Gallivant (1996)

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Gallivant is available to stream on BFI Player.

This feature first appeared in the September 1997 issue of Sight and Sound

The problem with the British road movie is that there is nowhere to go. Foot hard down, and before the first rush of speed wears off, you are lost in the tundra, gagging on a processed cheese sandwich in the island’s last refreshment hut. 18 hours at the wheel will take you from end to end of our over-populated rock. This is hardly the stuff of Moby Dick. (Or even of Sam Peckinpah’s inland adaptation, Major Dundee.) America has Thelma & Louise and we have a Butterfly Kiss shuffle between cataleptic service stations. Peevish weather migraines in place of monumental landscapes.

The great quests have to move out west, chase the sun. (Chris Petit tried this with Radio On, London to Bristol. But somebody had turned the lights off. The journey had to be ballasted with marginal encounters, cameos by Sting, to live up to its real-time equivalent.) The run west should have a spiritual base. That’s always been the American way. Across the phantom ocean of the Plains, fighting off Indians, rednecks, bible-bashers and indigenous psychopaths. Moving between Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. Out of the exhausted, sickly east into a mimosa-scented sunset. Talking all the way, free-associating monologues: Melvillean, “nervous, lofty”. (For Neal Cassady and the Beats there was a further promise, a coda of Mexican exoticism: cheap dope, sexual tourism. An early death.) The drive is a trip, hallucinatory and destabilising. A destroyer of conditioned reflexes. It should always be a kind of pilgrimage. The trouble is that nobody seems keen to finish up, huddled under a damp anorak, arguing over the carpark toll on a beach in West Wales.

No, there are only two kinds of homegrown odyssey on offer. If you are unfortunate enough to live in the sticks, get to London as fast as possible. Or, if you start in the metropolis, take off in the general direction of Scotland. This is simply the longest road available, rather than any great desire for the Highlands as a destination. As a genre these films should be reclassified. No longer road movies: service station stopovers. Post-rational conversations with randomly encountered eccentrics. Terrible food, lousy manners, dull light. Detours to Blackpool, a location of minimal interest that offers discounted terms to film crews, are almost compulsory. (Fight for space with moonlighting soap operas.) What you are after is the same basic fairy tale: a lost Arcadia, a dream of aboriginal innocence. Some allotment shaman with a kestrel on his wrist.

Andrew Kötting takes all this on board and manages, effortlessly, to overcome it. He drifts through the Blackpool illuminations without a blush and reveals Scotland (or the Scottish coast) as an otherness of visionary skies, crop-flattening winds and civil discourse. Territory where his project meets its greatest challenge and transforms itself, by transforming the participants and the crew. A place of tears, madcap japes, revelation.

What Kötting does, it’s so simple a notion, is to go the whole way, clockwise, around Britain. To return to his point of departure. The journey takes about three months, out of summer into autumn. Plenty of time for concerned citizens to warn him that “the days are drawing in”. Six or seven thousand miles that can stretch or be wound in like a piece of wet string. The narrative is interrupted from time to time by manically semaphoring weathermen. (No more demented than the real thing. It’s just that their suits are too good. And they fit .) One of whom, grinning and signing, warns us at the start that the film is “fairly full to overflowing”. And so it proves.

Kötting’s first feature belongs superficially in the company of the new British psychogeographers, with Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit and even Jonathan Meades. It’s a good-humoured exercise, not overtly programmatic or spiteful. None of the bile of a Paul Theroux sponsored walk. There is a teasing John Betjeman soundbite near the start, as Kötting flicks through a catalogue of proudly eccentric seaside bungalows. Gallivant is the title and gallivanting it is. A sometimes spry, sometimes clumping gavotte around Britain’s ragged fringes.

Andrew Kötting, Eden Kötting and Gladys Morris in Gallivant

If that was all, it would still be a voyage well worth our attention. A mingling of personal vision with a highly evolved documentary impulse. A multiple-focus trek made within modest limits, cinema returned to its infancy. And without top-heavy production clutter, without budgetary excess. (See the crew picnic on condensed milk.) This is a homage to that archetypal home movie, the seaside excursion. The day out, remission from mundane routine. Time for putting together oldest and youngest members of the family for that hell of British togetherness (the marine outing as parodied in credit card advertisements). But Gallivant has something more – a notable cast, Kötting’s trump cards: Gladys Morris (85) and Eden Kötting (seven).

