Julian Baggini meets the farmer with a PhD who’s made four metaphysical moviesStanley Kubrick probably never had to go home to feed his heifers after a hard day on the set. But Daniel Cotterill is not complaining. The West Country farmer is completing his fourth film in his debut decade as a film maker (Kubrick shot three films in his last two decades) and Hollywood is certainly not his model.
To describe Cotterill’s oeuvre as comprising educational films about philosophy would be accurate, but would hardly do them justice. Each is a drama of around thirty minutes, exploring a key issue such as subjectivity, moral relativism and free will.
“Metaphysics is so interesting and you feel that certain parts lend themselves to a visual treatment,” Cotterill told me. “There are things like perception where you can convey a point of view, and you can do colour inversion.”
This was exactly what he did in his first film, Krasny (see TPM 12). This had three key features which set the template for the films to come. First, the plot centred on a strange cult which was based on a philosophical, rather than religious, idea. Second, Cotterill’s dialogue covered a lot of philosophical ground, but there were no neat solutions and much of what went on was somewhat opaque. Third, the style was deliberately non-naturalistic, at times looking more like an art film than a drama.
“The secret of everything is not to compete by rules you can’t win on,” Cotterill says of his approach to film-making. “If you can’t make slick documentaries then don’t try, play a different game. There’s enough realism on television, I think people have enough of it, and there’s room for something strange and imaginative.” In this respect the limitations Cotterill works with are part of what drive his creativity. For example, I remarked on how striking the shots were in the penultimate scene of his third film, The Sophists. “That was shot in the corn bin,” he replied. Who’d have thought there could be so much visual poetry lurking behind the barn?
The seeds of Cotterill’s film making career were sown when he was at Bristol University studying chemistry. Hid did take a philosophy course but he gave it up because he “thought it was crap”. He was turned off by such experiences as being in a tutorial in which the tutor said, “There are seven people in this room. Describe to me a world in which that would not be true.” He doesn’t need to say anything else: the look on his face shows how pointless he thought that was. “Philosophy seemed like mind games, a dry and arid thing,” he says, though he quickly adds that the people were very nice.
Perhaps more important was that he plated bass in what he now calls a “pretentious post-punk band”, Essential Bop. He’s dismissive of the group’s music now but still admires the do-it-yourself ethos of the time: the band released their singles by following the how-to guide on the back of a Scritti Politti single. The same spirit would later serve him well when he took up film-making.
Following a few good reviews in the New Musical Express, the band got a tour to America. In New York, Cotterill experienced a “strange meltdown of various European groups” and “an incredible individualism”. More importantly, he also picked up Hegel, whose account of how consciousness was shaped in society he found “quite incredible” and remarkably relevant to the country he was visiting.
The philosophy bug had bitten him, and on his return to Britain he started a BA at Kings College London, transferred to an MA, which was followed by an MPhil and then, at Birkbeck, a PhD on Heidegger and phenomenology. “You certainly stood out if you had an interest in Heidegger,” he recalls of the analytic-minded University of London. “People thought you were just trying to be a smart arse.” All this was done part-time, while he earned a living painting and decorating, returning to the family farm for harvests and other busy periods.
On returning to the West of England, he did some teaching at a sixth form college in Exeter and returned to the family profession as perhaps the country’s only Heideggarian farmer. “You relate to animals not as objects, but in that they are your projects, as it were. What farming does to you and an animal is that it makes your destiny bound up with theirs, which you don’t have with a pet. It’s not that you’re using it, it’s that you’re in it together somehow.”
Cattle, however, can never provide a sufficient outlet for someone with a deep interest in philosophy. So it was that, despite having no background in film, and not even being much of a movie buff, Cotterill decided to make his strange, educational films. As you would.
“I just did it really, It’s not that difficult if you set your mind to it. It’s about sticking power really,” he says, combining the patience of a farmer and the can-do attitude of the punk.
He was assisted by his friend Robert Richards, a producer whose credits include Julian Temple’s Glastonbury movie. Seeing the huge amount of work that goes into making a mainstream film of that kind made his own projects seem more doable. “You wonder how they get made. It’s a bit like someone saying, ‘I’ll give you a new car but you’ve got to walk to Moscow,’ so you either say forget it or you walk to Moscow, and even at a small scale it’s a bit like that.” He certainly must be motivated, because you don’t make films like this for the money. “You have to be self-funding and do it for the craic, because you enjoy it.”
To my mind, Cotterill’s films have got progressively better. Krasny was a useful resource with some striking images, but had a plot which was perhaps too creaky and obscure. However, others might think it was more plausible than I give it credit for. “After you wrote that thing in The Philosophers’ Magazine about Krasny, I had a call from this ITV [Independent Television] outpost,” recalls Cotterill. “She said, ‘So are there many people in this cult then?’ You couldn’t have made it up.”
His second film, The Kirilov Solution, was about determinism and free will, had a more coherent storyline, and used a narrative device which really made you feel the possibility that choice is illusory. The Sophists, which was about moral relativism, was the most satisfying from a plot perspective, as for the first time a plausible explanation was ultimately given for why anyone would build a cult around metaphysical doctrines which don’t have a clear bearing on how we should live.
All three, however, would provide instructors with plenty of material for the classroom. “You’ve got to think about who your audience is and who is going to buy them, so they have to have a good educational content. Whatever else you might say about them, they are philosophically kosher. There’s no compromise on that. They are educationally useful but I hope they can be something more than that.”
His new film is based on “the Platonic idea of moral truth being not something you vote on and that everyone knows it at some level.” Ultimately, Cotterill says “My ideal would still be to make an abstract, visual art film.” Given his track record at just getting on with whatever takes his fancy, I wouldn’t bet against him doing just that.
More information on Dan Cotterill’s films can be found at www.krasny.co.uk