There’s Magic in a Wall

 

LEANING INTO THE WIND: ANDY GOLDSWORTH (PG) 2017 UK 93mins, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer, with Andy Goldsworthy, Holly Goldsworthy

Near where I grew up in Northern Queensland (I know, boring, boring but one second) there had been an enormous military training camp, soldiers numbering in the thousands I guess, during the Second World War, situated in easy reach of the rainforest, where the infantry could train to fight the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea and Indonesia. The reason I knew about the training camp was because whenever we drove out to a place where everyone went swimming we drove past miles and miles of abandoned stone fire places, standing among trees, small ant hills, dry grass and many, many black basalt rocks, scattered about. These fireplaces, for open fires, were made from those same basalt rocks. They had chimneys to create a draw and were built, I guess, by men from the colder South. (My sister tells me the fireplaces have all gone; taken to be incorporated in houses; a turn of events much to be lamented.) The fireplaces would have provided a place to cook and, in the short but, at night at least, fairly cold winter, warmth to those in semi-permanent tents contiguous. The tents and the men long gone, all that remained were the stone fireplaces, incongruous, especially to those who had grown up in the area and had never actually seen such a stone fireplace in its usual place in a house.

These fireplaces were effectively a memorial, unexplained, unremarked, to those men who passed through and who never returned; a particularly apt memorial, given that they were built to provide a kind of homely warmth and sustenance before the horrors to come. To a child there was something of the fairy tale about dozens and dozens of lone fireplaces in the bush, a marker of something which had been but was gone. And certainly the training camp was a kind of frontier between normal life and war, an edge on which those men teetered for a time and were then launched forth into the unimaginable.

Andy Goldsworthy is likewise very interested in those frontiers, fences, edges, walls, borders of all kinds which pop up everywhere, in fields, forests, towns, cities, filled with possibility, with momentary or ephemeral potential. And of course, the moment you think of a fence, or wall or border you think of death. It’s inevitable. The natural world is simply a great big place where everything is, sooner or later, turning into something else, where today’s picturesque view is tomorrow’s compost, where a cemetery is the truest of folk art, monumental (in the sense of remembrance rather than enormity) and full of meaning, a final frontier which we must all ultimately confront. Where exactly is that edge, the place of change, of transformation?

By using whatever materials are available, by working with the constant sense of decomposition, of transience, Goldsworthy connects to a sort of simple, common, fairy tale art, folk art in the sense that we can all intuit the meaning without really having to actually explain or put our finger on its significance or purpose. A meandering stone wall is just that, which is fun, but it could be a giant dragon, or a border or marker or frontier.

Goldsworthy, in this film, spends time trying to get inside walls or borders or hedges, sometimes at considerable risk to his person. There’s a kind of magic in a wall, to paraphrase the poet. I guess he knows he can’t sense that magic from without. He has to get right inside. Either climbing along the skeletal, clutching branches of a high hedge, or by building, with notable labour, a long space or deep crevasse, within a stone wall, each stone cut in half and placed directly opposite its complement, a walkway for Orpheus perhaps, or somewhere which needs the composition of entirely new myth altogether.

The film shows Goldsworthy’s method, his melding of folk, fairy tale, science fiction, the simple joys of mud pie making, of play. His art is the opposite of the manufactured, the plastic, the industrial. He makes stone pods for aliens, mausoleums for trees, crypts of tree branches. How does he make something so profound from what seems to be just a boy climbing trees, messing about with diggers and stone cutting?

I like to think he would have found the fireplaces interesting. This film begins with his admiration of a clay floor in a house in Brazil, a house for poor people, as one of the inhabitants remarks. In front of the fireplaces, inside the tents would have been an ant-bed floor, made by pulverising and re-constituting the ant-hills that were everywhere about, which made a very durable, almost polished floor. The ant-bed floors are likewise long gone. Just as the body shapes that Andy Goldsworthy creates by lying on the ground during rain or snow have all disappeared, having crossed that invisible barrier to who knows where.

Paul Corcoran

 

Women’s Work

THE GUARDIANS (Les Gardiennes - original title) (15) 2018, 138mins, France, Directed by Xavier Beauvois, with Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet, Iris Bry

This is a war movie, set on a farm in France; the First World War that is, and the film is based on a premise that as the men are away fighting, the women do the work on the farm. This was no doubt true; passé the land army etc. etc. The truth is women do a great deal of the work on farms anyway, in war or out of war. So that isn’t really news. The men may be away fighting, or doing a job for ready cash, or just drunk and disorderly. The work on farms has to be done, come what may. So it normally falls to the women. This was my experience at least. Women milked the cows, rode the horses, drove the tractors (or in this case, oxen), brought in the harvest, year after year. They just got on with it. Not necessarily dramatic fodder for a film you might think.

The Guardians takes the view that a farm, particularly a French farm at this period, has interesting aesthetic potential. Farm work, seen from a safe distance, has a long distinguished career as a metaphor for one thing or another, particularly if performed by women. Wordsworth seeing a girl at work in a field for instance (The Solitary Reaper), or Jean-François Millet painting three women picking up grain (The Gleaners) which, when the painting was exhibited in 1857, was felt to be too knowingly redolent of the scaffold, that the revolution was simply too recent for bucolic labour to be rendered with such sympathy. (I grew up with a large print of this painting. My sister bought it  and left it in my parents’ farmhouse for mysterious reasons. To me it was a very realistic depiction of the labour called ‘picking up potatoes’, 12 hour days bent over in fields putting potatoes in sacks; very, very hard, back-breaking work, mostly done by women.)  Neither poet nor painter exhibit any apparent surprise on seeing women at this kind of work.

