Thursday, 19 March 2009

DITKO/DIDCOT (Sandra Truart, 1999)

Swedish documentary maker Sandra Truart (real name Sandra Johansson) offers us this diptych that simultaneously tells the story of American comic book artist Steve Ditko and the Didcot railway in Oxfordshire, England. The two subjects have no obvious similarities beyond their names, and so the double narrative is at first disconcerting, flipping from colourful graphics of Spiderman to the sober chugging of a steam railway; from calm long takes of careful pencil strokes to blackened faces shovelling coal; from hot reds, yellows and blues to plumes of grey distilling into the quiet white of English skies.

But similarities prevail: Ditko trained as a carpenter at a steel mill in his home of Pennsylvania, and the footage from this part of his story is overlaid with the a sequence of men laying railway sleepers. Parallels, unlinear as they may be, are inevitably sought for, and drawn.

With Ditko's refusal to give interviews and the relentless chug of the steam engines, the film reaches a strange state of drone-fuelled nirvana: somehow, despite the disparate nature of the subjects, and the slackening of tension caused by the narratives refusal to intertwine the film becomes ever more hympnotic. It could be that this marriage of random subjects creates what philosopher Bert Embert described as 'The Chime' (We do actually see a copy of Bert Embert's Philosopher's Gilded Edge left on a carriage at one point in the film. The sad paperback, a clue, an accident, an idea, is found by a guard who has never heard of one of France's most famous thinkers) . This theory feels entirely apt with Truart's marriage of subjects in mind. I quote at length:

'... we can never exhaust possibilities as human beings... every hybrid we build, every new melding of old ideas... be it an old song in a new town, a composite of fabrics or the melding of two colours in an ever so slightly new way...we can never give up mixing all of the elements of our lives together in the same ways, hoping for new results, as it is possible that if God exists, then it is within some chemical combination of sciences we do not understand... perhaps the 1000th bar of a consistent G chord will expand into a cosmic opening one night, when the stars dictate it, when the atmospherics are slightly different to every other thousandth striking of that thousandth bar of G... Clang-duuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrr- when suddenly a wall falls, or a crowd member cries, or a lover enters and smiles, or a seagull swoops, or the power goes and yet the chord cries on- and for whatever combination of reasons, the party takes off in a way it never has before (despite every effort, contagious invites, excellent venue, gorgeous guests, food, drink and musics), and The Chime is heard and felt and smelt and seen and touched and known, and seas of ecstatic weeping will surprise us, and humanity will cease its own advancement to Heaven on Earth, its own Godlike status as a three-dimensional aspect, a prism of experience and feeling... and we will never know the precise combination of stimulae that got us there, the vibrations from what accidental running together of art...

... this is the role of the poet in society. Not to invent new elements, and discover a lost chord- for our discovery of 'The New' in conventional terms is pointless- but to draw elements together, randomly, beautifully, into a psychic collage, creating subliminal texts for others to be absorb and multiply, rip apart and fashion into ever clothing that references ever more of life, sucking into a whole grubby but precious damaged arts...1

We await that which never comes: The punchline, Ditko at Didcot, waving from aboard The Flying Scotsman. And always the question... what, what what could bring a young Swedish filmmaker to such subjects? The answer drifts, unanswered.

Ditko/Didcot Directed by Sandra Truart Produced by Sandra Truart, Iggy Johansson Random Pictures/National Film Archive of Sweden Release Date US: N/A UK N/A (Later available on DVD in Europe March 2005) Tagline: 'Dikto Did Not Drive Down to Didcot; But What if Ditko Did?'

1. Bert Embert's Greatest Hits, Penguin, 1999

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