Throughout the 1960s until his suicide in 1973, the author B.S. Johnson produced some of the most startling pieces of literature, using a unique combination of formalism and social realism. He has been described repeatedly as a ‘one-man avant-garde’, and his literary works have been slowly reintegrating themselves into the public and academic consciousness, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant (2004). His film work, however, has, until now, remained obscure and mostly unobtainable. Influenced strongly by James Joyce in both literary and cinematic terms, Johnson followed his predecessor in the belief that cinema provided an opportunity to truly match form with content, and not only allow innovation in new media, but refresh the parameters of the old medium also. Now, the BFI have collected his extant film work for release on DVD and Blu-ray, with additional extras provided by the British Library.
The centrepiece is the titular You’re Human like the Rest of Them (1967). It is one of the more traditional narrative pieces contained in this collection, adapted from a previously-written dramatic verse piece. In order to maintain the poetic rhythm, Johnson uses a staccato style of filmmaking, with David Lord’s military drum-beat accompanying jarring cuts and abstract montage interpolations. The only young man in a physiotherapist’s clinic, the teacher Haakon (William Hoyland), watches with disdain as the matronly nurse (Anne Hardcastle) chastises the older men for not caring for themselves properly. The camera jolts between a blackboard illustration of the spine and the dour, resigned faces of the men, as Haakon realises and begins to rail against his inevitable slide towards mortality. Returning to an undifferentiated indifference from his colleagues and pupils, the title becomes a rallying cry: ‘You are human, just like the rest of them, and the only thing certain is that you will die.’
Paradigm (1968) also confronts issues of mortality, but is more daring in its exploration of the distinction between cinema and literature. It is a masterpiece of fictive linguistics, intended to show, as Johnson himself put it, how ‘the older you get, the less you have to say and the more difficulty you have in saying it.’ Hoyland once again gives the human face to Johnson’s theories, in characters analogous to the five stages of man. Atop various levels of an abstract pastel structure, a distorted Modernist staircase to nowhere, he gives an impressive performance despite the lack of an intelligible script, from a boyish, naked Hoyland, confidently addressing the camera with his gleeful babbles, to a pensive silence at the culmination of the piece, as an aged, drawn man on the cusp of death.
The collection also includes Johnson’s agitprop work, documenting TUC protests against the Industrial Relations Bill, in Unfair! (1970) and March! (1970). There are also numerous tributes to Johnson’s literary influences, from the animated calligrammes of Up Yours Too, Guillaume Apollinaire (1969), a montage piece set to Samuel Beckett’s work in Poem (1971), and a documentary, On Reflection: B S Johnson on Dr Samuel Johnson (1971). Johnson’s last film work, Fat Man On a Beach (1974), was completed shortly after he took his own life. An homage to Porth Ceiriad in Wales, it consists of little more than Johnson’s engaging conversation with himself, ruminating on his experiences with the bay, and slapstick asides. Contrasting the warmth and humour here to his manner of death, the last shot, of the crew departing by helicopter as Johnson walks alone into the sea, is little short of heartbreaking.