Reviews

'Shadows of Progress' Is a Testament to the Best in Documentary Filmmaking

This is one of the best DVD releases of the year. It's so substantial, and so thorough, that it becomes not so much a DVD collection as a small, single-subject library of film.


Shadows of Progress -- Documentary Film In Post-War Britain 1951-1977

Distributor: BFI
Directors: Lindsay Anderson, John Krish, Jill Craigie, Eric Marquis, Derrick Knight.
Rated: 15
Length: 828 minutes
Release date: 2010-11-15

In recent years, the British Film Institute has released several excellent sets of documentaries on DVD. The latest, a companion to 2008’s Land of Promise: The British Documentary Movement 1930-1950, is Shadows of Progress, a 14-hour collection of 32 of the UK’s finest non-fiction films from the post-war period.

This lively era of British documentary-making has long been unfairly overlooked, and Shadows of Progress is an obvious and admirable attempt to redress this. It's so substantial, and so thorough, that it becomes not so much a DVD collection as a small, single-subject library of film.

The films included are inspired in choice and generous in number. All are short, ranging in length from five- to 45-minutes, and all were funded by some organisation or other (a government department, a charity, an oil company). This means all the films carry a sense that they are in the public interest; though they may not meet the specific criteria that would see them categorised as public information films, that is essentially what they are.

These documentaries are characterised not only by a commitment to their subject, but also by an equal commitment to their style. The daftly titled Shellarama is, in a sense, the least artistically ambitious work in the collection: it is simply an advertisement for Shell Oil. But director Richard Cawston and his team choose to deliver as artful an advertisement as has ever been filmed: a wordless work that is an exhilarating, and successful, experiment in the marriage of image and sound. Such invention recurs throughout Shadows of Progress

Some of the films here have dated terribly and exist now as charming curios. Others seem timeless. Some we hope will have dated terribly, and are dismayed to discover they remain relevant. To reflect upon the arguments raised by To Be A Woman, Jill Craigie’s 1951 appeal for equal pay for women, and realise that, 60 years later, most of them still need to be made, provides a shocking contrast with the bygone, Brief Encounter feel of the film.

As many fine documentaries do, several of the films here cause us to question what a documentary is -- and is not. One of the most affecting films included is John Krish’s impassioned appeal to end neglect of the elderly, I Think They Call Him John. Its subject, John Ronson, is filmed in his flat, tackling his mundane daily routine. The reason the film has little diegetic sound is that Krish was loudly directing Ronson’s actions, organizing his smallest movements. Is this, then, a documentary as we now understand the term?

Forced to select one favourite film from Shadows of Progress, I would most likely choose the earliest, Paul Dickson’s amusing, moving and awkwardly acted David. It relates the life of Welsh poet, school caretaker and former miner, David Griffiths. It's based on the life of David Rees -- who plays Griffiths. As this summary makes clear, this is less a documentary than a drama. In fact, even the now popular mixture of those two terms, ‘docu-drama’, seems an inaccurate label. David is best described as a biopic. Yet to designate it as such is to diminish it, and separate it from its filmic heritage.

So, while some of the films here cause us to question what a documentary is, they ultimately remind us we should not obsess over the answers. Whatever definition of a documentary we could give, something in this set would explode, and expose as short-sighted.

Many of the great documentarians exert clear influence on the films here. Several of these shorts have obvious debts to Jean Vigo and Dziga Vertov, and Anthony Simmons’s marvellous Sunday by the Sea is practically a combined tribute to the former’s À propos de Nice and the latter’s Man with a Movie Camera. That more of this influence is not discussed in the documentary included as a special feature is one of only two criticisms that need to be made of the extras.

The 100-page booklet has a light and informative essay on each film by one of a range of expert contributors, and the aforementioned documentary, a new 43-minute film called Perspectives on Documentary Filmmaking, provides an invaluable overview of the collection. Many of the filmmakers whose work appears in the set contribute to the special features, either in print or onscreen, and this leads to the only other real criticism to be made here.

With so many of these filmmakers participating in the project, and analysing their work for it, the addition of director’s commentaries, where possible, would have made Shadows of Progress pretty much perfect. Still, that a collection with such extensive extras leaves one wishing there were more is ultimately only a testament to its success.

Still from To Be A Woman

The greatest testament to this collection's success, however, is surely the anger and sadness it engenders that films like these are not being made in Britain now. Intelligent -- or at least culturally minded -- corporate sponsorship no longer funds films of this kind; charities use other (more affordable) media to deliver their messages; and the feature film directors of tomorrow, who would once have developed their styles and skills in shorts such as these, now do so directing brash television commercials and even brasher music videos.

The immediate aim of this release is to ensure these films are remembered and re-watched, but a more ambitious aim must be to stimulate some young filmmaking talent to make, or some organisation to commission, more documentaries like those that made the post-war period of British non-fiction filmmaking so worthy of celebration. Shadows of Progress is one of the DVD releases of the year, and something very close to an essential purchase.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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