Gallivant II

By Margaret Dickinson

Gallivant reaches the public carrying a cultural burden which complicates the reviewing process. It was the recipient of one of the BFI’s larger production grants, has been widely acclaimed in the world of independent film and was chosen by the London Film-Maker’s Co-op to open the new Lux Cinema. In this climate of institutional approval it becomes both more difficult but more important to register reservations.

I originally saw the film at the London Film Festival, knowing almost nothing about Andrew Kötting’s work but intrigued by a brief description and the prospect of a strong theme and avant-garde treatment. The concept is promising: the filmmaker takes his grandmother, Gladys and his seven-year old, Eden, on a journey round the coast of Britain. For the child as well as the 85 year old, this may be the last chance to see the places they visit because Eden suffers from Joubert syndrome, a disabling condition which means that she has a short life-expectancy and has difficulty walking and speaking. The filmmaker is skilled and intelligent. It was therefore a surprise to find that as the film unfolded, I became increasingly alienated from what I saw.

My dissatisfaction revolves round the way the filmmaker situates himself in relation to his characters and his audiences. There is a promise implicit in the opening scenes and explicit in a remark made to a passer-by during filming, that the idea is to show the journey through the eyes of Gladys and Eden. In choosing this phrase, a cliché of film publicity, to describe his project, Kötting seems to be poking fun at the very idea. For his film makes almost no concession to other people’s agendas but reflects an amused, ironic and very media-literate vision which is unashamedly authorial. Yet, occasionally, there are hints of other strategies which might, up to a point, convey another person’s view. This begins to happen when we are allowed, uninterrupted, to watch Gladys and Eden relating to each other – as when they drift in a boat together or lie in the tent at night pointing out the stars. We come closest in a scene where Gladys chats to a stranger met en route. This is a relaxed conversation between equals in which both reveal something of their views and concerns. While they talk, Eden suddenly erupts into frame, reminding us, on her initiative, that she is also present and part of the film.

This scene, however, is an exception and when the camera is not directly on Gladys or Eden what it shows has little bearing on the experience. Thus, most of the people met along the way are interviewed not by Gladys but by Kötting and his style is almost the reverse of hers. Instead of getting into conversation he accosts them abruptly, asks questions designed to puzzle, shouts from an unnecessary distance, shows no interest in their answers but presses them to put on a performance for the camera. For instance, near Sellafield, when a man tries to talk about the power station Kötting cuts him off in mid-stream with a joke and offers him ‘a tenner’ to sing. Some participants gamely try to crack jokes back but others are visibly discomforted. In a particularly uneasy moment, a lollipop lady, caught on duty, anxiously watches out for cars while wondering how to respond to an unknown filmmaker demanding to know whether he looks like a monk.

The exchanges have a comic side and we are, presumably, meant to contextualise the interviewer’s boorish manner as parody. Such scenes make an appeal to two very British prejudices; that a tongue-in-cheek quality renders almost any behaviour acceptable and that anything which raises a laugh is laudable. But humour and parody are not just good fun. They are social weapons which tend either to undermine hierarchy or reinforce it. Kötting’s humour tends towards the latter result. None of these interviewees are authority figures but the director puts them at a disadvantage, making them confused as to whether they are dealing with news, documentary or something in the Beadle vein. By deliberately creating a situation in which he knows the code of the encounter and they do not, he asserts control.

The treatment of places, like that of people, reflects a very specific taste, a fascination with stereotypes, kitsch and cliché. The England of the journey is the England of a bad travelogue; famous beauty spots, funfairs, pageants, legends revived for the tourist trade, a surfer in Cornwall, Highland cattle in Scotland, cooling towers in Middlesbrough. There are frequent references to other films and film styles. The overall framework refers back to that great 8mm tradition – the home movie. Snatches of patronising male voice commentary recall the style of Look at Life or 50s travelogues. The grainy 8mm and time-lapse filming are borrowed from the 70s avant-garde and on landscapes the results are often as beautiful as their originals although, as self-conscious quotations, they have a distanced quality.

Like the high-handed treatment of participants the second-hand character of the imagery, the knowing play with language, conflicts completely with the notion that this is a journey seem through the eyes of Eden and Gladys. Eden is too young to have much of a concept of the second-hand and Gladys, as far as we are allowed to know her, seems too focused on her own life and family. This might not matter if these two people had not been placed at the centre of the story. As it is, it becomes frustrating that they are present and yet constantly sidelined.

The result is that two films seem to be fighting each other – the amused, detached view of the nation and the intimate family portrait. The director handles the first with assurance. In tackling the second he seems less secure, perhaps because it is, objectively, a much more difficult enterprise, raising awkward questions about how much to explain and how to avoid voyeurism.

To address these problems Kötting introduces short sections of conventional first-person narrative, a device which is not entirely successful as some aspects of the project become more puzzling when half-explained. For instance, if Kötting is as close to his Grandmother as he suggests, why has she previously seen so little of his daughter? If the purpose of the journey is for the three to travel together, why has it been set up so that Eden and Gladys cannot cope but must go home at intervals, leaving the film crew to continue without them?

Answers to some of these questions, as I discovered later, are suggested by the publicity material. An important clue is that Kötting had originally wanted to make the journey on his own and the idea of taking Gladys and Eden had come later, to satisfy the producer’s demand for a central character. This goes a long way towards explaining my sense of disquiet about the project. There is a genuine tension between two different ideas and between different concepts of filmmaking – as the expression of one mind or as the outcome of negotiation between several. The original idea of Kötting’s journey fell clearly into the first category and belongs in a long line of slightly quirky ‘one man’s view’ films. But a situation in which the filmmaker shares centre stage with two other characters and which concerns close relationships and themes of love, dependence, death, calls for a more exploratory, more cooperative approach. Only as the film develops does it become more clear that the filmmaker will stick as far as possible to the old plan, sometimes putting grandmother and child in front of the camera but not taking into account their perceptions, ideas, wishes as he constructs the film. With the realisation, I started to find the filmmaker’s address oppressive, to feel that the references, the in-jokes and determined jocularity, were silencing everyone else.