Nil By Mouth, 1997


Nil by Mouth takes its name from a booze sodden memory in Gary Oldman’s 1997 drama. Raymond (Ray Winstone) describes the signage besides the gurney of his terminally ill father. Before surgery, Raymond senior (a terminal alcoholic) was not allowed the passage of food through his mouth. Raymond recalls the image in a moment of clarity, after he has destroyed his own life from alcohol. Nil by Mouth is about the moments in an alcoholic’s life that aren’t the ecstatic, stumbling madnesses, but the clinical, and the agonising loss of function. The long waiting between moments of drunken bliss, the boredom, and the body’s abject failure. Bodies in poverty that act at the whims of need; as if nothing else mattered, indeed in the acknowledgement that sometimes – nothing else matters at all.

Nil by Mouth is ostensibly a stripped down South London story of two wideboys, that feature first and last, but also of their families whom have compelling stories of their own. Gary Oldman directs, and writes, and its clear that he has made some effort to de-centre character so that although the two men are the physically dominant figures, Raymond’s wife Valerie (played subtly by Kathy Burke), and a younger heroin addicted Billy (Creed-Miles) have their own tales. Valerie strives for safety from her husband, as her pregnant body needs to be protected, while Billy grifts for money and heroin. But in each of these stories the passage of narrative is interrupted by the fists of Raymond that police the others with a terrifying, sobering, and unspeakably life-like violence.

Early in the film Raymond and his friend Mark (played as utterly unlikeable, by Jamie Foreman) act out a burglary somewhere off camera, and then play out a hackneyed crime narrative. Visiting Soho brothels and strip clubs with their earnings in order to realise the fantasy with the most immediate vigour; taking huge lines of cocaine to emphasize their wealth they become momentary high-rollers; proper, British, gangsters. But the high does not remain, the returning loss of function results in an episode of marital jealousy that sees a psychotic Raymond beating Valerie hard enough that she miscarries. Raymond’s subsequent breakdown sequence and the logorrhea of his drunken babble is an exceptional moment, as deep memory and mechanisms of repression all collapse together like the thought patterns of the senile. 

Nil by Mouth takes the everyday stories that go under-examined, under-empathised and creates a kind of cinema that isn’t quite cinematic. It doesn’t flow or weave together as plot, instead it tangles like a set of vignettes, closer to a TV soap or Play. Like the apocrypha that says the blind develop greater powers of hearing, what this film lacks visually produces a stronger sense of character and plot. A delicately made, and challenging film about a very transpontine strife.



Before the Revolution, 1964


This past decade has seen the streets come alive with a symphony of loud-hailers. Once again the social tumult of Bernardo Bertolluci’s 1964 picture Before the Revolution is achingly relevant. Fabrizio (Francisco Barilli) a young revolutionary finds himself at odds with his own family. To play a trick against his bourgeois destiny he escapes into an incestuous relationship with the jaded beauty of his mother’s sister, Gina (Asti). While the lover’s find new ways to escape, Morricone’s arresting soundtrack bleeds through the film pouring living energy into the dying Italian landscape which keeps the lover’s imprisoned.

In one such sequence the camera sweeps across a rural landscape as a farm owner laments his new poverty and predicts the coming death of his world. Fabrizio, young and enraged, condemns the man for his class-position. The image is fraught with its own antagonistic energies- between the humanistic leap-of-faith inherent to love, and the ‘science’ of the intellectuals and their party. The melancholy is never finally resolved. The camera tracks lines painted across the dying culture of the Italian Peasants in sweeping frames, but they are lines that emphasise the violent unfolding of history. Manifest everywhere in this sequence is the subjectivity of Fabrizio in conflict not only with the outside world- in his sloganeering for revolution, but also with himself in his identification with the class that he must destroy.

The young Bertolluci’s script sweeps through themes as if blowing away a dandelion-head. Themes as grandiose as revolution, class, gender, pass off momentarily before they become forgotten, seeds that are still ungerminated.

A new audience must find Bertolluci’s film and struggle with it. As they still want for many of the things that Fabrizio hungered for, change and safety, passion and love, all conflicting and wrestling in the traumatic time: before the revolution.

