Life in Film: Mark Leckey
In an ongoing series, frieze, asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice.
Mark Leckey is a London-based British artist, Professor of Film at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main and has a band called Jack too Jack. His solo show ‘Resident’ is on at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Germany until 8 June and his work will be included in the Yokohama Biennial in Japan in September.
The film that has had the greatest influence on me is Blade Runner (1982, directed by Ridley Scott). I love this film for the same reasons I love Roxy Music: they share a sense of yearning for the past and the future, for another place and another time, but it’s flattened out, so everything seems to occur at the same time in the same space. In Blade Runner you really feel that everything and everyone is piled on top of each other, mounting up like wreckage at the feet of the angel of history.
I’m interested in how films are physically put together and Blade Runner is significant in that it’s the last of the analogue SFX films; before CGI took hold. The city is created by matte painting, which is literally painting onto the film itself. The opening scene is like an animated John Martin painting; it also reminds me of the big oil refinery at Ellesmere Port, in northern England, where I’m from.
Another key scene for me is when Harrison Ford uses a machine to enhance a photograph of an apartment, which allows him to go inside it and look around walls and corners. It’s an impossible machine but it’s the one current technology wants to make. It reflects my own desire to be totally immersed in a film when I’m watching it. Blade Runner is about the anxiety of being human, of being alive. The replicants in it are like zombies. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori developed a theory in 1970 called the ‘uncanny valley’ that shows the ‘region of negative emotional responses towards robots and other non-human entities that seem almost human’; there is something in this that reflects cinema’s ability to bring things to life that still makes us uncomfortable.
This leads to my next film, The Night of the Living Dead (1968, directed by George A. Romero); I like the entire trilogy. These films established the zombie as a genre and I think it’s a really powerful idea. I’ve been watching the fourth television season of The Wire (2002–8) and they play the zombie metaphor beautifully. It’s like the living dead have lost interest in human flesh, formed communities and are now just trying to get by. A blogger I like, K-Punk, writes about how cultures don’t really die they just lose their relevancy and vivacity and visibility; they survive, undead on old energy. This is the unease I feel about the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, that the past has lingered too long into the present.
Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974, directed by Jacques Rivette) explores a similar theme. The two protagonists break into the melodrama at the end of the film so the ‘flesh and blood’ characters enter into an eternally recurring ghostly theatre. This really excites me in the same way that the photograph machine in Blade Runner does; it’s a way of making the two dimensional appear to be a real space while at the same time making the materiality of film (what I like to call its ‘plasmaticness’) apparent. There is another quality I love about Céline et Julie…, which is when the movie is disrupted in some way, when it starts to collapse in on itself and anarchy enters.
Jacques Tati’s Play Time (1967) also does this but my favourite anarchic film is The Producers (1968, directed by Mel Brooks) because of the pitch of its hysteria – when Gene Wilder has a panic attack it’s almost too much, too intense and uncomfortably long; it’s the old trick of repeating a joke until it stops being funny and then gets funny again in a different way. The Simpsons (1989–ongoing) did it brilliantly in the episode that parodies Cape Fear (1991, directed by Martin Scorsese). Sideshow Bob, hunting for Bart, crawls from beneath a car, surveys the town and walks into a rake, which springs up and hits him in the face. He then takes another step and is hit by another rake, until the camera pulls back to reveal an infinite number of rakes. The beauty of the scene is that it goes on too long; the gag is played out and you’re left with the process of the joke, of the cartoon. It’s not dissimilar to the approach of Structuralist film-makers like Peter Kubelka and Hollis Frampton. I just think that Mel Brooks and The Simpsons did it better.
Opening scene from Blazing Saddles (1974)
I also love Gene Wilder in other films by Mel Brooks’ such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974). There’s something about certain actors, like Wilder and Carey Grant, and occasionally Nicolas Cage, who emanate a kind of knowingness; they acknowledge that they’re acting. Bryan Ferry has this quality too: it’s very hard to pull off but when it works it’s very generous and elegant.
