In early 2008 the British Film Institute secured an agreement with the Central Office of Information to represent and manage their collection of public information films. Exact numbers as to exactly how many titles this entails are hard to come by (especially as the BFI are still going through the documentation), although a rough figure of 9,000 individual films is generally given. Since this arrangement the BFI have started to issue various examples onto disc, primarily through their dedicated two-disc COI Collection releases, but also as part of wider-ranging compilations (The Joy of Sex Education, Shadows of Progress) and as extras on some of their Flipside discs. By my count, that makes just under a hundred COI titles released to the general public by the BFI to date, a figure which hopefully points up the fact that it would be impossible for all 9,000 films to see the light of day - especially with the care and context that we have seen thus far. It should also be pointed out that other DVD labels, especially smaller scale outfits such as DD Video, Panamint and Strike Force Entertainment, have also issued various COI examples, and similarly as part of larger compilations or amongst the extras on better-known works, but again the amount pales in comparison to the overall output, welcome though each individual title is.
It’s this kind of thinking which has no doubt led to the conception of MisinforMation. Targeted more at the fan of experimental cinema than it is to the connoisseur of documentary filmmaking, this particular disc approaches the COI’s vast output from a very different angle. The press release describes it as “one of the BFI’s most startling and uncategorisable DVD releases”, but here’s an attempt:
Essentially, MisinforMation fits into that brand of filmmaking which also encompasses Bill Morrison’s Decasia, Simon Pummell’s Bodysong and Gustav Deutsch’s Film ist. projects (indeed, Bodysong even utilises some COI material). Found footage is the key, effectively rendered as raw materials to be altered, abused, reconfigured or restructured to meet the filmmakers’ needs. In MisinforMation’s case the COI library has been put at the disposal of Mordant Music, whose work has been described as an “electronic hall of mirrors” and regularly likened to that of Throbbing Gristle. As expected the soundtrack becomes of the greater importance here, the COI offerings wiped clean of their original scores and/or narrations to be replaced by MM’s occasionally sedate, but predominantly abrasive musique concrète. The assembled public information films, as a result, begin to take on a life of their own, far removed from the original intent, and collectively create a narrative which, just like the new score, alternates between obliqueness and clarity.
Such a description still leaves plenty of gaps, but hopefully demonstrates the overall intent. However, where MisinforMation takes a sidestep from the Decasia et al model is the manner in which Mordant Music, for the most part, leave the visual element alone. Mute your television and the films remain exactly the same, except for the few instances where their own edits have been made or where excerpts are utilised as opposed to complete works. In certain cases we even get the original credits and disclaimers intact. The result is a very different beast from the above found footage examples inasmuch as the edit no longer becomes the guiding factor. There’s no use of repetition, cross-cutting, slow motion or any of the other techniques as deployed by Morrison, Pummell and Deutsch and as such MisinforMation engulfs its audience in alternative ways. Of course the scores to Decasia and Bodysong especially (the latter by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) play as integral a part to the overall results of their respective films as the MM soundtrack does here, but the interaction between sound and image plays very differently.
Indeed, those aware of the COI’s output will no doubt recognise what I mean when I mention their lack of dynamism. There are exceptions, certainly, and this isn’t meant as a criticism, but rather a recognition of the fact that, more often than not, they have to account for a great deal of commentary and information. In many ways, the original soundtracks are oftentimes more important than the visual content; it is the narrator who controls the film, not the other way around. And so, when this element is stripped away and replaced by an alternative aural accompaniment, the calm editing tempos become all the more apparent. The result for MisinforMation is the feeling that we are lingering over the material and given more time with which to process the visual element. Moreover, when combined with the abrasive score this aspect takes on far greater significance: there is no longer such a thing as an innocuous image, even a shot of a bathtub or a disinterested child takes on some kind of significance, both initially as we fumble for MisinforMation’s intended narrative, and eventually as things become clear and our footing is more secure.
So what does MisinforMation have to say? What is its story, if you will? It is tempting to highlight the science fiction undertones first and foremost, from the electronic score to the emphasis on science-centred COI films amongst those utilized. Outdated technologies are dominant, both onscreen and in their use to provide basic visual accompaniment. Furthermore the images of concrete tower blocks and flyovers, now removed from the original positive voice-overs once extolling their virtues, take on the air of a Ballardian nightmare or the setting for one of David Cronenberg’s early works. The Britain of the 1970s and early 1980s that provided these images and settings no longer exists courtesy of an innocent record of the time, but rather some kind of alternate dystopia, a parallel reality where the streets are occupied by glue-sniffing skinheads and vacant-looking girls at local discotheques. Watching them you understand how Stanley Kubrick’s future for A Clockwork Orange was so easily achievable: the groundwork was already there.
