by Fred Camper
Jack Chambers's 80-minute The Hart of London (1970) is a sprawling, ambitious film that combines newsreel footage of disasters, urban and nature imagery, and footage evoking the cycles of life and death. It is one of those rare films that succeeds precisely because of its sprawl; raw and open-ended almost to the point of anticipating the postmodern rejection of "master narratives," it cannot be reduced to a simple summary, and changes on you from one viewing to the next.
This is a film that is hardly ever screened — I know of only one public showing in Chicago some two decades ago; making the upcoming June 24 Chicago Filmmakers screening the second — and has divided opinion even among devotees of avant-garde film (though only 3 of the 11 Chicago critics, curators, filmmakers, and film professors especially interested in non-narrative or experimental film that I've asked have even seen it). Some regard it as a masterpiece (Stan Brakhage, an early advocate who helped arrange U.S. distribution, has written of it as "one of the few GREAT films of all cinema"); some give it mixed reviews; others admit they don't know what to make of it. I hated it on first viewing, finding it confusing and disorganized, and have loved it each of the four times I've seen it since. It's a film of startling juxtapositions — the birth of a baby in black and white is intercut with the slaughter of lambs in color (Christian symbolism intended) — that seems to be speaking to elemental issues of life and death, yet it also manages to interweave five or six grand themes and let viewer feel that they are logically interrelated.
The "London" of the film is not British: Jack Chambers was born in 1931 in London, Ontario. He studied art there, worked construction, traveled to Mexico, and spent eight years in Europe He lived mostly in Spain, studying art in Madrid and converting to Roman Catholicism, returning to London in 1961when he learned that his mother was dying of cancer. He became well-known as a painter (examples are in major Canadian museums) while also writing poetry, and in 1966 began making films. There are five completed films, all extraordinary in different ways; The Hart of London is the last and longest.
Chambers told an early writer on the film, Avis Lang (whose article is reprinted in a 1984 issue on Chambers of the Canadian journal, The Capilano Review), that its whole theme of the film is "generation," and that's certainly present here, in the many juxtapositions of life and death and references to disasters. Chambers himself was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, the year he began work on the film; he aggressively managed his own care, and lived until 1978. But there are other major threads as well. As in many avant-garde films, objective versus subjective perception is explored. More uniquely, the theme of civilization's alienation from nature is intertwined with a brilliant analysis of newsreel cinematography, which is shown as treating its subjects not from a sympathetic or humanizing perspective but as objects for the viewer's voyeuristic gaze, almost like items in a window display. There's also an underlying light mysticism; Chambers frequently suggests an underlying unity of all things in light.
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The Hart of London begins with 1954 television news footage of a hart that wanders into a suburban-looking portion of London. We see it first in woods, then streaking trough backyards and leaping a fence. There is a tension between the subdivided yards and the deer's graceful movements: this animal was not made for rectilinear housing plots. There's also some puzzlement, on the part of the viewer, as to how to react. Townspeople point to it, and the footage seems to be displaying the deer as some sort of spectacle, almost like an animal in a zoo. Officials chase, capture, and finally kill it, and its corpse is displayed too, for the camera.
The imagery seems inviting, but as one realizes it is created with the hart as spectacle, alive and dead, in mind, one is also repulsed. The hart is seen as a fleetingly-observed other; even mainstream nature documentaries do a better job of capturing the way animals look and move. The viewer feels at once attracted and pushed away. And yet, there is a way in which every person seen subsequently echoes the hart; every other major scene of the film recapitulates, thematically and formally, this opening.
Late in the film, for example, we see a young man in shorts swim across an icy river in winter. Almost from the start, the police are there; soon the youth is hustled into a van. He presumably encouraged the filming of his stunt by local news; it all looks a bit like he's created a performance for our viewing pleasure. Further, his capture echoes the hart's, though the fact that he meets a happier end reminds us of the privilege we humans have arrogated for ourselves. But next we see footage of people being led from a hole in the ground, victims of some sort of bombing or mine collapse in another part of the world. Now the swimmer's dangerous stunt seems glib, a "safe" bit of play compared to what befalls others. But the image of emerging victims treats them as just another parade for the lens, a succession of faces seen only briefly. This footage is as reductive of humanity as the way we parse land into rectangular lots is of nature.
Chambers tells a very Canadian tale. That nation, which has arguably the vastest area of surviving wilderness on the planet (how far does an acre of Siberia have to be from a mine, or former labor camp, to be called "wilderness"?), tends, particularly in its most industrialized province, Ontario, to turn its back on nature. Toronto, Canada's most populous city, features ornate, Victorian architecture that has absolutely nothing to do with its surrounding locale, making the tackiest Chicago Prairie School knockoff look magnificently eco-centric. The city is mostly cut off from Lake Ontario by high-rises. London, which seemed merely bland to me as I passed through twice, is, according to Brakhage, "one of the grungiest, most uninteresting, industrial towns imaginable." Brakhage says he thinks Chambers would not have disagreed with this assessment; is the "Come to London" banner we see early in the film ironic? Certainly the youth swimming the icy river is more likely conceiving of nature as something hostile or an excuse for publicity than connecting with it.