To gallivant is, according to the Random House Dictionary, “to wander about, seeking pleasure or diversion; to go about with members of the opposite sex.” And this is what – full-throttle – Kötting does. During pre-production discussions, Kötting was asked to find a narrative hook, presences to anchor his voyage. An hour and a half of shifting landscapes and quirky interviews was thought to be stretching audience tolerance. So Kötting came up with his unlikely couple: “Big Granny” and little Eden. A camper van, a tent, a crew – and away they went.

This was special. A privileged use of time and occasion. The great-grandmother, who did not know her great-granddaughter well, used this unlooked-for excursion to forge a true bond; to discover and take joy in the intelligence and bright life of the child. (Kötting is careful to avoid, to cut out, overt claims on sentiment. His film could otherwise have become a descendant of Fellini’s La strada.) It is revealed early in the story – which opens with the iconic home-movie frame, granny and child uncomfortably perched on a steep beach – that both the stars have limited life expectancy. The old woman is full of memories, constantly gabbing, interrupting, letting rip with an unpremeditated flow of anecdotage. She is in the tradition of those great stock characters of British culture, Irene Handl and Patricia Hayes. In other words, you’re going to get much more than meets the eye. The child, suffering from (or rather celebrating) Joubert’s Syndrome, operates without the usual envelope of inhibitions. She is virtually unlanguaged and communicates through a series of bat squeaks and vigorous hand signs. (This pipistrelle warbling fits into the eclectic glossolalia of a hyperactive soundtrack: with impenetrable regional accents, snatches of radio-wave interference, diary narrative, and regular doses of gobbledygook from the monochrome meteorologists. Subtitles sometimes interpret, sometimes contradict the general flow.)

The clockwise excursion, heart on sleeve, up for it, is something more than another state-of-the-nation Philippic. The journey is a memorial, a premature obituary.

The old woman is near the end of her life journey, so that Kötting’s circular voyage becomes a leave-taking of places she has never visited. She’s sharp, bright, opinionated – experienced. The child is direct, pure in all her responses, guileless and unlikely to linger in this world she is touring. Ethically dubious provocations are not dodged by the director, but neither are they exploited. Because the third member of the mythological trio is Kötting himself. He is the one who has to come to terms with probable loss, and with the delivery of a film that will do justice to the presence of two remarkable females.

The clockwise excursion, heart on sleeve, up for it, is something more than another state-of-the-nation Philippic. The journey is a memorial, a premature obituary. lt allows Kötting to come to terms with the inevitable, to draw on the historiographic richness of the great-grandmother’s well-lived life and to relish the pantomimed urgency in the child’s responses to place, and to cold and hunger. They are special and they are good company, for themselves and for us. On their occasional absences, retreats to base, the film loses its centre.

An idiot cubism

Gallivant, having set out from the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, takes itself off to Beachy Head, a crumbling chalk monument to Englishness, where Gladys can talk suicide with a huddle of bemused tourists. (“You’re not English and we can’t understand you. Threw hisself over, finished.”) Eden babbles at the camera: “Dadda.” Production methods are rapidly established: the family party on their high perch (filmed on video from a tripod) are cut against wilder footage (Super 8) in a boat, under the cliffs, bucking on the tide. Fragments of black and white are also dropped in, to change the narrative temperature. Clouds swirl in timelapse photography. Undercranking and lurching pans break up the temporal flow. There’s no nonsense about synch speech. The frantic television cop show Homicide looks elegant and restrained in comparison with Kötting’s buoyantly choreaic spasms: bother-boy jump cuts that frolic in an idiot cubism. Paradoxically the effect of these abbreviations, stuttering frames, macro inserts, is to give a truer and more solid sense of passing time and the unravelling journey.

Gallivant (1996)

The achievement of this round-Britain spin is to cancel itself out, to make repetitive motion seem like running on the spot: a stationary van with landscape banners hurtling past the windows. Time is conquered. Converted. A static race that challenges death, and all its avatars, the spectres of threat and entropy, to declare and define themselves. Sellafield and its unheard hum is now as much on the heritage tourist track as the Blackpool illuminations. Gladys, give her credit, finds that “heritage” is the one word she can’t pronounce.

