It’s the final, cruel irony foisted upon many great, underappreciated artists: obscure in life, revered in death. You may be unaware of B.S. Johnson; he was a British artistic polymath who committed suicide in 1973, aged just 40, following a long depressive period brought about by enduring commercial failure.
How sad, then, that he is unable to witness the recent reappraisal of his work and the posthumous respect it is now receiving. How unfortunate too, that he can’t see the calibre of his staunchest supporters, either: among their ranks are the Oscar-nominated film director Bruce Beresford and the prestigious, award-winning writer Jonathan Coe, who authored the excellent Johnson biography Like a Fiery Elephant, which was the recipient of the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for literature.
Taking a cue from the groundswell of interest following the publication of Coe’s book, the BFI has collected Johnson’s ten finest films together for this DVD. It’s being released under the Flipside moniker, which is, in the words of the Institute, a home for those “weird and wonderful British films that have slipped through the cracks – overlooked, marginalised, or undervalued at the time of release”.
Johnson’s canon most certainly fits the bill; during his fairly short working life, he created a mind-bending variety of artistic endeavours: short stories; plays; cultural criticism; reviews; experimental poetry and literature (including the ground-breaking novel The Unfortunates, which was sold unbound and thus encouraged readers to consume the story in a chronology of their own choosing); avant-garde documentaries; biopics; weird comedy animations and agitprop.
Unsurprisingly, all the films presented are unusual, fascinating and intellectual, and all have great impact. Highlights include the Monty Pythonesque Fat Man on a Beach, starring Johnson himself, which begins with an amusing, self-reflexive voice-over (“This film is about a fat man on a beach; do you really want to watch it?”), then continues with some verbal comedy riffs and a discussion about the geography of the North Welsh coastline, before finally ending with Johnson walking fully-clothed into the sea whilst gesticulating wildly to the helicopter filming him from above.
Another, Not Counting the Savages, is a searing 30-minute tale about the fragility of order and reason in the civilised world; directed for the BBC in 1972 by Mike Newell (the only other director represented on the DVD, and one destined for future Hollywood success with Donnie Brasco), it’s the antithesis of the jollily surreal Fat Man on a Beach.
Perhaps the most powerful film of the collection is the award-winning experimental short You’re Human Like the Rest of Them. Based on a decasyllabic poem and featuring William Hoyland as a teacher facing his own mortality, it was Johnson’s filmmaking debut, and so assured was it that it went on to win the Grand Prix at the 1968 Tours Film Festival.
Watching all of Johnson’s work, you begin to appreciate his cinematic and televisual reach, so it’s not a surprise to read that he viewed film as offering “the widest scope to a writer as a pure form”. Indeed, it could be argued that Johnson’s admirable eclecticism and artistic diversity was at the root of his commercial misfortune; although on its own merit his work is generally excellent, he was a marketing nightmare, a fidgety renaissance man, and his output, viewed in its entirety, is difficult to pigeonhole and categorise.
Irrespective of his early, innovative literary efforts, the subject matter of these short films alone shows a unique and scattershot randomness, and despite the surprising revelation that Johnson was in fact a huge stickler for process and detail, it nevertheless seems that whatever flight of fancy occupied his interest at any one time was then crystallised intellectually and formed into his next project, regardless of whether it fitted cohesively alongside his other work.
It’s a shame that Johnson couldn’t engage more people during his lifetime; many initially experimental filmmakers eventually flirt with a commercial cinematic aesthetic in order to reach a bigger audience, David Cronenberg and David Lynch among them. However, this is not to suggest such diversification constitutes selling out at all—as long as the resultant, accessible work is still imbued with a rigorous artistic credibility.
Yes, this is a wonderful BFI tribute to a great writer and director, and yes, it’s cheering to know that Johnson’s deserving output is currently being appreciated on a wider scale, but to know and enjoy his work now is also to know it comes too late to have offered him a lifeline, both commercially and artistically; just as for so many other tragic yet brilliant creative minds before him, it’s a bittersweet eulogy to a sad and seemingly unfulfilled professional life.
The extras on this Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray disc are excellent, and include a glossy 30-page booklet, some mute outtakes from Fat Man on a Beach, and The Johnson Papers, a long and interesting look at the B.S. Johnson Archive at the wonderfully labyrinthine British Library.