Trying to explain the plot or narrative of this film before I could simply show them, has been a very telling and interesting exercise, It goes a little like this: “well essentially the film follows a guy having a cup of tea in a cafe and then he walk around a bit in an off season seaside town, then he sees a boy and his dog on a beach and then he strips off and either goes for a swim or potentially drowns himself”….”Errrm not much happens really”
I have never been very good at describing or vocalising my work and it must be said this film has not made the task any easier! However when faced with reactions that range between glazed incomprehension and mildly indulgent sympathy, It does focus one back onto this question of what is this film about? what constitutes it, and how and why does this fairly mundane sequence of events describe anything?
My influences are in this post, post modern world of constant and violent media assault, quite eclectic, I am able to trace and keep track of the major ones, but it must be said that just occasionally some of them slip past the net of comprehension un noticed and worm there way into my consciousness to emerge later in my practice, this I think it is fair to say is normal (whatever normal is) and It makes for interesting connections and discoveries in more formalised research later on down the line.
As I have said elsewhere in this blog this film has been in my head for a long time now, its earliest mind fragment possibly emerged in 2014 whilst I was still finishing my under graduate studies. So I had feelings and influences that have fed back into the mix for a long time. This means when I make a connection like the one I want to explore here it is impossible to entirely separate the timings and reactions, and say with absolute certainty which came first the chicken film or the egg inspiration. They are of course bound up in life and intertwined into the context and making of this film.
I really want to look at one of the most simple elements of the film, which is the mundane and everyday activities shown, in particular the tea serving and drinking sequence. I hope It is true that I have chosen to shoot it in an engaging way, however the main point is not the shot or movement itself, this is designed to lead the viewer into this world, yes, but it is not even the baton passing of the tea to our character or the imbibing of the liquid symbolising the shift from external to internal that I want to discuss here.
No, It is the common place activity of sitting in a cafe and drinking a cup of tea, this mundane activity broken down into its constituent parts has more to say than just ritual, (and ritualistic I wanted it to be). In essence it is trying to locate within the common place a connection visually to the audience, the mundane itself acting as an agent to alignment, to comprehension, and hopefully to an instinctive tactile sense of engagement.
The idea of looking at everyday objects within film to produce this effect is not new Toni Ross looks at this very thing in an engaging chapter of Framing Film: Cinema and the visual arts.
In the chapter entitledResonances of Nineteenth-Century Realism In Steve McQueen’s Hunger, He discusses a particular scene in the film in which a prison officer in protective clothing mops the floor outside the prison cells of the infamous maze prison, the camera is fixed and this long take shot where we see the prison officer moving from the end of the corridor slowly and methodically toward the camera. Ross Observes;
“During these moments, all of our attentions channelled towards the flows of liquid, the mechanical movements the anonymous sweeper, and syncopated sound of this activity. Such close observation and temporal distension of uneventful rituals of life in the Maze intermittently interrupt those passages of Hunger where the actions of characters take centre stage.” (Allen and Hubner, 2012, p172)
He goes on to look further at how the use of abstract close ups in the next shot of the liquids on the floor which McQueen called later the ‘battle of the liquids’ focussing on the proximity to the object of scrutiny this being the liquids themselves has the effect of not just distilling the human struggle into abject excretions fighting the bleaching power of state internment, but a deeper connection reached for; “McQueen Sacrifices optical clarity and depth vision in order to immerse the viewer in visual and sonic sensations” (Allen and Hubner, 2012, p172)
Ross goes on to discuss the effect of the infamous Speech of Margaret Thatcher over this image, powerful in its ability to hold back its judgement and allow us to make our own connections. It is for me in the close ups and the banality of detail that I wish to make my points, I remember watching this film some years ago again as an undergraduate, and what struck me most about this scene then, was its temporality, The power still lies for me in holding that shot of the sweeping guard for a painful amount of time, we are not just subjected here to a painful and mundane act, we literally feel we have our noses rubbed in it, the smell emanates from the screen.
The time McQueen allows for this shot to play out also had one other very powerful effect, and here I disagree slightly with Ross, it doesn’t or shouldn’t mesmerise us merely with the liquids as they swish up the corridor, our focus is deliberately but slowly brought back to the doors that line the corridor, the guard swishes the liquid under certain doors and not others. It is my suggestion that this break in rhythm is our clue to the humanity that lies hidden behind every cell door, and this combined with the realisation that these men are dying, adds up to an incredibly powerful sequence we have been invited to feel to relate, then to ponder and to think deeply about. It hit me like a punch in the stomach, notably all of this stems from the commonplace, the details of the banal.
