Wednesday, March 14, 2007

BFI SouthBank Launch Party

Note: All images used in this blog entry, except that of the USB bracelet, are scanned from current BFI brochures and advertising material, and are copyright of the BFI.

Several months later than planned, the new BFI SouthBank has finally launched. That's BFI, as in British Film Institute, formerly the National Film Theatre (aka NFT). A lot of people aren't happy with the change in name after 20 years, but let's not get bogged down in the politics of that particular can of worms! BFI SouthBank opens to the general public today, but as a BFI Champion I got an invite to the Launch Party last night. With no partners or non-members allowed (unless they're also 'Champions') I had to go on my own, and wasn't really sure what to expect!

For those of you who don't have the time to read the rest of this rather long report, here's the basics... I'm glad I went! I got free booze, snacks, enjoyed looking at the venue and checking things out before the place gets opened to the great unwashed hordes (that'll be you, dear reader!) BUT I left angrier than I've felt in a long, long time (which takes some doing, let me tell you!).

Make no mistake, BFI SouthBank has NOTHING to do with 'promoting the heritage of TV and film', and EVERYTHING to do with huge, wasted, self-indulgent, lavishly decorated open spaces with nothing in them and appallingly irrelevant 'exhibits' in rooms so tiny only a handful of people can see them. The whole thing appears to have been designed to impress creatives at posh dinner parties rather than with any kind of practicality that would require it to cope with more than a handful of people in central London.

It is an APPALLING waste of money!

So much space - so little of it actually being used for anything!

OK, let me now give my account of the launch party in which I'll try to justify that statement....

On arriving, I was somewhat surprised to find long queues waiting to get in. I would estimate about 1000 of us had been invited, but with no formal tickets having been issued, it obviously took time to name check every one and tick them off the long computer listings that had guests names on.

First impressions of the new building were that it resembled a showcase Apple computer store - all glass, big open spaces, expensive modern fittings, and metal floors with black and white decor. Outside the venue four multimedia projections of old films (unfortunately, somewhat out of sync with the sound that was playing) were being screened on the brick walls of the adjacent National Theatre as we arrived. The whole thing had a very 'pretentious night club opening' feel about it, but helped raise an air of excitement, and gave something for us to watch while queuing. Alas, it wasn't practical in any real sense because of the sound-sync problems and the fact that coloured brick work with lights everywhere is never going to make for a great cinema screen.

Impressions of entering an Apple computer store weren't contradicted at the main entrance where I was asked if I was an Apple or PC owner, before being given a USB bracelet that I was told I could use to watch BFI material when I got home. Very cool, especially for a freebie! It turns out to be a 64MB USB drive containing a simulation of the site's new Mediatheque facility (of which, more in a moment) for both Mac and PC, albeit with just a few short clips. Very professional and a neat promotional device!

USB Key bracelet - cute promotional device!

Inside the entrance was a lot of space, albeit space already filled with several hundred standing people. Free wine and beer were available at stands around the room and at one end is a small bar/restaurant area with a few seats, but nowhere near enough for the crowds likely to descend on the place. The huge atrium area does have one big plus - free Wi-fi, for those of you who don't like web surfing at home.

At the far end of the cavernous empty space (presumably meant for the queues, with the biggest of the new spaces able to hold a staggering THIRTY-EIGHT people in total!!!!) was what would normally be the ticketing/information area. For the launch party there was a DJ with twin decks and speakers, although as is typical of these sorts of 'art meets nightclub' pretentious affairs, it was noticeable that the decks weren't used (not once!) the whole of the time I was there, with music seemingly being pumped in from something hidden under the decks. I guess the DJ, complete with obligatory baseball-type cap helped create the 'ambience' of something modern and trendy, as opposed to (God forbid!) something promoting the 'heritage' of film and TV!

The Studio - very nice, but it only seats 38 people!

My first visit was to The Studio (a screening room!), featuring 'stunning highlights from the BFI National archive'. I was impressed actually. The seats were very big and very comfy. The screen was big and bright. The picture quality of the short movies from the 40's being shown was absolutely superb. But the venue ONLY HAS THIRTY-EIGHT SEATS! How the hell is that going to provide any sort of service for the teeming masses?

