in Critic's Guides | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

Life in Film: Emily Wardill

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

in Critic's Guides | 12 MAR 09

Jeanette Iljon, That's Entertainment.. (The Conjuror's Assistant), 1979. Courtesy: Jeanette Iljon and LUX, London.

There are too many films for me to mention, so I’m going to hit the ground running with Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), by Hubert Sauper – a documentary about Lake Victoria, which is meant to be the birthplace of mankind. It’s a description of the people living on the lake’s shores, who export their fish to Europe and gradually become dependent on foreign food aid; planes arrive from Europe with weapons and leave with white fish. The documentary shows children sniffing glue made out of the fish bones that pile up in stinking, maggot-infested mounds – the only part of the catch left behind for the people who harvested it. Shot in colours of riotous decay redolent of Goya, it evokes the sense of a lens held up that squashes into emblematic proportions everything that is ‘just business’ behind it.

Thinking about filming stained glass windows and about how religion used imagery as a means of communicating morality to a largely illiterate medieval society led me to consider the way in which religion was used as kind of pre-lingual communication device when woven into Republican discourse in the USA by Karl Rove. It made me revisit Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, especially Lola (1981) and Die Dritte Generation (The Third Generation, 1979), where the actors and set are lit like cartoons – in simple shapes and saturated red, blue, greens and pink. Fassbinder was influenced by Douglas Sirk – especially in the way he used melodrama as a structuring device that glosses over the deviance of his content. This goes full circle: back to stained glass and cartoons activated by light.

Cartoons lead me to Sally Cruikshank’s animated film Quasi at the Quackadero (1976). The characters’ chewy voices emerge from felt pen on soft paper, broken up in hallucinogenic timing like the black outlines in the same way the windows at Lichfield Cathedral break the human figure up into jarring combinations. Also, I imagine the biblical parable Greaser’s Palace (1972), directed by Robert Downey Sr., as something that Captain Beefheart might have made in 1969 if his album Trout Mask Replica had been a film instead. I have never seen a funnier scene than the zoot-suited Messiah on his way to Jerusalem to become an actor/singer performing a song to Greaser’s people with the misplaced vocal confidence of someone who can walk on water.

It’s childish to have an absolute favourite film and mine is Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974). I am in awe of the responsibility of making such a film, which works like a body and makes the mind feel like an organ. In Edvard Munch the body is akin to a conspiracy, but because it cannot be rational this makes it clear it doesn’t matter. Or it is matter. The film intersperses interviews with footage of Munch and his peers; it’s a portrait of Norwegian society that looks as if it were created in the late 19th century. The film is brutal and reveals an awareness of the sickness inherent in representation. Munch and his contemporaries stare out from the camera straight at you – time stops, and you are reminded that human relationships can be both simple and unsolvable. Watkins drenches and traps you in these relations. He has an awareness that every mode of communication both separates and connects the supposed subject to its audience and that the best way to explore an idea is to run alongside rather than to take a snapshot, which freezes and stultifies. Edvard Munch has the humanity and timing of Ingmar Bergman’s TV drama Scenes from a Marriage (1973): the way in which it is filmed and the spaces within it are inseparable from the action.

Jeanette Iljon’s That’s Entertainment … (The Conjuror’s Assistant) (1979) is more like a sculpture than a film. It helped me to think through my film Sea Oak (2008); about the relationship between the lapidary nature of film and the use of solid language pretending to be material. That’s Entertainment analyses 100 feet of documentary footage over 35 minutes, breaking down both the gestures of the subject, the filmmaking itself and the style of analysis, and has a kind of sense of meaning that is implied through the act of searching.

John Smith’s film Associations (1975) has been important too, as have Peter Gidal’s Upside Down Feature (1967–72) and Close Up (1983). When I told Gidal that his almost entirely black film with a soundtrack of interviews of Nicaraguan revolutionaries had been in my mind when I was editing my own 51-minute entirely imageless film, he replied ‘That’ll be a hit’.

Peter Watkins, Edvard Munch, 1974. Courtesy: Odd Geir Saether.

'Is that the person that you came in with? Are you sure? Where is that dollar that was in your pocket?’ asks Vito Acconci in The Red Tapes (1976). The question moves from himself to himself within America; he intonates like he is your friend, a director, a zealous teacher, shouting up to a closed door, a tour guide, an argumentative lover, an actor, the revolutionary addressing the people. Each text and image locks into the others but remains separate like a pile of outlines of various goods made from cast metal and then stamped together. Things don’t blur into each other, though; the film is not a collage – because Acconci is there, walking among his ideas and working them out on-screen: ‘I am singing for my supper but I realize that it is America’s song, so I change my tune.’ He’s whispering; it’s sexy, annoying and so stupid that it travels full circle and becomes smart again. It’s intimate and brutal and leaves you feeling like you’ve been on an epic journey, but the journey was never explicit: it’s assumed. Acconci builds up a sense of space from a studio and limited means. He is talking about The New World, but this is 1977 and the dreams and ideas that existed when this world was being founded have become soiled and shaped by use. It seems so slight and yet precise that Acconci would talk about America through the limitations of his own form and his ability to affect his surroundings – because it takes the irresponsibilty of ideas back to the responsibility of the human form. It reminded me of the chemist Sir Harry Kroto talking at London’s Royal Society about the C60 molecule that he had identified, that was ‘so strong and so light that it could be used to build ladders to the moon – and then adding, in quiet parenthesis, that it was actually being used by the military and to make trainers. Acconci lets us enjoy his suffering. As he is struggling, his body is tied up like a parcel saying, ‘I’m coming, don’t start without me’.

And finally, I am so excited about Pedro Costa’s retrospective at the Tate this year that I might break into a sprint, and I’m hoping very much that by the time that this is published a venue will have been found to screen the cracked up, crafted together perspectives joyously created in the films of Vlado Kristl.

Emily Wardill is an artist who lives and works in London. A senior lecturer at Central Saint Martins College of Art, she is currently working on her new film, Game Keepers without Game, which will be exhibited at The Showroom, London, in 2010. Her solo shows at De Appel, Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Spacex, in Exeter, UK, will open later this year.