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Escaping the gaze: A review of John Foxx's Tiny Colour Movies

Author: • Aug 7th, 2008 •

Category: alternate worlds, America, architecture, CCTV, Chris Marker, Chris Petit, film, Iain Sinclair, invisible literature, John Foxx, media landscape, music, reviews, YouTube

Ballardian: John Foxx

ABOVE: Stills from ‘The Projectionst’ by ‘Alan Marker’ (John Foxx; Tiny Colour Movies).


Ballardian: John Foxx In Melbourne a few months back, I had occasion to see John Foxx’s live soundtrack performance and presentation of Tiny Colour Movies, a selection of found-film fragments. Regular readers will recall that I interviewed Foxx in 2006, when the TCM album had just been released. At the time John was maintaining the line that the album was the soundtrack to a found-film collection owned by one Arnold Weizcs-Bryant, who, we were told, collects home movies and ‘repurposed movie fragments’, indeed any type of film produced outside of commercial considerations and not meant for public consumption. John, so the story goes, attended a private screening of Arnold’s collection and was compelled to create a soundtrack to accompany these resonant images, what he calls ‘tiny colour movies’.

According to the TCM liner notes:

Arnold stipulates that the movies he collects must be short — none is more than seven or eight minutes long, and some have a duration of only a few seconds. He insists that these represent a new kind of art. One which is only now becoming possible to recognise. Photography has recently become acknowledged as a new technological art form and commercial cinema is currently undergoing this kind of reassessment … these ideas cross over with Stanley Brakhage. Indeed Arnold was very excited when he discovered Brakhage’s work a few years ago, since he feels it confirms many of his long held views about the aesthetic beauty and cultural significance of film fragments.

John Foxx, TCM liner notes (2006).

ABOVE: ‘Stray Sinatra Neurone’ by ‘Max Forbert’, performed by John Foxx at the Leeds International Film Festival, 2007.

One of the filmmakers in Arnold’s collection is a certain Max Forbert, who makes what John terms ‘assemblage movies’. Forbert, supposedly a janitor in Hollywood, collected film scraps saved from the cutting-room floors he was sweeping for a living and later compiled them into his own sampled productions, a fragment of which was found by Arnold after Forbert’s death:

This is a section of a Forbert film that he identifies as using cutting room outtakes from a Sinatra movie, among others which remain unidentified. Shots are: Back view of a man in a suit looking through the window of a set interior (too tall for Sinatra — possibly an extra brought in to test-light a scene). Some brief outdoor shots of cars driving through a glittering downtown New York. Close-up of a woman applying deep red lipstick — again this appears to be a test shot of make-up and lighting. Location shots of Paris and Rome. Intricately cut together, these damaged fragments become an almost tactile essay on the sensual textures and enigmatic images that film can make available.

Foxx, TCM liner notes.

In the liner notes, John talks of the beauty of the imperfections in the films, the scratches and grain, the bleaching from wear and age, ‘elements which only add to the mystery, the emotional and intellectual resonance, and the sensual appreciation, of film’. Tiny Colour Movies, then, is not only an interesting document but also one that has overtly Ballardian overtones. For starters, there’s Ballard’s own interest in the subversive potential of home movies. But also, as I tried to tease out in the interview, The Atrocity Exhibition features many examples similar to what John identifies as a ‘sample film aesthetic’ in the Weizcs-Bryant collection, including therapeutic DIY film groups designed to aid the recovery of schizhophrenic patients:

Cine-films as group therapy. Patients were encouraged to form a film production unit, and were given full freedom as to choice of subject matter, cast and technique. In all cases explicitly pornographic films were made. Two films in particular were examined: (1) A montage sequence using portions of the faces of (a) Madame Ky, (b) Jeanne Moreau, (c) Jacqueline Kennedy (Johnson oath-taking). The use of a concealed stroboscopic device produced a major optical flutter in the audience, culminating in psychomotor disturbances and aggressive attacks directed against the still photographs of the subjects hung from the walls of the theatre. (2) A film of automobile accidents devised as a cinematic version of Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. By chance it was found that slow-motion sequences of this film had a marked sedative effect, reducing blood pressure, respiration and pulse rates. Hypnagogic images were produced freely by patients. The film was also found to have a marked erotic content.

J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970).

