The Flickering Half-Life of Someone Else’s Dreams: The Films of Luke Fowler

Why are Luke Fowler’s films so hard to get a grip on?
James Lattimer

Why are Luke Fowler’s films so hard to get a grip on? To start with, what you make of them depends on where you see them. Fowler inhabits that strange border zone between cinema and art, his work just as likely to appear in a standard screening situation as it is to be placed within an exhibition space. It’s no coincidence that the most notable nomination he’s received thus far in his career is not some film festival award but rather the Turner Prize. Yet given the dizzying range and quantity of references Fowler’s films often contain, any additional context is welcome. Fowler’s recent feature-length documentary To the Editor of Amateur Photography was, for example, commissioned by the UK’s first feminist photography centre; seeing this free-form institutional portrait exhibited within its very walls is obviously a very different proposition from seeing it at just another neutral film festival screening. But while Fowler’s work certainly thrives on additional context, it’s by no means beholden to it, the formal idiosyncrasies and semantic flexibility of his films casting the same hypnotic spell regardless of how and where you experience them.

Experience is indeed everything in Fowler’s films, which are less about imposing a pre-determined structure on their subjects than attempting to model all the associations these subjects conjure up, a visualization of all the thoughts that dart through the mind in response to them. For Fowler, every image and every idea carries a whole train of others in its wake, with the precise relationship between the original stimulus and the echoes it casts soon drowned out in the sheer cacophony of proliferating connections. As such, his films splice together a cornucopia of oft-competing elements: archive material and Fowler’s own 16mm footage, colour and black and white, expansive field recordings and sudden bursts of electronic noise, static shots and vertical whip pans, text delivered in clipped BBC tones and pile upon pile of written documents, gentle superimpositions and jagged cuts, landscapes and textures. In the face of such a barrage of heterogeneity, what else is there to do but just let it wash over you? It’s fitting that the only way to engage with Fowler’s mesmerising translations of the thought process is to simply allow yourself to experience them. While this freewheeling approach could easily tip over into the random, it never actually does, as Fowler is canny enough to hem in the seeming chaos via recurring motifs, rhythmic repetitions, and fresh stabs at the subject. And as the sounds, images, and ideas swirl around you, meaning does indeed develop, albeit via association and intuition rather than linearity or chronology, resulting in loose, deliberately fuzzy essays where the viewer is free to decide which of the many points are the most salient.

This piecemeal approach to semantics is an attempt to reproduce one of the key processes that inspires and underpins Fowler’s work, namely that of exploring an archive: watching endless hours of old TV reports, leafing through stacks of photos, or scanning reams of written correspondence. Both in Fowler’s films themselves and the archival research they rest on, some of the myriad pieces of information will invariably be more relevant than others, insights can rear their head at any time, and while causalities and relationships may certainly emerge, they are under no obligation to do so. The primacy of archival work is such for Fowler that he frequently visualises the actual working process, whether flashing up photos on screen in the order he found them, having his interview partners present leaflets, newspaper clippings, or magazines to camera, or showing the hopelessly obsolete looking databases that catalogue television’s past. And Fowler is not just content to rummage through existing archives, he’s also constantly creating his own, the self-shot 16mm footage he liberally sprinkles across his films seemingly drawn from an infinite library of different sensations and impressions, each image selected via the same magpie logic he applies to every other archive too.

When Fowler’s films tip closer towards the documentary, they exhibit a similar interest in its processes, fascinated and repulsed in equal measure by its standard modes of address. The snippets of old television reports and interviews with which he peppers his work are deliberately chosen to accentuate the rigidity of their perspective and patronisingly stagy tone. Shorn of its original context, this material feels at once borderline ridiculous and chillingly hegemonic, a now quaint embodiment of normative values that was more than capable of crushing back in the day. Many of Fowler’s subjects have felt the weight of these values at one time or another, whether the celebrity psychiatrist buffeted by the expectations attached to his position, the marshland-obsessed hermit hunted down as mentally ill, 

the female photographers constantly forced to justify the need for their existence, or the looked-down-upon travelling folk of the Scottish Highlands. Given his disdain for the declamatory and over-authoritative, it’s to be expected that Fowler’s own occasional forays into more standard documentary modes try to build in distance to these subjects: his interviews split up sound and image so as to sidestep the power relations of traditional talking heads, his own agenda is often explicitly articulated and open to questioning, and his sources of his material are listed where possible. While Fowler can’t quite conceal his sympathy for all these outsider positions, the sheer plurality of material he brings to bear on them goes a long way to creating objectivity. With his subjects all united by an oft-thwarted idealism, Fowler’s work often feels like a perpetual search for images both past and present to articulate it, a process to capture what’s best expressed by one of the myriad mysterious statements thrown up by his films: “the flickering half-life of someone else’s dreams”.