The Guardians seems a metaphor for something. The question is just what. It’s certainly very pretty to look at. There’s lots of pumping of water, summer and winter, ploughing with oxen, chopping of wood, cutting of corn (or wheat), even charcoal burning, which is made to look like something you might do on farm holiday, not a gruelling, dirty job which destroyed the health and lives of its practitioners. And because there’s a war going on, bad news arrives at regular intervals, falling with abandon on high and low, farmer and labourer, without fear or favour.

Occasionally men do intrude. The men fighting return on leave at different times. There are old men past fighting age. There are American soldiers, without enough to do and so can cause trouble. But the men are somehow irrelevant, or beside the point. The point really is the work. The women do the work and the camera lingers. That the film is beautiful is simply an expression of a simple idea that work can be beautiful. The women aren’t cyphers, or metaphors, requiring the agency of men to become actual. They simply are, through the agency of work. The film is about the women interacting, working, as themselves.

This is a film about the reality of women working. In fact, when one woman turns from work to a man to seek fulfilment, trouble starts. She ultimately has to turn back to her own resources, herself, to get her life back on track.

In fact, Wordsworth again, recollecting this film in repose, ie. sometime after seeing it, it’s remarkable just how unusual it is: a film where the women just are. They aren’t complimentary to men, present as some kind of background or field on which the male roles are presented, on which the men can act or be actualised. They work, they interact and that is kind of it. And it looks good. Yes, sometimes it can seem a little too like a re-enactment, a history documentary, a bit too clean perhaps. But the aesthetic is making a point: women as themselves in the world can be pleasing, attractive, beautiful. They don’t need men. They can even be, in the word of one character, observing of another, ‘elegant’.

The Guardians is a very beautiful film, beautifully realised. The women are a metaphor for themselves. They are their own meaning and need no other.

Paul Corcoran

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

APOSTASY (PG) 2017 UK 96min; written & directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, with Siobhan Finneran, Robert Emms, Sacha Parkinson.

It’s been reported that the Jehovah’s Witness religious faith is now banned, outlawed in Russia. This is maybe because the church is headquartered in the US, or maybe because the Russian Orthodox Church is flexing its Putin endorsed muscles. Jehovah’s Witnesses are apparently seeking asylum in Finland. Other interesting facts from Kingdom Hall: both Patti Smith and Prince were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Patti Smith rejecting the faith as a teenager, Prince a convert in his forties.

We’ve all heard of The Watchtower, the most widely circulated magazine in the world, 70 million copies every 4 months, distributed free by the faithful door to door and on pavements and street corners everywhere (except now Russia). Active proselytising is an obligation of the church, along with rejection of blood transfusions and pacifism. More particularly, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to be involved in politics. They don’t vote and, as far as possible, remove themselves from the concerns of the world, their eyes on a higher prize. This make them easy to ignore. And occasionally laugh at. It also means that, apart from Russia, no one takes much notice of them. They keep themselves to themselves. What’s wrong with that?

In fact, as this film makes clear, operating out of sight means getting away with a lot of stuff that maybe wouldn’t be tolerated in an open society. They maintain their ‘below the radar’ status by ruthlessly ostracising anyone who doesn’t toe their strict line; the line being one side of a very male slanted hierarchy and an intense focus on their idiosyncratic doctrine. Dissent is not tolerated. Independent thought is outlawed. And yet, Prince… One Jehovah’s Witness who clearly thought very independently.

It’s a very tricky balancing act, cutting yourself off from stuff, such as life, in order to get closer to something else, spirituality for example, the after-life. It’s a tricky thing for a film-maker too. Or any artist for that matter. Do you look out, engage with the world, to make your art? Or do you turn inward, examining the intricate motivations and compromises, the romantic extremes found in the inner landscape? If your subject is all about the inner life, does the film have to reflect this, focussing relentlessly on the personal at the expense of the political or social, the larger questions of interaction and integration or is this all beside the point? The personal is the political. What I believe, what I know, is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

In its way the film is an expression of exactly what it seems to be criticising about the Jehovah’s Witness religion, that insularity, the cultivation of the closed mind, of the unswerving adherence to a fixed way of seeing is necessary to living a life in faith, almost as if the filmmakers were unaware of the parallels. In other words, the film presents the story as the intense inner experience of the main characters as if this was the only way to tell the story. That realism, verisimilitude was the only style. And this isn’t to say that the story isn’t compelling and the style ever falters. As expressed here, it is horrific the way a rigid mind-set can lead inexorably to tragedy.

But the film’s strength is also its weakness. Unrelenting reality can also be a kind of ruthless avoidance of any alternative possibilities, humour for example, or metaphor or beauty perhaps. Life’s potential is limitless, Jehovah notwithstanding, just as art is also boundless, inexhaustible.

Apostasy is well acted, committed to its message and its method. However, in the same way that the characters aren’t self-aware, that they are at the mercy of events which, if only they would act, are theirs to change, the film seems not to understand that it is, in a way, a refutation of itself. That the film-maker needs to take his own message to heart, look outwards, take himself less seriously, and maybe take some time out to smell the roses.

Paul Corcoran