In 2005 Ron Peck made a short film by the name of Soho for Second Run’s DVD edition of his 1991 documentary Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks II. Co-directed with his collaborator on the original Nighthawks, Paul Hallam, this brief 17-minute piece found Hallam reading from a screenplay whilst the various sex shops and takeaways of the titular London district provided the imagery. Utilising a digital video camera and a single viewpoint from a first floor flat, the film felt very much like a test piece - a means of investigating the material by combining loosely connected words and visuals. Watching in 2005 I assumed that Soho would eventually develop into its own fully-fledged feature, except this never came to be. However, whilst making my way through Peck’s latest venture, Cross-Channel, it was hard not to see that some of the seeds planted in that short had come to fruition. Not so much in the material itself, but also certainly in the execution.
Cross-Channel concerns itself with a ferry journey between England and France, a brief stop off in the city of Caen and the eventual return trip. Told in flashback by an unseen narrator, it tells of two brothers whose paths he had crossed a couple of years ago. The distance in time is significant as the story is also one dictated by a possibly fading memory, not to mention a great deal of interpretation. The two brothers perked the narrator’s interest on this particular journey - intrigued by their youth, demeanour and relationship - but he would only encounter them at certain points, whether spying on them from a distance or eavesdropping on a conversation. As such the story he tells is one in which the narrator himself has filled in the gaps, providing us with imagined scenarios as he attempts to connect these snatched observations and confirm his own suspicions that they have criminal connections. At one point he even acknowledges as much, coming up with a situation within which he has placed the brothers “for my own entertainment”. Further complicating this speculative fiction is the narrator’s own story, bits and pieces of which pepper the voice-over as he discusses his long distance relationship with a French woman that is slowly coming to an end. As he remembers the brothers, he also remembers her, though she remains firmly offscreen.
The resonances with Soho come through in the manner in which the digitally-shot visuals and the voice-over combine. Just as Hallam’s reading from the screenplay in the short prompted connections with the neon shop signs and the passers by, so too Cross-Channel’s narration is given added weight by what we see onscreen. The film feels almost like an adaptation of a short story or novella, as though the words came first and were later given their visual accompaniment. (Reading the production notes on the official website reveals that the voice-over was in fact the final element to be written, though this does nothing to lessen the effect.) The words become our guide, our map to the story. Even though the narrator is undoubtedly unreliable, it is his eloquence and adeptness at spinning a tale which commands our attention. Fittingly it is also Peck himself who delivers the narration, further emphasising exactly who is in command.
Outside of the voice-over Cross-Channel combines the two approaches which have occupied so much of Peck’s work to date. On the one hand there’s documentary, on the other semi-improvised drama born out of extensive rehearsals. The former comes through most heavily during the first journey from Portsmouth to Caen. The loading of the ferry before it embarks is captured in strictly observational terms and even cut as though this were straightforward non-fiction. Similarly a sequence from within the engine room or a brief peek into security office. The latter is utilised in telling the brothers’ story. Prior to shooting actors Mark Tibbs and Alan Milton worked through a series of improvisatory workshops in which they developed their characters and relationships. Tibbs, playing the older brother, has earlier worked with Peck on the documentary Fighters and its companion feature Real Money; indeed, it is a welcome sight to see him onscreen once more. Milton had no previous acting experience, but like Tibbs had a background in boxing. As Real Money demonstrated Tibbs has a good screen presence (much like his father who also appeared in the film), and happily Milton is able to match this. Their performances may demonstrate some rough edges, though I have the feeling that Peck prefers it this way. There’s a truth - or at least something more palpable - which comes through as a result, much like the characters and situations in Nighthawks and Real Money (or, too extend beyond Peck’s oeuvre, the films of the Amber Collective and Shane Meadows’ earliest efforts). Moreover, this blend of straightforward documentary and non-professional actors is highly complementary as each feeds off the other to keep Cross-Channel firmly rooted even as the narrator indulges flights of fancy.
This may suggest a certain gritty realism, yet there’s another aspect which arguably overrides all else. The journey itself, or rather the nature of the journey, is the true heart of Cross-Channel. The first significant shot of the film is a lengthy single take as the ferry leaves Portsmouth. The camera is situated on deck and it simply observes as the landscape slowly passes by. It plays like an homage to Thames Film, William Raban’s experimental 1986 documentary which followed a boat’s 50 mile journey from central London to the open sea. In that instance we had a voice-over from John Hurt narrating the history of the river with a rhythm that matched the film’s progression down the Thames. In the case of Cross-Channel we have something very similar: the calm pace complemented by Peck’s tones and Nicolas Girault’s ambient score thus setting the tempo for what is to come. Indeed, Peck understands the tranquillity of travel (especially that on sea), not to mention its limbic nature. His narrative exists between two lands and two ways of life, somehow real but not quite. There’s the feeling of an escape, plus a slight element of boredom perhaps, but also something of the dream state. And of course this fits in perfectly with his semi-imagined tale - it is, after all, the perfect environment in which to let the imagination run wild.
Ron Peck is releasing Cross-Channel onto DVD through his company RLP Projects. The disc is currently available exclusively through the film’s official website (see link below) and encoded for Region 0. As such we can view this release as director approved, even though it may not ultimately match up to previous releases of his film - all of which had input from Peck - courtesy of Second Run, the BFI and Network (who, at time of writing, have Empire State coming out on a Blu-ray/DVD dual format release in a matter of weeks). The film itself is ably handled with original aspect ratio and soundtrack in place, meaning 1.78:1 anamorphically enhanced and two-channel LPCM stereo. Given that Cross-Channel was shot digitally it is difficult to ascertain whether some of the visual flaws were inherent in the original materials or as a result of the transfer. There is some haloing and occasional instances of artefacting, though neither to any genuine distraction. The soundtrack similarly demonstrates some flaws - the voice-over is much crisper and clearer than the onscreen dialogue - though again this may be present in the original mix and doesn’t prove to be overtly problematic. The disc also offers optional French subtitles. Extras are limited to ten minutes worth of rehearsal footage in which we find Tibbs and Milton trying out there characters in a number of different scenes. Interestingly, they began with the roles reversed, though judging by the final result the correct decision was ultimately made. (The rehearsal footage is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and comes without optional subtitles.)
Cross-Channel can be purchased through the film's official website HERE
Nighthawks and Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks (also containing Peck's short films Soho and 149) were released onto DVD by Second Run in 2005, but have since gone out of print. The films were reissued in 2009 onto a two-disc Blu-ray or DVD package by the BFI containing a number of Peck's early films amongst the special features: Its Ugly Head, On Allotments, Edward Hopper and What Can I Do With a Male Nude. Second Run have also issued Fighters and Real Money onto DVD, whilst Network have Empire State issued a dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release. Reviews of the Second Run discs can be found by clicking the following links: Nighthawks, Strip Jack Naked and Fighters/Real Money. A review of Empire State can be found here.
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