Close Up

1 February 2011: Abandoned Archives and Forgotten Histories Remembered


Close-Up presents two films discovered in a stockpile of discarded 16mm film. The first film, Black Umbrella, is a new montage by filmmaker Louis Benassi, who uses footage of fires in London to present a unique vision of the capital during war and peacetime. Black Umbrella will be followed by Peter Watkins's notorious 1965 drama documentary The War Game, a complete 16mm copy of which was found along with the fire footage.

Black Umbrella
Louis Benassi
2011 | 15 min | B/W and Colour | 16mm film triptych
With live score by Hector Castells & Richard Sides

A subjective re-edit and reinterpretation of 16mm documentary footage of fires in London from across the twentieth century. Black Umbrella is a triptych, using three simultaneous projections to provoke unexpected associations, meanings and present a visceral history of London, where architecture and landscape were constantly changed through fires and bombs.

The War Game
Peter Watkins
1965 | 48 min | B/W | 16mm

"Few films have caused such controversy as Peter Watkins' The War Game. Made for TV in 1965, the film is a drama documentary about a 'limited' nuclear attack on Kent. Blending fiction and fact to create a moving and startling vision of the personal as well as the public consequences of such an attack, Watkins exposes the inadequacy of the nations Civil Defence programme and questions the philosophy of nuclear deterrent. The row about The War Game went all the way to the Prime Minister Harold Wilson himself. It was mainly through cinema release in 1966 that the film gained a loyal and vociferous following. For 20 years The War Game was forcefully suppressed from TV screens anywhere in the world." – Patrick Murphy 

Programme Notes

by Louis Benassi

"Ready?…Aye, ready!"
Motto: Strathclyde Fire Brigade

…It became apparent that what was contained in these cans was in fact a forgotten history an abandoned archive spanning over five decades of film shot in London at major fire incidents. The burning down of Crystal Palace in 1934, the flying bomb raids on central and east London in 1940, the fire at the Houses of Parliament in 1958 and, even more shocking, a discarded 16mm print of Peter Watkins's 1965 film The War Game. What we had discovered was a detailed, visual record depicting the changing shape of London. As filmmakers it seemed our duty to rescue and study these films, rather than leave them to be consigned the to a skip-forever lost in the void of landfill. Our project now is to create a series of "new" films, through discussion and engagement with the material, and also to seize any occasion to show this archive in varying contexts to the public.

For this screening we present the first manifestation of the Fire Project which has facilitated the opportunity for artist filmmakers to re-configure and re-interpret the archive in the context of their living experiences in London – or in any way they choose, an agenda-free brief – resulting in a series of diverse urban "cine-poems, critical, visual metaphors and aphorisms" some of which will be screened in Europe later this year. It seems appropriate that this première screening will take place at the Working Men's Club in Bethnal Green not too far away from Mile End where the first flying bomb landed in 1940.

Black Umbrella situates itself as a subjective exploration of a recently discovered, abandoned archive – which could have been potentially lost, a secret history – of the city we inhabit, London. Woven within the fabric of Black Umbrella is a series of clues which alludes to the re-interpretation of this part of the archive, it should be viewed as a kind of visual psycho-archaeology, and we the viewers are retinal archaeologists uncovering the cultural references that acted as points of location in the making of this work and its metaphors of architecture and urban space. 

Black Umbrella: Notes on Central Themes


"The aspiring youth that fired the Ephesian dome
Outlives in fame the pious fool that raised it"
Richard III, act 3. Scene. 1.

1. Herostratus

Who in July 21, 356 BC – a major date in the history of resentment – in order to ensure his immortal fame, burnt down the great temple of Diana in Ephesus. Herostratus is remembered as the one society wants to forget. His act is a sacrilege, but its irrevocable effect is to render the sacred irrelevant. It is the emblematic event of secular society, the revelation of a potential for disorder that must henceforth be controlled by other than sacred means. At the same time, it re-establishes the sacred at the horizon of the worldly. Herostratus is not protesting distributional injustice but the inherent dis-equilibrium of the human condition that provides us with infinity in signs and a finitude of things. We are limited in destiny and infinite in desire. We possess the sign of the sacred because we must be refused the sacred being. To destroy the mediation between the transcendental world and our own is to substitute oneself for it as its sign, and thereby to attain the immortality that belongs to the sign-world alone, that of the name Herostratus remembered for destroying the central sacred locus of his "good" society.

2. The Umbrella

The iconic image of the classic black umbrella, synonymous with the stock exchange gents of financial London, makes for a vision of eerie anonymity placing this somewhat sculptural object into a wide field of experimental iconography. Take for example the paintings of Magritte with his repetitive motifs of long coats, bowler hats and black umbrellas, or Francis Bacon's paintings produced between 1945-46 with his "entropic" vision and incongruities of abattoir carcasses, Harris tweed coats, and of course black umbrellas, or earlier uncanny modernist associations with the umbrella/object by the poète maudit Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse) in his 1868 book Chant de Maldoror "As beautiful as the chance meeting of a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella". Or in film, such as, Don Levy's 1967 work Herostratus specifically, the reoccurring scene which shows us the image of a young woman clad in tight black leather raincoat with open black umbrella in hand, walking towards us amid the Victorian gasometers of Kings Cross – besides the fact that this fragmented scene in Levy's film is a small part of a conceptual experiment in the psychological effects of editing on the viewer – it is an unquestionably psycho-sexually charged image of compelling, enigmatic aesthetics.

The umbrella acts as a portable architectural dome or roof providing shelter from rain, however in the context of this triptych the object is shielding "our" young woman from the explosive, life threatening splinters produced by the flying bomb, the flying bomb, which incidentally could be seen as a metaphor for the heartless architects of displacement, perhaps obliquely, but nevertheless Black Umbrella questions the condition of contemporary space, not as a fundamental basic human need, that of shelter, but rather that of space and shelter as commodity value, this and a surrealist de-normalisation places the semiotics of the umbrella at the core of this "cine-poem".

"A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now."
Thomas PynchonGravity's Rainbow, 1973

3. Fires in the City Zone and Gravity's Rainbow

16th of December 1944 a V2 rocket hit the Rex cinema in Antwerp killing 567 people, the most killed by a single rocket in the entire war.   In Black Umbrella the presence of actual fire fighting crews in action originally depicted in the L.F.B. film archive has been removed – with the exception of a few close up portraits of fire fighters faces masked in the anonymity of breathing apparatus – leaving only images of buildings collapsing or being ferociously devoured by flames. This selective editing technique suggests a symbolic and psychic geography, a "Zone", a place of purgation the fires of which can transform being, space and place into something new "real" and "imaginary". Visualised in the montage sequence of the central panel of the triptych, we see a young woman walking towards us with open black umbrella in hand which shields her from the, blazing and collapsing buildings all around her – is she a female Herostratus? An Iconoclast of Architecture? Anarchist arsonist, A Pyromaniac? Maybe she is a city dweller drifting through a dream landscape of curiously ambiguous architectural shapes, guided through the "Zone" by an internal Debordian compass. Whatever the interpretation this filmic "Zone" a synthesis of different London locations becomes a metaphor for a field of infinite permutation, all is permitted. All the previous structures have been collapsed, and this singular inhabitant wanders through the force of free energies that become new configurations. The "Zone" exists in the exhilarating slightness of time before unfettered potentialities must crystallize into new structures in this chaotic array of shifting possibilities. Only those who can most resolutely project their will onto reality will be left standing at the end…and for her, the plans include the Rocket Umbrella Architecture. But just what each of us sees in the Rocket Umbrella Architecture is quite different.