Friday 11 December 2009

‘More is good; more is better’

The Jonathan Meades Collection, BBC DVD (2008)

If the name Jonathan Meades is unfamiliar, it’s a fair bet to say that the face – or rather, the figure, clad in dark glasses and dark suit – is not. An essayist, author of fiction, and for some fifteen years, The Times’ restaurant critic, Jonathan Meades is justifiably best know for his documentaries. But then to label them documentaries is about as reductive as describing his subjects as food, culture and architecture. ‘My name is Jonathan Meades,’ as he prefaces the series Even Further Abroad…, ‘and in this series of films, I intend to peel off the drab grey overcoat of preconception to reveal the lime green posing pouch of reality beneath.’ In doing so he utilises obtuse allusion and reference, puns, parody and recurring tropes – chainsaws, carnivals, horsemeat, life-size inflatable Jonathan Meadeses. Meades prefers to call his films ‘shows’: ‘vaudeville theatre meets lecture theatre’. Show most definitely suits.

This collection comprises thirteen of these shows Meades has made for the BBC over the past two decades. The collection is not comprehensive: the Meades back catalogue stretches to some fifty or so shows. The Jonathan Meades Collection is therefore not the complete collection. Rather, it is a ‘happy compromise’ (Meades’ term) between making his shows available on DVD and making the resulting collection affordable to own in these troubled times.

Over the course of the twenty years, there are superficial changes: the quality of the film improves, Meades’ suit transitions from double-breasted black to single breasted cobalt-blue, and his body-mass gradually rises to a morbidly obese peak until, in or around 2003 – the point at which he gave up being a food critic - he sheds around half his weight. But the themes, and the approach, remain the same. He remains driven by a principle that ‘everywhere – everywhere – is interesting if you shed your preconceptions; everywhere holds ideals and dreams,’; and the aim to ‘cast light on what is occluded and forgotten and, sometimes literally, unmapped … to draw attention to the everyday stuff that is so familiar that it is ignored or held in contempt’.

The standard of the films is uniformly excellent. The majority of the films included in the collection are from his regular Abroad in… series, the joke in the title being that almost all the shows focus upon Britain – or, more precisely, England; it is the present as foreign country. As such, all but three of these films are set in Britain, the others being a fascinating trip around Brussels (through its exquisite suburbs, to its Museum of Underwear and Ironing) and an excursion across the north of Europe in search of ‘Northerness’ in last year’s two-parter, Magnetic North. The Britain Meades reveals is fascinating and enlivening, one a world away from the glass and metal of the Norman Foster bridges and urban-renewal art galleries of this modern life. Rather, a Britain of modernist churches, decaying nuclear power plants, Victorian bridges, dilapidated rural estates and fading sea-side idylls, DIY houses made from old train sleepers along the banks of the river Severn, incest and Molly Dancing in the fens.

At the heart of the films is the conflict between the imposed, innocuous, uniform, and sterile as opposed to the bodged, unofficial, irreverent and idiosyncratic. While certainly not a Luddite, Meades is firmly on the side of the latter and for this reason, while both ruminative and discursive – his argument rides tangents like a rafter rapids – a consistently polemical filmmaker.

As it happens, the most straightforwardly satisfying film is that which is the most outrightly polemical. It is coincidentally the sole film in the set that does not take architecture as its starting point. Meades Eats… Fast Food is an examination and critique Britain’s contemporary gastronomic culture. Unlike with many of Meades’ subjects (Belgium!), our dodgy national food culture is a subject on which British television actively gorges. Prime-time programming is awash with series detailing our deeply engrained cognitive detachment between meat and animal, the prevalence of chemicals within our diet and the passivity with which we Brits approach cooking. But then when have you heard the subject introduced like this?

We are surrounded by Fast Food. We can’t escape it. It’s inside us and outside us. It’s like pop music: ubiquitous, unbidden, all pervasive. And even when we’re not eating it, we can see it. Or we can see representations of it, adverts for it, exhultations to buy some, stuff some in. And when we’re neither eating it nor looking at it, we can smell it. Fast food is the noxious stench that defines our era. It is our tallow, our coal gas, our sewage; and it’s about as fragrant as coal gas, about as enticing as the sewage it will become. We breathe it just as we tread on it. It turns us in to passive eaters.’

The quality of the commentary is a particularly startling aspect of his work. You could say that Meades prose is so good is that you could find it in a book, but then all television documentaries are written and many end up with fat hardback tie-ins. What makes Meades’ films different from most of the other authored television documentaries is that the author can actually write. Or at least the author chooses to write equally well for screen as in print. Take, for another example among the wealth to choose from, this passage from Father to the Man, a biographical film concerning how Meades the child (‘a midget autodidact’) came to form Meades the adult, by way of the trips he took with his travelling-salesman father through the Midlands in the 1950s. The film culminates with a description of how he carried out his father’s final request:

I did as he wished and threw his ashes in the river at the confluence of the Avon and the Nadder. It was March, the river was swollen. His ashes circled in a whirl pool for what seemed like an age. My mother clung to my arm; she gaped in horror at the man she had loved, reduced by a flammable agent to a sort of sludge, which shone like a pigeon’s breast. Thirteen years later, her ashes would describe the same circle. Oh, I believe: in the constancy of water’s patterns in winter.’

One of the reasons there are no fat hardback tie-in books for Meades series is that his films are not merely picture books on screen. Nor are they simply well-illustrated lectures. Meades is a self-described Maximalist (‘More is good; more is better’) and the films are scripted, storyboarded and played out with a complexity more regularly reserved for drama series. To describe the visual distinctiveness of Meades’ films is a particularly difficult task. Firstly, while there are the tracking shots you find in any personality-led documentary, such scenes have the spin of the presenter, not so much walking stately across the screen but rather pottering about in the distance, reading a newspaper, perhaps jumping up and down to peer over a fence, or even nosying about the bookshelves of the woman whose house the documentary is investigating, who in turn tells her story to the camera unaware. Secondly, there is the tonnage of visual gags and props. Of this it can be simply asked, How many other films about post-1945 church design feature levitating choir-boys singing Meatloaf covers?

An abundance of imagery, prolificacy of tangents and tendency towards the abstruse lead to the common - and justifiable - complaint that the viewer ends up overloaded and simply lost. But more often than not this complaint is uttered by those whose solution is to simply take Meades off the telly, rather than to stick him on something that can be paused, rewound, scrolled forward and then watched again, and again, and again, each viewing revealing something hitherto missed. The listed running time for this collection is 391 minutes approx, which proves a woefully inadequate approximation.

All things considered, it’s quite surprising that Meades has not before been subject of a DVD, or even a VHS, release by the BBC. Worth noting is that the release finally comes at a time when Meades’ near entire back catalogue is available in low-res 10 minute blocs streamed on Youtube. But watching this collection confirms that such a medium simply doesn’t do the films justice. We should hope, then, that this collection performs strongly enough to give the BBC the confidence to produce another, for this one cannot be praised enough: it fascinates, educates and entertains in equal measure. Meades hits the trick of shifting your perceptions, pulling off his promised manoeuvre with particular skill: the lime-green posing pouch proves positively luminous.


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Resources

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
IMDB - does exactly what it says on the tin

BFI
British Film Institute’s Finest

BFI’s Sight and Sound
World cinema eating its heart out

They shoot pictures, don’t they?
Dedicated to the art of directing

Barbican Film
Some of the most innovative films in town

ICA Film
Independent, political and art-house gorge-fest

National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

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