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Anne Rees Mogg

By Nick Wadley

1. The Time of Her Life

Building a house of cards is a motif that appears more than once in Anne Rees-Mogg's films.

The cards are photographs of heads. Faces of family. Her films use all manner of repetition and juxtaposition to make us aware of continuities of time and of family which outlive the collapse of the house of cards.

It was relatively late in her life that she discovered the camera and film-making, and in a sense all of her films were part of a continuing experimental workshop, of techniques transparently learned, invented and shared. They reflect her inquisitive, amused mind and particularly her curiosity about time and concepts of timelessness.

The pervasive strain of memory throughout her work contrives to outwit time through the act of documentation - as if the process of recording and re-enacting of people and places, changing and unchanging, rescues their passing from any sense of loss or regret. Apart from occasional, autograph celebrations of the ridiculous, the style and mood of the films are unemotional. The title of her first substantial film, Real Time (1974), is a pun on this duality, and we are constantly reminded of reel-time. In the opening sequence, a rare bit of synch-sound, she asks on camera, "Is real time film time?" and concludes, stretching the pun into new fields, "perhaps real time is the time of our lives?"

The subject of her films is both film-making and autobiography. These are not natural bedfellows, but between them touch on some prevalent concerns of progressive film-making of the 60s and 70s: film-as-film; the hand-held camera and home-movie aesthetics; the film as a personal journal. She was in touch with underground movies, as they were known then, on both sides of the Atlantic, and a friend of some of the leading protagonists. She would invite them to talk about their work at Chelsea Art School. So any slightest temptation, implicit or from anywhere else, to see her work as essentially a na ïve activity is misguided.

2. Intimates

Nevertheless, the family private-ness of her films does build something of a wall around them.

All of the players in her films are her intimates - family, friends, students, the collections of things that surrounded her. Coupled with the on-the-face-of-it artless manner of her films, this personal intimacy was strikingly at odds with the largely formalist aesthetic abroad in the art world, and, most relevantly and locally, in the Painting School at Chelsea. The solitary position that Anne maintained - often under fire from the fine art department, and from which she taught and supported a generation of film-making students, was a courageously original endeavour.

In the last important film before her death, Grandfather's Footsteps (1983), she clearly relishes his diary entry in praise of "this wonderful age when man who has talent communicates it for the benefit of others - philanthropy, art exhibitions, the industrial schools and so on. Endeavouring to instruct others in the matters of amusement and science". And when she recognises that the range of activities and practical investigations of this Victorian clergyman, who was actually her great-grandfather, and all that they meant to him, would have been considered a mere amateur hobby-horse beside the high art of the mainstream Victorian artists of his time, it's not difficult to see her likening this to her own reputation among 'the boys' club', as she called the Chelsea painters. She was the same sort of outsider as her ancestor.

Anne started teaching at Regent Street Polytechnic in the late 1940s, soon after graduating (in Painting) at the Central School of Art. When the Regent Street art school merged into the new Chelsea School of Art around 1960 (under Lawrence Gowing), she taught within the newly introduced 'general studies', including a course on colour, theory and practice. We became friends at this time; she came to all of my 1962-63 foundation art history lectures. I remember her delight once with a Degas quotation I found for her, defining painting as the art of surrounding one colour to make it look like another . It became one of her exercises.

3. Conjuring Tricks

Then, one summer, she borrowed a 16mm camera, and found her medium for life.

Her first film was Nothing is something (1966), a simple silent 10 minutes, spent watching spectrums of colour on bubbles floating on a blue sky or expanding into a delicate crystalline structure, and then the moiré effects of petrol on moving water, and finally rainbow reflections from her collection of cut glass decanter stoppers. 'One thing follows another in all my films', she said once, 'like threading beads on a string'.

The film's aesthetic delights mirror her tastes for futurist painting, Balla especially, and for Victoriana, but as a genre of film-making, it didn't really satisfy her, 'too much like painting'. The only other film she made as a simple, pictorial demonstration like this was Muybridge Film (1975). A homage to one of her heroes, it is already more characteristic in its form as conjuring trick. She filmed a simple action, took it apart, shuffled its order and its speeds, and then re-projected it as a mime of its ancestor. But there is no magic about the trick in the sense that she spells out every step. It's both celebration and handbook.

