The Whalebone Box review – so strange it must be true | Film

Reviewing Andrew Kötting’s Lek and the Dogs in this paper in 2018, I compared his work (which straddles installations, performances, books, films and music) to “a steamy midden of ideas”, an earthy concoction into which we are invited to dig deep. His latest offering is more like a dream – or rather a conjunction of dreams, occupying that liminal space between waking and sleep (“half one thing, half the other”) where the land meets the sea, past meets present, and lo-fi home-made cinema brushes against something sublime. As with so many of Kötting’s films, the central conceit involves a journey – a quest apparently undertaken to restore the titular artefact to the place of its making in the Outer Hebrides, and thereby cure an amorphous “unwellness”. I have no idea how much of what is documented here is “true”; suffice to say that it all feels profoundly truthful.

We’re told that the whalebone box was made over 30 years ago (“it belonged to another time, another place”) by sculptor Steve Dilworth, who fashioned it from the skeleton of a whale that washed up on the Isle of Harris. Tied with the twine from a herring net, lined with the lead of melted weights, and filled with “calm water”, the box came into the possession of Iain Sinclair, the author and “psychogeographer” (“a walker and talker”), who has become a regular Kötting collaborator. Sinclair called the box his “animal battery”, and for years it sat by his desk while he wrote. But at some point he decided that it should be returned to its home and buried in the sand where the whale was beached. And so, aided by pinhole photographer Anonymous Bosch, Sinclair and Kötting embarked upon a “reversed pilgrimage” to do just that.

Part of The Whalebone Box is a typically fragmented account of that journey, venturing in a chronological fashion from the psychic aerial of Sway Tower in the New Forest to the standing stones of Lewis (via diversions through the Pyrenees), all recorded in a variety of DIY formats, both physical and digital, and interspersed with archive footage, still photography and animation. The other part is a journey into the dreams of Eden Kötting, the remarkable artist who has long been the muse and inspiration of her father, Andrew. In these sections we find Eden seated like a regal seer in a forest, a gun across her lap, holding a pair of binoculars to search for whales. In her dreams, Eden has fashioned an imitation of the whalebone box, a papery contraption that lacks the physical heft of its namesake. Yet somehow, this dream-box has found its way into the “real” world. Or maybe it’s the other way round?

Borrowing intertitles from Leviathan by Philip Hoare (the author who also informs and structures this odyssey), The Whalebone Box muses on familiar themes of folklore, history, mysticism and “happenstance”, as it meanders across disparate landscapes, several journeys becoming one. En route we encounter the graves of Basil Bunting (“Poet of Northern England”) and Sorley MacLean (“Poet of Northern Scotland”), and hear the poet-artist MacGillivray perform her spine-tingling murdered mermaid song in a church, sounding for all the world like a whale out of water, crying plaintively into the abyss. At each stage, the box (in both its incarnations) seems to become heavier, charged with “insane energy”, carrying the accumulated psychic weight of its journey.

Watch a trailer for
The Whalebone Box

Thrown into the mix are discussions of other boxes: Pandora’s box; the flight recorders from doomed aeroplanes; the mysterious container from Kiss Me Deadly (“what’s in the box?”); the conceptual box in which Schrödinger’s cat is simultaneously alive and dead – a subject that also haunted Carol Morley’s tangentially comparable Out of Blue. Beneath it all, an ambient soundtrack ebbs and flows, from low pulsing throbs to rhythmic beats and floating melodies, interspersed with whispered words (“I love you inside out”) and fragments of other movies – the voiceover from Sunset Boulevard; the trailer for John Carpenter’s The Thing.

You can feel the ghost of Derek Jarman in Kötting’s work: the use of collage; the investigation of memory; the allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest; the deconstruction of cinema itself. Yet, The Whalebone Box has something even more personal in its subtle exploration of the bond between father and daughter, an expression of love that had me laughing one moment and crying the next. With such a tender, beating heart, this is in some ways Kötting’s most unexpectedly accessible work. And, as Eden says more than once in her subtitled voiceover: “It’s true!”

Source: The Guardian

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