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The psychedlic road movie that started at NSB

Karin Johnstone reflects on a British film from two Northampton school friends

A shimmering lake surrounded by mountains, fresh air palpable. A small red rucksack catches my eye in the corner of a field. It’s my corporate screensaver but something about the rucksack resonates with me, writes Karin Johnstone. It reminds me of Kerouac’s description in the Dharma Bums, when he buys his travelling bag and checks out all the little pockets and straps deciding what will go where. It’s the time before setting off, leaving behind the mundane, the known, the familiar.

The notion of the road trip Kerouac style is hitching a lift or hopping on the back of a cargo train hiding under tarpaulin, heading to nowhere in particular. It’s about self-discovery, connecting to others.

The idea of the road trip is one of those things, like doughnuts or burgers that the Americans have claimed and romanticised in literature and film as their own. It helps if you have empty roads that go on for miles through barren landscapes but there is no reason why British film shouldn’t do road trips.

Two Northampton School for Boys alumni have done just that with their latest film, Burning Men. Last month, writer Neil Spencer and writer director Jeremy Wooding, visited the Northampton Filmhouse along with producer Fiona Graham to show the film with a Q & A after.

Jeremy Wooding

The film’s protagonists, musicians Ray and Don are evicted from their London flat showing us glimpses of a Camden type subculture. Penniless and hoping to sell their record collection they steal a rare vinyl pressing of a metal band, which may have weird satanic qualities if you listen to it. The idea is that they sell the record to get to Memphis. They pick up Susie, played by Elinor Crawley, along the way and she adds a gentle romantic interest for Ray.

They never reach Memphis but in a clapped-out Volvo, we experience the surreal quality of Great Yarmouth arcade lights. Then on to the council estates of Hull, finally arriving at the eerie landscape of the Holy Isle, where all three characters experience the resonances of the landscape, seeing marauding Vikings. The film has all the characteristics of a well-crafted road movie but in a context that we get. The soundtrack, key to road movies, works with jangling guitar music, primarily written by Justin Adams, but also features The Clash and recitals of William Blake.

Director and writer Jeremy Wooding was proud that the film is unique in telling the story through point of view shots from the characters.

This means that we experience the strange apparitions that Ray sees, through his eyes, the burning men. You do feel like you have been on a mystical journey of the British Isles and it works since all three characters are engaging.

The film is fresh and authentic and I was surprised at the end to see that the director and writer were not young film students, since they captured the rawness of film and youth culture.

They referenced their favourite Indie movies, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. Alan Moore in the audience asked if there is something about Northampton School for Boys alumni that draws them towards sex, drugs, and Satanism. Wooding admitted that yes, sex and drugs but not Satanism, with Melinda Gebbie in the audience adding … not yet. This film may well take on Cult film status, in the same way Donnie Darko evolved into a Cult film.

My own road trips tend to involve trains, bicycles or my feet, since I don’t drive and have watched too many Luther episodes to hitch a lift. Filmmakers and writers, let’s have more British road movies like this telling our own stories through our own journeys and landscapes.

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