In the lift and on my way to see Swandown, I bumped into a neighbour. Niceties quickly dealt with, and his purpose towards Tesco established, I ended up trying to explain a film I hadn’t yet seen:
“This guy gets a pedalo shaped like a swan, and he rides it from Hastings to the Olympic village.”
“Ha, ok, right, so is it a documentary?”
“Well, sort of, a bit like a comedy too, I think.”
“And it’s got Stuart Lee in it as well.”
While I do live on the fifth floor, my lift really isn’t as slow as that sounds. And nor is the film itself, which lugubriously floats along the aforementioned outline with a strange momentum all of its own.
Starting with a fruitless battle against a ceaseless tide, artist/captin Andrew Kötting eventually sets to sea with the skipper and word-smith Iain Sinclair at the helm. Their floating steed is a fibreglass swan-shaped pedalo called Edith, and over the course of a couple of weeks, the vessel does indeed get from A to B. As he journeys up the canals and rivers of East Sussex, Kötting casts out countless points of association for all and sundry to latch onto. He meets a few odd folks on the banks, and goes ‘fishing for sounds’. There’s no plan or scheme, just a simple impulse for adventure, and a strong faith in the power of serendipity.
The pleasure of the film is in its visual, be that the gorgeous misty morning shots of Edith calmly gliding through a modern pastoral idyll, or more directly in the sight of Kötting jumping fully be-suited into waters and muddy banks with aplomb. That, and we get a short sequence with Stewart Lee and Alan Moore riding the swan for a while, as bewildered in the act as any knowing witness would surely have been to see it.
The film quite happily establishes itself within the distinct realm of artist-driven filmmaking, and an immediate comparison, in form, and in its handling of British landscapes could easily be found with Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. Or you could quite happily associate it with Apolcalypse Now, or Deliverance, or any film which happens to go up or down a river. The associations are there for the taking, and the journey carries on quite happily regardless.
It’s difficult to say if the film would have held all 94 minutes of my unbroken attention if I’d just stumbled across it in a gallery, but even without conflict or purpose the film still held a strange allure. Though maybe not a universal allure, as the middle-aged burke in front of me swiftly found something of unbroken interest lurking on his luminous Blackberry. Having been reprimanded by an usher (!) he spent the last hour of the film itching and twisting like a caffeinated seven-year old at a slow church sermon. His declaration on leaving that ‘that was a load of fucking bollocks’ certainly cuts to the nub of the matter, but you can’t help but wonder what he was expecting. A song and a dance number? A laugh a minute? A nice nineteenth century oil painting of, y’know, REAL art?
Each to their own I suppose, but while Swandown hardly surprises it still manages to elicit the odd laugh, and to keep you watching. A strange if beautiful beast, to say the least.