LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
" How anyone can throw that away in a skip I cannot understand," said Julie Parr, stroking a miniature sewing machine with unforced tenderness. It was, she explained, the favourite in her collection, as if its foundling status had earned it a special degree of fond attention. She didn't appear to have christened it - which is something of a departure in Mad about Machines (C4), the first of which was about a woman with a typewriter called Olive, and the second of which featured a lawnmower called Dennis - but in all other respects she matched her predecessors in their passion for obsolete technology.

Obsolesence is the crux, though, because all of these programmes call into question any simple notions about technological progress. I confess to having been sceptical about Taghi Amirani's series when I saw it described on paper because it seemed unlikely that the matter - people's love affairs with machinery - could amply fill the time. It sounded like a set of quirky miniatures had got ideas above their station. In the event, though, the films offer something genuinely unusual on television - a sustained set of ideas running through portraits of very different lives. Last week's film, about a man with a passion for lawnmowers, was one of those documentaries which lodge in your mind, pressed there by the faintly surreal nature of the lives depicted. In its account of a character in happy enslavement to the perfection of his huge garden, it had the quality of a fairy-tale, one of those fables in which an enclosed garden has somehow rearranged time, so that a mother could be indistinguishable in age from her son.

Last night's film was not quite as eerily detached from the world, but it confirmed that the virtues of the earlier film were not just a set of lucky accidents. In framing his subjects, Amirani has taken care to include their human relationships, not simply their capacity to humanise the inanimate. The cynical modern adjective for such obsessive enthusiasms is "sad" but, although these films are in a minor key, they have all been portraits of carefully maintained contentment. And this can cause problems. Some may find the forgiving tenderness of the camerawork a touch oppressive. Everything is hazed in diffused glare, to the point that the interviewees are sometimes barely visible in their halos of softened backlight. What's more, the films need patience - taking time for uninflected details which only add to a sense of mildly affected devotion. A film which can soft- focus on a pair of faded blue Y-fronts is pushing the beauty of appearances to a teetering brink, even if the underwear in question turns out to be an emblem of maternal love.

But then you find your patience rewarded, either by the allusive nature of the editing or by the appetite for visual rhymes. A sequence about the elegantly robust nature of the old machines gave way to an account of the Parr's marriage, making the move by way of a heart-shaped cam. What had been explicitly functional, the pleasure of ingenuity, suddenly gleamed with a retrospective light when you cut to Julie's memories of her first meeting with her husband. Later, the confetti recorded on their wedding video faded into a shower of buttons, cascading over one of her beloved machines.

Amirani also has an eye for social comedy. Julie, for example, who runs up sprigged Victorian dresses for her own satisfaction, has a day job making fetishistic latex underwear, and has effortlessly desexed these objects of genital arousal, turning them into an assault course for her haberdashery skills. "I had never, ever, designed a pair of men's latex pants before in my life," she said, talking as if she expected someone to exclaim "Oh, come on! You must have." Above all, the nostalgia of these programmes is also forward-looking; it feeds a modern ecological dream of a world in which machines aren't designed always to give way to the next model. This ethic, of care and repair, isn't really laboured by the films - the top note is that of helpless devotion - but it is what ensures that they are never just tritely eccentric.

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