Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Small wonder… Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (2016), BFI, London Film Festival

As you gaze at cellular organisms scuttling across the screen, animalistic plants writhing their way sun-ward and tadpoles gestating you start to get a feel for the character of the person taking such obsessive care over the production of these images. As hobbies go… microcinematography is pretty intense but, what joy in these ever-present but unexpected glimpses of life.

Composer and Big Tinderstick, Stuart A. Staples said in his post-match Q&A that having originally been fascinated by Smith’s images he came to want to tell the story of their creator through this strange and powerful micro-cinema. So, odd as it may seem, Minute Bodies turns out to be a musical biography of the most excellent F. Percy Smith Esquire a man from North London who photographed moss growing in his spare time. A man who, in the interests of scientific discovery, wasn’t afraid of working with small animals and animation.

Staples co-directed the montage of films and tried to stay true to any structures contained within them even though there was some editing used, for example, to create spectacular effects by superimposing and cross-cutting fast-growing crystals: indoor micro-fireworks!

The project took three years of stop-motion musical production between Staples and co-producer David Reeve before the full Tindersticks were convened to record the music.

Staples and the ‘sticks have form having composed no less than six soundtracks for Clair Denis including the marvellous White Material - which I’ve been listening to all day – and there’s a box set with all the scores on it. This is a musically-curious band who long outgrew the limitations of being just a rock group.

So, musically restless band meet obsessive-compulsive film-maker…

Between 1909 and 1943 Percy Smith made a sequence of extraordinary documentaries after the former clerk for the British Board of Education had impressed producer Charles Urban with a close-up of a bluebottle's tongue.

From The Acrobatic Fly (1910), The Birth of a Flower (1910), The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911) to Life Cycle of the Newt (1942) and, my favourite, Life Cycle of the Pin Mould (1943) Smith kept his subjects closer than any film-maker in history.

Take that pin mould: it looks just like a pin as the shiny top grows upwards but then the surface frosts over as the latter stages of its inexplicable life-cycle kick in. It’s like watching alien lifeforms and the way Smith creates his narratives gives his flora and fauna personality. That’s pretty exceptional.

Triffids grow wild next to a ticking clock, strange organic pools consume each other and a spider is force-fed a fly - no animals were harmed in the making of these films but plenty of insects were. From the micro-scope views to extreme close-up all is alien: plants are relentless serpentine stranglers, wrapping their way with deceptive guile around other stems and moss, crystal and mould grow with urgency to smother and enclose.

Staples’ music takes care not to do the same and works sympathetically with his subject to create that new narrative. The music is restrained as you’d expect from such experienced soundtrack performers who deftly combine elements of post rock, electronica and emphatically-acoustic.

More than anything, the score matches the mood and carries the unmistakable joys of these quirky explorations. When nature isn’t enough, Smith used stop-motion animation to make his point and there’s a delightful bee that pops up to demonstrate the art of pollination – it looks straight at the camera: ready for his close-up Mr Smith.

It is only at the end when we see Smith, his profile close-up to a rat and then full-on with four of the rodents climbing around his neck. One nips his throat, he smiles and calmly pulls it back: in his element with his beloved nature; respecting his subject matter.

Smith said that he aimed to provide "the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment" and tonight Mr Staples did the same. Takes one to know one I suppose!

Frank Percy Smith at play
Minute Bodies was playing as part of the Sonic Strand for the BFI London Film Festival 2016 and is something you should not overlook if given the chance.

There's more detail on the Tindersticks' website and the trailer is on their news page here.

The BFI DVD featuring a number of Smith's films, Secrets of Nature, is available from their online and actual shop.

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