featured paperback is Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. The play, which was the source for Costa Gavras’ film Amen (2002), concerns Pope Pius XII’s alleged complicity with the Holocaust, the spiritual conniving with an evil claiming scientific justification. This combination is embodied in John Baxter, who disavows both organized religion and the supernatural whilst restoring churches and harboring strange powers of his own. Twice John is given reason to leave the city. A warning through a seance that his life is in danger if he stays. Later he receives news that his son is sick in England. The spiritual and the rational combine to push John away, but neither fear nor parental responsibility is sufficient to move him.

Just as the film plays with the experience of perception and memory on a structural level, individual characters have their own issues with sight. The sister with second sight is blind. The other sister, when Laura comes to her assistance, is temporarily blinded by something in her eye. John’s gift of second sight announced itself with a premonition of his daughter’s death and was subsequently repressed. His inability to engage with this gift will have serious ramifications. Newly optimistic following her strange encounter, Laura’s own eyes are reopened. As with her husband, her first observation has discomforting connotations. Fully taking in her husband’s body for the first time since tragedy struck, she notices that the lumps on his side have returned. Despite her apparent unconcern, Laura’s words inevitably cast a pall over John’s future.

Laura’s observation of the lumps marks an unusual precursor to one of cinema’s most famous (even infamous) sex scenes. While John and Laura’s intercourse achieved notoriety because the sex appeared so real, what actually is so remarkable about the scene is how the actors’ superb performances make the relationship itself ring so true. Two people damaged by a shared trauma finding temporary relief in a tender connection.

The lovemaking marks the high point of John and Laura’s post-Christine marriage. Roeg and Clifford repeatedly cut from the couple in bed to their getting dressed in the aftermath and back again, already hinting at a downfall. Laura glows as she applies her lipstick, but the couple are now placed in separate compartments. Having previously shared the bathroom in intimate nudity, Laura now occupies this space while John puts on his clothes in the bedroom and pours himself a drink alone. At one point he views Laura as he crosses the hallway, but he doesn’t enter the room. At the end of the sequence the couple walk together through the hotel foyer. Happy, they hold each other close, but the thin red carpet that they tread resembles a streak of blood, recalling the marking on the photograph that launched John’s first premonition. As if to underline the point, the camera rests on the restaurant’s furniture, shrouded like ghosts while awaiting the next tourist season.


From this point on, John and Laura become increasing separated. That evening, John’s surprise sighting of a small figure in a familiar red coat comes as the couple are some distance apart, Laura having fled from rats. The next day, when Laura joins the sisters for a seance her skeptical husband is caught listening from the corridor as the blind woman, in a trance, lets out orgasmic sounding groans. From their loving congress in bed, he is now reduced to his wife’s peeping tom. Extending this split, John’s decision to let Laura return to England without him represents a betrayal of his familial duties (“You should have gone,” the priest informs him). Following another unexpected sighting, John’s struggle to reunite his family brings the film’s complex interplay between rationality and belief on the one hand, and sight and memory on the other, to a head.

There is much more that could be said about the final act, but this oft spoiled film really is best approached with its mysteries intact. In shattering the fragile geometry of space, Don’t Look Now emerges as a horror masterpiece that transcends its genre, offering a profound meditation on the condition of grief.

The Small World of Sammy Lee (Ken Hughes, 1963)

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Soho, that once seedy web of central London streets, plays host to Ken Hughes’ enjoyable early sixties film about a desperate man who needs to make quick use of his legs and even faster use of his tongue if he is to dig himself out of the trouble he’s in.

Following a disastrous all night poker session and a failed attempt to recoup his loses on the horses, Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) discovers that the mob are demanding payment of his debts in full, and he is able to negotiate just five hours to come up with the money he owes if he is to end the day intact. Between shifts as compere at the tawdry Peepshow nightclub, Sammy races through the London streets from one contact to the next, pushing a dizzying array of deals in every corner of his manor in a bid to hustle the money he needs. To complicate matters is the arrival of his sometime object of affection Patsy (Julia Foster), off the train from Bradford having been spun a yarn about her boyfriend’s glittering career in London. She quickly discovers that Sammy can’t get her the job she hoped for, but that the club manager might have a less savory use for her.


The central performances are superb. Lovable rogue Sammy Lee is a great creation and Hackney born Newley, who famously began his showbiz career as the Artful Dodger and ended it as a Vegas crooner, is a natural in the role. His Sammy is sympathetic and ultimately almost heroic, despite his willingness to take advantage of those who support him,with his treatment of Patsy being particularly appalling. Given little by way of exposition, Foster beautifully conveys a cocktail of love, disappointment, fear, and horror at the situation in which she unwittingly finds herself. Peppered throughout the film are an array of actors who in the years to come would become stalwarts of British comedy: Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe & Son), Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Lynda Baron (Open All Hours), and Roy Kinnear. Characters are generally rich and entertaining, not least the bickering heavies played by Kenneth J. Warren and Clive Colin Bowler, their constant antagonism bemoaning a lowering of etiquette amongst London’s criminal class.

Ken Hughes is best known, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for the kids film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The Small World… is adapted from his own TV play Sammy, which was broadcast by the BBC in March 1958. In that drama, Sammy (Anthony Newley again) is alone in the confines of his flat, frantically using his phone to make deals and raise the cash. In a moment of particular tension in the film, Sammy is at home when an unseen neighbor begins playing his drums. The beats crashing through the ceiling reflect and exacerbate his mounting stress. It is a great use of the diegetic sounds that abound in the crammed city quarters, and beautifully complements Kenny Graham’s jazz soundtrack.

The Small World of Sammy Lee opens on Soho in the early hours, a cleaning truck hosing the down refuse from the night before. Accompanied by the splendidly melancholic score, the camera leisurely guides through its still empty streets. Soho is a draw for those on the fringes of mainstream society. Not just the strippers working at The Peepshow, or the prostitute welcoming johns to the apartment down Sammy’s hall, but those set apart by birth, be it through race or sexuality. Restaurant frontages speak to the Italians, Indians and Chinese who live and work in the area. Black men eke a living playing jazz in the clubs, and the protagonist himself, as we discover when he pays a visit to his brother’s Whitechapel store, is Jewish. Sadly Derek Nimmo’s gay nightclub assistant plays to the comedic conventions of the era, but the film proves more remarkable for its time in its representation of race. Having made a stereotypical assumption about black musicians that might pass without question in a much later film than this one, our hero is given a righteous dressing down.


As Lee runs from one meeting to the next, cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky takes his camera back into the bustling streets and alleyways, and the crisp black and white location shots from half a century ago provide one the film’s great pleasures. With day turning to evening the tone changes and what begins as a witty crime caper turns darker, Suschitzky investing seedy pool halls and basement rehearsal spaces with the chiaroscuro of classic noir. As night falls, potentially happy endings crumble and Sammy makes his final stand on a grim patch of bombed out wasteland. The main light source comes in the form of an empty billboard standing above the scene, projecting bright white like an empty cinema screen penetrating the darkness. For years, this empty space might have represented The Small World of Sammy Lee itself, prior to its beautiful restoration and home release by StudioCanal in 2016. It’s a welcome return, because The Small World… is a classic of sixties London cinema.