Sightlines Journal, issue 2, 2017
Names: Dominique Webb & Philip Stevens
Film: The Empty Throne
Length: 17 minutes
Exploring innovation in presentation, staging and performance
The Empty Throne is a film installation. This project was born out of a wider Arts Council funded project called ‘1215. today’, launched on the 800 year anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Only four original copies of the Magna Carta remain – held at the British Museum, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral.
1215.today was an initiative, led by the University of Lincoln in collaboration with regional arts organisations, businesses, schools and the city and county councils. Supported using public funding from the National Lottery through an Exceptional Award from Arts Council England and a host of national and international partners. It provided a unique digital platform, where, through the universal language of art, young people between the ages of 14-24 discovered, experienced and participated in debating humanitarian ideals across borders, religion and race. A variety of events were hosted to connect audiences to the Magna Carta.
Our film The Empty Throne, formed the centrepiece for the launch of the 1215.today project which was held at Lincoln Castle. It brought the characters of the Magna Carta story to life in a compelling and visually distinctive way, and by integrating it into a public live event a wider audience was reached and as a result, engaged with the Magna Carta. At the launch we tied the film experience in with a live performance, so we brought King John and some of the other characters to the launch event and let the public quiz him in person, just like the Barons in the film.
The film was simultaneously projected onto multiple walls inside the castle. Viewers could catch a glimpse of the film as they passed by, perhaps coming across one of the tableaus – a scene in which all the actors are motionless – and thinking it was a still, a painting, before noticing that the actors were moving almost imperceptibly. Or they might have caught a spike of action or a scene in stylised slow motion, enticing them to engage with the film. In this way every viewer would have had a unique experience of the film. So often we look at a painting and see the figures in it purely as part of the composition. We thought it would be interesting if those characters came to life, allowing us to discover a backstory to the image.
The Empty Throne is the winner of the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) – Multimedia Award 2016, ceremony held at BFI Southbank, London.
The ‘1215. today’ project is developing into a wider research project and potentially funded research network with schools of law and politics, exploring the idea of youth engagement in politics and rights through art and the digital.
Peer Review 1 (Alan Nguyen)
The Empty Throne is highly successful in its intention to innovate in the formal aspects of staging, performance and editing. Paintings may serve as a connection to significant moments and periods in history. The filmmakers use this relationship between viewer, painting and historical moment as a jumping off point for their work. By mimicking the aesthetics of paintings, and then disrupting this illusion (eg. through movement, direct-to-camera performance and staccato editing) they ask us to imagine and engage with historical moments in new ways.
The filmmakers have designed costumes, lighting, staging and set with great care and detail, to imitate the appearance of an old oil painting. At the beginning of the film (and repeated again at various points) actors are directed to hold their poses virtually still, strengthening the sense that the viewer could be looking at a painting rather than a film. Slow and minimal movement, of an actor’s head, the tablecloth as it is blown by air, and smoke blown through the scene, subtly reveal that the image being viewed is a motion piece. Throughout the film, performance moves from virtually still to full action and dialogue – and conversely, from full action and dialogue to virtually still. Occasionally, some actors will perform in full action, while other actors are virtually still in the same shot. Actors are staged in presentational, unnatural compositions seen in historical paintings: spread out and offering the audience clear view of figures within the scene.
Continuity and other filmic conventions (eg. coverage of a scene from multiple camera angles) are eschewed for jump-cuts and other jarring techniques. A wide-shot of a group gathering is cut next to an extreme close-up shot of a single actor’s face, performing direct to camera, breaking the fourth wall. Certain shots are played at half-speed.
The final monologue, delivered direct to camera, acknowledges the characters in the film as figures from the past, and challenges the viewer to think about how they think about historical moments, the people within them and the audience’s own power and agency in the world.
As a research project, The Empty Throne has exposed innovations in form. It is an impactful, through-provoking piece.
