Early Birds by Roy Exley


'It is a celebration, but at the same time, a memoir of a formerly abundant birdlife, which seems to be in swift decline.'


Ralph Vaughan Williamsí celebrated composition, The Lark Ascending, a perennial favourite of the British music-loving public, is based on a poem by George Meredith that describes the larkís song as: 'He drops the silver chain of sound / Of many links without a break / In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.' In the 19th Century, the English nature poet John Clare wrote about the nightingale: 'Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves / Rich ecstasy would pour its luscious strain / Till envy spurred the emulating thrush to start less wild yet scarce inferior songs.'

Interestingly, in life, in real-time, as in Suky Bestís film Early Birds, the birds that inspired these songs are usually seen in silhouette, the elusive nightingale in a distant tree, the ecstatic lark against the brilliant backdrop of a summer sky. Frederick Deliusís On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, puts the emphasis on the birdís song as, typically, we hear but rarely see a cuckoo, which is equally as elusive as the nightingale. The songs of these birds are burned irrevocably into our cultural memory; their presence is as mythical as it is real.

Birdsong, heard in the dense foliage of summer woodland where visibility is restricted, is always a giveaway - a trademark - offering the signatorial identity of individual species as they lose themselves in song. Those with a trained ear might be able to identify seven or eight species present in such a summer woodland without seeing a single bird. Best, however, has taken pity on the majority of us who lack this gift, by showing us the animated silhouettes of these birds as they perform their lyrical outpourings. Almost as tantalising as those songs broadcast from their invisible sources, however, these silhouettes offer no clues as to the subtle colours of plumage, legs or beaks, nor to their textures or to their reflective qualities. We are able, however, to briefly observe their mannerisms, their stances, their gestures: those telltale dips, nods, curtsies, swivels and generic tics that signify the identities of these different species as they lose themselves in the choreography of their songs.

In the Victorian era, all manner of whimsical novelties were invented as entertainments for the middle-classes, to which weekly family gatherings in their parlours might be treated - and amongst these were magic lanterns and zoetropes, whose magical qualities brought a fantasy of reality, a cavalcade of phantom simulacra, into their humdrum lives. Bestís animated silhouettes in Early Birds present a sort of amalgam of these two forms of entertainment, with the added dimension of sound. Early Birds has a touching naÔve immediacy which is totally appropriate to, and empathetic with, the mien of its subject. Shunning the muscular insistence of the spectacular and the sensational that in mainstream cinema pander to our basest emotions, Bestís film offers us a vernacular honesty that is reinforced by the candid and down to earth voices of ordinary people recalling, with genuine emotion, their past experiences of the dawn chorus, which imbue it with an almost mystical quality.

The combination of the archival associations of the format of this film with the sentimental memories of the abundance and ubiquity of these birds earlier in the lives of the speakers on the soundtrack, give the film the quality of a memento mori. It is a celebration, but at the same time, a regretful memoir of a formerly abundant birdlife, which, like much of the natural world, seems to be in swift decline. Much of todayís manufactured entertainment is hostage to the whims of fashion, and with its built-in obsolescence is destined ultimately for the scrap-heaps and waste-tips that blight our environment, not a part of that self-supporting, self-perpetuating system, of the ecosphere which we seem to be hell-bent on destroying. So the film, as well as being aesthetically pleasing and informative, packs a strong political message that, hopefully, will have a lasting impact on all that view it. Little did those inventors of the zoetrope and the magic lantern realise that they were involved in setting into motion the Ďbehemothí that entertainment has now become. Let us hope that Early Birds will help to put this into perspective and common sense will prevail. The viewer might be reminded of Rachel Carsonís Silent Spring, as the last bird disappears into its nesting hole and fails to re-appear leaving an empty and ominous silence.


Roy Exley is a writer, art critic and curator.