I had the pleasure of hearing Richard Billingham speak about his debut feature film ‘Ray & Liz’ at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, something that illuminated and contextualised the work as well as providing insight into an artist that I have long admired. The film sees Billingham return to the subject matter of his parents who he photographed in his breakthrough series ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ (1996). This is not the first time her has revisited the subject matter, he made the documentary ‘Fishtank’ in 1998 and has also made gallery based video installations which can be seen as the precursors of the film. (The short film ‘Ray’ is a rough version of the films final scenes.)
Similarly to ‘Ray’s a Laugh’, the film provides little in the way of exposition and I wondered how an audience member unfamiliar with the earlier work would have interpreted it. There is much detail to be found, but little is explained – poverty, tragedy, squalor, but also humour, are all present along with the sense that this is real, lived experience we are viewing. This is no fly on the wall, kitchen sink, social realist piece however, the imagery is both beautiful, oppressive and evocative of the 1980s – I could almost feel the cigarette smoke on me when I left the cinema. Billingham states: “I tried to avoid the tropes and clichés and generalisations of working-class portrayals. I shot as much as possible from lived experience to give it a different perspective on that British story. If it’s all shot from lived experience, you do tend to avoid the clichés.” (Scovell, 2019) The film is shot on 16mm, a deliberate decision which evokes the “analogue past” of the time – Billingham believes that using digital would have undermined the memories he was trying to present. The 4:3 aspect ratio has an obvious link to the standard shape of television sets at the time, and Billingham described it is a format that helps the camera focus on details – something that he found difficult to achieve with a panoramic crop. Elaborating on this he described everything in life at the time being in this ratio, even down to the floor plan of the tower block where the family lived. Asked about influences he cited the films of Terence Davies, the work of Jeff Wall, and specifically, Robert Bresson’s ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956), a film that is entirely set in a prison cell – a particular reference point for the scenes of Ray existing in his bedroom that bookend the film.
I left ‘Ray & Liz’ surprised by how different the film was to my expectations – this is not a continuation or sequel to ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ – there is no Hollywood story arc of redemption, in fact, what we learn about the Billingham family by the end is as uncertain as it was at the beginning. This ambiguity however, is the films key strength and the reason the film has stayed with me since I first viewed it. Ray and Liz remain the complex individuals that are shown in the photographs – neither victim nor villain, the neglect they show their children, particularly the youngest son Jason, is disgusting, and yet, they are not judged – the reality of the situation is shown warts and all but there is a tenderness and affection that remains. The full complexity of life and individuals is shown here in a way that is true to the real world where no one individual is either saint or sinner. At the end of the Q&A, Billingham was asked how he feels about his childhood looking back. He answered in a way that would probably surprise many, that both he and Jason have grown up to be happy well adjusted adults and that they both look back fondly to their upbringing. For Billingham personally, he believes he may not have become an artist if he had not had the freedom to do what he wanted – while Ray and Liz never told him what to do, they also never told him what not to do.
Adams, T. (2016) Richard Billingham: ‘I just hated growing up in that tower block’. The Observer, 13th March 2016. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/13/richard-billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz [accessed 17th March 2019]
Adams, T. (2019) Richard Billingham: ‘Statistically, I should be in prison, dead or homeless’. The Observer, 23rd February 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/feb/23/richard-billingham-ray-and-liz-interview [accessed 17th March 2019]
Bradshaw, P. (2018) Ray & Liz review – brutal study of a family coming to pieces. The Guardian, 17th October 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/oct/17/ray-liz-review-brutal-study-of-a-family-coming-to-pieces [accessed 17th March 2019]
Ide, W. (2019) Ray & Liz review – Richard Billingham’s extraordinary family album brought to life. The Observer, 10th March 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/10/ray-and-liz-review-richard-billingham [accessed 17th March 2019]
Nicholson, B. (2019) Review: Ray & Liz. Sight and Sound, April 2019.
Scovell, A. (2019) Back to the old house. Sight and Sound, April 2019.
Watts, S. (2019) Ray of Light: An interview with Richard Billingham. The Quietus, March 8th 2019. Available at: https://thequietus.com/articles/26164-ray-liz-richard-billingham-interview [accessed 8th March 2019]