A political activist who came of age in Scotland’s shipyards during the tumultuous 1960s, John Samson (1946-2004) discovered documentary film after he met his wife-to-be, a student at the Glasgow School of Art. Trading precision tool making for the bohemian art world, Samson began experimenting with photography before moving on to filmmaking in the early 1970s. His first short, Charlie (1973), earned him a scholarship to the National Film School.
A 2008 exhibition at London’s Seventeen Gallery that featured three of Samson’s films was entitled ‘More Quoted than Seen’, an indication of both his cult status and the paradox of his obscurity. This year, the London International Documentary Festival is featuring a special retrospective dedicated to the ground-breaking filmmaker, screening five of his rarely seen films: Tattoo (1975), Dressing for Pleasure (1977), Britannia (1979), Arrows (1979) and The Skin Horse (1983). Drawing on his own experience as an outsider, Samson’s films reflect a fascination with the lives and behaviour of people living on the margins of conservative, mainstream society.
Tattoo opens with tight close-ups of a work-in-progress: a man’s arm is being shaved, the skin prepped for a tattoo that takes shape throughout the film. Interviews with both artists and the tattooed delve into the links between exhibitionism, pain, and very personal desires. But the film’s climax lets the tattoos speak for themselves: the camera lingers on the elaborately decorated bodies of both men and women, wordlessly offering the audience a glimpse at an otherwise very private art form.
Banned by London Weekend Television, Dressing for Pleasure is an intimate, candid film about people with a rubber fetish. An interview with John Sutcliffe, the legendary clothing designer who also founded AtomAge, ‘a magazine for vinyl wearers’, is woven through the film, while blown-up pages from the magazine are used as a backdrop to the carefully composed scenes of participants parading their outré costumes. An interview with a shop assistant at Sex, the King’s Road boutique owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, one of the few places that openly sold latex and rubber wear, links fetish wear to the equally scandalous punk scene. There’s nothing deliberately sensational in Dressing for Pleasure, and what emerges is not a film about people into S&M, but a portrait of an alternative lifestyle that embraces pleasure without shame.
One of Samson’s more compelling films, despite its relatively tame subject matter, is Arrows, a 1979 film about Eric Bristow, aka The Crafty Cockney – a young, cocky champion darts player who became a national celebrity in the UK. The most captivating scenes are those of Bristow drinking pints and smoking his way through an exhibition at a working men’s club; the film is a revealing snapshot not only of Bristow, but also of an England that’s virtually disappeared.
Although there are elements in Samson’s films that are undeniably dated – notably Tattoo‘s classic 70s soundtrack – the lifestyles he captured on camera are still strikingly relevant. His refusal to sensationalise and exploit his marginalised cast of characters makes his documentaries all the more remarkable in the current era of gossip-driven reality television.
The John Samson retrospective is screening on Saturday 28 March and Monday 30 March at the Horse Hospital (London). More details on the LIDF website.