The most surprising aspect of viewing Winterage by filmmaker Lucy Cash and performance artist Mark Jeffery is that strikingly disparate parts fit together like images in a found scrapbook, Polaroids whose backing glue has dried out with time and whose colors have shifted to blacks, grays, reds, and blues. But the parts here aren’t children’s birthday parties and sibling play on the grass. Winterage’s images and sounds are: dull wintry scenes in a run-down milking barn; rain causing gray mud in between outbuildings; green fields whose colors are bleached by British temperate winter; a vivid, iridescent, purple and green glitter, fringed, and crowned black-based costume that Jeffery wears as he kneels in cow-barn muck with his face down and sideways in silage; Jeffery sitting in the graveyard where his father Joe is buried; a glimpse of Joe working in the summer hay fields; sounds of cowbells; sounds of Jeffery singing Rhinestone Cowboy; a golden-fringed white and pink costume hung outdoors blowing in the wind; cows chewing. These images, especially the bleak ones of the British, rural winterscape should be depressing, but in Winterage: Last Milk they’re treated with generous camera work and graceful dance motions, accompanied by alluring casual singing and overlaid graphics of made-up words like ‘milkfloor’ that together create a mournful but ultimately soothing affect. There has been death here: about 14 minutes into the film, we’re given the words of Jeffery’s father Joe about the accident that was the start of his fatal decline, “Fell through roof; When I fell it were the cattle come nudgin’ and nosyin’ in; Into my side as it were; On milking parlour floor.”
So, there is sadness here as well as the strange comfort. And history. Holtwood Farm, we learn from Lucy Cash’s animation at the film’s beginning, was founded in 1087 AD and nearby stands the yew tree where Robin Hood is said to have married Clorinda in 621 AD. The farm was tythed to Joe Jeffery in 1971 AD. Joe died in 2008 and is still piercingly missed in the present. For a film viewed during the never-ending pandemic, it draws the watcher to mourning, but also to the long lineage of human mortality, and back to the persistence in individual mourning, Winterage asks us to cherish whom we loved best and first, and hold close the place where we loved them. It stirs me as I miss my father as well, gone now 8 years, and to honor my own persistence of mourning him. And my friend Maurice Berger, who died of COVID in the early days of the pandemic. This film in its beauty reminds that any rigid timeline that tries to dictate emotions for mourning a death lacks value and instead what is cherished and rings true is the persistence in the heart of the long, loving, beautifully tuned, uniquely sung salute to the beloved dead.
This carefully wrought film begins with maps and graphics marking the history of rural Derbyshire where Holtwood Farm nestles. Not until after the first 3 minutes do we see the dark glitter and fringe costume incongruously blowing in the wind in an otherwise grayscape, and then the golden-fringe coat also flapping. We feel this film will not be pedantic nor stereotypical. Nor is it a takeover of the queer prodigal returning and throwing glitter. The dissolves of gray winter and outbuildings that follow are balanced in beauty with the costumes. Crows call. A hand stroking the grass appears. The performer, Jeffery, walks toward the horizon in dancer strides. His get up is ridiculous, a rug wrapped around his middle, yet he looks dignified. There is a devotion here. Quaintness is disallowed. About a third of the way into the film’s non-narrative montage, we’re greeted with wintry rain, a dog looks out at the mud, also gray, in between the barns and other outbuildings, sheltered under the dirty corrugated metal roof of the cow barn. Next, there is a story within the larger non-story: Jeffery, beautifully costumed in the dark, iridescent outfit with a grand, spiked headpiece makes sowing motions toward the cows peering out from their stalls. They retreat, they come back, Jeffery moves forward, later we see them reaching out to lick him, Jeffery reaching out to stroke them. First, though, in one of the film’s most powerful moments, he kneels, and places his head into the pickled silage, at a restful side angle. It should be repulsive but it’s not. He’s at home with the cows, even and especially at this place where (we guess) his father fell. It’s the heart of daily life and labor on this dairy farm. And Jeffery loves the cows.
There’s a brief image that flickers on screen of Joe working in the summer hay fields, and it’s gone. We move to and are moved by Joe’s words about the fall and the cows coming over to him as he lay on the ground. Later there’s another glimpse of Joe as if projected onto an old window. The film gives way to a scene of Jeffery on the stage of the Doveridge Working Man’s Club, which, as we viewers who’ve followed the performer’s previous work know, is where he as a small child sang to his mother before she ran off. Even a viewer new to this body of work can feel another kind of mourning here. Jeffery sings Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy: “I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long; Singin’ the same old song; . . . Where hustle’s the name of the game; And nice guys get washed away like the snow in the rain.” Later and back on the farm, it seems, Jeffery is singing again, a song written by poet Hazel McDowell, of “the ghosts of the cows in the parlour.”
The film ends with a bare and unspectacular sunset over the barns and bare trees interspersed with images of the cows, now out in the field, coming home. Hard to elicit these emotions of love and mourning without relying on standard farm scenes of rural beauty. The winter land here doesn’t look all that fertile, the farm is not charming, yet the starkness tugs at memories of everyday fields and chores, and a deep feeling of belonging, in whatever costume. The cows are well tended but no other people than Jeffery are visible, nor chimney smoke. It seems like the cows and the glitter costumes and the grayness are inexplicably what endures. And in that endurance is love.
Queer difference is at home in the film’s scenes, glitter glories in the sileage the dancer lies down in that also comprises a low bank the cows eat from. It’s a bedecked return to an austere childhood place. But we understand that we’re traveling with the adult performance artist and (we assume) a friend, filmmaker Lucy Cash, a stunning cinematographer, and we welcome the ease with which be-glittered Jeffery inhabits again the place where he grew up, with his sowing motions and dignified dancer moves, the fields, the cow barn, the spaces between sheds, the graveyard, the grass. We feel that he has somehow won himself while retaining his past and his heart-filled mourning of his father. The costumes hanging outside and flapping in the breeze, filling the frame, are his flags, and they are beautiful.