A Documentary, A Manifesto, A Secret Origins Tone Poem
Jonathan Van Matre | Austin, TX United States | 01/05/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The beginnings of this film were humble enough. Instead of doing music videos for the album of the same name, Saint Etienne chose to make an album-length film accompaniment. But what eventually emerged is far more than an extended-length music video.
On one level, the film is a documentary of modern-day London, from a Londoner's perspective. While there are some stylistic differences (narration, most notably), it owes a great debt to the landmark documentaries of Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, et al) in its attempt to portray a message about modern life through a collage of sounds and images.
The cinematography may appear unsophisticated at times, but within the context of the film it is meaningful and resonant. This is not a slick, picture-postcard London, not the London you see in Hollywood films. This is London as seen by a Londoner. Case in point: an extended sequence filmed at Piccadilly Circus shows not the Circus, but the visiting tourists who are standing about gawking and filming things on their handheld video cameras. To a London citizen, they are the unusual feature, the foreign element. Overall, the film is at times grainy, gloomy, and washed-out, but only so much so as London itself is all of these things.
The end result is one of the most loving portraits of London I've ever seen, showing the city and its inhabitants in the sort of messy, earthbound, warts-and-all glory that few outside of England have ever witnessed. Like Richard Linklater's Slacker, it shows the shape of real urban lives, replete with seeming uneventfulness but filled with a continuity of their own: a continuity that traces not plot points, but the fluidity of moving from one moment to the next.
Moreover, beyond being a fine documentary of modern London, the film is also a manifesto of Saint Etienne's artistic vision. Their music, like this film, is primarily concerned with the quotidian pains and pleasures of a modern urban/suburban life. Where the lens of this film is looking is precisely where the band looks for musical inspiration.
It is also precisely where the band itself is from, so for any fan of Saint Etienne it has the added charm of being the equivalent of a comic-book hero's "secret origins" story. This film, this tone poem of present-day London, widens your eyes to the fact that every Saint Etienne album is in some way a tone poem on the same subject. This London of smog and tarmacadam, tower blocks and milk-grey skies, is the wellspring of every beautiful note they make.
This film probably won't change your life, but it will certainly make you think about how and where you are living it."