Issue 18: A Bunch of Amateurs
Harry wants to remake the opening scene from Oklahoma!, Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film adaptation of the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical. In the original, Zinnemann’s camera glides after carefree and handsome cowboy Curly McLain (played by Gordon MacRae) as he rides horseback across the Technicolor-kissed prairies, welcoming a new day with ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’.’ The scene means a lot to Harry. He’s been a film buff ever since his mother took him as a boy to see King Kong. Oklahoma! was the first movie he saw at the cinema with his wife, Mary.
Trouble is, Harry’s in his 80s and, as he admits, he’s not exactly got a cowboy’s physique. He can’t sing—though he plays show tunes nicely on the piano—and he doesn’t ride a horse. He lives in Bradford, Yorkshire, which, it would be fair to say, has trouble passing for the Great Plains. But Harry’s determined to shoot his homage with the help of his friends in the Bradford Movie Makers Club, the subject of Kim Hopkins’ new documentary feature A Bunch of Amateurs; a story of creative friendship and hope against hope—part comedy, part tragedy, part Oklahoma!.
Bradford Movie Makers Club was officially founded in 1932, but began meeting informally in 1926. Today its membership is dwindling and ageing. Colin, the most senior member, joined 50 years ago and is 89. It is among the last surviving amateur filmmaking clubs in the UK, and the oldest of its kind in the world. According to scholar Heather Norris Nicholson, Britain’s first amateur film club, or cineclub, was founded in Croydon in 1899, only four years after the first commercial screening in the world, staged in Paris by the Lumière brothers in 1895. (Director David Nicholas Wilkinson has a theory that the Lumières were pipped at the post seven years earlier by Louis Le Prince, who was working in Leeds, just 15 miles from Bradford.) In the 1920s and ‘30s, during Hollywood’s golden age, there was an explosion of these clubs across the north of England. Enthusiasm was partly driven by the amateur film press—magazines such as Amateur Cine World—which encouraged technical skills and film literacy in their readers, and carried advertising for home filmmaking equipment.
The Bradford club has made documentaries, travelogues and fiction films. Hopkins gives us glimpses in A Bunch of Amateurs. We see a clip from Captain Marvel, shot in 1979, and starring Harry as a caped crusader leaping off blocks of council flats in pursuit of his enemies. In 1983 the group made a gritty cop drama called Chew. Then there’s Nice Jam, shot in 2001 by Phil, one of the club’s younger members, and described by its director as his “best art film,” a short about a group of catatonic stoners appreciating one of life’s small pleasures: jam. Alongside the making of Harry’s Oklahoma!, we get a glimpse behind the scenes of Appointment in Walthamstow, a horror story set in Victorian England featuring zombies, the angel of Death and a script written entirely in verse. The members all work on each other’s projects—acting, shooting, costumes, special effects, editing—and once finished they’re screened at their own little cinema clubhouse. At the end of each year they hold an awards ceremony. Everyone, it seems, gets a prize.
The club meets religiously every Monday. They bicker—Harry and Phil wind each other up incessantly—but they’re a tight-knit gang who tease each other a great deal too. There’s much laughter on their shoots, especially for Oklahoma!, filmed on a grey day in a local field with a hired horse that Harry later has to be green-screened onto. “Here, comedy has a very serious function,” says Hopkins. Humour is used “to ward off the devil, be that devil sadness, loneliness or the Grim Reaper himself. Laughter is a sort of survival mechanism to get you through the bad times.”
And bad times they are. When we meet the group, the clubhouse is in serious disrepair. The roof leaks and the shabby interior has seen better days. Flytippers use the yard to dump rubbish, and the doors are covered in lewd graffiti as fast as the group can paint it out. The club counts its lucky stars that the landlord has not pressed them on the years of back-rent they owe, but they’re still on the hook for the electricity and gas. Their bank balance teeters just fifty quid from zero. Club member Marie has ideas for bringing more money in, but battles local indifference. After heavily promoting a fundraising evening she has organized at a nearby bar—she talks it up to the city’s mayor at a Bradford Film Festival event and does a local radio interview—nobody turns up.
