Caught by the River

The Moon & The Sledgehammer

Mathew Clayton | 14th March 2011

Review by Mathew Clayton.

Made in 1971 the Moon and the Sledgehammer is an extraordinary documentary about a family that live in a Sussex wood – change the vegetation and you could be watching a hillbilly family from the American deep south. Cut off from the modern world the father and his two grown-up sons spend their time tinkering with old machinery, constantly dripping shiny black oil onto rusty bits of metal. The adult daughter childishly pretends to drive a derelict old bus and plays a clapped out piano that has been left outside to rot. The soundtrack is a constant chirp of birdsong, the supporting cast a motley crew of insects, forever buzzing round heads or grimly getting stuck in the rivulets of oil, twitching furiously before they die. Everything is surrounded by leaves, hemmed in by them. Sunlight barely trickling through the walls of dark green.

Their tin roofed home looks unfit fit for human habitation, inside it resembles a run down bric-a-brac shop. Everything is ancient, collapsing, covered in dust, but with the promise that something unlikely and magical will be unearthed if you just dug around. One wall of the sitting room is taken up by a huge fairground organ on which the father inexpertly plays children’s songs.

Nothing much happens. The family are other wordly, one son talks about his belief in steam power, the father mugs it up for the camera performing fragments of old music hall routines. Dressed in old suits, unshaven and with roll up stubs hanging off their lips the men look unkempt but fantastic (if you like an old suit). The film is bucolic and tranquil but also unsettling. The family are constantly bickering. They may be at one with nature but they not at one with each other. The absent mother is never mentioned, and the viewer can’t help but wonder what secrets lie in the wood.

The Moon & The Sledgehammer gets a rare public showing at the ‘Caught by the River presents Grasscut’ event in London on Wednesday 20 April. Click here to buy tickets.