Tom Sutcliffe: That irritating fade to black

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The Independent Online

To listen to some people talk, you'd think that people never got irritated with art. They'll acknowledge disappointment, or anger or even contempt if something falls short of expectations but not tetchiness – the kind of grumpy, personalised reaction that isn't really susceptible to argument. It's thought of as lacking in seriousness, I guess, though in one sense it goes to the heart of an authentically personal reaction. You can't even argue with yourself at such moments – the work in front of you has got under your skin. And if that's a virtue when you like something, it surely can't be negligible when you don't. You might want to say, as people do about human relationships, "Honestly... it's not you... it's me." But you can't easily talk yourself out of the way that dislike and resentment has fixed on a relatively trivial detail.

It happened to me while watching Séraphine, a film that arrives from France garlanded with Césars (the French Baftas), and which was given a pretty respectful reception here. And, to be fair to it, it is unimpeachable: an account of a celebrated naïve artist whose talent was discovered and promoted by the German art-lover for whom she did the cleaning. It is tasteful, emotionally sensitive, acted with compelling understatement – and, I found, deeply and infuriatingly tedious. Indeed, its very unimpeachability was part of the problem, giving you that sense that you weren't watching a film so much as attending a secular service. I began in curiosity (it has a teasingly effective opening which tricks you into thinking of Séraphine as some kind of sorceress) but slowly and steadily sank into torpor. And the thing that really crystallised my irritation, that allowed it to vent itself when I might otherwise have stayed silent in church, were the fade-to-blacks between scenes.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with the device in itself. It is a self-consciously archaic bit of film rhetoric, an evolved memory of the iris-in and iris-out signals with which early directors used to cushion the shock of the cut (not a natural way of looking at the world, we need to remember, but a language early audiences took a while to learn). And it is often used now to signify a knowing break in illusion, a cut that doesn't take us from one place to another within the realm of the film, but which briefly restores us to the cinema, that dark room in which we wait for light to fill the screen, before plunging back into illusion. Take a breather from imagery and think about what you've just seen, the fade-to-black effectively says now. Used against the grain of a genre – as it is, say, in the BBC comedy Outnumbered, where its employment gives the filming an accent of documentary patience – it can be very useful. Even within a genre where it is commonplace, such as documentary, it can deliver a processional gravity, the reassurance that the film won't be rushed by events or tight schedules.

But in Séraphine, for some reason, the only thing I could see it saying was "Look how sad this is... and how solemn we are about that sadness." It was like a black armband, worn by someone just a little too distant from the bereaved to be entitled to that badge of sorrow. I know this doesn't entirely make sense, and that in another film it might well have been a detail that made the movie. But here I couldn't see any thing but affectation, and I doubt that Séraphine could have done a thing to change my mind. You can change your mind about a film that you don't like, but it's a lot harder with one that's irritated you.


The Wellcome Collection is beginning to establish itself as one of London's most dependably interesting museums. It has an advantage in being able to draw on the Wellcome Collection itself, an astonishing assembly of curios and vaguely medical bric-a-brac, but it is also intriguingly indifferent to the established dividing lines between art and science. Its current exhibition, Identity: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives, on the subject of human identity, is philosophically amorphous, a reliable generator of woolly prose and opaque theorising. But the exhibition itself is sharply particular, homing in on individual people as hooks for much larger themes. One section is devoted to April Ashley (above), a pioneering transsexual, and it is full of engrossing things; not least the revelation that when Ashley was in the merchant marine, as a man, she served on the SS Vindicatrix – the kind of detail only the more flamboyant novelist would dare make up. Also displayed is a page from the diary of Clive Wearing, a BBC producer who suffered a catastrophic disruption to his memory after an illness. It records, with heartbreaking redundancy, his repeated conviction that he has just awoken from a coma, each entry timed and dated and frantically underlined, as if to insist that while all the previous entries now make no sense to him, this one is real. Alone, it more than justifies the Wellcome's description of itself: "A free destination for the incurably curious".

Adulation can invest quite ordinary objects with extraordinary potency. I remember attending an auction of Elizabeth David chattels at which people proved they were ready to pay wildly over the odds for a wooden spoon that had stirred the mistress's daube and I seem to remember that even Maria Callas's Pyrex jug attracted feverish bidding. The fuss over Cormac McCarthy's typewriter ostensibly makes a bit more sense – given his own devotion to the machine. But I still don't entirely understand why this battered machine is expected to fetch over £13,000 at auction when there's one on eBay for just over £30. Somebody will triumph at today's auction – perhaps a well-endowed university library, perhaps a private collector – and carry the object away with glee. And then what? They gaze at it hoping for enlightenment about the books themselves? Just because it's a writing instrument, though, doesn't really mean it has any greater connection to the works than Cormac McCarthy's fridge-freezer or Cormac McCarthy's trousers, both of which will – I guess – have played their part in maintaining his creative powers. If you want more clues as to the nature of his art they're all in the books – and it really doesn't matter whether you get hold of a copy he owned himself or a cheap reprint from the 2 for the price of 3 stacks.