BL&F 9: THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE COMEDY OF DANIEL HUTCHINGS
Burt E. Roger
Daniel Hutchings is the self-styled Freelance Giggle-oh, which appears to this writer to be a euphemism for an entertainer without an audience, who has made his first feature with some old clothes, an old camcorder, some willing friends and friends of friends and some very peculiar ideas about an alternative reality of a world where humans can maim each other with words alone. Yes, I can hear those alarms bells too! Does the lack of money spent on this movie result in a cheap film that only serves to make the popcorn at your local multiplex seem all the more delicious? I’m pleasantly surprised to say no. It’s not that it is a “Zero Budget” film, as Hutchings attests, which makes it unique (there are plenty of cheap, crap, crass films in the digital sewer), it’s the magic that the film has and that the magic exists almost in spite of the film’s cheap production.
It’s a fun film that has a sincere heart and auteur theory in it’s bones. Imagine if Norman Widsom had starred in El Topo and you’re a quarter of the way there. A heady mix of slapstick and character comedy fused with themes of psychology, philosophy, industry and spirituality make it compelling viewing. It’s narrative is so unpredictable, it’s effects are truly hilarious at times and genuinely touching at others. Django Away! is closer to an abstract self-portrait than a movie, but a movie it most certainly is! Although the camera is static through almost the entire film, when this much attention is put not only into each scene, but each frame, how much camera movement is necessary? Watch the first scene, which runs like an episode of Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave 'Em if it was set in contemporary Shoreditch: the cast are lined up facing camera in a sit-com-washing line formation, all predictably suspicious of Hutchings’ ideas under dingy strip lights. Now compare that to the almost Silent Movie scene where Django meets a scarecrow: the shots cut from wide landscapes to long-lens intimacy, the colours golden and the sky blue. Or compare these scenes to the hidden-camera sequence or even the Spaghetti Western face-off (which re-invigorates the climax you’ve seen a hundred times without descending into genre parody). These scenes are so different they could be from different films. Each scene seems to reflect the characters within them and when you take into account half of these scenes are taking place inside Hutchings’ imagination, you start to see how much faith Hutchings puts in subtext. Every event is shaping Hutchings’ fantasies and each of his fantasies are affecting his “audience”. Make no mistake: the price tag does not reflect the care and attention that Hutchings must‘ve spent making this film.
So what’s so strange about the film? Are we dealing with an Ed Wood for the digital age? This writer was prepared to deal with the dull issue of wondering if the filmmaker understood how comical his efforts appear to others, an issue even duller in the age of YouTube. But this is not what strikes you about this film, even though it does flirt with it in the first few scenes. It’s too immediate, too uncanny, too much of a legitimate emotional journey that even if you do find yourself laughing at it, it gives the film deeper meaning, a meaning that is yours alone.
Using documentary filming methods and crew sizes but shooting it as close to what he must consider cinematic as possible, Hutchings has kept his material legitimate by filming within his means. Each scene appears to be simple in it’s set-ups and shots, but if you look closer, at the body language and positions of the characters in realtion to the frame, you can see everything you could ever need to know about what Hutchings and the characters he meets are going through. The camera gives us performances to savour as the subtle editing shows us the comedy in the situations rather than just in the dialogue. With a pace closer to Brief Encounter by David Lean than Django Unchained by Tarantino, Hutchings manages to put what could’ve been mere contemporary comedy characters in wider contexts, making this more ‘O Lucky Dan than Carry On Hutchings but Hutchings is more Mr Bean than Travis Bickle, more Frank Spencer than Reno Miller. As his (mis)adventures unfold, visual poetics ring from the space between Hutchings and his audience, between fantasy and reality, and between us, the viewers, and the film itself. Hutchings deals with the minutiae of events, using an almost arbitrary collection of encounters that are linked only by their importance to Hutchings’ attempts to make his movie, making this a collection of brief encounters whose totals are only suggested towards the end of the film. This is a film not about fantasies of film, but about the value of self-expression and how sometimes just one person understanding makes a life’s work worthwhile. In this, Django Away is a film of emotional politics rather than industry politics, which the premise suggests.
If the magic exists in spite of the cheap production, does that mean it would’ve been “better” if it was made “properly”? Would it not have more magic? Well, it would most certainly have been different. Hutchings’ comedy character is always in jeopardy of collapsing under his own aspirations but the form of the film and the method of it’s production reflect this jeopardy onto Hutchings the filmmaker. It is the film's awareness of this space that lifts Django Away! out of the discount bin but also saves it from being merely “good”. It is also this space that Django Away’s magic lives.
So, it didn’t cost any money, but what is Django Away worth? Ideas like the Exifestern or the notion of dreaming of people before you’ve ever met them are perfect for this scale of filmmaking. In fact, they are what low budget filmmaking should offer: ideas that are specific and esoteric, executed in a way that reflects the material rather than the audiences’ taste. It’s this cutting across space and time that cheap cameras and domestic editing software were made for! Storytelling as a doorway to viewing life from different angles. Now that’s value!
There are a lot of first films shot on digital that are interesting and fun and validate the low-cost of the technology and production values with wonderfully original ideas and executions. I hope Hutchings continues to make films for the “Big Screen” with his own material and that Django Away being a diamond in the rough, and not an overnight success, doesn’t disheartened him into disappearing into the void of filming for hire or settling as a 10 minute spot comedy hobbyist. This is a fate all too common to first time filmmakers who make passion projects that aren’t “hits” in the conventional term.
Django Away’s obscurity may well be justified. I’m certain some people will find Django Away! dull or even infuriating and, yes, I’m sure those people are the majority. But I’m also certain that there will be a few thousand in the world that will love this film for exactly the same qualities that others won’t and who knows where that can lead! Don’t be one of those people who has to pretend they liked Hutchings from the start, get on the bus now and enjoy the journey because this filmmaker is only just getting started! I wonder how he will follow Django Away! for, surely, Dan has gone away? But isn’t coming back what sequels are for? Django Away is certainly "One to Watch" with me.
Burt E. Roger is a writer, publisher and regular film festival judge. Known for his passion for cinema history, Burt is currently editing his first feature-length documentary Films & Filmmaking by Filmmakers which is set to premiere at the Old York Film Festival 2023.