Michael Chanan is Professor of Film & Video at Roehampton University, London. Documentary film-maker since 1971, erstwhile music critic, and author, editor and translator of books and articles on film and media, on subjects including early cinema and Cuban cinema, the social history of music, and the history of recording.
I am a Londoner who grew up in the drab 50s which seemed to brighten up by the time I got to university in the mid-60s, when it also got very political. Actually my earliest political memory dates from 1951, when a mere toddler, I went on a holiday with my parents to the seaside in Belgium. We left home on election day, and in the evening, after arriving, went out to look for a cafe which had a television so they could find out the results. Today, I am a news junkie.Culturally, my formative musical memories belong to the late 50s and early 60s when I went as frequently as I could to concerts at both the Royal Festival Hall and the BBC Maida Vale Studios, which was only a short bus ride from home. I also followed the theatre, especially the Royal Court and the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych, but eventually theatre would be displaced for me by cinema. Music, however, would never cede its place in my life to anything else, and since I wasn’t cut out to be a performer, I grabbed the chance to get paid for going to concerts and opera as soon as I discovered that I had certain facility for writing about them.
Film-wise, London for me is now a cognitive map of the cinemas I frequented as a child and a teenager which no longer exist. Five of them on Kilburn High Road alone. But as an experience of equal aesthetic power to music and theatre, I date my initiation very specifically to age fourteen, when my brother took me to see La Regle du Jeu.
I learnt about Marxism from a relative, Solomon Trone, my grandmother’s cousin, who had been a revolutionary in Russia in 1905 and was somehow involved in the events of 1917. He came to live in London in the 50s, and ended his life in Italy in 1969 aged 95. I am now making a film about him.
I spent much of my last year at school eagerly reading Freud. I studied philosophy at Sussex University, and then went on to Oxford to work on history of ideas with Isaiah Berlin, while writing music criticism and making films on contemporary music for BBC Television. I was hardly a model philosophy student, but bonded with Isaiah through our shared love of music.
I then caught the bug of travelling – one summer when in the space of two months I spent a fortnight each in Mexico City, New York, Bucharest (my first academic conference), and then visiting family in Israel. It was Latin America which I was most drawn back to, and where I would find myself working in the 1980s, writing a history of Cuban cinema and making films for Channel Four and others.
That was after a spell teaching film in London, when I felt like an unemployed film maker teaching other people to become unemployed film-makers. I returned to teaching in the ’90s, and with the development of digital video and desktop editing, I have recently found myself drawn back into documentary film-making.