Friday, 27 July 2012

swandown (w&d andrew kotting)

Swandown is an unlikely triumph. It's a modern day reworking of Three Men in a Boat (a book recently repackaged as a TV show). The dangers of what might be called a 'TV' approach are shown during the only moments when the film seems to flag, as a few minor celebrities are drafted in to participate on the Swan's journey from Hastings to London. We see where the film might have gone as their attempts to be witty fall flat and the journey seems to stall. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. The usual voyagers are Kotting himself and Iain Sinclair. Here, the tendency of the edit is to subvert and poke fun at the self-styled 'psycho-geographer' and the director, something they presumably agreed to. This is done with a fiercely dry, understated British humour, ensuring their personalities never overwhelm the journey. The chasm between TV docs and a more cinematic style is apparent, and Swandown is all the richer for seeking to retain a cinematic chutzpah.

This is evident in the cinematography but most of all in the sound design. The film documents moments when the sound recordist, Phillipe Ciompi, (who also did the mix) is out on the river, and rightly so. The mellifluous tones of the British waterways are beautifully captured and then mixed with selected readings and Kotting's acerbic asides. Kotting himself, fearless in the face of water, is a boldly absurd figure, never scared of ridicule. He embraces the absurdity of his mission with sang-froid, seeking out the moments when something will be revealed, not by design, but by accident.

The gentle tone of the film matches the pre-industrial rhythm of a waterbound journey. The journey reveals a hidden network, the arteries of the country which have existed since before time forgot. Southern England is a low-lying, verdant land and always has been. The Swan's journey traces a land which runs parallel to the motorways, one which is still inured from roadside burgers and takeaway cappuccinos. There's hints of Pynchon and William Carlos Williams in its celebration of the backways and the neglected corners, where modernity is kept at bay and something more primeval is allowed to persevere. 

As such Swandown offers a beautiful, instantly nostalgic vision. Marrying Anglo-Saxon eccentricity with the ineluctable beauty of the landscape. Its whimsy is worn on its sleeve, the absurdity of the film's mission noted by passing van drivers and the cameraman alike. The use of Herzog's Amazon voiceover (with the critic J Romney bravely stepping into the German master's voice) seems blissfully inappropriate. This is a nature and a landscape that lulls, rather than threatens; that bequeaths a drowsy numbness. 

The omnipresent director might have become a pain in the neck and, if this were a TV doc, would presumably have ended up dominating proceedings. As it is, he somehow takes a back seat; his presence as eccentric as his swan's. Where previous Kotting films seemed in danger of becoming overly arcane, here the gentle humour that holds sway keeps things  afloat, allowing the quotations and observations to resonate without seeming overly affected.

Furthermore it should be noted, on this day of all days, that Swandown contains one of the most engaging scenes of Olympic totalitarianism since the work of Ms Riefenstahl. 

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