Death is a genial sponsor. There is a nicely orchestrated scene in a tethered rowing boat – Gladys pulling on a single oar, Eden at the tiller – where Kötting interrogates the old woman about where she’s going, and if the earth is flat and does she expect to fall off. The image is like something out of a mystical painting, Gustave Moreau or Cecil Collins. The big close-up of Eden’s steering hand is a teasing reference to all those portentous cinema vessels pitching on significant seas: Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf.

The journey spirals away, in largely chronological order, through Cornwall (erosion at Hallsands, a procession of giants on the slopes of St Agnes’ Head) and into Wales. Sometimes the camera favours a statuette of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard as the road unreels, at pace. Sometimes bashful locals are coaxed into singing their song. The director has a soft spot for trams, lighthouses, lugworms.

It’s not laboured, but we understand that the coastline is being constantly nibbled at by tides, by developers, by the indifference of central government. A distrust of metropolitan domination is universal. The white, ducklike flocks of female bowls players in Cornwall, in their fanciful hats, know that “in London they’re all too busy”. Disabused recidivists, killing time with a football in a Swansea carpark, assert that “you don’t see a lot of Wales on telly.” But Wales, for its part, sees all too much of telly. Terminal, pebbledash estates, breeze-block reservations, are barnacled with satellite dishes. Telly is a dim addiction, a source of tranquilising light. Battery-farmed estate prisoners bask under a sickly glow, incubating ancient tribal grievances.

Kötting is a dab hand at opening out the cast of deviants who cling to the dying ports and seaside towns. There’s a splendid military-looking chap on the Gower peninsula who confounds our prejudices by being in favour of tent-dwelling eco warriors (range-war clips from old Westerns), and who dismisses central government as “layabouts”. Anti-urbanism with a nice bite: “Keep out of Swansea on a Saturday night. It’s like a Wild West town.”

The existence of the film crew is never tidied away, the camper van is regularly seen and the director has begun to emerge in front of the camera.

Other marine loungers are persuaded, variously, to sing ‘John Peel’, show off their bunions, pull faces (Whitehaven, home of the world’s greatest gurners). Britain seems to be an amateur talent show, a nation of failed auditioneers. Every bewhiskered codger has a wool-clogged mouth organ secreted in the depths of a distressed sports jacket. Landladies and cafe owners busk shamelessly for business. The attendant at the gents lavatory, Kyle of Lochalsh, has turned his (infrequently visited) convenience into an plaque-winning art gallery. 20p a head whether you “do a toilet” or not. No refunds. The Skye bridge, he hopes, will be good for trade.

By this stage in the journey, darker themes are beginning to emerge. We’ve seen enough of Britain to share in the sense of slow-dripping autopsy, rocks under fast-moving clouds, polluted beaches, dying industries – countered by gruff individualists, hobbyists from whom language has to be dragged with red-hot tongs. Cornish quoits have been interrogated with longsticked microphones. Pagan residuals have been uncovered. The mix, as ever, of the sacred and the profane. Mock Tudor filling stations and grandiloquent stone follies. Ghosts everywhere, voices of the lost and the dead. “You can almost hear the ghosts of them.” The existence of the film crew is never tidied away, the camper van is regularly seen and the director has begun to emerge in front of the camera. His is a boisterous, elbow-jutting presence, a kind of New Age paratrooper. Show him a grassy knoll and he’ll run up it with the cameraman on his shoulders.

Now, in Scotland, it’s time to take stock. The director confronts his emotional difficulties, his investment in putting the old woman and the child through the rigours of the trip, by reverting to his roots in Performance Art – throwing himself, fully clothed, off a rock into a cold Northern sea. “You silly bugger, daft as they make ‘em,” is Gladys’s unimpressed response. (In some senses Kötting’s desperate acting-out is a parallel to Werner Herzog’s walk, as recorded in his book Of Walking in Ice, 1991; where the German director believed that a journey on foot from Munich to Paris would save Lotte Eisner from death. The elective masochism of late-century pilgrimages.)

