This Our Still Life Review
Andrew Kötting doesn’t make films in the conventional sense. Despite having been behind a camera since the early eighties - and turning that camera on his own life throughout that time - it’s easier to look upon his output as a string of projects. His work encompasses both shorts and features, but also art installations, book and DVD combinations, and various other offshoots and alternatives. Their commissioners and sponsors have ranged from FilmFour’s short-lived Creative Fund to the Institute for Child Health. Meanwhile the work itself has taken in everything from straightforward dramatic pieces and animation to documentary and experimental flights of fancy. This isn’t someone who can be easily pinned down and classified.
And yet there is a discernible body of work in there, one that has its recurrent themes and ideas which happily bounce of each other. The feature films, such as Gallivant and This Filthy Earth, become a cue for multi-screen artworks or receive their own little miniature sequels. Occasionally, as was the case with Me, released in 2000, a performance piece intended as part of a bigger project ends up becoming its own standalone event. You sense that it’s all interconnected despite the surface differences and varying methods of delivery as though it’s all one piece for Kötting. Some instalments in this ongoing work are miniatures available to view on the director’s Vimeo channel, others are feature-length tales best suited to a cinema screen. Some are arguably quite obscure in their approach whereas others are positively populist. But all feed off one another, swaying back-and-forth between old and new concerns or conceits. In this respect Kötting may very well be a godsend for the DVD compiler: select a theme, bring together a collection of his works which share that theme, and you’ve an instant volume.
I’m obviously simplifying things, but such an approach can be loosely identified in the Kötting discs to date. When the BFI issued Gallivant in 2005 they offered up a double-DVD collection which supported this feature debut with various closely related shorts. The folk culture angle so prevalent in the film was covered by the accompanying Diddyköy. Similarly, Jaunt and the pilot version of Gallivant shared in its ideas of travel and so on. There was also a recreation of the two-screen installation derived from the main film, Visionary Landscapes, thus revealing another side to its director’s style. This wasn’t merely a collection of separate works, but a demonstration of Kötting repeatedly informs himself as he moves from one piece to the next. Subsequent DVDs of features number two and three - This Filthy Earth and Ivul - have done much the same. The former has another installation derived from the main film sitting alongside as well as a series of non-narrative shorts which recall This Filthy Earth’s more experimental interludes. The offbeat family portrait of Ivul, meanwhile, found a rhyme in Kötting’s wonderful tribute to his recently deceased father, In the Wake of Deadad. Another addition, early short Hub-bub in the Baöbabs, shared in the feature’s attention to landscape.
Continuing the trend, This Our Still Life devotes itself to Kötting’s daughter, Eden, just as Kötting himself has done so in his work since before she was born. Hub-bub in the Baöbabs was “dedicated […] to a baby on the way” and set in motion a whole series of films, documentaries and amalgams in which Eden would figure heavily. Occasionally she’s appeared on the sidelines - as was the case with fleeting or secondary appearances in Offshore and In the Wake of Deadad - though, more often than not, she’s been the central focus. If you’ve seen Gallivant then you’ll have met Eden already. She was the young daughter who accompanied her father and granny Kötting as they took a tour around the coast of Great Britain. She has Joubert syndrome which affects the brain stem and by extension muscle control, resulting in speech and balance difficulties.
At the time of Gallivant’s filming, during the summer and early winter months of 1995, Eden was just seven years of age. In the years since her father has captured her growing up in a range of home movies and film projects, with the former quite naturally feeding into the latter. The most recent, This Our Still Life which premiered last year, forms the centrepiece to this latest release. At one point we witness Eden celebrate her 22nd birthday, a sign of how much time has passed. Also present is Mapping Perception, a 2002 collaboration between Kötting and neurophysiologist Mark Lythgoe which formed part of a much bigger project tying art and science together. Eden and her condition were its central focus much as they are too in A Portrait of Eden, Gideon Koppel’s 2011 short for Project Art Works, an organisation who commission artists to make portraits of disabled young people. Kötting had no artistic input in this work, though he features onscreen alongside his daughter.
This Our Still Life and Mapping Perception make for a suitable pair, and not simply because of the shared subject matter. In fact, Eden is only part of This Our Still Life’s make-up, the other part being dedicated to Louyre, the “tumble-down farmhouse” (as John Roseveare’s booklet essay puts it) the Köttings have owned in the Pyrenees - and used as a holiday home for a few months every year - since 1989. Their strongest connection comes in their methodology: a combination of footage from Kötting’s own archive, a cut-up soundtrack of disembodied voices and samples, and intermittent blocks of text. Both are documentaries though perhaps not in the most rigid of terms. Mapping Perception comes with performed elements by Dudley Sutton (who’d appeared in This Filthy Earth for Kötting) and others, whilst each retains a firmly experimental edge. There is nothing in the style of conventional voice-over or other such audience-friendly devices. Rather we are asked to connect through other means.
