The BFI is very good at delving into its archive to bring out things that feel like it’s a very good thing that they’re out there for the public to find, even if it’s difficult to imagine any more than a very tiny segment of that public ever caring to seek them out. That’s very true of You’re Human Like The Rest Of Them, which I think it’s safe to say won’t be reaching the top of the DVD/Blu-ray sales chart, but gives an outlet to the work of an intriguing artist who has a bit of a cult following in certain circles.
B.S. Johnson was a bit of an artistic polymath, writing novels, poetry, plays, researching history and making films. The result is an eclectic mix of short films, ranging from the very experimental to relatively straightforward documentaries. Things kick off with the award-winning short that the collection is named after, You’re Human Like The Rest Of Them. It’s good evidence of how Johnson like to use different mediums, as it started as poetry that became a play and was then turned into a film. It’s about a teacher confronting mortality, and while sometimes a little pretentious, it’s an interesting and well-made film.
Things get a lot more ‘difficult’ with Paradigm, a short that was vilified on its first release and you can see why. It’s an experimental art film that sees a man changing from being young (and naked) to old and decrepit, all set in a strange sort of TV set/futuristic netherworld, with the man speaking a made up language and accompanied by a high-pitched whine. It’s weird and I’m not entirely sure what the point of it is, although it’s kind of intriguing, particularly when you realise it was made in 1969, the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey. With its other-world setting and aging man it can’t help but bring to mind the end of 2001, even though they must have been being made at the same time. Even so, I’d imagine many will think the ‘B.S.’ in Johnson’s name stands for something other than Bryan Stanley after watching this.
It’s not all art films though, as there’s also the likes of March!, a documentary Johnson made for the TUC to fight against the Industrial Relations Act that was going through Parliament in the early 70s and sought to curb the powers of the trade unions. Johnson came from a working class background and so was undoubtedly on the TUC’s side. What he produced is essentially propaganda with all the one-sided thinking you’d expect of that. Nevertheless it’s an interesting look at the time, and an interesting coincidence that it’s being released on the same week as Maggie Thatcher’s funeral, as it was the fallout of the Industrial Relations Act and 70s strife that she effectively crushed.
The Blu-ray/DVD release also includes the TV programme ‘On Reflection’, where Johnson appears on-screen to give his thoughts about Samuel Johnson. It’s an interesting look at the 16th Century gent and shows Johnson’s admiration for him and how well read B.S. was. Also featuring Johnson himself is Fat Man On A Beach, a 40-minute programme that’s exactly what it suggests, a fat man (Johnson) on a beach in Wales. It’s not the sort of thing we see much of today, as it simply allows an artist to hang about, tell stories, read poems, talk about the Welsh beach he’s sat on and chat about how the programme itself works. It’s surprisingly interesting and watchable, largely as Johnson is an affable and interesting chap. It was made for ITV, although I can’t imagine them commissioning anything of the like today.
The sad footnote is that shortly after Fat Man On A Beach was filmed, Johnson took his own life, apparently due to frustration over his lack of commercial success (although on the evidence of these films, it wasn’t really commercial success he was after, but the mixed critical reaction to his work probably didn’t help).
With various other films included, it’s an interesting, eclectic and unusual mix, ranging from the very pretentious and experimental through to relatively straightforward documentaries. It’s the sort of collection that for the uninitiated is a little random and strange, but if you know (or find out) a little bit about B.S. Johnson they’re an intriguing bunch that tell of the experimental, intellectual and wide-ranging life of their creator. And as this is the BFI, there’s a 30 booklet with plenty of info about the films and their maker to help fill you in.
Overall Verdict: As I mentioned, it’s never going to be of interest to that many people, but if you’re interested in Johnson or indeed cinema and TV in the late 60s and early 70s, it’s worth seeking out.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac