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Creatively Speaking: James Scott's Art Films on DVD

  James Scott grew up in an artistic household, as both his parents were artists, and this informed his career path into film and television, then eventually his own artwork in later life as his work graced galleries rather than screens. He seems to have always placed the results of the creative impulse above all things, and so it was when he turned to creating his own short films he would often take as a subject that of artists, including in 1984 Every Picture Tells a Story, as now he had covered many contemporary talents in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, he settled on a figure closer to home, his father William Scott. Just as he enjoyed a positive relationship with his own parent, James Scott sought to investigate the influence his grandfather (played by Alex Norton) had over William, bearing in mind the grandparent was a man James would never meet, hinted at with the opening of this feature.

It was made for Film Four and thus given an airing on Channel 4, then a new broadcaster keen to present as much fresh material, much of it homegrown, as it could, and Every Picture Tells a Story slotted into its schedules very snugly as part of its educational remit as well as an entertainment one. Indeed, it came across as a programme produced for watching in schools, with that same austere, historically centred arrangement in its scenes and overall appearance as we followed "Willie" from his earliest memories as a five year old in Greenock to the point where he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art in London, though most of the biographical drama was taken up with his experiences in Enniskillen, where his father had insisted the family be moved so he could pursue his sign-writing business. That would prove a fateful decision, not because of the Troubles, but because of fickle fate.

The fire we see overtaking one of the shops on the high street in the town was what we first witnessed, and around halfway through we would understand why it was so essential to the story as Scott, working from a script by Shane Connaughton, returned to the image of the shop in flames and the bumbling efforts to stop the conflagration growing out of control by the townsfolk. Mostly this was a linear tale, though we did see William sitting impassively as he was in '84, and the artwork he had produced down the years, much of it impressionistic, often appeared as a commentary on the actual events that inspired him, said events being as simple as what he found in the kitchen of his mother (Phyllis Logan). Natasha Richardson played the English art teacher who encouraged him, and there was the occasional familiar face in the cast, but the theme of the imagery speaking for itself and not needing overarching interpretation could sum up the impression the film left you with.

James Scott was greatly impressed by the modern art he saw around him, and steeped in that milieu he recorded it for a number of short films. One such work was an artwork in itself, for nobody said the documentation and the subject had to be mutually exclusive, and much influenced by Andy Warhol's epic experimental work The Chelsea Girls which used two screens showing two films shown concurrently, Scott crafted his own answer to that with 1971's considerably briefer The Great Ice Cream Robbery, named after an incident his camera captured outside the gallery. Claes Oldenburg was the focus and his show of found objects and larger than life manufactured pieces was put together before our eyes, intercut with shots of knees (a good thing shorter hemlines were in fashion), cooling towers, and general arseing about. It was intriguing enough, but like Oldenburg's highly intellectual art some background would have been helpful to interpret it.

Oldenburg may not be a household name these days, if he ever was, but David Hockney remains well-known for his groundbreaking efforts to bring his homosexuality to his artworks and render that aspect of his character as valid an inspiration as anything else an artist could bring to the canvas - or in the case of what we saw in Scott's 1966 Love Presentation, when Hockney took us up to see his etchings. This took the form of a painstaking explanation of how to use acid, copper plate and wax to make a picture that could be taken to the printers, largely silent other than the subject's alternately droning or soothing voiceover in his distinctive tones describing what we were seeing, almost as if he was suggesting we follow his lead and take this up ourselves. It ended with the results illustrating an erotic poem Hockney was fond of, all fashioned in his equally distinctive lines, yet curiously mundane in its process.

A lot more obscure, in more ways than one, was Scott's short about R.B. Kitaj from 1967 where the figure and print artist was interviewed for around twenty minutes about his work, influences and place in the world. His bearded phizog took up a lot of the frame at regular intervals and for some reason the director was reluctant to show his efforts as a whole canvas, preferring to pick out parts of them in an almost cut-up technique, just as the interviewee would wax lyrical on one matter then flit another, dropping artist names as he went. His current work was a print of Juan de la Cruz, but if you had no idea who that was before you watched this you would certainly be none the wiser afterwards (he was a 16th Century Spanish mystic, it says here), nor how he was connected to African American G.I.s in the Vietnam War. Scott was not afraid to include confrontational imagery, including a couple of dead bodies, but this was strictly for the initiated.

Another The Arts Council of Great Britain commission was Scott's 1969 examination of pop artist Richard Hamilton, possibly the most famous and celebrated British exponent. Allowed to talk about his work he was quite illuminating, connected as it was so strongly to popular culture in a manner that remains immediate, even if movies and advertising has moved on to an extent, though the seeking of sensation still informs their design. Covering a few of Hamilton's paintings and montages, including his most celebrated effort, he also chose Marilyn Monroe photos, a clip from an old Cornel Wilde thriller, a trailer for Yvonne De Carlo's The Desert Hawk and a news report on the arrest of The Rolling Stones on drugs charges, along with his thoughts on how images of people from years, centuries ago enable the observer to make eye contact with someone from across a gulf of time and space. This genuinely conveyed the intelligence and excitement of Hamilton's work.

Chance, History Art... was also courtesy of The Arts Council, a 1980 short edited down from hours of footage to create a snappy yet spacey forty-five minutes as Scott interviewed a selection of artist under the loose topic of surrealism, which begins to look shaky within the first five minutes when nobody is really discussing that. Anne Bean, famed performance artist, and John McKeon who she was working with at the time, came across as self-parodic in their discussion of sausages and fish, but Sex Pistols collaborator Jamie Reid was insightful on how his form of punk had employed subversion while The Clash had embraced the establishment, and Jimmy Boyle was interviewed in prison about how art had turned his life around; he would be released two years later. Rita McDonagh, who would be Hamilton's wife a decade after, seemed intuitive about her Northern Ireland work, though Stuart Brisley was somewhat inscrutable. A fine round-up, nonetheless.

All these films have been released on DVD by the BFI under the title Every Picture Tells a Story, spread over two discs. The left and right sides of The Great Ice Cream Robbery are split over disc one and two, so theoretically if you paired a couple of monitors you could play them simultaneously and view them as Scott intended. If you are interested in 20th Century modern art at all, this may not be extensive, but what it does cover should prove highly stimulating. As special features there are an intro and audio Q&A for the titular TV film, an audio Q&A for the The Great Ice Cream Robbery, and an illustrated booklet which is invaluable for the vital background information greatly enriching the experience of watching the films.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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