August 04, 2009


Chris Newby's film Flicker lasts only five minutes. It is not a film for epileptics to watch- there is a dizzying display of imagery over the five minutes, overcut by electronic music, surrounding the bonfire at Lewes every 5th November. For those who do not know, 5th November was the day that Guido Fawkes accompanied by other plotters attempted to blow up the British House of Commons in 1604- he and his co-conspirators were arrested and executed (as were many other innocent Catholics) and the day became a day of rejoicing that the King, Commons and Lords had survived and the Protestant religion had been fortified. The celebrations at Lewes are famous for they are one of the few celebrations left in England where the Pope, as opposed to a Guy, is ceremonially burnt in the town. Newby's film of this does not really make any of that context clear- instead he jump cuts through the crowd, the fireworks, the seventeenth century costumes, the burning Pope and the illuminated woods and trees and faces which watch. His film therefore is more of a pictoral thought about the event, rather than an examination of the occasion.

What it says though is still valuable. I don't think any film that I have ever seen has brought home as convincingly the strangeness of Guy Fawkes day. Every year I have been accustomed as are most British people to going to watch a fire and fireworks in the dark on the 5th November- being a historian I know of course what it means and what it is really about which I do not think is true for most of the crowd. Yet what I had never realised was how strange it was and must have seemed to our ancestors. Fire suddenly pouring out of the ground- strange lights and shapes been made in the trees and on the faces of the watchers- the opportunity to dress up in antique clothing- even more so the spectacle of ceremony, the spectacle of the crowd. Foucault would have enjoyed its subliminal messages without quite understanding them. In a world of neon, it is easy to forget the surprise of fire, the scandal of fireworks. Because Newby speeds everything up, he makes you see this for the first time, see its strangeness. Standing in the cold, watching fireworks slowly arc into the sky becomes an experience of five minutes with shooting fire- and that is what it would have seemed to our ancestors, unfamiliar with the speed of a Mario Brothers game and a computer screen.

Speed yet also strangeness- strangeness of course brings to light something else that this is a ceremony, a ceremony which has an antique quality. Like a man from an ancient land, it tells of times when wonder might be produced as a communal and religious activity before the purity of Protestant confessions. There is something carnivalesque, something pagan about the bonfire and the fire and the trees. Again because of the electronic beat and the speeded vision, Newby captures something that is unfamiliar to my eye about the day- and makes me reconstruct it in a different way- an anti-Papist, Northern European carnival. Part of film is making you see things in different ways- Newby does that with his roving camera and his inventive effects (smoky breath coming out of an umbrella for example)- he reminds us of the primitive nature of all ceremony and makes me look again and realise the wonder of Bonfire night.


James Higham said...

Great Moloch appeased, perhaps.