Life is hard enough as it is. Phil cares for a family member with severe disabilities and Harry’s partner is frail and bed-bound, unable to look after herself. In one devastating scene, Colin—whose wife Shirley has been living in a care home suffering from dementia—turns up to the Monday meeting as usual. We see him standing in his hat and coat, sipping a cup of tea, listening to other people’s conversations. Someone notices that he’s blowing his nose and asks if he’s got a cold. “Sort of,” he mumbles. A little later he quietly mentions that Shirley has passed away that morning. His understatement is heartbreaking. “I thought I’d just let you all know, y’know, cos… Think I’ve the shock…” We hear Colin choke up. Phil puts his arm around him. “Y’alright Colin… We’re glad you came tonight.” “Yeah, I wanted to really, y’know…” As far as we can judge from the film, it doesn’t seem as if he has anyone else to turn to.
Everyone in the club needs each other. The Bradford Movie Makers are lucky to have their own premises, but they don’t have access to wealthy patrons who could top up the bank account. They’re not tapped into fundraising networks. They’re not part of a scene where they can ask artists to make nice print editions to bring in money—in any case, who would buy them? Nobody here is a nepo baby, nobody has affluent partners. What resources and energies these filmmakers have are already stretched. “I understand the local codes, working-class sensibilities and tough history,” says Hopkins, who grew up in the area. “The ghosts of a prosperous industrial past are everywhere. These working-class folks are the collateral damage of an ideologically split society that at best ignores them, at worst somehow holds them responsible.”
There’s something about the humour, the gentle ribbing, the odds that the group face, that makes it easy to imagine how A Bunch of Amateurs might be adapted into a gentle Richard Curtis-style comedy. A heartwarming tale of plucky eccentrics who band together to save their little cinema. Imelda Staunton as Marie, Bill Nighy as Colin, a colliery band soundtrack. (It’s lucky that most of the cast would have to be over 60, since that’s about the only generation of UK actors from which enough working class players could now be drawn. Young Phil would have to be played by an Old Etonian.) But A Bunch of Amateurs has serious things to say about class and creativity. It describes how much art goes on in private, never to be recognized, running alongside the multiple jobs that have to be juggled, the loved ones that need caring for, the vicissitudes of health, the anxieties of money, the emotional toll of loneliness. How important societies like Bradford Movie Makers are for people’s psychological well-being.
Context goes a long way. Structurally, the Bradford club makes their films like any aspiring film or video artist does, on a shoestring, pulling favours from friends, screened to tiny, self-selecting audiences. It’s how my dad and I made a documentary about our village in 1990, using a video camera he borrowed from the school he taught at. It’s how I made Super 8 films as an art student, but I had the excuse of “being an art student” to frame what I did. Watching clips from the Bradford club’s back catalogue, I kept thinking of George and Mike Kuchar’s films from the 1950s: goofy, no-budget shorts that played surreal games with established movie genres. I wondered how those films might now be perceived if they had never made it from the backyards of The Bronx, where the Kuchar brothers grew up, to the New York underground film circuit of the 1960s. If, instead, they had gathered decades of dust in someone’s basement. They might be read as silly home movies by teenage kids, valued as a social document of mid-century New York City—images of buildings, customs and clothing for sociologists and historians to analyze—but not for their artistic merit.
From the earliest days of the clubs, amateur filmmakers were producing fiction films and animation alongside documentaries and travelogues; thrillers, horrors, romances and sci-fi shorts. Strides have been made in recent years to preserve amateur films, but efforts have been biased towards those which have evidentiary value. Films, for example, capturing parts of a city that have long disappeared, those that record important local events, or even unintentionally feature images that have significance for a particular area. Ryan Shand—co-author and co-editor, with Ian Craven, of the book Small-Gauge Storytelling—has pointed out that satire, pastiche, and self-reflexivity characterized many amateur fiction films. Perhaps this, perhaps a little regional snobbery too, has partly gotten in the way of them being taken as seriously as they should be. Amateurism and professionalism are terms that are defined in relationship to each other. Each makes assumptions about the other. In the case of the industrial art form of cinema, “professionalism” also means access to large amounts of production money, to equipment, actors, costumes, sets. This makes the gap between what the DIY fiction director can create and what a big studio can produce seem wide, underscoring the awkward amateur dramatics of the little guy. It’s a gap that never quite looks as big in documentary work: Humphrey Jennings’ footage of London during the Blitz probably doesn’t look much different to what your great uncle Eric shot of it on his little cine-camera. Audiences understand footage that looks hand-held, domestic, cheap, as signalling a kind of documentary value not aesthetic lack.
