Ordinary People

Darrell Hartman on The Moon and the Sledgehammer

Philip Trevelyan, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, 1971, stills from a color film, 65 minutes. Left: Kathy Page and Jim Page. Right: Pete Page.

An obscure gem—or prize scrap—from the golden age of cinema verité, Philip Trevelyan’s 1971 documentary The Moon and the Sledgehammer goes down a rabbit hole and comes up face-to-face with one of the most bizarre and captivating families ever filmed. The Page clan lives without electricity or running water, on a six-acre woodland plot outside London that’s littered with ancient machine parts. They hunt forest creatures and otherwise get by on what the two grown sons earn fixing ancient steam engines.

The sons, Peter and Jim, work in grubby suits and collars. Peter (who believes his country should run on steam because “there’s no oil wells in England”) has an edge, while Jim’s a cheerful dreamer: “You are my garden of roses / Kissed by the morning dew,” he warbles, as his sister Kath cuts flowers. And he claims to know a thing or two about the stars, having viewed them through a telescope he made from “ordinary, usual bits of stuff that you would find in a scrap yard.”

Trevelyan (son of Julian Trevelyan, the painter) delves into this tumbledown time capsule with enthusiasm, filming nature—human specimens, mainly—in microscopic detail. While airplanes roar overhead, the Pages are down in the sawdust with beetles, spiders, and their pet peacock. With the exception of Kath (the more outgoing of the two sisters) and Jim, the family doesn’t seem to get along particularly well; Trevelyan tends to film them separately, and almost everything they say is directed outside the frame.

Mr. Page, the aging patriarch, wanders about in a trilby and grease-stained trench coat. He’s got a bit of Lewis Carroll in him; he wouldn’t mind having a kangaroo, he explains, because kangaroos eat bread and butter and “pick up a cup off the table and drink out of it, and things like that.” When the film briefly saw the light of day almost four decades ago, Philip Oakes of the Sunday Times called the Pages “intensely English”—which is probably true, albeit in the way that the Beales of Grey Gardens are “intensely” American.

Trevelyan’s marvelously offbeat tragicomedy takes less than seventy minutes to present an indelible microcosm, complete with ditties banged out on the family’s wheezing harmonium and out-of-tune piano, which Kath plays standing up. The women are desperate to escape the junkyard they inhabit, a prospect that doesn’t seem to have crossed the minds of their father and brothers. When, in the last shot of the film, the blokes take one of their smoke-belching juggernauts for a roll down the highway, it’s almost as if they’re daring the world to call them obsolete.

The Moon and the Sledgehammer plays Friday, June 5, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.