GREAT SCOTT: Review in Sight & Sound!


Transcription of full review in Sight  & Sound

In a body of work made about and in collaboration with artists, James Scott hinted at the British New Wave that never was
James Scott; UK 1966-84; BFI Region 0 DVD; Certificate 15; 263 minutes; 137:1. Features: audio interviews with the director; booklet with production documents and essays by William Fowler, John Wyver, James Scott and Richard White.
Reviewed by Henry K. Miller in Sight & Sound, BFI October issue

In his 1992 essay ‘L’éternel retour’, Peter Wollen wrote that there was no British equivalent of the nouvelle vague in the late 1950s and 1960s; the British Pop artists and critics who were fascinated by American mass culture never put their fascination on screen, so that “Godard’s films were the best possible substitutes for their missing English counterparts”. Fragments of that missing New Wave remain, however, and James Scott’s films about the leading Pop artists David Hockey, R.B. Kitaj, and Richard Hamilton are shining examples. Far from being straightforward documentaries, they were made in collaboration with the artists and amount to artworks in their own right; Scott had been a student at the Slade during Pop art’s heyday.

Love’s Presentation (1966) follows Hockney as he prepares illustrations for a book of love poems by C.P. Cavafy, a major influence. Still in his twenties, Hockney was a Swinging London celebrity, recently included in David Bailey’s Box of Pin-Ups alongside Jean Shrimpton and Michael Caine. To get away from these associations, Scott’s film, which Hockney narrates, focuses on the craft of etching and aquatinting, which he performs in his Notting Hill flat, washing off the acid in the shower and poisoning himself with the fumes. At the end of the film, Hockney reads one of the poems over the finished images, which culminate in two men sharing a bed, contentedly looking out at the reader – a passage which the film’s distributor, the British Council, censored.

By contrast, R.B. Kitaj (1967) forgoes craft for ideas, expounding in an interview, with confusing results, through one of Kitaj’s images, a modified page for a 1930s issue of Life magazine featuring potted biographies of the modernist masters – Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian – stands out as both a prime instant of early postmodernism and a neatly self-reflexive moment.

Richard Hamilton (1969) is a masterpiece, simultaneously distilling, embodying and analyzing the Pop aesthetic of which Hamilton was a major progenitor. Reyner Banham defined Pop art as “unique works of hand-made fine art deriving their iconography and composition from mass-produced pop products such as cornflakes packs and US cars”; Scott’s film juxtaposes the two, intercutting Hamilton’s hand-made images with the adverts, pin-ups, and skylines that inspired it. In one sequence Scott breaks down a scene from Douglas Sirk;s noir Shockproof (1949) – a source for Hamilton’s Interor I and Interior II (1964) – to illustrate how for the European Pop artists much of the meaning of Hollywood films lay in the décor, not the plot. It was filmed in 1967, not coincidentally the year Godard abandoned commercial cinema, just as Pop was at the point of exhaustion.

‘Richard Hamilton is a masterpiece, simultaneously distilling, embodying and analyzing the Pop aesthetic’

The main feature, Every Picture Tells a Story (1984), made for Channel 4, is a collaboration with an artist of an altogether more intimate kind: his father, the painter William Scott. Largely a conventional biopic, with occasional flash-cuts to his future works and brief clips from interviews functioning as a voiceover, the film is an unusually sensitive portrait of the elder Scott’s childhood and adolescence in Scotland and Northern Ireland, particularly affecting in its depiction of William’s relationship with his own father, a sign-painter whose encouragement of his son stems in part from his frustration with his circumstances – a frustration more than shared by the boy’s mother.

The business of sign-painting provides a surprising echo (or foreshadowing) of the Pop films, but in general Every Picture Tells a Story evokes a less image-saturated time and place. Whereas Kitaj could discover modernists in a mass-circulation magazine, William Scott owed his exposure to what were revolutionary pictures and ideas to the happenstance that a young RCA graduate, Kathleen Bridle (played by Natasha Richardson, making her debut), was living in Enniskillen and gave him lessons. At the films end, as his younger self arrives in the London of 1931, “the most important spot in the whole world”, the septuagenarian Scott recalls that even the Royal Academy of Arts was “untouched” by modernism “and all the other isms”. It is a great loss to British cinema that this first entry in a planned trilogy did not have the sequels it deserved.

The titles comes from a conversation with Kathleen – “They are painted to be looked at, not talked about,” a proposition that Scott’s art films have all tested. Chance, History, Art... (1980) and The Great Ice Cream Robbery (1971), a double-screen film (one screen on each DVD) made with and about Claes Oldenberg, rather confirm it; but the extras relating to the latter open on to another side of Scott’s very varied career, revealing that during post-production he was already working with the Berwick Street Collective on The Nightcleaners (1975), described by Claire Johnston as “the most important political film ever to have been made in this country”. It would make a fine follow-up to this exemplary package.

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