I Sing the Body Emetic

Bodysong

directed by Simon Pummell

FilmFour

Bodysong is but one manifestation of a larger disorder afflicting significant portions of the contemporary art world. I have attempted to diagnose this epidemic before — perhaps not entirely scientifically; or even successfully, for that matter — in these very virtual pages, choosing to survey its symptoms (delusion, pretentiousness, convoluted speech interlarded with vague neologisms, desperate claims to originality) and it sufferers (Charles Saatchi, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin) rather than spend time inventing a clever, distinguishing name for it. What is unique about this particular disorder is that it is not identifiable only through ordinary methods, but also the reaction it evokes in others. And it is usually some variation on this theme: “How can this [painter, poet, sculptor, director] try to pass this shit off as art?”

Which is exactly the sort of question one should ask of Bodysong. Simon Pummell’s debut feature film is a collection of educational, documentary and pornographic movies spliced together in an order roughly resembling the trajectory of human life and then played in excruciatingly slow motion. This, apparently, makes it profound and moving stuff. An alternate interpretation might call it an affected load of tripe.

The 78-minute film comprises several sections, each devoted to some general aspect of humanity. There are, among many others, a birth section, a play section, a sex, war and an eating section, as well as two concluding sections devoted to death and rebirth. Any form of visual account of these topics is fair game. There is some early ethnographic film footage by Gabriel Veyre (the same clip can be seen in Mike Hoolboom’s Imitations of Life, another film plagued by overestimations of self-importance), a shot or two of porn star John Holmes (who would later die of AIDS), a sequence of Nazi children playing in the garden, ten or more close-ups of a frenzied sperm fertilizing an egg, the brutal television clip of the Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem being executed with a shot to the head on a Saigon street, and so on. When Pummell isn’t trying to be ominous and menacing, he’s trying to squeeze every ounce of irony out of the topic at hand. For these reasons his work oozes with the very worst of postmodernism.

Combine this with Johnny Greenwood’s score. Greenwood is a member of an unknown English band named Radiohead, and he has composed a soundtrack that sounds very much like the new, abstract, eerie, electro-orchestral offerings from this same group. Unfortunately, it’s so at odds with the movie as to be laughable. Does a sequence depicting birth — a physically painful but emotionally exuberant event — really deserve to be scored as if it were something out of Blade Runner? His music is so serious, so intense, so woefully melodramatic, that it undermines every inspired or compelling moment of Bodysong, rare as they are.

So who, then, is Bodysong for? The kids, now grown, who didn’t get enough time to linger over this footage in science class? The people among the Radiohead crowd who aren’t quite clear on the overwhelming beauty and cruelty of life? The jaded schoolchildren who won’t accept anything — least of all their educational videos — unless it comes with a clever marketing angle and a celebrity recommendation? Or the critics who find it difficult to draw a line demarcating a pastiche of educational, documentary and pornographic movies played in slow motion from a genuine creative endeavor?

The one area in which Bodysong succeeds is in its online supplement (included as an interactive extra on the DVD). As far as I can tell, this is one of the few films to have a significant and arguably useful Web presence. In fact, it’s so useful that it comes close to undermining the film itself. A far more ambitious and worthwhile project would to have made Bodysong into a fully interactive DVD project, labyrinthine and serendipitous, and not a dull film with the interesting details and footnotes relegated to some online appendix.

Fact is, we can do without Bodysong, just like we can do without the vitrines of sharks in formaldehyde and the unmade beds. But the problem with this disorder is that it seems to be viral, not genetic, in nature, and therefore highly contagious. It robs large numbers of artists, financiers and critics of their evaluative faculties. What, short of a quarantine, is to stop it from spreading?

Bodysong is rated 18 (UK) and available through its official website: http://www.bodysong.com/

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