Taking The Michael (NVA, 2012)

Taking The Michael (Still 1)

Taking The Michael (Out/Side/Film, 2012) 78m

Ian Nesbitt receives a call from Matthew Pountney, who has in turn received a call of his own – or at least, “a very direct communication” – from the universe. “It’s something to do with 2012”, he explains, referring to the Mayan Prophecy that is often interpreted as meaning the world will end on December 21 2012, at the Winter Solstice, but is actually a bit more subtle in its implications. The date, for those who believe in its significance, marks not some inevitable apocalypse but a more subtle point of transition. As one of many pages devoted to the Mayan Prophecy on the internet explains:

There are many predictions of what might happen that could, if they do not occur, mislead many to perceive the date as meaningless. By focusing too heavily on external events one may be missing the true significance of this prophetic date. Regardless of what happens externally, December 21, 2012, is a clear marker of the transition of World Ages. This synchronization is inviting all of humanity to open itself to imagining, envisioning and actualizing the possibilities of gradual, positive transformation of our human culture in harmony with the Earth.

Perhaps it’s this call to transform his own consciousness by going on a quest that lies behind Pountney’s next moves, which from here will be faithfully, if a bit sceptically, documented by Nesbitt’s camera as the two venture out into the richly mythologised landscapes of the West Country along the ‘Michael Line’, a ley-line that is supposed to run directly from Avebury in Wiltshire, via many other sites of mystical and mythological significance, including Glastonbury, all the way down the South West corner of the country to its terminus at the tidal island monastery perched on the summit of St Michael’s Mount, just off the coast of Marazion, Cornwall.

Ley-lines were the brainchild of Alfred Watkins, who published his speculative archaeological, geographical and historical study The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones in 1925, in which he put forward the idea that human beings had long built key symbolic structures along traceable lines, mainly, he’d suggested, as a method of connecting these locations in the landscape, thus easing trade and travel between them in the days before compasses and GPS. For Watkins, then, ley-lines were conceived as a system of landmarks, purposefully arranged for mostly practical ends by Neolithic societies, and built upon by later settlers and cultures.

Not long after he proposed his theory, however, and with a fresh emphasis after the 1960s, Watkins’ theories concerning ley-lines, already largely discounted by mainstream archaeology, became entangled with ideas about ‘Earth energies’ as a whole panoply of hippy and New Age thinkers extended Watkins’ own, relatively mundane, interpretations and considered his ‘old straight tracks’ as something akin to the bodily chakras of the land; spiritual force-fields along which the man-made points defining them – often prehistoric earthworks and henges – were to be read as mystical ‘hot-spots’ in the landscape where psychic energies might be tapped and otherwise influenced.

Taking The Michael (Still 2)

Perhaps this background suggests we should consider Nesbitt the sceptical rationalist of Taking The Michael – the Alfred Watkins, if we will – to Pountney’s more thoroughgoing New Age believer, whose psychedelic coat tails billow out behind him as he strides ever onward during the journey that makes up the film’s loosely shaped narrative. I was often reminded of the relationship between Quixote and Sancho in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, or between Robinson and the unnamed narrator in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films, in which Keiller’s dysfunctional academic protagonist also rather whimsically decides to “change the world by going for a walk.”

In truth, though, the roles don’t pan out quite so predictably. Nesbitt is often liable to reveal in his various asides to the camera that he’s well aware Taking The Michael is a constructed fiction in the making, for all that everything we see during its 78 minutes actually takes place, and for all that Pountney himself, and the many characters encountered along the route, are documentary subjects rather than the inventions of a scriptwriter. But that question of testing the limits of reality, first posed here by a folklorist in relation to the feelings of awe inspired in people who knowingly enter even blatantly faked crop circles, becomes the theme of the film, despite Nesbitt’s frequent worrying that the material he’s gathering might not be all that interesting, that he doesn’t know where the film is going, or if it’s even a film at all.

Early on, Pountney and the various hippies, ‘energy workers’ and crystal healers we encounter might appear a bit deluded but mostly harmlessly eccentric. As we go on, however, stopping at established permaculture communities in Devon, or travelling with a horse-trainer and his Vardo caravan along the West Country back roads, these alternative ways of life come to seem progressively saner, our glimpses of traffic and ever rarer sightings of ‘the mainstream’ more peculiar each time they appear. Even Pountney’s rambling parables and non-sequiteurs about shark-interrupted honeymoons and precisely enumerated ‘walls of tiredness’ make more sense as the journey proceeds.

Which, when you’ve heard them, ought to be at least slightly worrying. Perhaps, like Nesbitt himself, we gradually come round to Pountney’s way of thinking, eccentric as it is – or at the very least, to the choice of slowness over speed, the willingness to risk a destination that might be pretty much arbitrary in the end. This, of course, is not to mention Pountney’s chosen mode of transport – a pedal powered 1968 Bond Ranger three wheeler car with flaking paint, which might best be described as a Robin Reliant without the macho posturing – that proves so unreliable and exhausting to travel in that it might never actually reach that destination.

For all the problems, though, Pountney cheerfully presses on, with Nesbitt dragged along in his wake, savouring flashes of sunlight across green lanes, talking to men like the one who has experienced a ‘Kundalini Vision’ of becoming part of a living oak tree, or another who “used to drive a Porsche 911” and “lived the life” but lost his wife to cancer and radically reassessed his values and priorities. There are survivors of the free festival and New Age Traveller scenes, effectively driven from the roads by law in 1987; we drop in at post peak-oil homesteads running on old chip fat; and generally encounter a whole array of lives and ways of living hidden away among the retail parks, service stations and housing estates that typically surround them.

Perhaps the crux of the film comes around halfway through, when Nesbitt pursues Pountney along yet another country lane while his subject strides purposefully towards the hill-top site of Cadbury Castle, one of many places that claims to be the original location of Camelot in the Arthurian legends. “The thing is”, Nesbitt is saying to Pountney, running along behind him with his camera and a bit out of breath, “we’re not doing anything but going up hills and then down hills again. I’m not sure it’s very interesting. I’m not sure it’s really a film.”

As they scramble up towards the summit of the fortification where the castle once stood, Pountney responds by extravagantly stretching his arm out and gesturing at the view: “But look what you get when you reach the top,” he says proudly. Then he offers yet another of his many bizarre parables, drawing a neat line into the heart of his own idiosyncratic quest, Nesbitt’s film, and the way both lead to a temporary forsaking of the mainstream’s priorities in favour of another way of life, perhaps one that really could ‘imagine, envision and actualize the possibility of positive transformation of human culture in harmony with the Earth’ in response to that Mayan prophecy.

For Pountney, after this moment, the destination becomes so beside the point that, on arrival, the final short leg along the tidal causeway that would have completed the journey is seemingly abandoned. But on that Cadbury Castle hilltop, what a film about ‘walking up and down hills’ most decisively isn’t proves to be far more important that what it is. As Pountney suggests: “it’s not Salman Rushdie and Germaine Greer dressed as hot dogs on Celebrity Tap Dancing with mustard coloured canes because they’re desperate for the exposure, is it?” And at this almost precise mid-point in the film, you can only allow yourself to finally give in to Pountney’s idiosyncratic logic and agree:

It really isn’t. And that is almost certainly the point.

Taking The Michael (Still 3)

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