Stuart Croft - Profile
By Keith Patrick
Formerly a painting student, Stuart Croft's initial transition into the media of film and video occurred during his MA year at Chelsea College of Art (1997-98).
As an aspiring painter he had looked towards the work of Polke, so it was perhaps not surprising that his first tentative forays into film would incorporate appropriated imagery in the form of found footage, with which the artist cut his teeth in Chelsea's primitive editing suite. This in turn quickly developed into a fascination with the editing process, together with an enduring passion for critiquing the formal and stylistic components of various cinematic genres.
In 1997, Croft had also ventured into performance with Station to Station, an event realised at Aldwych Underground Station, in which the voice of a collaborator at ground level could be heard asking passers-by if they'd seen his allegedly missing girlfriend.
On an extremely restricted budget, the following year Croft brought together all of these elements for the first time in Point X (6 min, 1998), a six-minute loop and the first publicly-aired film to embody what would become the artist's signature editorial approach. Dual off-screen narrations explore a single landscape: firstly from the perspective of a local television channel re-staging a disappearance as part of a police murder investigation, and again from the viewpoint of a promotional video made on behalf of a stress management centre. The link is achieved by means of a slow dissolve between one distinctive scenario and the next, a device that would become axiomatic to much of Croft's subsequent work. As one gradually dissolves into the other, we are aware not only of the narrative disjunction, but also of the two conflictive styles of filmic presentation.
Croft followed Point X later that same year with Dead Happy (9 min, 1998), a work that fused the conventions of the television-drama trailer with those of the talking-head documentary. Here the confluence of these two largely incompatible genres is achieved, not through the protracted use of the slow dissolve, but by rapid, staccato cutting, with the artist demonstrating a growing confidence in his editing techniques. The single narrator's voice provides the only continuity tenuously linking the fragmented scenarios. However, even this draws on the convention of the actor's voice-over, the necessity for which makes itself apparent as we come to realise that the original female protagonist has committed suicide, while her guilt-ridden bulimic boyfriend is left behind to stumble into the gangland world of the television thriller.
The narrative is obscure - or rather obscured - but the more we probe, the more the facets coalesce into the semblance of a coherent whole. As with most of Croft's work, it may not be possible to fit all of the pieces together, but it is possible to reach a generic construct that is partly resolved in narrative terms yet ultimately resides in the conflicting conventions of the genres themselves.
While Point X and Dead Happy were to be followed by The Everlasting (14 min, 1999) and Loveless (17 min, 2000), Croft now dismisses these two subsequent works.
However, over the course of making these first four films, Croft had developed his skills as a writer, director and editor, as was to be evidenced by The Loss Leader (14 min, 2000), a film made with professional actors and crew on location in Wales. The high production values of this cinematic venture into film noir belie the again modest budget on which the film was realised.
Shot in a vast but neglected mansion, the austere grandeur of the location inevitably evokes the psychological drama of film noir remade for the TV generation. But while Hitchcock would have storyboarded and built from scratch on a Hollywood back-lot, Croft makes intelligent use of the house donated for the week-long shoot.
Cut to the billiard room, where a couple's elliptical conversation hints at murder. Shades here of Strangers on a Train or the eponymous scene from Coppola's The Conversation. The dialogue isn't specific, but we've been here before and know that any blond in a low-cut dress who punctuates her sentences with a billiard cue is bad news. Cut again to the sickroom somewhere in the eves, where a senile old man feigns suicide with fake blood. Uncovering the ploy, the son is almost tender as he reaches for the gun on the floor. Each scene throws down a new card: the younger man's sense of his own failure; the old man's affair with his son's wife; the wife's culpability. And then the dénouement. Not fake blood this time, but Kensington Gore (actually Weetabix) splattered liberally over the pillow. We've seen this image before superimposed on an earlier scene. However, has the old man finally pulled the trigger or was it pulled for him by his cuckolded son? And, being a loop, is this the end or the beginning of the narrative? (There are at least three versions of The Loss Leader, in which scenes are re-edited, cut or re-ordered: the original 27 minute version made in 2000, an 80-second loop and a 14 minute re-edit released in 2005.)
