Today: July 22, 2024
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Swandown

By – Laura Milnes – Two go mad in a pedalo – artist/film-maker Andrew Kötting and psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair traverse the waterways of the South East in their very ordinary art-house documentary.

By – Laura Milnes

Two
go mad in a pedalo – artist/film-maker Andrew Kötting and psycho-geographer
Iain Sinclair traverse the waterways of the South East in their very ordinary
art-house documentary.

It doesn’t sound like an action-packed,
Hollywood mega-bucks blockbuster. Thankfully, it isn’t. It is, however, a rare
and intriguing find among the new releases we are used to being offered of a
British Summer.

It is very British, yet manages to confound
the stereotypes, presenting instead a mysterious, grainy, soft-focus portrait
of its two protagonists, Kötting and Sinclair – men of a certain age who defy
definition and certainly support the myth of the English eccentric but do not
behave as one would expect. Their aim: to travel from Hastings to Hackney in
nought but a pedal boat shaped like a giant swan. For what reason, one may ask?

There are many, none of which are very
important because what occurs through their efforts to undertake this unique
task is a paradoxically romanticised and yet matter-of-fact cinematic document
of the journey. We meet who they meet fleetingly by the riverside, we hear the
messages exchanged over radios, the conversations with the collaborators they
invite into the pedalo to wax lyrical about all things swan. We get to know a
little of the relationship between these friends who, like two overgrown
schoolboys, have decided to adventure their way through the English countryside
on an ill-advised voyage in which their objective must be achieved at the cost
of health (the threat of Vile’s Disease as one of the seamen is bitten by a
rat) and hygiene (Kötting decides to wear the same hand-made clothes for a
month, Sinclair, we are informed, is changed regularly).

“You know Iain Sinclair’s obsessed with
the Olympics?…He hates the Olympics more than anything…he doesn’t think
anything should be allowed to happen in Hackney without his permission so, err,
this is what this is about I think,” says comedian Stewart Lee. Lee and writer Alan Moore are just two
of the guest pedallers the filmmakers invite aboard to relieve them on a short
section of the ride. Perhaps Lee was briefed that this was the intention of the
journey – to criticise “The Games” and all they bring with them in
much the same way that Sinclair does in his most recent novel Ghost Milk.

The large and ungainly swan pedal boat at
the centre of the voyage certainly floats precariously on an Olympic-themed
tide but beneath its wake this film is about a journey, a ceremonious, epic and
yet curiously pathetic feat of mild endurance that brings into question where
the ritual in modern British life is hidden. Edith (the swan) carries her
passengers over muddy waters of metaphors, folklore, legend, science, myth and
philosophy. The two adventurers and their guests converse, discuss and
deconstruct but never really plunge into these notions, preferring to pass over
them, leaving their musings to linger in the waterways and disseminate into the
banks they permeate.

The tone of the film is gentle, its approach
wistful and its impact slight. It ambles rather than strides. Its heroes are
considered rather than daredevil. However, the story, the journey, the odyssey,
is as heroic and epic as the stuff of legend and there is an understated spirit
of exuberance and energy from these two world-weary travellers in their
reflective aviator shades. Swandown is an eccentric English curiosity to be
examined and considered at your leisure.

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