Shooting the Past (TV Movie 1999) Poster

(1999 TV Movie)

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Lovely, magical, suspenseful, whimsically amusing... just plain great, folks!
Tom May14 April 2002
I will unreservedly add my name to the unanimous chorus of approval this TV mini-series has received below. It more than deserves. It is up to that very highest standard of authorial British TV drama penned by the likes of Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh, Troy Kennedy Martin and numerous others. This is the first Poliakoff show I have seen, and I must say it's great to discover a great TV writing talent *current* to these times (Bleasdale seemingly having peaked with "GBH", Leigh being a national treasure in film, most recently shown by the delightful "Topsy-Turvy"), and I will check out "Perfect Strangers" soon.

Poliakoff indeed directs as well, and does a better job (albeit with much more cohesive, fully-formed script material) with his own script than Dennis Potter did with his direction of his own "Blackeyes". Whereas "Blackeyes" had some beautiful dialogue and usual use of music to great emotional effect, it is a threadbare, over-stretched series in comparison to "Shooting the Past", which has economy (though I could have happily watched hours more), precision and great emotion and humanism in its writing.

Suffice to say, performances are top notch. Timothy Spall magnificent in bringing to life this oddball, yet formidable, unpredictable *and* very endearing character of Oswald. Lindsay Duncan is astonishing really, thoroughly convincing and wonderfully expressive physically and vocally. Liam Cunningham is marvelous also as the American magnate type figure, who turns out not to be quite the archetype we suspect him to be. Billie Whitelaw I liked in a more minor role, this other worker in the museum who can only "beaver away" in her words...! My, Emilia Fox was enchanting as the modish, but inscrutable and otherworldly Spig... The video I have of this series has these two monologues at the end which are a very nice bonus, showing just how much can be done with photographs and storytelling.

Of course, the aural and visual still set pieces, composed of stills and Lindsay Duncan's narrations are absolutely engaging and enchanting. Liam Cunningham's acting all the way through these, is superlative. Overall, I don't think a mere precis of mine can truly be adequate; suffice it to say, a labour of love, an encapsulation of the saddest and finest emotions and an argument for eccentricity and intelligence and even hope in humanity...

Rating:- *****/*****
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An undervalued masterpiece of British TV Drama
radiator461227 April 2005
Poliakoff's greatest achievement (so far) works perfectly as a thought-provoking and intensely satisfying meditation on the price of progress. The hard-headed, unscrupulous world of big-business is set in stark contrast to the quintessentially English, eccentric and old-fashioned central characters battling against the odds to preserve the collection. With sublime casting, atmospheric use of lighting and a haunting, beautiful soundtrack the production values are magnificent. However, the real stars of the show are the photos from the collection itself - used to relay fascinating, quirky and heart-rending stories from history that would have otherwise been forgotten. The way these stories unfurl are spell-bindingly atmospheric and paced to perfection.
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Extraordinary Television!
filmex-29 December 1999
For all the talk these days that the BBC isn't what it used to be, it would be hard to prove by this exceptional film. A brilliant examination of the power of photographs to chronicle, the mysteries and stories captured within their still frames, and the mystical and evocative powers moments frozen in time can manifest.

A superb creation from a writer-director whom I shall certainly seek out in the future. The entire ensemble is letter perfect, and the film does a wonderful job of alternately moving one to tears, then later creating tension that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. Is it any wonder that US television films come off as hackneyed when compared to superlative efforts such as this. One of the best films I have seen this year in any medium.
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A gem of a movie.
lkoler21 April 2005
This movie crept up on me. Timothy Spall is simply riveting and slowly charms you into his viewpoint. He seems at first to be a shabby cynic, but as time goes on you see that he is also a nerdy genius. Though slow at first, it is an example of very good story-telling and ends up making you feel very good about mankind and really aware of how diverse are the circumstances of life and the souls who step up to the challenges they present. The title has two meanings in that we are dealing with photos collected and arranged in categories that only Spall's character can really navigate expertly. Also, we find, in following his character (Oswald Bates) through the archive -- intent on following a thread -- that we are traveling in a viscous medium and find ourselves shooting the rapids of accumulating facts, inferences and dates.
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If you love film, you'll love this film!
thisisnowhere4 February 2000
This production is a work of profound beauty and intelligence. The dynamics of this film take you on a wonderful journey from the edge of your seat to the back of your mind. The actors fully inhabit their roles with all the humour and tragedy that involves, as the story unfolds. The success of the actors was to convey so much with such minimal, yet superb, dialogue.

