Movies: The Body (1970) / Bodysong (2003)

I don’t remember recently losing the will to live and, yet, I willingly watched two feature-length visual poems about the human condition, each of which was scored by members of separate, legendary prog-rock bands.  I suspect vastly more people have heard the soundtrack for one or both pictures than have seen the movies either accompanies.

First, there’s 1970’s The Body, with a score by Ron Geesin and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.  Geesin also has a strong connection to that band, as he wrote the orchestral backing for the title track to their album Atom Heart Mother.

Tellingly, many of the themes explored here are similar to that found in the band’s work at the time: predominately birth and death.  I expected this picture to be a documentary about the human body, with some trappings of the era.  What I didn’t anticipate is it also addresses social and environmental issues, such as pollution, disease and poverty.  Also, a large part of it is a visual poem.  Parts could even be regarded as music video.

As expected, there is a quite a bit of nudity here, but this may be the first movie I have seen that opens of a woman’s breast being used for its biological purpose.  There will be a lot more nudity after that, and some of it seemingly of a…less than scientific or philosophical nature.

Some of it serves thoughtful sequences, such as a long, winding line of people arranged in order by age, starting with a newborn and ending with a woman of very advanced age. 

Then there’s the obligatory scenes of childbirth, though these strangely made me think of those early “educational” films that skirted early anti-pornography regulations by showing such scenes.  You must be really desperate to see a vagina if you’re going to see films of babies being born just to see one.  Also, footage of the births are intercut with footage of a factory assembly line—an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m not sure what the intended takeaway is.

On the other hand, I don’t think we need to see a couple having what I am going to assume is unsimulated sex.  At least, I seriously doubt the educational or artistic benefits of showing them 69ing (no joke!).  Curiously, this may be among the least sexy footage of intercourse I have ever seen.

Before we see that couple get busy, we see them filmed using thermal energy, showing the waves of heat radiating off of them.  There will be similar footage later of somebody exercising, and an old man drinking a cup of tea.  I smiled when the old man has a cigarette afterwards and the heat off the match is like a flamethrower enveloping his head.  And, when he takes off his hat, I received visual confirmation we lose most of our heat through the tops of our heads.

The framing device for the picture seems prescient, almost foretelling reality television, as groups of robe-clad adults mingle.  I found the robes to be laughably pretentious, though a typical touch for the times.   

Something I didn’t know how to regard is hidden-camera footage of the participants discussing whether they are comfortable with being naked in front of the cameras.  So, we are eavesdropping on a conversation where people are voicing their concerns they are being exploited.  See how that might be ethically dubious?

And yet, the conversations are often interesting.  The scene that most touched me was when a woman who went blind at 16 discusses the paradox of asking people to accept her condition as part of her while she herself wishes she could see again.  There’s also an interesting insight I hadn’t encountered before, as she says that, when it happened, it occurred to her that nobody could ever be cross with her again.

The picture also explores some places most of us are not entirely comfortable looking, such as the lives of disabled children and adults, who are often filmed looking upset.  As for myself, an entirely different scene made me squirm, and that is an intimate journey through the digestive system.  Great, now I won’t be thinking of sex or food for some time.

Lastly, some random observations.  There’s a neat demonstration of a real-life model of an impossible triangle, accomplished through perspective.  I also enjoyed the X-ray footage of hands as they play musical instruments, and of the end of a sword as it appears inside a sword-swallower.  A brief, interesting segment shows the chemicals that compose the human body, separated into their own containers and presumably in ratios common to the body.  On the downside, I’m not sure what was intended, or if I gleaned any insights, from watching from beneath a glass surface as a toddler crawls across, and urinates upon, it.

2003’s Bodysong is soundtracked by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame.  This picture has as many similarities to The Body as it has differences, but both are solidly representative of the eras in which they were made.  If the earlier picture was the product of the hippie ethos, this one is all cool, intellectual detachment.

The key differences in Bodysong are the lack of narration, while having a more linear structure.  That said, this is a series of images upon which the viewer applies their own meaning and context. 

Some of the imagery is obvious, such a long series of babies being born.  Lots of footage of childbirth.  Between these two films, I am well and done with seeing real footage of this, thanks.

Other parts are far more cryptic, such as what must be extremely old footage of a guy on a high wall bouncing an infant from one hand to the other.  Wonder what the kid’s mother thought of that?

There seems to be a recurring motif of circles, which I found interesting.  Towards the beginning, we have enough scenes of people spinning children or dancers around a maypole that this has be intentional.  Near the end, there’s a montage of people of various cultures around the world drawing patterns that are at least partially circular.

Then there’s the sexual imagery which seems to be a requirement of such films.  Unlike The Body, that content here is definitely unsimulated.  Funny how I’m not against pornography, but I’m all about context, and I question the use of such explicit material here.  That said, there is a pretty funny transition where we go from scenes of people putting in their mouths the male member most resembling a banana to clips of people eating actual bananas.

But that content merely made me uncomfortable.  What I really could have done without is the footage of people getting killed.  I know this is a documentary (OK, kind of a documentary), but I don’t think it is ever appropriate to show a person’s final moments in anything that can even roughly be construed as entertainment.  That may seem odd coming from somebody who doesn’t believe in a higher power or an afterlife, but I simply believe a person’s final moments are theirs alone.  Seeing somebody die feels like the ultimate violation.

A slate in the end credits, and the chapter menu on the DVD, tells us explicitly what the segments are.  My own notes while watching this interpret the sequence as: birth->childhood->young adulthood->thrills->sex->conflict->death->illness->religion->art->the body’s ability to make and hear sound->rebellion

Greenwood’s score is excellent, as expected.  The styles change drastically, and appropriately, to accompany each sequence.  Some might raise an eyebrow over the occasional incorporate of some non-western musical elements; however, I have seen Junun, his collaboration of international musicians, in concert, and he has an obvious love and respect for all musical cultures.

One last random observation I have about this picture concerns a little bit towards the end which intrigued me.  I thought we were again seeing footage of a egg being fertilized, but it was actually footage of activity of diseased cells.  It was an interesting juxtaposition.

The Body and Bodysong are both well-made and thought-provoking.  The former is not as much of a mess as I suspected it would be, though it is made almost entirely of tangents.  The latter has a more conventional structure, yet it still a very subjective experience.  Both are recommended for more adventurous viewers, though probably not right before you intend to eat or engage in sexy times.

The Body

Dir: Roy Battersby

Watched on Network UK DVD (region 2)


Dir: Simon Pummell

Watched on BFI UK DVD (region 2)