Thank you Matt for this spectacular oddity from Adam Curtis at the BBC. In 1982, Libya held an international showjumping contest that featured top British riders and a thousand-strong Bedouin “fantasia”. Head-tossing barb horses in embroidered bridles, a dictator at the height of his powers and one very dour Yorkshireman, who really does not want to talk to the plucky BBC film maker, all packed into 15 minutes of footage.
In Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men, the inhabitants of a remote Icelandic valley have emotions as tightly knitted as their jumpers – except when it comes to their swift-trotting, thick-maned horses.
In the opening scene we see the coat on a grey mare’s chest, caught in whorls and feathered by drizzle as her owner’s eye lovingly traces it. And then we see the owner himself, Kollbeinn, a middle-aged man in a tightly buttoned tweed jacket, reflected in the mare’s eye. “Darling,” he calls her, and “little lady.” When he smooths the coat on her back before hoicking her saddle on, it’s a caress. She will carry him across the valley to Solveig, the woman he’s in love with, at a spanking “tolt” that is watched covetously by the rest of the community through their binoculars and windows. “She’s no slouch, that mare,” Solveig greets him, before inviting him in for tea with her mother and son.
Left tied up outside, the grey mare acts on her own unihibited romantic inclinations, humiliating Kollbein – with grievous results for both herself and her lover, Solveig’s brown stallion.
There are six interlocking stories in this dark and comic Icelandic film, which won the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize and the Brussels’ Golden Iris. In each, horses look on as humans commit all manner of sins of pride and folly, sometimes with disastrous consequences for themselves, and more often with terrible consequences for the horses. The dysfunctional, emotionally repressed humans are direct only when they are in pursuit of alcohol, which they sink like English foxhunters (from hip flasks, on horseback, and often). They would rather watch their neighbours through those binoculars than bare their hearts.
While they love their horses, what they love more is what horses can do for them: make them look desirable or masterful, get them vodka, humiliate their sexual rivals or take them home. The horses generally oblige them – even standing pacifically on a platform suspended from the hull of a Russian trawler at sea – but they cannot save them from their own idiocy, and sometimes, just by being horses, they ruin the best laid plans of their owners. The film’s humour can be tarry black: This wimp found the story of poor Juan, the Spanish tourist whose only crime was to wear a woolly hat and want to ride a horse, a little hard to stomach.
The characters are eccentric, but not grotesques: Erlingsson’s actors can convey a repressed emotion into the minutest gesture of the hand or widening of an eye. A woman announces her intention to seduce a man by flicking her pony tail out of her cagoule. Solveig’s eyebrows perform a small, expressive dance as Kollbein stands next to her and sweet talks his mare as Solveig wants to hear him whisper to her. A homesick Mongolian sailor called Genghis embraces a horse’s head tenderly, his face shining.
Throughout the six stories runs the busy rhythm of the tolt, matched by Icelandic folk music, and the spare and beautiful landscape, where sloping green valleys give way to crags of shifting, slatey rocks. The sea is frigid turquoise. The sky changes from mackerel clouds to pelting rain or a deathly blizzard.
Towards the end there’s a shift, and a lightening. People come together, and, fortified by alcohol, dare to reach for one another across the gaps between their horses. Cries of love making blur into those of horse herding. The film’s Icelandic title is Hross í Oss, which translates as “Horses and Us” – the similarities between the words in both English and Icelandic has the sealed-in wit of a palindrome or pun. We are horses, horses are us. And when we give up our stupid human inhibitions and wrongheadedness, and act a little more like horses, we find happiness.
Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2013 feature, Of Horses and Men, will be on general release here in Germany from February 19th on, as Von Menschen und Pferde, and is available on DVD in the UK and US.
Thank you to artist Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo for drawing my attention to this work by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade. Andrade organised a race through the centre of the Brazilian city of Recife for the carters who – despite being officially outlawed by city officials who see them as an afront to their notion of a modern, fully urban community – are a daily part of the economy and landscape. It’s called “Uprising” (somewhat wince-inducing but also magnificent photos of the horses at this link):
The rite blessed invisibility in a celebratory existence. The men with the carts didn’t give a fig for the movie, and the project became a pretext for taking the city in a coup and at the gallop. The ground was churned up – the paw, the horseshoe, the horseshit. Characters were incorporated. Any protagonism of the team was wiped out and dissolved into the mass. The front was taken by the horseman, a herdsman minstrel bellowing out improvised verses about the scene, the cart flying along. Forces came to the fore pulling on the reins; rhythm; momentum – ecstasy and disobedience. The sound of the horses’ hooves on the asphalt was multiplied, echoed off the walls of the buildings and spread throughout the city. The sound silenced and set the boundaries of the territory. An atmosphere of a trance being underway. Presence of spirit, incorporation of desire – Pure Candomblé*. The uprising became more that of the tremendous, sensory and corporeal passing into being of formulating policy, and the project gained new meaning from its own reinvention.
Wonderful news for overworked writers who don’t have time to maintain their blogs: British Pathé have uploaded their stock of vintage film clips to YouTube. As the old slogan of the British tabloid the News of the World used to claim, “all human life is there”, and quite a bit of horsey life too. So where shall we go today?
Maybe to Soviet-era Dagestan to watch the locals ride:
Or a ladies’ point-to-point in 1920s Britain, with half the field sidesaddle and half riding heels-first like sulky drivers:
To 1920s Vienna, where the lipizzaners at the Spanish Riding School look as though they are about to join in the human conversation to clarify some of the finer points of the piaffe:
And Liverpool’s cart horse parade in the 1920s, featuring shires got up in elaborate floral rigs and stepping out for the lady mayoress. For more about the tradition of the parade, click here.
Iceland’s entry for this year’s best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars has a very horsey flavour. Its trailer is also, like all the best foreign films, NSFW.
Thank you to Tanya for alerting me!
Pony life is not all about sugar and being petted by little girls. There’s a sinister side to equus ponius’ sunshine lifestyle, and Jay Speiden seeks to uncover it with the help of Kickstarter. As in Pony Kick starter.