August 14, 2008

She Should Take Time for Reflection

By Deborah Orr


Until she was about 42, Jennifer Fox had believed that she was living exactly the life that she'd wanted. Based in New York, surrounded by a network of close friends, she had felt happy working as a documentary film-maker and lecturer on film-making, travelling and working all over the world. Then her great friend Pat had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and suddenly Fox twigged that life was short and bodies grew fragile. "It seemed we had been living our lives," she intoned in her fey, solemn, toneless drawl, "as if we'd be young for ever."

Fox, from when she was a small child, had liked the way her father lived, and had considered her mother's routines looking after five children to have been much less attractive. Lately, though, she had developed a sense of her own life's "invisibility". She spoke of how a family photograph album told a story and documented a life. She, with a number of relationships behind her, felt the lack of such a continuing, developing narrative.

For a couple of years, Fox had been conducting a relationship with a married South African man, who told her that he did not love his wife, but did not want to leave his children. She kept this affair secret from the friends whose support was supposed to be so crucial to her. Fox's feelings of "invisibility" were easily explained. Except by her. Fox did not understand her ennui at all. "Normally, when I wanted to understand something, I made a film about it. So I picked up a camera and investigated my modern female life." The result is six hours of footage, shot over a number of years in 17 countries, starring Fox and featuring a supporting cast of mainly female friends and acquaintances.

Fox made much of her technique of "passing the camera round" so that one saw events and discussions from the point of view of others involved in the film. A lot of the discussions were fascinating, especially when Fox talked to women who lived in developing countries. Really, though, this technique mainly ensured that Fox herself was more often than not the girl in the picture. Fox is no longer invisible. The intimate details of her personal life are slavishly recorded.

Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, originally edited as a series in six one-hour episodes, has reached the British networks in a different form, and has been truncated into two long parts for the Storyville strand. Last night's show was two hours long, and packed with revelation.

Before the camera, Fox embarked on a relationship with another man, Patrick, who knew about Fox's great South African love and put up with it. He also put up with being filmed, although eventually he insisted that he had to have control over where and when she filmed him. Poor Patrick stood by as the world was told that Fox didn't think she loved him and found his Swiss-German accent so absurd that she couldn't take him seriously. He also stood by as it became common knowledge that he had made Fox pregnant. We all even trooped off to the gynaecologist with Fox, where she learnt than the pain in her stomach was caused by an ongoing miscarriage.

Fox then decided that she did want a baby, and Patrick agreed that this would be great. Fox went off to visit her South African lover, nevertheless, and even met his children on a visit to a safari park. "It was so wonderful to be with his children," said this spoiled little solipsist of a woman. "He whispered to me that he imagined that his children were our children."

On it went, with Fox continuing to refuse to understand that she wasn't "a free woman", but one who was imprisoned instead by her own shallow egotism. Whatever she chose to do was sanctified by the fact that the choice was hers. She revelled in her rejection of "convention" and failed to see that for bohemian middle-class women of her generation, her life was entirely conventional, and even a textbook cliche. The great strength of her film was that it threw up so many issues worthy of debate. The great trouble was that you had to get to know Jennifer so well before you could get on to that. Annoyingly, her film is very much more significant than she is.

Patsy Kensit, in the new series of the popular family-history programme Who Do You Think You Are?, displayed a surprisingly powerful ache for conventionality. The daughter of a denizen of 1960s organised crime in London's East End, she longed to have her family's choices explained as the result of bad luck and great need, rather than a genetic predilection for dodgy dealings. Way back, she eventually found an ancestor who was a dedicated churchman, lauded for his tireless work with the abject poor of Bethnal Green and conferred with the rare honour of a Master of Arts from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Kensit got her wish, and you couldn't help feeling pleased for her.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away

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