The new film by Saint Etienne and Paul Kelly, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, is billed as an homage to the Lea Valley. Seeing it led me first to dig out Peter Cusack’s 02000 album The Horse was Alive, The Cow was Dead — which is an audio document of the same area — and then to consider the different ways in which the two pieces work.
Visual media dominate hearing in our culture. Much of …Mervyn Day is beautifully shot, and, given the film’s concern with capturing the physical and social geography of the Lea Valley before it is all re-developed for the 2012 Olympics, the visual representation is important. The aural recording cannot tell such an explicit story, but its ambiguities, its incompleteness, give it a different kind of evocative power.
Sometimes not showing a picture is worth a thousand words. In The Searchers, John Wayne (as Ethan Edwards) emerges from a ravine where he has found the missing body of a woman raped and murdered by the Comanches, and his temper snaps when his riding companion presses him for more information: “What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture?”
An audio representation does not have a focus in the same way that a visual one does. It’s more likely that, on ‘playback’, you will notice elements which the recorder/photographer was not concentrating on, or even aware of, at the time of the recording. The film Blow Up — in which a photographer unwittingly discovers evidence of a murder in a picture he has taken — was remade as Blow Out with the central plot device translated from photograph into a sound recording. With this translation, the fetishism of documentary evidence became more plausible and interesting (even if the remake remained the lesser film for other reasons).
…Mervyn Day uses a fictional script, involving an on-screen protagonist and voice-overs from his grandfather and mother, to project meaning onto, and ‘elaborate’, its images. The Horse was Alive… presents its documents more or less as found in the environment: in only one of the 45 tracks is there a commentary on what’s unfolding, and in a few others music (live and recorded) is played to bring out the qualities of the environment. When it works, this approach sustains interest precisely by making you interpret, deduce and guess what you’re hearing.
Example: in the recording The Dog Thinks it’s a Duck you have to project a sequence of events onto a series of splashes, barks and grunts. The sleeve notes are terse: “Dog diving in after a stick — the title was his owner’s comment”; the rest is up to you.
Cusack’s recordings also bring out the potential of audio for surrealism. They include the sound of toads calling underwater, and tadpoles trying to eat the underwater microphone. The British Waterways man employed to maintain the river environment recounts a story of two bodies being spotted in the river, both still six feet long despite being decapitated. It turned out a circus had skinned and then disposed of two brown bears. A local prankster later left bear footprints in the snow, summoning helicopters and police marksmen.
Images yield period detail more readily than sounds, and, though both Saint Etienne’s film and Cusack’s album have ties to specific days in recent history, the film situates itself in time much more pointedly and powerfully. Apparently the filmmakers had always intended to set …Mervyn Day on 7th July, the day after the decision about the Olympics was due to be announced, but obviously hadn’t anticipated how that decision would be overshadowed by the bombings that day. The closest bomb was two miles west of the Lea Valley, so there are no images of conflagration in the film. In fact, the bombs only filter into the film in indirect aural references towards its end, when the protagonist hears a radio report while sitting in Fatboy’s Diner (on Trinity Buoy Wharf), and is then asked, “Didn’t you hear the sirens?”.
The Horse… has a recording of the 96% solar eclipse of 11th August 01999 as it sounded on Walthamstow Marsh. This is the track that has voice-over commentary, describing the progress of the eclipse. Perhaps the eclipse’s effects on wildlife and ambience would not have been evident without the commentary, but unfortunately it gets in the way of listening and its literalness obscures as much as it elucidates.
I felt uneasy at the occasional sentimentality of the …Mervyn Day film, as when the voice-over called for more attention to be given to the everyday stories of heroism of the working people of the Lower Lea Valley. The programme notes argued that London is subject to such rapid and frequent re-development that no-one cares to document and record these stories. During the sixteen years I lived in Sheffield, where re-development generally operates on a slower cycle, parts of the Lower Don Valley were transformed into, yes, sports facilities, along with shopping and leisure centres. The legacy of the steel and manufacturing barons in the city’s power structures means that the aura of the past still hangs over the multiplexes and bowling alleys. I always felt this presence as a sticky smog that I could do without.
Still, see the film if you can, buy the album, visit the Lea Valley — and take a camera and a mini-disc recorder. Here is another perspective on the film, with lots of good links.