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Ian Breakwell
In an episode of his 'Christmas Diary', which focuses on the long-vanished Hengler's Circus in Glasgow, Breakwell comes unusually close to a manifesto: 'my circus – is a custard pie in the eye of that normal, rational, repressive world in which everything has its proper place – the rabbit in his burrow and the top hat on the businessman's head'.

It is no coincidence that, in trying to explain his project, Breakwell reaches for an image from the magician's repertoire: his work is suffused with allusions to the circus, music hall, fairground, pantomime, magic and illusion.

His most recent film, Variety, takes its name from the variety theatre tradition, which encompasses all of these. Variety constitutes a direct return to some of the preoccupations of Breakwell's own early films. Produced during a residency in the National Film Archive, while Breakwell was researching a gallery show, the film consists of of twelve short, unconnected episodes made from manipulated footage of early variety performers. If there are echoes of Repertory, with its affection for a vanishing theatrical tradition, there are even more suggestive affinities with 9 Jokes (1971). Like Variety, 9 Jokes is constructed of unconnected episodes, like a variety bill, each with their own title; and at times, the later film seems even to unconsciously recapitulate moments of the earlier one - the 'swallow' section of Variety, in which the camera seems to disappear into a performer's mouth, recalls the 'Gulp' section of 9 Jokes, with its close-up of a bobbing Adam's apple. What really connects them, however, is a strong sense of the avant-garde qualities of some performers in the despised genres of 'low' comedy (another preoccupation Breakwell shares with the Surrealists). Whether it is a pantomime horse emerging from behind a bush and trotting into a field (9 Jokes), or footage from a sitcom about a henpecked husband edited into a staccato series of slaps (Variety), Breakwell relishes the absurdity which audiences once readily accepted and laughed at as entertainment, but which now, in its very datedness, seems enigmatic and even sinister.

Breakwell sees parallels, too, between the strain of variety humour and performance art. As he puts it, 'I like novelty acts, I like the absurdity of someone who can do just one very odd thing. I love that, because they're very close some of them to the absurdity of Dada or Fluxus.' This is particularly evident in 9 Jokes, which is effectively a series of one-liners - for example, in 'Yes / No' where a man and a woman argue silently, he sticking his tongue out to reveal a painted 'yes', she closing her eyelids to reveal 'no'.

Breakwell's approach to the tradition has not remained constant, however. One very noticeable difference in Variety is that the sense of variety as a dead tradition is much stronger, and there is a concomittant attention to the defects and deterioration of the footage that records its original practioners. Whereas 9 Jokes was really a conceptual piece and not especially concerned with the material of film, as other contemporary Co-op films were, Breakwell's time in the archive brought out a hitherto well-concealed interest in materialist film practice. In the 'swallow' section already mentioned, in which the camera disappears down a man's gullet, the black of the inside of the mouth seems to swarm with film grain, as if the viewer were at the same time being brought closer to the surface of the film itself; in fact, Breakwell created the effect by sampling the grain from other bits of the film and grafting them into the monstrous mouth. In this way, Variety is as close to contemporary works like found-footage artist Bill Morrison's recent film Decasia (2001) - a kind of symphony of decaying film - as to Breakwell's own work of the past.

Section of film strip from nine Jokes by Ian Breakwell, 1971
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