In my own film the sequences are simple we follow a man as I said inhabiting the spaces of a seaside town, his actions in themselves are mundane, particularly in the details, the rituals if you will, of smoking and drinking. I was reaching for a tactility in the shots, through the use of sound and familiarity, to bring feelings of the solidity of these objects. once this was established the intention was to then start breaking away with the edit and the course of events, from this assumption of safe and solid reality, into an alignment of feeling with our characters changing state and disconnection from reality.
We must root our reality somewhere, why not in a cup of tea? Ross puts it much better in what he describes as; ‘The real is produced as a constellation of sensory effects manufactured by the film-maker that intensify visceral dimensions of the film-viewing experience.’ (Allen and Hubner, 2012) This visceral connection is what I have been reaching for in low season, and area where the logic of narrative is rendered secondary to the sensory connection with our characters world and therefore his emotional plight. Again In his reading of ‘Hunger’ Ross observes; ‘Spectators of hunger are addressed subjects immersed in Oscillating waves of sensory feeling as much as translators of narrative meaning’ (Allen and Hubner, 2012)
I am not trying to draw strict comparisons here between McQueens masterpiece and my own short piece, they are wildly different, however in dealing with subject matters that are both reality based and can be considered politically or socially hard edged or difficult to portray. In my case human states of desperation, lonliness and isolation which could also be read as mental health instabilities and suicide.
It felt to me that the most honest and powerful approach was to not get buried under character narrative, McQueen of course finds a balance between this and is dealing with historical events, he also has the course of an entire feature to describe and situate the events in a myriad of ways and with mixed methodologies of intense dialogue, temporal challenges, and visceral bursts of violence combined with more abstract visual and auditory description. In Low Season I am trying to describe complex and deep human emotion, trace a journey both internally and externally and make allusions to social issues using metaphor and poetics in just over 5 minutes!
Over a decade ago art critic Okwui Enwezor put forward the idea that in McQueens work we as an audience have two ways of seeing: ‘One through the conventional optical mode of simply watching, and the other by “physically (haptically) seeing he film through he whole body, as illusionistic sensations’ (Enwezor, 1999, cited in Allen and Hubner, 2012)
This dualistic way of being invited into a piece of visual work of course has its origins outside of the world of cinema In other arts particularly painting. In this chapter Ross is drawing comparisons with Nineteenth century realist painters such as Adolf Von Menzel, looking in particular at his painting ‘Fur coat on a sofa’ (1859) It easy to see the corporeal qualities to this image that are talked about, But what further interested me was not just visual embodiment, but the idea put forward that because the spatial relationship between coat and sofa are unrealistic in terms of scale, and the positioning of this huge swathe of fur is such that it appears to be looming in frame, about to topple toward the spectator, this of course makes for a further level of embodiment in the inanimate object. (Allen and Hubner, 2012) Does this freeze the painting between stillness and motion?
The power of this haptic bodily connection is so relevant in film because we are able to seek this in a series of images strung together, complete with movement in the frame, and of course with the power of sound. The ‘Tea ritual’ shot early on in the cafe has one other element I would like to align and suggest connections with here, and that is of the characters hand reaching forward to pick up the spoon, I was very happy with the proximity of this shot to the camera, I felt when I saw the results that it is a singular moment where perhaps the potential for the connection physically with the audience actually comes very close to being a literal thing, like the fur coat of Menzel poised to fall out toward the viewer, in moving image we can actualise this movement and push this proximity boundary and literally reach out toward our viewer.
The point of this short blog has really been to trace some of the ideas processes and practices that inform my work, some of these may have come in at least partially under the radar, as although I sought the effects mentioned here, old connections had to be reformed, the the power of Watching Steve McQueens film for the first time, and the tracing these old links offers more than a mere a nod of gratitude or a neat referance point of process It also becomes a note to self to track closely the deeper impressions of masterworks on my own practice.
The banal, the common place has power, we connect because we recognise and then we can feel.
In part two I would like to look further at the spatial connections again the common place and the banal, but paying particular attention to the embodiment of space, in micro and macro sense.