Fowler’s most recent short Depositions (2014) is also perhaps his most gloriously untethered, snaking its way between rock pools, sperm samples, political prophecies, and cracking bone over 25 entirely unbounded minutes. The film’s opening is atypically straightforward, linking together the Highland coastline, rowdy fireside sing-alongs and benevolently disapproving interviews with various Scottish Travellers into what could easily have developed into a simple plea for their rights, albeit loosely expressed. Instead, a wordless survey of the landscape and its textures begins, a 16mm flurry of darting camera movements over water, rock, and sand that pick out seaweed, lichen, and swaying grasses as they go, the enveloping sounds of birdsong, air, and gurgling currents only occasionally interrupted by the shots of metal and bone being heated in a crucible and vases on sunlit windowsills cut at seeming random into the sequence. By the time the film does eventually finds its way back to its nominal subject, there’s been enough room for po-faced discussions on the merits of science, stacks of folk tales recorded on cassette, and American educational films that neatly demonstrate how juvenile offenders can indeed be returned to the fold. It would seem that landscape begets freedom, just as freedom necessitates control, two competing processes Fowler presses together whilst continually finding fresh expressions of the inevitable friction they generate: between BBC English and the broadest of Scottish brogues, dated interiors and timeless panoramas, the infinite number of particles in a test tube of sperm and the fixed human genome it contains.

The shimmering marshland explorations of the short Bogman Palmjaguar (2007) are an obvious precursor to Depositions’ Highland roamings, a return to nature directly linked to the film’s subject rather than slyly channelling attention away from it. The titular Bogman Palmjaguar is an eccentric, bog-obsessed hermit in his late 50s whose turbulent life story is the backbone of the film, a rambling tale of incest, persecution, and seclusion heard mainly in voiceover. Fowler allows this narrative to structure the flow of images: alternating colour and black-and-white footage of the places he lived, the nooks and crannies of his cluttered home, the photos, magazines, and case files that chapter his life. But just as Bogman constantly reiterates his love for bogs and marshes, so too is Fowler unable to escape his own fascination for them, editing their watery textures, the landscapes that house them, and the glistening plant life they carry into his protagonist’s account with a jittery, unpredictable charm, the speed of his jerky cuts occasionally accelerating into pure light and form. Fowler is equally unwilling to allow the film to settle into a standard documentary flow, as the asynchronous sound and the fact that Bogman is usually given one of his many masks to wear during their conversations tidily circumvents the standard interviewer-interviewee set up. The actual making of the film is never far away either, with the difficulty of getting Bogman to cooperate repeatedly coming to the fore, just as the process of recording marsh sounds is highlighted again and again, the act of portraying a subject and the methods employed to do so impossible to separate.

Part of Bogman Palmjaguar involves the hermit being assessed by Dr. Leon Redler, an American psychiatrist who emerged from the same radical 1960s movement that also spawned his more renowned counterpart R.D. Laing, the subject of Fowler’s feature-length All Divided Selves (2011). Thanks to his considerable fame, Laing is a more than grateful subject, having made countless UK television appearances over the course of his lengthy career. Fowler scatters footage or recordings from these across his portrait of Laing with a blithe disregard for chronology, frequently cycling back to the same exchange or showing different parts of it at different junctures to reframe or add new dimensions to his protean protagonist, the loose ordering principle being, if anything, to convey the progressive expansion in Laing’s sphere of activity. There is Laing the authoritative psychiatric pundit, Laing the engaging presenter, Laing the drug-addled commune member, Laing the piano-playing pop star, Laing the drunken interviewee: a whole panoply of different selves in which Fowler sees no division. Regardless of the setting or timeframe, the snippets of Laing that Fowler serves up all point to a foreign body jutting out of an establishment just waiting to chew him up, a sometimes dishevelled beacon of lucidity necessarily at odds with television’s need for simple sound bites. To bring this oppositional stance into sharper focus, Fowler frequently folds in fragments of the psychiatric norms Laing was attempting to tear down, avuncular patient consultations in different shades of condescending, their uneven power relations inscribed in every frame. It would seem that one of Laing’s opening statements is to be confirmed again and again: in a miserable world characterised by its essential nastiness, the mentally troubled people that rail against its ossified structures often feel painfully, hopelessly sane. 

As the film progresses and the material Fowler collects sprouts in all directions, Laing increasingly emerges as a node through which all the primary currents of the period flowed, a solitary island lapped by psychiatry, protest, celebrity, non-conformism, and esotericism. With so many diverse, fragmentary references to these and other subjects flying around—Hegel, Ginsberg, the subjectivity of experience, the Philadelphia Association, Isherwood, the Anti-University of London—it’s soon clear that keeping up with them all is not the intended goal. Fowler’s interest lies instead in conveying the audiovisual and discursive texture of the time, in recreating the historical experience of having all these oft-competing arguments presented to you at once. This emphasis on the experiential and the multifarious is echoed by the 16mm footage he splices into the archive material with spasmodic glee, a loose-limbed stream of graceful images unburdened by the need to make direct sense. While Fowler’s own material does occasionally mimic or obliquely comment on the archive footage it’s placed alongside, more often than not it works as nothing other than a joyously unruly collection of sensory experiences spanning different environments and continents, all united by their strange, melancholy beauty and structured only by various recurring motifs: the play of sunlight on wood, fabric, and plaster, grass swaying before a wire fence, socked feet on carpet, a disembodied hand cutting runner beans. It’s only when Laing comments towards the end of the film that he wrote more about pain and misery than happiness and joy that Fowler’s strategy clicks into place: for someone so interested in each of the many facets of experience, it would be doing Laing a disservice to not try and balance out some of its woes with some of its wonders.

