Friday, April 8, 2016

The Favorites - Civilisation (#60)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Civilisation (1969/UK/hosted Kenneth Clark, dir. Michael Gill/Peter Montagnon/Ann Turner) appeared at #60 on my original list.

What it is • "Civilisation", the ambitious white-elephant-to-end-all-white elephants title, is immediately undercut by a subtitle, just as important: "A Personal View". Civilisation: A Personal View, a 1969 British miniseries designed in part to exhibit the new capabilities of color television, does have have a broad sweep and elevated tone.  This thirteen-part documentary covers a thousand years of European history (with a quick aside for the American Revolution), primarily but not exclusively through its visual art and music, taking us from the humble surf-pounded huts on Scotch islands, where monks preserved the last dying embers of ancient culture, to the monumental manmade island of Manhattan, which by the time this program aired had arguably become, for better or worse, the center of civilization with a "z", thank you very much. But what is civiliz(s)ation? That, among other areas, is where "a personal view" comes into play. The series is not an anonymous voice-of-God overview, seeking to harmonize all perspectives and/or reflect the conventional wisdom, despite frequent acknowledgements of reputation and critical consensus. It was written and memorably hosted by Kenneth Clark, a leading British art historian, who even fifty years ago could cheerfully describe himself as a "stick-in-the-mud." Indeed, series producer/director Michael Gill - the man largely responsible for the show's memorable visual format - felt so alienated from Clark's social and aesthetic outlook that he doubted they could work together. Eventually, however, they found common ground. Although modern art is almost entirely absent from the show, and Clark at times seem to shrug off historical brutality as sadly necessary for cultural advancement, his view is actually quite firmly anchored in postwar liberal humanism. He is a proponent of internationalism and deeply weary of nationalism, vaguely sympathetic to but deeply skeptical of revolutionary fervor, too realistic to believe in or even desire a return to tradition, and respectful of if not entirely convinced by religious pieties (he was a deathbed Catholic convert - a conversion hinted in his hardly laudatory treatment of the Reformation). More importantly, the survey is colored by numerous individual quirks and passions, and presented with a personable, and vaguely awkward, singularity that endears Clark to the viewer despite any frustrations with his oversights or blind spots. At the time, the series catapulted the host into international fame and served as a benchmark for British documentary television for years to come. Aesthetically, Civilisation was simultaneously a breakthrough, with its graceful coupling of splendid imagery and direct address, and a throwback in the hip late sixties. Later programs, like John Berger's wickedly subversive Ways of Seeing (which I saw a few weeks after making this list; otherwise it probably would have been on it) and Simon Schama's The Power of Art, borrowed Clark's personalized style of presentation. They also twisted the series' stately pace and reverential attitude, replacing calm order with an experimental attitude in the first case and MTV-style flash in the second. In the UK, the show remains familiar but in the U.S. - despite its great impact on PBS in the early seventies - I think it has been mostly forgotten. Certainly I was not familiar with it when I first encountered a worn VHS box-set in 2005...

