“Scenes & Songs from Boyd Webb,” codirected by Boyd Webb and Philip Haas

British Academy of Film and Television Arts

As children scale a wall to look through a barred window in a Whitechapel street, the camera behind them moves in and up to reveal what they are struggling to see: a photographer’s studio with a paper sky, a canvas sea, and a beach made from carpet underlay. The children are right to feel excluded; this is a sort of playground. Inside, actors apply themselves earnestly to their tasks. A peasant startles a rabbit by bowling eggs off a carpet globe. Nude workers crawl up and down rubber slopes, operating a mill which grinds corn to feed geese. A blue carpet, suspended horizontally, is agitated by unseen helpers, and a girl “swims” along the studio floor clutching a pink plastic hairdrier. As organ music swells and the wordless melody line acquires a descant, she switches it on and beg ins melting a slab of butter. Oddest of all, a lady ties vegetables with thread, launches them into space, and watches as they rotate on their axes, then orbit with heavenly bodies. She loves her vegetables; she even kisses them before letting them go.

All these people have a mission to accomplish; for them it is both passion and inspiration. Yet the poetic logic that governs their activities is hard to fathom. In a world where geese are highly prized, the peasant’s cavalier attitude to albumen seems indefensible. Could he be a poacher? He keeps the eggs in his shirt. Or is he perform ing a philanthropic act, like the female food-flinger? Laws of consumption and waste seem to prevail. His bowled eggs break into a dangling metal radar dish invisible to him. Yolks and whites stream through, a voice sings of “the broadcast of genetic material,” and the camera turns upside down to show this lost goodness as prehensile growing matter. Both fecund and onanistic, it is the kind of paradox Boyd Webb enjoys. His is an art of conspicuous consumption; between each scene we watch him returning from local stores where he has bought props—yogurt, candles, an exotic fruit. As if to stress the prodigality of his work, he drags a strange fish along the pavement, for no apparent reason except to provide something to watch and hear. The theme is survival. Fish, an abiding race, and elephants, a dying one, recur in his work. All display, his photographs have the air of conjuring tricks, with long-suffering volunteers perched so precariously on homemade apparatuses that it seems that in a second the whole thing will collapse. Instead, of course, the danger is captured, stilled, contained. And “containment” is the key metaphor.

From locating his earlier photographs within society, and concentrating on outsiders and social gaffes, Webb has gradually moved toward the establishment of a fictive universe sustained, perhaps, by sheer trickery. In his studio he conjures boundless space, an entire layered universe. But the vision is microcosmic: “Everything in the world can be found in a pint of seawater,” a boy soprano whispers as children play on the rubber beach. There is something medieval about all this. Webb ’s people are anonymous, ordinary, identified only by the tasks they are given. They are Everyman figures offering enigmatic statements about civilized life. Pastoral, Webb’s new genre, is a way of finding some justification for the sacrifices society forces us to make. This created world may be a simplified version of our own, but it does not shirk issues of either happiness or duty. “How shall the world be served?” asks one of Chaucer’s pilgrims. Webb has a few answers.

Stuart Morgan