(Not) Gone to Ground

By Gareth Evans

this-filthy-earth-andrew-kotting-3.jpgThis Filthy Earth dir. by Andrew Kötting 2001

Place and Attitude in This Filthy Earth and The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz

“Reality is often pregnant with utterly unexpected possibilities. A powerful spiritual dimension can be found in one’s life through the exercise of the imagination. … We make our own weather.” – JG Ballard

Exterior: Office: Day in England. Enter from leftfield Andrew Kötting and Ben Hopkins, shorts-stacked and second time feature-makers, approaching the money men. Maverick anti-traditionalists and yet both wound within the luminous history of film. Keen to tell the end-tales of an uneasy society, they are planning to bring the margins central, in order to deliver inspired and provocative manifestations of a viable future for innovative, envisioned film in these troubled islands. Time to pitch...

nine-lives-of-thomas-katz-ben-hopkins-1.jpgThe Nine Lives of Thomas Katz dir. by Ben Hopkins 2001

Ben Hopkins' first feature was a rural trawl – Simon Magus – a Yiddish, Christian, folkloric, romance hybrid landed in old peasant Poland, another “outsider causes trouble” pic with quality. Now Hopkins is on a different trajectory: The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz is not just a film, “it is a massive cultural event that will change Britain for the worse…” Soaked in German Expressionism, silent movie and digital concerns, “it is an investigative thriller that leads only to confusion, a screwball comedy about the Apocalypse and the Day of Judgement” claims its press release.

Really, it's an everyday story of urban folk. A man climbs out of a hole near the M25 and proceeds to close down the capital on the last day of the world by occupying various bodies and pushing the system to overload. He's also operating on a higher plane and has stolen the astral child... Cast: ‘No’ (or Katz himself), a blind seer-inspector, the Minister of Fisheries, a scuba diver, radiator children, an exhumed rabbi... and all in ceaseless negotiation with unstable skies – eclipsed suns – and a place that slides like a loose photo. They move via desire paths, swimming tubes to Japan and an underground rail network – a soul train – that dreams ecstatically of going global. Virus is the structure as bodies and characters merge and switch (once done, the film itself is also promoted virally at www.tomas-katz.com). Messages and wires are crossed – dishes, windows and ‘even the bollards' are charged. CCTV is a primary visual referent. It records all the world and is therefore most loaded when it comes to the erasure that finally occurs. Control the monitors and you have it all. The goal: to cancel film's image, its very breath... All in, £400K, 75% of it German and the rest thanks to United Artists.

this-filthy-earth-andrew-kotting-1.jpgThis Filthy Earth dir. by Andrew Kötting 2001

Next up, Andrew Kötting. Shorts and performance showman, Kötting first went walkabout at feature length with family in tow for Gallivant, a coastal perambulation with knowing urban glint that picked up the signals of shoreline psychogeography. Nothing in the wayward, rambling charm of that casual tour gave warning of the singular intensity of This Filthy Earth, an Earthouse production, an act of witness. A foreigner working in a remote moorland farming settlement – sisters, family, village are all taprooted into the oldest soil – precipitates its partial collapse after he is scapegoated for social and meteorological ills.

It's a vaudeville cow opera, borrowing blatantly from the key animal insemination scene of cinema (La Bête), honouring John Berger's Pig Earth and digging deepest into Zola's La Terre. Cast: Jesus Christ, a Marie Salope, a Stalker or Pale Rider, sibling itinerants, Papa Lear, a soothsayer meddler. It lives absolutely in a material world – bull and man sperm on the hands, pigs in trees, rooms like caves or armpits, piss in graveyards, phlegm, pus, shit, rock (human time against geological time), rain, mud, mud. Meanwhile, the ears of wheat catch the murmur of curtailed desire, the invigorated and curious dream of the other – travelling shows and the – for some – soothing balm of foreigners who bring another place close. But there is dyspastoral bloodletting of a kind not seen since Rudkin's Afore Night Come. It's a vision of the differently sighted, therefore sound is the film's second heart. Tug a leek and you rent the world, ploughs pull a roar through the field. These are the scale shifts by which we perceive the constant ebb and flow of things. By the film's end there will be a felled church, a routed flock, a bog opening like a reverse birth to retrieve offspring (see Nine Lives’ M25 manhole cover) and outcasts united in ceaseless passage across the earth. £1.2 million when it came to it, all UK and all from agencies.