The action unfolds in the almost wordless present (more usually suited to "action genre"), yet the film's major theme can only be resolved by the characters understanding of a broader present context that reaches back to the past and forward to their future. The characters dilemma is specific to the plot yet generalises to us all.

The subtlety and scope of this production grows with each viewing, as does the admiration for the casting, acting, directing, editing and musical scoring. If any of the components were less than exceptional, then it wouldn't be THIS film. If your looking for a film with timeless grace and immediate relevance, this will always be it.

....I cannot think of any other films quite like it, and think it draws more from theater, classical painting, photography, and great literature. However I would liken it most to a very visual feature length piece of music with superb production value - perhaps Roger Waters's "Amused to Death".
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My favourite Poliakoff drama
jhsteel20 February 2006
The atmosphere created in Shooting the Past is so compelling that it draws the viewer into its improbable world, and we accept that it could happen. The music is hypnotic, the photographs are fascinating, but most of all, the performances are wonderful. Lindsay Duncan is passionate and controlled at the same time - her dedication to her job is absolute. The sexual tension between her character and Liam Cunningham's is another factor that made it impossible to stop watching. All the English characters seem eccentric in some way, as you might expect from people who work in a photo library, but they are all 3-dimensional and I felt that I knew them by the end. As usual, Poliakoff has created a fantasy world which seems like the real world, but unexpected things happen and it's difficult to predict what the outcome will be. It gives us hope that we can do unexpected things ourselves. It is a drama of astonishing depth and must be seen - preferably several times.
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Fine stuff
ian_harris3 February 2003
Shooting the Past is a fine piece of work. It entertains, it makes you think, it deals with issues and you end up discussing it and thinking about it at length afterwards.

The scenario is somewhat far-fetched - it is inconceivable that most of the staff at the archive would be unaware of the plans to chuck them out of a listed building - the place would have been swarming with bureaucrats for months before the bulldozers arrived, if indeed anything that requires bulldozers would have been permitted. Further, it also seems inconceivable that a man with a passion for his new business school and with mission-critical deadlines would visit the place for the first time without having verified that the archivists were moving out.

But we forgive Poliakoff his fanciful scenario because it sets up a terrific and taught drama.

Lindsay Duncan is simply superb, as is Timothy Spall as the "borderline autistic, photo-savant" Oswald.

Some of the cinematography (if you call it that in made for TV films) is superb - in particular the long shots of Liam Cunningham walking through the archive and the film shots of still photos.

This is fine stuff and highly recommended.
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hugely emotional TV series
didi-52 August 2004
This gem from writer-director Stephen Poliakoff aired on the BBC to popular and critical acclaim, and was a surprise hit of a drama-lite year. Using the setting of a photograph library, and the plot that the collection needs to broken up and sold off to satisfy the greed of an American property developer, it says a lot about the associative process of memory, the sequencial nature of small details, and about ourselves as viewers of the drama within a drama.

