Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Andrew Kötting's Edith Walks (2017) is playing June 29 - July 29, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
The faster we walk, the more ground we lose.
—Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory
If there's a single date in English history that most of the country's population would know, it's 1066: the Battle of Hastings. They would hazily recall from wooden modular classrooms, stifling on a warm summer's afternoon, as they gazed out at heat rising from the tarmac playground, the tale of King Harold II, his cross-country march to war, and the Norman Conquest of the Anglo-Saxon realm. Perhaps the image of Harold as depicted on the Bayeux tapestry, an arrow protruding from his eye, would emerge from the palimpsest of history and linger on the fringes of their memory. The memories are much more immediate and painful for Edith Swan-Neck, Harold's common-law wife, who is the haunting presence at the centre of Andrew Kötting's Edith Walks, continuing her long sad lament for her fallen lover.
Edith is not just a spectral presence in this offbeat documentary, but a physical one, portrayed by the otherworldly Claudia Barton in a flowing pale wedding gown and stomping black boots. She hits the road with Kötting’s ramshackle troupe of mummers, composed of: writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, drummer David Aylward, sound designer and recordist Jem Finer, and pin-hole camera chronicler Anonymous Bosch. Their pilgrimage takes them across five days from Waltham Abbey, north of London, where Harold’s bones are said to rest, to St. Leonards-on-Sea, the battle site on the south coast, and a Victorian statue depicting the tragic couple in a composition reminiscent of the Pietá.
She kissed the brow, she kissed the lips, Her arms about him pressed, She kissed the deep wound blood-besmeared Upon her monarch’s breast.
—Heinrich Heine, Battlefield at Hastings
Playing to Kötting’s typically anarchic sensibilities, the film acts as a mash-up of his previous two films, both of which involved heavy collaboration with Sinclair. 2012’s Swandown saw the pair embark on a daft 160-mile voyage, via a swan-shaped pedalo named (once again) Edith, from Hastings to Hackney in defiance of the corporate Olympic leviathan laying waste to East London communities. Although not included in Edith Walks, Sinclair has revealed that when the group passed the Olympic Park during their trek to St. Leonard’s they saw official swan pedalos available to rent. “From provocation to promotion,” he groaned. In 2015’s By Our Selves, the duo undertook a journey of a different sort, this time retracing the steps of English poet John Clare (played by Toby Jones). In 1841 Clare absconded from an asylum in Epping Forest in Essex and walked some 90 miles to meet his first love only to find at journey’s end that she had died three years previous. For Edith Walks, Kötting repurposes the inspiration and jocular atmosphere of Swandown into a personal peregrination of a resurrected soul.
In By Our Selves, John Clare’s psychological state is co-opted as a way to collapse time, and place a historical figure face-to-face with increasingly alienating anachronisms. At one point in Edith Walks, writer Alan Moore, in a meandering and fascinating conversation with Sinclair, describes time as an unchanging solid which we only experience as ‘passing’ as we travel through it. This provides another neat context for Kötting to use his film to dissolve our separation from the past.
Things from the interred past that poked up inconveniently into the present, halfway houses with their portals that went nowhere, that led only into a suggestive nothing.
—Alan Moore, Jerusalem
Edith’s phantasmal presence is the clearest indicator of this, but so is the fact that the film’s appearance is courtesy of an 8mm camera simulator on an iPhone, not to mention the strange array of impromptu instruments that the troupe incorporates into their percussive accompaniment—from bicycle wheel spokes to road signs. These eccentric flourishes are pure Kötting and even on this most funereal of journeys they give proceedings the feel of a lark. A more po-faced endeavor might have driven the film towards a didactic summation of contemporary British national identity: Harold is often championed by certain groups as an icon of an “indigenous” British population, and the fact that the walk took place over the days surrounding the ‘Brexit’ referendum can only have fired such considerations.
Instead, Kötting playfully jabs around the edges of the debate, happy in contradiction. Archival footage of 1960's school kids re-enacting the Battle of Hastings acts as a clear visual representation of 1066 in the psyche of British schoolchildren; it is both innocent and ominous at once. Elsewhere, imagery of Barton walking the Hastings beach seems a certain reference to Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman's poetic polemic, The Last of England (1987). However, the director eschews overly ponderous inferences by synopsizing Edith Walks as a “brief and incorrect reading of Edith Swan Neck, King Harold and the Battle of Hastings.” He is as accommodating of Barton’s description of Edith as “a bit nut-nut” as he is of Moore and Sinclair’s digression about the conflicting folklore surrounding Harold’s burial. One conspiracy theory even sees Harold survive the battle and return to plague the invaders as Hereward the Wake, the leader of a resistance against Norman rule in the East of England. Sinclair himself prefers the version of events in which parts of Harold's body were scattered around the country after his death, and Edith was the one to reunite them. Sinclair draws mythological parallels with the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, seeing cyclical rejuvenation at the hands of a dutiful wife as a symbol of the changing fortunes of this scepter'd isle. However, the visage of Kötting's head protruding from Hastings beach having been buried by children reminds us that the tongue is also firmly in the cheek.
I dare not gaze upon her face But left her memory in each place; Where'er I saw a wild flower lie I kissed and bade my love good-bye.
—John Clare, I Hid My Love