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filmwaves.co.uk

Member Area
Venice Biennale

It would be nice to do something political (AIS 22)

British artists: Ian Breakwell

Although his diverse oeuvre was linked by a highly distinctive voice, Ian Breakwell
(1943-2005) operated across so many mediums, exploring so many styles and
concerns that his works defy classification. Consequently, his stock within the
history of British artists’ films is perhaps unduly low, something that this BFI release,
encompassing eight films made between 1973 and Breakwell’s death from cancer in 2005,
infused with a refreshing humour often absent from British avant-garde film, seeks to
correct.

He kept a journal for forty years, using words, images, and film, which he presented
on Channel 4 in 1984 as Ian Breakwell’s Continuous Diary. Excerpts from the Diary
from 1975 appear here, read directly to camera. Visually, the excerpts offer nothing
except Breakwell’s features, a stark reminder of contemporary television’s obsession with
superficial images (or: contempt for the viewer’s ability to concentrate on words). The
stories are chaotic and discordant, often infused with darkly surreal humour, such as an
incident involving a spectator and a chicken at a football match.
The demands Breakwell’s Diary makes upon the viewer’s imagination by replacing visual
representation with words also characterise Repertory, a deftly savage attack upon film’s
reliance on theatricality. Its only shot pans around a theatre, ending in front of locked
doors, a voice describing a week-long programme of eerily bizarre ‘shows’ – stages devoid
of human activity, with no audience – that can only exist as images conjured in the
viewer’s consciousness.
The News again reminds how televisual language has changed. Long before The Day
Today, Breakwell satirised television news (considerably more overblown now than in
1980), using ‘real’ Border Television newscaster Eric Wallace, documenting absurdly unruly
behaviour amongst the town’s pensioners, drawing its humour primarily from repetition.
This repetition is central to The Walking Man, a Continuous Diary entry about an intangible
man (mental patient, vagrant or worker?) whom Breakwell observes daily, between
bouts of unexplained absence. The film offers no explanations; it simply demands that the
viewer share Breakwell’s observatory fascination with this third person.
Growth, a longer Continuous Diary piece, is a very personal, more formally conservative
entry taking the viewer back to Breakwell’s childhood in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. More
visually varied than the earlier Excerpts, it still owes its interest mainly to Breakwell’s
humanistic recollections of his upbringing.
Auditorium (1994), the longest film presented here, provides an interesting counterpoint
to Repertory, documenting a theatre audience waiting for an unseen performance
to commence, and then their reactions to it. Unlike the Diary films and The News,
Auditorium feels more suited to gallery screenings, and the concept feels well established
long before its ends.
Variety (2001) laments the passing of vaudeville and other traditional entertainments,
symbolically employing damaged nitrate film stock and ending with the on-stage death of
a ventriloquist. Visually the most dynamic film included, Breakwell reminds the viewer
of the fragility of performative traditions, explicitly including film. The specially commissioned
half-hour documentary reminds the viewer of the tragic fragility of Breakwell
himself: it stands as a fitting tribute to an amiable and intelligent artist unfettered by
boundaries between art and entertainment.

Gareth Buckell

FW34

Ian Breakwell (British Artists’ Films)
UK 1973-2007,
127 mins
BFI, £19.99