âA man sits in a pub as his cigarette slowly burns. The end.â This is not an existential joke or indeed a bit of minimalist theatre by the great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, but a description of one of Sam Taylor-Woodâs newest films, The Last Century, 2005. The scene, while recalling her earlier film works involving numerous characters, is entirely static apart from the involuntary blinking, twitching and barely-visible breathing of four motionless actors, all of whom are arranged around another, central figure as if in a group portrait painted by Rembrandt or Caravaggio.
The contrasting light and shade of this typically gloomy, wood-panelled East London pub matches the tenebrism or chiaroscuro of Caravaggioâs The Calling of St Matthew of 1599-1600 in which a group of tax collectors, huddled around a table counting their money, are disturbed by the figure of Jesus beckoning one of them to become his apostle. In both works, the strong shafts of light highlight the faces and poses in similar ways, yet the dramatic moment of surprise and uncertainty frozen in Caravaggioâs dynamic composition is at odds with Taylor-Woodâs agonizing continuation of her chosen moment. For the stock-still protagonist of The Last Century, there is no religious epiphany, no reaction, no past, no future â only an excruciating present. Perhaps the action is elsewhere, we think, looking at the open-mouthed woman sharing his table, who patiently waits to finish her laugh. He stares out into nothingness, not noticing what might be titillating this woman, but instead concentrates on his own fug, his inexorable boredom.
âBeckham, the sleeping beautyâ by Richard Dorment for The Telegraph / April 2004
Iâd bet a fiver that Sam Taylor-Woodâs filmed portrait of David Beckham is the only one in the National Portrait Gallery where the sitter is snoozing. Commissioned for the permanent collection, it shows the footballer apparently asleep in a Madrid hotel room.
If that sounds straightforward, well, it is and it isnât. For, as so often in her work, Taylor-Wood has her own idiosyncratic take on a yawningly traditional subject. But, before discussing what that take is, first let us look at what we actually see. Positioning her camera close to Beckhamâs face, bare arms and tattooed upper torso, Taylor-Wood just lets the camera run.
The film is silent, and any movements are the sitterâs, not the cameraâs. With his hands tucked sweetly under his head, Beckham looks young, serene and blissfully happy. Although he sometimes shifts position or moistens his lips, he doesnât wake up. When he smiles in his sleep or his eyelids flutter, we sense that he may be dreaming, but otherwise not much happens in a film lasting over an hour. As the celebrity magazines say, this is Beckham as youâve never seen him before.
But this straightforward description of the portrait is only half the story. In David, Taylor-Wood is paying homage to Andy Warholâs film Sleep â the unwatchable six-hour epic from the late 1960s in which the artist placed a camera next to a sleeping man, let it run, and then screened the result.
But where the man in Sleep was anonymous, we viewers know all there is to know about Beckhamâs professional, social and marital affairs. This, of course, is the nature of celebrity like Beckhamâs. We already feel we know him intimately â Taylor-Wood just takes that intimacy into the bedroom.