Last night we were at the excellent little Kino Digital cinema in Hawkhurst for a screening of the new British indie movie Black Pond, a film that – almost from its opening credits – instantly joined my personal pantheon of favourites. I have a deep love of the ‘strange documentary': movies that, whether purporting to be truth or fiction, make extensive use of the techniques of life writing and news reportage to build a story. I’d count Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation and Christopher Petit’s Content as strange documentaries. Also Henry Joost’s wonderful 2010 movie Catfish. With their magpie mentality, their excitement at the strange coincidence and that general feeling that everything in the film was discovered by miraculous chance in a cardboard box at the back of someone’s garage, films like this have unlimited appeal for writers who create their fictions in a roughly similar way.
And while loving the hand-held, cut-and-paste visuals as I did (I’m a total ‘found footage’ junkie) my chief delight in Black Pond was to be found in its words. How marvellous to have it reaffirmed that there are young film makers out there who understand, and still so early in their careers, that the crucial component of a great film, the centre without which it cannot hold, is a good script. Black Pond‘s script is inventive, daring, moving and darkly comic. It is also deeply literate and beautifully written. In the Q&A afterwards, the film’s star Chris Langham mentioned that his father (film director Michael Langham) had described the script as ‘Chekhovian’, and that seemed to me perfectly apposite. Writer-directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe seem to have an innate grasp of the Chekhovian grammar of understatement and natural pathos. Still both in their twenties, they also have a lived understanding of ‘the way we live now’. The combination of raw talent and learned skill they have demonstrated in the creation of this film is more than admirable, and more than just a little dumbfounding.
The fact that they were offered no commercial help or financial backing for their talent stands as both a testament to their tenacity and (yet one more) mark of shame on the monetarist political culture of our country. Tom and Will chose not to go to film school because it was ‘rather too expensive’ to do so. Instead they learned as they went along, teaching themselves the skills they needed to realise what they wanted to create. The passion that shone out of them as they described, in typically self-deprecating terms, their determination to see this project through to fruition must be an inspiration to any artist, no matter how old or how experienced they are.
Black Pond should win many awards, and I hope it does. Not least because it is a quintessentially English film, a showcase of our young talent and a slap in the face for a political establishment that consistently seeks to deny the importance of culture in the life of this nation. How fitting then that the motif that runs through this movie, that holds it thematically together in fact, should be the person and the poetry of John Clare, the quintessentially English eccentric, genius, madman, poet and political maverick. In the aptly-named character of Blake, the strange outsider who is both the cause and resolution of the crisis at the heart of the film, Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe have given us a John Clare for our time. Clare’s poem, I Am, read aloud at Blake’s illegal woodland funeral, sounds as a paean of hope and protest for artists everywhere
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.