Saturday, 7 March 2015

This Surface

The following is my introduction to the film This Surface by David Hall and Tony Sinden from the David Hall: Video Art Pioneer tribute event at Tate Britain on Thursday 5 March 2015.

In 1972 Mouldy Old Dough, was one of the most popular records in the UK. It was number one in the pop charts for four weeks in October, making it the second biggest selling UK single of the year, behind only The Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards' bagpipe version of Amazing Grace. 

The song was written by Nigel Fletcher and Rob Woodward, and first produced by them as the band Stavely Makepeace, subsequently released under the name Lieutenant Pigeon. The song was recorded in the front room of Woodward's semi-detached house in Coventry, and features his mother Hilda on piano. Played in a boogie-woogie, honky-tonk, ragtime style, the only lyrics growled by Fletcher are the title "Mouldy Old Dough" and "Dirty Old Man". As well as the boogie-woogie piano the song also contains a military-style drum and recorder melody, which acts as an intro and middle eight.

It is one of a number of early seventies novelty hits, which are mostly characterized as being records by hitherto (and often subsequently) unknown eccentric artists, unusual enough to capture public attention, or humourous songs by known artists whose work rarely graces the pop charts, such as Benny Hill's 1971 chart-topper Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) and Chuck Berry’s 1972 hit My-Ding-a-Ling.

Indeed one of David Hall’s ex-students would later achieve the heady status of having a novelty hit record with a cover of an old Barrett Strong song.

Mouldy Old Dough has the whiff of an old-time knees up about it, and as such it’s a natural accompaniment for the age-old traditional party trick of balancing a pint of beer on the head while dancing.

The film This Surface (David Hall & Tony Sinden, 11 minutes, 16mm, 1972-3) thus locates itself firmly in the popular culture of its time, in an ordinary setting, with an ordinary activity, in a pub around Christmas time with one of the most popular of current hit records playing in the bar.  Perhaps significantly it avoids the then voguish nascent glam rock genre or teeny-bobber hits (for currency it could equally have been a record by T. Rex, Slade, Gary Glitter, or the Osmonds, for example). So the film starts in a setting steeped in everyday working class and popular culture, as far removed from the usual settings or concerns of avant-garde film as could be imagined in 1973. 

This indicates part of the intent of the Five Films collection, of which this is one. David Hall and Tony Sinden’s intention was to take the conventions of film as a starting point for a series of exercises in what would later become known as Deconstruction. Not for them the then avant-garde orthodoxy of establishing new and alternative aesthetic constructions, or as the term suggests, forming an advance movement that would invent forms for the future. Nor for them the context of a small but elite site of reception, populated by an audience of cognoscenti.

The other films in the Five Films variously deconstruct the relationship of the actor to the viewer (Actor), or spoof Spaghetti Westerns to playfully undermine the inadequacy of the frame to encompass pro-filmic scenes (Edge), and like Hall’s other works, particularly those made for TV such as This is a Television Reciever and the TV Interruptions, these films use the juxtaposition of the familiar with the strange to present the problematic that reveals the construction of the illusion of cinema.  But they do this in a way that doesn’t require any specialist knowledge of film semiotics, they provide the keys for this as part of their own conditions, assuming a non-specialist audience, one that might otherwise be alienated by unfamiliar experimental aesthetics.

David Hall’s practice was not avant-garde, this is not film aspiring to high art, it is not bravely carving out a new visionary utopian space which might not yet exist, if anything it is anti- or ante- avant-garde (which is to say both in opposition to and beyond the concerns of), it was plugged right in to the present situation, and the common, recognizing that film, and video, and TV, are socially and technologically part of an entertainment culture and industry.

Perhaps the fact that the Five Films have been generally overlooked as works of critical experimental cinema, and rarely screened as individual films let alone in their entirety, can be attributed to their refusal to conform to the rarefied concerns of the avant-garde, and their suggestion that ‘deconstruction’ can be performed within the site of popular forms.

Having invited us in to this party, the film abruptly takes us on a drive around Brighton, starting with a seascape from a moving car, a seascape and horizon as precisely framed and as measured as might be a structural landscape film, and in that regard reminiscent of David Hall’s experiments with landscape production and framing in Vertical. However here the message of the film starts to become explicit; the words of the title, which form the first two words of a mini-essay, are hand written in red felt pen, apparently on the car window; the exterior and the text (which I think of as a kind of diegetic text) pull in and out of focus. The film essays a play of surfaces, layers and image planes: drawing attention to both the screen as surface of projection, the film surface (both as image and subtitle text), the text on the car window, as well as the surfaces in the technical apparatus of filmmaking.

Brighton, a seaside town, a place with a royal history and a popular resort for summer holidays, with the End of the Pier and House of Wax entertainments, which is where the film comes to rest, beside a Sword of Damocles amusement, and here it is worth watching for another play of surface self-reflexivity through self-reflection.

I’ll stop there in the hope that I haven’t over-described the film with too many spoilers.  Each time I see the film I notice something new. The Five Films are films in which, I believe, every element is meticulously intentional, the play and balance of humour, self-reflexivity, and nuance are exquisitely crafted.

Before he died I was working with David Hall on ways of resurrecting the Five Films, the existing available prints had not aged well and David was reluctant to have them screened, and we were working to producing new digital masters.  With funding from the Henry Moore Foundation, Lux is in the process of getting the films digitized, and as such the copy of This Surface screening tonight is hot off the surface of the scanner…

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