A wonderful image of the humble present

27th October 2012

I have seen a future for dance film and its name is All This Can Happen.

Siobhan Davies and David Hinton’s new 50-minute film premiered at Dance Umbrella recently and was revealed as thrilling and touching and bracingly intelligent and beautiful. Now you need to know as you read this that David Hinton is a friend and that I have worked on several of his projects, including both Children of the Revolution (which won a BAFTA for Best Arts Programme) and a short film Snow, which has connections with All This Can Happen. In addition, the very first programme that Illuminations made for Channel 4, long ago and far away in 1982, was a dance film with Siobhan Davies. Plus, I’m proud to say that several Illumiantions ‘alumni’ worked on it, including editor Danny McGuire as well as Matthew Killip who contributed additional editing. All of which knowledge may or may not inflect the way you take my enthusiasm.

All This Can Happen is a complex montage of archival film (together with some stills) set to a reading by John Heffernan of a story-essay by Robert Walser and accompanied by a dazzlingly detailed sound mix by Chu-Li Shewring (another former colleague). The archival film is mostly monochrome and is drawn from a wide range of sources, the majority of which are from the first half of the twentieth century. There are shots of city streets, children’s games, an owl and a bookshop, fragments from early cinema, photographs by Étienne-Jules Marey, film featuring war, and women, a very tall man in a top hat and much more. Nothing is identified, and nothing explained.

Unfolding in counterpoint to the text, the film images might at times be understood as illustrating the text (and just rarely doing so over-literally), on occasions commenting on it and quite often developing simply with a pictoral logic. The frames are montaged and multiplied, dissected and détourned, analysed and repeated and treated and transformed – through the rhythms of the editing and the visual patterning – into a kind of dance. Not literally dance, but an imaginative analogue of such on the screen (and in the mind of the spectator).

As such, All This Can Happen is an extension of the ideas about dance film that David has been exploring since Birds (2000) and Snow (2003), both of which conjure up film dance from archival elements alone. (He and I worked on developing these ideas in a major television project, but for all kinds of complex and still painful reasons, it never saw the light of day in anything close to the form we had imagined.)

Both Birds and Snow were collaborations with choreographers – with  Yolanda Snaith and Rosemary Lee respectively – and in this new, far more ambitious film Siobhan Davies brings her sensibility to the ways in which bodies and movement and objects and echoes are assembled and around which variations are woven.

David Hinton explains something of their shared concerns:

What interests us most of all is counterpoint; creating different rhythms and meanings through the juxtaposition of one thread of imagery against another. We want to show how observation and fantasy, memory and specualtion can all co-exist in the same mind at the same time, so that we create a ‘psychological 3D’ or ‘cubist’ portrait of a mind.

Both Birds and Snow worked with musical soundtracks, whereas here there is a third person in the partnership, the Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser who died in 1956. Walser was found dead on Christmas Day that year in the snow in a field near the asylum in which he was a patient.

Plagued by mental instability throughout his life, Walser was fond of taking long perambulations through the countryside. His 1917 tale The Walk – which forms the basis of the text of All This Can Happen – was the only writing of his to be translated into English during his lifetime (by Christopher Middleton in 1955). (If you want to know more about Walser and his work, a good place to start is J.M. Coetzee’s essay from 2000 for The New York Review of Books, The genius of Robert Walser.)

In The Walk the narrator leaves his writing desk, puts on his hat and ventures out into the world. He delights in the play of children, rails against automobiles, talks to a dog, visits a hat shop and a book shop and encounters the giant Tomzack. He enters a pine forest:

I stood and listened, and suddenly there came upon me an inexpressible feeling for the world, and, together with it, a feeling of gratitude, which broke powerfully out of my soul.

He has lunch with a lady friend, drops in on his tailor and goes to the tax office where he pleads as a man of letters to be taxed at a low rate. The bureaucrat responds by saying that he is always out walking, an activity that our hero then defends with passion.

“Do you think it quite impossible that on a gentle walk I should meet giants, do business with booksellers, dine at noon with intelligent ladies, stroll through woods, dispatch dangerous letters, and come to wild blows with spiteful, ironic master tailors? All this can happen, and I believe it actually did happen.”

Walser’s poetic, elliptical prose is both banal and deeply mysterious, and the film responds to both of these qualities. Strangest of all, as the narrator watches a trainload of soldiers passing by, he experiences an epiphany of the extraordinariness of the everyday.

The wonderful image of the humble present became a feeling which overpowered all others. The future paled, and the past dissolved…  I had become an inward being, and I walked as in an inward world; everything outside me became a dream.

Drawing attention to the unnoticed, the transitory, the at-the-edge of perception and the fleetingness of reality as it was caught by accident and by agency on film, All This Can Happen conjures up from the past just such a ‘wonderful image of the humble present’. While you watch, the film is a world that is sufficient unto itself, and everything outside, before and after, might just be that dream.

Responding so appropriately and with such originality to Walser’s words David and Siobhan have created a glorious fantasy of the modern world, a dream of modernist sensibility that engages with the mind and machines and madness, sexuality and shopping, poetry and photography and (obliquely) politics, city and country, culture and nature, ways of moving and ways of seeing.


Siobhan Davies and David Hinton will discuss All This Can Happen at Siobhan Davies Studios on 11 December as part of the Crossing Borders events. Check the Siobhan Davies website for announcements of future screenings.

Image: still from All This Can Happen, photo from the Museum of London.


  1. Paul Tickell says:

    John, you’ve whetted my appetite: I really want to see this film… You make quite a few connections between your company Illuminations and ALL THIS CAN HAPPEN. There’s a further one: Walter Benjamin wrote about Robert Walser and of course WB’s famous collection of essays is called ILLUMINATIONS.

    • John Wyver says:

      Thanks, Paul – it really is a richly interesting film, and I’m very keen to see it again. You’re spot on about Walser and WB; it’s also the case that our colleague Keith Griffiths produced the Quay Brothers feature film Institute Benjamenta – which was based on a novel by Walser.

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