The King And I


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The King And I
"An astonishing piece of cinema."

The King And I is an astonishing piece, apparently originally conceived as a gallery installation but clearly and brilliantly evolving over time into an astonishing piece of cinema. Its subject is a legendary local, Edinburgh's New Town's Graham Croan Bee. Depicting a figure of almost classical import, the film uses a stretched aspect ratio and intermittent split screen and colour - perfectly painterly, probably denotable with some proper name that if you and I both were scholars of the same history of art would cause us both to nod and reminisce about some set of flowers recalled at some moment of leisure with a particular palette that class and circumstance had caused us both to consider, naturally, as beautiful - some shared understanding that we likely do not need because I have seen this film, once and a bit more, and you should.

Narrated by Fay Fife (of the Rezillos?) and inflected by poetry, talking of "the beautiful, in their fullness," self-reflexive to the extent that the film appears within itself, its subject watched, watching.

Winner of the first Hilton Earl Memorial Award at Glasgow's 2018 Short Film Festival, the consensus was with this winner the award was "off to a good start". Director Daniel Cook described the award as "a massive deal". Targeted at shorts made by those without access to conventional resource, the prize of £500 of equipment rental from sponsor Visual Impact is significant.

Catching up with Cook after the ceremony, Eye For Film was briefly able to ask about that striking aspect ratio, a topic that had come up in Q&A at previous screening. The environment in which Graham lives is so fascinating that the wider format allows for a more natural split screen, but original intent was for this to occupy a space other than cinemas. Over a year or more of filming the process became ever more performative, reaching a peak in the use of visual effects to add its subjects to the film of the same name, open shirt, bald head, and ostentation all. Cook's next project may well involve other communities, some shared personalities, but if he can bring even half of the focus and affect (and, indeed, affection) of this portrait it too will be a triumph.

That split screen, split focus - sequences given context by later viewing, even within the film - a lushness of colour and depth and willingness to drop names that starts with a Kyrie Eleison and works only a few rungs down that liturgical hierarchy, a pristine Sistine fullness, all of it tribute and testament to individual talent and a talented individual. Graham himself frequently asks "d'you understand?" and it's almost impossible to, not without context that even a short as long as half an hour and change can strive to provide, not without acknowledgements of bipolarity, of environment, of circumstance. Yet it's almost impossible not to - so compelling is the sense of place.

There was a single shot that was and was not a split screen, the red and slightly less in focus red of one side contrast to the not quite black of shadow on the other, and into this emerging subject, like realism injected into Rothko. It's one of many that feel less like photography than painting, or when they do feel like bare chemical capture of light do so performatively, ostentatiously, not snapped but breaking, vogue, not vague. There are other shots where subject and environment are differently depicted, life and traces of life simultaneous, parallel. It's a triumph, a treat.

One can talk about a year of three popes, see a plate carrying more than three eggs, the contrast of foo dogs and parfum, of mostly empty lager glasses in the snow, of dressing gowns and abandoned cakes, of colour and tone recalling prestige shoots for Vanity Fair, of an absence of bonfire, vain or otherwise, of the odd additional note of Fergus Cook's music, of structure that looks, of an avalanche of import and elision and reference and certain stones and registers that craft a particularly Edinburgian Umberto Eco chamber, of Melvyn Bragg and take-aways, of Teutons and Saigons, of spaghetti in the style of the pope, two shades of cardinal red.

Cook's next project might take him further north, might take him as long - this was certainly a worthy award winner, and we can only look forward to what he might do next. In this intermittent diptych something almost holy is achieved - consideration of the self in other contexts. Graham himself is art and artist, appreciator of art, part participant, and in whole and in place we are in Cook's film given a sense. There's something glorious in its not quite circularity, in its self-reflexivity, in reflection and abstraction. Bohemian may have negative connotations, but iconic carries proper weight. Art can represent in ways greater than mere representation, and this film does just that - the King And I creates something wonderful.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2018
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A fly-on-the-wall view of Graham's life and home.

Director: Daniel Cook

Starring: Graham Croan Bee

Year: 2017

Runtime: 32 minutes

Country: UK


GSFF 2018

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