Iain Sinclair – 70×70 – Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films
Reviewed by David Turpin
Labelled by its author as a “novel of delicious fragments” and a “cubist self-portrait assembled from unreliable evidence”, Iain Sinclair’s 70×70 – Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films might be more prosaically described as the accompanying book for a season of 70 films programmed by Sinclair to mark his 70th birthday. Sinclair being a product of the British avant garde and – perhaps along with Peter Ackroyd – the preeminent “psychogeographer” of London, 70×70 was no ordinary film season, and it is no more conventional in book form. In addition to cataloguing the 70 programmed films, the book records the screening events themselves, held in a variety of venues and special locations across London, presenting transcripts of Sinclair’s introductions, as well as collaborative contributions from Alan Moore, Chris Petit, Colin MacCabe, Barrie Keeffe, Gareth Evans and Andrew Kötting.
Sinclair’s lucid and revealing commentary provides a fascinating perspective on his selected films, all of which relate, in some way, to his own writing career. Familiar films are re-framed in intriguing ways, while more obscure pieces are given equal weighting. For many – particularly those who did not have an opportunity to attend any of the screenings – the most exciting aspect of 70×70 will be the programme itself, which takes up a little under a third of the book. Plenty of familiar titles dot the pages, from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) to Douglas Sirk’s fantastically florid Written on the Wind (1956) – always a welcome addition to any programme.
European greats such as Fassbiner (Berlin Alexanderplatz), Godard (Le Mépris, King Lear), Rossellini (Stromboli), Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) and Polanski (Cul-de-sac) are all present and correct, as are pivotal American filmmakers of the later 20th century, including John Cassavetes (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie) and Sam Peckinpah, who is represented somewhat controversially by his often dismissed Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). A range of films with specific relevance to London are included, ranging from John Brahm’s Patrick Hamilton adaptation Hangover Square (1945) to John Mackenzie’s gangster classic The Long Good Friday (1980) to Derek Jarman’s uncompromising The Last of England (1987). The latter, a coruscating critique of Thatcher’s Britain, is particularly interesting in this context for its relationship to Sinclair’s Downriver (1991), one of his best known novels, which envisages the UK under the rule of a grotesque Thatcher caricature named The Widow.
All of these films, of course, are widely known. For many, the real thrill of 70×70 will be that of discovery, as Sinclair’s selection extends to less widely available pieces as diverse as Stan Brakhage’s startling 1971 experimental film The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, which calmly records autopsy procedures, to John Smith’s Hackney Marshes, a documentary commissioned by Thames Television in 1977 that captures the lives of those inhabiting the eponymous London tower blocks. Sinclair himself was involved in the making of a number of the films, including a pair of collaborations with Chris Petit, 1992’s The Cardinal and the Corpse and 1998’s The Falconer.
70×70 is not a book that cries out to be read cover to cover in a single sitting. Highly personal as well as the product of a great deal of expertise, it’s a book that rewards exploration, perhaps in the form of a series of visits and repeat visits. Following Sinclair’s thread, one can’t help but feel occasional disappointment that not all these films are easily accessible. For now, though, his fragmentary and fascinating companion volume is no small compensation.
Find out more about Iain Sinclair here.