Monthly Archives: January 2009

Leftfield and Looping

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The London Short Film Festival‘s Leftfield & Luscious programme of experimental shorts is a good halfway house between the ascetic contemplationism of the LFF’s Experimenta weekend, and the calling-card aesthetics of most other shorts programmes. With a small prize backed by Wallflower Press (the Lux in previous years), and unencumbered by any obvious curatorial baggage, it’s a light-on-its-feet sort of picture of the state-of-the-art.

In The Lifesize Zoetrope [watch] director Mark Simon Hewis creates selfsame out of white t-shirted extras in a fairground centrifuge. The camera zooms in on a book of sheets that each particpant holds, and each scene repeats a couple of times as a zoetrope would before the page turns and a new sequence begins. The technical dedication is admirable (imagine how easy it would be to create the effect of this happening rather than actually filming sheets of A4 paper on a moving fairground ride), and the sometimes-scratchy results reminiscent of early eyetoys, but beyond formal experimentation the story itself is a suitably circular and repetitious tale of life, procreation and death.

The Black Dog’s Progress [watch | essay by Karen Alexander] (Dir Stephen Irwin) starts with a similar lo-fi moving image technology: looping flickbooks are laid out one by one across the screen, building up the tableau of a dog’s life through rejection, hunger, perversion and death, ending with a howling inksplatter. Both films were funded by Animate Projects, (an ACE/C4 venture) laudably supporting artists’ ventures into the medium of animation.

Like a filmic camera toss, Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside takes a roll of film and exposes it to the lights of London’s South Bank 36 times. Lights become lines become stars: the shape of the London Eye is somehow there and somehow not. Nagisa Kinoshita’s Touched is a creepy series of meditations on womanhood, from the little girl holding hands with a monster in the park, through pregnancy as a tethered balloon and the emergence of dark tentacles from within (we watched this while waiting for news from the hospital of L’s sister’s baby); each vignette breaks and then recedes through the vertical surface of the screen like water.

Judith Poirier’s Dialogue appears to lay type directly onto clear leader with ink: elegant outlines filled in with telltale inky ripples. What’s printed on the frame appears to be applied to the soundtrack as well, an echo of the experimental tactic used by Mary Ellen Bute, and by Norman McLaren in Synchromy. Typographers’ dabblings in other visual forms are typically facile (and often hard to read), but Poirier plays a more entertaining game: while bold capitals only produce snaps and crackles, the most aurally pleasing examples are the lines of lower case repetitions: mmmmmmmmmmmm, ppppppppp and fffffffffffff together produce satisfyingly crunchy bliptop chords.

It’s not the only film in the programme that refers back to earlier works. Ava Lanche’s Silence [watch], like Eisenstein et al’s Everyday, works through a groundhog day of alarm clock ringing and feet clumsily hitting slippers on the floor, before deviating to a simple point: each morning a woman wakes to urinate and tell us of a recent newspaper article justifying further wars in the name of the struggle against terror, which is useful, as she’s just run out of toilet paper.

On a gentler, more personal tip, The Reason I Collect [watch] takes Paul Escott’s own account of his life as a collector and hoarder of almost everything (save christmas cards), and animates the objects themselves: toys at war, a svankmajerish taxidermy cabinet, other people’s family albums and a one-armed Luke Skywalker: everything once belonged to someone, and that gives everything meaning. New Madrid (winner of the Wallflower award, imho a duff choice) narrates John James Audubon’s account of the 1812 New Madrid earthquake which altered the flow of the Mississippi river, over footage of landscape and submerged trees: beautiful and meditative, but also somnolescent.

Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan’s Landing Lights (Wallflower’s special mention), a 3-dimensional model of a plane repeatedly flies through a 3-dimensional model of a residential building, shown from several different aspects. The immaterial intersection of imaginary forms, the intimation that the catastrophe of a plane flying through a towerblock can be averted through modelling software as each are perfected on the drawing board, is magnified through the eerie emptiness of both plane and building into an ethereal beauty, until at last an engine hits a glancing blow on a folding chair left carelessly in its path, and something is touched.

On the less formal side there are a couple of interesting performance-based films, one amusing and one tragic. Alan Chieh-Hung Liang’s Cul De Sac is the recursive adventure of a scriptwriter stuck in a storytelling dead end, unable to make anything happen to a couple on the run through a tunnel. He ends up getting on his bike and going for a pint. Rinat Kotler’s You’re Not Going Anywhere presents a split screen, juxtaposing children playing and a woman recounting in a jocular fashion a horrible tale in which a woman skins her lover, without comment.

The final film in the programme Better to Have Loved [watch] (Dir Karen Macey), gets a live-action/stop-motion effect from being constructed of photographs on cards animated and manipulated, overscrawled with spiders, matchstick men and fuzz. Climbing through a hole in a wall leads a lonely man back to the seaside, a lost love and the picture on his own bedroom wall.

More so than feature film festivals, the point of short film festivals and programmes often seems questionable. With world-domination outfits like Future Shorts making a serious fist of online distribution, and online channels continually hungry for this sort of content, you can see a lot of these films online, in most cases before they hit a big screen anywhere near you. Why bother to drag your arse down to a cinema on a January Sunday evening? The point of sitting down in the dark and seeing all these films together (and more importantly the skill of the programmers: a mighty tip of the hat to Kate and Philip) is not only the avoidance of buffering and distraction but to see the whole lot at once, to grasp similarities, differences and references. This year, it seems to be all about returns: films that return to the beginning, and return to experimental traditions.

