The Artist And The Wall Of Death


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Artist And The Wall Of Death
"Whilst it has the potential to be an interesting character study, it never gets that deep." | Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

The Glasgow Film Festival traditionally makes room for a film of three focused on the work of Scottish artists, giving something a little different the chance to shine, and this year it’s a documentary about the Glasgow-based Stephen Skrynka, a man who describes this strength as an ability to get by on very little and pour everything else into his art. Quite what form that art takes is very variable. The best part of this film is the early part, which explores some of his abandoned projects. A taxi in which the fare is paid not with cash but by putting on a performance for the camera brings out some fantastic moments, but unfortunately had to be dropped after he failed his test – twice. Another, involving shopping trolley races, seems to have been dismissed as too silly, but captures something quintessentially Glaswegian. No matter what they may tell you, few of the city’s residents have not, at one time or another, given it a try.

In lieu of these possibilities, the film focuses on Skrynka’s lifelong obsession with the wall of death. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this is essentially a circular structure, carefully reinforced, which allows motorbike riders to defy gravity by utilising centrifugal force to scale its walls and ride around them. First invented in 1911, it has been a popular attraction at various daredevil events and circuses around the world. Skrynka wants to reimagine it as some sort of stage, build one, and ride in it himself.

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If the first part of that sounds rather vague and the second part rather dangerous for a man with no relevant experience, you’d be correct on both counts. Skrynka does have the sense to seek out some training, but this mostly consist of getting shouted at a lot, and he doesn’t seems to learn much. Indeed, viewers may wonder how much there is to learn beyond how to ride in a circle very fast and not do anything (more) stupid – if we’re missing something here, the film does not enlighten us. At any rate, after picking up a few injuries, our hero begins to realise that this still undefined project could prove trickier that he imagined. Just when he’s on the verge of giving up, though, he discovers a 1980s Irish drama called Eat The Peach, which deals with a similar obsession, and decides to track down the men whose story inspired it.

What follows is a film about an artist who doesn’t know what he’s doing harrassing two retired men whose riding days are long behind them, and who alternate between a nostalgia-driven desire to contribute and a clearly expressed wish to be left alone. “What his real plan is I just don’t know,” says one of them, assuming that Skrynka has a plan. He asks a lot of everybody and no-one seems to get much in return. Inevitably, he has a go at building his own wall of death, with help from volunteers who are off work due to Covid furloughs. He is one of that crop of artists with ‘no money’ who always seem to be able to acquire cash when they really want it and seem unaware of, or undaunted by, the daily struggle for food and rent which many of their contemporaries face.

Why isn’t a wall of death a more commonplace thing to encounter? The answer ought to be obvious. It’s not the danger that’s the issue. It’s that after ten minutes of watching the motorbikes go round and round, there’s really nothing more to see. The same could be said of this film. Whilst it has the potential to be an interesting character study, it never gets that deep. it could have worked well as a short, but at feature length it drags, too much time spent on repetition and uninspiring landscape shots. As an art film, it lacks craft. As a film about daredevil motorcycle antics, it never really gets up to speed.

Reviewed on: 07 Mar 2023
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The unlikely story of a Glaswegian visual artist, Stephen Skrynka, and his dangerous life-long obsession with riding the 'Wall of Death', the traditional fairground motorbike attraction.

Director: Maurice O'Brien

Starring: Stephen Skrynka

Year: 2022

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: Ireland, UK

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