Why I like it •
Eleven years ago, I stumbled across those videotapes at Kim's Video, a legendary New York rental store that specialized in the esoteric and hard-to-find. Having never heard of the show (or Clark), I assumed it was a fairly standard, old-fashioned history lesson on Western civilization and rented a couple tapes more as a guilt pleasure than anything else. Broad histories, however well- or ill-constructed, fascinate me; I've always had an instinctive fondness for catching quick-take shows on the History Channel and poring over musty old history books at public libraries, even when their storytelling is straightforward or scholarship is simplistic. At first glance, Civilisation seemed to fit this expectation, featuring long stretches in which Clark stands in front of castles and statues to offer historical context alongside opinions, anecdotes, and the occasional witticism. There is an extended focus (three full episodes) on the Middle Ages, not my favorite period of art or history, and as already mentioned the series mostly skips over, or at most briefly sums up, the great events and works of the twentieth century. Yet somehow I found myself sinking further into this world with each episode I watched, lulled by Clark's crisp, precise presentation (even as my attention would occasionally wander during his more extended monologues), and absorbed in the beauty of the paintings and sculptures onscreen. More importantly, I begin to realize that as a piece of filmmaking this was actually quite good, not just enjoyable and informative but skillfully and subtly assembled. Note how even as Clark anchors the frame there is always a tableau of visual interest behind him (at one point, the camera captures a drifting fog as it rolls across the background with perfect timing). Varying between Clark's own intercessions and long musical montages during which no voice is heard for minutes at a time, Civilisation strikes a suitable balance between cerebral reflection and aesthetic reverie. And despite its leisurely tempo and straightforward setup there are moments punctuated by imaginative asides (including a segue into Hamlet, performed outdoors in filmic fashion, with Patrick Stewart as Horatio), full of quick montages and deft associations. In fact, it was the imaginative cutting of Michael Gill's documentary on Francis Bacon that convinced Clark to collaborate with him despite their mutual discomfort. His own conception of TV may have been stodgy (initially he wanted to sit at a desk with the images appearing behind him on a separate screen, likes a news show). Yet he was above all an aesthete who knew good form when he saw it, and so he was wise enough to embrace this more stimulating approach. I didn't know this context at the time; indeed, some of it I've only just now discovered. All I knew was that I'd found an unexpected gem, actually a recognized classic as I would soon learn although this belated realization took nothing away from my initial delight in this surprise. My grandmother had the accompanying coffee-table book which I borrowed (and admittedly never returned), and as I read the text I realized how rich Clark's script really was; the splendor of the visuals and the unassuming delivery onscreen had slightly obscured this element for me on first viewing. Nonetheless, the film is the thing. Looking back now, I can see that it had a strong influence in my own work. When sharing an earlier Favorites entry on Twitter, I mentioned that Ken Burns' The Civil War probably had a subliminal impact on my video series Journey Through Twin Peaks. But in a way, despite obvious differences in both aesthetic approach and scope of subject, Civilisation may have provided even more inspiration, in its desire to balance detail with the big picture, determination to offer a "personal view" that is opinionated but comprehensive, and willingness to get lost inside a work (I love the moment when the camera seems to disappear inside Monet's shimmering surfaces). Indeed, by balancing its attention on art objects with verbal analysis and its own cinematic form, Civilisation almost serves as a kind of proto-video essay, creating an environment where pre-existing works can speak for themselves while leaving space for its own voice to flourish.

How you can see it • Fortunately, if you want to visit Civilisation you no longer need to seek out videos in rental stores. A year after my first viewing, it was released on DVD (the format available on Netflix) and a year after I composed a short prose reflection and lengthy visual tribute using those somewhat dimmed resources, it was remastered in HD (although unfortunately it seems the UK blu-ray will not work on most U.S. players). In addition to that visual tribute, I included a clip from "The Fallacies of Hope", covering the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary period in Europe (along with "The Worship of Nature", depicting the aesthetic/spiritual side of Romanticism, it's my favorite chapter) at 2:16 in "Shadow of '68", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies". And Civilisation's images, narration, and general structure heavily shaped one of my oddest posts, a visual study I designed for an abandoned film project drawing inspiration from different eras of Western history. Finally, I borrowed two figures from the film, each resting her head in her right hand, for my Lost in the Movies banner above.

What do you think? • Are you engaged by the style of this documentary? If not, what approach do you prefer? Which excluded areas or particular artworks do you wish Clark had included? What aspects of the show feel the most outdated? What aspects are actually superior to recent developments in documentary programming? Are you charmed, irritated, or both by the host's "stick-in-the-mud" qualities? Where do you find your tastes or opinions diverge or converge with Clark's, and how do both shape your impression of the work? How did you discover the series? If you are British, is this something that still comes up a lot? Is it used frequently in an educational environment, and if so how is it received? Have you seen later art history shows, from John Berger to Sister Wendy, and if so how do they compare in approach or quality? The BBC considered reviving the series, but with different hosts this time - would this work? Do you think the original Civilisation should have placed more emphasis on "civilisation" or on a "personal view" or do you think it got the balance right?

*While looking up a few details for this review, I discovered this marvelous obituary of Michael Gill, full of memorable anecdotes about his initial clash and eventual cooperation with Kenneth Clark. It's worth reading in full, but here is one memorable quote:
"The first programme, filmed in 1968, featured Clark against a backdrop of Notre Dame asking his audience 'What is civilisation? I don't know. I can't define it. But I think I can recognise it when I see it, and in fact I'm looking at it now.' Actually, as Gill recalled, Clark, facing the camera, was looking at a line of baton-wielding French riot police about to charge a crowd of protesting students. Their quest for civilisation in Paris ended with both men choking on tear gas."
• • •

Previous week: Apocalypse Now (#61)
Next week: Dekalog (#59)

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