Film: Canary Wharf Screen
ALL films are worthy of study, advised a rather underwhelming professor. That one of his favourite flicks was The Belles of St. Trinian's slightly undid his appearance of attained wisdom. Had he shown me some of the thought-provoking films currently playing one of the capital’s largest public screens, I might have accorded him more respect...
From 8am-8pm from now 'til March, the Fourth Season of Canary Wharf Screen (a collaboration between Art on the Underground and the British Film Institute) brings a glimpse of rare, authored films to commuters at the far end of Canary Wharf station, an awesome underground cavern. The aim is to show that film has the power to transport viewers to other times and places in a more entrancing way than the albeit slow, teleporter-like underground system.
The season, arranged as a calendar, begins with films exploring the tension between nature and development, alongside traditions.
Marking January, Geoffrey Jones’ Oscar-nominated Snow is my favourite of the set, a delicious piece of propaganda recording British Rail’s valiant efforts to maintain efficiency during the ‘big freeze’ of 1963. Cut to the escalating, dramatic ‘Teen Beet’ by Sandy Nelson, anonymous workers shovel snow clear from tracks while first class commuters shovel cooked breakfasts. Locomotives with exotic names like ‘Barbados’ effortlessly overtake galloping horses, statuesque sheep, and cars petrified on ice. Arguably a sequel of sorts to Night Mail...
For February, Derek Jarman’s The Angelic Conversation explores a homo-erotic theme. Shot on Super 8mm, it includes sepia scenes of a somewhat starved looking young man with earrings at, then in the sea, behind a kind of prison of leaded glass windows, then naked among delicately tinted poppies. Read by a husky Dame Judi Dench, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 148, which more studious souls than I have interpreted as a warning about sexual disease, appears an especially disturbing accompaniment considering Jarman was diagnosed with HIV a year after the film was made.
March’s The Birth of a Flower by Percy Smith cannot help but feel more cheerful. The oldest film (1910), it is one of over 50 nature films by the educator who finally got his peers’ respect to take micro cinematography seriously following his close-up study of a bluebottle’s tongue. Using various washes (neon roses) and elegant time-lapse, blooms burst, head-on. These include Japanese lilies, which, firework-like, expose tendrils from porcelain, and garden anemones crawling from a glass jar. Despite the hotel grade piano muzac, the result is oddly mesmerising.
Heavily influenced by Chris Marker’s slide montage of La Jetee, Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (2010) appears a game of tag, where one subject matter leads to another, seemingly randomly. Vanessa Redgrave narrates in a newscaster’s tenor, taking viewers from scenes of dancing oil seed rape ‘from the genus brassica’ to a leaning millennium milepost on a cycle route to Cambridge, erected by RBS just before the global financial crisis began. Keiller is clearly a lover of signs, markers, and Marker.
Padstow is the setting for Alan Lomax’s 1953 Oss Oss Wee Oss (May), where two hobby horses (osses) energetically sweep the undulating streets to drums and accordions, goaded and serenaded by locals dressed as sailors and pirates. 'Death and resurrection' are the themes, as is tradition. Of the ritual of a local lady ‘going under’ the horse, originally covered in tar, a former puppeteer says: ‘if tar smudged the girl, they did say that meant she would be married by Christmas.’ The same voice concludes: 'When I'm gone West, I hope the horse will come over my grave and dance over...' Despite the cheeriness depicted, Lomax’s iconography bears definite similarities to The Wicker Man.
June’s Requiem for a Village by David Gladwell (1975) takes a deserted street of Anglo-Scandinavian houses with a gaudy ice cream van, and contrasts it with cottages with rough-hewn bricks, flint-embedded walls, and broken terracotta roofs. Modern life's machinery (mechanical plough, and modern highway traffic) is roughly at odds with the main protagonist mourning the past: an old boy, Wurzel Gummidge-like, on his bike, heading to the graveyard in more ways than one. Such is the affection for times past, that scenes of cows brushing flies clear with their tales are slowed and lit as to appear very nearly erotic.
