Great review by Thirza Wakefield of A Life in Progress in “Sight and Sound”

Since the intricate, scenic workings of his ticker-tape mind do not always make it out intact, Cameron’s documentary is a rattled, embattled, uneven attempt at filming the artist’s interiority. Bizarrely, it’s effective: a sideways film, it moves on a sliding scale from the most recent footage of a 2012 radio-roundtable about the potential for Scottish home rule to the earliest, in 2000, which sees the wallpapering by redevelopers of Gray’s private-house mural of Jonah and the Whale, with all dates disordered in between.

In a sense, the film is itself a trompe l’oeil, expressive of Gray’s imagination – which, as he says, holding Harmsworth’s Encyclopedia, knows “no separation […] between the adventures of science and space… and the fantasies of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.” There’s unity in euphony – in the neighbourly relation of all things in the resourceful, imaginative mind.

Gray is abashed before the camera, like he doesn’t believe in it – so Cameron’s camerawork is self-trivialising; has to be. The film’s anecdotal centrepiece, catching Gray off-guard “at a moment of crisis”, finds the painter in a muddle over a lost portfolio, containing two months’ work toward his Hillhead Underground mural, and misplaced after a heavy night of drinking. In this instant – albeit with no thought to framing, with scarce eye-contact and lowered head – Gray appears a little more accepting of the process of filmmaking, which he’s heard elsewhere to dismiss (“No doubt it would be extremely better without filming me at all; just having a sheet at a time with my voice over”). In fact, in this sole extended to-camera fragment, Gray’s aberrant appeal to the lens proves true measure of his worry, which his outward behaviour makes woollen with giggling and ebullience. His uneasy relationship to film becomes tablature for tacit emotion.

Gray’s surprising voice is the sure star of the film: ululating, undulating, ascending and descending, risen in song – a baritone, a bugle reveille, the wee squeak of storybook mice before sleep. At the film’s opening, the soundtrack samples Gray’s declarative voice, recognising that this is his instrument. Given the sacrificial art of Cameron’s specific task (filmmaker as faithful supplicant), the film might be alternatively titled His Master’s Voice – with Gray the gramophone.
Like The 50 Year Argument, Cameron’s film isn’t concerned with story as chronicle – but with the unruly, untidy, pedestrian individual: a work in progress.

Sheffield Doc:Fest 2014: literary champions abide | Sight & Sound | BFI


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