A 1969 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus includes a sketch in which an amateur dramatics group reconstruct the Battle of Pearl Harbour in a muddy field in West Yorkshire. The Python actors are in drag, wearing tweedy skirts or tea dresses and clutching their handbags before them. Eric Idle fronts the group, introducing the men as the ‘Batley Townswomen’s Guild’. With the cows grazing on the hill behind them, the actors assume their positions and Idle blows on his whistle.
The muddy scuffle that ensues forms the basis for Stephen Sutcliffe’s short film, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, 2008. Sutcliffe told me recently that he chose the footage not so much for its black humour or even as a reference to the Python canon, although both are relevant to his work. It was primarily for its aesthetic character.
Slowed down and accompanied by a looped instrumental section from a song by The Smiths, the Python slapstick is unravelled and a more sombre mood takes hold. As the men lunge and dive with flailing arms and swinging handbags, their dresses and stockings take the colour of the field like paint and they become smudged into the landscape. Over the music there is a BBC recording of Judi Dench reading sections of the Algernon Charles Swinburne poem from which Sutcliffe’s film takes its title. The soundtrack runs together the most melancholic parts of the verse and the images assume its fatalistic theme. The underworld field or garden of the goddess Persephone (Prosperpine being her Latin name) becomes mixed with the setting for the Python sketch. Sutcliffe’s film seems to suggest that the men are rushing to the ground in search of the eternal sleep that Swinburne describes.
The aesthetic character of the footage; the stillness of the field, the bare trees, solid grey sky and the light, filtered by the heavy cloud that makes all the colour murky and cold, is for Sutcliffe, specific to Yorkshire. There is something about the geology of Yorkshire, the way in which the moss covers the stones or the atmosphere weighs upon the earth that enters into the subconscious. It’s in the poetry of Herbert Read, the sculpture of Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth and the heaviness of Sutcliffe’s films. Batley, the setting for the Python sketch, is just a few miles down the road from where the artist grew up.
Sutcliffe’s work draws upon a large personal archive of broadcast material that he began as a teenager. He and his family would record programmes from the television; films, chat shows, dramas and documentaries, amassing VHS tapes where other households might use the same cassettes over and over. Some of his short montage films work with these recordings. Often the original context is obscured; there is just the voice of an actor reading a poem or detail from footage that is familiar but forgotten. Sutcliffe fragments the original, making slight, often imperceptible edits, taking away the sound or image and replacing it with another. He refers to his films as ‘video collages’ and this choice of language underscores a sensibility that owes as much to the history of painting as it does to narrative film.
To engage with Sutcliffe’s work is to focus on the texture of things. His approach to discussing the conventions of film by cutting into found material is not unlike the cubist reappraisal of painting through collage and papier collé . Collage focuses attention on the reality of a surface as opposed to the reality of the objects it represents. In Sutcliffe’s film it is the details of the original; the sound of the human voice and the way in which language becomes fashioned by speech and its rhythms that come to the fore. Over time, the familiar and domestic elements that make up the collage bear the patina of their era. Clips of television or radio recordings from the 1960s, 70s or 80s become like the fragments of newspaper in a cubist painting. They locate something specific from the past, an event or story, beyond the picture. Within the composition, they become significant for their linguistic or symbolic content. The components of the composition are returned to language and they begin to fashion new subjects and associations. It is the contours of language itself that assume ultimate focus in the work.
Swinburne was a fringe member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and their anti-academic and Romantic tendencies in painting find translation in his maverick approach to poetic form. Amongst the radical innovations was the shortening of the last line of a stanza of the poem:
Though one were strong as seven,
He too with death shall dwell,
Nor wake with wings in heaven,
Nor weep for pains in hell;
Though one were fair as roses,
His beauty clouds and closes;
And well though love reposes,
In the end it is not well.
(Algernon Charles Swinburne ‘The Garden of Prosperpine’)
A contemporary of Swinburne’s, George Saintsbury, describes a musical effect that consists in a ‘closing motion combining flourish and fall’. Through this, the poet avoided ‘monotony and disconnection’, breaking off from one stanza and preparing the ground for the next. (George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody from the 12th Century to the Present Day, Vol III, From Blake to Mr. Swinburne, 1910). It instilled a sense of death and renewal to the sound of the verse that in ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ becomes the theme of the poem itself. Swinburne achieved a synthesis of opposites whereby contradictory ideas (death and life, past and future etc) can be expressed as a rhythm.