A couple of other films that she made in the years between these two contained elements that were to become central to Anne's mature oeuvre: the autobiography; her self-conscious attention to the real time of film-making; her use of words.

One (1969), a 15 minute silent film, watches a solitary girl alone in the landscape, lying in the grass watching, climbing trees, pushing through dense undergrowth. The film is colour-coded. When we watch her, everything is a tinted-monochrome; when we watch what she is watching, the colour is natural. The tint was originally blue, I'm told, but has reddened with age, and now orchards and cornfields are dyed in a crimson monochrome redolent of (her own?) idyllic, lost childhood, melancholy in its solitude. The opening and closing motif is a solitaire board.

4. Lengths of Time

A length of time (1970/71) is an affectionately indulgent 20 minute black and white film about Anthony Bruegger, Anne's nephew.

This is an adolescent monologue/journal, which celebrates the moment when the 20-year-old first feels able to stand up and say 'this is me', including footage of his first euphoric stock-car race.

Between these early films and Grandfather's Footsteps (1983), there were three substantial, half-hour, films which Anne regarded as a trilogy. They are Real Time (1974), Sentimental Journey (1977), and Living Memory (1980).

Real Time is the most densely autobiographical. Of all her films, this is where her obsessive delving through the family looking-glass most literally determines the form of the film. There are subtitled sections: a flicker-book chronology of her photographed image; a reconstructed childhood scene; sections on family likeness, images of her mother and her father, and then [after a mock television interlude of kittens eating], a relaxed road-movie sequence which suddenly opens into an important soliloquy. Sentimental Journey is a scripted seminar and collaboration with some of her students, proposing definitions for the making of a film, and gathering its ingredients by anecdotes, visual and verbal. Living Memory is a physical journey variously by light aircraft, car and foot, circling the landscape of her family home. It is built around (in her own words) 'a ragbag of quotations', another threading of beads on a string. The importance to her film-making of words, in many different forms, gathers momentum through the three films, and in this and other senses Grandfather's Footsteps forms a fourth part.

From this main body of her (unfinished) work, we can build some idea of the poetic form of film-making she envisaged, and of the mind and philosophy behind it.

5. Loose Ends

I find it difficult sometimes to determine whether imperfections, of sound or focus, for instance, which seriously disturb my reading of the films, are the product of shoe-string resources, of self-conscious strategies, or of a laid-back, improvisatory attitude that accepted everything, on principle.

She certainly left loose ends; voice-over comments of all sorts hang in the air. The deterioration of colour in the film is a fact of life, and of passing time, that she would of course have accepted. The significance of words is so often loaded that we must assume deliberate editing always. Choice of songs is important - 'If I had a talking picture of you' and 'Sentimental Journey' - as is the age of the recordings. In an illegibly crackly (First World War?) song on the soundtrack of Real Time, the only audible words are 'a song that will linger forever in our ears'.

It's the same with spoken words. They don't always declare their intention. Some voices just fade out of earshot in mid-sentence. Starting instructions and clapper-board sequences are often left in, as is cursing when something has gone wrong. In one road sequence we hear 'Do you want to time this? Have you got a watch?' 'No I haven't'. Improvisations are accepted, for better or worse. In Real Time, the two young nieces argue about the word analogy until one of them insists 'an analogy is a thing, where things are not the same, but it's more or less like the thing, but in a different time'. Anne accepted it, of course. In Living Memory, during the incoherence of the walk across fields - where scripted words mingle with impromptu talk of the film-making crew - someone mocks Anne: 'You're not going to have one of those awful home-movies where sound and image don't match, are you?' 'Yes', she answers, 'just like that.' 'You always did hang out with the young', a voice-off comes back.

