Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Forest Has Claws

BY OUR SELVES (2015)

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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"How Shall I Show My Love?"

PLAY FOR TODAY - PENDA'S FEN (1974)

Interviewed in the Radio Times at the time of PENDA'S FEN's original broadcast, David Rudkin commented " ... it was conceived as a film and written visually. Some people think visual questions are none of the writer’s business - that he should provide the action and leave it to the director to picture it all out. For me, writing for the screen is a business of deciding not only what is to be shown but how it is to be seen ..."
 
BRITAIN is a land of foreboding subterranean terrors, isolated woodlands and remote islands. It is a country that, to a certain extent, still follows its ancient boundaries, pathways and quirky lore. Beneath the decomposing topsoil of British film, a richer, weirder substance pervades. It is a material of the past that permeates the present and future, mineral horizons darker in tone that exist within our celluloid. If the moving image itself is the greatest ghost story, this secret property teems with a surreal catalogue of customs and practices, and an engaging alternative to urbanisation. In this semi-forgotten Albion, film has seen human nature fighting its demons in WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW; Ben Wheatley's phantasmagorical nightmares KILL LIST and A FIELD IN ENGLAND; and old religions explored in THE WICKER MAN and THE BORDERLANDS.

Written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke on the writer's insistence, the BBC's PLAY FOR TODAY showcase PENDA'S FEN is a major example of this exponent for television, and a ninety minute sermon on identification. During his last boyhood summer Stephen (Spencer Banks) awakens a buried force against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills. His sexual, mystical and political growing pains are played out against a past and present England, where he encounters angels, demons, Edward Elgar and King Penda ("Be secret. Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant. Cherish our flame.") His confusion is further heightened by his pastor father's doubts of orthodox Christianity, and the revelation that his is adopted "with foreign blood."
 
"Unnatural"; in a constant flux between adolescene and anguish, at the height of a homosexual yearning Stephen awakes in his bed to find a gargoyle perched over him.

Under a minimal sound design from the Radiophonic Workshop, the play mirrors the elemental struggle between pagan values and the modern "machine." Clarke himself has admitted that he didn't fully understand its meaning (Stephen's "waking dream" of a man cutting off the hands of willing children is particularly perplexing), but Banks portrays a character as pompous as much of the dialogue. Its focus on myth sits out-of-place with Clarke's usual social realism, and in Rob Young's 2010 book Electric Eden, the author labels PENDA'S FEN as a psycho-geographical toolkit: " ... the occult history of Albion – the British Dreamtime – lies waiting to be discovered by anyone with the right mental equipment." It would be hard to see Rudkin's pastoral hybrid commissioned today; in fact, its slow-burning theories and ideas must have been a test even for seventies audiences.