Next up was the new BFI film store. The BFI needs a shop to promote its wares, and the latest edition of Sight and Sound boasts that the new store will be 'the best stocked outlet in London'. Excuse me? The place is tiny (if you've been to The National Portrait Gallery and seen the small souvenir shop there, it's about the same size). A third of the store's shelf space appeared to be given over to t-shirts imprinted with a blurred black and white football picture. Apparently this is to help promote the BFI!!!! My guess is that the still is from the first known footage of a Manchester United game that was playing on a screen inside the shop, but even so.....

Just round the corner from the NFT is a Foyles shop with an excellent selection of film books. The BFI shop is slightly better, but not by much. The BFI shop also sells DVDs, but again if you pop just round the corner there's the Movies and Music store which has a much larger, and even more eclectic, set of titles on offer. It's nice to have another specialist film store in the area, but given the huge caverns of wasted space just outside its entrance, it seems such a disappointment, particularly given all the advance hype.

I did buy a book at the store, and the staff were friendly and helpful although it was annoying to find out after I'd left that BFI members were entitled to a 20% discount at the store. Given that this was a launch party specifically for BFI 'Champion' Members and other alumni shouldn't this have been pointed out to me at the time of purchase?!

Next to the store is The Gallery, nowhere near as big as the name implies, but probably as big as the whole of the floor space in my flat, and the biggest space outside the main entrance. It is currently showing Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad which contains four small oblong tables of ultra-tiny Scalectrix-like sets depicting slow moving vehicles from the 30s. One table has a New York scene that looks like it's straight out of the Jackson remake of King Kong, with cars jammed up in both directions while the sounds of impatient tooting motorists echoes around the room. Another table shows older vintage cars moving around a triangle of fake grass. In the corner of each table there's an alternative minature tableuu - a set of figures in a vintage home, sat on the sofa watching TV or indulging in some other mundane activity. Each of the tables is well lit and has several tiny cameras pointing at the minatures. On the far walls four screen projections constantly shift between different camera's on the tables, giving the illusion of a multi-media experience, or a real life movie being made from something that is pretty close to still life. It's all great fun, and I left the room with a big smile on my face, but I wondered what on earth this had to do with 'promoting the heritage of TV and film' - absolutely nothing so far as I could make out!

The Gallery's current show  - Tiny, Funny, Big and Sad is fun, but has little to with the national film archives

Upstairs from the ground floor is more of the same. In classic 'creatives not having a clue when it comes to practicality' design the name of the room housing Optronica, painted in large sideways-on letters is completely invisible when the doors are open! The Optronica event, which finishes in a week's time, is advertised as 'a cauldron of sound and vision.. with premieres of new work by two UK artists who have shaped and influenced the spheres of electronic music and design'. What a load of pretentious piffle! It's a big empty space the size of a large living room with a small square dance-floor in the corner with the corner walls being used for small image projections while dance music plays. This is fine for the younger crowd wanting a night out on Ecstasy maybe, but yet again this has NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH 'PROMOTING THE HERITAGE OF TV AND FILM'! Who the hell thought it did??!!!

Trying to find something positive to say, the undoubted highlight of the whole place is Mediatheque. This is like an airport lounge or small but plush internet cafe. Drinks and food are not allowed in and you basically have fifteen widescreen monitors with keyboards, mice and headphones set up running a broadband intranet web site which has the look and feel of the public BFI internet web site. Using one of these computer stations you can browse up to 300 hours of film from the BFI Archives, with the material chosen to be made available based around specific themes. At the moment two themes are available: London Calling and Being British, with plans to add 50 hours of new themes each month. The collection of films for each theme is beautifully indexed with each film having extensive research notes for each film alongside which a copy of the film can be seen in a fairly large window (which can be expanded to full screen). I found the whole system very usable. Apparently only one of the fifteen screens can be pre-booked, with the rest being available on a first-come, first-served waiting system where sessions of between fifteen minutes and two hours are available. The plan, I was told by a very helpful BFI Staff Member, is to issue beepers like they do in popular restaurants, so that you can book a slot and then wander off around the rest of the venue, to be paged when a station is free.

It's great, but completely impractical given how busy the area is. Count the number of stations that have been supplied by Hewlett Packard: FIFTEEN! With the usage these things will get, and the rather cheap build quality of the units I saw, I guarantee that within three months the BFI will be in a situation where at any one time at least two or three of the workstations will be down for maintenance. How on earth does this tiny space with just fifteen PCs present any kind of realistic service? And this is by far the big highlight of the new centre (and shock! horror! one that actually meets the BFI's remit - all together now! - to promote the heritage of TV and film).

