Dead Pan

By Mike Sperlinger

variety-ian-breakwell-4.jpgVariety, dir. by Ian Breakwell, 2001

With a new film to show for his vertigo  initiated residency at the National Film & Television Archive Last year, artist Ian Breakwell speaks about the fruits of his research


Ian Breakwell is surprised when people call his new film Variety ‘bleak’: “I don’t really see it like that. When it seems to be at its most desperate is, in a strange kind of way, when it’s, in the true sense of the word, at its most comic – I don’t necessarily mean funny, but comic.”

The b/w 20 minute Variety is a by-product of Breakwell’s six month residency, as part of the ‘Year of the Artist’, researching a gallery project of the same name in the National Film Archive. Breakwell – a practising artist for over 30 years and internationally known for his writing, photography and TV ‘diary’ pieces, as well as his films – will curate the opening show at the refurbished De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea in 2004. This show will explore the relationship between the variety tradition – “by which I mean the non-scripted play: variety theatre, music hall, fairground, pantomime, magic, illusion” – and contemporary art practice. “The idea would be that artists from the variety tradition and from contemporary art would be shown side-by-side as equals. The contemporary art show would not have a back-up programme of ‘where this stuff has come from’, things would be shown equally.” Tommy Cooper (“a great performance artist”) would be given his due alongside Mark Wallinger perhaps, or Flanagan and Allen with Gilbert and George – artists either directly influenced by the variety tradition or reconfiguring some of its elements.

variety-ian-breakwell-1.jpgVariety, dir. by Ian Breakwell, 2001

A film was never the intended result of his research, which was always focused on the gallery show, but Variety became a kind of maquette for the larger project, “a way of saying, this is what I’m talking about.” Conceived and produced in an intense six week period, Variety is also an important marker in Breakwell’s own work, a bridge back to some of his very earliest films, as well as a dense rethinking of his own relationship to film-as-form. Breakwell notes the natural affinity between experimental, non-narrative film and variety theatre, with its disconnected series of acts; and in fact, though he didn’t consider it at the time, Variety seems to revisit two of his own earlier films, Repertory (1973; “a series of imagined presentations in a locked and empty theatre”) and Nine Jokes (1971; exactly what it says). Composed of twelve short, unconnected episodes, Variety distils Breakwell’s months of research into dense, suggestive fragments of heavily worked-over footage. Early performers are lingered over, often slowed or looped, until their slurred images, torn out of context, become almost demonic: a ham actor sinks his head into his hands on a shop counter which boasts an absurdly large tin labelled ‘rat poison’; a sitcom about a henpecked husband is edited into a staccato series of slaps, each of which precipitates the childish comedian into a pratfall; a television chanteuse warbles in a flimsy accent on a flimsier set, while our eyes are drawn inexorably to the fake leaf which has fallen into her décolletage. Funny peculiar.

“My personal preference is for a kind of bleak, end-of-the-plank type humour”, explains Breakwell. “What really makes me laugh is the deadpan, the seemingly utterly fucking miserable and morose, and somehow or other you start laughing and can’t stop. George Formby Sr., the father of the famous ukulele player, is a genius at that: he is world-weary, resigned, he’s terminally ill with tuberculosis – and he’s paralysingly funny.” ‘End-of-the-plank’ is a happily ambiguous phrase for Variety’s various board-treaders, and Breakwell is well aware of the analogy between the players and the record we have of them, “the fragility both of these performers who left no evidence other than their own selves and the fragility of the medium that was invented to record them.” The performers are dead, variety itself seems moribund and the films are themselves deteriorating almost to the point of extinction: this explains the deathly quality to the deadpan, which some critics have picked up on.

variety-ian-breakwell-2.jpgVariety, dir. by Ian Breakwell, 2001

Breakwell, however, is unsentimental: “The music hall and the variety tradition is considered to have been killed by television. Well, actually it persisted on television a lot and now, ironically, there is a growing alternative cabaret circuit in which there is the opportunity for speciality acts again… People are reworking some of these old traditions like ventriloquism, juggling, mentalism, strip-tease. They’re doing it in a knowing, I won’t say ‘post-modern’ – ‘post-variety’ way.” But it is also the very ageing of this material which makes it speak. Even contemporary ‘light entertainment’ seems estranged from these raw performances, with their vulgar subtexts, antiquated mugging and uncensored mistakes – attributes which, under Breakwell’s patient gaze, only contribute to their uncanny quality.

