Art isn’t so much a window on the world as the condensation that forms on said window whenever we stand too close. As creative beings we inhale ideology and exhale art… metabolising the myths, assumptions and taboos comprising our cultures and turning them into a mist that hangs somewhere between us and the world. Neither entirely of the world, nor entirely of us… Art is made up of elements from both domains meaning that any attempt to construct the history of an art-form will necessarily tell us a little about our history and a little about the history of the world.
“Kim Longinotto” is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of historical analysis as most of her films appear to have been assembled with nothing more abstract than a hand-held camera and the truth. Whether exploring the social pressures perpetuating the practice of female circumcision in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) or following social workers as they try to help women leave the sex trade in Dreamcatcher (2015), Longinotto is a filmmaker who has earned an international reputation for absolute documentary realism… which is precisely what makes Love is All such an exciting project.
Commissioned by the British Film Institute and originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand, Love is All is an experimental documentary that takes a load of cinematic archive materials, combines them with a specially-written soundtrack, and tells a story about the evolution of love and courtship over the course of the 20th Century.
The documentary opens with a short three-scene film from 1899. Made by someone named G.A. Smith, the film shows a steam train entering and exiting a long tunnel while the middle scene features an over-dressed Victorian couple who flirt and kiss before returning to their respective seats and reading materials. This short sets the tone for the entire film as it is almost impossible to make sense of the scene without asking questions about Victorian attitudes to love and sexuality. For example, did G.A. Smith intend the film as a joke about what married couples get up to when they’re alone or did he set out to create a more transgressive piece that invited audiences to fantasise about the possibility of having sexual encounters with complete strangers whilst journeying by train?
Little more than a minute long, “The Kiss in the Tunnel” demonstrates the impossibility of either producing or consuming film whilst remaining free of cultural baggage: Every time someone makes a film about love, they are showcasing both the romantic rituals of the time and the filmmakers’ own attitudes to those rituals. As audience members, we interpret these images in terms of our own culture and experiences meaning that films inevitably exist somewhere between past and present, reality and ideology. Love is All attempts to survey the changing face of British relationships by exploring not only how depictions of love and courtship changed over the course of the 20th Century but also how our reaction to these depictions have evolved alongside them.
We move off into the Victorian period with footage of people promenading along the Morecambe seafront. The dresses are long and the distances are respectful but Longinotto disrupts these overly familiar images with footage from a film from the 1980s in which a Lesbian couple are seen kissing on a dancefloor. The juxtaposition of these two images is delicious as the later footage not only foreshadows a century’s worth of social change, it also serves to project us beyond the veil of propriety: Sure… Victorian life might seem to have been all about going for walks and wearing large hats but what of desire and what of the love that dare not speak its name? Women were having sex with women in the Victorian period and I daresay that Victorian women were thinking about having sex with other women, they just didn’t let on: Yesterday’s desires and today’s realities… the future as fantasy.
While Love is All is mostly made up of footage taken from newsreels and works of non-fiction, Longinotto does occasionally dwell on works of narrative cinema as a means of exploring key changes in social attitudes. One such film is Maurice Elvey’s Hindle Wakes (1927), a silent film about a Lancashire mill-worker who visits Blackpool pier only to wind up spending the weekend with the mill owner’s son. Upon returning home, the young woman is shamed by her family until the mill owner’s son approaches the woman’s father and asks for her hand in marriage. Rather than accepting the proposal, the young woman declares that there is no need for them to get married as they were just having a bit of fun. As with “The Kiss in the Tunnel” it is quite difficult to guess the filmmaker’s intensions without access to the culture that originally informed both the film and the play upon which it is based. Our own feelings about dating and female agency infect our understanding of the film and so create a set of images that are probably far more ambiguous than the writer and director intended and therein lies the point of the exercise… the past and present meet in a way that proves amazingly thought-provoking.
Issues of representation and interpretation are particularly interesting when it comes to the question of inter-racial romance. As might be expected from a director with a career-long interest in questions of social justice, Love is All does not limit itself to images of straight white people getting married. In order to explore the question of inter-racial love, Longinotto devotes quite a lot of time to E.A. Dupont’s silent classic Piccadilly (1929) as the film revolves around a doomed inter-racial love story between a white night-club owner and a Chinese dancer played by the first Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong. Longonitto’s approach to the source material is in itself fascinating as while Love is All plays up the film’s rather sweet-natured mutual seduction, Piccadilly actually follows a template laid down in the early days of film when racial Others were frequently presented as sexual Others whose terrifying powers could lure good men to perdition. Anna May Wong’s character Shosho is very similar to the roles played by actresses like Theda Bara in that while their on-screen existence suggested that inter-racial romance was possible, the plots of the films they appeared in would often implicitly warn against it. Indeed, Piccadilly’s night club owner winds up destroying himself by claiming responsibility for a woman’s death and whether this admission is truthful, insane or insanely romantic is left very much up to the viewer’s discretion.
While Longinotto takes some liberties with Piccadilly (and presumably other films too), her selections are informed by a desire to show Britain becoming progressively more liberal, tolerant and fair. Moral panics are juxtaposed with more modern and less-hysterical depictions of the exact same behaviours and traditional voices of sexism, racism and homophobia are treated with the withering scorn they deserve.
As the film progresses, the celebration of change becomes more enthusiastic and Richard Hawley’s soundtrack rises up to meet the images as they move first into sound, then into colour and then into the modern age. From Piccadilly we move to Stephen Frear’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and from there it’s nothing but a heart-beat to Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane (2007) in which a Bangladeshi woman expresses heartfelt wonder at the idea that there might be different kinds of love… including the kinds that make you want to leave your husband.
The film concludes with images of Britain’s first gay marriages and Longinotto revisits the technique she used so effectively during the film’s opening: Images of happy gay couples kissing are juxtaposed with black and white images of men struggling not to touch each other in public as future-dream confronts past-nightmare and so the history of British film is re-invented as a history of progress, change, and development…. Of ideas born in the Victorian period and allowed to bloom only to for that process to be revisited for every group and every people. Love is change. Love is coming. Love is all.
The sense of change is particularly striking when you realise that, just as we have trouble making sense of a short film like “The Kiss in the Tunnel”, Victorians would genuinely struggle to understand works like My Beautiful Laundrette or the footage from Islington Wedding (2014): Who are the two gentlemen holding hands? Are they perhaps foreign dignitaries from a nation with a rainbow flag? Why did that navvy with the strange hair lick the neck of that Indian boy? I daresay 22nd Century audiences will look back at today’s works and experience a similar mosaic of alienation, recognition, charm and repugnance. So similar, yet so different.
Reminiscent of experimental documentaries like Martin Wallace’s The Big Melt and Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss, Love is All is a funny, moving and brilliantly thought-provoking exercise in non-linear documentary storytelling from a director who continues to surprise and delight.