Credit Kuba Ryniewicz

Richard Dawson’s The Hermit @ CCA: An exercise in contradiction

By Otto Hampden-Woodfall

Music Editor Otto Hampden-Woodfall attends a screening of short film The Hermit, directed by James Hawkins, and set to the lead single from Richard Dawson’s newest album The Ruby Cord.

The Hermit is an enigma. It’s a striking series of disjunctions at heart; a deliberately unclear collaboration between songwriter Richard Dawson and director James Hawkins, mediated by a shared love for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, where branching paths of stories are folded in and out of one another. 

On the one hand, Dawson is reinventing his storytelling on the fly, freeing his distinctive meandering melodies and evocative, plaintive lyric from the shackles of a particular time and place, to imagine a technologically enlightened everpresent watcher, embroiled in esoteric game-like quests for mushrooms, burning knights and murder. On the other hand, Hawkins turns a bedraggled, banshee-like Dawson into a mannequin crumpled in the corner of tragedy and banality, happy to loom on the fringes of the real world and cross through the fabric of deft editing into imagined futures and a pastoral before-ness. In an ending drowning in lens flares, soaring atop a choral chant over the open water, Dawson seems at once enlightened and beset with grief to find new land. The ambiguity is telling; perhaps he, or Hawkins, is entirely unsure what someone carrying a particularly vicious kind of the disaffectedness we all experience would feel if they set sail for something entirely new. Perhaps his original intention, of writing an album just about the clouds and wind and rain, appears so firmly in a repeated, gradually fading final act because the overwhelming realisation of his past two projects (Peasant and 2020, which between them come to conclude that very little has changed in the last thousand or so years) is dissolving the deep humanity he holds so dear. 

But he is still fixated on that humanity; sci-fi insofar as outlandish technological concepts actually have effects on people, as opposed to marvelling at technology in itself. And that is what is most striking about following this strange, enigmatic film with a Q&A; Dawson is seemingly just a funny guy.

He’s awkward, as well. He apologises at the end for running over time and rambling about AI, then waves goodbye with a sheepish grin. At some point, his cat, Trouble, appears mid-sentence and remains wrapped around his shoulders, a blurry loop of pixels, for the remainder of the conversation. In a podcast interview with Adam Buxton, too, he talks about a bout of food poisoning that invoked some kind of wailing spirit from within him in an American hotel room. It is both bizarre and entirely unsurprising that a cheery bearded football fan from Newcastle makes such striking, often uncomfortable music; in encountering people honestly and openly, you get the sense that he becomes and has become deeply moved by their insular peculiarities, their ugliness and harsh edges. And that in pushing his music towards conceptual totalities and anchoring his instinctual erratic nature in a certain time and place, he has only become more and more obsessed with getting at the actual people involved in those abstracted worlds.

It sounds strange to say, but Dawson has made kindness an artistic pursuit. The film is often sad, but kind to its subjects, even to Dawson, who receives unquestionably a happier ending than lurking around in hospital waiting rooms. It is perhaps the first time he has really been able to use film to concretise the lonely, struggling or unfortunate souls inhabiting his songs. Even though he describes a purposeful process of getting Hawkins to avoid one-to-one representation and to tell his own story, the director appears to have directly captured a fundamental tenet of Dawson’s songwriting – foregrounding the people to which songs, or stories, happen.


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