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Review: Turning

Monday 14 January 2013
Words Spindle

Back in October, I spoke to the organiser of Eyes Wide Open, a new series of queer cinema screenings at The Duke of Yorks Picturehouse in Brighton. The first screening, Charles Atlas’ film Turning, took place at the end of November. For reasons too numerous to mention, I haven’t had a chance to review the film until now, but as the second screening fast approaches, I thought it an appropriate time to reflect on the first.

Turning charts the journeys of 13 women, invited to appear onstage during performances by Antony and the Johnsons, as Charles Atlas creates visuals of them, both on and, through interview footage, off stage. The women, whose lives and histories are rich and varied, are revealed to the audience throughout the film, while Antony Hegarty remains an aloof and mysterious figure.

This creates something of a problem for me. While we learn something of the fascinating and often moving tales of Atlas’ subjects, their appearance is transient and fleeting, only lasting as long as the song to which they were assigned. If Hegarty’s desire was to place the feminine on a pedestal (they appear alongside him on a rotating platform), then this is only somewhat successful. Though perhaps the interviews in Turning provide greater insight into the women than the stage show itself, where they remained silent and static, the nature of the film’s structure continues to marginalise its subject, and they often appear no more than props or commodities: once their song is over, they are consigned once more to the back of our minds. This feeling is exacerbated by how little we learn either of Hegarty or Atlas throughout the film. Aside from his vocal performances (which are undeniably enthralling), Antony appears only fleetingly, as a somewhat whimsical character – a depiction which seems at odds with the depth and beauty of his lyrics. This is something Atlas addressed in the Q&A which followed the film, saying, “if I’m making the film, that’s my statement”,and dismissing Hegarty’s absence with the explanation, “he can he rather shy”. Yet neither seems quite sufficient an explanation, and their absence was definitely felt.

Turning ultimately seems to struggle to define itself. Atlas appears reluctant to call it a documentary: “the first pass I made at it was much more of a documentary about the tour, and was much more narrative than this final version”. I think this is the cut of the film that I would like to see. Considering films such as Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre’s Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which expertly straddles the line between documenting Abramovic’s work, and providing wonderful insight into her life, Turning feels somewhat disappointing. It is saved only by its female subjects, whose stories I longed to hear more of.

The next Eyes Wide Open screening is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and January 16th at the brand new Dukes at Komedia cinema. It’s a surprising contrast the Turning, which hints at the diversity of screenings Eyes Wide Open will be bringing to its audiences. It’s also one of my favourite Hitchcock films, so I expect to see you all there!

Words: Jack Casey