The nice thing about participating in the fortnightly Kick-About is the gentle pressure it applies to respond in new ways to new prompts. When Gary Thorne proposed ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ for the Kick-About #3 prompt, I experienced that initial moment of creative freefall, known less poetically as ‘having no ideas’ – or rather feeling no immediate connection to the words or the images they evoked.
I remember very well the sort of helpless flapping around of students when first confronted with a new brief and how their anxiety would frustrate me, arguing how the state of ‘not knowing’ is what adventure feels like – but here I was, flapping a bit myself! In an instance of ‘physician heal theyself’, I did a bit of research (okay, I googled Gary’s prompt) and quickly understood ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ was in fact the title of a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. A few clicks later, and I was reading one of Munro’s stories, and it’s as I’ve already said in the kick-about preamble: Inspiration came from Alice Munro’s Walker Brothers Cowboy, the very first story in Munro’s Dance Of The Happy Shades. In it, a little girl and her brother are too hot and listless in the back of their father’s car. They play I Spy to pass the time:
“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours. Grey for the barns and sheds and toilets and houses, brown for the yard and fields, black or brown for the dogs. The rusting cars show rainbow patches, in which I strain to pick out purple or green; likewise I peer at doors for shreds of peeling paint, maroon or yellow.”
But inspiration is rarely a linear thing. Arguably it wasn’t Alice Munro or even Gary’s prompt that first inspired me to undertake this exercise in ‘slow cinema’, rather it was the old garage door I’ve been walking past every day for years. I’ve always loved its brick and mustard scales, and the way the colours cook and crackle under the heat of the day. It was this remarkable/unremarkable garage door I saw most vividly when I read about the little girl playing I Spy in Munro’s story.
The old garage door
The other big influence is surely the lock-down itself, or rather the new quality of looking and listening we’ve all acquired over these strangely attenuated days. Torpor has restored vivacity to our otherwise over-looked surroundings as we’ve rested our eyes and our minds, our ears detecting new strata of sounds, once stifled by the percussion of the rat-race. I took the camera on our long evening walks, hunting out interesting surfaces that I might otherwise ignore, reminding myself of similar behaviours as a child when I collected the prettiest pebbles from the beach (usually only to find them much less fascinating when they’ve lost the glossing of the sea). The images that go on to feature in the film derive from beach huts and brick walls, from careworn sheds and even an old corroded cannon. What I liked about these images was how quickly they transformed themselves into seascapes or aerial photographs of far-off geographies. Perhaps this is what travel looks like when you can’t go anywhere.
With the exception of a few sound effects purloined from the BBC SFX archive, the majority of sounds in the film were recorded in an around the rather careworn seaside town I call home. Fragments of three songs feature in the work too, the first being La Pastoura als camps arranged by Joseph Canteloube, one of his Chants d’Auvergne, so chosen because this song soundtracks the longed-for moment when my husband and I will arrive again at the old house in France, bringing with it the neat line of poplar trees, the yellow roar of sunflowers, and breezes dry and warm. The second song, Carey, by Joni Mitchell, is what a Summer holiday sounds like when you’re young and time extends away from you in a haze of non-commitment, and Ella Fitzgerald’s Get Out Of Town is as languid an expression of longing as you’ll find anywhere. Elsewhere in the film, I noodle about on a guitar, which I recorded next to an open window to fold-in as much ambient noise as possible.
What began with a prompt with which I was totally unfamiliar has resulted in a piece of work that feels entirely personal and familiar. This might be expressed more simply by admitting I didn’t know what I was doing until I’d done it.