Part of the London 2012 Festival, the BBC and Film4 teamed up to commission a diverse quartet of short films, (loosely) celebrating London and sport. Along with a star-studded and surprisingly cinema-centric Olympic opening ceremony and a huge BFI Silent Hitchcock retrospective, London 2012 has certainly pushed British film into the limelight, hopefully demonstrating just how much we have to offer in art and culture. High-profile funding for liberal arts? I wonder how this slipped through…
With The Odyssey Asif Kapadia brings us another perfectly judged documentary. Director of last year’s brilliant Senna, Kapadia employs many of the same techniques, eschewing traditional talking heads by exclusively using archival clips and aerial shots of London. Accompanied by off-screen interviews, Kapadia creates an incredibly focussed portrait of London since the Olympic bid was won in 2005, and the events that have irrevocably transformed it – the bombings, the economic crisis, the riots. What is most surprising is the balance that the film strikes, managing to be evocative and emotional without resorting to over-manipulation. The Odyssey triumphs in presenting a fresh view of the city, working modern scepticism and realism into what is essentially a love letter to London.
What If works Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ into the story of a teenage boy (George Sargeant) in a London housing project, with Noel Clarke watching over him like some sort of urban Clarence Odbody. Directed by Max and Dania (who? The duo behind the StreetDance movies, apparently) this entry supposedly represents London’s youth, although to be honest there is a lack of pedigree here compared to Kapadia, Leigh and Ramsay – to cover the youth culture aspect I would rather see something from Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish! Quite the stylistic opposite of Kapadia’s documentary, this overly stylised slice of fiction may lack subtlety, but does actually manage to find relevance in the overused (but none-the-less brilliant) poem within the context of London’s youth, particularly with the background references to last summer’s riots. It leaves you feeling that Kipling’s advice could well do with being heeded. If you can keep your head…
More disappointing is Mike Leigh’s A Running Jump – not that it’s particularly bad, but given Leigh’s status we can’t be blamed for expecting something a little more substantial. Leigh seems to be continuing a fixation with dodgy cars and dodgier car-salesman, instantly recalling Leslie Manville’s car trouble’s in 2010’s Another Year. Unfortunately, A Running Jump falls far short of that film’s brilliantly nuanced characters, and although the comic exaggeration here can be found in most of Leigh’s best films (think Timothy Spall’s Aubrey in Life is Sweet), somehow these characters don’t quite gel. Following Eddie Marsan’s car salesman and his family, the obligatory sport references are throwaway and barely linked to plot (except Marsan’s ‘speed-walking’) with no attempt at subtlety – but then that’s probably the point. Leigh is showing us average lives in which sport is simply part of everyday activity. Whilst this does come across as somewhat lazy, on reflection it is fitting given the 2012 brief and Leigh’s social-realist stance. Unfortunately this doesn’t prevent his entry from feeling lightweight and forgettable, but there is probably more depth to it than meets the eye. Somewhere.
With three radically different shorts so far, Lynne Ramsay takes things one-step further by eliminating traditional narrative completely in her poetic portrait, Swimmer. Olympic swimmer Tom Litten gives a wonderfully blank-yet-pensive performance in his silent role, letting his athletic body and piercing eyes do the heavy lifting. The first thing you’ll notice is Natasha Braier’s stunning black and white cinematography, amazingly crisp and sumptuous even on a TV screen. But it’s the audio that draws you in, repurposing snatches of soundtracks and dialogue from British films that fill the absence of narrative in the viewer’s mind, encouraging us to construct a story out of these fragments of disembodied sound and beautifully ambiguous images. Limbs slice through the water, figures are glimpsed through the trees in the half-light – it resembles a cross between Jean Vigo and Terrence Davies, with Vigo’s own abstract swimmer-portrait Taris vividly brought to mind. The result is a highly tactile and subjective representation of the state of mind of the lone swimmer, evoking fear, elation and isolation within a meditation on memory- not just on a personal level but also within our shared cultural consciousness. There are several underwater shots, for example, that recall the dark beauty of Shelley Winters’ submerged corpse in Night of the Hunter. We are bombarded with half-remembered sights and sounds that blur the boundaries between life and film.
Whilst it has drawn heavy criticism for it’s lack of plot, for me the sound, visuals and wonderfully offbeat editing come together to make for an immersive experience, one of the most perfectly crafted and emotionally stimulating shorts I’ve seen in a long time. Culminating with an astonishingly beautiful landscape, we melt away to Ray Nobel’s The Very Thought of You, which oozes through the soundtrack as gracefully as Litten glides through the water. In a word: sublime.
Swimmer is available to watch on 4oD until 13/08/2012: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/swimmer/4od