Self-mockery was one of Anne's life strategies, and there's a good deal in the informality of the making. You glimpse it in the titles and credits. She had a gift for the pun and the rebus, and a child-like appetite for the ridiculous. The inane camera movements in a 3-minute short of 1983, Macbeth a Tradgedy [sic] are reminiscent of the Goons' obsession with the inconsequential, and in other places there are echoes of Richard Lester's short film Running Jumping & Standing Still (1960). Her taste for punning epigrams, visual and verbal, also reflects her attachment to Victoriana. She collected tricks, toys, puzzles, illusions and gadgets. Another late short, Welcome (1983) is full of them, celebrating her great-grandfather's equating of 'amusement and science'.

6. Real Time

Looked at again in the light of what her films are about, all these casually improvised qualities can appear less amateurish than calculated, polemic almost.

Look again at Real Time. The second half is a car journey (Anne driving, camera in the passenger seat) from London down to Somerset on the M4. ('I love that clock', Anne says on the way out of London, 'a landmark to the West.') The film of the drive is framed at each end by a short clip of saturated red poppies waving in the breeze, not just roadside poppies as some commentaries suggest: to Anne's generation who grew up in World War II, the red poppy is - by instinct - a memorial flower, symbolic of death and sleep.

After long droning stretches of empty motorway (those were the days), Anne's long, off-camera soliloquy recalls a moment near death, when she was in hospital with an undiagnosed gallstone problem. Reluctantly agreeing to surgery, she recognised the possibility that she might not survive. There follows a revelatory liberation - from her Catholic upbringing, from mundane cares, from mortality even. She experienced "my own immortality, an immortality outside time… just this connected, shining, perfect, continued consciousness, like a small bright bead of almost nothing… Deeply comforted, I prepared to live or die with equal equanimity."

After a long silence, and a reprise of the poppies, the disembodied recorded voice of Anne's mother talks of her memory, full of people and sunshine, while we look ahead at the west-bound road and the landscape. Then silence, more poppies and the song, 'if I had a talking picture of you'. The car crosses the river towards Somerset and the Rees-Mogg family home at Temple Cloud. 'Going west, back to childhood, back to death' Anne says. After the credits, earlier home movie footage of a Lagonda automobile completes the journey, in black and white, with Anne-as-child in the passenger seat, past the lodge where she still spends half her time, up the drive to the big house. This stitches together more than the two halves of the film.

7. Living Memory

The stitching also joins up with the words she chose from Eliot's poem 'Ash Wednesday' for Living Memory (1980).

'Because I do not hope to turn again… why should I mourn the vanished power?... Time is always time, and place is always only place. And what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place'. And, finally: 'Because I do not hope to turn again, I rejoice that things are as they are, and I rejoice having to construct a thing upon which to rejoice'. It's hard to imagine a sermon text more made to measure.

It also joins hands, three years later, with the significance of walking in her Grandfather's Footsteps, and with her sensing 'a timelessness in my affinity with him'. Beside the unchanging Somerset landscape in Anne's films, with its cows and cornfields, and the continuous threads of family likeness and shared values - beside all these things, the transience of Eliot's 'actual' is exposed. Maybe we should recognise the survival of all the accidental, casual and imperfect moments that litter the films as evidence, proof even of this transient actual time, everyday blemishes that confirm the timeless by contrast? And the deadpan definition of things that runs like a ritual throughout her work suggests that these things, too, are passing incidents in a continuum, with no more meaning than their description. This includes the people as well, of course. 'Life's but a walking shadow', Macduff reminds us in Macbeth a tragedy. The fleeting glimpse of eroticism in A Length of Time (1970) is best understood as a lament for the transience of the flesh. Later in the same film, Anthony as a child running across a field with a butterfly net cuts to his grandmother walking through the same field with a stick.

For those who knew Anne, the films are powerfully nostalgic, but they contain means to meet the emotion with equanimity. The emotional impulses, like us who experience them, are just more beads on the string, things in the time of Anne's life.

Nick Wadley, August 2008

Nick Wadley's 20+ years teaching at Chelsea School of Art coincided precisely with Anne Rees-Mogg's time there, and from 1970 she taught in his department. He writes about art and makes drawings, often for other writers.

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