One of the BFI’s latest releases, Gallivant contains not only Andrew Kötting’s 1996 feature debut, but also his entire filmic career from a decade prior to the present day, the only exception being feature number two, his digitally shot modern day Emile Zola adaptation This Filthy Earth (though this is available on DVD elsewhere). Such a circumstance is a pleasing one, but also a difficult one for the newcomer: as the additional 12 shorts are essentially special features, should they be viewed after Gallivant? Or should we instead view Kötting’s career as it progressed beginning with 1984’s Klipperty Klöpp and concluding with last year’s (2004’s) collaboration with Jem Fisher, the two-screen projection Visionary Landscapes? There’s no easy solution - and Kötting’s film notes (present in one of the two accompanying 24-page booklets) don’t provide any answers - but then to approach a filmmaker’s work with a true chronology is actually quite a novel prospect. Unless a director makes a huge impression with their debut - say Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs or Steven Soderbergh with Sex, Lies and Videotape - we rarely get the opportunity to see them develop proper. After all, who experiences Sanshiro Sugata as their first taste of Akira Kurosawa or has the chance of sitting through each of Alfred Hitchcock’s silents before viewing the (generally speaking) more famous sound efforts? With this in mind the BFI’s two-disc set (released as a stylish if difficult to get into digipack, a new move for their distribution arm) will be approached chronologically with Klipperty Klöpp being the first stop.
The most immediate aspect of this 12-minute piece (aside from its distinctive, unexpected title - though it still fails to top my personal favourite, the Betty Boop short Whoops! I’m a Cowboy) is how much it resembles a hitherto undiscovered artefact. Not simply because it is undoubtedly little seen, but for the fact that it feels as though it is in need of interpretation. Shot on dirty, smudgy Super 8, Klipperty Klöpp provides a sound collage accompanied by vague but playful imagery. It plays like a Samuel Beckett monologue inflected with a pagan sensibility; there are hints at bestiality and abuse (sexual and perhaps drug?) but narrated by Kötting in a mumbling manner that adopts both odd phrasing (and phrases - “By Jove”, “Whoops a daisy”) and a disarming humour. Things become clearer with each viewing, but is this down to personal interpretation? What is clear is that Kötting has an undoubted talent for creating a mood (his use of music is especially distinct) and whilst there is a hint of the Derek Jarmans about this short (The Last of England, the earliest shorts), it’s also a defiantly singular work.
Made six years later 1990’s Hoi-Polloi is perhaps even more obscure but shares similar concerns. For the most part it plays like an homage to Peter Greenaway’s H is for House; the visual element consists of the Köttings holidaying with an aural accompaniment made up of what sounds like elderly vox pops. Any hints at documentary are rendered defunct, however, courtesy of the editing strategies which reinvent Greenaway’s parochialism into a kind of The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film with - once again - paganistic overtones (am I the only one reminded of Richard Stanley’s music videos for the Fields of the Nephilim?) and a self-referential wit. The most commonly repeated phrase of the “narration” if you will is “I don’t know what’s going on”, most pertinently inserted at the conclusion of Hoi-Polloi’s 11 minutes.
Though most definitely a different beast, the following year’s Acumen contains reoccurrences from these two previous works. There’s a focus on landscape and eccentricity as through an autobiographical eye, but also with a nod once more towards Samuel Beckett. It’s a cryptic piece, as Kötting puts it himself “codified... [and] stubbornly refus[ing] to reveal any literal meaning”, prompting us once again to make our own associations and interpretations. In this case, however, its personal dimension doesn’t so much come through any biographical detail, but rather Kötting’s continued development of a singular style. Certainly, as with Terence Davies’ pre-Neon Bible work the two factors are undeniably intertwined - and Kötting is becoming more formal - but what we pick up on is the paraphernalia of Englishness and English life as opposed to any kind of individual specificity. (Note that some of the dialogue on this short is ever so slightly out of synch, though this may be the result of the soundtrack having been recorded in post-production.)