Mausolea and migrants

Kensal Green angel

Kensal Green angel

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
G.K. Chesterton

Is it ghoulish to go looking for a fresh grave? On Sunday we wander through Kensal Green cemetery to see if we can find where Harold Pinter was buried on Tuesday, with only ‘in the heart of’ and ‘under a tree’ as clues. There can’t be many new burials at this time of year, and we think we find it. This is what a fresh grave looks like: bare clods of pale earth, the diggings boarded and tarped. No flowers, no marker, just a rectangle of disturbed ground. A headstone won’t appear for months. Not only does it take time to cut, compose and hammer, but the sod is uneasy too. The overturned earth must settle around the bones, and a lasting memorial needs steady soil.

The cold, cold earth is not the only place to go. Like Highgate, Kensal Green has its catacombs of coffins on shelves, beneath the central chapel with its impressive hydraulic catafalque. A triple-coffin is constructed for the occupant of each loculus: a wooden box for the body is fully sealed inside a lead coffin (a plumber usually deals with the metalwork) and then placed inside a larger, decorative coffin. There are thousands (though spaces remain) beneath the chapel where West Londoners also sheltered from German bombs during the war, but you can also get your own mini-mausoleum above the ground.

Kensal Green is the first and oldest of the magnificent seven municipal cemeteries created by act of Parliament in the mid-nineteenth century. There’s a continuity in the melancholy Victorian funerary art from the tumbledown headstones of Tower Hamlets to the proud and wacky Egyptiana of Highgate west, but the character of each cemetery comes from its setting and landscape. Nunhead has hills and views, Abney Park its legendary cruisers’ undergrowth, but Kensal Green is flat and open: from the top gate you can see across most of the plain that rises alongside the Harrow Road. Looking south and across the canal vast gasometers rise and fall in the distance behind the tombstones.

The seven were the solution to London’s early Victorian burial problem, the means by which city graveyards could be closed and sanitary order established. Vaster, more ambitious schemes were proposed, including a giant pyramidal catacomb atop Primrose Hill to house five million souls (the upper levels financed by the sale of the lower in an, er, pyramid-selling scheme), to which the seven were the sane and suburban alternative. But even they have their own lost pasts, their might-have-beens. The original designs for the chapel and entrances were high Victorian gothic, but the owners spurned them for (equally bombastic in their own way) classical columns and gates. Also proposed and never built was a southern water gate where barge-borne funeral processions could arrive along the canal which runs along the south side of the cemetery.

A municipal enterprise, the cemetery itself isn’t consecrated ground, and although the majority of the imagery feels Christian (crosses and angels) there’s also plenty of Victorian classical excess, and a bit more Egyptiana (while Greek and Roman columns serve Mammon and Thanatos with equal vigour, there’s something inherently creepy about animal-headed gods and mystical eyes that suits death rather better than life). There’s also a whole system of Victorian cemetery signifiers. The broken column symbolizes the head of a family lost; a lower broken column one cut off in his prime. There are even novelty headstones. Victorian adventure novelist Mayne Reid’s is equipped with a full set of Indiana Jones style adventure equipment. One grave has been decked out in full Christmas regalia. More warmingly, one flat headstone featureless except for a small stone frog is littered with an empty champagne bottle, candles, and a ‘world’s best mum’ mug.

To die somewhere you must live there first, and Kensal Green also pays a mute kind of tribute to West London’s fluctuating and migrant communities, as well as the great and the good. At the Western end of the cemetery, there’s a Catholic extension, and a small Orthodox section too (names jump out for odd reasons: a couple of Milosevices). There’s a small welter of Italian names, and among them the strange headstone of Italian anarchist Emidio Recchioni which bears his own image, reminds us that London also welcomes political communities in exile. The would-be assassin of Mussolini and associate of Emma Goldman opened a delicatessen in Soho named ‘King Bomba’ (not for anarchist explosives but for Sicilian King Ferdinand II, hammer of the 1848 Italian revolutionaries); he was the father of late Freedom editor Vernon Richards.

Other communities are less visible. Without a keen eye for dates and old-fashioned names, many West Indians buried in Kensal Green go unnoticed. A relief of a wind-blown palm tree on one headstone offers a clue to island origins; elsewhere, the modern fashion of embedding photos of the deceased in the memorial shows many black faces at the eastern end of the main avenue. The great photographer and documenter (gallery) of West London Charlie Phillips documented many black funerals at Kensal Green: somehow the black and white photos seem to emphasise the coldness of the ground in which people born under a warm Caribbean sun were buried. There are sadder stories still. Kelso Cochrane, victim of an early racist murder in Notting Hill is also buried here.

Jamaican connections go back further than the Windrush generation. Mary Seacole is buried in the Catholic section. Marcus Garvey spent the last five years of his life in London and was originally buried here in 1940; in 1964 he was disinterred and reburied in his homeland, in the National Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica. And as if to bring round a full Ethiopian circle, here too can be found the final resting place of Ras Andargachew Messai, son-in law of Haile Selassie.

So it goes. Add Harold to the list, and when we come in future years we will pay our respects here too, and tell other tales about nurses and poets, freedom fighters and playwrights. You could fill all London with the stories of those who lie here.