Of the excellent cast, four stand out - Lindsay Duncan, Timothy Spall, Billie Whitelaw, and Liam Cunningham. The images really provide the crux of the series though, as we see a path through time and follow one character through from one reality to the next. The fabulous music also helps the process, and all things combined make this a really superior piece of small-screen drama.
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Absolutely Superb a must for anyone with brain left to think with
mars-5315 June 2005
I am not a film buff, nor artistic to any degree, and I like action adventures just as much as the next brainless idiot. But this film is so generally superb that it even enticed me to make comment on this database. I am old, and British, and therefore have an affinity with the surroundings and the characters portrayed, as over my lifetime I have met similar similar doing all sorts of differing jobs. The type of eccentric played by Timothy Spall (superbly, but then we British would not have expected anything less of him) occurs more often than one would think. The diffident librarian captured perfectly by Billy Holiday. The Lady boss whom over time has lost nearly all of her self-consciousness at being put in charge of people whom display more knowledge and intelligence than she first gave them credit for, was played by Lindsay Duncan and was Brilliant. The unfortunate tycoon who found himself as the unwilling villain of the piece, is most sensitively played by Liam Cunninham. All the supporting cast played their characters extremely well. I recognised even the junior tea lady from the stance I remember from the past. There is just no criticism I can make of this production the direction , photography, music all blends into a seamless story of the fairly recent past.

I am not given to undue praise, but this film you may show to any member of family without offence. Although the Americans get slightly cast as villains, I can assure them all that Big business in Britain could equally be so cast, but would unlikely to have come out so well thought of.

Get this film and loose yourself in 2/3 hours of unadulterated thought provoking entertainment
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Truly the best of British television.
clarewashbrook22 February 2006
Poliakoff classically explores the individual's response to change. Again he showcases the value of the eccentric and individual in a world consumed by finance and transitory values.

Here the focus is a photograph collection, an access point to the history of the individual. It is the people who matter. The guardians of the visual history of our hearts and journeys, defending the right for it to exist in the wake of the number cruncher tsunami and also the deceased souls whose journeys are chronicled in the photographs.

This is an exploration and expose of modern values facing off against history. An allegory of America versus England, where each take off their masks and stand for what they value - money versus history, profit versus story, power versus texture.

Unbeatable by any other writer. Valuable beyond the merit of all other television writers. This is more than a must see; it is imperative that you learn from it! A disguised moral tale, if you will and if you are willing to listen.
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"Brilliantly narrated mystery drama..."
Sindre Kaspersen8 December 2012
British playwright, screenwriter and director Stephen Poliakoff's British television drama, is a UK production by Talkback production for BBC Two which was first shown in 1999. It tells the story about an insurance company consisting of five people who lives at large 18th century country house outside of central London, which previously belonged to a 19th century confectionery firm who turned the place into a photo library. Marylin, Oswald, Veronica, Spig and Nick have been running this place called the Fallon Photo Library and Collection for many years, but one day they are visited by a man from an American organization named Christopher Anderson who has come to close down the library. Marylin who is the leader of the group immediately begins thinking about the photo collection and when Anderson tells her that the company will take their most valuable photos and that the rest has to be destroyed, she starts bargaining with him to give them time to find a buyer.

Finely and subtly directed by British filmmaker Stephen Poliakoff, this quietly paced fictional tale which is narrated by the male protagonist and from multiple viewpoints, draws a multifaceted and intimate portrayal of a somewhat eccentric group of people who after being given just one week to sell their large collection of precious and historic photographs which are about to go to waste, attempts to blackmail a businessman. While notable for it's atmospheric interior milieu depictions, sterling production design by Irish production designer John Paul Kelly and costume design by costume designer Susannah Buxton, this dialog-driven, narrative-driven, moving and memorable character piece which is as literary as it is theatrical, depicts some intriguing studies of character and contains a great score by composer Adrian Johnston.

