Play Me Something

Barely an hour long, Timothy Neat’s cine-poem Play Me Something rests somewhere between Chris Marker’s Sans soleil and Jackanory, an investigation into the weirdness and potency of storytelling. Based on a short story by John Berger, who wrote the screenplay, the film is set in an airport in the remote island of Barra, Scotland, where a collection of passengers (including a luminous albeit badly-accented Tilda Swinton) wait for a delayed plane. An enigmatic raconteur emerges, also played by John Berger, and begins to tell a story to his stranded audience. 

Play Me Something is the kind of picture that could have only been made in the heyday of the 1980s, a period in which the British cinematic avant-garde was at its most formally adventurous. Like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, Neat is unafraid to foreground the artificiality of the form, with sound effects and still images interrupting the film’s diegetic flow. Bruno and Marietta, the couple who make up his story, are barely pictured on screen, leaving Berger’s mellifluous narration and dreamlike shots of Venice to summon the story. Yet thanks to Berger’s humanist screenplay, Play Me Something has its sights on how the language of film makes the viewer feel, as opposed to the often detached intellectual exercises of Berger’s Marxist contemporaries.

In spite of its conceptual flights of fancy, Play Me Something is also cheerfully unserious. Dick jokes abound, as do suggestive shots of a cow being milked; at one point, the narrative pauses so the passengers can have an extended debate about testicles. (“What’s wrong with a horse’s balls? If horses didn’t have balls, there wouldn’t be horses” declares Swinton’s character.) There is no implied aesthetic contradiction between a shot of the beauty of Venice and that of a cow’s anus. In this sense, Play Me Something is an extension of the ideas Berger theorised in the TV adaptation of his totemic book Ways of Seeing, down to the proto-ASMR narration and Berger's endlessly fascinating face. 

Whilst some of Berger’s emphasis on the purportedly insurmountable differences between men and women feels somewhat dated, Play Me Something is that rare thing in postmodern cinema: a film that is as intelligent as it is enjoyable. By the end of the film, the passengers finally able to board the plane, Berger’s character has become an embodiment of cinema itself, holding his audience in rapture, summoning images seemingly out of nowhere, shaping the narrative as it unspools. His story removes the barriers between his audience, allowing them to debate, fall in love and leave the experience with their affective horizons widened. 

Watch Play Me Something on TANKtv.

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