Once again the BFI have unearthed another intriguing British rarity, brought out on Blu-ray and DVD in a duel-format release as part of their always essential Flipside imprint, this time plumbing the depths of the vaults of the National Sound and Screen Archive of Wales for the only existent 16mm elements of a film that’s not been seen since its release back in 1981, when it garnered something of a controversial reputation on the festival circuit in the volatile climate of the early eighties, for supposedly being misogynistic.
Chris Monger’s “Voice Over” is indeed a difficult film to get to grips with, but such accusations (and the feminist protests that the film quickly attracted) seem today wholly misconceived. It’s a film that seeks to forge a narrative of a sort from exactly the deconstructionist theoretical ideas that were much prevalent back in that period, concerning the patriarchal function of language in gender relations and its potential for destructiveness for both the sexes -- but does so in a way that comments on the objectification of women while avoiding many of the obvious pitfalls that could so easily have been stumbled into.
The fourth film project to be written and directed by ex-Chelsea art school student Chris Monger, “Voice Over” was made, like the budding filmmaker’s previous works, with a grant from the Welsh Arts Council (for £11,000 – his biggest budget so far) on a rented dolly track and equipment loaned from the Chapter Arts Centre Monger had co-founded with lighting cameraman Roland Denning and assistant director Laurie McFadden, in his native Cardiff a few years earlier. This centre was a meeting ground for would-be experimental filmmakers of the day, offering support, training and equipment for artists interested in cutting-edge experimental techniques. But “Voice Over” saw Monger moving more towards the narrative-based storytelling form he would later adopt in his best known work, “The Englishman who went up a Hill but came down a Mountain”, which starred proper big-name actors such as Hugh Grant and Tara Fitzgerald.
Like all of the filmmaker’s early works, “Voice Over” was shot on a 16mm Arriflex with minimal artificial lighting and a small crew, and a shooting ratio that was less than 2:1. Multiple takes were a luxury that could rarely be afforded yet the raw, sometimes awkward shooting style is offset by the commanding performance which in reality forms the centrepiece of the work: that of Ian McNeice, an on-the-rise RSC actor who Monger knew from his Chelsea days, but who was nevertheless called upon by his old friend to appear for peanuts in a film where everyone involved was getting a flat rate £80 a week. The physically distinctive McNeice is a dominating presence and is in almost every scene of the film; his ‘voice over’ is also an essential tool in the work’s limited arsenal of effects.
Although replete with personal details which clearly relate to Monger’s own life, the film’s slightly mannered narrative starts from a basis of attempting to examine the motivations and processes of artistic creation from a broadly realist perspective, but quickly finds itself in a place that requires the adoption of an increasingly modernist set of techniques that undercut the dramatic flow of the piece, rendering it almost as impotent and incoherent as its troubled protagonist. This is almost certainly the point, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch as the film occasionally veers head-long into extended bouts of rampant self-indulgence, which, although rendering it not entirely successful, remain never less than interesting diversions.
McNeice plays Ed ‘Fats’ Bannerman, a local DJ working for a shoestring-operation radio station, that broadcasts out of what looks like a cupboard-sized theatre dressing room in the Cardiff area (with a sledgehammer feel for satire, the station’s initials spell out the word PAP). Fats has found rather unlikely award-winning success with a romantic weekly radio play scripted by himself and brought to life through sound effects by his best friend, ‘FX’ Jones (John Cassady). Called ‘Thus Engaged’, this narrated story is a chocolate box Jane Austin-style regency romance of manners, peopled by honourable, moustachioed cavalry Captains and a charming, discreet heroine in the tradition of Elisabeth Bennett.
Chuffed with sizable listening figures and a recent awards win, Fats’ sets out for a lunch-time pub interview only to have his parade well and truly rained on when he nervously fields increasingly hostile questions from a female journalist (Sarah Martin) who accuses him of escaping the ‘mucky reality’ of the present by burying his head (and those of his listeners) in a fantasy vision of the past. As Fats attempts to defend himself by describing his method, which involves immersing himself in the music of Shubert and staring at postcards depicting Regency-era portraits and landscapes in order to help conjure a frame of reference that provides the correct mood as he broadcasts, he endures humiliation after humiliation as the journalist first accuses him of plagiarism (‘whole chunks of Jane Austin with a few words changed’), then claims his success attracts only an audience of students who simply laugh at this ‘romantic tripe’ for its kitsch value, while serious academics and historians of the era revile the programme. To make matters worse, the journalist ponders the contrast between Fats’ failed marriage (which apparently involved violence of some unspecified kind) and the rosy, polite world of proscribed gender roles and codified manners depicted in Fats’ escapist vision of male and female relationships.
