The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Reviews

Falling And Laughing: The Possibilities Are Endless Reviewed
Helen King , December 6th, 2014 12:09

Helen King reviews James Hall and Edward Lovelace's documentary about the former Orange Juice frontman

"I must experience the world. Whatever that is." Edwyn Collins’ self-imposed imperative - fragile and defiant as it is - constitutes the tough silvery filament which threads together the extraordinary cinematic offering that is The Possibilities Are Endless: James Hall’s and Edward Lovelace’s brave new film about the Scottish musical icon, and his struggle to refigure what remains an extraordinary life in the wake of the two devastating cerebral haemorrhages that assailed him in 2005.

Collins’ steadfast refusal – buffeted by the boundless love and fire of his long-term partner, Grace Maxwell – to succumb to the curtailments of these catastrophic shiftings of the brain is the drive at the centre of this remarkable documentary; an elegantly handled exploration of the parameters of selfhood, how the soul regroups when the flesh lets it down, and the seismic - and here, it has to be said, heroic - battles between the conflicting drives of human expression and sudden bodily decline.

Hall and Lovelace confront that sudden shattering head-on. The Possibilities Are Endless opens with a disorientating plummet; an attempt to render the violence and isolation of Collins’ post-stroke experience of the world cinematically. After a scuzzy VHS clip of the Orange Juice helmsman performing his solo break-out hit, ‘A Girl Like You’ on Conan O’Brien’s show, the film segues jarringly into a fragmentary series of stark, expressionistic vistas of windswept beaches and turbulent shores, peopled by shifting and solitary figures grazing the landscape with backs turned and faces obscured. The soundtrack for these bleak tableaux consists of a series of halting, guttural, and semi-sequiteur voiceover utterances from Collins ("I was walking on the beach…when I was fourteen…no. No. I was eight") which stutter across the imagery, carving out a narrative cul-de-sac glutted with aphasia, semantic false starts, and claustrophobic self-alienation. Hall and Lovelace offer no guiding co-ordinates here, but instead allow the nightmare into which Collins was so suddenly plunged to flood the screen just as suddenly and incomprehensibly; a directorial gamble which is as arresting as it is unsettling and which successfully anticipates the stark emotional contours of the rest of the film.

These opening scenes were shot in the Scottish coastal town of Helmsdale, where the Edinburgh-born Collins spent many childhood holidays, and to which he and Maxwell have recently relocated from London. The name of the town is also a word which Maxwell used as a connective talisman during her husband’s hospitalisation, seeking to reach out to Collins across the void with a signifier that - for them - is rich in deep associations of place, memory and belonging. And, indeed, gradually revealed as the perennially beating heart of this story is the bond between Collins and Maxwell; a relationship that resonates with authenticity and warmth, despite its foundation in understatement. In her interaction with Collins, Maxwell is alternately caustic and tender, instinctively unwilling to descend into indulgence or pity, whilst still radiating solidarity and immovable love; an inference we are enabled to make via the exquisitely handled elegance and reticence of the filmmakers.

The title of this film is one of four phrases Collins was able to utter in the immediate, protracted wake of his illness (the other three were ‘Yes’, ‘No’, and ‘Grace Maxwell’). Says Maxwell: "it sounds profound, but after you’ve heard it eighty-five times per day it seems less so". This pithy summation casts an illuminating light on the tenor of the love these two individuals so evidently share. Maxwell is frank, unsentimental, and devastatingly articulate about the aftermath of Collins’ illness and its impact on their relationship: "you’re afraid for what it’s like for him... inside his head". Even more affecting is her near-unbearable lament for the pre-stroke Edwyn: "I miss him".

The gorgeous thing about The Possibilities Are Endless, however, is that it quietly suggests that they are. As the trauma and loss of the opening act recedes, strength and resilience come bounding back in the form of more conventional storytelling and a dawning re-recognition between the principal players. Collins and Maxwell are shown reassigning and rejecting their perceived loss; finding a new terrain for their relationship which is both irrevocably reconfigured and unalterably familiar. The directors convey this by way of a celebratory exploration of the couple’s past and present: their son Will (who looks uncannily like his father at an equivalent age) features in a series of staged scenes evoking the early days of his parents’ relationship. We see him awkwardly courting a girl in a chip shop, striding with her through a twilight suburban street, saying little, yet speaking volumes.

The figurative then gives way again, as the real rushes back in: from the suggested Collins and Maxwell to the de facto pair in the here and now. These fluctuations are part of the overarching shape of the film. it's not so much that the shifts are seamless, rather that the seams of this film are integral to its story, deliberately stitched in in an attempt to stress the distances between then and now, before and after, in there and out here. So, as the second and third acts are played out, we are increasingly privileged by a slew of beautifully intimate insights into the reality of Collins’ and Maxwell’s present-day life together: she strumming the strings on his guitar as he fingers the chords with the arm he still has full use of, he breaking into song with all the strength, vitality, and command he always had, she teasing the fuck out of him, he giving as good as he gets in retort. All subtle affirmations of the failure of the illness to cow the things in Collins’ life that really define him.

The final scenes are of Collins and Maxwell before and after one of the former’s many live performances of the last few years; years in which he has written and recorded at a prolific rate, as well as returning to his role as producer of the records of many of his friends and peers. He resurrects his graphic art too, beautifully intricate sketches of birds tumbling out of his clenched fist as the camera hovers above it. By the end of The Possibilities Are Endless, we learn that Collins and Maxwell are planning their return to Helmsdale, a circular trajectory which feels restorative and deeply jubilant. It’s a joy to hear Collins ultimately aver that "there, near the sea – it’s good enough now. Now it is."

This is a film which could so easily have gone wrong. The subject matter is the stuff that - in less able and intuitive hands - may have easily clattered on the edge of mawkish tragedy and unbridled sentimentality. Not so in the hands of Hall and Lovelace. The Possibilities Are Endless is an unflinching and innovative representation of a uniquely creative life suddenly shattered and stunted by an unfairness of physical, anatomical circumstance. But it goes beyond this. In its formal adventurousness, its sophisticated grasp of the wry humour of the horrible failings of the body, its deeply honest portrayal of simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary people, it passionately asserts the power and potential of the creative spirit. As such, it’s about as fitting a document of Edwyn Collins’ ongoing achievements as I can imagine.