Swandown

My Blogomatic 3000 review of Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair’s mesmerising new film, Swandown. It comes out tomorrow, but to summarise, it ain’t Batman:

Two men stand waist deep in the ocean, trying to launch a swan-shaped pedalo – the kind you’d find at a local park – on a journey that will take them from Hastings to Hackney via rivers and canals, meeting people of varied experiences and philosophies, a journey that appears to be the very antithesis of the upcoming olympics their final destination – the still-being-built stadium – represents. It takes them more than a day to get the pedalo out there.

The two men are avant-garde filmmaker and performance artist Andrew Kötting and regular partner in crime, writer Iain Sinclair. The film is called Swandown, and the voyage is much more compelling than I just made it sound.

The film is hard to define, even to make a distinction as to what kind of picture it is in terms of fiction or documentary, let alone notions of genre. For the most part, Swandown follows the two collaborators as they wend their way leisurely north, taking in the sometimes naturally beautiful riverbanks and sometimes ugly man-made constructs, all the while reaching out and connecting to fellow river-dwellers and the occasional bemused fishing couple.

Their mode of transportation acts as an excellent icebreaker, and most conversations with ‘real’ people involve a healthy dose of laughter. Sinclair and Kötting’s discussions, on the other hand, range from the political to the philosophical and the mythical, and Sinclair regularly recites passages from his own work.

The film works at its own pace, not wanting to rush anywhere or paint any grand moral pictures, but often hints at the deeper meaning of their endeavour through dreamlike interludes that mark their passage, such as a woman (credited as playing Ophelia) slowly working her way into a river from the bank, laying on her back and drifting on the surface as the pair slowly work their way past, apparently without noticing. She’s wearing white, a metaphor for innocence that crops up again later, most significantly when a story about the Greek god Zeus courting a woman in the shape of a swan is told, intercut with footage of that same woman, now naked, reclining on the pedalo with her back against the swan’s neck.

It’s thought-provoking stuff, and some of the cinematography is astonishingly bleak, with clouds of fog drifting like thick poison and the swan floating – almost lost at the bottom of the frame – underneath a towering but ultimately dull, grey bridge, but that’s merely one aspect of a film which tends not toward one view but many – as proven by Kötting and Sinclair’s occasional departure from their vessel so that others can journey on in their stead.

Two such temporary pedallers are comic writer/magician Alan Moore and comedian Stewart Lee, who – after trying to decipher what the project is actually about – discuss the positive impact introducing swan pedalling as an olympic event would have on not just sportsmen, but race-relations and religious disputes.

Swandown carries on in this charmingly ramshackle fashion for most of its running time, spurred on by Kötting’s boundless enthusiasm  – he regularly ends up in the water – even when Sinclair has to depart. Regular implementation of dialogue extracts of Werner Herzog from the documentary Burden of Dreams give a powerful edge to certain scenes like only Herzog can deliver, and the eerie electronic soundtrack makes these sequences appear like an (even more) absurd Apocalypse Now.

Eventually the swan – named Edith – reaches the end of her path, repeatedly bumping into the barriers near the stadium in Hackney in a comical but somewhat melancholic display, and though it’s established that the film really isn’t about London 2012, it’s difficult not to feel uneasy about the whole thing from this image. It doesn’t last that long, though, and Swandown‘s effect – at least on Kötting, if no-one else – is summarised in its lyrical visuals and poetic final shots.

If you want to see a film unlike any other you’re likely to see this year, then Swandown will be right up your alley. It just might be a shame (or perhaps an inside joke on Kötting and Sinclair’s part) that they decided to release it the same day as, er, Batman.

Swandown is on limited release from July 20th.

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