The opening section of the film has already presented us with a character that is slightly out of kilter with his surroundings and to some extent living out and through a version of his own narrated fictive space. Monger apparently wrote the screenplay by dictating ideas into a portable tape recorder, and in the typical self-reflexive style of low budget art films, Fats does the same as he conjures the sedate, civilised world of Elisabeth and Captain Barkley from his imagination. The way in which experience is incorporated into the fiction of the artist is demonstrated in such a way as to call into question the legitimacy and veracity of such an act, for it seems to be the case that Fats deals with the everyday slights and difficulties of the modern world by re-imagining them in his work in order to make himself appear more powerful and resourceful than he is in reality.
Thus, an encounter with a surly youth on a train, who plagues Fats by following him about with his ghetto-blaster turned up, becomes ‘a bawdy youth’ menacing his dismissive heroine by indulging publicly in the singing of raucous drinking songs. The circumstances of Fats’ life are in fact a far cry from that of his genteel heroine’s: despite the displaced success of massive listening figures, Fats lives in a depressing derelict brick warehouse by Cardiff docks that’s practically unlit and unfurnished, after losing his home during previous divorce proceedings. In this way, Fats uses his fantasy fiction to recast the events of his own life, escaping the grim reality of his surroundings by transposing them into the appealing world of an early nineteenth century that’s without the poverty and protest that in truth would’ve marked the era for many people living at the time. The woman journalist’s narrative account of his life now challenges Fats’ idealised spoken word version, though: she too uses a tape recorder (the scene in the pub segues back and forth between the interview as it happens and the journalist writing up her account of it later in her office, using the tape recording of the conversation for reference) and she also has photographic images of Fats -- probably obtained from his former wife -- to vivify her less than flattering ‘expose’ of his apparent deficiency both as an artist and as a man.
Mortified by the gruelling experience, Fats hits the Cardiff bars at night and ends up drunk (his beloved Shubert underscoring the subsequent grainy montage of recorded hand-held images), dishevelled and considerably worse for wear at the student digs of two punkette girls who recognise and teasingly flirt with him, taking the piss out of “Thus Engaged” (with which they’re more than familiar) and mocking it by suggesting saucy plot developments (‘Captain Barkley is gay and Elisabeth’s a lesbian’), but then turning violent and nasty when the drunken Fats makes a pass at one of them. Both girls flip, reacting angrily and kicking him out as they accuse him of being a dirty old man. Fats’ fictional world now turns darker in a reflection of the bruising his ego has received during both these unpleasant events. Suddenly, and without telling the radio station or his partner FX, Fats turns “Thus Engaged” into a dark, brooding Gothic fiction full of vampires and Poe-like meditations on death and horror. Although this sudden switch in genres seems like an avant-garde move, the viewing figures simply increase even more, and Fats now starts winning awards from the Horror Society and is voted Radio Personality of the Year as well!
Around this time, an event occurs that becomes the main focus of the film and starts to preoccupy Fats until it affects the content of “Thus Engaged” to such a degree that Fats’ very ability to communicate at all is eventually challenged and disrupted. In circumstances that are never made entirely clear and which therefore engender a certain amount of doubt in the mind of the viewer as to the precise nature of Fats’ involvement, the DJ ends up having one of the two young girls (Bish Nethercote) who tormented him previously, living with him in his dim warehouse living space. She’s bloodied from an apparent superficial stab wound to her abdomen and her sleek red party dress is torn. She is also totally mute and apparently catatonic, not reacting to any stimulus at all. A doctor friend of Fats’ alludes to what the viewer assumes (‘no man as ever suffered what she’s been through’), but rather than take her to, as he terms it, ‘one of those institutions’, Fats elects to care for the girl himself and nurse her back to health. The girl becomes a blank symbol on to which Fats’ desires can impose his antiquated vision of gender relations. He can seemingly recreate her in the model of womanhood he favours, measuring her up and buying ‘respectable’ clothes for her and injecting his fantasies and ruminations on her status into his fiction, which now starts to take an increasingly modernist, avant-garde turn, as her mute unresponsiveness begins to undermine Fats’ very faith in his ability to re-embody the world with his words.
