There are no real characters in Jack Chambers’ experimental film The Hart of London (1970), recently brought to Princeton by the Light Industry, a New York-based venue for experimental film. Lots of anonymous people appear on camera, but they never speak. We hear voices and think they belong to people, only to find that the dialogue is part of an endlessly looping soundtrack. We see nameless animals walk around and then die. The setting is London, Chambers’ hometown in Canada, where most of the footage comes from. But though the movie is repetitive and inhuman, it is also mysterious and thrilling.
For most of the film we’re in London, Canada, in black and white, in winter. The camera pans over the streets, where cars, carriages, and pedestrians struggle through the snow and ice. Most of the buildings are big apartment complexes, made of brick or concrete; one shot that recurs over the course of the film shows men in coats and bowler hats wandering past a storefront labeled “McCormick’s Biscuits.” Sometimes the shots are negatives: the men look like ghosts and the sky is a dull gray. Chambers frequently uses double exposures, when multiple shots are layered on top of each other. In this way we see horses and carriages on top of churches and leaves in front of babies’ faces. There are no cuts in this movie. Each shot fades into the next one.
There is something like a plot: the seasons pass, cities rise and fall, humans are incessantly cruel to animals. This last point cannot be ignored: men in winter coats pile the carcasses of deer next to railroad tracks, and later we see those carcasses after they’ve been skinned, with their shiny, translucent flesh. The Hart of London’s biggest theme is the transitory nature of life, and violent death is everywhere. In no other movie have I seen living creatures actually die on camera.
In the hardest scene, two lambs lie on a dirty stone table. Their limbs are tied and they lift their heads occasionally to see what’s going on. A man walks into the frame with a long butcher’s knife and grabs the lamb on the right before slitting its throat. Suddenly black blood is pouring all over the floor and the table. The lamb starts heaving and jerking around in fast spasms. The other one, uncomprehending, lies still; when its throat gets cut, it takes a much shorter time to die and it even raises its head one more time, calmly, to see what’s happening. It takes around one minute for both lambs to die. After twenty more minutes of crossfading and double exposures and photographic negatives of men walking around, the camera comes back to the lambs. The shot is in color this time and we see the rightmost lamb’s scarlet blood draped over the table and falling to the floor.
I’m not entirely sure why Chambers decided to include that scene of slaughter; maybe for shock effect, maybe just because he had the footage. I am sure that everyone in the theater wanted more than anything for the shot to end, for the lamb to die, for the film to return to leaves for ten more minutes. And the shot did end, eventually. More vivid than any of Chambers’ philosophical themes is the film’s constant rhythm: we are never watching any one thing for too long before we move to something else. There is the looping soundtrack and the repeated double exposures in which pale, ghostly men walk past McCormick’s Biscuits, but the film is never still.
Near the end, as we move from winter to spring, the shots explode into color: firemen putting out a red fire, a boy feeding a brown, spotted deer, a beautiful dark lake under a purple sky. The final shot wheels up at the sky and we hear a woman whisper, “Got to be careful.”
The Hart of London is avant-garde and philosophical, obsessed with its technique and its themes. But it’s never boring. I stayed for the full eighty minutes and can remember every shot.
The Light Industry at Princeton screens in the James M. Stewart Theater at the Lewis Center, 185 Nassau Street, at 7:00 p.m. on Thursdays.