Both films have plenty to communicate. Mapping Perception has a wealth of information to relate about Joubert syndrome and This Our Still Life takes us through life at Louyre over all those years since ’89. They confirm Kötting as the perpetual filmmaker - he seemingly captures everything and with whichever stock or style he has to hand. The images switch from crystal clear present day footage to wonderfully tactile 8mm material from the early nineties. We have both the dense grain of celluloid and the unintentional glitches of digital. (This Our Still Life has a dedication to “the technicians who rescued the hard drive with the fridge”.) Needless to say some of this footage has already appeared in earlier works, most notably 1990’s ten-minute short Hoi-Polloi, which similarly set its sights on Louyre and the Köttings various Pyrenees’ acquaintances. From a viewer standpoint all of these images from the past are an absolute treasure trove. They’re full of warmth and personal feeling, at their best recalling the ambience of such Stan Brakhage films as Window Water Baby Moving. On this level alone they force a massive connection as we glimpse the strong relationships this family unit has. Though candid, they’re also incredibly inviting.
This personal edge is particularly interesting when it comes to Mapping Perception. You sense that Kötting is firmly putting his stamp on the material, as though to claim ownership over the scientific parts. Yes, it’s a science doc that relays all of this info about Joubert syndrome and its affects and so forth, but it does in a manner that feels distinctly Kötting’s own and no-one else’s. Of course, in the case of This Our Still Life you wouldn’t expect anything less - it’s a filmmaker documentary two very important parts of his life, after all. Nonetheless, Mapping Perception doesn’t fail as an informative piece as a result. The cut-up soundtrack, the onscreen text and the use of imagery all combine to a create a constant stream of commentary. It’s almost too much for a single viewing, quite frankly, and demands a full and proper engagement. This Our Still Life is laidback in comparison, though it too utilises the cut-ups alongside Robin Rimbaud’s score.
By way of further contrast, A Portrait of Eden is practically silent. It utilises only natural sound recorded in the moment. For this film Koppel - director of sleep furiously - followed Eden over a single week in October of 2010. According to the booklet notes the intent was to aid professionals in assessing her needs as a young adult; the visual element being much stronger than paper-based descriptions. Yet whilst it could serve as a straightforward document in this regard there’s also no denying that it’s quite a remarkable little film in its own right. For starters it’s incredibly beautiful to look at. Koppel knows how to frame a scene and where to place emphasis within that frame even though this is, effectively, an extension of vérité. He keeps his distance and never feels intrusive, instead inviting the viewer into Eden’s experiences through the visual beauty. Of course, it lacks that personal edge of Kötting’s work - even if Koppel filmed over a considerably longer period it’s doubtful he’d ever achieve footage to match some of those moments in Mapping Perception and This Our Still Life - but that never prevents A Portrait of Eden from being an exceptional piece of filmmaking. Furthermore, with this particular release we have the contrasting works altogether allowing the best of both worlds.
This Our Still Life and its accompanying films happily share space on the same dual-layered disc encoded for all regions. The main feature is just under 57 minutes in length with the others having a combined time of just over an hour. (I haven’t mentioned the fourth film on the set in the main bulk of this review, the seven-minute An History of Civilisation.) This Our Still Life and An History of Civilisation were provided by Kötting himself as high quality proRes files, with Koppel doing the same for A Portrait of Eden. Mapping Perception, being a little older, was supplied as a master digibeta. All of the films look extraordinarily good on this disc and come director approved. Original aspect ratios are adhered to and any flaws in the image - glitches and pixilation in some of the digital footage from This Our Still Life, for example - would appear to be wholly inherent in the original materials. There’s no reason to believe we are not seeing these films as best we can given the format. A Portrait of Eden, in particular, is breathtaking. Soundtracks, meanwhile, are all similarly without flaw, or so it would appear. Given the denseness of those cut-up soundtracks on the Kötting films it’s hard to be entirely sure, though the fact that the visuals are so strong should allow us to safely presume that nothing is awry.
On-disc extras, as already noted, are the accompanying short films each of which should be considered as important as This Our Still Life. Pop the disc into your PC and you’ll also gain access to a five-page PDF document entitled ‘Hideyhole and Innersactum’. It consists of a piece Kötting wrote for the book Performance and Place (eds. Lesley Hill and Helen Paris, 2006) and which was later reprinted in an issue of Vertigo magazine. It’s a verse meditation on Louyre and ideas of place and what that represents; references to Tarkovsky’s ‘Zone’ and misquoted Joy Division lyrics abound. Further words are available in the 28-page booklet. Iain Sinclair, Sukhdev Sandhu and John Roseveare offer their thoughts on This Our Still Life plus there are individual notes and credits for each of the disc’s offerings. The wealth of illustrations include production stills alongside drawings by both Andrew and Eden Kötting, all in full colour.
The BFI editions of 'Gallivant' and 'This Filthy Earth' are still available from the usual suppliers, as is Artificial Eye’s release of 'Ivul'.