Q&A: BEN NICHOLSON

The Creature From The Black Lagoon, 1954, Jack Arnold

As a way of introducing you to some amazing people working in the fields of artist moving image, experimental film and alternative cinema, we have concocted a short questionnaire. Today we speak to writer and curator Ben Nicholson.

1. Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Ben Nicholson and I’m a freelance writer and curator living in London. I write as a critic for several publications including Sight & Sound magazine, MUBI Notebook and Little White Lies. Recently, I started a blog called ALT/KINO which I intend as a space to discuss alternative films and artists’ moving image. Besides writing I also programme for a couple of film festivals and launched an ALT/KINO screening series in May with the London premiere of Soda_Jerk’s TERROR NULLIUS.

2. What was the first film you remember seeing as a child?

This is a tough one. I have a vague recollection of seeing The Jungle Book in the cinema in my hometown as a nipper but can’t imagine this would have been before I saw Watership Down for the first time. I had that on a video taped off the telly and despite several sequences terrifying me – the fields of blood, the psychedelic death warren! – I watched it over and over again. I still adore it to this day.

3. What was the last film you watched and what did you think of it?

I’m answering your questions from the balmy Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic where I’m attending the film festival. There is a retrospective dedicated to Youssef Chahine that I am acquainting myself with for the first time. This morning I saw his most famous film Cairo Station from 1958. It is incredible – starting out as amiable social-realism with a political undercurrent and ending up as a frenetic Egyptian noir about destructive male obsession. It’s wild and wonderful – and I’m very much looking forward to seeing more of his films before I head home.

4. How did you become interested in working with cinema/moving image?

Gradually. I came to film in a serious way quite late, really – after university – and my tastes have grown more and more avant-garde over the past decade or so. Writing about films just seemed to happen. I began my own blog to pass the time, then graduated to writing for other people’s blogs and then established publications. It was in attending film festivals with dedicated experimental strands like ‘Wavelengths’ at Toronto and ‘Experimenta’ at LFF around 3-4 years ago that I got interested in artists’ moving image and I’ve been expanding my horizons continually ever since.

5. Tell us about a film that has had a profound effect on you?

I’m going to go with something very far from artists’ moving image but which I nonetheless consider to be the first step towards my current tastes and interests: The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I saw it while I was at university and would say that beforehand I had the misguided notion that while one can appreciate the historical importance of black & white (and by extension, silent) films, they weren’t enjoyable in their own right to a modern viewer. I was on a Universal monster movie binge and saw and scoffed at Dracula and Frankenstein but suddenly my world was turned upside down. It wasn’t long before I was diving deep into silent film and I’ve always considered that a pivotal point in my burgeoning cinephilia.

6. Favourite books about cinema/moving-image/filmmaking?

It’s hard to look past Eisenstein’s Film Form for me purely on the basis that I regularly revisit it and feel energised every time. Reading his essay on the fourth dimension in film and his discussion of the difference between a ‘dark window’ and an ‘unlit window’ sends my mind racing every single time.

7. What would be your dream double-bill, two films you’d love to see together on the big screen?

This is quite a tough one because there are so many – and so many that I’m scheming to bring to a London screen at some point in the not-so-distant future. What I find most interesting about curation as a practice is the idea of montage across a programme. I love the way that different films speak to, and illuminate elements of, one another. In that vein the double-bill that most readily springs to mind (and I’ve been meaning to write about for a couple of years but it’s a little too niche for most publications) is Ronnie Trocker’s Summer and Chris Marker’s La Jeteé. When I saw Summer I was struck by the similarity between their concluding images. I’d love to pair them together in a cinema to explore how they both create ‘movies’ out of still images and how they travel through time, revisiting the memories of trapped protagonists.

8. Which filmmaker/artist are you most obsessed with, the one whose work you return to again and again?

John Smith. If I had to pick a favourite ever film it would probably be The Girl Chewing Gum (which would have been a sure bet for Q5 but I didn’t want to repeat myself!). I’d say I watch The Girl Chewing Gum about once a month and am in constant awe of Smith’s wider work, which continually surprises and inspires me. I’m far from having seen everything but I can’t get enough of those that are available for a rewatch. I’m not sure how many times my better half has been subjected to his one minute masterpiece Gargantuan, but it’s quite a few.

9. What are you currently working on/what projects do you have coming up?

At this very moment I’m sat in the press area in Karlovy Vary answering these questions and trying to finish off an interview backlog for ALT/KINO. Chats with academic and video essayist Catherine Grant, and filmmakers Ekta Mittal, Zia Anger and Gastón Solnicki imminently. I’ve recently launched a zine called SOJOURNS with regular collaborator Matt Turner – in which film critics report from film festivals about anything but the movies – and we’re in the process of placing that in select shops. I’m also in the new issue of Sight & Sound writing about Michael Snow’s reworkings of Wavelength (Slidelength, WVLNT and Waivelength). Future plans include a short film, with fellow football fan/film critic Patrick Gamble, about the relocation of West Ham Football Club, and while I have several screening ideas in stages of development there’s nothing concrete yet, so watch this space.

Find out more: www.altkino.com (or www.bennicholson.me.uk for my wider writing)