A recent newspaper reviewer of a London Cirque du Soleil show observed, disparagingly: “Unlike traditional circus, which is riddled with deliberate (as well as accidental) mistakes, all errors are brutally eradicated”. The interplay of accident and design, which was always thematic for the best variety acts – as with two of Breakwell’s heroes, Tommy Cooper and Buster Keaton – is what history gradually exposes in many of these performers. Rosalina Neri, the hapless singer in the wayward leaf section of Variety, is in many ways the film’s star turn: “It’s just the way that she ploughs remorselessly on, but you can’t take your eyes off the leaf – if you ever spot it!” Attention to the nuances of the material saves Variety from sneering; Breakwell suspects that Neri, an Italian, is singing English phonetically, and thus garbling the lyrics – “that’s got the quality of absurdity I like”.

If it is only now, in a ‘post-variety’ period, that such art-friendly absurdities are apparent, a similar logic governs Variety’s approach to film as a medium. Breakwell sees the revival of interest in pre-cinematic forms – “that early trick-film stuff, the Mutoscopes, the panoramas,” – as the product of a ‘post-cinema’ situation: “Being after something makes you think, ‘Well, what was before?’ Never mind the middle! The further back you go, you find more and more references to what’s going on now – a lot of the installation stuff you see now is much less influenced by recent work than by very, very old things, like dioramas, magic lantern shows.”

variety-ian-breakwell-3.jpgVariety, dir. by Ian Breakwell, 2001

As a result, Variety is as much an elegy for film itself as for variety. Breakwell investigates his archive footage with a forensic eye for deterioration and decay: “sometimes”, he reflects, “a bit of old film which was mediocre in content could have an extraordinary quality just from what an awful physical state it was in.” In the section called swallow, in which the camera disappears into a bowler-hatted man’s mouth, Breakwell created the interior of the mouth by grafting grain sampled from the film stock; as a result, the viewer feels that he is at once disappearing down a gullet and at the same time moving closer to the material of the film itself. “Somebody said jokingly to me at the Lux Centre when it was shown, someone associated with the London Film-Makers’ Co-op: ‘I always knew you were a structural filmmaker Ian’. And I took it as a compliment, actually, because I knew what they were saying.

Because a lot of the stuff that was done then – which is often considered to be the absolute opposite of me, all the structuralist stuff about the material of the medium – I was interested in it but I just didn’t approach it in the same way, I was always interested in a kind of narrative and storytelling as well. But certainly, working at the archive I became absolutely fascinated by the physical qualities of the film, and all the different formats as well. There’s an incredible tactile, textural, sensual richness to this stuff, and the fact that it’s, in conventional terms, ‘deteriorated’ makes it something else, years later”.

One of Breakwell’s films from that Co-op period, Sheet (1970), a collaboration with Mike Leggett, has just screened at Tate Modern as part of the major Co-op retrospective Shoot Shoot Shoot, in a programme which Breakwell himself introduced. An oddity, the film ‘stars’ a white bed-sheet which appears in a series of unconnected locations. As well as bearing out his assertion that his interest in oblique narratives was always close to structural concerns, the film shares with Variety a strangely ambiguous tone. Breakwell himself thought it “essentially an absurd film”, but then a woman who’d seen the film wrote him a letter, analysing the whole film as being all about death and casting the sheet as a shroud. “I remember showing the letter to Mike, and we sat there scratching our heads.” Now when he sees it, he can appreciate the abject quality of his old bed-sheet. “And that interests me very much: do you really know what you’re making at the time?”

No more, it appears, than Rosalina Neri. But history seems likely to judge Ian Breakwell and his work a little more kindly.


Mike Sperlinger works for LUX.