Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Forest Has Claws


Director Andrew Kotting in Straw Bear costume that marks the Fenland start of the agricultural year. Graphic novelist Alan Moore guest stars in Kotting's on-foot road movie about John Clare; in fact, Moore gave us a highly anarchic version of the poet in his debut novel Voice of the Fire, in the chapter 'The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall, AD 1841.'

THE son of a farm labourer, John Clare (1793 - 1864) championed the English countryside and mourned its disturbances, his poetry also exploring heart-felt mental instability. After this idyllic rural childhood, Clare observed the Agricultural Revolution and the Enclosures act, which resulted in widespread uprooting and segregation of common land. Not only did he see destruction of his Olde England, but Clare was distressed of rural poverty as a mechanism for migration to towns and factories. Subsequently Clare's mental state worsened when struggling to support a wife and seven children, and he spent four years in Dr Matthew Allen's progressive private asylum at High Beach within Epping Forest. In his Man Booker prize-nominated The Quickening Maze about Clare, Adam Foulds paints the institution more of The Priory of its day for the Victorian London smart-set. Later Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew's Hospital) where he remained for the rest of his life; under the guidance of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard - a pioneer for the humane treatment of the mentally ill - Clare wrote his most famous poem, I Am.

The idiosyncratic work of Andrew Kotting - a hybrid of Derek Jarman and David Lynch - increasingly has opened up the notion of when does a film become less a film but more an art instillation. From absurdist, experimental beginnings, Kotting's first feature GALLIVANT in 1996 was a travelogue following his grandmother and daughter Eden - who suffers from Joubert Syndrome - around the British coastline; his second THIS FILTHY EARTH showcases landscape in all its beautiful but brutal glory. Kotting's 2012 SWANDOWN followed the director and writer Iain Sinclair in a swan pedallo, highlighting his interest in eccentric journeys of identity and history. Simon Kovesi, head of English at Oxford Brookes University and editor of the John Clare Society Journal, describes Kotting's work as "anti-pastoral," and "revels in the sodden awkwardness of Englishness. For him our eastern culture is outside, is wet and deliquescing, fluid and yet grounded in thick sod."

Toby Jones as John Clare. The actor can now add the poet to his list of obsessive artists roles on screen and stage, which includes Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock and J.M.W. Turner. 

Inspired by Sinclair's Edge of the Orison, Kotting's BY OUR SELVES is a drama-documentary about Clare's eighty-mile, four-day walk from Epping Forest to Northampton in July 1841. Escaping from High Beach asylum, Clare's journey through hunger and madness has the goal of reaching his love Mary Joyce, who actually has died three years previously in a house fire. Young Clare is portrayed by a voiceless Toby Jones, whose father Freddie plays Old Clare as well as a narrator, often regurgitating lines from his performance as the poet from a 1970 OMNIBUS presentation (a female voiceover from the programme consistently taunts "Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad"). Along for this ethereal jaunt are Sinclair (often behind a goat mask), Kotting (always in Straw Bear garb), Kovesi (as a boxer) and magus Alan Moore, who not necessarily laments his confinement in Northampton and describes his birthplace as a cultural black hole ("nobody ever gets out unless they're sucked back in.")

Beautifully photographed by Nick Gordon Smith in black and white, Clare's Victorian route is punctured by the modern landscape (endless traffic, wind turbine blades, humming pylons), underpinning his famous line "I long for scenes where man hath never trod." The filmmaking process itself is also exposed, as the full-bearded soundman with his mop-head microphone always appears in shot. Actual characters and particularly females are kept at arms-length - musician MacGillivray is Joyce and Eden Kotting appears with the Straw Bear in home movie-style footage previously seen in the short THE SUN CAME DRIPPING A BUCKET FULL OF GOLD - as if Kotting's use of blurred film stocks with natural sound can only act as a conduit for Clare himself, forever encased in a past which infiltrates his space and verses.

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