Seasons Past: The Films of Michael J. Ham

By William Fowler

her-village-summer-michael-j-hamm.jpgHer Village Summer, 1966

At the time of writing, the only canon Michael Ham’s intriguing films belong to is one of the geographic; the East Anglian Film Archive is looking after them. Their video of his last, Her Village Summer (1966), is introduced with an interview with the father of the deceased Michael Ham and supplemented with excerpts from Michael’s other films. The father is now dead too making EAFA both the custodians and the rights holders for the work of Michael Ham. These are truly orphan films.

Michael Ham died in 1966 having made a series of films with friends and family. He funded these films with his own money. He even bought his own 35mm camera, having progressed from 9.5 and 16mm. One way we could place him and his work would be to ally him with other British filmmakers who died young, seemingly denying us the latent promise of future great works. Michael Reeves, the director of Witchfinder General (1968), would be one. He died three years after Ham, in 1969. Another would be the Hitchcock assistant and Ealing director, Penrose Tennyson, who died in an aeroplane crash in 1941. Ham was to die in the less glamorous circumstance of a bicycle accident.

This accident and death could be described as providential. We could mourn the loss of unmade films but the ones that do exist suggest that Ham knew he wouldn’t last; death hangs heavy in virtually all. As does some repressed sexual urge. Drawing its narrative tension almost exclusively from morbidity, Ham’s silent Death of a Girl stridently and ominously announces, ‘if God wills the young should die; they must’. The man playing the girl’s father was Ted Ham, father of Michael. In investigating these films we very easily move into psychoanalytical readings of their author; this sounds a little like a remake of a misread scene from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Sex and death, in these films, either equate with each other or instead offer a form of liberation, if just in the form of narrative resolution.

her-village-summer-michael-j-hamm-2.jpgHer Village Summer, 1966

The tensions in Ham’s final film, Her Village Summer, are never quite resolved. Here the mixture of feelings towards town and country are left open and much of the film is ambiguous. The girl is bored in the village while the town, where the boy lives[1], is portrayed as being too busy. It is only the journey between the two that seems to offer explicit hope, through the use of a jaunty jazz tune. The return to the country and a new day again brings momentary joy and even wonder. After a demonstration of mixed feelings towards sex, on the part of the girl, the films end with the young couple passing by both an old couple and a new block of flats. The expectations and hopes of the future are mixed with optimism and pessimism.

In piecing together what the larger body of work constitutes, and whether we should be interested in it, it is striking to see that when viewed as a whole the films offer a fractured world of cross reference. Of the 9.5 and 16mm work, Ham frequently reused shots and sequences in many different films. Her Light shows a woman waking from a death-like sleep to pray in front of an altar, before playing a record to dance to. The woman then inadvertently breaks a ceramic crucifix, a break that goes unnoticed. In another loose, less structured and untitled film, many of these shots, including her slowly waking and standing-up are, cut with footage of an on-looking young man. There are also elliptical cuts to the shots of her dancing, now as if for, or in light of his presence. The crucifix features occasionally. The cutting in the second film is intriguing in itself but against the former work, the reuse and gaps of construction opens up the material and draws attention to the shot relation. With the continual cutaways and tight framing, Ham’s camera shots not only facilitate their multiplicity of uses but also demonstrate a strong eye and an approach of considerable forethought. His films build not from chronological events, as such, but the jigsaw puzzle of expressive juxtaposition. Tellingly, Ham worked as an editor for the BBC.[2]

Michael Ham’s diaries indicate that while he was passionate about making films from a very early age [3], he had little knowledge of contemporary cinema. Rather than asking if he would have become a great filmmaker, its more tempting to wonder if, had he lived, could Michael Ham have surfed the coming wave of sexual existential movies, such as Blow-Up (1966) and If... (1968), or would he would be left behind like the rural England of yore.

Michael Ham died forty-years ago, in the December of 1966, only days before the premiere of his last film, Her Village Summer. The negatives were left in a London facilities house and the premiere never happened.


Endnotes

[1] Her Village Summer was shot around Foxearth and Sudbury, close to Ham’s native Chelmsford.
[2] Peter Greenaway and Kevin Brownlow were also working as editors around this time. Greenaway for the COI and Brownlow for Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson.
[3] At the age of eleven, Ham wrote the script for a screen adaptation of Jane Eyre.


Videos of Her Village Summer can be bought from the East Anglian Film Archive.

William Fowler is the Curator of Artists’ Moving Image at the BFI National Archive. He is also a member of Free Cinema Seven.