PRINT October 2003



In the voice-over to Sans Soleil (1982), Chris Marker offers a typically aphoristic remark: “We do not remember; we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” The linkage between history and memory, their common constructedness, is also evident in the films of Tacita Dean, who, while ostensibly celebrating the formal languages of structural film—duration, framing, sound, and editing—engages the process of memory and resignification that sets in when history lets go of its protagonists, and their actions, objects, and characters become forgotten. Almost all of Dean’s films center around one simple element—such as an observed event, a discovered place, or a forgotten story—that seems obvious and miraculous at the same time. She has made films about a lighthouse off the Scottish coast of Berwickshire (Disappearance at Sea, 1996); the sound-reflecting concrete walls built on the Kent coast in the 1920s as an early-warning system against air raids (Sound Mirrors, 1999); a total solar eclipse as observed on a dairy farm in Cornwall (Banewl, 1999); the torso of a sailboat found on a tiny island in the Caribbean (Teignmouth Electron, 2000); and the leftover traces of Marcel Broodthaers’s Section Cinéma in his Düsseldorf studio, now a storage space for a local Kunsthalle (Section Cinema, 2002). Dean’s films take issue with sites or found objects and point to the narratives behind them, which are often fascinating accounts of arcane footnotes of history, discarded utopian experiments, tragic events, or personal defeats. For Boots, 2003, which comprises three films in German, English, and French, Dean situates her protagonist in an unfurnished Art Deco villa in Portugal. In each version, “Boots”—an eccentric old friend of the artist’s family—moves through a different sequence of rooms while recounting anecdotes from the life of the quasi-historical persona he has spontaneously chosen to inhabit.

Christian Rattemeyer


I have an unmade film project: something I carry around with me for the future. I’m always surprised by how it transmutes into other works. The project has at its center a dialogue between Oedipus, which means “swollen foot,” and his daughter/sister Antigone. Antigone is my sister’s name and an old fascination. Twelve years ago, while still a student, I made a small drawing of three boots hanging from the top of the paper. Under the first boot was written OEDIPUS; under the second, BYRON; and under the third, BOOTSY. So Boots was on my mind even then.

Boots was my sister’s godfather. (I find it strange suddenly to be speaking in the past tense, because he has just died.) His real name was Robert Steane, but we knew him as Boots because of his orthopedic boot, which he would have elegantly handmade in the style of his other shoe by a top London craftsman. Multiple car accidents added to his rather baroque appearance and left him blind in one eye, but his charm transcended everything. His father was almost certainly the illegitimate son of King George V who left England to become a silent-movie star in Germany in the ’20s. So Boots grew up in Bavaria. He met the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo and lived a truly cosmopolitan life traveling with his parents from one film set to another across Europe. One of the many things that attracted me to Boots was exactly this undatable urbanity that he carried around with him without conscious nostalgia. He was somehow the perfect anachronism.

In 2002, I had a show at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto and visited the pink villa in the park, used by the museum as a second exhibition space. I learned that there were plans to renovate it in the autumn, which precipitated my desire to film it. The villa is an oddity in the French Art Deco style. The owner, Carlos Alberto Cabral, was obsessed by beauty and filled the house with extravagant detailing. He married a French model, Blanche, who pined for Paris, and even today the house retains a sort of melancholy. It was already a stage set, but for me it was the shabbiness and slight neglect that held its atmosphere.

I wanted to animate the house very specifically. So I got fixated with the idea of asking Boots to be in the film. He was an architect, and I wanted a fictional architectural account of the peculiarities of the villa. I also wanted someone who would not clash with the building, who would seem of its time. I had never worked with a person before in my films, and quite apart from whether he’d be any good or not, Boots was seriously disabled, in England, and unable to fly because of his pacemaker. But it had to be him; no one else would do. And it’s a testament to Boots’s courage, imagination, and probably vanity that he agreed to come.

It was no easy feat getting Boots by train to Portugal. I had by now taken the decision to film in the three languages he spoke: English, German, and French. I took with me three anamorphic 16 mm cameras. We had only three filming days, and it soon became obvious that Boots’s energy was limited. I also wanted to shoot only in the late afternoon and at dusk. Boots took a dislike to the villa and refused, even for the sake of fiction, to play the architect. Instead he took the part of Blanche’s lover. He picked up on the atmosphere of the house quickly and was unscripted. He spoke, when I pushed him, some German but less French. I was not, as I never am, organized enough, but I knew from the first take, when he walked across the main hall and the villa resounded with the sound of his boot and walking sticks, that alchemy was possible.

The heart of my process is the editing. It’s almost as if I court chaos in the filming because I know I have this period later when it will just be me and it. I always cut alone on a Steenbeck. On this occasion, I had the added complication of having my sync sound on magnetic track. I decided to cut the film into separate English, French, and German versions. Each version would show a different facade of the house, and Boots would enter a different room on the ground floor. As I hadn’t decided this when we were filming, it created no end of difficulty: For example, in the French version, he said only one word in French—“toutes”—in the designated room, so I had to edit around that moment using cutaways and artifice. In the end, each version is twenty minutes long and has its own personality—and each is a valediction that ends at night.