Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair Asylum

Publication Type:

Journal Article




Film Comment (2000)


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With their latest work, Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair have taken television to the next level. Chris Darke checks into their Asylum.

When Asylum screens on British TV it'll either have viewers hammering at their sets and wondering if there's an electrical storm in their neighborhood, or scratching their heads at the labyrinthine pseudo-sci-fi narrative. Describing itself as "a film about exile, memory, madness", Asylum is the third collaboration between the British filmmaker-writer Chris Petit and the novelist, essayist and poet Iain Sinclair. Continuing their exploration of marginalized cultural figures, the duo has extended the distressed, multi-media textures of their previous collaboration, The Falconer (98), to create a piece that, while conceived for British TV, pushes at the limits of what television currently deems to be aesthetically acceptable. Not for nothing does the film carry the subtitle "The Final Commission". Working with a heavily textured, multilayered tapestry of formats - re-filmed digital video, super-8mm and multimedia graphic design (courtesy of cult graphic artist Dave McKean) and set against Bruce Gilbert's densely worked sound-design - Asylum is a paradoxical puzzle-film, an essay on cultural memory that looks to the future in its use of technology while expressing doubts about what Sinclair describes as "the over-imaged, over-informed wastelands opened up by the new information technology."

The film opens at some nominal future date, "Year Zero + 14." A rampant virus has been created "in the protein soup of bad television with the sole aim of destroying its own memory - the last cultural traces." A researcher named Kaporal (voiced by Petit as though reciting a suicide note) is brought out of retirement to make sense of the remaining fragments of an abandoned, pre-viral project called "The Perimeter Fence." These scraps of footage detail an assignment on which a young female sound-recordist, Agent Matthews (Emma Matthews, the film's editor), is dispatched by a shadowy information-broker (Sinclair).

Matthews is instructed to track down the writers Michael Moorcock, Ed Dorn and James Sallis, whom Sinclair describes as "a kind of illuminati, who hold on to the cultural memory of the race." An earlier project, erased from TV's memory files and known as "The Falconer" (this isn't a film that's afraid to tread the fine line between self-reflexivity and solipsism), had led to the disappearance and presumed death of the previous researcher, a photographer named Francoise Lacroix. It transpires that Agent Matthews wants to track down Lacroix and reunite her with her twin - a course of action, Sinclair warns, that could result in time itself being thrown out of joint.

As an example of digital filmmaking, Asylum is light years ahead of the Dogme 95 school of kinetic realism or the camcorder-horror of The Blair Witch Project. If it's close to anything recognizably generic, then it's working away at the cracks between the ludic masquerades of fake documentary and the layered essayistic digressions of Chris Marker's Sans soleil and Level 5.

Call it discursive digital metafiction, if you like. Asylum is the closest British TV has come to producing a virally vital, circuit-burning piece of digital filmmaking that is as much about noise as it is about signal. Interference is the aesthetic; here the filmmakers are working with the notion that TV transmission works in the collective unconscious in the same way as synapses do in the brain, transmitting signals across a void - and Asylum is out to scramble your synapses. In this respect Petit and Sinclair have taken the work of The Falconer, whose aesthetic owed much to the sophisticated image-text relationships of the graphic novel, and extended its reach into the television set itself - as a domestic object that's always "on" even when it's off and as a regulated flow of time, an eternal TV present-tense. This approach was evident in negative space (99), Petit's last video-essay for BBC2, where he was working with the space of the frame, frequently breaking it down into two juxtaposed polaroid-style squares that contained refilmed footage from classic films. negative space was equally concerned with memory - as incarnated by the key figures of critic Manny Farber and filmmaker R.W. Fassbinder - and technology, chiefly video and film. But Asylum takes the formal approach further. It's as much about TV as it is about literature. Television as a machine for forgetting, but also as an aquarium of memory, a mind-screen of repressed cultural consciousness that's given form in bubbling eruptions of sound and artifacted lags of digital imagery.

