January, July, invisible artlessness

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One of my Christmas presents was Miranda July’s book It Chooses You. Sometime last year I saw her second movie The Future (which you really need to see before reading the book, which is about the creative process in writing the screenplay, but to save time here’s the trailer at the risk of patronising everyone who saw it three years ago).

I don’t want to say it’s quirky, probably my most disliked label of the moment, but it is. I fell for this film with the kind of gratefulness with which I used to read Douglas Coupland in my twenties. There’s a scene in one of his books where in the middle of the hyperreal, over-familiar rituals of a plastic Christmas, a character fills a room with candles to restore some meaning. And that’s what I get from Miranda July: total immersion in ‘now’ to find feeling or at least something real. Somewhere in the weight of cynicism we give ourselves from mining for plain fact and unvarnished honesty there’s something life-affirming, if you stick at it long enough.

The book focuses on a project that July followed while stuck in the creative process: she phoned up a dozen or so people advertising items in the free PennySaver paper and taped their (life) story. It’s sometimes Mike Leigh uncomfortable but always honest and big enough to be revealing of subjects and author.

Idling around in the days after Christmas I watched a couple of programmes on YouTube – I started with a documentary about artist Kit Williams of Masquerade fame (it’s a hare thing). He made the comment that anyone creating was generally drawing on the years when everything was new, first experiences, and attempting to capture ‘those strong and clear impressions’. (I also loved his existence outside the art world. How awkward and husk-like was the critic who appeared, to present the dull accepted view of his, to them, old-fashioned saying-nothing art.)

I don’t know if it was the creation theme or a need to explore how I remember wildlife was depicted in the late seventies, but I went from here to Watership Down. I wanted the mystical sequences, rabbits as wild creatures, psychedelic sun explosions and brooding black rabbits. I hadn’t seen these outside of stills for decades, and they were wonderful.

And then I caught sight of Follyfoot, a TV series from 1971 from a book by Monica Dickens. I’d never seen this before (I was one at the time) but had caught the oddly-conceived contrapuntal jazz vocalising of the theme tune before. The programme titles attracted – the stark lightning tree echoed the swirling destruction scenes of Watership Down, so I went there.

Follyfoot titles

Follyfoot

It’s a simple programme, sometimes thin – and puts larkish opening titles at odds with both the moody title artwork above and the easy-listening dervishness of the theme tune. But in among the general horsiness it caught my imagination: the Yorkshire landscape was uncontrived, uncreated. The homes were those of people who didn’t bother to change furniture or lifestyle or constantly aspire to renew.

Directors like Michael Apted or Stephen Frears worked on it, and great character actors like Margery Mason, who crops up fractious as ever as a struggling Yorkshire widow. It has a social conscience, championing a miner’s strike, and if it’s moralising then the general message is that bigots are rubbish.

Scenes in local towns show endless individual shops, commonplace coming and going, and it looks artless. Follyfoot was not self-conscious, it did not measure itself against cynicism. Can we still be artless?

I took something from all this, one of those Zen-like little moments of being that come up now and again, despite the intrusion of my own cynicism wanting to belittle it. And it connected when I found these passages in Miranda July’s book.

It Chooses You

“I clicked through all the pictures Brigitte had taken so far [July takes a photographer out to each interview]. What was I looking for? I supposed I was looking for calendars. More pictures of calendars. And there they were. Everyone had them, and they were all hardworking calendars. They seemed weirdly compulsive for a moment, as if I’d stumbled on a group of calendar fanatics, and then I remembered that we all used to have these until very, very recently. We all laid our intricately handwritten lives across the grid and then put it on the wall for everyone to see. For a split second I could feel the way things were, the way time itself used to feel, before computers.

“Trying to see things that are invisible but nearby has always been alluring to me. It feels like a real cause, something to fight for, and yet so abstract that the fight has to be similarly subtle.”

And then this… (on asking each interviewee if they have a computer).

“I began to feel that I was asking the question just to remind myself that I was in a place where computers didn’t really matter, just to prompt my appreciation for this. As if I feared that the scope of what I could feel and imagine was being quietly limited by the world within a world, the internet. […]

The web seemed so inherently endless it didn’t occur to me what wasn’t there. […]

Most of life is offline, and I think it always will be; eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it’s not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things: they aren’t always easy and they take so much time. In twenty years I’d be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember they mattered.”

I’m not saying these words led me to think ‘life with internet = bad’; it’s the opposite. Without it I’d never have been able to follow those small viewing moments after Christmas on a whim that segued so perfectly.

But they did make me see the internet as a symbol of distraction leading to absorption. Not into a nostalgia of cultural leftovers either, but in the sense of being dragged into the undertow of the homogenous sludge the media and advertising tells us we are: a babbling and chattering supposed ‘now’.

