Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Civilisation in Pictures

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Civilisation in Pictures


A visual tribute

Not so long ago, I re-watched "Civilisation," a fantastic series which originally aired on the BBC in 1969. I discovered this program five years ago, on VHS in Kim's Video in New York. Most of the tapes I rented from there were rarities, avant-garde films with a radical edge. By contrast, "Civilisation" was retro-history, an art scholar offering his old-fashioned views on Western civilization. This was initially part of the charm, in a hip-to-be-square kind of way; what could seem stodgy has in fact gone so far out of fashion that it feels fresh once again. Yet there was more to it than that - and soon I was hooked. Later I discovered my grandmother owned the book that went with the show, I "borrowed" it, read it cover to cover, and still have it on my shelf. Kenneth Clark is a charming host, particularly for American viewers, to whom his Britishisms (polished pronunciation, slight stiffness in delivery, and, let's face it, really, really awful teeth) are novel. He's also a tad awkward onscreen, often gripping his elbows and squinting, occasionally pausing and clearing his throat mid-sentences as if he's camera-shy.

Yet he is incredibly erudite and, what's more, utterly un-pretentious - remarkable given his approach. The show is billed as "A Personal View" and Clark makes no bones about the subtitle. Even narrowing the focus to Western Europe, whole countries are absent (Russia and Spain barely register). Because television is an audio-visual medium, music, painting, and sculpture are privileged - an occasional poem is read out loud but there are no prose excerpts and philosophy is hardly mentioned (with a few exceptions, in which case the thinkers are dealt with more as representatives of a zeitgeist than formulators of systems). The twentieth century is alluded to through shots of airplanes and computers, but no modern art is shown. Elsewhere Clark tells us, evidently serious despite the tongue-in-cheek reference to criticism, "I've spent my life in trying to learn about art, and I am completely baffled by what is taking place today. I sometimes like what I see, but when I read modern critics I realise that my preferences are merely accidental." This is a slight disappointment; even with its limited scope, the series would have felt near-complete had it devoted even just five or so minutes to the whole of twentieth-century art. Instead we get one peek at a Pollack painting (in an earlier episode, where he's connected to J.M.W. Turner) plus the bemused, wordless fondling of an abstract sculpture before Clark exits the film at the conclusion.

What the show lacks in comprehensiveness it more than makes up for in individuality. It surveys about a thousand years of art and manages to touch on most major movements and artists, but "Civilisation" feels neither rushed nor generic. Partly this is due to Clark's unifying presence and pointed perspective, partly it's due to the impeccable craftsmanship of the production. This is another aspect of the series which grew on me; initially, its old-fashioned style provided a retro charm but upon further viewings I realized that the show was far more accomplished as a documentary series than television today can pull off. It varies its scope and style depending upon the material, imaginatively utilizes different locations, techniques, and approaches (while maintaining an overall cohesiveness), and most importantly, it takes its time. We are allowed to drink in the artworks, the music, the locations; even Clark's brisk and often tightly-packed monologues are given enough room to sink in (though it may take several viewings to catch everything).

In short, the series is worth purchasing, or renting if you can find it (the DVD is currently unavailable on Netflix for some reason). As Allan Fish said beneath his  eloquent tribute, Clark and his documentary will "make you want to look at the stars." But for now, look at these pictures...

The pictures follow the jump - preceded by a video to give you a sense of the film's flavor:



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10 comments:

Stephen said...

Absolutely wonderful.

Civilisation has a great reputation as a pillar of British television, much like The World At War narrated by Laurence Olivier.

It is a great shame that this kind of program, where instruction is paramount and where the information is more important than the celebrity of the presenter is so lacking in modern television. Forget the funky angles, and the soundtrack and the silly comparisons to 21st Century life, we need more dumbing up.

When was the last time I felt enriched and nourished by a program? I'm so glad you've posted this, MovieMan and those images are quite something.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Stephen.

What fascinates me is how, once one gets past the lack of pomo accoutrements, the show is actually more stylish, on a deeper level, than a lot of contemporary instructional shows. It's amazing how elegantly it manages to balance the intellectual demands of the subject and the presentation demands of the medium.