Solar Flares Burn For You (1973) is painter turned auteur, Arthur Johns' 10-minute experimental film for July. Using brash hues, and an innovative, deeply unpleasant soundtrack which sounds like jammed car horns and features subsequent moans, the viewer practically trips during the trip, where we encounter animals at odd angles, a silage plant, clay pit, slag in an overall rocky lunar-esque landscape. The impression, incorrectly, when watching it, was of an ex miner recalling the recent past.
August’s H is For House by Peter Greenaway (1976) takes a sometimes voyeuristic, but generally detached look at a family and their country farm in the overly-coloured summer sun. The tour is semi-literal, where pictures barely relate to the surreal, repetitive narration: 'h is for hiccough'. Alongside birdsong, language, read - it seems - from a dictionary and encyclopedia, can appear almost government in grade: 'h is for home, hysteria, happiness, hosepipe, hammock...' Interludes of brazen, regal music burst before further tirades: 'hopelessness, happiness, homelessness'. No man is present; a woman does the mowing with a primitive Flymo - ‘h is for horsepower’, 'h is for cigars, Havana cigars'. Imagery is beautiful, including a serene shot of a young girl walking tenderly between rungs of a ladder laid on the ground. For me, the most telling line, as if read by old-style announcer, is: 'a woman who lived in the country watched and waited for the approach of the city. She was convinced it would come directly from the north and only in the afternoon...'
For September, The Open Road by Claude Friese-Greene (1925) shows parasols, straw bales and thatched cottages almost like holiday snaps, appearing to the same muzac as The Birth of a Flower. Ageing workers drink from ceramic flagons in the fields - 'here's to prohibition'. Shire horses act like tugs. Devon apples are celebrated for their quality. Those of the countryside are strong, silent, and at one with their vices. Apparently, ‘Sir Walter Raleigh popularised pipe-smoking’ according to the textual plate. Overall it feels too bucolic to be sophisticated, and therefore becomes soporific.
October’s One Potato, Two Potato (1957) comes from Irish director, Leslie Daiken, a specialist on nursery rhymes and children’s toys. This documentary shows children clad in mucky jumpers at play on bombsites, and throwing sticks to dislodge horse chestnuts in fields, then threading them for conker games. It is possible to see the boys' personalities coming through, from a scholar in glasses, to a harder boy in cap. One carries a satchel home, striking iron railings in the city (rare, considering many were melted down to make bullets). Another tradition comes to light: Halloween - 'hey ho for Halloween'. The final words of the film are harrowing, because they are repeated endlessly to the point of heckling the viewer: 'penny for the guy, mister, mister?'
November’s Flicker by Chris Newby, (2001) is the fastest paced, and deliberately, the most 'jittery' of all 12 films. Riot-like flames almost engulf the stock; images are burnt into the retina, including skull and crossbones motifs. The setting for the bonfire night is Lewes, where celebrations are immense in scale. 17 burning crosses are whisked through the packed avenues. The score is intense, the camera camera doesn’t settle on anyone's face, and stained glass (order) is contrasted with anarchy in the streets. Finally, rain falls like vomit, not as ablution, and only the moon is left – as a full stop. Perhaps needless to say, it is my least favourite of the dozen.
This Our Still Life (2011) is a lyrical polemic by Andrew Kötting, a controversial filmmaker considering one of one of his early attempts at filmmaking involved ‘inserting iron filings in the shape of religious icons into his penis, then drawing them out again.’ This Our Still Life is less shocking, thank goodness: it depicts a wretched Pyrenean farmhouse in winter. 'Snow means loneliness to me' comes a distant child’s voice, contrasting Shakespeare (again) - 'If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun, If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head'. It is the only film to include a non British setting and international voices (American).
As the camera gazes down at rare bear footprints cast deep into the snow, the theme of malicious human intervention is explicitly enough wrought to prompt the viewer to ask why, like the journeys from Canary Wharf, a station turned pop-down cinema, we should depart from this season of films on a downer? 'It is humbling to realise how insignificant we seem to be' ... ‘wonder what the future holds for those that remain...?' And so do I.
Canary Wharf Screen plays until March, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, 9th January.