Croft presents us with a generic thriller, sumptuously rich in detail and atmosphere, but stripped of the syntactical links that make narrative specific. Moreover, on three separate occasions the film noir genre is interrupted by advertisements for a fictive new car, starring the same three characters as the main narrative thread. The slogan promises a new dawn. The young woman holds up an ultrasound scan of an unborn child. Even the old man, no longer bleeding profusely from the fatal head-wound, crawls childlike along the shore, sharing the bounty of this new beginning/end. But whether these are integral to the narrative or merely arbitrary intrusions will never be absolutely resolved.
The Loss Leader was followed by Rococo 55 (36 min, 2001-02), filmed almost entirely on sets whose artifice and cheap construction highlight the artifice of the movie itself: not only as a physical construct, but also as a linguistic one.
Not only are we faced with a series of conventions alluding to various cinematic genres - by now a familiar Croft concern - we find references to other tropes of visual language, specifically to harbingers of mid-twentieth century culture such as Barnett Newman, Dan Flavin and John Ford.
Once again Croft uses slow dissolves to make seamless the transition between five separately-shot scenarios, while simultaneously co-opting the convention of the telephone call (another cinematic trope) to establish a link between characters in successive scenes. The fact that each telephone conversation is near identical, and that the same small cast of actors constantly reappears in different roles, compounds the cyclic nature of the work.
The common thread to the narrative is sex and thwarted relationships. A Union officer is being questioned by an improbably-blond-bombshell of a Confederate interrogator during the American Civil War, until the 'director' cuts and the scene is revealed as a movie set (though what kind of movie, we don't yet know). A telephone call off-set takes us to a candy-striped hotel room. 'Who is this? I'm with someone,' runs the soon to be familiar line. Two naked guys are sharing a bed, so this could be a gay porn movie, until one admits to screwing the waitress who brings in the champagne. The next call takes us to a monochrome kitchen scene for a heavy dose of domestic bisexual drama, then on to the booths in a Samaritan call-centre. As we eavesdrop, there's lots of enigmatic references to paid sex and gaffer-tape, but this is really voyeuristic fly-on-wall soap, the one-sided telephone conversation being a standard fall-back of low-budget filmmaking. The fifth scene takes place on the set of what one character refers to as a 'historical erotica' movie, a skin-flick set at the beginning of the American Civil War. In the present, the director urgently needs to recruit actors for the two leading roles, which will involve minimal costumes save for a pistol and a pair of handcuffs. Which more or less takes us back to where we came in.
Croft uses the confusion of relationships to maximum effect in disorientating any sense of the specific. Every dialogue seems to be a calculated artifice of one sort or another, from the clichéd rhetoric of love to the same rehearsed dialogue reappearing as part of more obscure psycho-sexual games-playing.
If the location for The Loss Leader is redolent of sub-Hitchcock, the action that takes place in the bar in Hit (22 min, 2003) might easily reference David Mamet's House of Games.
Mamet didn't have a nocturnal cocktail bar scene, but he should have. The scene itself - actually the bar of London's Great Eastern Hotel - is the perfect foil for sexual chemistry, the attempted con and a shifting power-base.
Here's the pitch. Boy meets girl in the empty bar. It's late evening, or at least it's dark, which is the same because this is the movies. These two have history, but despite the sexual undertones the exchange is guarded. Overcoming the initial cold-shoulder, boy tries to sell girl the big con, a long-term sweepstake that relies on second-guessing an anonymous individual's death.
Sounds familiar? It should, because Croft is borrowing from a dozen noir movies, including Mamet's, with their classical narrative and thematic conventions. It's a generic bar-room noir, but pared down to the simplicity of a Beckett two-hander and worthy of Chandler himself. But, of course, there has to be a twist. Mamet's protagonist, Margaret Ford, extracts the ultimate revenge in the penultimate scene. Croft, on the other hand, achieves his by sleight of hand and yet again by means of the slow dissolve. Just as the con is in full swing, sound and images become superimposed with a different take, and when we re-emerge on the far side the roles have reversed. Now the girl is selling the con, using the same script as before but reading the other part, and there's a different actor playing the boy. The transition is seamless, although it takes place before our very eyes. Not unlike Find the Lady, that other favourite con.