There’s a sense in which this increasingly strange narrative functions as a sort of allegory for the historical development of fiction itself, starting out with Fats’ story serving as a pretty unreflective and straightforward model of the nineteenth century serialised novel; progressing through the Freud-informed psycho-social interpretation of Gothic fiction that often informs our understanding of, say, the paranoid invasion narrative inherent to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”; and then ending up with an increasingly deconstructed vision of the free-floating nature of language, that starts with Joyce and Virginia Wolf and ends up with Derrida. The mute girl becomes an avid listener to “Thus Engaged”, even though Fats cannot communicate at all with her face to face. She responds only to the fictive pleas he delivers via the programme. When he spends an entire episode ruminating on girls’ names in obliquely trying to fathom hers, she responds by designating herself with the only word that seems to have burned itself into her consciousness (perhaps the last word she heard before her breakdown) … ‘bitch’! This is what Fats call her from this point on, justifying it by the fact that it is the name she chooses to call herself, although we only hear her say it once while she’s listening to the radio, and Fats isn’t even in her company at that time.
The tale also works as a kind of parable about the artist negotiating success and debilitating personal failure in various forms, even as his career appears to flourish. Unlikely as it may seem, Fats’ freeform Gothic horror twist on “Thus Engaged” earns him a highly paid spot with a much bigger radio station (although he continues to wear his increasingly stained PAP T-shirt at all times) giving him access to a proper studio and all its sophisticated equipment. He moves out of his dank, unheated warehouse and into a brand new but bland identikit Wimpey Home, taking his ‘Bitch’ with him. Although listening figures go up still, Fats’ inability to make a breakthrough in his communications with the girl continues to vex him and even his relationship with best friend FX suffers because his sidekick no longer enjoys the direction their work has since taken.
The fact that ‘Bitch’ listens to his show induces Fats to try and communicate via tape-recorded messages which he plays back for her while he himself now stands mute in the bare, unfurnished, white-painted house that seems even more lonely, suffocating and empty than the derelict warehouse space he’d previously inhabited. Fats begins to develop a stutter, the silence of his companion reminding him of past anxiety attacks in his life, when he too had been too nervous to speak. Even though this affects his radio broadcasts, his new boss assumes it’s just the show's latest stylistic tic. Eventually, Fats’ breakdown is mirrored by the show abandoning narrative form altogether for a completely abstract mélange of tape-looped phrases doused in a cacophonous soup of reverb, over which Fats performs improvised pieces on an alto sax! Instead of Fats ‘civilising’ ‘Bitch’, he himself enters a shuffling catatonic state which leads eventually to a violent resolution at the very site at which he originally first found the girl.
This final scene is probably the one that earned the ire of radical feminists at the time, when violence against women in movies was a hot issue, although it’s not shot in a particularly exploitative or prurient way. Indeed, Monger foregoes all opportunities the material provides him to dwell on the more salacious aspects of the narrative by framing his images in such a way that we don’t see ‘Bitch’ in shot when, for example, Fats dresses or washes her. Indeed, it is Fats who is made the objectified subject of the mute girl’s gaze when she joins him fully clothed in the bath during the most painful throes of his breakdown.
The film is shot in real locations around Cardiff, capturing a vanished city, before its recent redevelopment, in murky 16mm film that mostly utilises natural light (cameraman Roland Denning only had four lights at his disposal). McNeice’s toad-like appearance is at the centre of the work throughout but amateur actress Bish Nethercote (even her character’s name is a personal reference because Monger apparently misheard the name Bish as Bitch the first time they met) makes a big impression, despite barely uttering a word throughout the entire picture aside from her appearance as the taunting party punk girl near the start. So long has the film been out of circulation since 1981 that the only elements the BFI could obtain were in a pretty poor condition. Thus, the entire film is marred by either lines, marks across the screen or other artefacts on the print which appear nearly all the way through.