Throughout Atrocity, T-, the book’s troubled protagonist, stitches and sutures together fragments from the media landscape — TV broadcasts, snatches of film, billboard representations of movie stars, the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination (even the ‘time music of the quasars’, derived from a strange contraption on his roof, a sculpture consisting of ‘antennae of metal aerials’) — into a form that will make sense to his disordered psyche. This is most clearly expressed in Ballard’s dictum that politics today has become a branch of advertising that sells personalities rather than policies, and that as a result politicians involve us in their fantasies without our consent — fantasies of power, ego, domination, celebrity, lust, all disguised as governance but which are really designed to place us in peripheral roles as impotent bystanders in the major decisions affecting our lives. In Atrocity, then, Ballard’s schizophrenic patients involve politicians in their fantasies, notably the hapless figure of Ronald Reagan:

The conceptual role of Reagan. Fragments of Reagan’s cinetized postures were used in the construction of model psychodramas in which the Reagan-figure played the role of husband, doctor, insurance salesman, marriage counsellor, etc. The failure of these roles to express any meaning reveals the non-functional character of Reagan. Reagan’s success therefore indicates society’s periodic need to re-conceptualize its political leaders. Reagan thus appears as a series of posture concepts, basic equations which re-formulate the roles of aggression and anality… In assembly kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.

Ballardian: John Foxx

ABOVE: T- devising the ‘optimum sex death of Ronald Reagan’ in Jonathan Weiss’s film of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Essentially, T- reclaims the inner space he feels has been invaded by media and advertising — the colonisation of the subconscious and the stealing of his memories — repopulating it with a collaged, open-ended landscape of images drawn from the free circulation of signs and signals of what we can now view, with hindsight, as Ballard’s own proto version of hyperreality.

As Ballard says,

The media landscape of the present day is a map in search of a territory. A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash? Faced with these charged events, prepackaged emotions already in place, we can only stitch together a set of emergency scenarios, just as our sleeping minds extemporize a narrative from the unrelated memories that veer through the cortical night. In the waking dream that now constitutes everyday reality, images of a blood-spattered widow, the chromium trim of a limousine windshield, the stylized glamour of a motorcade, fuse together to provide a secondary narrative with very different meanings.

J.G. Ballard, annotations (1994) to The Atrocity Exhibition.

This strategy of treating all media and perceptual inputs as equal, with no distinction between the inner world of fantasy and the outer world of reality, seems a clear precursor to the kind of culture-jamming hacktivism that would reach a peak in the 90s with the sound artists Negativland and their followers:

Negativland occupies itself with recontextualizing captured fragments to create something entirely new — a psychological impact based on a new juxtaposition of diverse elements, ripped from their usual context, chewed up, and spit out as a new form of hearing the world around us.

As audio artists, we pursue a uniquely contemporary and wholly appropriate creative process which inevitably emerges out of our electronic age of media saturation and the reproducing technologies available to all consumers.

Negativland, Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (1995).

Ballardian: London Orbital

ABOVE: JGB in London Orbital.

More explicitly, Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, in the film version of London Orbital, acknowledge a clear debt to Ballard, whose influence over the film looms large, both in the interview with him in the middle section and in the reading by Sinclair of JGB’s ‘What I Believe’ that frames it. Sinclair and Petit see the Bluewater shopping centre, ‘Ground Zero’ for the film’s aesthetic, as an architecture mediated by technology, specifically the omniscient CCTV cameras which in their endless, plastic and formless state create what the filmmakers call ‘a new nostalgia, a new boredom, a new kind of time’. If everything is filmable then, Petit and Sinclair’s method of resistance is to become like the surveillance camera, to always be open and to always be filming but to locate the degradations in the tape, the fraying at the edges, recovering and recycling elements of old technologies, what Esther Leslie calls an ‘aesthetic of refuse’, drawing on the double meaning of ‘refuse': as both rubbish, in that if everything is filmable then everything is junk, valueless; and as resistance, ie refusing to be dissolved into the ‘electronic slums’, to use Petit’s term. Thus Sinclair inserts his home movies into the end of the film, recovering a memory that is in danger of being overwritten yet still framed in the logic of the image, both inside and outside at once — an aesthetic that instantly recalls Atrocity and many other Ballard stories.

Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies project seems a direct descendant of this lineage, especially given this statement of John’s from our interview:

Movies will be played with, just as sound was sampled, for fun and surrealism. Simply because it can be done. I remember positing this five years ago in a talk at the London College of Music and Media. Around that time, I made a movie called A Man Made of Shadows from several other movies. This made a new movie from existing films by collaging, repurposing, hommaging, stealing, sampling, appropriating. Whatever you like to call it. ‘Repurposing’ is my current fave term, along with ‘theft’. Watch out Hollywood. Movies had better get used to this because it will happen. Inevitable.

We’ll also need to develop new aesthetics of film, to regard elements formerly regarded as faults as intrinsic qualities inherent in film itself. The beauty of scratches, bleached out film ends, emulsion faults, grain, frameslip, etc. Just as we now value surface scratches in audio sampling.

Ballardian: John Foxx

ABOVE: Stills from ‘Lost New York’ by ‘George Wilkes’ (John Foxx; Tiny Colour Movies).