MisinforMation sits within this dystopia for some time. Early on animation from Charley in New Town (1947, but reused for 1974’s New Towns in Britain) seems to represent the spread of a massive virus. Later on Ideal Homes (1970) is twinned with the soundtrack from Tackling Priority Estates (1983), albeit in a warped fashion, to make them sound anything but ideal. Meanwhile, a man sits in a busy restaurant with his miniature TV (the Sinclair Pocket TV, as featured in the film of the same name from 1980), the very model of isolation. But there is hope, and gradually MisinforMation retreats to rural locales and the coast for a simpler way of life, unadorned with technology (or at least that’s my interpretation). And with this hope comes the thought that perhaps Mordant Music are offering their own critique of the COI’s output, highlighting the fact that the travelogues (present here through Looking at Prehistoric Sites ) and the seaside-set documentaries remain easier to stomach than the urban-set ones. Speaking in generalisations, the latter are now informed by history, the realisation that great blocks of flats and the like didn’t produce social utopias. The former, with their lack of politicising and gentler charms, however, feel fresher and provide escapism, unencumbered as they are from social concerns and realities. Maybe, as we leave the towns and cities behind and head to the sea (and the score loses its industrial edges to become more tranquil and still), MisinforMation is revealing where, given the choice between the two, it would rather reside.
The BFI are releasing MisinforMation onto a single dual-layered disc. As with the COI Collection volumes the films have been newly remastered from the highest quality elements available, though in certain cases this has meant using original analogue tape masters. Each of the titles utilised in making MisinforMation comes in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, whilst the 18 certificate is explained courtesy of the glue sniffing that makes up practically every scene used from Illusions (a film about solvent abuse). As is to be expected the picture quality does aver, though in this instance the any examples of damage or wear fit in quite nicely with the overall concept and, of course, the soundtrack. Speaking of the latter, here we find a stereo presentation that ably copes with both the more abrasive textures and the quieter moments. Understandably there are no optional subtitles available.
Extras are limited to an eight-page booklet containing a brief introduction, single-sentence notes for each of the films (plus oblique quotes from Baron Mordant of Mordant Music: for example, “…perforated societies passing thru optical head spaces…”) and their available credits. For those wishing to know which titles make up MisinforMation’s whole, please see the contents list below.
As this suggests, the COI films are not present in their original form. Given that the visual content for the majority remains perfectly intact, it does prompt the question as to whether an alternative audio channel was considered, i.e. one containing the original narrations and scores. Indeed, when it comes to Illusions (a film about solvent abuse) and The Sea in Their Blood we are dealing with Michael Nyman compositions - although it should be noted that the former appears in re-edited form only - whilst the famous AIDS: Iceberg ad came with Brian Eno accompaniment and John Hurt narration. Moreover, it could be argued that such an addition would appease those who have purchased the COI discs purely from a documentary standpoint and have no interest in avant-garde cinema. Similarly, providing the raw materials would also possibly allow for an appreciation of just how much an effect Mordant Music’s reconfiguring of these films has had - it should go without saying that the likes of Ideal Homes and Looking at Prehistoric Sites would come across very differently indeed. However, with that said you could offer the counter-argument that the presence of the original films would destroy the illusion and perhaps even take away from MisinforMation’s achievements; as it stands, it remains a very singular work, its own piece, and a fascinating one at that.
MisinforMation is presented in ‘spools’ as opposed to chapters, allowing the viewer to take each reconfigured film as an individual piece. As such the list below details both the new name of each spool and the original title which was used in its creation, with notes relating to availability elsewhere if applicable:
• Mindless Reverie: Magpies - House (1984, original version available on the fourth COI volume, Stop! Look! Listen!)
• A Dark Social Template: New Towns in Britain (1974, using animated footage from Charley in New Town, 1947, which can be found on the BFI’s education-only release The Promised Land?, though discs do occasionally crop up for sale to the general public)
• Attack Plus 22 Days: Perspective - Near Enough (1985, extract only)
• Attenuated Shadows: Illusions (a film about solvent abuse) (1983, re-edited version)
• A Double Room In A Single Bed: Ideal Homes (c1970) with audio elements taken from Tackling Priority Estates (1983)
• Black And White Sound: Culham Labs (1984)
• Self’s Mordant Tone: Inkjet Printer (Living Tomorrow 245) (1979, directed by Peter Greenaway)
• Televasion: Sinclair Pocket TV (1980)
• Artificially Sympathetic: AIDS - Iceberg (c1986)
• GeoMetric FaMine: Perspective - Computer Aided Design (1985, extract)
• Ridyll: Looking at Prehistoric Sites (1982)
• FraMeforM: Birth of a Nematode (Roots) (1982, unedited roughs)
• MisinforMation: Cardiff Ship Simulator (CASSIM) (1983)
• The Dry Dock Dybbuk: The Sea in Their Blood (1983, directed by Peter Greenaway, original version available on the BFI’s Blu-ray release of A Zed and Two Noughts)
MisinforMation will be available to purchase on the 6th December 2010 from the following outlets: www.boomkat.com, www.mordantmusic.com and the BFI Filmstore.
Update: 6th December 2010: The BFI have uploaded the A Double Room in a Single Bed segment onto their YouTube channel and can now be viewed below: