Sunday, 18 June 2017

"The powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment..." Minute Bodies (2016) on BFI Blu-ray/DVD

Everything is so familiar and yet so wonderfully strange in the films of F. Percy Smith and the score from Stuart A. Staples’ Tindersticks is perfectly in tune. This is mindful movie making and leads the viewer into a relaxed contemplative state as you watch flowers grow, newts metamorphose and a drone fly juggles a cork.

Seeing life so strangely, we inevitably try to reconcile these unrecognisable patterns and to draw parallels to the safer, known macro-universe. As the very RP voiceover says during the description the fungal Plants of the Underworld (1930) one of the extras, Nature is the most “grotesque artist in the World.” Magnified 20,000 times the growth of the fungal cells is alien and unsettling… still entrancing and fascinating all the same.

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.

There are eight shorts from Smith on the set which compliment those already released by the BFI on the Secrets of Nature DVD. Minute Bodies itself is what the BFI term an “interpretive edit” of original footage compiled by Staples himself. The result is spellbinding and succeeds emphatically in pulling you into Smith’s world of impassioned patience.

It’s an “analogue” experience and the music is suitably “organic” featuring the largely non-digital sonic pallet of a band rooted in earthy deliberation: there’s no rush to make musical points with the ‘sticks!

A mighty ant!
Stuart A. Staples has previously said 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 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 insects, pin mould and animation.

Watching unknown cellular organisms scuttling across the screen, strange moulds advancing to attack each other and animalistic plants writhing their way sun-ward you get a feel for the character of the person taking such obsessive care over the production of these images. As hobbies go… micro-cinematography is all-consuming but, what joy in these ever-present but unexpected glimpses of the life underneath us. It’s unsettling and the score works that feeling – this is a brutal little world.

But Smith’s work is not without a very English sense of humour and there’s a lovely syncopated section showing micro-organisms at play… or it feels that way!

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’ music takes care 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 the emphatically-acoustic.

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 Mr Staples and the Tindersticks do the same. They pull together to entrance you in this world we take for granted as we power our way through the day-to-day… Stop, listen and learn.

Minute Bodies is available NOW from the BFI on Blu-ray and DVD – you can order it direct from here along with Secrets of Nature.

The soundtrack album is also out and is available from the Tindersticks' website along with a trailer to tempt you all!

Percy works the camera

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