So, freighted with all of this intertextual baggage, I was therefore very excited to learn that John was bringing the Arnold collection to Melbourne; I knew he’d premiered it overseas with a live soundtrack, but that’s about all I knew. I hadn’t really done much research on John since we last communicated, but I still harboured the suspicion that, as I detailed in the afterword to the interview, Arnold and the filmmakers were fictitious personas and that the films were in fact John’s own inventions. I sensed various clues that gave the game away including the name of one of the filmmakers, ‘Alan Marker’. This seemed far too close to the aura of Chris Marker (but with an amusingly British first name), especially given John’s stated admiration for La Jetée, which of course is also about memory being overwritten and recovered.

I felt there were more clues, not least the fact that the synopses of the various filmmakers and their motivations in the liner notes to the album resembled John’s own very individualistic short stories, especially one he wrote a while back called ‘The Quiet Man’ (for even with the best of intentions the best of artists can find it hard to disguise their ‘voice’ when inhabiting alter egos):

The old newscasts affected him greatly, the Kennedy Assassination, the images of Christine Keeler, early Beatles footage, all in a slightly worn Black and White. He edited together a film containing all these images and more, and played it constantly. He found it profoundly moving, the images gaining even more emotive power with each viewing. All these characters of his past moving in old daylight, waving and smiling and moving on.

One of his favourite films was The Swimmer starring Burt Lancaster, and he often played this without the soundtrack, drowning in the crude beauty of its early technicolour.

At home, too, he kept a small 8mm projector for playing home movies that he came across in his exploration of the city’s deserted apartments. He was fascinated by all the tiny intimate details of these films, the jerky figures waving from seaside and garden at weddings and birthdays and baptisms, records of whole families and their pets growing and changing through the years.

John Foxx, ‘The Quiet Man’, 1978.

In fact, my musings sparked off quite a bit of debate in various forums about the nature of Arnold, with many people, including myself, initially believing the entire story of Mr Weizcs-Bryant and his amazing collection of found film.

But John remained tight-lipped… or so I thought. More on that later.

ABOVE: ‘Skyscraper’ by ‘Jerry Golden’, performed by John Foxx at the Leeds International Film Festival, 2007.

From the first film of the performance, I was drawn into the degraded beauty of the Super 8 footage and the blown-out and colour-saturated celluloid on display. And yes, this was clearly found footage, the genuine article. It appeared I was wrong — you can’t fake period details, hairstyles and cars, on John’s limited budget. But it had been assembled artfully, like the looped film of traffic on LA freeways drawing out the beauty of this perpetual motion sculpture. Or time-lapsed shadows and sunlight passing across buildings, slowed down or reversed, the motion of the elements becoming imperceptible, the buildings and backgrounds the same but not quite as shadows gently ripple across them as if the fabric of time and molecular space was slowly re-weaving itself. When a building became covered completely in shadow, the film was edited so that another building emerged from the black and into daylight, a slow modernist dance of compacted grace and proportion. It seemed a trick of the mind designed to evoke the passing of civilisation, like the classic Ballardian ideal that treats reality as just a stage set that can be pulled away at any moment.

At this point, I thought I might need to re-assess: if these films were genuine, maybe Arnold was, too.

There was much to enjoy throughout the program. Extraterrestrial, sun-soaked clouds magnified to massive proportions so that they seemed composed of nothing but pure colour and grain. Flickering film projected onto women’s faces, turning them into shapeshifting cats and dogs with whiskers and elongated ears. A naked woman underwater, swimming among the wrecks of submerged automobiles as the sunlight from above the surface turns her and everything it touches into a blue dream.

Ballardian: John Foxx

ABOVE: Stills from ‘Underwater Automobiles’ by ‘Robert Rouncefield’ (John Foxx; Tiny Colour Movies).

But then I began to imagine that John had made a very clever play: he’d inserted what I was sure were his own films into the found footage. The giveaway for me was twofold. First, the film ‘Smokescreen’ by ‘Unknown’ featuring a man walking into a series of smoke-filled rooms — we never see his face as it is either obscured by smoke, or he is filmed from the side or behind. In the liner notes, Arnold says this:

I saw these marvellously lit sequences which seemed to have a very definite story, yet there is no explanation or development or resolution. We can have no idea what the filmmaker had in mind. Because of this lack of resolution, they seem strangely suspended. You begin to make connections, you feel compelled to write a story. But there is none. There can be none. The effect is tantalising, like a damaged and incomplete fragment of memory.

