Earthworks: Andrew Kötting’s Spirit of Place
By Gareth Evans
“Why do I make films? I think it is out of necessity. A necessity with which we try to establish a relationship with others, through a dialogue with the secret interlocutor we all carry inside ourselves. And, as Jean Renoir said, many years ago, ‘a film is made to create a bridge.’” - Victor Erice
“Reality is often pregnant with utterly unexpected possibilities. A powerful spiritual dimension can be found in one's life through the exercise of the imagination... We make our own weather.” - JG Ballard
Exterior: Office: Day in England, the late 1990s. Enter from leftfield Andrew Kötting, shorts-stacked and second time feature-maker, approaching the money men. Maverick anti-traditionalist and yet wound within the luminous history of film, he is keen to tell the end-tales of an uneasy society, planning to bring the margins central, in order to deliver inspired and provocative manifestations of a viable future for innovative, envisioned film in these troubled islands. Time to pitch...
Cine-performance showman, Kötting first went walkabout at feature length with family in tow for Gallivant (available on BFI dvd), a coastal perambulation with knowing urban glint that picked up the signals of shoreline psychogeography. Nothing in the wayward, rambling charm of that casual tour gave warning of the singular intensity of This Filthy Earth, an Earth-house production, an act of brooding witness. Here, a foreigner working in a remote moorland farming settlement - sisters, family, village are all taprooted into the oldest soil - precipitates its partial collapse after he is scape-goated for social and meteorological ills.
It's a vaudeville cow opera, borrowing blatantly from the key animal insemination scene of cinema (La Bête), honouring John Berger's Pig Earth and digging deepest into Zola's La Terre. Cast: Jesus Christ, a Marie Salope, a Stalker or Pale Rider, sibling itinerants, Papa Lear, a soothsayer meddler. It lives absolutely in a material world - bull and man sperm on the hands, pigs in trees, rooms like caves or armpits, piss in graveyards, phlegm, pus, shit, rock (human time against geological time), rain, mud, mud. Meanwhile, the ears of wheat catch the murmur of curtailed desire, the invigoured and curious dream of the other - travelling shows and the - for some - soothing balm of foreigners who bring another place close. But there is dyspastoral bloodletting of a kind not seen since the stage sacrifice of David Rudkin's Afore Night Come.
It's a vision of the differently sighted, therefore sound is the film's second heart. Tug a leek and you rent the world, while ploughs pull a roar through the field. These are the scale shifts by which we perceive the constant ebb and flow of things. By the film's end there will be a felled church, a routed flock, a bog opening like a reverse birth to retrieve offspring and outcasts united in ceaseless passage across the earth. The price? £1.2 million when it came to it, all UK and all from agencies.
There’s an urgency, a subversion - and a sense of the land as key player - that puts This Filthy Earth so far from current UK practice that it barely registers on the official radar. It shapes reverse creation myths that unmake alienated community and unravel personality to expose fresh paths for both subject and medium; hence it is, in its own way, a deeply political, compassionate work. Understandably therefore, it plays with permanence and flux, runs transition against foundation. It is the kind of film that is the secret dreams of maps. You cannot find its places in the grid. This Filthy Earth is Eastern Europe gone West. A sort-of Kustirica, it's gone now to ground in Yorkshire-Cumbria and so both counties seep in, but still it is anywhere and anywhen.
There is a melancholy, a loss in this but more, a blackly manic cheerfulness. Equally, bodies operating in place are also pointers to the variety of tone. Thus we find excess, decay, so-labelled 'impairment' or distortion. Identity is challenged, characters are besieged by weather and superstition. Some become the conductors of potent, unseen forces - they twitch and speak in tongues. What people say and how is evidence of their relationship to place. This Filthy Earth’s 'gramlot' is the lingo of reduced horizons and business, of instinctual non-verbal knowing and body language.
But while dug in to land, it pursues the lure of the nomadic. It offers a wanderer who provokes degrees of dissolution within the settled; and it ends in motion - two men and a mule - a cut price Western roaming of the homeless into a future bigger than the abandoned hamlet knows. And yet, of course, nowhere is more nomadic than 'terra cinema', in its stories, frames and personnel, in the influences that wander like rogue crew members between shoots or the formats that find their way in - multiple styling for multiple realities - the memory mode of super 8, digital atmospherics (image saturation or inversion) and general audio/visual dysfunction.
At best such film in the UK is tolerated, almost with embarrassment, like some loud relative on the gin at a funeral. But more often this form of relevant outrider vision - and others like it - is seen as a barbarian deviation that somehow got in when the windy lookout was unstaffed (Its threat is closer now). Of course, that it got backing at all in the time of its making is surprise enough (literally inconceivable now). But it's not enough for those who put the money in to sit back on co-production laurels when they buried this baby with an almost negative distribution and marketing strategy.
Such a film lived, like so many others, on the devil's crossroads in the ongoing production and distribution crisis of challenging home-grown cinema. This Filthy Earth appeared on one print at London's Curzon Soho. Should it feel blessed? Dom Rotheroe, fellow FilmFourLab funding beneficiary at the time, saw his Robby Muller-lensed debut My Brother Tom open in a celluloid corner shop. “Do you know what the Odeon Wardour Street is?” he asked Time Out's Nick Bradshaw back then. It's like a new disease has been identified. Will there be such a thing as half a print? You fund it and back it or what's the point? These are hardy, rough-edged works, but fragile also when they hit the market highway. The shortest run and no promotion is certifiable lunacy. With such work, word of mouth is the best publicity. But it takes time. Some new zone between cinema and the more supportive gallery environment seems essential.
But it's always really only ever been individuals like Kötting who have kept innovative filmic imagination alive in this country, not structures. They tell mongrel yarns, hybrids, mixed-race in form and content. And so, if the halls are sealed against them, then it's not hard to see them spreading the news by any means necessary, as alley prophets, town criers, screening the potent truths they find on sheets and weather-beaten walls. And those who value such reports shall be there with them, watching and transported.
This piece is partly adapted and updated from an essay in Vertigo magazine, volume 2, no.2, Spring 2002 (www.vertigomagazine.co.uk).