July 19, 2012 5:33 pm

This sceptred isle, that plastic swan

This week’s new film releases reviewed: ‘Swandown’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’ and ‘Revenge of the Electric Car’
Two men in a pedalo: Andrew Kötting’s ‘Swandown’ is an eccentric voyage round England’s backwaters

Two men in a pedalo: Andrew Kötting’s ‘Swandown’ is an eccentric voyage round England’s backwaters

Forgive me if I don’t lead with The Dark Knight Rises – it bores me even to think of it – but with another British-directed film about people with bats in their belfries. Swandown is very, very crazy: mad in an English, glorious way. Filmmaker Andrew Kötting (Gallivant) and author-“psychogeographer” Iain Sinclair borrow a swan pedalo from the Hastings seafront amusement park, sail it along the coast and then up-river by a winding route to London. They talk of everything, an owl and pussycat with motorised tongues. They briefly embark famous friends: graphic novelist Alan Moore, comedian Stewart Lee, actor Dudley Sutton. Their garrulous gallivant is about everything that is cyclically lost and found in their and our land: the poetry scraps they spout (Shakespeare, Coleridge), the hidden countryside (who knows backwaters in the motor age?), the march of notional progress, the ideas of identity, culture, heritage and mystery that seam a landscape like ore.

The British have always been good at films like this. Precursors? Patrick Keiller’s quirky ordnance-survey odysseys (the Robinson films) and Peter Greenaway’s pre-feature pastorals (A Walk Through H). But Kötting, here, has something even on them. That ubiquitous image of a white plastic-moulded swan nodding on through reeds or mist, or past sunlit cow pastures, or threading the beautiful “O” of a bridge arch and its completing reflection, or even – we must have comic relief – being jeered at Alan-Partridge-ishly from pub gardens (“Duck-boy, did you get to France?”) is now, or will be, indelible. Lohengrin, the only notable forebear unreferenced in the film, must have seeded the lineage of these two idiot British grandchildren. They share his vatic soul without too much of his high seriousness. They are truly and Wagnerianly holy fools.

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Nigel Andrews

Sinclair is the one wielding the boom-mike while declaiming verses. Kötting is the one standing knee-deep (often) in mud, in a never-changed suit, tying ropes or whittling ruminations like willow sticks. On the soundtrack they are occasionally interrupted by voice clips of Werner Herzog, patron saint of batty journeys. On the screen they are broken into by black-and-white intertitles or archive clips. (There’ll always be an England while there’s an ancient newsreel accompanied by a crackly-posh BBC voice.) The planned journey’s end is the under-construction Olympics Park. But the rubber booms of a security barrage mean the irresistible river-bird ends by colliding with an immovable river-object. Bump, pause, bump, pause, bump ... It’s a climax droll and hypnotic in its stasis: an absurdist version of the spaced chords near the close of Sibelius’s Fifth (another swan lover). Swandown is utterly funny, deeply lyrical, wholly winning, unchallengeably unique. It converts Kötting at a stroke from an acquired taste to a required one.

5 stars


The Dark Knight Rises
lasts 165 minutes. It has all the self-importance of a work that has nothing to say but amplifies it by saying it at inordinate length. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has rebuilt Wayne Manor; Gotham City is plagued by Bane (Tom Hardy), a dull villain in a voice-distorting mask; Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), masked, pads about purring for a project. There is a masked ball. Writer-director Christopher Nolan and co-writer brother Jonathan seem to be working towards a statement about masks. But the movie is more like a Greek tragedy production past its thrill-by date. The masks survive while the drama for which they stand ebbs into gesture, bombast, hollowness, meaninglessness.

Sombrely smeared with noir, tall-standing with grandiloquence, stuffed with Brits, including a Sir Michael Caine who seems to have lost touch with his demotic roots, supplying an unconvincingly cockney Alfred, the movie tries to raise its plot stakes with cranked-up guff about a nuclear fusion reactor threatening a citywide Judgment Day. Most of us at the press show couldn’t even hear the dialogue. That wrinkle will perhaps be ironed out; the rest is beyond help. It is fascinating to ponder the antithetical trajectories of two current restart franchises, both comic-based and with British-led casts. The Amazing Spider-Man (English lead actor, Welsh baddie) is limber, funny, human and mercurial. The Dark Knight Rises (Welsh lead actor, English baddie, English director) is pompous, oppressive, without humour or humans: a sort of giant plinth for which no one has remembered to make a statue.

2 stars


James Joyce would be left for dead by rap. It is famously said that Ulysses is a great novel that influenced no one (and Finnegans Wake a less great novel that influenced a few more). Joyce’s language was the template for rap even if rappers have never read him. Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, a docu-primer directed, narrated and compered by Ice-T, shows that the wordsmithing ingenuity of these “singers” is jawdropping, gobsmacking, ear-boggling. In fact there is little left of your face, except a meltdown of wonder, after witnessing about 100 rappers serially interviewed by Ice, warmed up for wisdoms – “Hip-hop didn’t invent anything but it reinvented everything” – and in some cases made to firebreathe a lyric straight at the camera. (The film would have been bolder, mind, if it had confronted the controversial “rap sheet” of misogyny, racism and violence incitement).

Did rap come out of anger? Someone hazards that it sublimated verbal warfare just as verbal warfare sublimated physical. Never mind Joyce; Shakespeare himself would spin in his coffin hearing some of these rhyme-deliriums. (Their cleverness is that they make half-rhymes richer and more epiphanic than whole rhymes.) Even Eminem looks oddly nervous. A great rapper realising he is an isolated species – Caucasian – he flings out perceptions precipitately as if he thinks he’ll be shot if he stops. The film is educative, entertaining, in almost all senses a blast. Your body is left in your seat while your soul is blown to the back of the auditorium.

4 stars


The electric car is dead: long live the electric car. Documentarist Chris Paine delivered the obsequies in the 2006 Who Killed the Electric Car?: all about General Motors’ decision to recall and pulp its pioneering plug-in fleet. Talk about “grand theft auto” – and victims did. They included onetime EV1 owner Danny DeVito, now back in Paine’s enjoyable Revenge of the Electric Car to celebrate the apparent turnaround.

GM vice-chairman Bob Lutz, villain of the last piece, has atoned by abetting the company’s new Chevrolet Volt. Boutique electrifier Elon Musk has had a stock market hit with Tesla Motors, while Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn puts pedal to metal for battery-powered carmaking in Japan. Oh, and American conversion geek Greg “Gadget” Abbott does makeovers in garages between (mysterious) arson attacks. It all sounds too blue-skies to be true. I await the next, more adjusting swing of the roundabout for Paine and volt-powered automotion: perhaps, The Electric Car Settles into a Median State Equidistant Between Success and Failure.

3 stars

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