But, I’m sure, both the film and this explanation is very obviously the voice of Foxx; this film, to me, is another iteration of Foxx’s ‘quiet man’ persona, the ghost moving through the streets of the city, his identity never quite coalescing, always escaping the gaze. As John has said, ‘The point of view I’ve always worked from is that of a ghost in the city — someone who is a sort of drifting, detached onlooker — but still vulnerable and trying against the odds to maintain a sort of dignity in the face of all the static.’

ABOVE: ‘Smokescreen’ by ‘Unknown’, performed by John Foxx at the Leeds International Film Festival, 2007.

There appeared to be more confirmation in the film ‘A Peripheral Character’ by ‘Evan Parker’, a montage of shots supposedly featuring a mysterious extra from Hollywood films:

He has appeared in dozens of major Hollywood movies and American television series, yet he is completely unknown to the public. He appears as a background character, a passer-by, often wearing a grey suit, or a raincoat. His calm unhurried walk, his spectacles, his lapel flower and his habit of turning his head briefly (seemingly so that his face will be momentarily on the film), are what eventually make him distinctive. The film was researched and assembled by the man who first discovered his existence, Evan Parker. Parker is an academic whose field is the evolution of Hollywood. In the course of his studies, Parker watched hundreds of films and had begun to speculate about making a study of the extras, those figures passing by in the background. That is when he began to notice one who appeared to be present in several movies. Intrigued, Parker began a search and was surprised to discover the presence of this figure in dozens of major and minor Hollywood movies. This is a slow-motion montage of all the clips of his appearances so far discovered. His identity remains unknown.

TCM liner notes.

Note the reference to the GREY suit!

‘A Peripheral Character’ is an intriguing concept and very well put together, but at times you could tell John had judiciously selected clips of not the same mysterious person, but of similar looking actors from dozens of films, always with their face half turned away, or shot from behind, or bending over — you might just be convinced if you weren’t paying close enough attention that you were viewing just the one ghost in the city.

By the program’s end, I felt as if I’d finally worked it out for sure: that ‘Arnold Weizcs-Bryant’ was merely another psuedonym for Dennis Leigh (Foxx’s real name), and that it was indeed John Foxx himself who is the passionate collector of found footage, the underground filmmaker inspired by what he has stumbled across to create his own ‘sample films’, his own ‘tiny colour movies’…

And the live music? Well, it was classic Foxx, yes, lovely electronic washes drifting as timelessly as the shadows and sunlight of the films. I do like John’s work, but even so I have to say I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be much improvisation, given that this was ostensibly a live performance of the soundtrack. Tracks stopped and started exactly when the films did, and it all seemed a bit too perfectly sequenced, too faithful to the CD. I would have liked more of a continuous flow, more segues to sustain the atmosphere, more improv, more of the scratches, collages and squelches that John so admires in the films, for as good as the music is, it just seems far too clean, too digital in the live context to suit the conceptual conceit of the films themselves. As a standalone CD it’s great; as an audiovisual package, I’m not so sure.

And then it was question time, and John appeared from behind his bank of keyboards, dressed head to toe in black like a handsomer version of Lux Interior. Before the show I’d thought of sticking my hand up and asking him if Arnold really did exist, but as I was watching the films I decided it just didn’t matter at all to me anymore. Whatever the answer, either way, John’s assemblage of the results had become compelling — if John wanted to keep up the pretense, if indeed that’s what it was, I was happy to play along. Besides I’d already voiced my suspicions two years ago and I didn’t want to seem like a curmudgeon or a stalker by hounding him forever more about it. Also, I was curious to see if anyone else in the audience would broach the subject. Perhaps no-one even cares…

Ballardian: John Foxx

ABOVE: Stills from ‘A Peripheral Character’ by ‘Evan Parker’ (John Foxx; Tiny Colour Movies).

Questions were asked about Ultravox, about the soundtrack and always John’s answers were mystical, evasive, talking of dreams and flight. Then someone asked him about the Hollywood extra. ‘Did you ever ask Arnold if he had any info on the extra, or whether he’d tried to trace his identity?’ John fidgeted, looked a little uncomfortable. ‘Er… no’ he replied. The mere mention of Arnold appeared to be making him nervous.

Then someone else stuck up a hand. ‘John, I read the piece on Ballardian where you talk about the influence of J.G. Ballard on your work.’ Ah, he’d read my interview, meaning he’d know of the afterword where I first expressed my doubts! We were getting warm, no doubt about it, but would this guy pop the burning question? But ‘Which of his novels is your favourite?’ was the interrogation and the moment had passed again.

A few more questions and then someone asked John if he wanted a beer. He quickly said he’d love one, but then just as quickly said his goodbyes and hustled off the stage, always the enigma, always elusive, never to be seen again. The end.

And I couldn’t help but think of part 2 of our interview, for I was greatly surprised to see him in Melbourne in the first place.

