Dreams, Visions and Manifestoes

Queen's Film Theatre celebrate experimental film-making with two Westerns set in London

Queen's Film Theatre choose to open their week long season of experimental film and video with two shorts both produced by the collaborative team of Anja Kirschner and David Panos. These dense, literary and elliptical films collide genre and expectations 

Polly II is equal parts soap opera, Ballardian dystopia and Brechtian drama. Polly is Polly Peachum, a pirate from a future, flooded London, where the poor remain stranded on their high-rise islands while the rich luxuriate in waterfront apartments and scheme greedily against the waterlogged underclass.

The opening sequence resembles a sepia Raft of the Medusa. Tea-bag brown limbs, scribbled with fake tattoos, and baggy, shapeless sofas are described by the artless eye of the camera. The lighting is uniformly flat and the dialogue often muddy and indistinct.

The whole echoes a lot of 1980s 'alternative' cinema: Jarman obviously, but also Derek Gladwell’s little seen Memoirs of a Survivor, another odd sc-fi film whose collapsing inner-cities and feral gangs are counterpointed with Victorian domestic scenes.

The aesthetic of early 80s pop-videos seems to inform the work too, from the video flare whiteness of the waterfront flats, to the multi-cultural, part-coloured pirates – all very Prince Charming!

The film seems oddly prescient, given the recent riots in London, and the fierce 'Pirate Radio' interludes are a neat fit, but it feels weighed down by trying to do too much at once. There is nothing cinematic here. At times it feels like Polly’s piratical power presentation, as hard to swallow as it is to say. 

Much more effective is 2008’s The Trail of the Spider, a western set in eastern London. Once again we find ruthless money-men buying up the land, in a neat reimagining of the western’s notion of the vanishing frontier.

In the run up to the 2012 Olympics and the public/private land grab claim-staking of parts of east London for redevelopment, there is a parallel with the gold rushes of the old west, and The Trail of the Spider exploits that cleverly.

And cinematically there is a real sense of unclenching too. The camera is allowed to wander languorously over the gravel-pits and quarries of the Hackney marches. Slowly panned landscapes are pricked by forks of CGI lightning, while surveyors go about their business dressed as cowboy dentists.

Like the water lapping around the tower blocks in the earlier film, the effects here are rudimentary, but they are used so often, and are so much a part of every shot, that they start to blur the meaning of what is happening on the screen: everything seems unreal because nothing looks real.There is a sense of dislocation, as if these people have already been evicted from their own environment.

All the appropriate western tropes are here: a lone figure apparently bent on revenge, the unstoppable force of modernity, a wronged woman. There seems to be a reference to the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind and even a nod to Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, that other great western made in the east of England.

The protagonist is a Man with No Name and he has a mysterious purpose. He also has a mysterious stomach wound that he carries throughout the film. During the film's climactic shoot-out (that’s not a spoiler – it’s a western, it’s going to have a climactic shoot-out) he is unharmed by the five gunshots that the Surveyor’s Klansman style bodyguards pump into him, before despatching them all and walking off into the sunset.

His victory means nothing. In the next scene the Surveyor, whom he has shot in the head, appears on screen with nothing more than a bandage over one eye. He continues to parcel up and portion out the land as before. The hero has no name because he is every man. His wounds are our wounds. And while the piracy of property continues he can never heal and never rest. He is the Fisher King with a six gun.

Dreams, Visions and Manifestoes ran at Queen's Film Theatre from October 14 to 20.