Swandown: an inward-looking retreat
Directed by Andrew Kötting. Writings and plottings by Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair. 2012 UK.
For Swandown, Andrew Kötting has teamed up with writer Iain Sinclair to extend if not expand his reputation as the kind of endearing British eccentric whose most enduring sources of inspiration as a filmmaker are those immediate phenomena that contextualise and inform his daily life, be that domestic, familial or the ever-changing environs that constitute an improvised-or-is-it travelogue. For the film, they hire or "steal" - I'm still not sure which - a swan pedalo and steer it from Hastings to Hackney, recording float-and-chat encounters with locals along the way and capturing images of the land either side of their unusual mode of transport.
The purpose and function of the project isn't revealed. Kötting, whose credit alone will double as a kind of self-advertisement for those already into his shtick, pedals his way through the film suited in the same grey attire, casually braving the sun topless for much of his journey (only mad dogs and Englishmen...). Sinclair is introduced, via on-screen text, as a "wordsmith", and hardly speaks throughout the film, save for a brief, late-in-the-day vexation about the Olympics before he jumps ship, literally, to catch a flight to Boston, Massachusetts - thereby leaving his co-pilot to see the film out on his own.
It's not quite on his own, though: the swan is followed throughout by another craft, from which our travellers can be poignantly framed by Anonymous Bosch against rural backdrops, the magnetic pull of London growing evermore ominous as the Thames itself becomes more violent and the scenery gradually shifts to some industrial landscape that, conversely, seems more peripheral than the preceding country outskirts. If these latter compositions frame the pedal boat so as to dwarf it, the vessell itself becomes a surreal figure of graceful endurance, silent and increasingly haunting (and haunted) as it nears its heart of darkness.
Parading its tension between the old and the new and the threshold of change that divides both, the film pits Kötting's sense of mischief against the natural serenity of the earlier locales, and, later, Sinclair's intellectualising despair against the Olympic Games and their intrusion upon his beloved Hackney. Departing from Hastings, that most historical of British placenames, and heading inland towards London's machinery and machinations in a plastic pedalo, the film presents its journey as a conglomeration of uncredited soundbites, quotations and digitised archive material that evoke a universality in its river-bound themes even if their forms are distinctly modern.
Kötting and Sinclair, each with their respective followings, are unlikely to convert anyone to their cause here, precisely because their endeavours don't seem to have one. Their banter's the stuff of in-jokes and tomfoolery. Furthermore, whenever any space is found in which one might ponder and muse with abandon on what the film is doing, its makers evince a casual distrust in the clarity or translatability of their own suggestions - spelling out intertextual references by overloading the soundtrack, as they do when they introduce Werner Herzog's audio commentary from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) over imagery that obviously recalled that film anyway.
When this undynamic duo are in need of a rest, they hand the stage to their celebrity pals. A brief interlude sees comedian Stewart Lee and graphic novelist Alan Moore ("prophet", the on-screen text reads) mutter a few things as to what they think the film's meant to be about. Moore chimes, of Sinclair, that "he doesn't think anything should happen in Hackney without his permission", which gets to the crux of the film's inward-looking retreat from the kind of serious, anchored analysis that would be demanded by a no-doubt legitimate feature-length protest against the Olympics and the dark forces of capitalism they embody.
Instead, the filmmakers seem more content here in having themselves and their unserious-mysterious intentions spoken about by self-conscious witticists, which really amounts to the screentime equivalent of the "enough of my voice, what do you think of me?" means of spotlight-retention. I'm sure both filmmakers have things to say about the Olympics, about London, about (insert tag here), etc., but this isn't the canvas for it.
Posted Saturday, August 11, 2012