I won’t spoil what happens at the end of A Bunch of Amateurs. It’s surprising and bittersweet. But I can tell you that Colin gets the special Labour of Love award at the group’s annual ceremony, and that Harry’s Oklahoma! homage goes on to win the comedy award at Burnley Amateur Film Festival. Apparently Baz Luhrmann wants to meet the club. Hooray for Hollywood!
—It’s been a terrible week for the RIPs. We lost the composer Angelo Badalamenti, Jet Black (of The Stranglers), Bookforum magazine, not to mention the greatest yellowcoat of them all, Ruth Madoc. It was also announced that the German musician Manuel Göttsching had passed away. Back in the day, his 1981 recording E2-E4 was the closing anthem each night at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage. I do the housework to it. Stone cold classic.
—Ashley Clark (whose film and music newsletter Keeping Up I recommend) has put together a group of films for Criterion under the theme of free jazz, which you’ll enjoy if Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ornette Coleman parp your horn and splash your cymbals. The real gem is the rarely seen Rising Tones Cross, made in 1985 by the German director Ebba Jahn. Her film is a beautiful document, not just of the mid-80s New York music scene—how it crossed over with dance and art, how avant-garde jazz didn’t just mean the wild sonic skronking people tend to think of, the complications of race and music—but of New York itself, featuring footage shot in bars, cafes and community centres across the city. Like all good improvised music, it’s a film that lives in the moment.
—There’s a new season of Slow Horses. I love espionage stories. Not because I admire spies but because I love the question of why anyone would ever choose to lead a life of such miserable secrecy and ideological devotion. I love being inside in the warm while watching terrible weather out of the window.
—When I first began working at Frieze magazine in the late 1990s, I’d hear my colleagues talk about Giovanni Intra, an artist, writer and gallerist, born in New Zealand and later transplanted to Los Angeles. I never met him, but I remember the impact that his untimely death in 2002 had on those who had. In the new year, Semiotext(e) and Bouncy Castle are co-publishing a book of his writings edited by Robert Leonard.
—From the Bureau of Self-Promotion: Two-and-a-half years ago, Extra Extra magazine in Rotterdam commissioned artist Michael Portnoy to make a show for NTS Radio. He invited me to work on it with him and we dreamt up an absurdist erotic sci-fi comedy set in an unnamed city of the future—a kind of Archigram utopia filled with edible archiecture and walking buildings—in which a guileless radio journalist interviews the city’s residents about their working and romantic lives. (Think The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, minus the galactic hitchhiking.) It was meant to be a one-off, but despite making a bungle of that first installment, we were invited back, and have just broadcast our 15th episode. This one is a holiday special described as “the sonic equivalent of a kiss stolen under the mistletoe and pursued by Interpol across three continents before being tracked down to a gene-splicing lab in Switzerland where a mad scientist is trying to turn the kiss into a supernova snog that will smother the world to death in a tsunami of lipstick and brandy-flavoured spittle.” We co-write the show with artist Monte Masi, and work with a talented ensemble cast featuring actors Thomas Dudkiewicz, Monique Moses, Loveday Smith, and Johnny Vivash. There’s music too, with each edition’s playlist compiled by Loes Verstappen, her selections spanning Brazilian hip-hop to Finnish spoonjazz. Production duties are carried out by Tobias Withers and Fiona Lutjenhuis makes drawings to accompany each episode. You can trawl the series here. (Listen in any order. Skip episode one. The latest should be archived in the next day or two).
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