sat 11/07/2020

DVD/Blu-ray: Minute Bodies - The Intimate World of F Percy Smith | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: Minute Bodies - The Intimate World of F Percy Smith

DVD/Blu-ray: Minute Bodies - The Intimate World of F Percy Smith

Offbeat BFI celebration of a pioneering cinematic miniaturist

'Minute Bodies': a meditation on the infinitesimal

F Percy Smith was a maverick film-maker whose most important work was created in a house in suburban Southgate, North London. Born in Islington in 1880, he joined the Quekett Microscopical Club as a teenager, all the better to pursue a healthy interest in “those members of the animal kingdom which have been for one reason or another neglected.” Initially, Smith used his microscope to create exquisite glass slides, moving into film making at the behest of Charles Urban, the influential producer of 1903’s still terrifying Cheese Mites short.

Several of Smith’s early films feature on this BFI release of his works. 1911’s The Strength and Agility of Insects repels as much as it amazes; shots of bluebottles lifting unfeasibly heavy objects whilst glued to tiny wooden chairs aren’t easy to stomach. Smith’s real genius lay in his techniques: germinating plants were filmed at one frame per hour, the improvised time-lapse equipment created with cocoa tins and string. A bath full of fish spawn or a mouldy patch of damp wallpaper would have been an opportunity rather than a problem for Smith, who managed to combine married life with film-making until his death in 1945.

Buy this for the bonus selection of Smith’s films

The best of the shorts retain their potent magic: 1910’s The Birth of a Flower still enthrals, as do the unsettling images of assorted fungi in Plants of the Underworld. The Life Cycle of a Newt, barely 10 minutes long, shows how sophisticated Smith’s later work had become, an enchanting blend of recreation, microscopy and simple animation. All so beautifully realised that you stop wondering how it was achieved and just revel in the images. One could very easily become obsessed with Smith’s work.

Which brings us to the main attraction: a 55-minute compendium of extracts from Smith’s work, selected and co-edited by musician Stuart A Staples, whose band Tindersticks provide the soundtrack. More art installation than coherent reassembly, it’s occasionally a beguiling piece of work, the woozy semi-improvised score (featuring both Ondes Martenot and nose flute) mellow and unsettling by turns.

But, shorn of narration and intertitles, Minute Bodies soon becomes a little frustrating. You wish that Staples’ "interpretive edit" would actually tell us what we’re looking at before jumping excitedly to the next clip. Viewed on a large screen, with live band, it would presumably be magical. Buy this for the bonus selection of Smith’s films. The BFI’s restored prints look marvellous, and the documentation is excellent. Essays by assorted historians and scientists bring the modest, charming Smith to life, and detailed notes are given for each of the short films.

More art installation than coherent reassembly, it’s occasionally a beguiling piece of work

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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