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Old Man of the Sea, The (1989)

Courtesy of Christopher Newby

Main image of Old Man of the Sea, The (1989)
35mm, black and white, 20 mins
DirectorChristopher Newby
Production CompanyPankino Productions
ProducerMehdi Norowzian
ScriptChristopher Newby
LightingMaggie Jailler
Music performed byJennifer Bate

An old, bedridden man plays games that have a hint of the sinister about them.

Show full synopsis

Chris Newby's abiding fascination with texture and tactility is well to the fore in this cryptic jigsaw-puzzle of a film that, like his first feature Anchoress (1993), draws its inspiration from the ancient relationship between man, nature and the supernatural.

The mythical 'old man of the sea' has appeared in various forms throughout the millennia. In Greek mythology, the label has been applied to various marine gods and supernatural beings, including Glaucus, Nereus, Phorcys, Pontus and Proteus. In Homer's Odyssey he is specifically Proteus, herdsman of Poseidon's seals, his chameleonic shape-shifting ability enabling him to resist capture. More recently, writers such as John Milton have evoked Proteus as a symbol of alchemy, while the psychologist Carl Jung identified him as an exemplary personification of the workings of the unconscious mind.

Newby's equivalent initially seems harmless, a bed-ridden old man swathed in white satin sheets, but his languid, erotic and sometimes violent fantasies are vividly realised through poetic analogy. A splayed, almost naked male body reclines, starfish-like, on a rock, surrounded by dried salt and damp bladderwrack. A set of fish bones seems to have become detached from the plastic components of a model ship. Waves retreat in reverse motion, leaving a perfectly-arranged line-up of shells in their wake. Gravestones, their texts long eroded by time and the sea, still harbour beating hearts, while monumental religious architecture has much in common with that of shells and tiny sea creatures, especially when heat haze makes the buildings appear to tremble as though alive. In an appropriately Protean act of transmogrification, pages from Dickens are refashioned into a sail, a large starfish becomes the ship's wheel, a church spire its prow, a statue its figurehead and rumpled bedsheets the sea.

But who is exploiting whom? Initially, the old man seems firmly in control, even to the point of ensnaring the young man via a vicious-looking hook in the middle of his taut trunks. Although the tables seem to be turned when the young man starts a process beginning with digging on the shoreline and concluding by catching the old man via a hook fastened to the end of a reassuringly hefty rope, what this has achieved is left as tantalisingly suggestive as the rest of the film. A final, literally microscopic coda suggests that this is merely a part of a constant ongoing struggle, repeated ad infinitum on a scale spanning the cellular and the galactic.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD of Anchoress.

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Video Clips
1. Puzzles and games (2:47)
2. The ship and the plane (2:14)
3. The tables turned (3:23)
Complete film (20:38)
Newby, Chris (1957-)