Iain Sinclair. Photograph: Belinda Lawley
Iain Sinclair. Photograph: Belinda Lawley

For the last year, Hackney author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair has been involved in a work of Odyssean proportions. In celebration of his seventieth birthday last June, he was asked to curate a personal project entitled 70×70, choosing 70 films for a series of special screenings and discussions across the capital. The task has taken him on a voyage into his own past, through a history of independent film and deep into the cinematic consciousness of London. 

Speaking on a Saturday morning – stealing an hour before he must set off for a showing at the Elephant and Castle of three obscure features I’d not heard of – he gives me a brief overview of the experience.

“When I took it on I had no idea quite what it would involve. It seems like one of those ideas you get sitting down in a pub or having a late breakfast somewhere off Broadway Market and someone says ‘would you like to pick 70 films?’” It was a notion proposed to him by Paul Smith of King Mob, a spoken-word label that released CDs by Sinclair in the 90s.

“It sounds like a great sort of birthday present,” he continues. “And one way of looking back at the part films have played in my life, but in actuality it involved writing descriptions of all of these 70 films and then travelling out night after night to funny parts of the town.” 

The films chosen have been a peculiar and intriguing bunch. The list includes the likes of Herzog, Fassbinder, Godard, Hitchcock and Hopper, not to mention a vast catalogue of directors you’ll never have come across. It’s a gold mine for film-lovers looking to fill their pockets with rare and forgotten gems. 

“It’s kind of an act of archaeology and rescue and salvage and scavenging in lots of ways, in the same process as people comb through car boot sales or markets and pick up strange lost videos and DVDs and so on.” 

The process of picking such a large number of films might sound difficult, but while the physical side of 70×70 has taken its toll, Sinclair explains that selection itself was not so much of a challenge.     

“It was literally about going back, using my books that I’ve published, looking at what films were referenced in each of these books, making an initial list and then including some films that I’ve been involved with to give a fuller sense of a life in London that was largely hung around the presence of certain films.”

To borrow a phrase from his excellent book about the Beat poets, American Smoke, the project seems to have been like a raid on his own past. He describes the act of editing as similar to piecing together a kind of autobiographical documentary. However, not simply a linear map of films he’s watched along the way, the project explores the medium in a geographical sense, retracing the changing environment of film viewing and almost resurrecting a pre-internet sort of cinema experience. 

Born in Maesteg in South Wales, Sinclair was living and studying in Brixton when he first “chased a film” to what’s now the Rio cinema in Dalston. This element of travel – an almost topographical approach – was an essential aspect of the work. 

“It was my first visit to the East End,” he explains. “In a sense the geography of London was involved with where I saw certain films and that went on for a number of years. Obviously now the whole way of looking at films is very different with DVDs and the way that films can be found that once upon a time involved terrific geographical chases to track them down.”

The idea of simply finding a film on the web is still a foreign one to him; perhaps he sees it as a lazy, even defeatist mode of viewing that detracts from the fun of the hunt and the pilgrimage he so values.

“There’s something very magical still about seeing them actually in the community of the cinema, this building which goes back so deep into the culture of London – a bunch of people staring at this huge screen on which this rather wonderful and exotic product that’s come from somewhere is being shown just for that day, for that week. It was very special. 

“Now the whole sense of it is very different. Obviously you can just type in a name and something comes up on your small screen and you think you’ve sampled it, but you haven’t had that complete sensory experience that also involves the journey and the community that you’re watching it with.”

It’s an invigorating message and one that lends itself to a wider understanding of Sinclair’s approach to his own work. Research seems to come hand in hand with experience and almost always involves a trip, an exploration – in the fullest sense of the word. 

For his acclaimed book London Orbital he traversed the 120-mile length of the M25; for Swandown – a delightfully bizarre poetic documentary made with friend and collaborator Andrew Kötting – he pedalled a plastic swan from Hastings to East London via the back rivers of Kent; and more recently he walked the entire London Overground in a single day for a new book about the railway’s effect on the urban landscape and life therein.

Over the years, Sinclair’s literary output has established him a reputation as a pioneer of British psychogeography, a discipline he might not have been able to skirt entirely for 70×70 but one that is largely absent from his chosen films. When I first heard of the project, I half expected a compilation of documentary essays by Patrick Keiller, Julien Temple, Paul Kelly and the like, but, as he suggests when I put this to him, I may have been guilty of a kind of cultural branding. 

“That’s very strongly why they’re not on my list. I didn’t want to go down that particular route because essentially I’d written it,” he says. “If I was just picking films I liked, Patrick Keiller would very probably have come into it, but it was a bit tautologist to do that in this particular context because it’s already such an academic industry. I felt I didn’t need to do that.”

With the series nearing its end, Sinclair looks back on the first event in July last year with particular fondness. Two films were screened at the Hackney Picturehouse – a building he made good use of years ago when it was public library – that mean a lot to him: The Sorcerers, a 1967 piece by his friend Mike Reeves, and The Cardinal and the Corpse, an early 90s collaboration between himself and Chris Petit for Channel 4. “Everything about it felt good,” he says. “I thought that was a rather magic occasion and there’s been many others since.”

The ambitious undertaking of 70×70 is set to finish at the Barbican on 7 and 8 June, with an event that will include an intimate programme of films Sinclair has been directly involved with. He will be joined in conversation by Kötting, Petit and Robert Macfarlane, among others.

“I could easily sit down and do it again with a totally different 70 but I don’t want to,” he laughs, describing the end as a kind of watershed. “I’ve actually recovered a different sense of what film is in London at this moment by doing this project. And hopefully we finish up at the Barbican at the end of it all with a couple of days worth of films that are really personal to me.”

A few days after our interview, I send him an email in search of some extra information and ask how the screening at the Elephant and Castle went. Three films were shown that apparently hadn’t found a niche elsewhere: Too Hot to Handle, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; it was attended by just four people, three of whom were a part of the project and the other a lone outsider.

“It was like a wake for a certain kind of cinema,” he writes back, in typically brilliant fashion.  

www.barbican.org.uk/film/series.asp?ID=1364

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