This somewhat romantic, humorous and unraveling story which is set in a kind of foreign world and where photographs tells as much if not more than the dialog and voice-over narration, underlines the significance of maintaining and passing on the stories of people who once lived on this earth and is impelled and reinforced by it's cogent narrative structure, substantial character development, interrelated stories, quick-witted dialog, colorful characters, efficient long takes and wonderful acting performances by Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan, English actor Timothy Spall and Irish actor Liam Cunningham from the great ensemble cast. A brilliantly narrated mystery drama from the late 20th century which gained, among other awards, the RTS Award for Best Drama Series at the Royal Television Society Awards in 1999.
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Incredibly engaging, worth many repeat viewings
videodiscounters-13 April 2012
Of all the many thousands (literally) of films I've seen over the past 60 years, I would put this Stephen Poliakoff masterpiece in my top 10. After I saw it for the 3rd time (once on TV's Masterpiece Theatre and twice on DVD) I watched the bonus features at the end of the 2nd disc. Both Lindsay Duncan and Matthew MacFadyen commented on how Poliakoff used long scenes. It then occurred to me that there were indeed some long scenes, but none seemed particularly long to me. These 'long' scenes were riveting. They weren't long in a Stanley Kubrick way. Many of Kubrick's long scenes, i.e. in "Barry Lyndon" were not only long, but plodding and boring. Poliakoff's 'long' scenes are interesting and engaging. He doesn't need to resort to trickery or gimmickry. He always gets the most from his actors. Lindsay Duncan is incredible, as usual. I can't wait to see what she does next. Speaking of which, when are Poliakoff's last 3 or 4 films going to be released in the U.S. on DVD or on TV? Please don't deprive us. And, how come it's almost impossible to find Adrian Johnston's musical score for "Shooting" on CD? If you have ANY interest in photographs--especially black and white photos--you must see this film. And, you will probably want to see it again and again. Thanks, Stephen, for a great experience!
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One of His Finest Works
stephaniewuk2 June 2006
I'm a fan of Poliakoff but not as well acquainted with his works as I should be. However, I can safely assume that this very well-written gem is one of his best works in years followed closely by The Lost Prince in 2003.

His ability to explore relationships and analyse the modern world via an intelligent, subtle script rather than more gratuitous means adds to the enjoyability of his writing.

The staff of a photograph library in London face sudden - or as it turns out not so sudden - closure and are forced to find a home for their wondrous collection at Christmas of all times. The story follows the attempts of the very capable, though also very different members of the team, and the results are amazing.

If you were less impressed by Poliakoff's later works such as Perfect Strangers and Friends and Crocodiles as I was, don't be put off; this is every inch the thinking person's cup of tea and a riveting piece of drama.
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Extremely thought provoking; brilliantly acted, directed and scored.
Floop197729 June 1999
This series was extremely good; it tells a somewhat quirky tale of a photographic collection which is threatened by an American who wants to build a business school, who is not interested in the photos.

However, it's not as cut-and-dried as the above suggests. The American is not a card, he is an understandable character, as are all the others, and we share their feelings at every step as we begin to understand exactly why these photographs, of no-one in particular, are so valuable.

If this comes out on video, which I doubt it will sadly, I will be first in line.
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Splendid three part series with Timothy Spall especially good in an excellent cast
Harvey-105 February 1999
Wonderful idea: a picture library with an archive of 10 million pictures is under threat when it is purchased by a company intent on saving only the most valuable (Man Ray etc.) pictures and dispensing with the rest. The efforts to save the entire collection by the staff of the library are wonderful. They throw most of their energies into convincing the American buyer that although not valuable in monetary terms the collection has immense social value, and tells unbearably beautiful and tragic 20th Century stories. Marvellous denouement and superb performances all round. The minimalist music was especially good.
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Astonishingly good!
unclepete13 February 2004
After only half seeing this on TV back in 99 I have waited through over a year of missed release dates for the region 2 DVD release. It was well worth the wait.

Despite its length it easily stands up to being viewed in one sitting. The acting in this production is wonderful, and the whole improbability of the plot adds to the surrealistic feel of the production.

It's hard to think that this one was made for TV - a massive well done to the BBC for a first rate production. I loved it. It seems that 190min films featuring Andy Serkis are a recipe for success!
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Blew me away - if only all film could be this memorable
stevesmudge1329 May 2001
Poliakoff is a god - no doubt. If it were up to me he would be responsible for probably the most memorable films from 1997 on. True life is not something that has come naturally to film, but this man's films are from a different spectrum. In a word "nostalgia" but not in a romantic mean but a regrettable and realistic sense of life = I own over 600 films, yet this one has made a lasting impact. Definitely top 50.
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Shooting the Past: movie alchemy by a TV-film wizard
Spam Cannery23 October 2011
Shooting the Past: I'm still haunted by this 12 years after I first saw it. The combination of story, acting, cinematography, direction, and something I can't even put into words, means I keep going back to the DVDs over and over.