Because when I asked him if he would ever tour Australia, this is what he said: ‘I’d like to. But it will most likely be as drifting molecules about twenty years from now…’


POSTSCRIPT: After the screening, my dormant interest in John Foxx was reignited and I went Googling for more information. As I mentioned, all I really knew of the background to this project was what had emerged in our interview. As far as I knew, for others, as it was for me, the mystery was still sustainable. Little did I know that John had recently come clean! In this post on John’s forum, for example, it’s claimed that ‘The footage that JF and Mike Barker use in TCM is bought at car boot sales, jumble sales and at market stalls. Sometimes people put their home movie collections up for grabs on ebay… this is then digitised and re-edited to produce TCM.’

And this is confirmed in an interview John did just before the Melbourne screening:

I used to buy reels of film (from Brick Lane and Portobello Road markets) and didn’t know what they were and view them to see if there was anything interesting on them. Eventually I amassed all this stuff and didn’t quite know what to do with it. Then I saw this collector’s reel of films one night and thought ‘Yeah — that’s exactly right! It is finite. It does have a place in history’. And some of it is unique and some of the stories behind the pieces are very interesting too. It’s like reading an obituary; which is something I like — it’s not morbid at all. It’s very interesting because you get a summation of someone’s life and their achievements…

So, is it actually John’s collection on display? It would appear that way, yes, judging by this interview. It would appear that Arnold is John, just as John is Dennis. And what of the filmmakers and their backstories? As I wrote in the afterword to the 2006 interview, after mulling over the ‘Frank Watts’ film:

Urban drift; walking through the city; submitting to psychic entry points … surely this is yet another brilliantly evocative John Foxx short story? Yes — the more I think about it, the more I think that’s the case … re-reading the liner notes, the parallels with these ‘filmmakers’, with their obsessions and aesthetics, to Foxx himself now seem all too obvious (let’s not forget that ‘John Foxx’ is a character that Dennis Leigh himself has said he inhabits because ‘John Foxx is smarter than me’).

Arnold’s ‘filmmakers’ are called Robert Rouncefield; Jerry Golden; Earnst Lubin — like ‘John Foxx’, these are humdrum yet fanciful names, mythical yet ordinary, dull names to the point of incandescence. Their bios and summaries exhibit all the traits of the condensed novels in The Atrocity Exhibition.

But there would be one final nail in the coffin…ABOVE: John Foxx answering audience questions after the Sydney screening of TCM.

Something else I found in my latest research was this video of John’s Q&A after the Sydney performance of TCM. Note that this was filmed the day after the Melbourne gig. Now recall the Melbourne audience member who asked John if he wanted a beer. Finally, watch the Sydney video: as the uploader writes, ‘Note the beer in his hand. Someone from the audience was kind enough to rush off and get him one.’

Someone had obviously been taking notes in Melbourne, had flown up to Sydney, and wasn’t letting John rush off the stage without a drink this time!

Perhaps they thought the beer might loosen his tongue just a little. Indeed, it appears that way for in this Q&A John is far more expansive and revealing than in the session I attended, and even goes so far as to say that some of the TCM movies are outright fiction, ‘complete lies’ as he calls them, created by him under the guise of a fictitious filmmaker and inserted into the program to mess with the audience’s perception:

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Did you cut some of those movies up?

JOHN FOXX: Oh, some of them were invented. And some aren’t. And I want to use these films as a way of telling stories. And being dishonest. Because I think dishonesty’s really interesting. What do you call someone who tries to convince you that something is true when it’s not? You call them a liar, don’t you? So what do you call an author? And that’s the thing that really interests me, is that line between truth and fiction. So some things are true in the movies, and some are complete lies. And I think it’s very interesting to try and work out which is which. Some of them are totally fabricated and some aren’t. But they’re all made up of the real thing.

So what one of the filmmakers practices, in other words cutting Hollywood up into pieces and reassembling it, I’ve been doing as well. And I want to continue doing that, because I think film is raw material now, to be used in any way we want. We’ve all grown up with that stuff. And I even dream it. Because I went to the cinema when I was 7, 6, 5 years old in Lancashire. And Lancashire was so grey, in England, and the cinema was so grey, everything merged together. You know, I was usually covered in soot when I was a kid, and everything was in black and white, the factory chimneys and smoke and all that, and when I looked on the screen it was the same thing. So all my memories of it are mixed up in the movies, old science fiction movies and utter rubbish. None of which I could understand as a kid, so I had to make things up with a kit from my own mind. It became a part of my dream language. And I still dream it. So I think we all mix stuff in strange ways because it’s in our heads, isn’t it? We’ve grown up with it. So why not reassemble it in the way we want to? Because we own it, you know — we don’t have to be dominated by it. It’s ours for God’s sake, not theirs — we own it.

