Director Matt Hulse,
UK, 2013, 90 min.
Dummy Jim is a film about James Duthie, a deaf traveller. It is a film with an exuberant visual style, and a creative soundtrack as well. But when does style start to make you feel stuck? Can creativity turn into a straitjacket?
In 1951 James Duthie cycled from his small fishing village Cairnbulg in Scotland to the Artic Circle, and wrote a book about it: ”I Cycled into the Arctic Circle”. Director Matt Hulse got hold of the book and decided to make a film about it. Dummy Jim, Duthie’s nickname, contains fiction, animation, and documentary footage. Hulse included a wide variety of visual materials and sources in his film, which form several of the threads he weaved together.
The film opens with a man in somewhat outdated clothing roaming a community hall with laid tables. The hands of a designer creating an animation accompany the opening titles. The man is Samuel Dore, himself a deaf man, who plays Duthie, and re-enacts and re-cycles Dore’s trip. Later we see him pack, leave the village, and cycle and camp in the various countries he crosses, all in fifties styles and with fifties gear. We observe the various countries with him and witness the tribulations travellers meet: flat tyres, a broken bike, rain, fatigue. The community hall is the site of a tribute of sorts, where children read Duthie’s poetic texts on-screen, introducing the various countries, wearing the clothes of the era. The texts also accompany the images of the trip and are displayed on-screen. In addition, Dore recites some of them in the first person. Cut with this we see rehearsals, as well as dress rehearsals, for what seems to be a commemorative event in the community hall.
These two major strands, the cycling trip and the commemoration, form the backbone of the narrative. Apart from the cycling and the scenes related to the commemoration, there are three central activities in the film: knitting, drawing and stone-cutting. A lady sits knitting in her wool shop, and later images reveal she is working on a pattern for a “trimly orthodox” pullover Eventually we learn that this piece is for Dore. The designer reappears throughout the film, drawing lines with black Indian ink. The figures remain abstract for a long time, form single lines or very simple elements, the shots extremely brief. In the end they reveal a certificate confirming Duthie’s achievement. Throughout the film we see clips of the cutting of stone. It starts with close-ups of the sawing of a piece of rock that is then transported through the workshop and chiselled into shape; an inscription is designed and created, and eventually it turns out to be a commemorative gravestone for Duthie and his mum. These three activities serve as an ode to Duthie’s times, to the era of the mechanical and the manual, the creative, the individual, in which mistakes were allowed.
Central to the film is also imagery: when Dore-as-Duthie leaves the village, a first set of moving images, part archive, part contemporary, move into the frame from the right, in a set of two rows, displaying the characteristics of Scotland; the country, its flora, its people and places, its food, and its flag. This is subsequently repeated for all the countries he passes through: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The same form is used for two rows of gravestones, with an initial observation about the Second World War but also including nameless ones. There is footage framed in black, a reference to amateur film formats. This format is used for the visualization of an apparent love-interest: a French bike repairer’s daughter, Monique, who talks about her life and France while we see her working with dough. The camera catches her hands, her eyes and her head, like the eyes of a lover exploring his object of affection.
Dummy Jim is a lovely film, full of warmth and comfort, sweet reminiscences about rural community life in a time gone by. It never hides its construction and contains many reflexive moments, for instance, when Dore is directed by a voice off-screen and when archive footage ends; it includes preparations for and recordings in a sound studio, a boy consciously nodding towards the cameraman, and Dore turning around to take a picture of the camera through which we are watching him. The ode to the creative thus extends to the film and its making. It’s highly original and playful; let’s face it, how many films have a credit for ‘knitwear’?
However, at a certain point the structure of the film becomes a gimmick, with style trumping substance due to the repetition of elements. The story is not necessarily in the individual scenes and in the events depicted in them, because these are generally short and of a wide variety. It is rather in their combination, in the way they reinforce each other and work towards a whole. The threads join together in the end, inevitably, when Dore-as-Duthie returns and the certificate is finished and welcomed with ‘amens’ and cheers. And the pen runs out of ink. Dummy Jim has an inexorable form and becomes a straitjacket that allows little freedom to wander. The threads are – you guessed it – knit into a jacket that is just one size too small. A fray or two would provide a bit more breathing space to enjoy it in your own way._