It starts with the superb writing and directing of Stephen Poliakoff. Since Shooting the Past I've seen other films by him, and have learned to expect this kind of quality from him. When I first saw Shooting... I wasn't yet familiar with his work. Shooting the Past is a great introduction to Poliakoff! The story is challenging and demanding of the viewer, being told as much through the use of black and white photos as through dialogue.

Eccentric, complicated characters, a desperate situation in what at first seems an improbable story, a plot that takes unexpected directions, slow, long, sometimes quirky scenes punctuated by lingering looks at strings of photos, all punctuated by narrative advances of the plot. As a formula it should be a dismal flop. As a film, Shooting the Past is inexorably gripping, sucking viewers into its world and freezing them there like one of the stunning photo-images that drive the story line.

I always find Lindsay Duncan's acting compelling, but in Shooting the Past she outdoes herself. She plays a woman responsible for saving a photo library. She is cornered in a situation she doesn't understand, but nevertheless tries to cling to her integrity as she looks for a solution. Whether she can succeed depends upon whether or not the eccentric but astute Oswald, played brilliantly by Timothy Spall, is able to find what is necessary to prove that the collection of photos in the photo library is worth saving.

Poliakoff's creation of Oswald by is brilliant. The portrayal of Oswald by Timothy Spall is inspired, astonishing. Spall achieves an amount and quality of acting in full-face close-ups that has to be seen to be appreciated. I'll skip the clichés like "he inhabited the character" and just say that Spall's Oswald is so much more than Oswald might have been if played by another actor. I've even re-watched this film just so I could pay special attention to Spall's portrayal.

Liam Cunningham captures the intricacy of his character Christopher Anderson, who is served up to us as the bad guy. Like nearly everyone else in Shooting the Past, Anderson turns out to be a real person, full of contradictions and complexity. (This is yet another feature of the film that makes it so compelling.)

I haven't mentioned the other actors: even the minor characters play their characters to perfection. The atmosphere of this film is so intense that mistakes by them would have jarred. They never put a foot wrong.

Last but not least, the music is perfect. It never cuts across the story or intrudes, but there's never a weak moment.
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Especially wonderful for people who love photography and archives
Bee Friendly6 June 2011
Splendid movie with great acting by everyone. But particularly of interest and delight for anyone who enjoys life without computers, old houses, archives, photography and loves truthfulness. I'll never forget the archive in the basement of the house. Because of the movie, I found the Mary Evans Picture Library in London.

Seeing this movie, my first Poliakoff, led me to all his other gems. I don't know why he is not more famous. And he sure has a gift for choosing the best actor talents.

This movie should be part of your movie library! And while you are buying, get "Perfect Strangers" too.
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Superb - you will be lost in another world, of magic.
glasslens16 November 2007
Like all Poliakoff's work, this is simply outstanding. He takes his time and he transports you into the magical world of his imagination. Firstly, the plot is gripping and that alone would be worth your time. Then, he adds layers of magic. Firstly, the way he unfolds things, his extraordinarily use of the beautiful images in the collection. Then the characterisation - Tim Spall is in his element, and the beautiful Lindsay Duncan is strong yet vulnerable with her beautiful calm voice. Adrian Johnson's music is always superb, but he excelled himself here. So, why not a score of 10? Well, for me, there is just one fault with this and that is the technical quality of the photography. The picture quality is really quite poor - poorer than it should have been considering its age. It looks like it was shot with film stock from the 1950s - muddy grayish blacks, no contrast etc. But, don't concern yourself with that - everything else is just first class.
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vuk31 October 2000
I found this telepic to be quite intense in at times an almost uncomfortable manner. The characters were well played, even over emphasised most of the time. Spig appealed to me as a character that may have been clicked out of some mysterious future. The speed and style reminded me of an English movie called "The Birthday" The photos were great and the behavior of the actors reserved in a threatening,spooky,and reserved sort of way. I was glued i must admit and didnt leave the screen to make a coffee !!! even tho i had taped it..i just realised Spig takes me back to "Blade Runner" funky serial. Craig
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Brilliant performance by Timothy Spall - contains spoiler
emuir-123 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Spoiler ahead.

