With three and a half hours to kill between job interviews, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon delving into the BFI Mediateque at the Derby Quad.
If you ply them with a proof of address, they'll give you a special card which will allow for you to watch as many films as you want for as long as you want. Suddenly, the yawning stretch of time between my appointments didn't seem so tedious. Within moments, I had a world of wonder at my fingertips – and in three hours I barely scratched the surface.
It should be noted, incidentally, that nine of the ten films I watched contribute towards my 2011 Film Challenge target.
I started with a couple of music videos. First came a TV promo by Screaming Lord Sutch for Jack The Ripper. As staunch, static and gaudy as any studio-bound performance of the early-60s, a succession of vaguely-Victorian ladies were mercilessly slaughtered in as camp and tasteless a manner as was possible in the stoic and tasteful wasteland that was television back then.
Next came an attempt to simulate the effects of psychedelic drugs without the use of psychedelic drugs. Called Beyond Image, it was essentially a colourful kaleidoscopic oil-lantern display set to the droning bleeps and repetitive bass jams of The Soft Machine. Watching it on headphones and staring fixedly at the screen, I really did feel something approaching transcendence as my thought patterns achieved synchronism with the mercurial colours.
Then came something which I've wanted to see for ages: The Quay Brothers' Street of Crocodiles which, apart from anything else, served to reassure me that I'm not yet fully desensitised and that, when exposed to certain concepts and imagery, I'm still very much capable of finding myself unnerved. Many such images could be found here: the fading glow of a dying lightbulb-headed man; a museum of bizarre anthropomorphic machinery banging on the glass for mercy; a female-torso fondling its own breasts; living screws dancing to their own beat and, worst of all, a makeover from three utterly freaky eyeless dolls which began with the removal of the head. It wasn't so much the images themselves that freaked me out as the inescapable feeling of familiarity: I've had this exact nightmare before, I just know it.
In each of these three silent films, equally – if not more so – fascinating than the storylines were the faces staring suspiciously from windows at the camera. It's a feature of a lot of early cinema and photography. The camera must have been a source of marvel and wariness for these people. Scholars could interpret their looks as the past confronting the future. Personally, I'm always reminded of the ghostly faces glimpsed in the back of hearses – late for their own funeral.
Jumping forward some seven decades, my curiosity was piqued by a piece entitled The Universe of Dermot Finn, which I've only just discovered to have been directed by the increasingly-fascinating Philip Ridley. As the brief synopsis insisted, the less you know about this film before watching it, the more you'll enjoy it. I couldn't agree more, and that no images of it seem to exist online may hint at the existence of a sort of clandestine effort to preserve its mystery and wonder for the uninitiated. Suffice to say that it's one of the most successful blends of comedy and horror I've ever seen and that it rivals even David Lynch's Eraserhead in conjuring such images and concepts that will stick with you for life. It's a very British spin on a certain nightmarish scenario, and I would not hesitate to describe it as utterly unmissable.
Saving the longest (if not the best) for last, my afternoon was brought to a close when I finally got a chance to watch the original 1968 Omnibus version of Whistle & I'll Come To You. For my full thoughts on this one, why not head over to Found 0bjects?
I cannot recommend the BFI Mediateque enough. There really is something for everyone. I think my tastes can be roundly surmised as being “acquired”, but even I found enough to keep me enthralled for an entire afternoon, and I just know I'll be making a return visit before long.
It's free to join and, having joined, free to use. It's worth an afternoon of anyone's time. In fact, it's so good, that even if you don't live near I'd advise you to make a pilgrimage. You won't regret it for a moment.