Another juxtaposition, about halfway through the film, uses two overhead shots to contrast benign and deadly nature while also offering a biting implied critique of the newsreel style. The first shows of a body of water with a few swimmers dispersed across it; if taken from an airplane, the aircraft's movements are masked by the camera's handheld pans from swimmer to swimmer. This image is crisp, high-contrast, and summery. Then we cut to a shot of a catastrophic flood, homes surrounded by water in lower-contrast gray. Here the aggressive motion of the plane carrying the cameraperson, passing rapidly over the landscape, is unmistakable. The second shot is obviously from some newsreel, and we notice the way the plane's movement maximizes the number of flooded homes we see, spreading disaster out before us as if it in a moving panorama. The nature/civilization opposition is also present, in the way nature can turn deadly for us — especially if one also knows that most flood disasters result from of humans building homes on land that is known to be flooded regularly ("floodplain").
An extremely lush and soft close-up of leaves fills the frame as if we are lost in wild nature. Suddenly, in a focus-change, a pair of metal clippers is revealed, and we realize these plants are being trimmed. The clippers seem to emerge so gently, as if a natural part of the scene, that it would seem that our very conception of nature includes our plans to reshape it for display. Very near the end of the film, a single shot shows Chambers himself trimming his lawn with a power mower, the rectangles of other lawns stretched out behind him reminding us that we are all implicated in the human subdivision of nature. It's hard not to notice a connection to the filmmaking process too - clippers to trim hedges, just as one cuts film; the remaking of nature into rectangles echoes the film frame. This is another way that Chambers implicates himself, as filmmaker or lawn-cutter, into the process of taming and destroying that the initial capture and killing of the hart sets in motion. Chambers follows this image with an overhead shot of the stone ruins of a very ancient city, another move from apparent ordinariness to ruin, returning to his theme of "generation" while also suggesting that decay is civilization's ultimate end.
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Though often thematically clear, The Hart of London also seems to deliberately embrace contradiction, both visual and thematic. Intercutting black and white and color — most notably in the cut between the childbirth and lambs (the latter filmed in the Spanish slaughterhouse Chambers first visited in his youth) tends to startle the viewer out of making the obvious connections that the content suggests. Discussing his own art-making practice in articles published in artscanada in October 1969 and Arts and Artists in December 1972, he named it "perceptual realism" and later "perceptualism." The articles are dense and theoretical, but one of his goals seems to have been to address the moment of perception before the mind is able to interpret a scene, thus placing the viewer in "a state of receptive passivity that somehow releases a higher…sense." Chambers's goal was not simple verisimilitude: "Those who see appearances as the only reality have not experienced...wonder." Rather, the viewer should be enabled to "perceive the Invisible Body 'behind' the world." In his distrust of accepted interpretations of objects, his writing and filmmaking resembles Brakhage's — and it was Brakhage's own film on the birth of his first child, Window Water Baby Moving (1959), that partly inspired Chambers to begin filmmaking.
Chambers's writings and film have an undercurrent of both Christian and Gnostic mysticism. His early plans for The Hart of London included images of Jesus descending that are nowhere in the film we see, but the finished version does set up a kind of Gnostic dialogue around objects and light. For the Gnostics, the created world, trapping energy in concrete forms, keeps us from experiencing the original "spark"; Chambers wrote about another of his films, Circle: "Reality….is an invisible pattern of energy which in its attenuated, material form becomes trees, river, people, sky." And Chambers's use of dense superimpositions in the film's first half, which occasionally bleach almost to white, sets up a contrast between image as container of recognizable object and image as pure light. The final pans from river to sky echo this theme.
The superimpositions consist largely of images of London, some of them old snapshots that Chambers obtained by advertising. One becomes lost in an almost engulfing flow, but there is also a push-pull attraction-repulsion present: the tactility and depth that multiple layers create is often hardened into an almost solid, rebuffing surface, as when Chambers incorporates images in negative with harsh blacks. Amid the flow is a man with a rifle, a businessman's face, and a tall and wide downtown building whose windows form an imposing grid. Interwoven, they suggest the aggression inherent in culture: the building replaces the light of the sky; the rifleman echoes the killing of the deer. But if even trees "attenuate" reality, human constructions, The Hart of London seems to argue, do so more severely.
Avis Lang takes the film's penultimate scene and the final pans up as optimistic assertions that "the world is a miracle," echoing Chambers's response to seeing his film for the second time: "Things really are full of wonder the way they are." But there's more going on here. In color home-movie-like footage, we see some deer, first next to a fence, in the town's outdoor zoo. Even though these are not wild deer, Chambers's two young sons approach cautiously as their mother's voice repeatedly whispers on the sound track, "You have to be very careful." Eventually they succeed in feeding the deer. Yet the voice hints that those deer have the potential to harm. Swimming has become disaster twice before in the film's editing. The natural world, full of wonder, also has the potential to kill us.