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The Ghost Paintings 1 - 4

James Clayden’s Ghost Paintings series, produced over the past 17 years, represents a bold and unique synthesis of film and video art. Carefully layered textures, colours and sounds become a sort of visual poetry that defies rational analysis, but that nevertheless invokes thought in the viewer.

“Clayden’s film and video work revels in mood, texture, fleeting association … (it) can be cryptic, but it wields an immediate, sensory impact.” — Adrian Martin

Digi Beta/col/2003/60 mins approx

Available on DVD

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Recommended by Masters of Cinema site as an overlooked film.


Making work on the ghost of a chance
by Adrian Martin
The Age, 18/09/2002

James Clayden, who is now showing both film and theatre works at La Mama, is an exemplary artist, reports Adrian Martin.

To see the best Australian film of the month, I found myself sitting with a handful of people at La Mama in Carlton last weekend. A screening of James Clayden's new, 15-minute video, The Ghost Paintings 2 followed a performance of his latest stage work, Macbeth X.

All of Clayden's pieces, whatever the medium, are interconnected. The original Ghost Paintings was made on Super 8, in 1986. One of the two remarkable actors in Macbeth X, Helen Hopkins, is also the lead in his feature film now in post-production, another Shakespearean project called Hamlet X.

Clayden's career is an irrefutable argument in favour of "interdisciplinary" forays, both in art and criticism, joining all the creative media.

He has been a major figure in Australian culture for almost 30 years, although I fear his public reputation does not yet match his achievement. Poet Kris Hemensley describes him as ``the total artist: a dramatist, performer, painter and film maker".

Those who seek out rare, specialist screenings of experimental work in Melbourne may have encountered key items in Clayden's filmography, such as his two-hour masterwork, Corpse (1982). This is a movie that deserves to be included in any international ledger of avant-garde classics. Some scrupulous digging in well-stocked video shops may even uncover his beguiling exercise in cop-thriller narrative, With Time to Kill (1987), which briefly surfaced commercially.

All of Clayden's dramatic pieces, whether on stage or film and video, convey the sometimes murky sense of a strenuously worked-over palimpsest. Various projects of his are alluded to within a single piece or, as in With Time to Kill, work of his contemporaries is absorbed into the collage.

Clayden's output in painting and drama is relatively regular.

His filmmaking aspirations, however, have met with less luck.

He developed various ambitious projects throughout the 1990s that, sadly, did not materialise. Although he once swore never to use video, the new, digital technologies have allowed him the means to slowly and cheaply realise Hamlet X over the past two years. The Ghost Paintings 2 reveals the fruit of Clayden's exploration of this technology.

While a stereophonic soundtrack weaves a sometimes disconcerting collage of spoken texts, ambient noises and musical fragments, a stream of mostly blurred, vividly coloured images shows bodies in states of suspension and stress.

In the '80s and '90s, commentators compared Clayden's film work with Andrei Tarkovsky, Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. His latest work evokes other reference points, including the Russian master Alexander Sokurov and the disquieting French film Sombre (1998).

Such inspirations are not always readily recognisable. Like everything in his work, they are crystallised and abstracted.

Clayden's film and video pieces revel in mood, texture, fleeting association. Indecipherable fragments of narrative and powerful moments of performance appear and disappear in a swirl of shapes and colours. The energy of the editing is palpable.

Clayden's highly poetic film and video work can be cryptic, but it wields an immediate, sensory impact. He has often spoken of his desire to "undo the layers of the physical world" in order to uncover the "essential form".

The same goes for his theatrical work. Macbeth X uses only two figures in a sparse set mostly illuminated (in Meg White's boldly minimalist lighting design) merely by a few candles.

Clayden reduces Shakespeare's text down to its essential elements and motifs: murder, guilt, a sense of being haunted. In short, the very same motifs that have long preoccupied Clayden, never resolving themselves in a conventional catharsis, but forever churning around and around.

Suggesting a radical extension of Tom Stoppard's games in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Clayden banishes all overt action off-stage. In a brilliant touch, he even eschews any trace of a knife or blood in the production, leaving only a humble glass of water to evoke the traumas of washing out that "damned spot".

Blood is displaced from bodies, evoked only in the red sheets of fabric adorning the set and a single, piercing red spotlight bathing the performance's final tableau.

Hopkins and Kevin Hopkins carry off a difficult performance ask with admirable intensity and precision. They are less the familiar characters of Macbeth than vessels for a diverse collage of texts, ranging from Shakespeare lightly re-jigged to dream visions penned by Clayden. Often the performers do not directly interact, but rather form a dual pattern comprised of sounds and gestures.

