The Humber Mouth - Hull Literature Festival 2000 - Thursday 9th November - Sunday 19th November 2000
Critical Eye

Saturday 11th November - 8.00pm Film Preview Hull Screen, Central Library
Critical Eye Simon Armitage/The Tyre

Simon Armitage Simon Armitage has been involved in several film projects over the years, and is coming to Hull Screen to discuss 'The Tyre', a ten minute film directed by award winning documentary maker Brian Hill. The film is described in the Humber Mouth brochure as a 'dramatisation' of Armitage's poem of the same name. However, there is evidence that this was a genuine collaboration, and Armitage and Hill are credited as co-authors.

The film is a short narrative piece about an overworked sales rep driving across the moors while having to respond to his constantly ringing mobile phone. A flat tyre causes him to stop, and a childhood memory results in him rejecting the pressures to which he is being subjected and striding off - presumably to a better way of life.

The poem deals exclusively with the childhood memory and describes how some boys find a large tyre abandoned on the moors and roll it until it gathers momentum and they lose it. The narrator imagines it's journey - the chaos and surprise it causes - and that it ultimately escapes the limitations of time and space and enters another dimension.

The film works very much of a coherent whole, even though the two elements can be described separately. There are moments when the visual images add or suggest things not present in the poetry, and this kind of project inevitably begs questions about whether the poem preceded the film or vice versa, and about how much input Armitage and Hill had into each other's work. It seems likely that it is the tension between the visual image and what it suggests and the challenge to control narrative momentum which is most productive for poets and filmmakers working together. There is much common ground, one imagines, between the making of a film and the making of a poem. Both poet and filmmaker will want to produce a satisfying narrative framework within which the imagery can work in the imagination of the viewer.

German film director Wim Wenders ('The Logic of Images' Faber 1991) has written about the narrative imperative implicit in visual images and the necessity or drive to pursue whatever is suggested. He describes this process as both frustrating and irresistible, saying that 'Stories are substitutes for God. Or maybe the other way round.', going on to examine the balance between the artistic need to allow the picture to stand on its own with the basic need for order. Words and sentences imply for him a kind of narrative over determination.

By keeping the narrative focus literally on the moving tyre, Armitage and Hill have found a way to allow the audience narrative satisfaction while giving themselves the freedom to travel through many other themes and ideas. It is the simplicity of the idea which prevents the different media from working against each other.

'The Tyre' shares some thematic elements with Auden's now classic 'Night Mail' - the rolling tyre matching the speeding train, the sense of the pressure of passing time, and the rhythmic language. Where 'The Tyre' is particularly striking is in the way the visual images function as metaphors for the content of the verse. Further than this, there is the sense that the moment of epiphany for the protagonist says something also about the nature of poetry and film - perhaps that the almost magical moment of release when the tyre disappears, when the rep leaves his car, and when the words break free from describing actual events - that this is the kind of imaginative leap which takes the audience into the realm of new possibilities.

Armitage and Hill have produced a work of unexpected charm. There are several visual 'jokes' and I found these moments occasionally reminiscent in style of the humour in silent movies, and wondered whether there was a deliberate intention to suggest the possibility of the superimposition of text in the same manner.

'The Tyre' is a comparatively short piece of work. Armitage has previously written pieces which include a mixture of song, dialogue and verse and are of longer duration. In 'The Tyre' there is the feeling that it was possible to sustain the collaboration without the risk of either medium acquiring its own (independent) narrative imperative. This has, I think, been a problem in some previous pieces, and it will be interesting to hear Armitage's account of his working processes.

It is a memorable film and benefits from more than one viewing. Although some may find the more whimsical moments of questionable value, this is a highly successful collaboration and shows that Armitage is becoming ever more skilled in his approach to this kind of work. 'The Tyre' has some very witty moments, unexpected images, and a sense of momentum which continues beyond the end of the film.

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Maggie Hannan is the festival's resident web site critic.
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