Despite - or perhaps because of - its simplicity and restraint, Hit was Croft's most accomplished work thus far. His cutting had become effortless and no longer foregrounded the editorial process, or rather did so with greater finesse and with less need to overtly signify. The film - and it deserves to be considered alongside cinema - is narratively more simplistic, more linear, save only for the underhand switching of roles, which nevertheless is clearly demarcated through the use of the slow dissolve. And yet this slippage from victim to con-artist continues to wrong-foot us, lying as it does as an overt convention at the cyclic fulcrum of the film.
Whilst producing and fundraising for his biggest-budget project to date, Croft took up the post of Tutor in Time-Based Arts at the Royal College of Art in 2004. At the same time, he made two lower-key works: Df Dmb Blnd (11 min, 2004) was a sci-fi parody set in the year 2070. It's another chat-up scenario, a psychic telephone conversation and Braille road movie rolled into one. He also began Several Small Fires (2005 - ongoing), commissioned by Flux magazine. In a series of thirty-second advertising sketches, over-the-top performances and clichéd pack-shots set out to sell invented brands of chocolate, insomnia pills and perfume.
By this time, Croft's work was also being represented by Fred Mann who, as Rhodes + Mann, had first exhibited The Loss Leader back in 2001. Mann had also co-produced Hit, and it was with this new level of support that Croft was able to realise his most ambitious project to date.
First shown at Fred [London] Ltd in January 2006, Century City (9 min, 2005) is a dual-screen crime thriller that again revisits the cinematic convention of the two-sided telephone conversation.
It is six in morning in LA and made-for-TV movie director Peter Kashlin is chewing the fat with Detective Delport. Delport is across the world in Cape Town and is calling about Kashlin's daughter Crystal, an actress who, in a case of life copying art, has been murdered while filming a remake of Godard's 1963 movie Contempt at the Cape's eponymous Century City studios. While Delport remains at her desk, Kashlin roams his movie lot. The conversation meanders from potential killers, insurance policies, body doubles and stock fraud to the script of Kashlin's next TV movie, Triple Blade, in which Crystal, as Detective Honeywell, would have featured in 'three or four' sex scenes. With more motives, intrigues and suspects than any TV crime thriller, the looped conversation is endlessly unresolved.
But we all recognise the nuances of movie dialogue, and something about Delport's accusative attitude just isn't right. Is Kashlin a suspect, despite the impossible logistics of being on the other side of the globe? In the movies, anything is possible. The dialogue is mirrored by Kashlin's restless wanderings, which take him into the very office from which Delport's Cape Town scene is played. As the artifice of the set is revealed, in the internal and perverse logic of movie-making, so Kashlin's alibi is blown. Nothing is what it seems, especially in Hollywood. As Kashlin himself bemoans, the fact that Hollywood is just a process, a style, and 'not even a place', means that much of his work is done anywhere but in LA.
Century City is Croft's most complex work to date and, together with Hit, undoubtedly his most critically successful. Eschewing his now familiar dissolves and rapid cuts, the worlds of Delport and Kashlin occupy separate screens, demanding a different kind of integration. Although inextricably linked by the fast moving dialogue, Croft almost wilfully deconstructs any more formal bonding. Delport's is a static, almost classic late-night office scene, filmed with the rich depth of celluloid: the cop tied to her desk, burning the midnight oil, punctuated only by the odd cut. Kashlin's scene is restlessly recorded with the immediacy of hand-held video in docu-drama style Á la Hill Street Blues, with extras moving in and out of shot. The language of cinematic genre seems to tell us these are worlds apart, until the moment when Kashlin wanders onto Delport's set and we are reminded that, while it's only a movie, movies have their own rules.
Keith Patrick is an independent curator and writer based in Barcelona.