Moorland path

There are invisible, unfashionable, unremarkable things too: life going on as it has for centuries, not constantly wallpapered at every opportunity. Here at my desk the chatter is invisible but it is buzzing in the wireless communications and the aerials outside.

But beyond the window there’s a wild moor, and it will still be wild, and oblivious of the chatter in the airwaves through the coming spring, the summer, and next Christmas. The future.

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6 thoughts on “January, July, invisible artlessness

  1. It’s always good to find some more interesting films & so I looked at the trailer & then realised we’ve seen the “You, me & everyone we know” – a few years ago I think. So maybe sometime I’ll try this too. I’m not sure of a good substitute for “quirky ” – but a film we saw over Christmas that also falls into this category is “Le cochon de Gaza” if you can find it in the UK.

    Just tried the music video below & was enjoying it but then it stopped – have to see if I can find it on Grooveshark – my husband’s asking what’s happened to the music!

  2. Much gratitude for this wonderful piece – I’ve read it over several times now, each time relishing the journey through connections and the touchstones of artlessness that tug us back from a kind of brink of forgetting, to look for essential feeling again. (I can see the chimings and January mullings at work!)

    So much arrests me here as I read; so many details and points along the journey truly snag my attention and resonate with a “Yes!” Too many to do all do justice to – but the Kit Williams thoughts and your description of the ‘husk-like’ critic captured a kind of pivot point for me… well, one amongst so many poignant pivot points – around which your exploration of the counterpull of artlessness and cynicism revolves and reveals. More and more, I get irritated by the sheer stifling negativity of the ‘dull accepted view’ – the weary cynicism that forgets to really see, and dismisses out of hand what is deemed too under-our-noses to warrant attention. What flowers under our noses is often profound in ways that only a getting back to, in Kit Williams’ words, ‘those strong and clear impressions’ can tell (a very Wordsworthian theme!)

    So great too to see Follyfoot! A top favourite programme of my childhood (my brother and I never missed it). Dora, Steve, Slugger and Ron… all weekly companions. The horses were a huge pull – as was the whole tone of the series, which you capture here so beautifully. I was a huge fan of Monica Dickens’s Follyfoot novels (still am). After all the horsey books which revolved in a world so far-distant to my own experience, they were a breath of fresh air, reflecting the world I knew – of kids slouching about in flared jeans across muddy fields, scraping together enough pocket money for a ride out in the local woods; with no wish to win rosettes in smart gymkhanas, but just because we wanted to be near horses; and to find the direct artlessness being around them offers…

    • Good you found something in this, it’s a bit densely packed and not that easy to sort out… it’s quite hard to explore this particular sense of artlessness. But I think your point about being around horses and just being near them versus the regimentation and rosettes is thereabouts. The latter is maybe part of that human disease of ‘improving’, the urge to organise and imprint, the awful quirk of humankind that allows it to take unwarranted control over all. Like the constant swelling of corporations – enough is never enough, there must always be more, and every aspect of our world must be polished and packaged into a commodity.

      Sometimes it’s depressing to get enthused over a new diversion and then discover a whole industry and culture attached to it, proprietary bodies riddled with esoteric rules that smother ‘those strong and clear impressions’, and you must look hard for those with the quiet wisdom. Or even more basic pursuits: pick up a walking or hiking magazine and it seems most of the readers spend 95% of time in equipment shops. And the bizarre culture you dip into via the internet on the way to finding a decent route through some hills always prompts a diatribe from me!

      One thing I return to again and again is ‘atmosphere’ and it’s something I’d really like to explore. I use it to characterise most of the things I’m drawn to, and it’s nebulous and invisible, and extricating those impressions to make sense to others is quite a challenge, but probably one of the most valuable things we can do.

  3. A lot to take in here – I didn’t know any of these apart from Watership Down. It is such a long time ago I read that. It had a big impact on me when it came out, especially as I was an Orwell fan and it reminded me of Animal Farm for some reason. I’m not sure if I saw the film of Watership Down or not. Lots of interesting observations from you here!

    • I would recommend the film of Watership Down: animation would put people off, because it suggests creating bunnies out of wild rabbits, but watching it again I think they negotiated a fine line fairly well. It’s quite brooding and gothic in places, and yet the voices of Richard Briers and Hannah Gordon, for example, are interesting in lots of ways (pop culture return-to-nature of The Good Life etc). The ‘visionary’ thread and the dark scenes are also quite effective.

      I’m gearing up to read Orwell again – Margaret Atwood was writing in the paper the other day about the novels being really significant in teenage years. Like Salinger, it might seem he loses relevance with the decades, but he’s probably well worth a visit with hindsight. And the more I pick up of his essays the more fascinated I get.

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