Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Tag: psychogeography

By Our Selves

by Ben Diamond

By Our Selves (Kötting 2015, 83m)

By Our Selves combines the considerable intellectual and creative talents of director Andrew Kötting and writer-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair as they attempt to recreate John Clare’s 80-mile, 4-day walk, from the lunatic asylum in Epping Forest where he was being interned, to Northamptonshire, looking for a lost love who had actually died some years ago.  Sinclair wrote a book about this in 2005 called Edge of the Orison, but this time they have enlisted the help of actor Toby Jones to embody the spirit of Clare, as well as his dad, Freddie Jones, who reads some of Clare’s poetry (as he did for a BBC dramatisation of Clare’s work many decades ago) to enhance and enchant the sonic backdrop.  Toby Jones is accompanied on his walk by a man dressed as a straw bear, for reasons that are explained in an illuminating conversation with a Clare expert towards the end of the film.  I would say the film is roughly one third documentary, one third re-enactment, and one third is simply left to random chance, edited together to make a moody, unique blend.

I was very impressed with Kötting and Sinclair’s last film, Swandown, where they climbed into a swan pedalo at Margate and made their way to the main site in east London for the 2012 Olympics.  The stylistic hallmarks of Swandown are present here, but somewhat exaggerated, perhaps to reflect the state of Clare’s troubled mind.  This time they have chosen to film in stark black and white photography, but continue to expose the underwiring of the filmmaking process – quite an important aspect of the film is the sound, which is often shown being captured by the boom-mic operator onscreen.  Confusingly, the sound that is being captured onscreen often does not correspond to what we are hearing simultaneously.

Sound and vision are set free here.  In a beautiful single take, a handheld camera is left to simply float upwards, high up into the trees, slowly arc 180 degrees, and then descend, upside-down, back to the forest floor.  Repeated sonic snatches recombine and gain new meanings with repeated takes.  The horrendous audio snippet of someone saying “John Clare was a minor nature poet, who went mad” is repeated over and over again, taking various tragic and comedic turns, until it simply becomes mental wallpaper.

Why John Clare?  Because he fits with Sinclair’s agenda and interests.  A working-class poet.  A ‘mad’ poet.  A poet working at what Professor Kövesi in the film implied was ‘the end of the poetry era’ (Sinclair, a poet himself, operating well after the era of the poet).  A poet who took refuge in the flora and fauna.  And a poet who appeared to be operating on some other psychic plane, embodying the spirit of others, notably Lord Byron.  A brilliant conversation with author and wizard Alan Moore turns to his native Northamptonshire, a psychic black hole in Albion, where the dead come to rest, and people never leave.  Sinclair has an interest in ley lines and is no doubt fascinated by the pull Northamptonshire had on Clare and others.

But perhaps the most beautiful moment in the film is simply Freddie Jones trying to remember Clare’s most famous poem, ‘I Am’.  He starts confidently, stumbles, and then triumphantly picks up again at the final stanza.  An amazing poem, and just for a second, you can see Clare glinting in Jones’s eye.

Sacro GRA

by Ben Diamond

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m)

Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m) is a film about space.  Specifically, the space and spaces of the ‘no-place’, a purgatory of sorts – a no-man’s-land, clinging to the titular ‘GRA’ or ‘Grande Raccordo Anulare’, the ring road that surrounds Rome.  It’s the counterpart to the glitzy and decadent, but equally soulless Rome depicted in The Great Beauty, with tarmac, rather than champagne, coursing through its veins.

It starts on the road itself, inside an ambulance, where a medic keeps an old man warm who has fallen into a canal, whilst the ambulance speeds its way along anonymous stretches of highway.  The GRA itself is established as both a vessel for the business of death – the network through which ambulances ferry people to hospitals, and also a source of death in itself – later on, the paramedics attend a car crash that has occurred on the ring road, where the victim displays a morbid sense of humour, the scene itself a distillation of the internal machinery at work at the heart of the film – finding redemption, beauty, and humour underneath the noise and the mundanity.

Elsewhere, the people and scenes the film visits also explore the the concept of death, albeit in a more metaphysical, death-in-life way, the inhabitants of these places consigned to live out their days as lonely ghosts who seem to have absorbed their surroundings and as a result offer cryptic insights into what such a life does to you – how you develop a philosophy to deal with your lot.  Sacro GRA is a documentary, but everything is carefully framed, set up, directed, premeditated.  Characters rarely move in the frame, and their monologues, each a distinct vignette, are given added layers and meanings by the detritus that surrounds them.  If they are accompanied by other people in a scene, they’re often not being listened to.  Each person is a singularity, a law unto themselves.  They are treated by the camera with dignity, but also with a coolness and sense of detachment.

I don’t know where the filmmakers found these people, but they are, without exception, fascinating.  No questions are asked from behind the camera and no interviews as such occur, leaving an air of mystery as to each person’s circumstances, how they came to be who they are, what led them to do what they are doing.  The GRA is depicted as a barren place, and it seems to have some mystical qualities which inexplicably draw people in and render them infertile, as is the case of the two tabletop dancers who perform at a horrible, unglamorous dive bar, scantily clad but distinctly unsexual and disinterested (the patrons of the bar seem fairly nonchalant about the whole business too), their dance having less to do with fertility, and more to do with money.  Elsewhere we catch sex workers, but during their downtime, where their existence appears to have been nullified, purposeless and shooting the breeze in an existentialist, absurdist manner which would feel at home in one of the more banal moments of a Beckett play.

Such is the film’s insight and craft that waves of horror and creeping dread wash over you, without anything particularly horrifying or dreadful being revealed.  In fact, such is the relentless exposure to death in all of its forms, both real and imagined, that it takes on a beauty all of its own.  ‘Death is an artform’ might be this film’s manifesto.  When inhabitants of flats look out of the window, they don’t find horror in other people, because there’s no-one around, just flats in the building opposite, with the lights on – but nobody home.  Instead, the true angst comes from the wasteland, the empty space – and the ringroad beyond.  Fenced out, but also fenced in.