British Artists' Films: Jayne Parker Review

The fourth release under the BFI’s British Artists’ Films banner in as many years is also the first to focus on a female practitioner. As with the previous entries – dedicated to William Raban, Chris Welsby and Ian Breakwell, respectively – it offers a cross-section of its subjects work as opposed to a complete collection, and is programmed in such a manner so that their preoccupations (and progressions) are readily ascertained. Yet Jayne Parker, as an artist, is less easy to pin down than a Raban or a Welsby and her films fit less easily into succinct categories such as ‘structural film’ or ‘landscape film’ as was the case with these contemporaries. Certainly, they are personal works and heavily based on performance (oftentimes her own) – and maybe it is this personal nature that makes them so distinctive, so adverse to an immediate placement within the confines of labels and type. From I Cat (1980, the earliest work present on the disc) through to Stationary Music (2005, the most recent), Parker follows her own interests as though making these titles purely for her own understanding rather than an audience at large.

So how do you sum up Parker’s work, as a piece such as this should be expected to do? Her own notes-cum-synopses (included in the accompanying booklet) are often vague – or should that be coy – yet strangely matter-of-fact and can only hint at the myriad themes and readings available. She has said that I Cat, for example, began as a list of things that made her vomit (“cat” also being a colloquialism) but this doesn’t demonstrate its violent, confrontational manner, its stark use of both sound and silence, its forceful, frequently disturbing imagery that could only exist in drawn form, or its wayward manner of animation that isn’t really animation at all. Nor does it confront the messy, youthful manner in which Parker explores the “list” and its pictures of bloody and gore and bodily functions as though trying to make some sense of it all. Indeed, if we are to pin down Parker – or at least those works made during the eighties comprising the first half of the disc – then it is this sense of personal exploration that proves key. Time and again she returns to the same images – the female form, viscera, flesh, fish and eels, water – juxtaposing and ritualistically fetishising them as a means of understanding.

The earlier films often bring to mind VALIE EXPORT, and those who purchase this disc should consider the two discs by Austrian label Index – her feature Invisible Adversaries and the 3 Experimental Short Films collection – as worthwhile companions. As with EXPORT, it is Parker herself who often takes centre stage in front of the camera, and both women use themselves to discuss the female form and experience, often in an unflinching manner as though we are being asked to stare back just as unblinkingly as these films stare at us. (Both also share an almost blank screen presence, reducing themselves to symbols indicative of a much wider concern or function.) Moreover, the stylistic approach is similarly comparable: static camera; an attention to detail, especially quiet, obscure gestures; the use of extreme sound or complete silence, both as a means of confrontation; and an overall simplicity – Parker has a clear fondness for black and white 16mm film, though this isn’t her sole format of choice – that makes the filmmaking aspects, no matter how rigorous, almost invisible.

In the accompanying interview Parker explicitly denies her work as possessing an autobiographical dimension. Yet given its sheer personal nature (especially, Almost Out [1984], not present on the disc, which also features her mother and taps into their relationship through dialogical juxtaposed interviews) and the fact that these are films are often made, initially at least, for herself, it is hard to buy wholeheartedly into such claims. Furthermore, the move into a more overt documentary method in the later pieces can’t help but be informed by the manner in which Parker had previously documented herself, however obscurely. Works such as Blues in B Flat (2000) and Stationary Music, which respectively present cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and Stefan Wolpe’s daughter Katharina playing his 1925 composition Sonata 1, simply make the performance elements all the more blatant, whilst the method of capturing them is much the same. Indeed, 1993’s Cool Jazz could perhaps be seen as bridge between the two periods: it has both Parker continuing the EXPORT-like explorations of K. (1989) and The Pool (1991), and introduces musical performance documentation as counterpart. In fact the meshing of the two poses the question as to whether both elements should be viewed as documentary and, by extension, all of the work which has preceded it.

These later pieces, however, are more obviously “mature” in their presentation. Gone are the messier associative forms of Rx Recipe (1980) and I Dish (1983); in their place a greater sense of command and control. Parker has always edited her own films (the very earliest were solely her own in all areas - I Cat comes with a pleasingly innocent “made by” credit) and by this point her sense of timing seems intuitive, almost second nature. The way in which she presents Stationary Music is little short of superb: the physical performance of Wolpe as she plays the piano, her fingers dancing abstract patterns, is secondary to her face – Parker’s main focus – revealing the emotions prompted by her father’s work. And then there’s the magnolias beautifully shot at night, intermittently employed and perhaps the only sign that this remains the work of an experimental artist.

Yet whilst Parker has progressed, and part of the pleasure in sitting down to this disc is in following that progression, this remains a body of work rather than a “career” of distinctive parts. Even The Reunion (1997), a BBC ‘Dance for Camera’ commission and therefore seemingly less personal, comes with a “conceived by Jayne Parker” credit. For each piece is as personal as the next, each feeds of the other (some could even be viewed as sequels almost, an idea she puts forth in the interview) and, as such, there’s a dense richness on display beyond the individual titles. You may quibble at some of the omissions (Almost Out, in particular, though this would have surely have prompted a two-disc set and was therefore unfeasible), but this is nonetheless a fine collection ripe for exploration and indeed re-exploration.

The Disc

Following the format of previous British Artists’ Films releases, this collects all of featured works onto a single disc and accompanies them with both interview and extensive booklet. Impressive as both these are (the latter contains 20 pages worth of notes on each of Parker’s films plus bibliography) it is the presentation of the films themselves that stands out as the highpoint. Indeed, the standard is uniformly excellent with only the muted colours of The Reunion providing any cause for complaint. Otherwise, we have superb transfers maintaining the original aspect ratios (1.33:1 in all cases) and offering tremendous levels of detail no matter what film stock was employed. Likewise the soundtracks are pin sharp and ably capture Parker’s dense, confrontational methods. Indeed, any flaws – other than those present in The Reunion’s rendering – are strictly the result of original production. The disc really does struggle to be faulted; all the more impressive given that Parker is hardly a widely-known artist and that this disc is sadly unlikely to sell beyond a select few.

Similarly impressive are the extras. I’ve already noted their extensiveness and just as the booklet covers Parker’s complete body of work, so too does the attendant 29-minute interview, complete with clips from films not featured on the disc itself. Furthermore, they also provide valuable additional insights as do Ali Smith’s liner notes. (Note that the Parker interview comes in an anamorphic 1.78:1 ratio.)

8 out of 10
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