“A symphony should contain the whole world” was Gustav Mahler’s comment on his music. A film that aspires to the condition of music can do the same. Such is Mare’s Tail.
If the whole world is to be contained, you need length, so Mare’s Tail is 2½ hours long. In music, the risk would be tedium from the fact that the symphonic form is too conventional, too predictable, and too tedious, so that immense creative imagination is needed to break out of those constrictions. Mahler had it hence the power of his symphonies. In film, there are no such rules, at least not yet, so the risk for a film as long as Mare’s Tail is tedium on different grounds because the spectator has no idea where the film is going. David Larcher avoids this by threading into it, almost beneath our awareness, a beginning, a middle and an end. The film opens with a blank screen accompanied by a rising drone for some ten minutes. It reminded me straightaway of the droning E flat that opens Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, and while further parallels should not be pressed, both works signal their epic intentions by this means. The middle of the film is taken up with a trajectory of some kind, from creation, to birth, to sex, to life, to death. And there is an end of a teasing kind. Finally after much shaking of the eyeballs, a written ‘FIN’ appears on the screen. This surely signals the end (although the use of French may be meant to throw us off the scent), only for our eyeballs to receive further jolts by the interspersing of white leader with fragments recalling earlier sequences in the film.
Larcher’s challenge was to glue the whole thing together. His principal way of doing this is by the style of the film. The images are clearly visible, but not in any way we are familiar with, since he uses negative footage, re-filming, stop-motion projection, optical printing, stretched images and other means to de-familiarise the way we watch films. The same strategy is used on the soundtrack, where we can hear words spoken and we can hear snatches of music, but they come to us through a fog filter of some kind so they are muffled and distorted. We know words are being spoken but we can barely hear what. We hear music, but identification is stymied. I thought I heard Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s all over now, baby blue’, but I am far from sure. There were suggestions of classical Indian music. The most identifiable piece was the tune from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony (another piece of music that contains the whole world), but it is played on unfamiliar instruments to give it a jolly, tinny, and quite anti-Beethovenian tone.
The right adjective for it all is an antiquated one from the 1960s – ‘trippy’. It invites us into a vision of the world where we feel free of anxiety. The humans that appear are beautiful people of their time, the animals, especially the frigate birds, are expressive of the wonders of the created order, and when he films a fly struggling on its back, or a fish gasping out its life in the water, or even the mass slaughter of turtles, these death throes feel free of pain. One brief sequence, filmed on the underground, shows a woman dropping down on the floor and playing dead or catastrophically ill; a young man then gets up, looks quizzically at her, crosses himself, and steps out of the carriage onto the platform. Even this death is treated as a tease. Also of its time is Larcher’s embrace of abstraction alongside the traces of the figurative and the autobiographical. By its length, the film disrupts time, and by its abstract particles, its dance of spheres and many other images that resist identification, it combines the microcosm with the macrocosm, and in doing so achieves a disruption of space.
The film was premièred at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1969, Larcher having worked on it for several years, all through the summer of love of 1967, the explosion of flower power, the elaboration of the ‘far out’ culture. “Oh in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” It must have been a temptation to place a rock soundtrack on the finished film, but even if Larcher was tempted, he quite refused it. The whole film dances on the edge of the abyss of Self Indulgence, but somehow Larcher never falls in. Avoiding the facile solution of a rock soundtrack is one of the ways he does so.
Where do his images come from? In a way, they seem to have spilled out of him in a quite unmediated way, and for a British film Mare’s Tail is most unusually linked to the visionary quality of the pre-structuralist American avant-garde, when it was still called underground cinema. Had Larcher seen any of the films of Stan Brakhage? The birth sequences instantly bring to mind Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Thigh Line Lyre Triangular (1961), and the whole enterprise feels inspired by Dog Star Man (1961-4), Brakhage’s own epic vision of creation and his world within it. But this is quite speculative, and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that Larcher was making these images without any inspiration from Brakhage. What does link the film to the Americans is the ambition of his project. The 1970s work at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, of which Larcher was a member, only rarely sought to match the scale of the American avant-garde, which itself took its cue from that of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s.
What does make it British is the fact it is in black-and-white. Surely this economy was forced on him, but Larcher makes the most of it both by his technical understanding of the medium of film, and also by the fact that when colour is used, it jolts the spectator, as if the annoying suspense of waiting for colour is resolved by the relief and the pleasure of its arrival. Like many good film-makers, including commercial ones, Larcher is focused on stringing good sequences together, always trying things out. You sense that there is never total mastery, but his technique never lets him down either, as if total mastery would banish the experimental, ‘open-field’ quality which he wants to convey.
So, is the film formless? Yes, but it is immersive and keeps drawing us in. Watching it, you can fall asleep certainly, and when you wake up you are re-engaged. It needs to be seen projected on a screen in a black space in order that we are properly underwater. In the end, its depiction of the whole of creation has an omniscient, life-affirming quality.
But I am still to discover why it is called Mare’s Tail. So what?
[Mare’s Tail was screened at the Close Up cinema in London on Sunday 15 January 2016.]