And yet just as we’re beginning to get a handle on this emergent style, H.B. 1829 (His Bad Blöod) comes along and shifts the boundaries. Perhaps because it was shot in the French Pyrénées, the sense of Englishness is almost completely diminished. In many ways it is instead a work that harks back to Klipperty Klöpp: an obscure performance piece, distinctive sound design and voice-over (in this case a folk song), shot on Super 8 as opposed to the 16mm used fully or in part on the two prior works and, of course, the idiosyncratic title. But then it also retains the home movie dimension and nod towards self-reflexivity from elsewhere. Is Kötting merely running on the spot or honing his ideas?
Any accusation of the former are swiftly assuaged with Diddyköy. A collaboration with N.R.G. Smith (who would henceforth become Kötting’s sometime director of photography), here we find the developing forms applied to the short form documentary. The camerawork still has a rough hewn quality and the sound design remains adventurous in its blending of voices and music, but in being grounded by a perceivable event - namely the Gypsy Horse Fair in Stow-on-the-Wold, Diddyköy is easily the most immediately rewarding work to date. Moreover, having provided these foundations, Kötting is free to explore his various concerns - in this case, ironic counter parting and a deep rooted love for, or at least fascination of, tradition - without the danger of becoming too obscure.
At which point we reach Gallivant and the temptation to view everything that has come before as mere preparation. The various themes in Kötting’s work are now all readily apparent - Englishness via folklore, tradition, etc. - as is his skill at manipulating them to suit his mood (nostalgia here, irony there). Yet Gallivant appears in two forms, the feature, of course, but also an eight-minute “pilot” made two years previous, and so are we in fact getting further preparation? A dry run before the main event? Either way this short test (experiment wouldn’t be the right word as it applies to everything on these two discs) reveals itself to have an added depth and breadth. Kötting sets out to various British coastlines gathering snippets of film and video along with DATs of snatched dialogue and blends them into a more rounded remake of Diddyköy’s style. And rather than become vaguer courtesy of its bigger theme, Gallivant mk 1 becomes ever more playful. Indeed, Kötting is exceptionally light-fingered in his methods meaning that the sheer quantity crammed into its brief running time prompts the urge to skip back and watch it all again rather than confusion.
Of course development being what it is, Gallivant’s feature film incarnation wouldn’t reach big screens for another two years and so a further two shorts occupy the rest of 1994 and the start of 95. The first was a BBC commission co-financed by the BFI (who has also funded Smart Alek) and designed to celebrate the completion of the Channel Tunnel. Entitled Là bas (Down There) it once again sees Kötting on a fictional narrative bent, but as he notes himself it was all a bit “last minute”. The Chunnel connection allows for a bit of Gallic flavour into his prized England, yet this only serves to water it down. Indeed, the focus shifts from Kötting’s usual concerns and towards half-arsed nouvelle vague homage/parody and a slim line humour quotient (especially damaging as it most definitely intended to be a comedy). Far more impressive is the second of these interim pieces, a brisk five-minute effort entitled Jaunt. Essentially an offshoot from Gallivant’s initial incarnation, it compiles a whole series of pleasure trips down the Thames into a, well, jaunty whole. Imagine William Raban’s Thames Film reconfigured so that only its basest essentials remain and you’re almost there, though this still wouldn’t give you a sense of its humour; Kötting’s narration compiles his typical roster of talking heads - mostly the pleasure trip hosts - and, quite simply, it’s gag-laden.
Yet nothing can quite prepare for Gallivant in its full length form. If the other works had been mere sentences or paragraphs then this is a full blown essay. Kötting traverses all 6000 miles of the coastlines of England, Wales and Scotland with daughter Eden and grandmother Gladys in tow. On the one hand, the film serves as a travelogue, on the other it’s a home movie, but things are never quite this simple. What strikes most insistently about Gallivant is Kötting’s openness both in terms of style and ideas. As long as it fits the loose remit of his now recurrent themes, everything is welcome.
