Caught by the River

The intimate world of F. Percy Smith

Michael Smith | 1st July 2017

MINUTE BODIES: The Intimate world of F. Percy Smith
Dir. Stuart A Staples
black & white | 55min | Documentary. Out now via BFI.

Review by Michael Smith

What a treat this film is: a dreamy, meditative re-edit of the pioneering micro-cinema of F. Percy Smith, which introduced the public to the strange hidden world of microscopic nature between the 1920s and the 1940s. A man described as an enthusiast rather than an expert, derided as an ‘entertainer’ by higher scientific circles, the footage was shot in Smith’s North London home on equipment he often designed and built himself.

The director of this subtle tribute, Stuart A Staples, begins the film by showing us Smith’s hands preparing his home-made equipment and setting the scenes at the very start of the film, before we see his first miraculous images of the life of the very small, which makes Smith’s own sense of wonder palpable, and his desire to share it with us strangely moving, a reassuringly human reference point as we jump off with him into the great unknown.

The reaction of his contemporary audience can’t have been a million miles from ours now: the dawning realisation that our mental maps of the world are just provisional sketches of a far vaster and weirder territory, the familiar world as we imagine it just one wafer-thin slice of something ultimately unknowable. Watching infinitesimal, perfectly spherical fungi all bloom at exactly the same time, I kept imagining the Dutchmen who invented lenses at the birth of science in the 1600s, looking through early microscopes at fleas and ticks for the very first time, and imagining they had just opened a window onto the world of demons and occult dimensions of reality, so vast was the shift in perspective, so fundamentally alien and unfamiliar these new layers of existence seemed.

The humanising of this utterly unfamiliar world is the film’s subtle masterstroke: the retro-fitted score by tindersticks and Christine Ott is a joy, and gives the unapproachable strangeness of what we’re watching a human, emotional dimension. In one section, eerie antique organ sounds and ponderous vibraphones evoke the brave new world of mid-20th century sci-fi, an association that seems apt – after all, these were alien worlds being discovered by the technology of the atomic age too – wondrous, not a little monstrous, weirdly fantastical. In another section, the grainy, fuzzy analogue bass notes of an early synth somehow perfectly describe the completely alien throb of a pulsating, liquid mould that branches out and flows along vein-like paths looking for new food. Later, a multitude of tiny tadpole-like forms riggle round exuberantly to a jazzy score, evoking the energy of the will-to-life at its most abstract; it made me imagine Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” for some reason, and my toddler pointed at them excitedly and shouted “fish!”

My toddler was as intrigued by the film as I was, loving as he does cars, trains, fish, birds, basically anything that moves and seems to exhibit some kind of life-force; maybe to him these were just more new living things to put a name to, and didn’t seem as bizarre as they did to me, with my far more fixed and closed ideas about how the world is.

Some of these creatures do indeed look like tiny fish; some of them look like tiny slugs, some like tiny plants, and sometimes the distinction between animal and vegetable’s not so clear; sometimes they’re completely beyond our frame of reference – psychedelic moulds flow and pulsate, a tiny point suddenly explodes in a confusion of filigrees like a firework, or the growth of a metropolis’s road network over centuries – mindblowing, really: the mysterious rhythms and patternings of nature, the will-to-life manifesting itself through countless variations in form, across many scales, and the realisation that nature is far more ingenious than we are, and the world is far richer and stranger than we will ever understand. And you realise that in the grand unknowable scheme of things, a toddler’s attempts to categorise everything into simple blocks like fish, cars, trains, etc, are not especially less developed than your own.


The Minute Bodies DVD is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £19.99
The soundtrack album is out now on City Slang.

Michael Smith on Caught by the River / on Facebook