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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