As such we get a paean to life’s eccentricities. In a way Gallivant could be read as an idiosyncratic remake of various news reports: at one stop of point we get gurners, at another tales of giants. Indeed, the film encompasses a huge amount, being at once a disjointed history lesson and an embrace of the present day. Sea shanties and lewd graffiti are given equal sway whilst the photography is equally at home with both the garish and the utterly beautiful.
All of which would suggest that Gallivant is simply a feature length translation of Kötting’s early techniques (not that this is necessarily a bad thing), but then this would be to ignore its most prominent attribute, namely Eden and Gladys. Though both have had cameos in a number of previous shorts, their presence here affords the film a more direct documentary quality. Kötting even provides a conventional voice-over to explain Eden’s disabilities and low life expectancy (she has Joubert Syndrome) as well as Gladys’ own nearness to death. Thus Gallivant also becomes a kind of last chance gathering, a film motivated by deeply personal reasons and a discourse on mortality. In other words, there’s a greater depth of character and emotion than in what has come before and as such marks a genuine step forward. Of course, Kötting’s free-for-all mentality results in some misjudgements, but much of what he does feels absolutely correct - even if a number of instances come as complete surprises both to him and to us - and with its poignant yet upbeat core, such digressions are easily forgiven.
So where to next? Having completed what is quite clearly the most important work of his career so far is a complete change of direction in order? Before we can answer this we get what Kötting describes as an “exorcism”. 2000’s Me consists of a sequence originally intended for inclusion in Gallivant, a visceral five-minute performance piece by the director himself. It harks back to Klipperty Klöpp and H.B. 1829 in its obscurity, but is the image of the artist banging his head against the wall to be taken literally?
The following year Kötting was still buzzing around the same ideas. Invalids, a minute long commission from Film Four, compiles more holiday-shot footage into a witty, if understandably brief, excursion into mortality. Of course, it doesn’t really add anything new to Kötting’s oeuvre and could easily have been inserted into Gallivant had it been shot in the UK rather than France, but then it’s churlish to complain when he does this kind of thing so well.
Indeed, the concluding entry on these discs is once again Gallivant related. Visionary Landscapes (for the last time?) reconstructs that film’s Super 8 elements into a two-screen installation. Accompanied by a largely musical soundtrack (though Kötting can’t always resist his dialogue cut-ups), the Gallivant footage is stripped of much of its nuance and reinvented as a mood piece. It’s a successful transition on its own terms, but suffers from comparison to the original. And in being situated so close to its source, such comparisons are unavoidable. That said, it does feel a long way from 1985 and Klipperty Klöpp. As with Gallivant itself we feel as though Kötting has embarked on a lengthy, eventful journey. Maybe this time he hasn’t arrived in exactly the same spot, but the stomping ground is pretty much the same.
Hampered only by the fact that it is presented non-anamorphically, Gallivant otherwise looks superb on disc. Bearing in mind that the film - and the accompanying shorts - adopt a number of film stocks, the imagery is pretty much flawless. Indeed, the sharper 35mm footage looks as though it was filmed yesterday and any technical flaws are firmly the result of the source material. Likewise, the soundtrack does little else but impress. The original stereo is present and the disc copes ably with Kötting’s intricate, layered sound designs.
As for the extras package, the presence of 12 short films totalling over two hours can hardly be faulted, plus there is the presence of two 24-page booklets. The first offers a brief introduction from Kötting and his original treatment, the second an article by Iain Sinclair which originally appeared in Sight and Sound at the time of Gallivant’s release and Kötting’s film notes for the feature and each of the shorts. The only element that may seem missing is a commentary to accompany the main event, but then such is the complexity of Gallivant that one is pretty much included already. Kötting doesn’t shy away from offering his own thoughts throughout the film, whilst all of the anecdotal moments from the filming are, of course, included. All in all, an excellent package.
As with the main feature, each of the shorts comes with optional English subtitles.