Lek and the Dogs Andrew Kotting (UK 2017) Xavier Tchili, written by Hattie Naylor and adapted by her from her stage play: Ivan and the Dogs.
Viewed: Star and Shadow Losing the Plot, 9th June 2018; ticket £5
Down in the mines
I was wondering why Andrew Kotting changed the title of Hattie Naylor’s stage play?
Nothing in the movie indicated any reason or motive: perhaps as a name Lek with its curt one syllable trips better off the tongue than Ivan. Movie stuff.
And that is what we get from Kotting’s film: movie stuff. A film filled out with images, defined by image, rather than defining or questioning image. A film where a large percentage of the footage is derived from archive sources.
Early in the movie after the title sequence there is a big wide shot of an arid expanse of land. In the distance we see a form approach, and as it comes nearer we can see that the form is a naked man on all fours. It is Kottin himself, who advances close to the camera, rises stretches and displays his physicality. He is man. At this early point in the movie we know the title of the film and we have seen Kotting as an artist in the flesh, in this one shot making a filmic statement that seems to claim a physical affinity with his subject.
The problem is that this claim is not sufficiently validated in the movie. Like a legacy hunter with an invalid claim to the title of a property, Kotting never gets to take somatic possession of Hattie Naylor’s play. Kotting in body abrogates responsibility for meaning and context of Lek’s situation. Kotting’s film banishes Lek to psycho-somatic exile, Kotting shifts the centre of the film from the physical to the abstract: from the body to archive footage. Kotting tries to solve the problem of how to represent Lek’s experience by mining generic archive material.
Generic archive in the form of bundles of images is imported into the film to supply it with an associative emotional commentary to parallel Lek’s experience. The spine of Kotting’s film comprises Lek’s acted out reading from the transcipts of the original cassette tapes he recorded. These pieces are intercut with the commentaries of expert witnesses, child and animal psychologists, who give their understandings of the what Lek would/might (?) have experienced during his two years living with Moscow’s wild urban dogs.
Kotting’s use of old film is a device to pull the wool over our eyes and fool the audience into thinking Kotting understands something: that he has solved the problem of finding meaning. The proposition in the use of multiple archive clips is, that a series of contiguous images can in themselves be invoked to represent something more than they are: not indexes but associative signs. Perhaps Kotting imagines it is poetic communication.
In short intense bursts some archive footage might have worked as a poetic flourish. But the problem with this form of expression is that it is exploitative. It exploits the same crude associative mechanisms used by the advertising/propaganda industry. Using film as a sign to invoke mental states (bombed out city reduced to rubble to suggest despair) exploits and manipulates the audience’s desire to understand as a mechanical connection. The viewer through strong signage is told what to feel, to connect an image with state of mind. This is exactly the same linkage as in adverts (or propaganda), with the only defence in Kotting’s case being that he is not trying to sell you anything other than his film and his philosophy.
When used as a particular pointing to a particular subject, as in Kapadia’s ‘Amy’, the archive material usually justifies itself. But over the last decade or so archive footage has become a highly valuable resource greedily acquired and exploited by interests of large media companies: Getty Images, Sony, BBC, Mary Evans. But generic use of archive increasingly suggests a sort of mining activity (akin in some ways to bit coin mining) digging deep into our celluloid and magnetic reserves to try and discover some rare jewel
Kotting’s Lek and the Dogs is to be admired for its ambition: to make a film that drifts out of the usually formulaic narrative structure. Ultimately his film does not deliver on its ambition. Its structure whilst making the film bearable by subdividing it into intertitled chapters, does not work as the propositions in the chapters remain opaque. And the delivery towards the end of the movie of Kotting’s justifying philosophy for choosing to make his film, is underwhelming and unconvincing.