These adversaries become one in the form and atmosphere of the verse; they find a constancy and cyclical quality that Sutcliffe repeatedly refers to in his work. It’s in the tempo of kitchen-sink-drama or songs by The Smiths. There’s a stability to songs like ‘Asleep’ or ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ (quoted by Sutcliffe in an earlier work), that is built without progression or resolution, lyrically or musically. It’s possible to become lulled by the sound of The Smiths or Swinburne and forget about the bitter resignation and despair that they address.
‘O come all ye faithful’, 2006, employs television footage of the poet Christopher Logue reading the verse from which Sutcliffe’s film takes its name. Logue sits on a sofa, there is a busy Aztec-style pattern on the cushion behind him, the colours are 1970s browns and oranges and there is something faintly bohemian about his domestic surrounds. He reads from a book, head bent, sometimes nodding with emphasis, gently beating out the meter of the verse with his words. The poem speaks of unity and love, and, like ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, a sense of regeneration and renewal. The last two lines of each stanza are the most important and serve to illustrate the optimism of the poem and its harmonizing message: ‘all wars/civil wars… we who hate change/survive only through change… for sure as love is sure/love comes again.’
Beneath the sound of Logue’s voice there is a diatribe of obscenity. It is a faint and constant stream, like a television or radio that has been left switched on in the background. There are no sentences or intelligible meanings to be found in the words. It is formless and repetitive, the opposite of Logue’s structured verse. ‘O come all ye faithful’ is one of the most technically straightforward of Sutcliffe’s video collages. The footage is filmed in one take and unedited by Sutcliffe, the original soundtrack remaining. The second soundtrack appears more worked, having been pieced together from short clips of people swearing in received English accents. This disjointed undercurrent of profanity serves to counter the hope and certainty that Logue is attempting to convey. At the end of the poem, Logue pauses for a minute and then looks out of the frame to ask, ‘Did I read that right or shall I do it again?’.
This moment, where Logue reflects on his reading and asks if it comes across properly is not dissimilar to a section of television footage that Sutcliffe occasionally cites within an explanation of his practice. The recording features Christopher Isherwood being interviewed by Ludovic Kennedy for a 1977 edition of the BBC’s Tonight programme. The questions cover Isherwood’s homosexuality, recent criticism of his work, and even his keen adoption of the American accent during his first years in Hollywood. The writer responds to the probing with great verbal agility. He sits back in his chair, legs crossed with an unflinching gaze and smiles through the whole thing. At the end of the interview the cameras are left rolling and Isherwood asks Kennedy how he thinks it all went.
The clip is organised around a contradiction. Given the provocative line of questioning, Isherwood’s performance during the interview is supremely confident and self-possessed. Equally, Kennedy is apparently unaffected by Isherwood’s charm and intellect. After the interview ends these roles are dropped, Isherwood is suddenly unsure and Kennedy sits and nods admiringly in unthinking agreement with everything that Isherwood says.
A central concern in Sutcliffe’s films is the notion of doubt. His collages broker strange marriages between fact and fiction, blithe and earnest genres, the heights of optimism and the depths of despair but often his source material meets at a point of contradiction where one antagonises the other. The parts of the film are made to run counter to each other, undermine each other and literally speak over one another. ‘O come all ye faithful’ lays this out explicitly. Sutcliffe locates detail at the edge of his sources and brings it to the fore. Logue’s moment of uncertainty at the end of the reading is supplemented by a steady flow of abuse pitched against his performance. Sutcliffe uses the second soundtrack, the background noise, to augment the sense of doubt and interrogate the reading overall. The film becomes split by the positive nature of the poem and the negative taunts from the other voices.
