Art for the hell of it
A long descent. Endless falling. These are the signal images in Western Deep and Caribs’ Leap, two films by Steve McQueen being screened in the Lumiere on St Martin’s Lane, an abandoned, subterranean 1960s cinema near Trafalgar Square in central London’s West End. Until the early 1990s the flagship arthouse movie theatre, the Lumiere is now just a void under a swanky new Ian Schrager hotel.
The cinema has always been Freud’s as much as Plato’s cave, a place of projections, lost things, shadows. The Lumiere auditorium is a buried amphitheatre, stripped back to raw concrete and crumbling cement, an empty arc of stepped ramp under a busted ceiling. This cinema is, in itself, already a powerful image. That McQueen’s two works here are themselves concerned with underworlds — the past and its persistence on the island of Grenada, and a journey two miles down into the deepest goldmine in the world, in South Africa — make this a perfect, eerie setting.
A big wall has been erected in the middle of the auditorium, both as screen and division. There’s another screen behind us, where the projection room should be. On the hour, and on these two screens, Caribs’ Leap is shown. On the smaller screen at the rear of the cinema day breaks in lemon light; dogs and goats roam the beach. The Caribbean’s towering clouds move in from the east and a boat rows across the screen. Guys hang around the dock, a man launches coconut-shell boats in a backwater, sailing nowhere.
The slow day goes by, a day of small waves slopping on the sand, everyday human activity. Towards the end of the film we visit a funeral parlour, the slowest place of all, and see the well-dressed dead in their shiny, lacquered coffins. The living come and go. And what we take for dusk is indistinguishable from dawn.
Every so often a man falls through the reflected sky, but never lands.
Caribs’ Leap is a film of collapsed time, of Grenada today and the memory of the mass suicide of the native Caribs, who in 1651 preferred to jump from the cliffs at a place now called Caribs’ Leap, rather than submit to the French, who bought the island for a pittance then drove them from their land.
Caribs’ Leap is a difficult work, perhaps not least because it draws so heavily on a history that is not necessarily apparent to the viewer. Its presence is insidious. McQueen’s family is from the island, and he decided to make the film after visiting the island for his grandmother’s funeral.
With it McQueen has attempted his most elegiac, subtle and perhaps most personal work to date.
On the half-hour, the doors are closed, and you move to the lower part of the auditorium where, suddenly, the cinema goes black. Total night. A terrible industrial clanking and rumbling. The walls and floor shake. We are descending. The Lumiere’s original screen is not so much blank, as recording lightless nothingness in the cage which takes the miners — and us — to the bottom of the shaft. There are occasional dim flashes — jerky red light illuminates part of a face, a hard-hat, the criss-cross shutters of the cage.
Where, in Kassel, McQueen’s work was shown in well-constructed but temporary viewing spaces, here we’re already underground, already buried.
Then a hissing of hydraulics, a further fall, silence. When I first experienced Western Deep (“saw” would be too limited a word) I almost expected that the film to consist only of this frightening descent, and that the terminus of the lift would also mark the end of the film.
McQueen’s earlier film work has often used the techniques of structuralist filmmaking, in which the mechanics and optics of shooting and projection of film not only provide the means by which the film is made, but also, in part, its subject. McQueen’s interest in the fundamentals of the act of filming has always included its staging, a preoccupation with how and where his films are shown and with the place of the audience, psychologically as much as physically.
This is where film as art, and Western Deep, get really interesting.
Instead of “taking you out of yourself” his films remind you of your own presence, in a particular space, engaging with the particularities of what is happening in the here and now of the cinematic experience. This, for McQueen, is film’s space, a place as much as it is a projected narrative. The periods of silence, the intermittent light, the camera burrowing into near-dark and illuminating glimpses of things that are very close, seen only partially, is itself close to what the workers in this mine experience every minute of every shift.
Western Deep, like so many of McQueen’s previous works, is concerned with the surfaces and textures and weight of things, not just what light and shadow reveal, but what light and shadow are in film, and what mysterious things happen when that light fails, or what happens when film — in this case hand-held Super 8 — tries to record what is at the limit of its physical, photochemical capacity to record.
This is but one strand of Western Deep. We do not see much of miners toiling with drills. We see a canal of black water, oily violet reflections, a patch of broken rock which, like the smudge on the wall of Leonardo’s studio, tricks us into inventing images out of nothing. What I see in the rock is a distant landscape, a place outside, space and light.
But what we see most is the daily life of the black miners; exhausted in their underground restroom, miners sitting in line and having their temperatures taken, the thermometer going from mouth to mouth after an anti-septic dip in a grubby enamel cup, and miners doing supervised, regimented exercises to the escalating rhythm of an insistent buzzer, red lights pulsing on and off.
This is extraordinary, almost inexplicable footage. Some of the workers flail about, barely able to stand, let alone step up and step down, one foot after the other, on the rows of low metal benches.
This life, the film implicitly tells us, isn’t just harsh, it is hell from beginning to end. What does working under two miles of rock do to the body, to the spirit? The goldmine is still owned and operated, according to the exhibition guide, by the company that ran it during apartheid, and nothing much here has changed. A few yards under the London streets, you feel the world’s compression, your own arrested fall. — Â