For all that James Scott’s name is on the cover, the main selling point of the BFI’s new archive collection Every Picture Tells a Story is the remarkable range of artists he filmed. There’s David Hockney, arguably the only living British painter whose name means something to the general public. There’s Jamie Reid, graphic designer for the Sex Pistols. Claes Oldenburg, Jackson Pollock, Richard Hamilton – their celebrity might eclipse Scott’s, though he’s far from unknown. He won an Oscar in 1982 for his short Graham Greene adaptation A Shocking Accident, and he was part of the Berwick Street Collective (BSC) of radical film-makers in the 1970s.
The subtitle of this double-disc set – “The Art Films of James Scott” – refers strictly to his films about art, rather than his arthouse films in general. A Shocking Accident and the BSC films are not included. Before we look at what the set does contain, though, it might be worth looking back at the BSC’s most infamous film, 1975’s The Nightcleaners. Commissioned as part of the campaign for a cleaners’ union, The Nightcleaners’ self-deconstructing style was hugely divisive even among people who supported the piece’s political goals. To its supporters, it opened up new frontiers in British documentary; to its detractors, it smothered an important message in avant-garde self-indulgence. The whole affair would be a footnote in the fractious history of the 1970s British Left were it not for the light it casts on Scott’s career as a whole. The films in this set may be, at most, indirectly political, but the central issue of the Nightcleaners controversy – namely, should radical ideas be presented in a radical style? – hangs over even the least polemical of them.
Chronologically, the set begins with three short documentaries from the 1960s, each around 20-25 minutes long and each taking a single artist from the Pop movement as their subject. The shortest, named after and concerning the American painter RB Kitaj, is also the most conventional – so much so, in fact, that even the inlay booklet questions how interesting it is. That’s a bit unfair. RB Kitaj is a perfectly solid educational film that fulfils the essential remit of an art documentary. People familiar with Kitaj will enjoy hearing him talk, people unfamiliar with him will learn something. Its only idiosyncrasy is its montages, which frequently cut from works by Kitaj to a patterned backdrop, as though Scott was showing you the board he’d pinned all his research images to.
From here on all of Scott’s films include some kind of formal experiment designed to heighten the viewer’s connection with the work. Sometimes that experiment involves Scott making an atypically conventional film, as it does in the title film Every Picture Tells a Story. A chronicle of the early years of his father William, it struck this reviewer as the weakest part of the set. For all the undoubted personal significance it has for the director, the result is the kind of low-budget British period film where you’re always painfully aware that if the camera moved two feet back there’d be a modern car or house in shot. It’s remarkable to think that just two years before making this Scott made Chance. History. Art., an experimental documentary in which five cutting-edge artists are interviewed about the legacy of Surrealism.
Where Every Picture Tells a Story was cosy and conventional, Chance. History. Art. is austere and unpredictable. Scott edited down 90 U-matic video cassettes for this 46-minute film, played them back on a bank of TV monitors then re-filmed the playback in a series of long 35mm takes, panning from screen to screen to disguise the cuts. By doing this, Scott makes his improvised collage feel like clinical, controlled closed-circuit video. Coupled with a wildly abrasive electronic score from Simon Brint – yes, from French and Saunders’s house band Raw Sex – it shows how adept Scott was at capturing cultural moments. For all the film can’t resist playing a bit of Anarchy in the UK over the end of Jamie Reid’s interview, the overall mood is unmistakably post-punk, very Joy Division.
Skip back some two decades and you can see an earlier zeitgeist captured equally well in Richard Hamilton. Beginning with an audio recording of the titular painter admitting he can’t see the point of arts documentaries, the film eschews the straightforward documentary approach of RB Kitaj in favour of trapping the viewer inside the malign consumerist funhouse of Hamilton’s imagination. There are cadillacs, and clips of Marilyn Monroe, and a fake ‘intermission’ in the middle during which another film is trailed. But it’s not all fun and games. Whereas an American Pop artist like Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg would leave it to the viewer to decide whether their work was a celebration or a condemnation of mid-century mass culture, British Pop artists could be a lot more acerbic, none more than Hamilton. His punningly titled series Swingeing London documents Mick Jagger being tried on drug charges – a grim reminder of how the new Establishment of counter-culture celebrities could still be brought to heel by the old Establishment. (Among the charming ephemera in the accompanying booklet is a letter from Jagger granting Scott permission to use footage of him arriving at court)
Richard Hamilton was hailed as the best film the Arts Council ever made, though Love’s Presentation, about Hockney, is somewhat compromised by Scott’s government funding. The pieces Hockney is working on are clearly about gay love, but since this had only just been decriminalised the film can’t tackle this with any sort of directness. What remains is a valuable, stylish, black-and-white look at the working methods of one of Britain’s greatest artists in the earliest stages of his career.
1971’s The Great Ice Cream Robbery, about the sculptor Claes Oldenburg is the closest thing in the set to Scott’s Berwick Street Collective work, both chronologically and stylistically. It was designed to be projected on two screens simultaneously, and the BFI have spread it over two discs so you can replicate this effect at home. This quickly emerges as more than just gimmickry. The two-screen format allows Scott to show Oldenburg’s inspiration alongside his finished work, his ideas alongside their execution, his reflections alongside their exhibition, and other useful dialectics. The two halves are each a slightly different length, too, so there’s no way they can be perfectly synced up. This was a deliberate plan of Scott’s. Each time the film is watched, it will be changed, and those changes may lead the viewer to new reflections on its subject.
What reflections does this set leave us with about Scott? For some viewers the question will be irrelevant; they’ll be buying it for the artists he documented, and in that regard it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed. Yet the presence of a film about the director’s father – as the title film, no less – seems to be leading us to consider these films as a personal body of work. Here, the quality of the set is harder to pin down. Scott’s practice swung between so many extremes – fiction and documentary, avant-garde and traditional, impressionistic and educational – that it’s hard to imagine a box set that could give you a thorough overview of the man. That hypothetical box set would certainly include A Shocking Accident, and the Berwick Street Collective work, and some of the other films mentioned tantalisingly briefly in the booklet. As a sampler of one aspect of his work – films about other artists – this is fascinating if uneven stuff. At the very least, the BFI deserve credit for digging Chance. History. Art. out from obscurity, and for making it possible to watch The Great Ice Cream Robbery in all its playful two-screen glory.