nine-lives-of-thomas-katz-ben-hopkins-2.jpgThe Nine Lives of Thomas Katz dir. by Ben Hopkins 2001

Both projects share an urgency, subversion – and a sense of the land as key player – that puts them so far from current UK practice they barely register on the official radar. They shape reverse creation myths that unmake alienated community and unravel personality to expose fresh paths for both subject and medium; hence they are deeply political, compassionate works. Understandably therefore, both play with permanence and flux, run transition against foundation. These films are the secret dreams of maps. You cannot find these places in the grid. This Filthy Earth is Eastern Europe gone West. A sort-of Kustirica, it's gone now to earth in Yorkshire-Cumbria and so both seep into it, but still it is anywhere and anywhen. Nine Lives, however, is nowhere else but London. The fact that the capital's erasure is part of its filmic topography here makes for fine logic. In a sense it all goes when too much information, the density of signal accretion, cancels itself out (the ultimate unknowability of the city). There is a melancholy, a loss in this, but more, a manic cheerfulness – which Kötting shares.

Bodies operating in place are also pointers to the variety of tone. Thus excess, decay, so-labelled ‘impairment' or distortion. Identity is challenged, characters are occupied in Nine Lives, besieged by weather and superstition in This Filthy Earth. Some become the conductors of potent, unseen forces – they twitch and speak in tongues. What people say and how is evidence of their relationship to place. Nine Lives' riddles and wordplay seem the likely product of urban diversity, polyglot encounters and slang breeding. This Filthy Earth's ‘gramlot' is the lingo of reduced horizons and business, of instinctual non-verbal knowing and body language.

this-filthy-earth-andrew-kotting-2.jpgThis Filthy Earth dir. by Andrew Kötting 2001

But while dug into land, both pursue the lure of the nomadic. They offer wanderers who provoke degrees of dissolution within the settled. Both also end in motion – Nine Lives’ cosmic removal of all matter to who knows where and This Filthy Earth's two men and a mule – a cut-price Western roaming of the homeless into a future bigger than the abandoned hamlet knows. And nowhere is more nomadic than ‘terra cinema', in its stories, frames and personnel, in the influences that wander like rogue crew members between shoots or the formats that find their way in – multiple styling for multiple realities – the memory mode of super 8, digital atmospherics (image saturation or inversion) and general audio/visual dysfunction.

At best such films are tolerated, almost with embarrassment, like some loud relative on the gin at a funeral. But more often these relevant, outrider visions – and others like them – are seen as barbarian deviations that somehow got in when the windy lookout was unstaffed. Their threat is closer now. Of course, that they got backing at all in this climate is surprise enough. But it's not enough for those who put the money in – for This Filthy Earth particularly – to sit back on co-production laurels when they bury the baby with an almost negative distribution and marketing strategy. These films live on the devil's crossroads in the current production and distribution crisis: Nine Lives was self-released with NFT midwifery (it's easier to see it in Poland); This Filthy Earth came out on one print at London's Curzon Soho. Should it feel blessed? Fellow FilmFourLab beneficiary Dom Rotheroe saw his Robby Müller-lensed debut, My Brother Tom, open in a celluloid corner shop: “Do you know what the Odeon Wardour Street is?” he asked Time Out's Nick Bradshaw. It's like a new disease has been identified. Will there be such a thing as half a print? You fund it and back it or what's the point? These are hardy, rough-edged works, but fragile also when they hit the market highway. The shortest run and no promotion is certifiable lunacy. With such work, word of mouth is the best publicity. But it takes time. Some new zone between cinema and the more supportive gallery environment seems essential.

nine-lives-of-thomas-katz-ben-hopkins-3.jpgThe Nine Lives of Thomas Katz dir. by Ben Hopkins 2001

But it's always really only ever been individuals like Kötting and Hopkins who have kept innovative, filmic imagination alive in this country, not structures. They tell mongrel yarns, hybrids, mixed-race in form and content. And so, if the halls are sealed against them, then it's not hard to see them spreading the news by any means necessary, as alley prophets, town criers, screening the potent truths they find on sheets and weather-beaten walls. And those who value such reports shall be there with them, watching and transported.

Gareth Evans is a freelance writer, reviewer and film programmer and contributes regularly to Time Out, The Independent and Filmwaves. He is co-writing a book on contemporary experimental culture, Rogue Transmissions, to be published in 2002.