Joining “Voice Over” on this disc is “Repeater” -- another 16mm feature-length film made by Monger a few years before for £7,500, also with grants from the Welsh Arts Council in 1979. Also made under the auspices of the Chapter Film Workshop in Cardiff, the film is a more obviously experimental, semi-narrative piece that plays much like a callow beginner’s art school film project, although no one involved had ever been to film school; it’s clearly labouring under the intoxicating influence of the French New Wave and is very much the work of a novice, although, again, it’s not without some interest. Characters are developed in a deliberately self-reflexive and self-conscious way to seem artificial and emotionally and dramatically blank, existing as cyphers amid a faux detective narrative that attempts to question - rather gauchely - the concept of narrative truth by operating simultaneously on multiple levels of (un)reality. There’s even a moment when an angry couple jump out of the heroine’s parked car in the middle of a scene (one of them played by cameraman Roland Denning) and walk to the front of shot to object to the fact that ‘this isn’t “proper” cinema!’
The modernist films of Alain Robbe-Grillet (and Alain Resnais) and the stylistic tropes and tricks often found in the works of the Nouvelle Vague crop up in raw unmediated form here, in a film shot not on Parisian streets but in and around inner-city Cardiff as it was in 1979 (apart from one scene shot in the French capital in tribute to Truffaut’s “Day for Night”). Monger cast the project with a small compliment of real actors brought together, through the Chapter Film Workshop, with people he already knew or had recently discovered, such as the young Alexei Sayle (whom he’d previously met at the Chelsea College of Art) and lead actress Chris Abrahams, who was ‘discovered’ working in a store in Cardiff.
The narrative is fairly straightforward and involves a middle-aged woman, Marie (Chris Abrahams), walking into a police station and attempting to hand herself in for murder. Interviewed in a dimly-lit office by a detective (Alan Morris) wearing the traditional trench coat garb of film noir, she explains how she has shot and killed her paralysed lover. Yet the police don’t believe her and don’t really have a procedure for how to deal with people who admit to murder when no crime has previously been reported. A Subsequent autopsy of the body she later takes them to, reveals that the gunshot wound was inflicted after the proposed victim had already died from an overdose of sleeping pills. With no substantial evidence that Marie really is a murderer, the police eventually let her go.
Meanwhile, by contrast, in the adjoining interview room, another detective (Alexei Sayle) is attempting to extract a confession from a professional hit man (John Cassady) who will not admit to a killing the officer thinks he has ample evidence to support. The two very different interviewees later begin a relationship of sorts, although all the usual emotional and dramatic tics of the crime genre being quoted here are drained away in favour of a static, deliberately non-engaging robotic style that often employs the actors in rigid poses while the camera dollies back and forth, often seguing between rooms in such a way as to reveal their status as film sets.
The details of the plot, such as they are, and even the identities of the protagonists themselves, are continually up for renegotiation and just about every element of the plot is unstable and constantly shifting whilst the film employs non-naturalistic distancing techniques to remind us of the artificial nature of the narrative. At one stage, an apparent flashback to the events surrounding the murder Marie narrates for the police interviewer turns out to be a film being projected onto the wall of the police interview room. The first fifty minutes are mostly intriguing and quite engaging; lead actress Chris Abrahams has a strange mysterious charisma surrounding her performance, the Brechtian theatrical flourishes of distanciation and the film’s semi-humorous experimental tricks keep things lively, despite the complete lack of dramatic flow. Unfortunately, the 80 minute running time eventually proves just a little too much for Monger and the inertness of the piece lets it get a little dull in the latter stages until the director pulls it back with the Paris scenes near the end, where Marie reclaims her murderess persona in order to bring the film’s narrative full-circle. Its main curiosity value today exists mainly in the evocative location footage it offers up of inner-city Cardiff as it looked in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.
Like “Voice Over” the film only exists in the form of a badly damaged 16mm print taken from the Welsh Sound and Screen Archive and so, once again, the image is grainy and badly marred by marks, flashes, speckles and lines. The BFI have worked wonders to make these very rare and damaged elements look more than presentable though, and colour is generally pretty stable and resolution much better than one has any right to expect.
The set comes with an excellent booklet of essays and reviews and also profiles of Chris Monger and Ian McNeice. It even includes the clumsily worded feminist statement issued just before the film’s screening at the Edinburgh film festival in 1981, as well as Monger and Denning’s recollections of the period, and a reprint of the Monthly Film Bulletin’s review of “Voice Over” from July 1982.
Both films are flawed but fascinating dispatches from the early eighties and the BFI have issued them in as good a condition as they will ever be seen in, with plenty of insightful contextualising material to accompany them. This set will prove well worth the effort for fans of British underground cinema.
Read more from Black Gloves at his new blog Nothing but the Night.blogspot.com