By Our Selves, 2015.
Directed by Andrew Kötting.
Starring Toby Jones, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore, Andrew Kötting.
Synopsis: A surrealist film documenting the inner thoughts and wanderings of John Clare, both physically and mentally on his “Journey out of Essex”.
A cinematic cognitive mapping of John Clare’s fractured and adopted identities; By Our Selves is an absurdist art-house film not for those naive to Kötting’s surrealist melancholic style.
Known as the Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare lived in the early 19th Century later turning mad as his identity was parted between the simple country life of his home town and the opportunities London possessed at a time when the emergence of rural poetry was popular. Displaced somewhere between the genres of documentary and drama, Kötting’s film looks less at the history behind Clare’s life and more at the cerebral fractures that marked the dissatisfaction he had with his own identity. Every facet of By Our Selves is explored, experimented and manipulated to produce a cinematic experience that navigates the territories of John Clare’s tormented mind. Sound, colour, contrast and orientation all work with one another to illustrate the mental trails of his 80 mile journey from an Asylum near Epping Forest to Northamptonshire, in the thralls of a consuming madness.
By Our Selves remains consistent throughout its endeavours in producing a work that remains entirely attached to its protagonist. Themes around surveillance, escape and sound are immediately introduced to the audience, without being previously alluded to, disrupting what barrier exists between the audience and the screen. John Clare, as played by Toby Jones, (Captain America: The first Avenger) frequently refers to the camera/audience, looking straight into the lens. Employing the use of a drone, Kötting uncomfortably positions the audience as a shadow following the ramblings of this peasant poet, implying that we ourselves might exist as one of John Clare’s identities. The inclusion of this effect is oddly disturbing as we ourselves are subjected to becoming part of Clare’s worsening erratic mind.
This symbiotic association between audience and film is emphasised further in its juxtaposition between the modern sensibilities of 21st century life and the mad mind of a 19th century poet. Modern life, in all is overwhelming loudness, floods Clare’s senses as he follows the m25 corridor in an escape from the fringes of London towards Northamptonshire. Clare’s reflections on modern life are overlaid with audio sequences taken from the BBC Omnibus episode on John Clare, entitled I am, to underline that Clare still remains understandable and contemporary. The lines “John Clare was a minor nature poet that went mad” and “I am the self-consumer of my woes” are repeated over and over again, reminding the viewer that Clare’s madness is both an intimation of the vast amount of data the city forces you to absorb, and also a result of attempting to escape those same forces.
Although Toby Jones has very little dialogue, an emphasis is placed on the importance of sound within the film. Iain Sinclair once wrote in London Orbital that “Sound is elusive” in relation to capturing the pervasive sounds on his journey around the circular road containing London; the choice to include the Production Sound Mixer in some of the film’s most relevant shots, intensely highlights the importance of sound in connection with picture and the significance of capturing as much sensory information as possible to explore Clare’s complex mind. In a conversation about Clare, Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair are always included in frame with the boom operator, in such a way to emphasise this very point. With that said, Freddie Jones’ narration works more to disconnect the viewer from Clare than implore that he reflects the same qualities of modern poets.
In summary, By Our Selves remains a fascinating insight into the mind of Britain’s most well know peasant poet, succeeding in mapping the contours of Clare’s decaying mind, translating “Journey Out of Essex” almost literally, as he might of experienced it himself. Yet despite influencing its viewership to research and question John Clare further, Andrew Kötting’s film requires too much from its audience, only appealing to those already well versed in these niche territories.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★