One could be excused for labeling Simon Pummell, the director of 2003’s award-winning Bodysong, as an ambitious fellow. Despite the film’s simple and poetic titular reference to the human body, the scope of Bodysong is actually vast, with a subject matter that is, broadly speaking, humanity. Or rather, life as humans experience it, both as physical, organic objects susceptible to the uncontrollable effects – both good and bad—of nature, and also as sentient, autonomous entities that consciously and proactively communicate, seek pleasure, organise, play, celebrate, ritualise, disrupt and destroy. Not too shabby an effort from a director with only 80-minutes or so to play with.
Bodysong is very complex and ambitious, and features a hypnotic, stream-of-consciousness narrative consisting solely of archive documentary, home movie and news footage – very old to very new. This is often presented in slow-motion—which is organised into various un-narrated categories (save for a small amount of speech at the finale), rendered here as DVD chapters—the verses of the song, if you will, roughly grouped as birth, growth, sex, violence, death and dreams. The huge range of fascinating, beautiful and occasionally brutal people-related images have all been completely stripped of their original diegetic sound; in its place, and constant for the entire film, is a great music score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, more of which later.
To begin with, consider for a moment the basic thematic thrust of Bodysong, the trajectory of a human being on Earth: conception, birth, life and death, the only certainties of our existence (sorry about that, taxes). Using these inevitabilities as a linear strand that runs throughout the film (indeed the unsurprising opening images feature microscopic shots of wriggling sperm and fertilisation), Bodysong’s scope eventually expands massively and abstractly – but always within the context of the human body – to include the ways in which we utilise our bodies, for better or worse, during the course of our lives, and the way in which we are, dichotomously, both entirely unique but also part of a great human mass. As Pummell himself says, “each body, each glimpse of anatomy, is both utterly individual, and also abstracted and dignified by being part of a huge flow, a torrent of humanity larger than any of us can conceive”.
Bodysong resembles a long and intricate tapestry that constantly scrolls past a little too quickly for us to be able absorb and subjectively interpret its beauty and meaning at first glance, yet is nonetheless still slow enough for us to attempt to decode certain ambiguous elements of its continuous, beautiful artwork. With each shot in taken out of its original context, it’s open to reinterpretation anyway, and it’s certainly true that every one of the images tells a unique story; they may all be related to the body in some way, and loosely follow a chronological order, but they offer so much more too, particularly when viewed with a fresh perspective (anyway, half the fun is trying to decode what Pummell was intending to say when he chose certain images or scenes for a particular section of the film).
The potential of various sequences to provoke further discourse—perhaps beyond obvious matters of the body—is frequent, as I’m sure is Pummell’s intention. For example, a scene within the ‘Growth’ chapter shows two adorable toddlers tottering around a suburban garden: one is marching and banging a drum, the other is waving a little flag. The old and grainy black and white footage would appear to date the scene to around the ‘30s or ‘40s, and on closer inspection we see very fleetingly that the flag is illustrated with a swastika.
It’s a distasteful sight, highly politicized and over in an instant and it’s moments like these which suggest that beyond the visceral, hypnotic spell that Bodysong induces, there is of course great potential to decipher the complex images in terms of politics, culture, sociology, history, anthropology and so on. This complexity also suggests that to truly appreciate the scale of Pummell’s vision, repeat viewing is essential. But then again, no interpretations of Bodysong can really be considered conclusive or set in stone; it’s with good reason that the cyberpunk author William Gibson has referred to the film as ‘genuinely liminal’, i.e., ambiguous; open; indeterminate.
Just in case you think Bodysong up until now sounds like an honourable, ambitious but ultimately a dense and dull film, don’t worry, it’s full of creative wit, too. For example, a sleazy, faded ‘70s porno shot of an actress sucking a vibrator is juxtaposed with a sequence featuring a grinning, weightless astronaut, mouth agape, who attempts to chomp a slowly spinning airborne banana that a colleague has just launched towards him.
The film’s lack of traditional cinematic structure, and also Pummell’s choice of title, gives an indication that he considers Bodysong a sort of abstract hymn to humanity, and as such he has clearly taken the film’s soundtrack very seriously. Indeed, it’s fair to say that a good chunk of Bodysong’s mesmerising appeal should be credited to Greenwood, who has written an eclectic, dissonant and sometimes repetitive score (repetitive in a good, Philip Glass way, mind you), encompassing elements of rock, classical, ambient, jazz and electronic music. While Greenwood’s work is by turns calm, chaotic, unsettling, seductive and entrancing, it always compliments the visuals well, is subtle and never showboats, and as a result enhances the tone of each sequence very effectively.
Greenwood’s work on Bodysong predates by a few years the unfortunate ‘will he / won’t he get an Oscar nomination for original score’ palaver that surrounded his work for There Will Be Blood (he didn’t get the nomination, if you weren’t aware, as he’d used his pre-existing piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver as part of the soundtrack), and he undertook this film as his debut solo project, so it’s some measure of his talent that he completed the task with such confidence and flair. Also, it’s perhaps no surprise that away from his Radiohead duties, Greenwood has subsequently gained the respect of his cinematic peers in a relatively short period of time (he has to date received many awards for his tiny body of film work, and he is already the BBC’s composer in residence).
Overall, to write a neatly encapsulated assessment of Bodysong, or to attempt to deconstruct its narrative too conclusively, would ultimately do the film a disservice. Just as Pummell has reinterpreted – and reinvigorated with new context and meaning – Bodysong’s archive footage, we too can reinterpret Pummell’s vision and his celebration of the human body, as I’m sure he would encourage us to do; and no doubt our subjective, individual analyses of Bodysong, just like our bodies, will be unique, too.
The BFI has, as usual, done a terrific job with the extras, which are engaging and plentiful. Included are two of Pummell’s equally thought provoking short films (Blinded by Light and How Long is a Minute?), a theatrical Bodysong trailer, an interview with Pummell about the film, an audio commentary with Pummell and Jonny Greenwood about the score, an illustrated 32-page booklet containing essays by film critics and scholars including Geoff Andrew, Matt Hansen, Gareth Evans and William Gibson, and finally extensive filmographies, biographies and credits.
If that wasn’t enough, there is also a limited collector’s edition available too, with all the above, but also a whopping 200-page bound book containing the aforementioned essays and plenty of stills and additional information about the archive films used.
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