PRINT January 2005


Jonathan Romney on Tracey Emin’s Top Spot

TRACEY EMIN’S DEBUT feature film, Top Spot, is named after a nightclub in her hometown, a sexual utopia for local girls where, as she recalls in voice-over, “We’d snog and kiss, be fingered, titted up.” But “top spot,” she tells us, also refers to sexual intercourse in which the tip of the penis touches the cervix: “I mean,” comments Emin, sounding altogether outraged, “who would ever call a teenage disco ‘Top Spot’?”

The artist now has a further reason to feel aggrieved. Top Spot was scheduled for UK theatrical release in December but was given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification, which deemed it unfit for minors because of a suicide scene (in fact, an almost euphemistically discreet series of shots: a drip of blood on a razor, bathwater turning pink). Rather than cut her film for a 15 certificate, Emin chose to withdraw Top Spot from UK distribution, although it will still be televised.

“I made this very personal film about teenage girls,” Emin protested. “I never in a million years thought they would not be able to see it.” Her distributor, Hamish McAlpine of Tartan Films, put it more explicitly: “The film was made specifically [my italics] for fifteen-year-olds to try and advise and help them with the pitfalls of growing up in modern Britain.”

This is certainly a bizarre idea, if true: Emin playing agony aunt to the nation’s teenagers, who, in terms of morally instructive drama, might prefer British TV soaps like EastEnders and Hollyoaks. Any averagely worldly fifteen-year-old would find Top Spot dramatically thin, raggedly executed, and stridently ingenuous in tone.

Tracey Emin, Top Spot, 2004, still from a color digital video, 61 minutes. From left to right: Elizabeth Crawford, Laura Curnick, Katie Foster Barnes, Helen Laker, Frances Williams, Keiri Noddings.

Despite being executive produced by prolific independent filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (whose company coproduced Top Spot with the BBC), Emin has not made anything like a conventional piece of narrative cinema. But neither would Top Spot make sense as a gallery video. It is a sketchy hybrid, pitched uncertainly between two worlds and lacking the production values and informed interest in screen language that are increasingly expected in artists’ film and video (not that anyone expected Emin to be another Shirin Neshat).

Inspired, like much of Emin’s work, by growing up in the South East England coastal resort of Margate, Top Spot is best described as a digitally shot scrapbook of moving seaside postcards, memories, and fleeting fantasies. Narratively it owes much to the British tradition of the female coming-of-age film, most notably to David Leland’s Wish You Were Here (1987), about a sexually precocious seaside rebel.

Emin follows six Margate schoolgirls, each implicitly representing a facet of her younger self. All are sexually experienced, variously cocky or embittered, although we cannot tell how much of their confessions are fabulation, designed to satisfy peer pressure. One girl has a traumatic abortion, as Emin herself did. One is raped. Another says she goes with friends to visit a woman who “makes [them] do things” under duress, although what is never specified. A fourth retreats into romantic fiction, as an escape, it’s implied, from sexual abuse by her father (notably, no male characters appear).

The most naive-seeming of the group, Helen (Helen Laker), is romantically besotted with a boy who says he is going to join the Foreign Legion; Helen dreams of learning French and meeting him in Egypt. Her friends tell her it’s all a crazy fantasy, yet we see Helen wandering in Egypt, searching for her vanished love. At one point, she even appears to receive a passionate love letter from her man, in French.

Touristically corny as Helen’s reverie is, with its footage of camels and pyramids, it provides a sharp ironic parallel between Egypt and Margate itself, a shabbily exotic escape for generations of working-class British holidaymakers. The most striking rhyme is between a story about Dreamland, a local funfair where an attraction called the Sphinx provides a secret sexual haven, and a prosaic sign on a building in Egypt reading “Dreamland.”

Much of the sketchy narrative comes in clumsy exposition worthy of a teen improv-drama group: “What’s up with Helen?” But the most successful acted sequence—which could well have been a stand-alone video—is a series of interviews between the girls and an offscreen authority figure, voiced by Emin herself. Stiltedly performed though they are, the Q & A’s have a distinct, sometimes comic pithiness. One girl tries to pass off a love bite as an experiment with a vacuum cleaner. “How could you have teeth marks from a Hoover on your neck?” spits Emin drily.

Much of Top Spot comprises more or less free-form montages of crashingly conventional seaside images—hot red sunsets, crowds of vacationers, lone seagulls—that could almost have been shot for the local tourist board. We see the girls at play, running around, throwing up, sharing fairground larks, speeded up or in interspersed Super 8. The imagery tends toward cliché, although the one instance of this that really works—a lone girl spinning ecstatically round a dance floor, echoing Emin’s 1995 video Why I Never Became a Dancer—does so partly because Emin makes her best sound-track choice here, Shirley & Company’s 1975 disco hit “Shame, Shame, Shame.” (The other music cues are a little literal minded, from Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” to Roxy Music’s languid lament “Sea Breezes.”)

Tracey Emin, Top Spot, 2004, still from a color digital video, 61 minutes.

Given the film’s roughness—and short running time—it finally makes more sense for Top Spot to be televised than given a commercial theatrical release. Significantly, it will be shown on the digital BBC3 channel, aimed at a hip youth audience, rather than the expected (and even less watched) BBC4, reserved for upmarket arts programming. But whatever the context, Top Spot is unlikely to have anything like the aggressive incongruity that made Richard Billingham’s far more abrasive Fishtank so memorably disruptive when televised in 1998.

Top Spot made its North American debut in New York last month, in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Premieres” series (in which nearly two hundred movies and videos, including Michael Almereyda’s documentary on William Eggleston, will ultimately be screened). To some viewers, Emin’s film—programmed in the Experimental, Performance, and Animation section—may have looked a little thin alongside more accomplished filmic offerings from the likes of Tacita Dean and Sam Taylor-Wood. Still, its artlessness, even amateurishness, means that Top Spot is pure unvarnished Emin, which is something her admirers always appreciate. Fans can see the artist herself in the final scene, grinning at the camera before flying off in a helicopter as Margate appears to be razed to the ground by World War II bombers: the implication being that success is the best revenge—and that getting the BBC to pay for a helicopter is the very best of all.

Jonathan Romney is a London-based film critic.