Peer Review 2 (John Cumming)
Response to the Sightlines 2016 review process
It is unclear to me whether (and if so how) publication in Sightlines constitutes publication in a peer-reviewed journal when “All work submitted will be published even if it receives two negative reviews.” The reviewers in that case are not referees but merely reviewers in the journalistic sense. The process of open peer-review usually involves a selection process. In the case of Screenworks (which The Sightlines Peer Review Guidelines cite as an exemplar) “the work is subject to academic peer review, just as an academic journal article would be, thus providing evidence of the impact, significance, originality and rigour of the practice as research” and where the authors of the published reviews remain anonymous (‘About’ in Screenworks, http://screenworks.org.uk/, accessed 31 July 2017). Furthermore Screenworks requires submission of a 2000-word “supporting research statement that situates the work within a research context”. Leaving it to the submitting author to decided whether to submit an accompanying statement and what that might contain makes the work of reviewers very challenging and appears to put the onus of academic rigor entirely and exclusively on their shoulders. In my view, a statement should be required and guidelines provided in a similar vein to Screenworks.
Publication of the work and peer review in tandem and in the absence of a selection process, means that each is presented as contesting elements in a publication space. This removes from the ‘referee’ the very function of refereeing and the capacity to offer a helpful intervention in the process of production and presentation of the work itself by suggesting minor or major reworking of either the work or the statement, or both).
The objective of achieving “dialogue and conversation” is indeed one of the objectives of the open model of peer review, whether in the fully-open form in which both the author and reviewers’ names are published alongside their work or in the open/single-blind model (the Screenworks employs) in which the reviews are published but their authors remain anonymous.
The laissez–faire model that Sightline 2016 is adopting, however, has the potential to inhibit dialogue and risks placing the peer reviewers function anywhere on a spectrum between championing and condemning the (unedited) works published alongside them. Without a selection process in place, reviews themselves could easily appear to be punitive.
The Empty Throne: Exploring innovation in presentation, staging and performance
It is very difficult to review this work or address the three questions around research suggested for reviewers for two reasons:
1. The work is out of its original context. The original work was of 45 minutes duration, presented on multiple screens in an historic castle. As a reviewer who did not have access to that presentation I can, therefore, provide no evaluation of how effectively the work functioned as an example of innovation in its original context. Nor can I judge how the ‘presentation, staging and performance’ worked in that context. I am left to account for an abridged single-screen work.
2. The authors did, thankfully, provide an accompanying statement however this statement only provides the production and reception context of the work, rather as a statement about a commissioned work might do. Their statement does not situate the work within a research context.
The authors’ statement does not reflect at all on their intentions regarding the headline claim to innovation in presentation, staging and performance nor are any references provided as to what these terms mean to them or what movements, trends, genres or creative and critical practices (in screen production or history) – if any – the authors are conscious of engaging with. There is no reference to any theoretical, historical or critical text nor even to any films – to any preceding cinematic practice. As a reviewer, I am then left entirely to my own frames of reference around what these terms might mean for this work and am left to wonder where and at what level I should begin in suggesting relevant coordinates. Are the authors aware of or engaging with in any way the traditions of epic theatre and Brecht – or alternately of verbatim practice? Is the use of painting-like tableaus undertaken with a consciousness of and a particular perspective upon their use by other filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982) and Histoire(s) du Cinema (1989-98) and in Peter Webber’s mainstream feature Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) .
 There is a good deal of filmmaking and scholarship around the relationship between filmmaking and painting. See for example Issue 43 (May 2007) of Senses of Cinema.
Similarly, we do not know whether the filmmakers are consciously engaging with the directorial practice of having historical figures directly address the camera (and the contemporary audience) which dates back at least as far as Peter Watkins’ Culloden (1964).
Short of evaluating the film in terms of directorial and cinematic craft – which is neither suggested by the subtitle of the work, nor the job of Sightlines as I understand it – I am unable to offer any further reflection on this work as an endeavor of academic research through practice.