David Gladwell

Special program in international premiere

Ways of seeing
by Sam Dunn

In 2011, I oversaw the long-overdue re-release of David Gladwell’s feature debut, Requiem for a Village, on Blu-ray for the British Film Institute. A little over ten years later, in 2022, I revisited the project to produce an expanded Blu-ray edition of the film for Powerhouse Films. Both releases also showcased a number of Gladwell’s hitherto rarely-seen shorts, including those featured in this programme.

During the process of putting those discs together, Gladwell was hugely supportive, providing all manner of documentation relating to all of the films, as well as allowing us access to the paintings he had been making in recent decades. In spite of this, however, he seemed somewhat bemused. In fact, when I visited him in 2022 (to record the extensive audio commentaries which were included in the Powerhouse edition), he expressed this bemusement directly: “Why are you doing this?” “Who’s going to be interested?”

While these are precisely the sorts of questions that should be considered when undertaking any commercial venture, the truth is that we didn’t have sales projections and audience demographics in mind. I’d been fortunate enough to see these films when I worked at the BFI, and I’d been captivated. Being able to release them was a privilege, and enabling more people to see them was the ambition.

Of course, what Gladwell’s questions were pointing to was the fact that whatever impact the films had originally had was limited to the rarefied circles of amateur film clubs and international film festivals, and that, although they had won him admirers along the way (with Lindsay Anderson – for whom Gladwell would later edit If…. and O Lucky Man!– chief among them), the films were produced outside of the mainstream and were never intended to function within a commercial context.

But, far from these facts causing concern, they were what explained the conditions under which Gladwell’s unique visions were produced. How else could someone create work which was so uncompromised and uncompromising? These were films which – despite presenting as narrative in form – demanded that their audience experience them as one might a daydream, or the most enrapturing musical composition.

In fact, Walter Pater’s assertion that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music” feels entirely apt when considering Gladwell’s films. Never mind that A Summer Discord and Miss Thompson Goes Shopping are essentially silent (albeit with some impressionistic audio-suggestions in the latter) – both are compositions in light and shadow, space and time. Of course, we can speak of their “stories” – a girl’s experience of loneliness; an elderly woman’s trip to a local market town – but such things are as important, or otherwise, as the themes in some musical works. The passion and poetry of these films is felt, not through the act of comprehending what is happening in them, but rather by way of a cumulative, formal effect wherein movement and juxtaposition – editing is, after all, Gladwell’s forte – is of primary importance.

And An Untitled Film is the ne plus ultra in this regard. For this exquisite audio-visual piece, Gladwell and avant garde dancer/choreographer/composer Ernest Berk (with whom Gladwell would work again on 1965’s 28B Camden Road and 1967’s Dance) collaborated closely to create a work whose “story” is simply the frame upon which their radical formal experiment is hung. Crafted from extreme slow-motion images and crisp, dissonant sonic textures, this is a work which demands to be experienced rather than “read”. (The reflexive title itself underscores the fact that we are being invited to immerse ourselves in the medium rather than the message.)

Of course The Great Steam Fair – made in close collaboration with Derrick Knight, one of the foremost British documentarians of the period – necessarily functions slightly differently to Gladwell’s solo-directed works. But, even here, the privileging of audio-visual experience over narrative purpose is much in evidence, and the result is a rich and evocative journey into another (dreamlike) world.

Beyond questions of form and function, though, there are many other things to remark upon. One could, for instance, note the nod to Jean Vigo in A Summer Discord, and how the same film’s surprising mixing of black-and-white and colour stocks precedes – possibly even influences? – the same formal conceit in Anderson’s If….. One could even speculate as to whether An Untitled Film could be considered as an early example of the “time-slice”.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to observe, though, is that adult male protagonists are almost entirely absent from Gladwell’s frame, and that his female leads are celebrated for being nothing more or less than what they are – old or young, happy or sad. Gladwell does not project onto these women, but – instead – invites us to share in their unique and peculiar experiences of life. This is just one of the many pleasures which these films afford, and it is one of the many reasons why you might feel the urge to join Miss Thompson in performing a celebratory jig just before the music ends and the lights come up.

Sam Dunn is co-founder of UK-based film distributor Powerhouse Films whose Indicator Blu-ray imprint showcases a range of celebrated and less well-known films, spanning many genres and eras – from 1930s Mexican horror to 1970s French fantastique, by way of Classic Hollywood and the history of British cinema.