There’s no great difference between the more experiential passages of All Divided Selves and the ones that makes up the entirety of the three-part A Grammar for Listening (2009), other than that Fowler’s earlier suite of shorts liberates them from any relationship to an external subject. These three collaborations with three different sound artists—Lee Paterson in the first part, Eric La Casa in the second, and Toshiya Tsunoda in the third—each consist of nothing more than sound and image recordings of particular locations. The altered structure of each part then serves to recalibrate how the viewer experiences them, a subtle demonstration of how perception is shaped by context and how easily listening can be made to take on linguistic dimensions; once a grammar is in place, it’s hard not to cling to it. Part one scrupulously labels its different locations and the sounds being recorded at them, whether a burning walnut kernel in Glasgow, air, water, and material vibrations in Clydeport, or reflections and refractions in air and water in the Firth of Clyde. In the face of such detailed listening instructions, the film becomes a meditative exercise in scouring Fowler’s typically impressionistic 16mm footage of the locations for the precise sources of the sounds mentioned, the feeling being that even the occasional moments of discord can always be attributed to something the images contain.

Part two withholds the very information that makes navigating part one so straightforward, with the task of matching all the frequently unidentifiable sounds to the images made all the harder by Fowler’s tendency to flit back and forth between his now unlabelled locations. Unmoored from any context, both sound and image are imbued with a sense of mysteriousness or even menace: while the essential set-up is the same, the contrast to the first part could not be starker, as rhythmic volatility replaces perceptual tranquillity. Even when you do manage to isolate the sounds of a rope under strain, a forklift truck reversing, or the echoes under a bridge, the wash of other noises around them retains a stubborn plurality, just as the images are never quite willing to relinquish the source of the sounds they apparently house. The idea would seem to be that only external structure renders noises discrete; what is the sound of a leaf-clogged river, the sun passing over a rocky mountainside, or a 70s pedestrian bridge anyway? Part three swings back in the opposite direction, not only labelling its small set of iconic London locations, but also placing Toshiya Tsunoda and his recording assistant directly in the frame, augmented with extended explanations of his working methods that appear as intertitles from time to time. With the process laid entirely bare, the focus now shifts onto the specifics of positioning and method, the underlying notion being that any sound you hear is necessarily a function of how the person has chosen to record it and where they’ve placed themselves to do so. By making these details explicit, the third part reproduces the act of listening with a minimum of extra mediation: this is what sitting before the Albert Hall with a microphone attached to your temple might actually sound like.

A similar interest in process pervades To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (2014), a collaboration with artist and musician Mark Fell which sees Fowler veer closer to the conventional documentary than ever before, its clarity of structure a far cry from All Divided Selves’ stream of audiovisual consciousness. Unlike much of Fowler’s work, this commissioned portrait of the Pavilion, a Leeds-based women’s photography centre set up in the early 80s, moves back and forth between its three main constituent parts with an unusual degree of reliability: the countless photos taken at the centre flashed up in the same state and order they were found in, set to field recordings of its former location; hectic camera movements which rifle through the reams of paperwork pumped out by the centre, a blur of dates, names, newsletters, colour swatches, and correspondence accompanied by harsh electronic crunches; interviews with the centre’s key players which ask them to describe a photograph and explain what was happening outside its frame, the photo in question sometimes shown and sometimes withheld. While this more explicit structure removes the pleasurable danger of getting lost in the stream, it still allows the subject to retain its multivalent character. Whether in the unceasing flow of disparate images or the small shifts in focus between different recollections, the Pavilion emerges as another point of confluence similar to that of R.D. Laing: a site where feminism is inseparable from the parallel questions of class, race, politics, unionism, sexuality, and representation being posed at the time. 

Yet an equally important part of putting this portrait together is highlighting the methods used and choices made by Fowler, an openness of approach that is particularly important in light of the context. As comes up again and again in the interviews Fowler conducts, many of the Pavilion’s former founders find it understandably problematic that two men have been given the task of documenting an enterprise set up and sustained by women. Criticism is also voiced about Fowler’s decision to disassociate sound and image, with one interviewee unhappy with the “disembodied” nature of her account as a result, particularly when one of the Pavilion’s goals was to challenge how women often have control over the representation of their bodies wrenched away from them. While Fowler’s decision to include these criticisms does not in itself deflect them, it does at least bring to light the sort of representational mechanics most documentaries prefer to hide, the fundamental question of who is shooting whom in what way for what purpose. The closing TV interview with two Pavilion representatives serves as a biting illustration of this both within the film and beyond, as the eloquence of these women is inevitably stymied by the invisible apparatus of norms they must appear in. When the presenter talks about the “perfectly normal” image of a scantily clad woman, he inadvertently put his finger on Fowler’s approach. His fragmented, deliberately discordant images may not be unimpeachable, but you could never accuse them of perfect normality.

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