Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith

Now here’s a real curio, and one you might be utterly beguiled by. Minute Bodies is a compilation of work by the British biologist and pioneering film-maker F. Percy Smith and his colleague and editor Mary Field. Smith was quite a celebrity in his day, cultivating an eccentric domestic-boffin image to bolster the appeal of his short nature films. His still-remarkable time-lapse photography of plants and fungi growing were achieved by setting up bits of turf around his house; a documentary on underwater life involved filling his bathtub with fish eggs.

Stuart Staples, of the band Tindersticks, caught a clip of one of his documentaries about insects on BBC Four one night and became immediately fascinated. The idea that Staples would turn to film to express this fascination is not too surprising; at this juncture, his band are nearly as celebrated for their soundtracks to Claire Denis’s films as they are their own projects. What is unprecedented is how fluent, how brave, how unapologetic Minute Bodies is in its celebration of the power of imagery. In an era where directors like Peter Strickland, Andrew Kötting and Carol Morley are taking British cinema back into the dreaming terrain mapped out by Jarman and Roeg, Staples may have produced the most oneiric British film of our time.

It’s worth watching the full short films by Smith and Field included as bonus features on this BFI dual format edition in order to get the measure of what Staples has done. They include The Strength and Agility of Insects, the 1911 film that first impressed Staples, and also several later films from the sound era. Comparing a Smith and Field talkie like 1942’s The Life Cycle of the Newt to Minute Bodies, it’s immediately obvious that the former is constrained by the documentary format. The microscopic photography remains hugely impressive – particularly in this restoration – but the RP voiceover and pedagogical intent dates the film considerably.

Minute Bodies has no voiceover and no sound apart from the minimalist dark ambient score by Tindersticks, Christine Ott and Thomas Belhom. Suddenly Field and Smith’s imagery is set free and can be appreciated for its strangeness, rather than its educational content. A young plant pulls itself up on a wooden frame, like a ballerina doing stretching exercises. A spreading patch of mould appears to throb in time with the music. Cells divide, frogs spawn and sperm hit eggs.

Is it revealing too much about your reviewer if he describes Minute Bodies as an unexpectedly sexy film? Field did, after all, make some sex education films without Smith that are collected on the BFI compilation The Birds and the Bees: 60 Years of British Sex Education Films. Seeing squirming cells dividing and powerful shoots thrusting their way out of seeds, I had to double-check that this was a U certificate. The latent innuendo in these images is another consequence of removing them from their original narrative context. It also reminds you that Staples’s film is more than just a tribute to Smith and Field; it’s a tribute to life, in all its messy glory.

The BFI’s booklet includes a personal essay by Staples on his discovery of these films, and a terrific biographical essay by that invaluable record-keeper of the British silent era Bryony Dixon. It initially rankled a little that Smith was excluded from ownership of the “intimate world” in the film’s title, but even the short films in the extras where she has sole directing credit are based on Smith’s photography.

Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith is out now on BFI Blu-ray

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