The weird trio – Gladys game but gasping for breath, Kötting bearing an armchair on his head – set off across the moors towards John O’Groats, on the promise of a spectacular view. Cape Wrath had been too bleak. Gladys and Eden were forced to return home for another break. The child weeps. Kötting responds with further clowning, pulling faces while hanging on to the outside of the camper van. He falls, smashes an ankle. “Now,” you can almost hear him say, “we’re getting somewhere.” Just what the film needed. Sacrifice. Pain. Winds filled with pebbles. The bite of Ultima Thule.

Gallivant (1996)

The return home down the east coast, with strange continuity shuffles that shift Aldeburgh to the north of the Humber bridge, has a different tone. The dramas are over, the demons confronted – what’s left? A near-naked man who leaves his clothes in a sacred wood, hung with rags, and clumps off for his tea – refusing to take his shoes, but happy to pick up a newspaper. A pastiche of Cul-de-Sac at Holy Island, and of Jaws at Walton-on-the-Naze. Wet feet on beaches, a fetishistic interest in lollipop ladies. Some kind of wacky sacerdotal agenda is attempted: Kötting, increasingly hairy, wants to be taken for a monk. The soundman, rushing towards the action with his long pole, comes to look more and more like a Spanish penitent. The procession around Britain has become so peculiar, swerving between pagan survivals and a jurassic park of industrial dereliction. Middlesbrough (home of the Latin mercenary) is particularly unforgiving: “Is this for the telly or your own benefit? You can fuck off back down south again.” Eden Kötting is dressed as the Virgin for a cod nativity scene; Gladys as a lollipop lady, with the director in Franciscan habit to complete this blasphemous holy family. A Jack-on-the-Green fire ceremony at Hastings finishes with a call for the Pope to be burned and dismembered. Reportage disintegrates into millennial tremors. “Mystical thematic threads” are brokered with the voice of Stephen Hawking. Time has started to play tricks. Light dances in rock pools. We can’t be sure if we’re watching an aerial shot or a hand-held trawl over a sewage beach. And so they stagger back, these incorruptible tourists, great grandmother and child in vivid red coats, to Bexhill.

Quests and cutups

Kötting has created a glorious apotheosis for the home movie, making great play with seaside traditions: funfair surrealism, brightly coloured monsters on piers, rude postcards. At Land’s End the pay-for-view telescope flaunts a sepia peepshow nude. Gallivant is a Chaucerian pilgrimage with talk of “sheep’s bollocks”, sword-dances, and novelty pens which offer a Will Carling striptease. Gladys is a willing accomplice to this well-seasoned discourse. “Did you ever get pregnant, Gladys?” Kötting asks on the trek to John O’Groats. “Dunno. I forgot,” the old bird chortles with typically stoic gaiety.

Kötting’s time scale is always provisional, present tense, slightly hung-over, keying in memories without muddying the screen of immediate sensory impressions. Horizontal time, on a loop.

This new British cinema (born of the polytechnics and art schools) – promoting psychogeography, the journey, the quest, a close examination of random particulars – is a vitalising alternative to the once-lively, now largely inert, documentary programme-fillers of mainstream television. Hi-8 cameras, 8mm film blown up, creative soundtracks (“cut-ups” that owe something to William Burroughs, something to sampled rave-bunker noise) have liberated filmmakers in a way that harks back to the cooperatives of the 60s, to the American underground of Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, and the chamber cinema of Robert Frank and early John Cassavetes. (The great advantage for the current practitioners is that nobody cares what they do. Audiences have to be dragged in off the street. Channel 4 editors, crushed under an avalanche of immodest proposals, don’t want to know. One simple rule: anything that can be commissioned is not worth making. The contemporary filmmaker should aspire to a condition of internal exile: alert, cynical, open. Without expectations.)

