British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access


Misinformation. 2010 [1970–1987]. GB. DVD. 101 minutes. BFI DVD. Price: £14.99

martin_iddonAbout the reviewer:  Professor Martin Iddon is Head of School and Professor of Music and Aesthetics at the University of Leeds. Martin studied composition and musicology at the Universities of Durham and Cambridge, and has also studied composition privately with Steve Martland, Chaya Czernowin, and Steven Kazuo Takasugi. His musicological research has largely focussed on post-war music in Germany and the United States of America. As a composer he has worked with numerous ensembles and performers, across Europe, North America, and Australasia, including Ensemble SurPlus, Ensemble Modelo62, Either/Or, ekmeles, the Kairos Quartett, 175 East, note inègales, Eva Zöllner, Catherine Laws, and Rei Nakamura. His music has been featured on the Österreichischer Rundfunk, Radio New Zealand and on BBC Radio 3 and is published by Composers Edition. He has lectured at Leeds since December 2009, having previously lectured at University College Cork and Lancaster University. His publications include: Iddon M; Marshall ML (eds.) Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture (Routledge, 2014); New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage, and Boulez. Music since 1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2013); John Cage and David Tudor: Correspondence on Interpretation and Performance. Music since 1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

This disc continues the BFI’s release of films from the Central Office of Information (COI) film collection, the first three volumes of which were reviewed in Viewfinder (October 2010). Where those DVDs looked to present the COI films as they were originally conceived, the present release seeks to do something quite different. Each of the films presented here has been modified (‘misinformed’, as the BFI’s press release has it) such that it becomes more a contemporary reflection upon the nature of the information ostensibly communicated. As a set, the films, too, comment tacitly upon the sort of Britain that might have given rise to such public information films and, more strikingly, on the sort of Britain that is a product of the issues upon which they focus.

While the images of the films are largely retained – even if re-cut or, in one case, run backwards in toto – the soundscape is wholly new. If the music of Boards of Canada might be held to represent a nostalgic sonic response to positive memories of documentary nature films, Mordant Music’s sound world here is closer to their dystopian, urban mirror image. There’s no shortage of ambient, analogue electronica here, but the drones are dirty, industrial, and insistent, and punctuated with other sounds hacked up from the source VHS tapes themselves. Not only do voice-overs from one film crop up to misinform another, but the squeaks and squeals of turning reels can be heard on more than one occasion, and many of the loops are redolent of the sound of tape spooling slightly loosely and unevenly, generating a sense of general unease, as well as a certain gravity which permeates the whole disc, even where it threatens, however briefly, to break out into mainstream electronica, as from about three minutes into the final film, The Dry Dock Dybbuk (a re-envisioning of Peter Greenaway’s The Sea in their Blood, 1983).

Any sense that the concrete edifices of A Dark Social Template (originally New Towns in Britain, 1974) might have represented a brilliant new future is shattered two films later by Attenuated Shadows (filmed as Illusions, A Film on Solvent Abuse, 1983), where the wasteland of such machines for living in is contrasted with the security of middle-class Edwardiana. Similarly, descriptions of drug abuse are added as voice-over to the earlier film, at a point when ostensibly the matter pertains to the utopian aspects of high-rise living. In Ridyll (1982’s Looking at Prehistoric Sites), footage of the remains of Iron Age dwellings are introduced as ‘[h]ousing, and the problem of how to stop this, and this, and this’, as the image cuts from the rubble of one ancient round house to another.

The criticism of such brave new worlds is pervasive: ‘Fungus spreads across the leaf, like a marauding horde’ a nuclear energy spokesperson is made to say in Black and White Sound (originally titled Culham Labs, 1984). Images of inkjet printing –drawn from Greenaway’s Inkjet Printer (Living Tomorrow 245) (1979) – show now instead a world where everything is labelled, from eggs to sausages, forks, fingers, feathers and butterflies. In Televasion (Sinclair Pocket TV, 1980), a taxi driver is seen attending not to a busy Oxford Street, but instead to his hand-held Sinclair television. In Geometric Famine (Computer Aided Design, 1985), it becomes clear that CAD has stolen not only your possessions and furniture, but even your house, and finally your clothes too.

For anyone who grew up in the period from which the original COI documentary films featured here come, the experience of watching is a doubly striking one. Even in the case of films which one has no conscious memory of, there remains a striking evocation of a very particular failure of optimism, which has been in the past gently and affectionately satirised in, for instance, the BBC’s Look Around You. By contrast – even allowing for points of beauty and repose, most especially in Ridyll and The Dry Dock Dybbuk – there is little nostalgia for any sort of simpler, innocent past here. Much of the matter is savage, urgent and compelling. It is a fascinating piece of work and it is to be hoped that the BFI continues to take risks in developing further releases of this kind.

Professor Martin Iddon

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