I have never seen Timothy Spall give anything other than a totally convincing performance, whether playing a breezy upbeat, a sleaze or a pathetic loser. This film is no exception as he dominates the story with his portrayal of a brilliant eccentric, Oswald Bates, working away in an obscure photo library and faced with permanent unemployment once the library is closed. Oswald has no family and lives alone in a messy flat, and appears to dress in whatever is closest to hand when he gets up in the morning.

The story concerns the sale of a stately old mansion which houses a large photo library managed by an eccentric cast of characters right out of an Ealing comedy. Peter Sellers or Alec Guiness would have been right at home with this lot. They work at their own pace and regularly knock off work for a sit down tea or multi-course meal provided by a staff. Time stood still for them long ago. Computers - what are they? The catalog is done the old fashioned way and filed in their heads.

It is not explained where the money came from to maintain this library and lifestyle, there must have been a trust fund, but perhaps I missed it. The mansion is sold to a pushy American who is turning into a business school, and wants the library shut down RIGHT NOW! He had already sent them letters of intent, which seemed to have been mislaid. From the arrival of the Americans, complete with lap tops and bulldozers, the story concerns the efforts of the library staff to thwart his intentions.

My problem with this film is that the story seemed too contrived, especially the ending, where Oswald sacrifices himself to save the library. There was no need for him to leave clues to the existence of a back story for the American Developer in the manner he did. He could have just come right out and revealed them without a plot device. Nevertheless, the final scenes of the brain damaged Oswald were heartrending.

A wonderful slow paced but riveting film especially for Timothy Spalls portrayal of the brilliant eccentric out of place in today's world.
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The greatest thing I have ever seen
mogwailovesyou10 August 2000
This is without doubt the greatest programme ever to be shown on telly, it has to be. Never has a programme made me think, feel and be moved so much in the space of three hours. Made from a Stephen Poliakoffs stage play, Shooting the Past tells the story of five weird yet wonderful characters working in a photo libary/museum trying, they love their job and care for their collection deeply until executives try to sell and destroy the great collection of photos in order to build a business school for the twentieth century. The acting is the finest you'll ever see especially from, Duncun, spall and Cunningham and the photography on display is adorable. Buy, steal, beg, borrow, a copy now, watch through the neighbours window if you have too, you will not be disappointed!!!
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The past comes back to haunt us
Bob Taylor13 February 2004
I saw this under very bad conditions: Vision TV put it on in two parts broken up by many commercials. It became hard to concentrate on the story at times, but--this is a great movie of its kind. The sequence of Lindsay Duncan taking Liam Cunningham through the life of a Jewish woman from Berlin now living in London is a tour de force of movie-making. The effect of all these b/w photos is stunning, even if you wonder how they could have been taken in the first place.

For those who wonder how the takeover by the American business school could have gone on without the archive director's knowledge, any time spent in offices will instruct you on the ego problems, incompetence, and sheer bloody-mindedness that go on in those places. Oswald is a genius at putting together photo sequences, but retarded in every other area of life.

See this in tandem with Resnais's short film Toute la memoire du monde, if you can find it. It's about the French national library.
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Fantastic and moving.
St.Vimes26 May 1999
The best thing about this series are that it is really well shot - especially useful when the whole subject is photography. The music is extremely well tied in with the visuals, and the violins and symphony are just the best.

If this is ever on near you, you just *have* to watch it. BBC2 will probably show it about five years from now...
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