culture wars logoarchive about us linkscontactcurrent
about us


Simon Pummell

Amy Matthews

Bodysong is an attempt to depict, celebrate, examine and denigrate nothing less than the 'experience of being human' in one enormous montage of collected documentary and other 'real-life' footage.

The film depicts such major themes as 'Birth', 'Sex', 'Violence' and 'Dreams', and perhaps predictably some are dealt with more successfully than others, leaving the viewer with an overall feeling of confusion as well as some genuine joy and amazement.

The array of material used in the film is incredible - it is like watching a 'Best Of' compilation of scientific archives, home video footage and so on. And herein lies Pummell's problem, or at least limitation. The clips, to a great extent, speak for themselves. The strength of their original direction, inspiration and subject matter makes it difficult for Pummell to establish his own meta-narrative.

Both the clips themselves and their retrieval have been done by other people (the latter surely being the most arduous and laudable task in this project), which somewhat disrupts the sense of Bodysong being a cohesively original directorial work. One is forced to question this issue even further when Pummell is credited as both writer and director, dubious assertions when the film very literally consists of other people's work.

The themes also tend to have the same effect within this film as they would in a television documentary or any other generic use: shots of the early stages of cell division in a human embryo are always fascinating and awe-inspiring, footage of riots and military violence is always horrific, and their placement in this film does not seem to make them any more or less so.

There are moments, however, at which the selection of clips, the general editing and montage, and the slow-motion rinse that pervades the film all do generate a real sense of purpose, as if the film has finally, albeit temporarily, achieved its aim of making us somehow see the elusive 'more' that lies behind these clips.

Pummell attributes part of his inspiration for this project to the recent birth of his son, and this influence is certainly apparent in the sequence depicting child-birth, in all its pain and elation. Having not been present at any birth apart from my own, I can only assume that this is the closest I will ever get to the experience of birth without seeing the event itself. The familiar wash of hygiene and fluffy towels perpetuated by Hollywood is gone, as is any resemblance to a dull, factual GSCE biology video. The births become almost violent in their realism, but at the same time, the detailed depiction of the physical logistics and variety of sensations, emotions and unexpected bodily fluids involved in the process paints it as a traumatically beautiful and moving experience.

The music that accompanies Bodysong is written by Jonny Greenwood, part of the Grammy award-winning band Radiohead. This alone is likely to attract much attention to the film itself, but there is certainly enough in the soundtrack to justify this interest. The music is a fusion of several styles, both from 'film music' as a specific genre and from the wider world of popular music, but chiefly it is a sort of new minimalism, a style most famously heard in the work of Philip Glass, but also evident in the work of younger composers such as Joby Talbot (previously of The Divine Comedy) in his recent scoring of an early Russian silent film.

The dual influence of classical and pop is certainly what links Talbot and Greenwood, and these influences are both used cohesively and competently in Bodysong. One role of film music is to unify and interconnect the shots, and the incessant changes of shot and theme in this film make much of Greenwood's music necessarily static (harmonically and structurally) in order to smooth the transitions. In this respect, it is at times reminiscent of the music used by Chris Morris in the television series Jam - capable of producing a lasting sense of uneasy calm in the viewer despite bizarre, sometimes genuinely freakish visuals.

Some of the more obvious moments of direct communication between the visuals and the sound provide a more startling effect. Quite simple connections are made, such as a passage of 'free jazz' accompanying quite graphic and energetic sexual acts and writhing of indeterminate body parts. Or the atonal, glockenspiel motif used with the exploration of the innocence of early childhood.

The most arresting moment in the soundtrack, perhaps the whole film, comes when the music is suddenly subverted by the introduction of diegetic speech from the clips shown. This is rather less affecting than it might have been because it is unsubtly introduced at the beginning of a sequence investigating communication and language, but it remains an artistically important decision. It clearly shows the rest of the film up as being, in essence, 'silent'. A fact that has seemed insignificant up till this point now becomes aesthetically interesting: we have accepted these clips despite the lack of corresponding sound.

Bodysong does not entirely succeed as a film, purely because its aims seem so vast and so obvious: to reveal to the viewer a set of universal truths about human nature. Unfortunately, none of these are new concepts to any but the most unimaginative viewer. We know that we exist in a world of such stark contrasts of human behaviour, and that we can be violent, selfish, beautiful, and incredible. These are already relevant, complex issues, and apply both to individual lives and to the larger world, a fact that the majority of us have realised without going to see Simon Pummell's exploration of these ideas. While Bodysong provides a genuinely interesting montage of the world of factual video footage, it will never be as insightful or as deep as Pummell seems to think it is.

Link: See an interview with Simon Pummell on the Bodysong website.


All articles on this site Culture Wars.