Letter from London: Words and Pictures 


I used to love the way words clinked together to make sense. Images didn’t really get a look-in once I’d learned how to read. It was like I’d cracked the code and was in. I liked reading both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. And if information wasn’t enough, I also liked cadence. Life in my early teens was ‘dreich’ — Scots for dreary or bleak — and overripe language was fun. Hard news, of course, didn’t like it, but some documentaries that I watched did. As a result, I began to play around with cameras as well as words. Not quite with the same application as some people I knew — I wasn’t a technician — and the first ever camera I took abroad, a small vintage 8mm cine camera, was stolen. (Years later, I was robbed of a larger one on Ibiza but vowed not to leave the island until I got it back, which, thanks to the admirable efforts of others, I got back.) I wrote occasional features and the odd play but grew to see cameras not just as artful expressions but also as very useful portals through which to grab information and analyse it. In time, I felt, one slow pan in a conflict zone, or even a gallery or sitting room, was worth more than a page of notes.

Today I find myself writing again, as if attempting to complete a full-circle. It’s not what I was expecting. At a time when everyone now is filming, I am headed back in the opposite direction. Even in the deliberately discursive style of this Letter, I feel writing more direct today. I don’t even have to spend a whole year trying to raise funds for the damned thing, not like I did with documentaries. Writing cuts to the chase, which is ironic. I have one good friend who regularly sends me long articles from small journals and I like to devour each one. This is written information from the fringes. As for me, I used to say I wrote with a camera. Well, now I am filming with a pen. I also like what Gloria Steinem said: ‘As a profession, freelance writing is notoriously insecure. That’s the first argument in its favour. For many reasons, a few of them rational, the thought of knowing exactly what next year’s accomplishments, routine, income, and vacation will be — or even what time I have to get up tomorrow morning — has always depressed me.’ Just as Orson Welles wasn’t so wrong when he said filmmaking was two per cent moviemaking and ninety-eight per cent hustling for money.

Forget the Five Eyes. How about the Three T’s? Telegram, TikTok and Twitter. So much visual news from eastern Ukraine continues to come through the Three T’s. Often unpaid and seemingly shot on the nearest phone, these short bursts of visual zap may be mere spoonfuls of truth, and never the whole dish, but they do get watched. Social Networking Sites (SNS) have become a staple diet. It doesn’t seem to matter that it has reduced war for some to unpleasant gimmickry. If only it wasn’t so easy to digitally add or remove elements from footage like this. I know only a little about digital manipulation today but have worked with some of the best people at visual fibbery around, usually in feature films. It wouldn’t take much to manage a team of visual dissimulators in a battlefield. Some say they exist as formal units anyway. A constant flow of ‘useful’ clips can be far more controlled than their slapdash nature suggests. When a bunch of us first looked into the possibility of cyber-scanning people for film and TV in the UK, as mentioned three Letters ago when I failed to include the genius Nick Lloyd, it was by accessing technology previously used to cyber-scan the head of a former prime minister.

Of course, much of the provision of visual news from eastern Ukraine is genuinely hard-earned and most of the content is not disfigured at all. As we near the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, it is also downright tragic. Interestingly, Telegram was one of the few places I could find real detail last week on the possible Russian capture of Vuhledar and the marines and airborne troops sent to storm the city. Of course, much of what we see, by highlighting genuinely brave and articulate Ukrainians, seems one-sided. I find myself aching for the innocent young Russian conscripts used as cannon fodder too. So it was a surprise when Ukrainian media told us openly of the recent dismissal of high-ranking Ukrainian officials on the grounds of corruption, though this kind of response does help the ongoing campaign to join the EU (which the US wants). The arrest last week of a senior Ukrainian intelligence agent accused of spying for Russia was perhaps not quite so freely admitted. What everyone does agree upon however is that the 750-mile frontline is about to experience its most intense period of the war to date. Cameras, phones and forefingers at the ready, folks. Medics, alas, too.

‘They think they have conquered boredom,’ said one of my kids about these Social Networking Sites (SNS). This is definitely true of the way they can insinuate themselves into our psyches. I wonder how I would have fared filming today in South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South Africa (West Africa was merely writing) with this. Even when someone else was filming, as happened in New York on one project, work would have bled into social media. The same goes, presumably, for my entire, albeit humble and independent, super-8, Hi-8, DV, HD, Canon M, and iPhone oeuvre.