Clayden's production is multi-layered, but does not present itself as an intellectual puzzle. As much as he requires us to listen and ponder, he also asks us, like his actors, to engage, at a moments notice, with the primal, emotional intensity of this pared-down drama. This is the mythic level that grounds Clayden's art.

The La Mama audience, settling into its seats for this play, may have been surprised to hear a sprightly tape of Stephen Sondheim classics. This seemingly incongruous, comic touch turns out to be crucial to the production. Clayden's recent discovery of Sondheim (three decades ago, Last Year at Marienbad director Alain Resnais had the same life-changing experience) compelled him to include a form of direct address to the spectator at the start and end of Macbeth X. This technique provides a safe path in and out of the infernal psychodrama of Macbeth and his Lady.

But it also returns us to the essential, chilling pessimism of much of Clayden's work, the sense that we are all actors thrashing around inside an eternally recurring, inescapable nightmare. The title Macbeth X suggests, at the base of this performance, a rewriting of Shakespeare, a text that has been heavily revised, "crossed out".

I was reminded of how French film maker Leos Carax impulsively and mysteriously titled his adaptation of Herman Melville's novel, Pierre, Pola X (1999), not because his heroine was named Pola, but because the cover of his script contained the initial letters of the French title of Meville's novel (Pierre ou les ambiguities) plus the numeral X, indicating his tenth draft.

Like many experimentalists abroad (such as Werner Schroeter in Germany and Carmelo Bene in Italy), Clayden's impulse to chop up the Bard's text, redistributing its lines and juxtaposing them with other material, is not anarchistic, but, paradoxically, reverential.

He seeks to connect with the heart of Shakespeare's drama and reinvent it within the terms of his own artistic universe.

Clayden's adaptation is violent, but it possesses its own purity. And it is that challenging combination of violence and purity, long a hallmark of Clayden's work, which his fans now eagerly await in his digital film of Hamlet X.

Rotterdam International Film Festival - Catalogue note

The Ghost Paintings 1 & 4

Short: Fragments - ghosts - of uncertain stories dissolve into beautifully electronic abstraction - visual ghosts - Francis Bacon style.

Two sections from a four part work, each able to stand alone. Each is an intense exploration combining fragments of an encounter between characters in a narrative we cannot fully grasp, and shards of dialogue with images of people, interior spaces and locations pushed by the possibilities of digital technology to the point of abstract forms. Meanings rise to the surface and disappear, hints of emotional turmoil between the three or four actors dissolve into moments of painterly beauty, almost as if inspired by a Francis Bacon painting. And the analogy is not inappropriate as these characters also seem to be trapped in space and in existential dilemmas that we cannot fully fathom, just as are Bacon's twisted figures.

Rotterdam Recommendation 2004 by Adrian Martin

James Clayden is an innovative artist based in Melbourne who has worked in theatre, film and painting for over thirty years - and yet he is still one of Australia's best kept artistic secrets. But this situation is at last beginning to change, all over the world, now that he is showing his recently completed cycle of four short films called The Ghost Paintings. Parts 1 and 4 of this remarkable, haunting, rich series will be screening in Rotterdam this year.

The Ghost Paintings were begun in 1986 on Super 8 film, and have been continued in more recent times in the new and liberating medium of digital video. Although drawn to the somber and contemplative edge of the avant-garde tradition, Clayden is unique in the way he draws influences from figures as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Andrei Tarkovsky. Although he has always stayed true to his own vision, his style now seems as contemporary and cutting-edge as that of the French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux (Sombre).

Clayden mixes cryptic fragments of narrative with a bold, pictorial abstraction and a soundtrack mix that is at once disorienting and seductive. Part 1 gives us a glimpse of narrative: as often in Clayden's work, it is an ambiguous fragment of menace and dread, of possible sexual violence, a violation of solitude. By the time of Part 4, we have plunged deeply into fragmentation and blurry abstraction, where everything is cryptic but charged with the residues of feeling.

Clayden's work with actors is special. Brilliant Australian actors such as Helen Hopkins and Tom Wright are called upon to create non-psychological but intense performances. They become pure human beings, flashes or incarnations of painfully contradictory emotional states: ecstasy, despair, perplexity, rage.

Clayden has often spoken of his desire, through art, to strip away the inessential and pierce to the pure heart of things. These Ghost Paintings chew up pieces of classic literature, grand mythology and the daily atrocities reported in the news, in order to arrive at crystalline pictures of doubt and angst.

And the good news is that Clayden, more productive than ever, has almost completed his new feature film, an experimental version of Hamlet using the same hands-on technology as The Ghost Paintings, working with the same actors, and going deeper than ever into his challenging, arresting style of audiovisual collage. This is already a recommendation for Rotterdam in 2005!

© Adrian Martin, January 2004