in Influences | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Life in Film: Duncan Campbell

In an ongoing series, frieze asks artists and filmmakers to list the movies that have influenced their practice

in Influences | 01 OCT 08

Dan Graham, Rock My Religion (1982-84)

Firstly, I’d like to pay my dues to John T. Davis. Davis was born in Belfast. His first experience of filmmaking came via a chance encounter in 1966 with D.A. Pennebaker, who was on a Belfast street, camera on shoulder, recording Bob Dylan for his film Don’t Look Back. Having previously considered a career as an art teacher, Davis decided there and then that filmmaking was for him.

Shell Shock Rock (1978) is his cinema vérité documentary about the punk scene in Northern Ireland and features early footage of the likes of The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. It is a charming film. It had a real impact on me because of where it’s set and because I really liked the music. It made something familiar seem exotic. I was very provincially minded when I was younger and this film worked wonders in terms of transforming this.

The Davis film that had the greatest effect on me, however, was Dust on The Bible (1988), a documentary about street-corner preachers in Belfast. Dust on The Bible resonates with Davis’ earlier encounter with evangelical Christianity in America’s ‘Bible Belt’ as seen in his film Route 66 (1985). Given such a soft target it would have been easy for Davis to simply draw the viewers’ attention to the parallels between the redneck mentality of America’s Deep South and attitudes of religious fundamentalists in Northern Ireland. He doesn’t eschew this point so much as render it ambient. The result is a bleak and tender portrait of the place, a journey through the cultural and economic void that was Northern Ireland at the time. The narrator is cast as a slightly weary outsider to all of this. The final scene, in which he drives his car through the rain at night quietly singing ‘I’ve Tried Everything But You (Lord)’ is beautiful.

A clip from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982)

The penny dropped for me on seeing this film. Dust on The Bible is a subjective film at heart. I realized it was possible to make a documentary that didn’t employ solemn presenters or an enforced sense of drama. You didn’t even have to make a point. This new understanding was re-enforced when I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982), which mixes documentary and fiction without distinction. Also, Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion (1982–4) in which Graham takes Patti Smith’s music and philosophies as a starting point for exploring the relationship between religion and rock music. As I understand it, he does this as a deliberate counterpoint, a provocation rather than a direct parallel.

I must confess that I have made a film based on the idea of a film I had only read about but never seen: Samuel Beckett and Marin Karmitz’s Comedie (1966). It was hard to see until relatively recently, but isn’t art full of such creative misconstruals? That’s my excuse anyway. When I eventually did get to see Comedie, I wasn’t completely wrong.

Beckett is a master of dissecting form, of paring it down to its bare essentials. Comedie is based on his earlier work, Play (1964), but is remade as if celluloid were its natural medium. Basically it is a film of light and dark contrasts. Three actors – two women and a man – appear with their faces spotlit, bright blobs against a deep black background. The spotlight dictates who can speak by illuminating their face. Their heads loom and recede via a series of zooms.

There is dialogue as well as shrieks and laughs, but it is very difficult to make any sense of it. Play is a depiction of a love triangle told by a disjointed chorus. In Comedie the voices were pre-recorded and treated by Groupe de Recherches Musicales, Paris, to remove pauses and echoes, and the actors then mimed to the playback. The result is almost an abstraction.

The thing I find most powerful about the film is the blackness. Karmitz, who had previously assisted Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard before Comedie, renders this brilliantly. It is a constant presence; always ready to consume the characters as the spotlight shifts. It makes the protagonists’ and their farcical triangular relationship very precarious, only just able to register.

Beckett also made a series of minimalist experiments for the German broadcaster Süddeutscher Rundfunk. In particular I like Quad I & II (1981) which involves four hooded actors – who at times appear alone, at other in twos, threes or with all four – pacing a square, which fits roughly into the frame of a television. They pace lengthwise and in diagonal lines, at times accompanied by varying drumbeats. The middle of the square is marked by a dot, which must always be bypassed on the left-hand side. Quad I & II is simultaneously simple and very complex. It is difficult not to project some sort of narrative onto the relentless, mathematical drama – it’s there, haunting it.

Recently I’ve been attempting to make a stop-motion animation using a 16 mm camera. In the course of trying to figure out how to do this, I came across some early Soviet animated films. Of course they are blatant propaganda but still I find them compelling. The amount of time it took to make them is staggering. Interplanetary Revolution (1924), directed by Nikolay Khodataev, Zenon Komisarenko (a pupil of Kasmir Malevich) and Yuri Merkulov, is a silent feature. When capitalists escaping the Earth arrive on Mars they find that Bolsheviks have already exported the Revolution there. Comrades from all over the planet are having a party congress under a banner depicting Lenin. We Outsmart Them (1927), directed by Khodataev is an entreaty to buy government bonds after Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, tries to sabotage development of the fledgling Soviet Union with a trade embargo.

Duncan Campbell is an artist based in Glasgow, UK. His work will be exhibited as part of the ICA London’s ‘Nought to Sixty’ programme from 27 October to 2 November 2008. Forthcoming shows include solo presentations at Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, and HOTEL, London, in 2009. 

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