I don’t feel – because I’m not – qualified to term my analysis of this collection of BS Johnson’s short films a review. Because it isn’t. Won’t be. Can’t be. I know too little about the art-house, short-film, TV theatre, ITV documentary, whatever, scene of the late sixties and early seventies to talk with any authority about these pieces. I am an outsider.
There were about ten/fifteen pieces in the boxset, varying in length from 2 minutes to about 45. There was some trade union propaganda, a couple of made for TV plays, some art house stuff he entered into competitions, a great documentary about Samuel Johnson, but the real piece of resistance is a phenomenal short film called Fat Man On A Beach.
It lasts about three quarters of an hour, and consists solely of Johnson talking to camera, stood on a beach in North Wales. He recounts why the place is important to him, talks about his writing and his reasons for writing, about his life, key events from it. He tells anecdotes, jokes. There are cut aways to him playing with flares, bunches of bananas… But the film is all him… The viewer spends the majority of an hour engaging with a jovial, articulate, slightly overweight man as he talks about his life and his work. He is witty, he is insightful, he is moving. He is alive and creative and full of fascinating, charming things to say.
But inside, inside he felt like shit.
Before the piece was so much as edited, let alone shown, Johnson had slashed his wrists. Aged 40.
Fat Man On A Beach is tinged with the knowledge of this. Sombre moments are rendered more so, moments of joy feel ironic… This man, wittily espousing, keeping a short film alive and engaging, all on his own, for this length in time was, internally… what? Alone? Sad? Unhappy? There isn’t a correct word. There isn’t a correct description.
Fat Man On A Beach is one of the best things I have seen in a long while. Look it up, if you can. I highly recommend it. And while you’re at it, if you never have, read some BS Johnson. The man wrote wonderful prose.