When I first watched ‘The Battle of Algiers’ I remember all the lights coming on in my head. I didn’t know it had been banned in France because the French authorities didn’t want people seeing the torture of members of the Algerian opposition. (No social media?) Could such a film be made today? Because of this tiresome rush for celebrity-driven TV, we have shut down that part of our brain which seeks change. Last week on Channel 4 saw English visual artist Grayson Perry begin a new series called ‘Grayson Perry’s Full English’. It was as though he had walked down a long corridor and wandered into the wrong room. The first episode was like a film on Brexit Britain which hoped the presence of a liberal-seeming presenter might allow it also to appeal to remainers. It felt as though it had all its little social media morsels in place before it was even finished. Ugly nationalisms went unchallenged and otherwise enjoyable notions of Englishness simply looked pig-headed. In film or TV it will not be towards tomorrow’s Eisenstein or Robbe-Grillet — who believed telling a story no longer relevant — we go, but to more and more scrolling and tapping until the wows come home. Yes, it is addictive, but this doesn’t make it any the less excusable. Reading can be addictive. Plot, even. In fact, are not places like the Frontline Club in London also full of addicts, albeit hard news ones? No, what is upsetting is the relentless flow of vacuous or doctored content, watering and watering down our brains. And how about last week’s news of Buzzfeed’s share price jumping once it said it will use technology from ChatGPT creator OpenAI to write content? HeAveN fOrBId.

I do have one last film to put to bed. This is about a 96 year old widower revisiting his late partner’s paintings, drawings, sculptures and tapestries, which the world has never seen. I showed a rough cut to one ex-channel head who generously described it as ‘a proper documentary’ but suspect most of the people in the film were too old for a young audience. Another instructed his team to buy it but for some reason didn’t in the end. I may have to put it online myself. Better Out Than In, as graffiti artist and activist Banksy called himself in New York. At least the widower has seen the rough cut. No easy feat when your eyes are going. He can’t even pore over his well loved shelves of modernist writers and poets anymore. He watched the rough cut on his laptop, with a magnifying glass. It is basically a love story so the thought of him doing that moves me. He has kept tidy and dust-free all the work in what was her studio since she died over a dozen years ago. There is so much of it, too. It is also in part because it is largely unseen and she knew no limelight that I find it interesting, though I do like its geometrical abstractions and whispers of the mystical. She was adopted, possibly from the Tartar peoples, never knew her parents, and attended art school in England by the age of 16. She worked pretty much every day of her working life on these works when she wasn’t teaching. Sadly, though, she spent the last ten years with dementia and Parkinson’s, before leaving the world as mysteriously as she came. ‘Did I do this?’ she once asked of her work. She even turned up unannounced and alone at Brancusi’s door one day in Paris. Anyway, into this mix in the film comes my partner the artist, who cannot believe what she is seeing. A bond, a kind of posthumous sisterhood, develops. She even meets 99-year-old and 95-year-old surviving friends of the late artist, their big blue cosmic eyes staring deep into camera. One main question the film asks is ‘What makes us make work that no one will see?’) Perhaps it would be appropriate if no one gets to see it, after all.

Finally, in 2019 English writer Adrian Dannatt of ‘Doomed and Famous’ fame introduced me to American writer James Linville, an editor of Paris Review for some twenty years, including seven (1993-2000) as Editor of it with the magazine’s co-founder George Plimpton. James was also instrumental in recognising and publishing the earliest work of a number of prominent writers, including Jeffrey Eugenides, Edward P. Jones and Junot Diaz (winners respectively of the 2003, 2004 & 2008 Pulitzer Prizes for fiction), as well as Rick Bass, Vikram Chandra, Phoenix Nguyen, and award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh. James knows his words from his pictures. He is a gifted man and excellent scriptwriter who wrote the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s posthumously released novel ‘The Garden of Eden’ which became a major feature film directed by John Irvin, starring Jack Huston, Mena Suvari, Richard E. Grant and Matthew Modine. He was also in the shadows behind one very recent big hit. He is a great man, always helpful, serious, and we meet regularly. The reason I mention him is because when we first met he was a writer interested in film and I, for my sins, a filmmaker interested in writing again. As a result, whenever we met, I would answer questions from him about film, and he from me about writing. We met again last week at Borough Market for coffee. (He is not the New Yorker I mention regularly in this piece, by the way.) Anyway, it was bitingly cold and the well ventilated nature of the place meant a spartan encounter, evidenced by James, a hardy man, feeling obliged to don a hat. The point I am trying to make is that in the four good years that we have known each other, with a pandemic in between, we have entirely swapped roles. He is now the filmmaker, shooting all the time, and I am now, if you will allow me, the writer. How strange is that?

Peter Bach lives in London.