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Chasing the Tail of Tales by Sacha Craddock

I first met Stuart Croft in 1998 when he was a student on the MA at Chelsea. I have followed his work ever since. We last worked together on the highly ambitious dance film commissioned by and shown on a grand scale at Bloomberg Space. Stuart’s work was radically ahead of its time: exceptional, innovative and brave.

His attitude was against the grain – he was grandiose, advanced, stubborn, fulsome, expectant, generous with sound, colour, character, form. Stuart influenced others as well, teaching and encouraging new generations of artists and filmmakers. Stuart’s distinctive place within artists’ film was reflected in the Moving lmage Pathway he created at the Royal College of Art, a course that bridged the art world and film industry. The Stuart Croft Foundation aims to continue the legacy he established as an educator and artist, to enable and inspire others.

From his earliest films, such as Point X (1998), Stuart Croft sat entirely outside conventions and expectations in artists’ film and the gallery. His play with television and advertising genres seemed shocking and exciting. This spoof crime scene reconstruction set in the Cumbrian countryside runs parallel to an advertisement for rest and therapy.

With the hypnotic, superimposed voiceover evoking the “Valley of Desolation in a stress induced world”, Stuart conveys with great force an atmosphere of conflict characteristic of all his films, setting the tenor of much of his subsequent work. The reflexive, performative, auteur quality is further emphasised by Stuart casting himself in the central role.

Whether working with a low budget or with a Bloomberg commission, Stuart was remarkably consistent in the manner of making and the level of finish he achieved. Adept at gaining industry favours, and loyal to longstanding creative collaborations, his body of work was both a celebration and a critique of high production values. He was a supremely disciplined writer and film editor, returning to his abiding structure of looping narrative, cross-fading and appropriating stories in successive films. Stories are told, and re-told, and as they progress in time they yield differences to the viewer.

Drive In (2007), one of his most celebrated and widely travelled works, focuses on an American woman, a car passenger, telling a fantastical tale to the driver, her silent male counterpart. Her performance is pitched perfectly, as the good actress, rather than as a real character, as she recounts the story of two strangers meeting on a desert island, perhaps surrogates for the car inhabitants. Because of the circularity, the initially alluring environment she describes becomes false, hackneyed, by the second time around. The frisson of the story, which has been told with real compulsion, starts to repeat itself, become jaded.

From inside a vehicle in Drive In, or within a durational dissolve in the bar setting of Hit (2003), or in a bedroom, dining room or film studio sound stage, Stuart’s films make certain that someone else is seen to be looking and listening. Action arrives through crafting a compelling narration and a seamless structure, simultaneously engaging and repelling the viewer as it returns.

Century City (2006) plays out a neo noir crime thriller across two screens, where two stories twist around one another, in an unending repetition. For Comma 39 (2011) Stuart embraced the dance film. A man with a disfigured face is forever spurned by his graceful but evasive partner. The place of the action is limited, yet we get a strong snippet of something greater and more troubling. The merging of genre  is complete. The man’s wound, his face torn open, extends out from the medium as an affront both to saccharine Tinseltown and the expectations of the white cube environment. Both Stag Without a Heart (2010) and Questions (2013) probe patriarchy and masculinity, stripping their male protagonists bare, in grief and introspection. We see how power, privilege and politics are also systems that can be exposed.

With an extraordinary understanding of artifice, Stuart used film as a cloak or screen to reach a critical place, and tell the circular nature of capitalist life, where reality and film run continually alongside of  and into each other. Stuart conjures a particular atmosphere, in which movement is stillness, identities are confused, and genre is both honoured and pulled apart, exposing the mechanism and manoeuvres of film. Where traditionally the art world repressed storytelling, Stuart’s invention was to appropriate narrative and render it elliptical. In Stuart Croft’s  work the cinema chases its own tail.

Published on the occasion of the launch of the Stuart Croft Foundation.

© Sacha Craddock October 2017

Image: Still from Comma 39, 2011. Copyright Stuart Croft Foundation.

If you would like a copy of the printed publication, please email info@stuartcroftfoundation.org

Contact: info@stuartcroftfoundation.org © Stuart Croft Foundation 2017 | Registered charity No. 1163676 | Website: tmck.co.uk