Jack Chambers’ 80-minute The Hart of London (1970) is a sprawling, ambitious experimental film that combines newsreel footage of disasters, urban and nature imagery, and footage evoking the cycles of life and death. It is one of those rare films that succeeds precisely because of its sprawl; raw and open-ended almost to the point of anticipating the postmodern rejection of “master narratives,” it cannot be reduced to a simple summary, and changes on you from one viewing to the next.
Through the crushing banality of local television news images, we learn that a deer has wandered into downtown London, Ontario during the winter of 1954. After jumping the fences separating the city’s backyards, the deer is captured by local police. It is bound and placed in a cage made of storm fencing. A policeman pats it on the head. Then a man dressed as a hunter balances his rifle through the wires of the fence. We don’t actually see him pull the trigger.
We see it first in woods, then streaking through backyards and leaping a fence. There is a tension between the subdivided yards and the deer’s graceful movements: this animal was not made for rectilinear housing plots. Townspeople, not sure how to react, point to it, and the footage seems to be displaying the deer as some sort of spectacle, almost like an animal in a zoo. Officials chase, capture, and finally kill it, and its corpse is displayed too, for the camera.
The imagery seems inviting, but as one realizes it is created with the hart as spectacle, alive and dead, in mind, one is also repulsed. The hart is seen as a fleetingly-observed other; even mainstream nature documentaries do a better job of capturing the way animals look and move. The viewer feels at once attracted and pushed away.
The Hart of London combines archival newsreels with original footage while adding an undercurrent of simmering violence to the mix. Superimposing found images of a deer being trapped and killed in downtown London with antiquated images of the city in industrial transition (trolleys and automobiles share the street with horse-drawn carriages), Chambers re-creates an urban history that is original, expansive, and severe.
As a parallel to the thematic motif of the persecuted deer, Chambers introduces chilling colour footage of lambs being slaughtered (photographed on a return visit to Spain) at the film’s midway point. Chambers writes, “In the second part of the film [these slaughterhouse] images become symbolic of the pursuit and death of the deer. This theme is repeated again and again in the real images of everyday life.” These “real images” include several staged, mechanical spectacles (a teenager diving into an icy river, crowds gathering to observe a brush fire), as well as repetitive, banal daily activities (a man trimming his hedges, Chambers cutting his lawn).
The consistent tension generated and sustained over the course of its demanding length, without the aid of musical cues or voice-over exposition, demonstrates why The Hart of London is considered Chambers’ greatest cinematic achievement. Fred Camper, for instance, identifies The Hart of London as “one of those rare films that succeeds precisely because of its sprawl.”
Through the course of the film, man encroaches on nature from every angle. People emerge from underground transport, parachutes fall from the sky and bridges cross water. Even children make sand castles on the beach preparing for the next image of concrete buildings. In the final analysis, nature seems to confront London’s inhabitants as an enigma or threat. At the film’s very end, children (Jack Chamber’s own) approach a hart with food, and their mother whispers warnings; the animal as object, filmed from afar, suffers from a perceptual uncertainty. In the case of a dead wolf, its hunters turn it into their image and have it wave and greet their woman at home, like a man returned from the woods.
While man thrusts himself on the environment, containing it and turning it into his image, Chambers treatment of the filmed image creates a fracture between the filmed and the ‘film’. His jarring superimposition of positive and negative creates particularly interesting deployments of light. In the case of newsreel footage of a horse and cart ploughing the field, he overlays a positive and negative of the same image, and only a small time displacement between the images makes the superimposition readable.Whilst light in cinema creates image and thus life, here Chambers acknowledges this but pushes further asking what it is interpret and recognize, unlike the objective view as propagated by the newsreels he uses and subverts to this end.
Jack Chambers was born in 1931 and began work on The Hart of London in 1969, having been diagnosed with leukemia only shortly before. He died in 1978, struggling with his own care for nine years. He was a Catholic and a poet, and as an artist he secured a reputation as a critically acclaimed and financially successful painter. He began making films in 1966. The Hart of London was the last of five films made by Chambers, and despite the support for experimental film within Canada at the time of its making, remains sorely under-screened in both Britain and North America.
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