Half way through the party we got endless gushing, masquerading as 'speeches' from several of the higher-ups. First up was Anthony Minghella, film director and Chairman of the BFI Board of Governors. He told a story about how Lindsay Anderson and John Ford met in this very building, told a story about how Anderson was always railing about the 'conspiracy of mediocrity', and how impressed Anderson would be by BFI SouthBank. You couldn't be more wrong Anthony! Anderson would be incredulous at the extravagance and wasted space for facilities that can only be used by a handful of people at any given time. Say all you like about it being open to the public and free but that's of no damned use at all if you only have space for a small spattering of people to take advantage of it.

Big, brash, expensive... and empty!

If I thought Minghella was living in cloud-cukoo land, then Tessa Jowell must be living on cloud-cuckoo planet, and things entered the realms of the positively surreal when she stepped up to gush on behalf of the Labour government. She actually had the gall to issue trite platitudes about the thousands of children in her constituency, a few miles away, who would have their lives enriched by the new centre. What on earth is the mad, deluded woman on? Are these thousands of children going to have their lives enriched by standing in a big empty space with nothing to see? Or is the idea that the BFI close for the next year so that those children have a chance to get into the Mediatheque or Studio, thirty at a time in pairs for a fifteen minute stint?

Well I think you get the drift! What's so depressing is that nobody official seemed to realise what a complete white elephant the whole thing is. And in five years time when all the expensive gimmicks have broken down and nothing's working a huge dose of money will be needed to get things back to the point where those lucky 15-38 people can actually do something again.

The new BFI SouthBank is like one of those God-awful web sites where all you want is information, but you can't find it because all that's been provided are endless Flash videos that have reinvented the user interface so that it takes you hours to reach single glib marketing statement which has nothing to do with the whole supposed existence of the web site in the first place. Looking around at all the extravagance all you can do is shake your head in despair at the sheer waste of money that has been spent on facilities that can only possibly benefit a few. This is the space that used to house The Museum of the Moving Image, which admittedly may well have had its dull parts, but actually met the remit of promoting the heritage of film and TV, and had many fascinating treasures to show anybody who wanted to see them. Something the new BFI SouthBank spectacularly misses out on.

The luvvies really have taken over the asylum, and its address is Theatre Avenue, South Bank, London!


Brian Sibley said...

A couple of days back, you wrote of the Daily Blog...

"Blog entries need to be three things if they're going to be read by ANYONE: short, sharp and sweet..."

Er, so what happened, Ian?? ;-)

Actually, I'm only joking and I was glad (albeit appalled) to read in full your stinging indictment of the BFI Southbank...

It sounds truly DREADFUL and a MONSTROUS waste of money and opportunity...

I loved (and still mourn for) MOMI - and, after standing empty for YEARS, to fill it with emptiness and inadeqate facilities is a TRAGEDY.

I shall go and see it for myself, of course, but with low expectations... Still at least I won't be too disappointed...

When they junked all the MOMI stuff, I wonder what they did with that wonderful mural painted by Chuck Jones that ran down the full length of the back stairs and showed the classic Warner Bros cartoon characters pursuing each other all the way to Alberquerque? I'd have stored it for free...

Ian said...

Ah, but if you read the entry in full you'll see that I admitted I hadn't a hope in hell of keeping blog entries short. I can't change the habits of a lifetime!

That being said, I think tomorrow's entry may be VERY short. I had meant to get a new DVD review done tonight but a friend from Germany is in the country and on his way over, so I don't think that will happen.

As for BFI, I wondered around feeling rather like a very small child, wanting to shout "I want my MOMI" ;-)

Ian said...

When I say "wondered" I do of course mean "wandered". Doh!

David Weeks said...

Thanks for the insight.
Bring back MOMI
I can just imagine, from your description, the platitudinous cant that the poliliticians spouted. Talking as they often do from inadequate breifing notes, no real first-hand experience and even less imagination ~ put it all into a melting pot and SPIN.

It's all so sad.

Sam said...

Hey Ian,

Nice long article... good though.

I think your assessment that the building is somewhat of a gimmick is spot on. This shouldn't have to be a bad thing though as gimmick/interesting buildings do at some level get people through the door. Plus I think the 'heritage of film and tv' is worthy of a hip building.

However, it appears as if the content of the structure got lost in the scheme of things as the project became about the area itself rather than what it houses and represents. The result is the cheapening of what should be the real reason and focus for the BFI Southbank, film.

It is a sad situation...