Sunday, 18 July 2010

Understanding "Girls"

When the postal service took delivery of Harley Byrne’s one and only documentary for them, shot in Manchester in the Spring of 2012 and edited from his hospital bed over the subsequent weeks, they quickly decided to lose it. Far from the portrait of a robust but alienated local population that they had sought, the commissioning body perceived Byrne’s vision of the girl gangs it represented as nihilistic and self-reliant; doomed, yes, but preferring a fate concocted by the arbitrary forces of nature to security under the patronage of state or corporate powers. Where was the letters-to-mum narrative device Byrne had agreed to structure the film around? Where, indeed, were the teenage girls Byrne had originally identified as his subjects – and who were these twenty-something imposters in pig-tails and moonboots?

As a consequence of none of this having happened yet, these questions have not yet been asked. The flawed clues dredged back from the future for us at L’Institute Zoom’s Future Films department being fragmentary at best, our own questions today may go unanswered. Much of what is written here is wrong. The prehabilitation of Girls Of Unfortunate Climes (a.k.a. Icy Video@Abel’s Vagina) over the next two weeks will only cause more problems.

Firstly, it has been asserted that Byrne shot the documentary on a shed-built “one-man filmmaking machine – a contraption to record and re-interpret the spirit of a given subject rather than to reproduce light on film or pixels”. How, then, are we to pre-interpret the mess of visual textures that “Girls” presents? A typical scene features a Mancunian underpass, badly exposed on grainy celluloid; across the shot dances a ‘teenage’ girl in an anachronistic spacesuit – however, her image has a pixelated, apparently digital patina and her shadow is out of sync. A crude silhouette of roadside foliage in the foreground fails to distract the viewer from the sense that these images have been composed from separate sources. Is this documentary? Would it encourage you to buy stamps? What (if any) of this is real?

Secondly, Byrne himself had it that his machine would not reproduce photographed light, but rather record the spirit of events and fabricate them into a movie using entirely new light: it was not a camera. Yet close analysis of the mobile ‘shot’ that leads us up Abel’s Vagina (as a certain stretch of the Princess Parkway is colloquially termed) suggests that Byrne’s recording device was mounted to the handlebars of a postal worker’s bicycle. Would this be appropriate for such a device as Byrne describes, netting “spirit” rather than photons? Perhaps - but it seems unByrneian. He was never a cyclist, opting for the reassurance of feeling his feet against the ground. (He never learned to drive, and would change the subject when the question came up in conversation.) He preferred to work alone, but could there have been a second documentarian, on a bike? If so, what happened to him when the girls took Byrne captive?

Thirdly, did Byrne have permission to film the girls – and if so, who did he negotiate this with? It seems to me, from what little Byrne’s film actually teaches us about the “Girls”, there are three possibilities:

1. For Byrne to have got close enough to study them satisfactorily he would have needed their permission. We see that they are highly territorial and willing to kill in bloods cold through hot. Given the deferent adulation the gang show towards their apparent leader, Ms. Selena Jolly, the decision would surely have been her call. She can be seen manipulating the dramatic/aesthetic effects of the gang’s behaviour in Byrne’s presence. Indeed – even allowing for the impaired judgement of the bereaved – it is only in Ms. Jolly’s absence (through death) that the remaining girls turn on Byrne.

2. Byrne was unable/chose not to gain permission, captured the “spirit” of events from a distance and embellished/structured the material according to his own sensibilities and background knowledge, if any. The girls, after all, had footage enough of their own from their perpetually reeling camera-phones, and hardly need engage with a square like Byrne.

3. The whole thing was made up.

It seems best to proceed – both with this essay and the project at large – from the first assumption. We can see where that leaves us afterwards.

Fourthly, the girls of the title all die violently at the end. So how did they post-dub their dialogue? Did Byrne fabricate their deaths in the name of “spiritual” unity? Predict the trouble and have the dialogue pre-dubbed? Have a cast of female hospital staff fill in the gaps at his bedside? Is the effect of badly-synced dialogue merely a misleading technical glitch, a side-effect of Byrne’s peculiar recording techniques? The answers are out there – or not.

Fifthly, the girls brutally murder a policeman – for kicks. Notwithstanding the suggestion that the victim might not be an authentic officer – may instead be a civilian in costume, seeking his own thrills – how are we to understand Byrne’s standing by to coldly capture the event for his film? Was he afraid he would suffer the same fate should he become involved? Hardly – although he no doubt entertained himself with self-defence scenarios in the quiet moments that followed. Rather we should see Byrne as a creature of the street, whose self-preservation instincts were more than matched by an animal indifference to (or acceptance of) the toil and tragedy of a natural world to be found at work with the same cruel innocence in the tangles of the human mind-brain and the bramble bush.

Sixthly, I am not at liberty here to go into depth concerning the “thought virus” that can pass from a mobile phone to human brain, but suffice to say that although Byrne found the idea “a little cognitive” he thought it best to play safe.

Seventhly, the most convincing shots we have recovered of the original “Girls Of Unfortunate Climes” are those featuring the primitivist Lonely Girls gang. These fantastic beasts are generally seen apparently filmed on location (as opposed to the cut-and-paste edit suite trickery of the Space Race scenes). The ostensible use of a long lens lends – on a superficial level – the illusion of authenticity, as the Lonely Girls understood the taking of their image as a provocation: Byrne would need to stand well back with his camera. But Byrne didn’t use a camera. Unless the laws of “spirit”, in the context of Byrne’s spirit-capturing, light-producing, filmmaking contraption, happened to coincide with those of optical physics, surely this long-lens aesthetic was a contrivance added by the so-called “purist” Byrne to evoke the distance he was forced to keep from the Lonely Girls. Didn’t such artifice die with the “noddy”?

Eighthly, hospital records suggest that - aside from the obvious violation – the main physical damage Byrne suffered was the scraping of his face against the gravel as he was dragged across the underpass having been rendered unconscious by Ms. Eve Witherspoon. The use of the phrase “brave, ruined face” in the Future Films blueprint should probably be considered a rare and decadent instance of poetic flair on the part of the engineer who drew it up. However, if the documentary is to be trusted, he was certainly in no state to continue production of it, and the remainder of the film (at least as far as the somewhat perfunctory coda) must be attributed to the spirit-capturing device having been left running (which rather devalues Byrne’s former presence as cinematographer).

Ninthly, although Byrne was rather snappy with the written word itself (claiming, oddly, to have “read more than you’d think”) he didn’t always follow the meaning of certain types of words when they were organised around each other in sentences – particularly sentences of a scientific flavour, given his long-held assumption that scientific knowledge comes free with genetic memory and shouldn’t require further development. This being the case, and yours truly being no expert in weather of the future, perhaps we should consider his description of the fate of the Girls of Unfortunate Climes in terms of his status as layman eye-witness: where once there was acid rain, in post-communication age Manchester ‘information rain’ falls instead – and you don’t want to get it on your shoes.

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