6 May 2011

Ian Breakwell (1943-2005) - British Artists' Films

A review of the BFI DVD of Ian Breakwell's films, part of their British Artists' Films series, originally published in Filmwaves in 2008.

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Although his diverse oeuvre was linked by a highly distinctive voice, Ian Breakwell (1943-2005) operated across so many mediums, exploring so many styles and concerns that his works defy classification. Consequently, his stock within the history of British artists’ films is perhaps unduly low, something that this BFI release, encompassing eight films made between 1973 and Breakwell’s death from cancer in 2005, infused with a refreshing humour often absent from British avant-garde film, seeks to correct.

He kept a journal for forty years, using words, images, and film, which he presented on Channel 4 in 1984 as Ian Breakwell’s Continuous Diary. Excerpts from the Diary from 1975 appear here, read directly to camera. Visually, the excerpts offer nothing except Breakwell’s features, a stark reminder of contemporary television’s obsession with superficial images (or: contempt for the viewer’s ability to concentrate on words). The stories are chaotic and discordant, often infused with darkly surreal humour, such as an incident involving a spectator and a chicken at a football match.

The demands Breakwell’s Diary makes upon the viewer’s imagination by replacing visual representation with words also characterise Repertory, a deftly savage attack upon film’s reliance on theatricality. Its only shot pans around a theatre, ending in front of locked doors, a voice describing a week-long programme of eerily bizarre ‘shows’ – stages devoid of human activity, with no audience – that can only exist as images conjured in the viewer’s consciousness.

The News again reminds how televisual language has changed. Long before The Day Today, Breakwell satirised television news (considerably more overblown now than in 1980), using ‘real’ Border Television newscaster Eric Wallace, documenting absurdly unruly behaviour amongst the town’s pensioners, drawing its humour primarily from repetition.

This repetition is central to The Walking Man, a Continuous Diary entry about an intangible man (mental patient, vagrant or worker?) whom Breakwell observes daily, between bouts of unexplained absence. The film offers no explanations; it simply demands that the viewer share Breakwell’s observatory fascination with this third person.

Growth, a longer Continuous Diary piece, is a very personal, more formally conservative entry taking the viewer back to Breakwell’s childhood in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. More visually varied than the earlier Excerpts, it still owes its interest mainly to Breakwell’s humanistic recollections of his upbringing.

Auditorium (1994), the longest film presented here, provides an interesting counterpoint to Repertory, documenting a theatre audience waiting for an unseen performance to commence, and then their reactions to it. Unlike the Diary films and The News, Auditorium feels more suited to gallery screenings, and the concept feels well established long before its ends.

Variety (2001) laments the passing of vaudeville and other traditional entertainments, symbolically employing damaged nitrate film stock and ending with the on-stage death of a ventriloquist. Visually the most dynamic film included, Breakwell reminds the viewer of the fragility of performative traditions, explicitly including film. The specially commissioned half-hour documentary reminds the viewer of the tragic fragility of Breakwell himself: it stands as a fitting tribute to an amiable and intelligent artist unfettered by boundaries between art and entertainment.

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