sat 15/06/2024

DVD: By Our Selves | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: By Our Selves

DVD: By Our Selves

The only way is Essex to Cambridgeshire for lovelorn Romantic poet John Clare

Folkloric folk: Toby Jones as John Clare, Iain Sinclair in the goat mask, and director Andrew Kötting as the straw bear.Soda Pictures

There’s nothing more affecting in a 2015 British film than Freddie Jones reciting John Clare’s “I Am” in By Our Selves, the documentary scene that concludes Andrew Kötting’s semi-fictional paean to the Romantic poet of enclosure-traumatised agrarian England. Jones memorised the poem for his portrayal of Clare in a dramatised 1970 Omnibus instalment, ironic sound bites from which Kötting wove into his film’s aural tapestry.

The venerable actor, 88, couldn’t recall all the lines, though he indicates he would’ve done if his interlocutor Iain Sinclair (Kötting’s collaborator here, as on 2012's Swandown) hadn’t put him on the spot. No matter: Jones’s voice rumbles with the sorrowful intensity of Clare yearning for eternal peace even as he proclaims his aliveness.

By Our Selves is a Kötting collage shot mostly in textured black and white by his regular cinematographer Nick Gordon Smith. Like Sinclair’s book Edge of the Orison (2006), it re-creates Clare’s gruelling 90-mile trek into Cambridgeshire following his escape from an Epping Forest asylum in 1841. Suffering paraphrenic delusions and harbouring several personalities (Lord Byron’s included), Clare was seeking his first love, Mary Joyce, whom he didn't know or believe was dead.

Either a time-traveler or a ghost, Clare (1793-1864) is played by Toby Jones (son of Freddie), whose Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio was an equally paranoid uprooted English ruralist. Sometimes accompanied by folkloric phantoms (or the film’s hairy sound man), Clare looks stunned as he traverses a middle-Albion sprouting wind turbines and pylons and violated by motorway traffic and high-velocity trains. Jones Sr. and Sinclair read from Clare’s journal “Journey Out of Essex”. Mystical poet-musician MacGillivray drifts across the screen as the unrecoverable Mary.

Along with home-movie footage, Kötting inserts Sinclair’s chats with comic-book writer Alan Moore and Clare scholar Simon Kövesi. Northampton magus Moore comments on the asylum where Clare ended up after his odyssey; later inmates included Lucia Joyce (daughter of James but no relation to Mary) and Dusty Springfield.

Kövesi mugging as a boxer to evoke Clare’s fantasized prizefighter identity is silly, his being pressed by Sinclair to explain Clare’s misogyny gratuitous. But whenever Jones père ou fils appear, By Our Selves is haunting, and as epiphanic as Kötting’s 1996 Gallivant, indicating his meta-psychogeographic cinema requires no detours. The dual format disc is supplemented by five shorts – three directed by Kötting, two by Smith – that illuminate their joint aesthetic.

Clare looks stunned as he traverses a middle-Albion sprouting wind turbines and pylons


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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