However, I’m glad I went into the screening not knowing about John’s admission. It meant there was still a bit of mystery and wonder about the project, it meant I could ‘script’ the story a little bit as I tried to link and crosslink various ideas and theories — using a ‘kit’ from my own mind.

Does John’s admission matter in the end? No — the project stands on its own merits. I was reminded of how many people still take Empire of the Sun to be Ballard’s autobiography, and how they are often greatly surprised and sometimes angry to discover the book is as ‘fictional’ as the rest of his novels. In this day and age, surely it is not too farfetched to suggest that authenticity is just another mask? I personally love the idea of creating a character and inhabiting it so that the boundaries become blurred, inhabiting the interzones and interstitial zones, ‘the yes or no of the borderzone’ to borrow a phrase from Atrocity, escaping definition and classification.

As does Ballard, for that matter, who has his own passion for the idea of faked newsreels, and the notion of fiction passed off as truth:

The fake war newsreel (and most war newsreels are faked to some extent, usually filmed on manoeuvres) has always intrigued me — my version of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket or All Quiet on the Western Front would be a newsreel compilation so artfully faked as to convince the audience that it was real, while at the same time reminding them that it might be wholly contrived. The great Italian neo-realist, Roberto Rossellini, drew close to this in Open City and Paisa.

J.G. Ballard, annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition, 1994.

For anyone interested in Ballard — especially Atrocity — and experimental film, John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies performance is highly recommended. I’m not sure any of it is especially ‘cutting edge’ — Foxx’s liner notes, for example, state that the Alan Marker stuff (as commanding as it is, one of my favourites from the set) is ‘surely unique in the history of filmmaking’, yet I saw the exact same technique performed with skulls and ghost imagery last week in Melbourne by Australian artists who’d been practising it for some time. And overall, in terms of experimental and repurposed film, the phenomenal, unparalleled work of the likes of Guy Sherwin, the old master, and Ben Russell and Ben Rivers, the heirs, is certainly more of an assault in both audio and visual terms.

What Tiny Colour Movies undoubtedly is, however, is Foxxian: too cold by half for some, beautiful and sad for others, an industrial spiritualism and an unalloyed sensuality of machines.

Arnold Weizcs-Bryant: R.I.P.


..:: Previously:
+ John Foxx: A Whirlpool with Seductive Furniture, part 1
+ John Foxx: A Whirlpool with Seductive Furniture, part 2


..:: More information::
+ Metamatic: John Foxx’s official site
+ Tiny Colour Movies official site

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21 Responses »

  1. Simon – looks an interesting article. I tried to print it out to read away from the PC but IE reported a couple of “script errors” and refused to print.

  2. Damn. Don’t know why that would be, Mike… maybe because it’s got YouTube embedded in it? Perhaps try cutting and pasting into Word…

  3. Hi Simon

    Super stuff. So glad you enjoyed the show.
    We have corresponded briefly before. If you need any other John Foxx info (archives, etc) just let me know

  4. Thanks, Simon – pasting to Word worked really well, keeping the pics and all.

    Not sure why it failed to print from the web – I’ve not had a problem before and some of those must have had YouTube in them. Mind you I’m still using IE6 …

  5. Fascinating. “The solution to the mystery is always inferior to the mystery itself” as Borges would have it. I’ve been listening to Foxx music a lot lately, the Drift Music/Translucence album with Harold Budd and the great reissue of Ha! Ha! Ha! (always my favourite Ultravox album), so it’s good to know what he’s been up to.

    The Man Made of Shadows concept reminded me of a similar idea I had years ago for collaging a “meta-film” from Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate and Touch of Evil using Janet Leigh’s presence in each as a connecting thread. I still have a diagram somewhere showing the many connections between the separate works. This could no doubt be expanded by drawing in other films made around the same time with a similar style and atmosphere.

    Also: “Chris Marker” is another persona, the film-maker’s real name being Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve.

  6. So I’m not the only one that cuts and pastes these articles to Word…

    I’m looking forward to reading this later in the evening. Where’s John Foxx from? I’d guess Burnley…..

  7. John, the Foxx/Budd stuff is some of my favourite of JF’s work. Plus I love all three of the UltraFoxx albums… ‘Oh, oh, oh, dislocation…’ And Marker, yes indeed — didn’t he crib his name from a Magic Marker pen?

    Ian, are you going by John’s accent in that video? I have no idea what someone from Burnley would sound like!

