The Critics: Public View

Adventures In Contemporary Art No 13: Strategies For Survival
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The Independent Culture
Tonight, BBC2 is screening a 45-minute film by Richard Billingham on the same subject as has brought him praise as a fine-art photographer: his immediate family. Jason, the artist's younger brother, features, but the film essentially lays bare the physical presences and personalities of the parents - Ray and Liz, and the intense relationship between the couple. The film takes place in their council flat in the West Midlands.

Ray is thin, lined, grey, decrepit, and has the scrawniest neck I've ever seen. His son's camera dwells on it. Ray drinks in the kitchen whenever he gets an opportunity, which is also where he keeps his fishtank. He speaks often, either to Richard (no answer) or to Liz ("SHUT UP, Ray"), but it's difficult to make out what he's croaking. I guess he's lost his teeth, and that alcohol and tobacco have ravaged his throat. Suddenly, in the middle of an indecipherable stream of words directed at Liz, comes loud and clear: "You've never thought it reasonable to give me any money." Her retort pulls no punches: "Because it would all go straight on drink and nothing else."

Liz is drastically overweight. She eats twice during the film and there are boxes of snacks about the flat. She meticulously applies make-up to her face. The camera zooms in on the contrast between the blue of her eye pencil and the red pool of close-to-the-surface blood on the inside of her lower eyelid, as the tip of the pencil pushes the lid in a smooth wave from one side of the eye to the other. Later, her pet snake slithers over the mounds and into the nooks of her upper body. She seems completely lost in her sensuality, swooning almost, and is able to ignore Ray when he comes in the room to point out that the TV would give a better picture if the screen was wiped.

But Liz is not often able to ignore Ray. She is constantly having to tell him to SHUT UP. She swears at him, and threatens to throw Ray out the front door. She's not going to open it first, she's just going to throw him through the door. He blithely accepts that she could do so because he's light. But she couldn't if he were heavy. Ray babbling on like this makes things worse. And one thing Ray can be relied upon to do is babble on.

At one stage her exasperation boils over. She's sitting quietly, smoking, in the bedroom. He's slumped on the bed, complaining about his lot. The camera is focused on him. But when she can't take any more, and some sort of physical assault is made, Richard Billingham's camera discreetly turns to focus on the blank TV screen, which nevertheless reflects some movement behind. "Now just GET OUT," says Liz, authoritatively, once the scuffle is over. Ray declares that he won't be coming back. That's fine by Liz - she doesn't want him back. But her pain is just as audible as her bravado.

The threat of disintegration of the household recurs. Ray leaving home, or being chucked out; Liz packing her bags, or going to the council and getting Ray a flat on his own ("Preferably not on this block"). And yet I feel this is unlikely to happen. They've made their lives together. They've brought up two sons, one of whom is trusted to move between and about them at will with a camcorder, recording every nuance of speech, every trinket and consumer durable, every inch of fallible flesh.

Near the end, a mellow Ray and Liz are lying together in sunshine on top of their bed. Ray puts his arm around her back as she eats a sandwich. Finished chewing, she lays the side of her face against his thin body. When she belches, it's done discreetly, turning her mouth into Ray's flat belly, begging a pardon immediately afterwards. And when she belches again the same points of etiquette are observed.

Late at night the camera is invited into the kitchen for a drink. Ray coughs, to drown out the sound of the opening can, then pours himself a glass. "Down the hatch," he says, grinning defiantly. "If you're drinking, Ray, I'll clobber you," comes from the TV lounge. Ray keeps an eye on things through the crack in the door ...

Richard Billingham: 'Fishtank', BBC2 tonight, 10pm.

'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book on contemporary art, is out now from Quartet (pounds 12).

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