The Shining (1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick) is another great ghost film. I like it for the same reasons as I like Blade Runner and Céline et Julie…: its uneasy nostalgia and desire to totally enter into a image – the photograph of the hotel in 1920 with Jack Torrance at the centre is a haunting image for me. But while the space in Blade Runner is concertined together, The Shining has an infinite sense of space – it’s as if the hotel goes on forever.
I’m a big fan of the director James Cameron and I think Titanic (1997) is an incredible film – a big film about big ideas. I have a theory that Titanic is actually a science fiction film (which Cameron, of course, has made so many of, including Aliens, 1986, and The Terminator films). The character played by Leonardo DiCaprio is a time traveller from 1998; while all of the other actors are very stiff and Edwardian, he just plays himself, a contemporary Californian. He’s like Céline and Julie in the haunted house. The ship is like the industrial age sailing through history. It’s a film made almost entirely with digital technology and I think technology is one of the big ideas in the film – how the real can now be manipulated and moulded into whatever we desire.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007, directed by Gore Verbinski) is a stunning example of what’s possible with digital filmmaking. It’s like an animated version of old children’s book illustrations; it’s a very ‘flat’ looking film. At the end, the English villain, played by Tom Hollander, walks through the ship as everything is exploding around him. It’s an astonishing scene – every fragment and splinter is individually rendered – again, like an animated drawing. I tend to think of films that are either sculptural – that create a space you can walk around in – or like paintings, moving pictures on the screen.
The film that is, for me, the ur-film is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). It was directed by F.W. Murnau, who made the German expressionist horror film, Nosferatu (1922), and who was then invited to make a movie in Hollywood: Sunrise. Murnau built a huge set including a city that was designed to create a vast illusion of depth, which was further enhanced by staging midgets in the background. Murnau’s set is like an enormous film-making mechanism – everything is tooled to allow the camera to create space – and within that machine he places the most delicate, heartbreaking story of a relationship I’ve ever seen.
There are films that have influenced me in their technique: La Jetée (1962, directed by Chris Marker) is a great lesson in economy. Similarly Johan Grimonprez’ dream-like documentary Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998), was a big influence as was the work of Craig Baldwin in San Francisco and his idea of found footage as cargo-cult.
Anya Kirchner’s Polly II: Plan for a Revolution in Docklands (2006) is another contemporary film influenced by La Jetée. It’s a sort of sci-fi film set in a future London where the Thames barrier has burst and the flooded city is fought over by pirates and robber barons. What I find really exciting is that the actors in the film are all residents or ex-residents of the Isle of Dogs – the people who were expected to make way for the development of Canary Wharf in the 1980s – and they play a kind of exaggerated re-enactment of events from their own history.
A Bigger Splash (1974) is a strange, fake documentary made by Jack Hazan, a portrait of David Hockney when he was breaking up with Peter Schlesinger and deciding whether or not to stay in California. I don’t know how it was made. Hazan gets Hockney and his friends to act out real situations as well as recording events as they occur. It makes for such uncomfortable viewing I don’t know why anyone agreed to appear in it. For example, there’s a scene when Ossie Clark goes to the Tate dressed in the clothes he’s wearing in Hockney’s portrait of him, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970). He stands in front of the painting in his bare feet but while his outfit is the same he’s no longer with Mrs Clark. Hazzan set out to filmically recreate Hockney’s work so there’s this sense of the artist staging his life against the backdrop of his own paintings.
Finally, Paris is Burning (1990, directed by Jennie Livingston) is a brilliant documentary chronicling the balls organised by black and Latino drag queens in New York. These are people who are at the bottom of the social ladder yet who act out fantasies of glamour and wealth, dressing like the women of the Upper West Side. I relate to this film; when I was young, in the early 1980s, I was a Casual, which was a working-class style of wearing inappropriately expensive leisurewear. It was the idea of taking something you were denied and making it yours. It’s so elegant; the ultimate dandy gesture.
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