Gallivant is an important addition to a developing genre. Kötting is looser, more off-the-cuff, less doctrinaire than Keiller, whose Robinson in Space is a sophisticated artefact, crafty and highly crafted. Under Keiller’s narrative with its ironic distancing voice is a sense of structure: earlier journeys, Defoe, literary progenitors. Keiller’s take on sea ports is very different. His cool stare at ponderable shapes – frozen moments, so beautiful they provoke a hiss of breath in the viewer – reveals a sculptural sense of space counterpointed by the director’s thesis about economics, exploitation, entropy politics. Kötting, much more out front, more Jack the Lad, rips through the padlocked docks, recording the flak his crew is forced to take from jaundiced northerners. In other words, he operates with a different sense of time. His time scale is always provisional, present tense, slightly hung-over, keying in memories without muddying the screen of immediate sensory impressions. Horizontal time, on a loop. Where Keiller is vertical, nailing place, aligning it with previous discourses, insisting on a frozen surreal poetic.

But what Keiller, Petit, Meades (as essayist and know-all performer) are doing is opening up the British landscape, looking harder at previously unrecorded (and therefore, apparently, insignificant) localities. Ditching the location-finders’ catalogue, going out into the territory. Keiller is moderately depressed by what he discovers (Paul Schofield’s voice makes him sound suicidal). Petit, tracking through Ikea wastelands at night (as in his film on bank managers) or conducting a lengthy meditation on some off-highway business park, turns boredom into a source of suspended excitement. He shares many of Keiller’s foci but he relishes what he sees, the posthumous debris of J. G. Ballard’s perimeter fence: reservoirs, gravel pits, archaic flyovers, eyestabbing fields of oilseed rape, chilled Tesco cathedrals with their paradisical light (the perpetual morning of a consumer Eden). Petit’s agenda is catholic, sacramental. He transubstantiates gross matter. He is the most patrician of these filmmakers, the one who is most fastidious in detaching image from text.

The most extreme Petit project is an assembly (not resolved enough to call a film) put together for a particular viewing in a particular gallery, in January 1997, and called (as a flag of convenience) The Slaughterhouse Tapes. This one really sorted the punters out. Even the thesis writers put away their notebooks and headed back up the stairs. A few old lags, nostalgic for underground cinema, lounged on a balcony swilling complimentary wine and talking throughout. Improvised outtakes, image clusters that come back, time and again, drives through Suffolk (a wonderfully tense creature at the wheel), minatory skies, a girl dyeing her hair, snatched city footage; a thumping loop of sound by Bruce Gilbert, snatches of half-heard conversation, bent motorway poles like some endless Spartacus crucifixion. A Trappist doctrine that lies in parallel to Kötting but which cannot be resolved by returning to the point of origin. Without the humour or the humanity, Petit uses boredom – road time, surveillance time, river drift – as a way of slowing light, of allowing his audience to make their own contribution to the world as he presents it. The agenda is whatever you want it to be: what you see is what you get. And it can be edited in any order to fit any occasion. Orthodox chronology is unknown to him. Petit’s Kyle of Lochalsh is a very different place to Kötting’s: no jaunty lavatory attendants, just remorseless, ice-scoured landscapes and shifting cloud masses, road accidents. If a concrete bunker were for hire with a good view of Sellafield, Petit would be first in line. If Jarman hadn’t beaten him to it, he’d be dug into the Dungeness shingle. His is a world dominated by aesthetics, ideas of arrangement and displacement. Kötting solves his difficulties by a Zen act, madcap physicality, a leap into the sea. Petit will outstare Permian rock forms. Kötting clog dances, Keiller stares with autistic steadiness, and Petit reproves reality (worries it into ethically satisfying arrangements).

Signing her desire

Signs and shapes (broken sentences, graffiti) are important markers for the psychogeographers. Gallivant is blitzed with found texts, hints, signifiers. The yellow lettering of a charity shop, swastikas on walls, the madcap calligraphy of fairgrounds and piers. Eden, the child, strokes an empty belly, or signs her desire for home, with soft, quick fingers. Gladys learns to “read” her. Kötting mimes through the window of the camper van, before falling off and shattering his ankle. The various camera-eyes are hungry for guidance. The furry sound-stick is a unsatisfied predator. “Tell me a story, sing me a song.” When the anarchic crew arrive in South Wales at the old steel dock of Port Talbot, they find a notice in the mud, in front of all that apocalyptic industrial squalor; a message that seems precisely to define their case. DO NOT ANCHOR BETWEEN SIGNS. Keep moving, get out of town. The road’s end is its beginning.