  8. I really enjoyed that Simon, about as close to first-person investigative reporting as I have seen you write. It brings to mind the general relationship between art film and literature, which is very polarised and distinct, compared to the very close relationship between mainstream film and literature. Even post-modernist/experimental/avant-garde writers have a curiously resistant relationship with fine art, and art-film. Writers like Stein, Joyce, BS Johnson, Robbe-Grillet and the like have had dalliances with art, but only in very general terms. Even Burroughs, beyond his relationship with Gysin, was only really appreciated as an installation/gunshot-painting artist late in his career. Ballard though seemed to cross-over into the art world with his (infamous) large car installations. But really the relationships between outsider literature and (film) art seem oddly few.

    On a side note, and with fear of name clanging, I was taught ‘film as fine art’ under Guy Sherwin, and I am sure he would be delighted but embarrassed to be called an “old master.” I have fond memories of being shown very long experimental art-films amongst a class of very, very stoned, hungover and bored students who were only studying film in order to make ‘Lock, Stock..’ again. I felt sorry for him. I thought he was some kind of genius.

    John Coulthart – I love the idea of that meta-film, you should do it. Have you ever seen that short film which cuts up some films, splitting the screen (I think) into 16 blocks all showing different films, and all show someone being shot at exactly the same time?
    I am very interested in the way actors are used in a film in a way that echoes or references their appearance in a precursor film. There are some great examples of this, not least the use of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s ‘O Lucky Man!’ after ‘Clockwork Orange’ (which itself seems to reference ‘If…’ quite explicitly).
    Hitchcock’s use of Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho’ has many, many references to ‘Touch of Evil’, but also casting of Heston as a Mexican (?) after he appeared in the seminal ‘Ten Commandments’ seems like madness. Speaking of which, Welles’ casting of himself as the horribly washed-out, corrupt, over-weight Quinlan seems like an act of self-deprecating honesty. Oh yeah, I love that film.

  9. Jamie: I’d probably have a go at creating “Touch of the Psycho Candidate” or whatever it might be named if I wasn’t trying to do too many things of my own already. I haven’t seen the 16-block film you mention but I believe Mike Figgis tried something similar in Timecode?

    Stanley K did apparently refer to If… when directing Malcolm McDowell, asking him to give a look he gave the prefects in the earlier film.

  10. I understand, but it is an attractive idea isn’t it? I suppose we often think about the way that re-versions of films are always tied into their originals. It is impossible to watch Coppola’s ‘Dracula’ without thinking of the long history of Vampire films, regardless of whether Coppola chooses to stick the authorial writer’s name in front of the title. But, it is perhaps even more interesting to think about how the casting of an actor in a film affects the way we read the film, based on their previous appearances. Marlon Brando’s casting in the woeful ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ seemed to have a very Kurtzian ring to it.
    You are half-right regarding McDowell and Kubrick.On the commentary for the recently released ‘O Lucky Man’ DVD, McDowell says that prior to filming ‘A Clockwork Orange’ he found that he did not know the best way to play Alex. He called upon Lindsay Anderson, who in many ways was his mentor. It was Anderson’s idea that McDowell should play Alex with the arrogant, untouchable bravado that McDowell exhibits when entering the sports hall to be caned in ‘If…’. Makes a lot of sense.

  11. Jamie, thanks. Trouble with these investigative pieces is that they take so long to write! There are actually a few more scattered throughout the site…

    So you studied under Guy? You lucky fellow! I agree, he does have a touch of genius about him.

    Re: McDowell in Clockwork Orange and O Lucky Man! I always saw the latter as set in the same kind of near-future, bleak UK as Kubrick’s film… kind of a parallel universe that is just as despairing and just as hopeless, a world in which Alex, instead of becoming an uber-hooligan, became a coffee salesman — yet every bit as anarchic. Having suggested to Malcolm that he portray Alex with the same mannerisms as Mick Travis in If…, I strongly believe Lindsay Anderson was then utilising the process in reverse in O Lucky Man!, drawing on the incredible power of Clockwork to make similar points about Britain and its totalitarian tendencies.

    This ‘parallel universe’ effect in O Lucky Man is highlighted by Anderson’s casting of not only McDowell, but also Warren Clarke and Philip Stone, all Clockwork alumni.

  12. Jamie, thanks. Trouble with these investigative pieces is that they take so long to write! There are actually a few more scattered throughout the site…

    Yeah Simon, I bet they do take forever to try and gather the information. I was trying to do a piece on the artist/writer/arch-prankster Stewart Home and the issue of identity and got lost in obfuscation, trying to work out what is real from what is not, what is playful fibs, and what is truth. Ended up binning it because it just got too difficult and annoying.
    Yes, studied under Guy at the University of Wolverhampton, and he introduced me to a lot of great stuff, not least the magical Berlin Horse by Eno.