Sigmund Freud prefaced his discussion of Hamlet with a description of ‘psychopathological drama’. According to Freud, all drama is organised around a condition of ‘suffering’ or ‘struggle’. The conflict within psychopathological drama arose ‘between a conscious impulse and a repressed one’. Such theatre was thus devised for an audience of ‘neurotics’: ‘In neurotics the repression is on the brink of failing; it is unstable and needs a constant renewal of expenditure and this expenditure is spared if recognition of the impulse is brought about.’ (Sigmund Freud, Psychopathic Characters on the Stage, c 1905). The neurotics could thus both ‘enjoy’ the expenditure or ‘liberation’ from the repression and identify with the ‘resistance’ they felt towards such an outpour.
British actors figure repeatedly in Sutcliffe’s films. Maggie Smith, Kenneth Williams, Felicity Kendal and Ian McKellen all feature in his work, and recently, some of his source material has referred directly to the history of the British stage. ‘We’ll Let You Know’, 2008, employs a short clip from a 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company televised master class entitled Playing Shakespeare . Similarly, ‘No Good on Sundays’, 2009, takes an excerpt from a stage production of Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Thing’, 1982, a signature adultery play that led to a real life affair between the playwright and his leading lady. The inherent splitting in a theatrical representation, the parallel realities of an actor and his role, the on and off screen or stage personas and scenarios are doubtless of interest to Sutcliffe. His work repeatedly refers to a moment of fissure, when the surface reality gives way to an uneasy awareness that the true picture is more complex.
Neurosis in Sutcliffe’s work is seldom permitted a release. Even if the narrative and tempo of the film moves towards a climax the event fails to present a resolution. ‘Come to the Edge’, 2003, couples a forcefully optimistic monologue from Logue with an amateur film of some schoolboys plotting a good-humoured ritual of torture. The group closes in and the boy is on the floor before the poem is even started:
Come to the edge. We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and he pushed,
and they flew.
(Christopher Logue, ‘Come to the Edge’, 1968)
The shout at the centre of the poem is synchronized with a shot of the boy’s face, head thrown back in a rictus of pain and the three lines that follow lap gently at the footage of him writhing about in agony.
The violence in Sutcliffe’s film seems to represent the kind of expenditure that Freud described. As with ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, the sentiments expressed in the poem, the proximity of life and death, destabilise the humour of the situation and the imagery becomes troubled by the casual brutality. In most of Sutcliffe’s films anxiety circulates and the struggle seems endless.
The moment of doubt in Sutcliffe’s work is a moment of division; a splitting that represents a struggle between two opposing mindsets. His most recent film ‘Said The Poet to the Analyst’, 2009, crystallises this opposition of primary terms. The title poem is written and read by the American writer Anne Sexton. The verse draws upon her long-term battle with mental illness, the first stanza deals with the ‘poet’ or patient, the second, the ‘analyst’. Sexton describes their encounter as mediated through a currency of words:
My business is words…
…Your business is watching my words…
Sutcliffe’s film plays this against a panning shot appropriated from the François Truffaut film, The Man Who Loved Women (L’Homme qui aimait les femmes), 1977. The scene represents a moment of intense sexual frustration with the camera sweeping over a line of pretty legs, women arranged in rows of seating, each one wearing a pair of heels and a summer dress with the skirt risen over a bare knee. There follows a line of suits and briefcases and the feminine and masculine sections of Sutcliffe’s film echo the two-part structure of the poem. Truffaut’s image and Sexton’s voice are overlaid with another layer of abstract material. Beneath the poem there are strange suction noises and high-pitched buzzing; over the image, a blotchy black animation gradually dissolves.
Sexton’s poem describes a situation whereby she feels occasionally betrayed by her ‘words’. She recalls a sensation of panic when the latent thoughts within her speech are suddenly laid bare and her sense of self is divided in representation. This splitting, for Sexton, becomes apparent in language and Sutcliffe plays upon the distortions there present by adding other textures to the sound and image.
‘Said The Poet to the Analyst’ literally enacts the layered complexity of collage, the doubling that occurs as the fragments of the piece wrestle with their significance as a part and a whole. Of all of Sutcliffe’s films, here, language becomes the foremost subject and the surface becomes the site of a much-contested truth.
Michelle Cotton is curator of Cubitt, London