You couldn’t really not dig it. Last month I went to the first London screening of James Batley’s Kneel Through the Dark. It was at the Bunker, Dalston, which was a fair bit better than it might sound. For a start, the Bunker is (or was) an actual WWII bunker, with stinking rotting walls lined—for the occasion—with guttering sputtering candles. Then there was the rain, a mighty downpour above ground that the ceiling only filtered through its filth, so that it sluiced dirtily down, refilling drinks gratis and forming such large puddles about the film gear that the nerves of the sodden audience were soon getting quite lustily strummed by the dual threat of flood and fire. Meanwhile Batley himself—great name!—flitted (or flapped) hither and thither in a splendid black cape.
As for Kneel Through the Dark itself, the short, Crowley-inspired film left an impression more physical than mental. A bassline clawed nastily at your stomach, while the images—a turning torso of technicolour smoke; a submerged face; a boy crowned with antlers—flashed by.
Like I say, you couldn’t not dig it, and since there’s a special Halloween screening in London town, I thought it’d be an opportune time to trouble Batley himself (whose work has collected plaudits from Dennis Cooper and Gus Van Sant, among others) with some inescapably inane questions…
Thomas McGrath: Loved the screening. I found the atmosphere and setting to be a part of the film, rather than extraneous to it. How important is it to you where you show a film?
James Batley: Ah thanks. The environment definitely adds an extra dimension. When I first walked down those stairs and saw how the bunker sucked in light, the stale air choked my lungs and rancid water dripped through my eyelashes. I was like… this is perfect
Thomas McGrath: Could you think of some kind of ideal setting or circumstance?
James Batley:I’d love to do a screening in a burning building.
Thomas McGrath: Tell us a bit about Kneel Through the Dark?
James Batley: It’s my second short film shot on Super 8 that features an Aleister Crowley magick ritual but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s a bit like a spell that buries into your subconscious and pushes your whiskers to the ether.
Thomas McGrath: Go on, unpick its symbolism for us a bit…
James Batley: I don’t like to break it down too much. I hate going to an art show where the plaque on the wall tells me more about the art than the piece does or just spells it all out arbitrarily. Why’d you create something when you could have told me on a postcard? I don’t like to be lead around and told what to think. Art is ultimately subjective anyway. Anything you connect with is because it relates to your own experiences or self in some way, no matter how coded or buried in your subconscious it is.
Thomas McGrath: Would you draw any distinction between ritual and art?
James Batley: Art is magick in the Crowley sense. When you listen to a piece of music, watch a film or whatever, it is momentarily possessing you, directing your mood and bending you to its will.
Thomas McGrath: How did you come to make films?
James Batley: I just see it as a way of communicating. Language can be clumsy and fraudulent so I threw up some sound and light to try and express something that gets lost in words. I tried photography for this but found it wasn’t enough. Sound is better but put them together and you have something really potent.
Thomas McGrath: Tell us about the Crowley influence.
James Batley: He made his own way in. I’m an aerial for this stuff. It’s important to be a conduit.
Thomas McGrath: I understand you’re very fond of your cat. How would you describe your cat in five words?
James Batley: Nippett. Will. Eat. Your. Brains.
Thomas McGrath: Crowley has a bad reputation among cat lovers usually, right?
James Batley: Well, yea. He has a bad reputation generally.
Thomas McGrath: Got a new project in mind/motion?
James Batley: I’m planning out my next short at the moment. It involves a boy who buries dead bees in the park and draws maps to their corpses. It’s autobiographical. It has meteors too.
The next Kneel Through The Dark screening will be in the basement (on a loop) at the DCR Halloween party tonight at Red Gallery, London, EC2A 3DT. Cheap tickets here. More details at: www.jamesbatley.com Add/follow James on Facebook to find out about future screenings.