Through December 14, 2015
Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell (1983–2013) begins with a close-up shot of vocal folds, whipping back and forth as if in the wind. It’s an announcement, not only of the tone of the film to follow, but of one of the themes that will occupy the entire Flaherty NYC Fall 2015 season. Programmed by Sukhdev Sandhu, the batch of films highlights the independence and radicalism of youth. The work, which runs the gamut from 1960s Direct Cinema to the 21st-century avant-garde, seeks to represent childhood as a liberated state. This is not to say that there are no rules, but rather that these rules are still being shaped. To be young, according to the assembled wisdom of these films, is to be more free.
Yet that initial image announces something slightly more specific. Accompanied by a doubled soundtrack, an operatic selection played at the same time as Yma Sumac’s“Malambo No. 1,” this unsettling evocation of the titular gates of hell also places us into linguistic territory. Thornton actually features a number of larynxes in this opening sequence, which begins to resemble a birth canal of vocalization. It heralds the arrival of Peggy and Fred, the film’s kid protagonists, but it also opens a conversation on the formation of language.
Once given the ability to speak, these two children run amok in a landscape crafted for them by Thornton, a network of rooms that are presented without relation to anywhere else, the enclosed spaces of No Exit or the Quay Brothers. Other times they don’t appear at all, but prattle in voiceover across a panoply of odd images. Their voices are therefore positioned as more important than their physical presence, a point that carries through to other films. Guy Sherwin’s Messages (1981–1984) is a silent film built entirely from the linguistic experimentation of Sherwin’s daughter. Narimane Mari’s Bloody Beans (2013) and Redmond Entwhistle’s Walk-Through (2013)are both driven by group discussions, though of very different types. Patricia Holland’s The Hornsey Film (1970), meanwhile, is a polyphonic symphony of the Hornsey Art College sit-in of 1968.
These films underline their focus on voice with visual refrains, some of them recalled more persistently than others. The Hornsey Film uses a shot of a high-speed printing press over and over, underlining the way that those involved in the Hornsey College of Art sit-in communicated their message to a wider audience. Walk-Through features images of group discussion, reenacting a long-ago seminar at CalArts that remains a legend in the minds of some of its participants. Peggy and Fred in Hell not only begins with those vocal flaps, but continues to feature images of a variety of types of repeated communication, including text crawling across the screen and looped archival intertitles. And, of course, there is all of Peggy and Fred’s chatter and song.
Yet, ironically, none of these films capture the act of acquiring language quite as immediately as Messages, the only silent film among them. Sherwin works words into his 16mm short in a number of ways. One crucial quotation is presented through shifting focus over a page, advancing like a message to a driver written on the pavement. “Names are what you see when you look at things.” The trouble is writing these names down, and that’s the central project of Messages. For instance, Sherwin combines images of trees with his daughter’s attempts to write the word “tree.” The variation in her attempts gives a certain life to the concept behind the word, an animist sort of independence. Ideas that are not yet pinned down by names have a greater, less immediately coherent life. Featured queries like “Why can’t you see the wind?” and “Why is the shadow of the stick longer than the stick?” add a dimension of occult quality to those intangible objects that Sherwin’s daughter is trying to name.
At the same time, Sherwin places his own daughter’s discovery of language in the context of the human discovery of language more broadly. Letters of all kinds proliferate, from hieroglyphics to braille. He presents diagrams of hands, some of them marked with the rational order of the QWERTY keyboard and others seemingly dipped in a box of mixed pictograms. This long history is not privileged over the linguistic efforts of a child, but rather placed in the same sphere. One of the many messages in Messages is that, despite the long, complex process of language’s invention, it occurs anew every time a child learns to place names on their surrounding world.
The experimentation on that one word, “tree,” also has a lot in common with the act of childhood play. Children practice words until they’ve gotten them right. Fred tries teaching Peggy how to speak correctly by repeating his advice. The children in Bloody Beans, reenacting a moment from the Algerian Revolution, also find themselves returning to the same words over and over again, particularly the titular beans. Even the archival footage in Peggy and Fred in Hell is occasionally looped, notably the wobbling entrance of a penguin named Pete taken from a silent film.
Yet these discourses are not simply about language as naming, but also renaming. Fred enters the film with a song, that old Sunday-school standby “Three Jolly Fishermen.” It’s the sort of repetitive song that gets stuck in your head, looping back to the beginning whether you’d like it to or not. In Fred’s case, however, it eventually morphs into “Billie Jean.” He presumably didn’t learn that one in church. The combination creates something new, a form of hybrid communication. He and his sister build a similar blend later on, when they play the roles of Jack Nicholson and Amelia Earhart. One a pop culture icon and the other a figure likely learned in elementary school, they combine to form a new genre of play, one with brashly ahistorical signifiers that fall between Hollywood gossip and history class.
The students at Hornsey Art College hardly offer accuracy in their masked impersonations of their administrative adversaries, but that’s hardly the point. They make a big show of burning up a stack of dictionaries, actively destroying language to make it anew in their image. Their own means of communication involves political slogans on signs, perhaps the most notable of which features a monstrous sea creature above the words “bureaucracy makes parasites of us all.” Their communicative power rests not only in their number, but in the way that director Holland shapes it.
The film is edited with emphasis on the number of individual voices, sharing the same mission but not necessarily the same words or tone. As one student explains toward the end of the film: “The talking was more important than the neat pithy conclusions we came up with.” Holland represents this observation cinematically, building discussions out of the varied first-person testimony of participants, usually staged with a speaker looking right into the camera. In one memorable sequence, different voices finish each other’s sentences. She focuses on the image of the printing press the most, but also features the dictation of political speeches with the help of a typewriter. The revolt that sweeps up Hornsey College is a talking, printing, typing revolt.
Of course, the Hornsey sit-in did not end the way the students had hoped. At the end of the summer of 1968 the school was repossessed by the authorities and the youths lost a lot of their leverage. Yet it could be seen, if not as a success, at least as a watershed moment. Their form of resistance became something of a playbook for future unrest in British schools.
As for their attempt to redefine language, that’s a bit harder to pin down. One student explains that while they tried their best, it was too difficult to overcome clichés. Yet Holland’s film shows an optimistic counterpoint to this murky outlook. She begins her film with the clichéd testimonies of students who’ve just arrived from high school, full of hope. By the time they leave, the hackneyed language of the pop bildungsroman has been burned up by the collective fire of the Hornsey project. The Hornsey Film demonstrates the collective potential of language, reframing community for its participants so that they value their political awakening more than the normative educational and professional modes that met them upon graduation.
Granted, it’s hard to say what these students will do with this new language. For those interviewed by Holland, it seems that their biggest takeaway is the rejection of formal education and the capitalist art gallery. The redefinition of language and the renaming of a world is a powerful perceptual shift, but it is still only a tool.
Like The Hornsey Film, many of these films end with ambiguity. Peggy and Fred in Hell flies to the cosmos for musings on technology and a biblical revelation that just seems to miss total understanding. Bloody Beans finds its way to a party on the beach. Messages, for its part, is content in asking questions and making connections, without necessarily offering any sort of neat conclusion. The acquisition of language may be the most significant, most complicated, and most artistically rich aspect of youth, but it is also as transitional as youth itself. The resolution of childhood, after all, is adulthood: hardly a state of confidence and certainty. The shared wisdom of the assembled children is not the flat accomplishment of language learned, but rather the potential of language used. The possibilities are infinite.
DANIEL WALBER is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. He holds a MA in cinema studies from New York University. His writing on film and opera has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, Dok.Revue and Indiewire.