When I booked I thought that my partner and I would be by ourselves in the cinema to watch By Our Selves. The entry in the Cork Film Festival booklet reads “Andrew Kötting’s latest foray into documentary toys with time, reality and perception in luscious black and white”. We were attracted to it obviously for reasons of style but also because it deals with John Clare, an English poet, whom we had long admired and knew a little bit about. Not only that, but I thought that as an avant-guard director, Andrew Kotting might have something to tell me about my essay on sound in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy. It also turned out to be useful for our up-coming seminar on Patrick Kavanagh and Tom Mac Intyre’s The Great Hunger: poem into play.
An extract from By Ourselves gives a taste of its style and content: John Clare was incarcerated in Dr Matthew Allan’s private asylum near Epping Forest and in 1841 he escaped from it to walk 90 miles back to his native Northamptonshire. The film recreates this journey segueing, visually and in sound, from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. Clare (Toby Jones) is mostly silent: there is little dialogue in the film. Closeups of his eyes show uncertainty and bewilderment as he stands at the side of the A1 motorway or is stopped by closed gates at a level crossing. Trains, planes, vehicles, wind turbines and their noise assault him as he plods along wooded and agrarian tracks. Sometimes, bizarrely, he is accompanied by a life-size straw bear (Andrew Kötting) and at times meets up with a strange Dorothy in red shoes (Eden Kötting). Whilst these are clear references to The Wizard of Oz, there are also flavours of the ancient legend of John Barleycorn and the English traditional arts of morris dancing and mummers. The film is a complex montage of sounds and images, punctuated by interviews, conducted by Iain Sinclair, with a local historian, a university expert and locals met on the journey of the filmmaking.
Like The Butcher Boy the film attempts to place the audience in the troubled mind of its protagonist by disorientation and hallucination. Certainly this worked, judging by the demeanour of many in the auditorium. Occasional cries, shouts and hisses shocked us as we sat, pinned to our seats by the oddness and absurdity of the action. These outbursts seemed in concert with the atmosphere of the film, paradoxically peaceful and pastoral whilst, at the same time, loudly weird and anxiety-inducing. The apparatus of filmmaking was on display: microphones and cameras often intruded into shot, mirroring Clare’s feelings of always being watched. He was being watched, not only in his era of 1841 but also watched by locals who saw the film being made and, of course, watched by us in the cinema in 2015.
Similar to The Great Hunger: poem into play, the film is an adaptation. Clare’s journal, read aloud, sometimes as a voiceover by Freddie Jones (Toby Jones’s father, who starred in the 1970 television documentary about John Clare). At other times, Freddie Jones was onscreen, reading or, at one moving moment, searching in his memory for the words of Clare’s poem “I am”. The eliding of the actors playing younger and older Clare utilised the family likeness between (Toby and his father Freddie) resulting in another unsettling experience for the audience. Nothing is explained; the film merely unfolds, often expecting the spectators to make links, as if we were psychiatrists probing Clare’s unhappy consciousness and subconsciousness. This helps me understand the adaptation of the play The Great Hunger from the poem of the same name. The poem contains very little dialogue whereas dramatic form normally requires it. Mac Intyre, like Kötting, forces effort from his audience. Scene after scene in the play contains few spoken words. The peasant life of Maguire is communicated by physical acting and patterns of actor movement on the stage. Actors are multi-roling, and not just as human beings; sometimes they are birds, or cattle. Using a sparse set and few props they recreate the mind-numbingly repetitive life of Maguire; hungry for love, hungry for spiritual joy but stumbling beneath the physical work of a life which constrains him to be married to his fields.
All three protagonists in these similar/different productions are spoken for in the words of Clare’s most famous poem:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes —
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
The Butcher Boy Dir. Neil Jordan Perf. Eamon Owens, Stephen Rea, Fiona Shaw. Warner Brothers 1997. Film
By Our Selves Dir. Andrew Kötting. Perf. Toby Jones, Freddie Jones, Iain Sinclair UK 2015. Film
Clare, J., Selected Poems Ed. Jonathan Bate 2003 Faber and Faber. Print
Kavanagh, P., Mac Intyre, T. The Great Hunger: poem into play 1988, Lilliput Press. Print
The Wizard of Oz Dir. Richard Thorpe. Perf. Judy Garland, Terry the dog. MGM 1939. Film