Best Before Death - Best Before Death(Blu Ray) [Anti-Worlds Releasing - 2020]Best Before Death documents two years of Bill Drummond’s 25 Paintings world tour, a venture that will see him spending two weeks in a different city in a different country every year, for 12 years, performing a set amount of tasks during each visit. If that sounds unusual, you might recognise the name Bill Drummond from a lengthy career of provocative acts, most notably the iconoclastic music of The KLF, and the K Foundation’s burning of a million pounds. The documentary thus follows him around Kolkata, India, and Lexington in the United States as he knits, makes soup and beds, bakes cakes, shines shoes, shrinks jeans to his legs in rivers, and gets local musicians to cover one of his own songs, prefacing all these by first entering the city banging a drum, then getting a shave.
The beginning of the documentary sees Drummond complaining that such films demystify subjects; however, Best Before Death doesn’t demystify Drummond or his works, it doesn’t really attempt to, and even if it had its subject is reluctant and resistant, interrupting and disrupting the documentary process. If anything, we actually watch Drummond himself struggle with self-mystification; he portrays himself as an artist, but essentially an ordinary bloke - he is very hesitant to recognise his past fame - just performing these self-imposed tasks. He tells interested onlookers, ‘I’m just a man baking a cake,’ but thereafter things tend to unravel, as people want more information or explanation. So, when he knocks on a stranger’s door and gifts them the cake, he merely says that he’s made them a cake; when this doesn’t satisfy the recipient, Drummond explains that he’s an artist, thereby demystifying the initial act. Sometimes he then tries to remystify his acts: ‘I’m making the Lexington Cake Circle.’ Truth be told, he doesn’t seem sure what exactly he is doing, and indeed admits in his matter-of-fact persona that he ‘doesn’t know’ what the 25 Paintings tour is really about, but that musing on it in later life should make it apparent. He does suggest that it has something to do with performing simple tasks, though. This is all interesting stuff, certainly for Drummond, but it’s not compelling viewing.
The interactions with the people of Kolkata and Lexington aren’t overly striking or provoking, not helped by Drummond’s constant shifting of the presentation of his acts; it’s tempting to imagine him performing the tasks as a solitary figure without help from others. Perhaps this suggests the purpose of the tour: it’s a series of actions with resonance for Drummond alone, an artwork for him to enjoy in later years. Certainly there is a sense that the documentary process and crew are getting in the way, something Drummond seems very aware of and troubled by. However, regardless of the film crew, Drummond is accompanied by the artist Tracey Moberly who photographs his actions; whilst onlookers are clearly alerted by the film crew that ‘something’ is happening, Moberly’s camera performs the same function. Indeed, the film closes with a performance of a play written by Drummond, depicting himself on the tour, where an actor discusses the photographic aspect and rejects it for documentation in the form of plays.
Whilst I consider myself a fan of The KLF, whose work is undoubtedly seminal and influential, Best Before Death left me cold at best. It’s perhaps an interesting meditation on participatory art, and the artist’s role in that, but it’s also perhaps a film waiting to be viewed by Drummond in his twilight years. I've always admired the sense of absurdity, vision, and purpose that The KLF evoked, but here - whilst the vision remains - the sense of absurdity and purpose are confused and liquescent. The documentary is provocative and stimulating, but in a laboured way - possibly a reflection of its subject’s unease with the intrusion of the documentary itself.
The film is accompanied by numerous extras: deleted scenes, associated short films, a commentary by Drummond and director Paul Duane, and What Is Film? - a long, intriguing conversation between Drummond and Duane. Tucked away at the end, though, are the saving graces of this release: three early shorts by Duane. Ink (1988), Blind Alley (1992), and Misteach Bhaile Átha Cliath [The Dublin Mystic] (1994) are each utterly brilliant: macabre, playful, and absurdly inventive. Notably, each also reflects on, or deploys as elements, various mediums, with film itself taking central roles in the latter two. That’s all I will say, given their short story form and twists, but they’re worth the price of admission alone. So, perhaps a release for hardcore fans of Drummond, but those Duane shorts are precocious gems.Martin P