It's also interesting to me how familiar the series seems to be for British viewers - both you and Allan have mentioned its iconic reputation in the UK. Here, I think people who were alive when it was on remember it - my grandmother had a copy of the companion book which I stole, er, borrowed, from her - but I don't think it's been revived since and five years ago it was only by rooting around in an obscurity video store that I discovered it. Maybe the DVD release since then has raised its profile stateside (I hope so) but it's still not as well-known as it needs to be.

I watched Ken Burns' Civil War over the past few weeks and I think that along with this are my favorite documentary TV programs. Some of Burns' work since has taken on a rote, rather cliched feel but he's firing on all cylinders with that one. What's interesting too is how the series differ - Civil War is authoritatively trying to take in the whole massive scope of its era and to do so in a "universal" way (obviously it will inevitably fall short in both regards, but I think by aiming so high it achieves a lot), wheras Civilisation is pedagical and idiosyncratic, it scope even wider than Burns' but emphatically a "personal view." Ultimately, as I tend to in these cases (when wildly divergent approaches are both pulled off marvelously), I find the diversity of styles enriches the medium. I'd be happy to pull an Allan and include both series on a list of "greatest movies of the 20th century"...

MovieMan0283 said...

For those who tried to watch the video on the front page - for some reason it wouldn't play there so it's been bumped to after the jump. You can now view the clip on the main article page.

Stephen said...

I'm not aware of CIVIL WAR.

I like a 'personal view' as long as it is informed by great knowledge and keen interest.

"I'd be happy to pull an Allan and include both series on a list of "greatest movies of the 20th century"."

Hah! I wouldn't be. Not only because I see documentaries as being fundamentally different but because CIVILISATION and its ilk get more of the spotlight within their own realm than up against the entire world of film.

Kenneth Clark is seen as a sort of man we British once aspired to be - erudite, gentlemanly, a sure and stubborn wit.

Have you seen THE WORLD AT WAR? As someone who studied quite a lot of World War II it is a fantastic overview and Olivier's authoritative, ominous tones are pitch perfect.

MovieMan0283 said...

World at War has been added to my Netflix queue.

Interesting on awareness of Civil War: that might be "our" version of Civilisation - a huge cultural touchstone here, but unknown abroad...

Sam Juliano said...

"What the show lacks in comprehensiveness it more than makes up for in individuality. It surveys about a thousand years of art and manages to touch on most major movements and artists, but "Civilisation" feels neither rushed nor generic. Partly this is due to Clark's unifying presence and pointed perspective, partly it's due to the impeccable craftsmanship of the production."


Beautiful piece here on a priceless production, one I have owned for several years on the superion Region 2 set, due to Allan Fish's urgings. I watched it from it's opening seconds to its closing and I was overwhelmed. It's the finest series of its kind, and it's never less than riveting and enthralling, and its creator is a superstar.

I am also a huge fan of Burns's THE CIVIL WAR.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yeah, I knew you & Allan were fans and I loved his essay on the subject a while back. Glad to hear you're a Burns buff too. What do you think of his other series? I enjoyed catching them in snippets but when I tried to watch Jazz, at least, in its entirety, it got really redundant. I mean every single episode, no matter its ostensible subject, found its way back to Louis Armstrong and talked about him the bulk of the program. It got so frustrating I eventually stopped watching!

I thought "The War" (the WWII one) was ok but it didn't quite have the magic of Civil War. Burns works best with still photos, and narrated letters - when he's given actual footage and sound (or when he's treating an era in which that's the major form of communication) he's not as strong.

MovieMan0283 said...

Also R1 vs. R2 I've no idea how the R2 set looked, but the R1 was pretty good - until the last disc. The difference in picture quality between the last episode and the previous ones was astonishing - in fact you can see it here for yourself in the screen-caps I used. I know Clark didn't care much for the modern era, but did the remastering have to follow suit?!

Sam Juliano said...

Actually Joel, after THE CIVIL WAR, would come BASEBALL in the Burns pantheon. It's a superlative historical and nostalgic account, which holds fascination even for non-fans of the game.

But I do love JAZZ and THE WEST too.

MovieMan0283 said...

I enjoyed what I saw of Baseball. Have you seen his brother's New York series? Fascinating stuff, all though it does suffer some repetitiveness and overinflation at times. Actually, there was a hilarious parody of it I read years ago which I can't find ANYWHERE online now no matter how many search terms I use in Google. Really frustrating. Oh well.