The look and structure of Asylum have been arrived at through the working methods that Petit and Sinclair have adopted since their first collaboration on The Cardinal and the Corpse (92), a far more conventional TV piece, and have benefited from the metafictional strategy of overlapping real people with fictional surrogates. Theirs is almost a home-video aesthetic, with
Petit and Sinclair filming (and refilming) when they can with super-8 and domestic video outside of a strict professional schedule. For each film shot in this way - camcorder stylo style - they generate a huge amount of footage that overlaps across projects. They don't shoot to fit a story but find the story in what they've shot, weaving post facto metafictions into what effectively becomes found footage. Hence the attention given to a labyrinthine narrative structure in which several tenses overlap, time shifts across cuts, and stories vie, overlap and dissolve. In The Falconerthe object that represented this metafictional method, its mise-en-abyme, was a mysterious whalebone box supposedly possessed of occult powers. It figured across the film as a shape-shifting fiction-detonator, a little bomb of story. In Asylum the same role is played by the virus. Its sci-fi narrative is an X-Files conceit that's also a nod to Moorcock, editor of the influential science-fiction magazine New Worlds, where he published James Sallis and J.G. Ballard, among others, and author of a series of cult science-fiction novels in the Seventies.

But the concern with TV and new technologies as viral is productively paradoxical. It is the virus that generates the film's narratives, just as it is the new technologies of digital video and non-linear editing that make Asylum's aesthetic otherness possible. Some of the most interesting examples of what one might loosely term recent multimedia work have also been dealing with the issue of cultural memory. Asylum and Petit's recent work can be legitimately set alongside Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema series and Chris Marker's recent CD-ROM Immemory. What's at stake in all this work is an engagement with a literary, cinephile inheritance by artist-filmmakers who have, through age, temperament, circumstance or sheer exploratory zeal, chosen to work with technologies that enable their essayistic and analytical tendencies to be bought to bear on their own memory files.

There's more than a touch of Godard in Petit's recent work; the use of what one might call primary sources - film excerpts in negative space, ccTV footage in his 1993 video-essay Surveillance - that are commented upon discursively and treated as jewels of found footage. Equally, Petit has admitted to an interest in including the post-production process as part of
the finished film. Given that Asylum - like much of Petit's recent work, extending back to his mordantly comic essay on the paranoid crime novel, Thriller (94) - is a film that's truly been made in the editing suite, there's plenty of evidence of the Avid digital editing system being pushed for all it's worth, until steam comes out of its circuitry.

As forward-looking as Asylum is in terms of form and technology, there's a moment when the limitations of its structure come up against the complexities of its subject matter. The poet Ed Dorn is shown railing against the Western military engagement with Serbia over the war in Kosovo. For Dorn, Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrook's diplomatic mission was about erasing the Serbs' sense of their history, seeking to put off-limits their will to escape "the Muslim yoke" (Dorn's words). In Dorn's account, the Serbs were coerced into forgetting - "[they] don't get to remember the field of Kosovo." He follows up by stating that "the legitimate motives of the past [are] not being brought forward with the respect they deserve," a statement that the filmmakers extract as a refrain for their film. This is a specious strategy that Petit and Sinclair should expect arguments about. It conveniently ignores the equally compelling counter-interpretation that the Serbian leadership (ditto the Croatians under Tudjman) actively sought to revitalize an ugly brand of nationalism by playing precisely on "the cultural memory of
the race." This isn't solely a point about political details. Perhaps the argument that the film alludes to here - only alludes to, never addresses directly - is that, in a culture of short-term memory, the political objective correlative that often takes shape is a warped and bloodthirsty nationalism that seeks precisely to invoke the cultural memory of the race. This sequence betokens opportunism on behalf of the filmmakers and a political complacency that isn't made up for by the acuteness with which they address their other subject of cultural memory-loss. But, of course, it isn't "other" at all; cultural amnesia and political opportunism are intimately linked. Here, Petit and Sinclair run the risk of replicating one of the features of the bad television at which the film takes aim - the reductiveness of the soundbite-driven interview. That they do so is symptomatic of the limits of their approach. Visually poetic and polemical in intent, Asylum can't extend to accommodate argument. And a subject like Balkan nationalism requires a greater discursive focus than this film can manage. Maybe the comparison with Marker is not entirely accurate after all.

The wise old owl would have done History the service of arguing the other account as well.

Asylum will be featured at the Walter Reade theater's New York Video Festival July 21--27, 2000.

Light Readings, a collection of Chris Darke's writing on film and video, will be published by Wallflower Press in October 2000.

Reprinted with permission of Film Comment