“Every tongue brings in a several tale”: The Filth and the Fury’s counterhistorical transgressions

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This paper examines the Filth’s transgression of documentary modes in its counter-historical retelling of the Sex Pistols’ career. Filth’s subversion of conventional film documentary narrative and formal patterns are examined, with specific attention to the transgression of Nicholls’s modal theory of ‘nonfiction’ cinema. Filth is proposed as a key text in the development of new approaches to documentary film-making, by interrogating its wayward, counter-cultural style. Filth would perhaps be more aptly described as counter-history than documentary. Its relationship to history and facticity will be explored by uncovering its playfulness with form and convention, as well as its use of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a mischievous subversion of the common documentary gambit of narrative parallelism. Rather than inventing new modes of representation, counter-hegemonic cinema often subverts existing conventions. Mixing familiar conventional genre signifiers with counter-hegemonic, marginal or transgressive forms highlights differences, destabilises expectations and communicates more effectively with a broader audience. Filth’s bricolage of disparate elements consists of what its director, Julien Temple, refers to as “scattershot use of archive” footage interspersed with new interviews. The result is problematic for documentary film theory; Filth transgresses and even parodies established documentary forms. While in some superficial aspects Filth follows the ‘rockumentary’ format, the film formally and structurally deviates from the conventions of this style. We could instead try to categorise Filth as an independent example of rhetorical form, with its emotive and argumentative elements. Yet, despite its rhetorical tone, the plethora of opposing viewpoints transgresses and even parodies the persuasive purpose of rhetorical documentary-making. Narrators disagree, images clash and, while the audience may feel the pressure to be persuaded, the anarchic mix of viewpoints makes it difficult to extrapolate a clear rhetorical line of argument. One means by which to clarify Filth’s transgressions is to apply Nichols’s modes of documentary film. While the possibility of a single text combining more than one mode is not directly denied, nevertheless Nichols tends to explain each mode in terms of its difference from the others, implying mutual exclusivity. Yet Filth transgresses every one of these modes. If the modes are viewed as more dynamic and flexible than Nichols originally proposed, however, they remain invaluable as a tool for understanding this example of late postmodern documentary. Just as an early modern history play might present a politically manipulated counter-historical chronicle, postmodern oppositional documentary can retell the past through a perspective of resistance or taking an openly biased socio-political viewpoint. This parallel function clarifies the apparently incongruous appropriation of Olivier’s Richard III in Filth, notwithstanding the obvious deliberate punk impudence of brutally splicing Olivier’s treasured ‘classic’. The figure of Shakespeare’s Richard, through Olivier’s film, binds Filth’s narrative in every major plot development: such as when Johnny Rotten joins the band, when ‘God Save the Queen’ is released and when the band self-destructs. An audience’s desire for realism in terms of causality, is key to creating a conventionally satisfying narrative, and in a documentary one could assume that this desire is easily satisfied given the ‘reality’ of the subject. Yet the other aspect of narrative an audience desires most is likely to be resolution and structure: a beginning, middle and end to the ‘story’, which may be harder for a feature documentary to deliver. Many documentaries avoid the challenge of actual resolution by providing some “new light” on their subjects, just as Filth openly claims to do. However, the recoding of Richard III in Filth also props up the narrative by transposing a parallel ‘reality’ that has been ready-fashioned into a plot. What this film represents in its style and its form is an attempt to capture on film the bricolage, the anarchy and the fun of punk. Yet it is ironic that only via technologies unavailable to the rebels of the 70s can the quick-fire, scattershot style can be achieved. A last grasp towards the visceral rebellion of the early days of punk may, in Filth, ironically become a herald of the coming communicative strategies of 21st Century New Media – the short clip or home made montage of YouTube replacing the painstaking physical processes of film editing. Yet Filth, riding roughshod over every attempt to compartmentalise documentary, legitimises instead the power of retelling – and epitomises the plurality of counterhistories.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Music Documentary: Acid Rock to Electropop
EditorsB. Halligan, R. Edgar, K. Fairclough-Isaacs
Place of PublicationLondon, UK
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9780415528023
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2013


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