Minute Bodies, The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (Film Review)

Directed by tindersticks head honcho Stuart A. Staples, and featuring a soundtrack by the band themselves (alongside Thomas Belhom and Christine Ott), Minute Bodies is a haunting, pulsating, acid trip viewed entirely in monochrome. The film will set bells ringing for film archival nerds and prove a veritable wet dream for both naturalists and F. Percy Smith fans.

Working in a North London studio in the early years of the 20th century, Smith experimented with and developed the use of time-lapse, animation and micro-photographic techniques to help shed light on the mysteries of the microscopic world. Everything seen here is Smith’s original film footage (wonderfully preserved and restored by the BFI National Archive) And, unique as this film is, Minute Bodies would pair well with other BFI backed ‘essay films’ such as Julian Temple’s London: the Modern Babylon or the total, total gem: From the Sea to the Land Beyond. Which features a moody score by fellow alt rockers British Sea Power.

Balletic vines and rushing bacteria take part in a kind of microscopic capoeira, where images take on a life of their own and the screen is awash with all manner of things grey, pulsing and sexual. So hallucinatory and watchable are the images that I feel safe in assuming that the film is destined to be projected at many an introspective house party. Indeed, the combination of incredible, unseen footage alongside an eclectic contemporary score is a freaky delight. The score ranges from sinister string sections a la Jonny Greenwood/Cave and Ellis, before making a turn for a more scattered and jazzier sound. What I really enjoyed about this was how interpretive the score became. Depending on how you choose read the film, the music could be seen as following the actions of the lifelike microbes, like a big band playing for the smallest dancers imaginable. Equally, the music could reflect the emotions of Smith himself. Tindersticks interpret the of the sense of wonder Smith must have felt whilst peering into these unseen worlds, like an astronaut peeking out the space shuttle above an alien planet. So, while Smith is known and respected as a naturalist, inventor and amateur filmmaker, what this film does that warrants it praise is establish Smith as an artist in his own, mad right.

It is an appropriately eccentric film that pays a fitting tribute to Smith, a man who one would be right in assuming was somewhat of a classic British eccentric. Minute Bodies’ real triumph is how it uses the images of apparently soulless, invisible specimens to reflect a true largeness of heart. And the stellar score evokes the daring spirit that moved Percy to look further and see clearer than many would have thought possible.

Dir: Stuart A. Staples
Scr: Stuart A. Staples
Featuring: F. Percy Smith
Prd: David Reeve, Stuart A. Staples
DOP: F. Percy Smith
Music: Tindersticks with Thomas Belhom and Christine Ott
Country: UK
Year: 2016
Run time: 55 mins

The soundtrack will be released by City Slang on 9 June on Limited Edition LP/DVD as well as on CD/DVD and the film will be screened with a live score performed by Tindersticks at the Barbican, London, on Saturday 17 June.