The Last Commission

Written and directed by Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit

Illuminations Films 2000

Paul A. Green

The sub-title of Asylum, a project for the UK "alternative" TV network Channel 4, alludes directly to the science-fictional premise that underlies this complex and memorable film, which flickers constantly between documentary and drama, between home-video crudity and art-video digital sophistication, between fly-on-the wall "realism" and surreal fiction. It is a palimpsest of overdubs and remixes, a fantabulation of manic intertextuality and self-reference. It's fascinating and maddening, as befits a voyage into "memory, exile and madness". In an article in the London Guardian, Sinclair admitted, "Asylum isn't sure how to present itself, as science fiction, commentary or discontinued thriller. It exists to justify its paranoia..."

Over degraded video imagery of the cityscape, opening titles inform us that we're watching dead files from a final abandoned project, tapes of old footage , that are "pre-viral". This could be the end-game of a William S.Burroughs scenario. "The virus created itself from the protein soup of bad television with the aim of destroying memory." And, as Sinclair murmurs off-screen, "memory is what all the multi-nationals are after."

A noirish narrative soon emerges -- Francoise, a young woman "Agent" (another Burroughs meme?) has been drowned and Emma, a sound & vision editor, is tasked to visit various locations in a quest for her murderer, seeking sonic clues. Like a heroine of a Ballard condensed novel, she loiters around the intersections and multi-storey car parks of East London, warily pointing her microphone like a Beretta.

However this strand is constantly disrupted, subverted and modified by her parallel assignment, to document encounters with "the Illuminati" -- figures at the margins of our culture who, Sinclair feels, are nevertheless preternaturally alert to the melt-down at its core, like the poet Ed Dorn, and the novelist Michael Moorcock. And throughout we are constantly aware of the mediating process at work, in blips of real time, as video and audio clips are looped, dubbed and processed, sometimes dissolving into digital soup.

Here the graphic artist Dave McKean has worked over basic domestic camcorder material, defamiliarising the home-movie medium to the edge of abstraction. Images jerk and flow to the harsh chirp of edit suite time-code, splatters of white noise, the drawl and slur of tape through the playback heads. Frames are multi-layered, tinted, scrolled over with quick-fire captions, electronically warped and distorted. We are spooled back and forth, as if in search of the key sequence that will finally lock the mosaic into place.

This, of course, is an extension of techniques pioneered by video art innovator Nam June Paik, and later developed in the UK by artists like Jeremy Welsh in such pieces as I.O.D. However there is a metaphysical agenda at work here, implied in Sinclair's comments throughout the film. "Everything is to do with time... time is simultaneous..." The edit-room creates an illusion of simultaneity and collapsed time, in which apparently dissociated elements can suddenly fuse. Sinclair and Petit reverse the documentary conventions of constructing "realism" through continuity editing and naturalistic dramatic reconstruction -- a stock UK TV genre, beloved of commissioning editors, as Sinclair ruefully comments. "A number of films that served up indifferently faked reality as a form of documentary truth queered the pitch for those working in the opposite direction: playing old footage, over and over, until a mythical structure declares itself. "

Even after sixty hours of out-takes, it takes quite a while to catch glimpses of this mythical structure. The co-ordinates are constantly shifting, locations are "a nightmare of acoustic echoes." Sinclair takes literally the premise of Nigel "Quatermass" Kneale's masterly TV drama The Stone Tape (itself influenced by the ideas of the archaeologist T.C.Lethbridge) in which the physical fabric of places and structures is charged with the energies of the past, and matter has a faltering memory.

This obsession with memory recurs in all the interviews, notably in the discussions with Ed Dorn, terminally ill but focussed with grim clarity on the shallowness of triumphal post-modernist America and its "denial of the legitimate motives of the past." Reading from recent work provoked by NATO adventures in Iraq and Kosovo, he comments that "you are not permitted to remember the field of Kosovo." (Ironically, Channel 4 asked Sinclair and Petit to cut Dorn's other proposition - that off-shore oil leases in Kuwait owned by the "Bush boys" might have had some bearing on the conduct of the Gulf War) Some British poetry critics, like David Kennedy, felt that using film of Dorn "verged on the voyeuristic" but the grey bleached sequence of Dorn reading his last poems gives him a mediumistic authority, becomes itself a memorial.

Sequences with Michael Moorcock are more random and insubstantial, as Emma Matthews tracks him down to self-imposed exile in Bastrop, a small dreary Texan town. There are no global manifestos or statements of intent from the creator of Jerry Cornelius, and Colonel Pyat, only hints that he is fleeing "creditors, stalker fans and the taxman". Dressed in dungarees like a prison-farm trustee, he plays blues guitar on the back porch while the rain tumbles down.

This archetypal Londoner not unsurprisingly states that he is "allergic to Texas" and is living in a culture that doesn't really want him there. In this context, one has to mention Mother London -- his master work -- which traces the post-war memories of a group of out-patients attending a clinic at a London mental hospital. They exist on the social margins, cursed with gifts of second sight, precognition, or telepathic sensitivity, but nourished by the myths and lore of the great city that has offered them anonymity and asylum. The exiled Moorcock presented in these fragmentary clips seems dislocated, alienated, uneasy. " But it's my job to go to areas where I'm afraid...."

Other figures flicker in and out of the film's matrix, like Moorcock's old New Worlds collaborator James Sallis, located in the suburbs of Phoenix. There's also a strange interlude in the little English seaside resort of Margate -- "the kernel of the twentieth century" -- for here, facing these shingly beaches and shouting holidaymakers, T.S.Eliot wrote much of The Wasteland, according to Sinclair's interlocutor Ian Seabrook. The quest theme keeps resurfacing, always obliquely. But what often holds the viewer is the dream-like drift of transmuted imagery, shimmering waters in a motel swimming pool, the framing of a hand, highway lights against the dawn, a girl swaying as heavy seas crash on a windy pier.

Towards the end, the cultural historian Marina Warner appears in the hinterlands of Heathrow Airport, discussing the mythology of twins, the myth of the Double, a doppelganger created by the replication of word and image. The quest for the Double is a doomed "journey of capitivity.". There is an implied link here with Emma's quest for Francoise, or with the potential delusions of post-modern cultural surplus but -- whatever its intention -- the sequence appears here as a gloss, a post-script, a post-production gambit to clarify a notion that wasn't fully articulated in the course of Emma's journey. As such it overstrains the connections between the different strands and weakens the overall credibility of the archetypal narrative.

But Asylum attempts to transcend genre limitations and challenge received ideas about production values. Unlike so much of British "arts TV", which is so often devised as a marketing stratagem to tie in with a book launch, it was conceived from original and strongly-held personal convictions. It is also open about its own ambiguities. "TV is absence. Posthumous whispers. Flaring images. Asylum is an animated version of one of those chalk outlines drawn on a sticky pavement around the body of an imagined victim."

© Paul A. Green 8/2000


Media Court | e-mail PG | PG's files | Features

Media Court | copyright 2000 | Lawrence Russell