The Selfish Giant, review

Submitted to the BFI-

The Selfish Giant
Clio Barnard
This story of two Bradford boys that are excluded from school and sent to hunt scrap to make ends meet seems so utterly unlike anything I have seen in a cinema that I could not immediately accept its sincerity. The clarity with which Clio Barnard depicts the antagonistic relationship between two young, teenage boys and a hostile world is in fact achingly sincere. Like Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, The Selfish Giant captures its moment in a way that journalism and political discourse have failed to, but Barnard has added a grandeur of style that reinvigorates social realism with a new sense of purpose.

The Selfish Giant shows us not a small amount of unspeakable realities. The boys are pictured in hungry households with too many mouths to feed, their child labour often goes badly rewarded, and their social exclusion is absolute. But the relationship between the two boys Swifty and Arbor is so fraught with competitiveness and love that it captivates utterly and goes beyond the sombre realities. The children carry the joy and burden of their roles with a youthful determination, talking back to older men and defending themselves from the worst of their exploiters. But we never forget that these boys are children and their vulnerability is ever present.

The colouring seems highly measured, unreal desaturated greens and greys, and perhaps this grandiosity lifts us a little too far up and out of the realities of these boys lives. While the sincerity of the storytelling convinces in earlier sequences, the final frames lose track of their subject. The powerful humanising element of the film, that gave a voice to the children of poverty, is brutally taken away by a premature death. The contrived sequence feels wrong, and is a bad mis-step in a film that is otherwise a thoughtful piece of realism.

A House is a Stage, and then it is Rubble

[The following is from an ongoing writing project which aims to investigate new forms of culture. This piece will take the shape of a strange theatre review, which is written not only by a critic/spectator (J) but also by a performer/producer (Z) with focus on the relationship of culture to the ‘housing crisis’. Connecting the two sides of the performance- its productive mechanics and its visible aspects takes two authors. The article is written collectively, by both a reviewer from the audience and a participant in the performance. In uneasy relation to the form of immersive theatre it bends the lines of the stage (making the critic a participant and the performer a critic). However, in opposition to immersion, this article seeks to alienate the reader by making transparent the productive relations of the play. This review will not end in one post but will instead form a series of fragments written in an interplay between the authors that will occasionally depart from the play and sometimes return with clarity.]

Rift, Macbeth, an overview.

After having been granted permission to perform their play in the council housing at Balfron Tower, the theatre entrepreneurs Rift took the half decanted tower that had once-upon-a-time been filled with the life blood of the area and instead siphoned it with a fomenting mess of ambitious ‘residents’. Peripheral producers, actors, and others eagerly signed up to 40 hour working weeks in order to have room and board in the shadow of Canary Wharf. The privilege of residing in a council house for six months was to be paid for by these young hopefuls in the form of domestic work and ‘creative labour. As well as this the actors were unwittingly defending against a possible occupation by squatters who would potentially embroil the new owners in costly legal battles that could end the redevelopment of the housing into luxury apartments.

The Play itself, Macbeth, was recast in the imagined land of Borduria where all fictions can co-exist. The atemporal-aspatial ‘rift’ in time, embodies many of the economic factors that drove the plays production. The production ‘guides’ (junior, unpaid actors) were racialised as eastern European characters while the lead players (who were remunerated) spoke in exemplary QE. Class was thus performed by the actors; reconfigured into a Racial framework. The performance was also deeply ‘immersive’, the screams of crying babies still living floors above or below mingled with the mise-en-scene. Cries of ‘stop, stop, my baby is sick’ seemed to be part of the infanticide in the performance, however they were not.

It was only when this author talked with his opposite in the performers that it became apparent that those noises were not a ‘nice touch’. One resident had a sick baby who was woken each night by Lady Macbeth. In a nightmarish inversion of the residents torment Lady Macbeth would cry-out as she witnessed the murder of her child several times per evening.

The immersive apparatus of the production was a machine for forgetting that Balfron tower existed, that its residents still lived amongst the commercial ventures of the producers. The audience, forgetful of themselves, left excreta on the balconies and urine in the mouth basins.

The stagecraft of immersion that transforms a home into a stage, before rubble, also turns a mother’s screams from bloody rage into a stage prop before it is exchanged for money