The Hart of London

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Jack Chambers.

By Fred Camper

Jack Chambers’s 80-minute film The Hart of London (1970), being presented this Saturday by Kino-Eye Cinema at the Chicago Cultural Center, is hardly ever screened; in fact, when I polled eleven local critics, curators, filmmakers, and academics interested in experimental film, only three of them had even seen it. Some viewers consider it a masterpiece, some give it mixed reviews, and some are merely baffled. I fell into the third category when I first saw the film, finding it disorganized and confusing, but on each successive viewing I’ve loved it. A sprawling, ambitious work that evokes the cycles of life and death by combining urban and nature imagery with newsreel footage of natural disasters, The Hart of London succeeds precisely because of its reach; raw and open-ended, it manages to interweave five or six grand themes in a way that makes them seem logically interrelated.

Speaking to writer Avis Lang (whose article is reprinted in a 1984 issue of the Capilano Review), Chambers said that The Hart of London is about “generation.” The filmmaker was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969, the year he began work on the film, which might explain its numerous disasters and frequent juxtapositions of life and death. But there are other major threads as well. Like many avant-garde films it explores objective versus subjective perception, and Chambers also suggests that all things are mystically unified by light. His theme that we’re alienated from nature is hardly novel, but it’s intertwined with a brilliant analysis of how news cinematography caters to the viewer’s voyeurism.

The London of the title is London, Ontario, where Chambers was born in 1931. As a young man he lived and studied in Spain, where he converted to Catholicism, before returning home in 1961, and after becoming well-known as a painter he took up cinema in 1964; The Hart of London is his fifth and last completed film. It begins with TV news footage of a hart that wandered into a suburban-looking portion of London in 1954. The hart streaks through backyards and leaps fences; there’s a tension between its graceful movement and the subdivided yards. Townspeople point at it, and the camera seems to regard it as some sort of spectacle. The hart seems a fleetingly observed other as it bounds across the rectangular parcels of land. Officials chase, capture, and finally kill it, and its corpse is displayed for the camera.

This alienation of humans from nature is particularly relevant to Canada. It has one of the planet’s largest areas of surviving wilderness, yet as a nation it tends to turn its back on nature, particularly in Ontario, its most industrialized province. Toronto is mostly cut off from Lake Ontario by high-rises, and the city’s ornate Victorian architecture has so little connection to the surrounding locale that in comparison the tackiest Chicago Prairie School knockoff looks magnificently ecocentric. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who knew Chambers and was an early advocate for his films, described London as “one of the grungiest, most uninteresting industrial towns imaginable.”

Every other major sequence in the film recapitulates the opening’s tension between nature and humanity. About midway through, Chambers juxtaposes two aerial shots: the first shows a few swimmers dispersed across a body of water, the image crisp and high contrast; the second, clearly news footage shot from a passing airplane, records a catastrophic flood, homes surrounded by water in lower-contrast gray. Later in the film, possibly staging a publicity stunt for news cameras, a young man swims across an icy river in winter, until he’s forced out and hustled into a van by police, captured just like the hart. Next Chambers shows victims of some sort of bombing or mine collapse being led from a hole in the ground, the newsman’s lens treating them not as humans but as just another parade for the viewer’s entertainment. In yet another sequence an extremely lush close-up fills the frame with leaves before a focus change reveals a pair of metal clippers trimming the plants; they emerge so gently that one has to wonder if our very conception of nature is shaped by our desire to alter it for display. Near the end of the film Chambers appears trimming his lawn with a power mower, and the rectangular lawns stretching out behind him remind us that we all play a role in carving up nature.

As part of his attempt to deal with the unruly sprawl of life, Chambers embraces contradiction. Perhaps the most dramatic example occurs when he cuts from black-and-white footage of a baby being born to color footage of lambs being slaughtered, the latter shot during a return visit to Spain. The Christian symbolism may seem blatant, yet by juxtaposing color with black and white Chambers startles the viewer, short-circuiting the most obvious interpretation. Writing in Artscanada in October 1969 and December 1972, Chambers described his work as “perceptual realism” and later “perceptualism”; his writings are dense and theoretical, but apparently he wanted to prolong the moment of perception before a person interprets what he sees, placing him in “a state of receptive passivity that somehow releases a higher…sense.” By opening himself up to such “wonder,” a viewer might be able to “perceive the Invisible Body ‘behind’ the world.”

An early script for The Hart of London included images of Christ descending from heaven, yet Chambers’s work also seems related to gnosticism, a connection one might infer from his statement that reality is “an invisible pattern of energy which in its attenuated, material form becomes trees, river, people, sky.” The Hart of London seems to set up a similar dialogue between objects and light: dense superimpositions occasionally bleach almost to white, which contrasts image as the container of a recognizable object with image as pure light. Many of the images are of London, including a man with a rifle (echoing the capture of the hart) and an imposing grid of windows from a downtown building. Trees may “attenuate” reality, but human constructions are even more severe.

Chambers aggressively managed his own medical care and lived until 1978, yet The Hart of London reveals a heightened awareness of human vulnerability in the face of nature–the sequence of Chambers cutting his lawn is followed by an aerial shot of stone ruins. And in the film’s penultimate scene, home-movie-style footage that Chambers shot himself, two deer stand by a fence in the London zoo; they aren’t wild, but Chambers’s two young sons approach cautiously while on the sound track their mother repeatedly whispers, “You have to be very careful.” They succeed in feeding the deer, and afterward Chambers pans from a river up to the sky, ending with a view of pure natural light. While Avis Lang takes these last two scenes as optimistic assertions that “the world is a miracle,” the whisper hints that the deer may be dangerous, and more than once the film’s editing has transformed benign activities into disasters. The world may be “full of wonder,” in Chambers’s phrase, but it also has the potential to kill us.