    Yes, do not want to hijack this very interesting Foxx thread with the much discussed Kubrick, but yes I agree that Anderson’s near-future, insitution critiquing Trilogy of films really do seem to inhabit the same universe as Clockwork Orange. The parallels between the films are huge, and seem very deliberate. The confrontation of Travis by the police at the start of O Lucky Man harks back to the police retribution scene in Clockwork Orange. And yes, in particular the casting of Warren Clarke seems like a strong association.

  13. Martin, thanks! I’m sure I’ll take you up on that one day…

  14. Excellent piece! I waited nearly twenty years to see John Foxx live. Finally did so when he resurfaced in 1998, and again in 2005, and on both occasions it was striking how far the tracks he played from Metamatic stood head and shoulders above any of the other material. Better lyrics, more memorable melodies. Tougher and more danceable than even the recent techno-y stuff he’s written with Louis Gordon. He’s still got cheekbones you could slice cheese with as well. I missed his performance of Metamatic in its entirety at the ICA. Which was unfortunate, as I would have crawled through broken glass dressed as Daisy Duck for that one.

    Ian Parkinson asked above whether he hails from Burnley. I believe he’s from Chorley originally. The brother of a friend of mine had him as a tutor at Leeds University. I hope he won’t mind me quoting from his email:

    “Nice man, was practising as an illustrator at the time (1990-93) and was using Harry and Quantel Paintbox to create montages from his photographs. He was one of the first along with Dave McKean to really effectively use the floated images and layers of gold leaf and photographic source material, which was then copied relentlessly and badly by all publishers. He did a shed load of book covers around that time, all of which looked virtually identical. He’d take a photo of some ivy, a Roman bust, rusty metal or some other tat – overlay them (pre-Photoshop) and hey presto, a new Ian McEwan cover. He was very bitter about Midge Ure from memory.”

    Who isn’t? I’m bitter about Midge Ure and I’ve never met the bloke. My introduction to JG Ballard was via music, funnily enough. As an SF-reading teenager I was aware of him, but it took Graeme Revell mentioning him in an interview with SPK in about 1983 for me to finally check him out. The first Ballard book I read was Myths Of The Near Future and I was instantly bowled over by the sheer otherworldliness and dreamlike quality infusing every sentence. His was the first writing prior to discovering William Burroughs a year or so later that I tried deconstructing to see the wiring under the board, so to speak. It was a case of “how the HELL does he do that??” I instantly made the Metamatic connection, and, as mentioned on another thread, there’s Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition”. And wasn’t The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds LP some obscure reference to that as well, or did I just hallucinate that?

    Jamie Sherry makes a good point about the “post-modern casting” thing. One of the greatest examples of this to my mind is Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, coming just a couple of years after Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs. Genius. Larry Hagman’s reptilian Texas oilman obviously played on the JR association too.

    On the subject of Mr Leigh’s cheekbones again: I’m sure JGB would approve. Oh, the geometry….

  15. Sounds like too many nights watching Peter Greenaway (think: Tulse Luper) to me. By the way, Evan Parker is the name of a famous British avant-garde jazz saxophonist, and The Big Dentist is either a member or big fan of my old pals The Lemon Kittens… Karl, Danielle, is that you out there?!?!?

  16. Jack – Big Fan!

  17. Large Orthodontist,

    Yeah, I gave their first album, We Buy a Hammer for Daddy, five stars in Sounds about three million years ago… secluded on a small Greek island I don’t really keep up with their later careers, but know that Danielle Dax is still in action, and I last heard of Karl Blake in his band The Shockheaded Peters…

  18. Hmm…British writer secluded on a small Greek island…

    Never mind The Unlimited Dream Company, Jack – you might be in the right place for living out the plot of The Magus, or even Malpertuis…

  19. Kirie Dentist,

    Tried the Fowles decades ago but it didn’t ring any of my bells, and I have many, some about to be distributed among the trees of a small Greek island. There may be a book about my criminal noise exploits in a few years… I’m still fording through Pynchon’s Against the Day, then it’s on with the latest Ondaatje.

    Currently waltzing to the latest from Nine Rain, VI, Steven Brown’s spin-off from Tuxedomoon. Kinda Ballardian if you sit and think about it, and definitely recommended to anyone who finds Simon’s playlist cool.

    Sto kalo…

  20. [...] Simon Sellars has written a fascinating account after he saw Tiny Colour Movies at Australian Center For Moving Image in Melbourne this summer – http://www.ballardian.com/review-john-foxx-and-tiny-colour-movies [...]

  21. Ballardian » Escaping the gaze: A review of John Foxx's Tiny ……

    [...]But it had been assembled artfully, like the looped film of traffic on LA freeways drawing out the beauty of this perpetual motion sculpture. Or time-lapsed shadows and sunlight passing across buildings, slowed down or reversed, ….. Yeah Simon, …

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