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The historical analysis considers both the economic exigencies and aesthetic implications of this 'alternative' cinematic practice, dealing with the problems of financing films which have no commercial outlet, and the problems of developing an aesthetic in opposition to the dominant cinematic conventions. Avant-garde film activity in England is still growing at the time of this writing; the thesis concludes with a full critical examination and assessment of the most important of the current avant-garde film work being done here.
This thesis offers both historical and critical perspectives on its subject and, while asserting the interdependence of the two, makes certain distinctions for the purpose of analysis. Thus the first two chapters serve introductory roles; Chapter One is a critical foregrounding while Chapter Two is an historical backgrounding. A chronological table of important events has been included for reference immediately following the chapter. Lastly, Chapter Four is conceived as the critical elaboration of the product of that history; thus Chapters One and Four can be read as the critical extremes of the historical means suggested by Chapters Two and Three. I would like to acknowledge here the indispensible contribution of all those film-makers and other participants who were generous with their time and granted often lengthy interviews.
The compilation of these appendices owes much to those individuals who made their personal files available to me; Bob Cobbing, Dave Curtis, Simon Field, and Malcolm Le Grice deserve to be singled out for their helpfulness. The defining characteristics of an avant-garde practice — more specifically, of a cinematic avant-garde — remain unclear to many film scholars. Obviously, part of the task of this thesis is to refine that definition by rendering those characteristics explicit in analyses of films which deserve that epithet.
But this becomes complicated by the fact that films which are described here as 'avant-garde' were not made under that aegis nor known by that name when initially screened. Thus the historical and critical assumptions behind the use of the term 'avant-garde' by this author need to be elaborated. Historically, the term 'avant-garde' has had military, then political, connotations: the leading forces of a military assault, or the vanguard of a social revolution. Therefore it should be stressed immediately that the use of the term here carries no political connotations, contrary to the opinion of some avant-garde film-makers themselves.
The confusion often arises because both the political vanguard and the aesthetic avant-garde share a progressive aspiration to change contemporary society and culture. Since many if not most avant-garde artists have left- wing sympathies, the two progressive aspirations are further confused. The uncertainty of the extent to which these two progressive trends are parallel has sustained debate throughout the twentieth century. Which is not to assert that avant-garde art is necessarily complicitous with bourgeois society.
There is great complexity to the issue, an issue to which the Italian scholar Renato Poggioli devoted an entire book. According to Poggioli, it is indisputable that 'the artist is in a continual state of social protest, but it does not signify that he becomes, politically, a revolutionary. According to that second perspective, which is cultural and underlines the separation as well as the reciprocity of the two opposed terms, it must be asserted as an absolute principle that the genuine art of a bourgeois society can only be anti-bourgeois. It is more important to observe that this principle works not only in the sphere of content, but also in that of form.
Modern art, that is, opposes the stylistic theory and practice that dominate the society and civilization to which that very art belongs; its chief function is to react against bourgeois taste. Thus the avant-garde finds itself in opposition on many levels to the prevailing values of the society from which it springs. The use of the term 'avant-garde' similarly implies an aesthetic 'academy' against which the revolt is directed.
In several fields of artistic activity — especially painting and sculpture — the avant-garde has, since the 's, become the unchallenged authority and has, in a sense, assumed the role of the academy. But 'avant-garde' is not the only adjective which has been used to describe those films which challenge the established norms of film-making; other terms which have recently been offered are 'experimental' and 'underground. It can easily be dismissed as currently unsuitable because of its connotations of tentativeness or of trial-and-error attempts to arrive at an as yet unrealized goal.
The argument of this thesis is precisely that the films under consideration are complete, mature works of art — as 'finished' as any Hollywood product — in spite of any initial appearance to the initiated eye of 'amateurish' qualities. The term 'underground' is more problematic; it does connote social protest and stylistic opposition, and it was the term used in the 's when film activity involving protest and stylistic revolt began to show dynamic growth and potential. Because the recent coherent avant-garde in England began as 'the underground movement,' the term is still occasionally used here to describe 1 Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-garde Attitudes,' The John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art, n.
The two — underground and avant-garde — are neither wholly divergent nor wholly coincident. What is involved is a period of maturation, in which a cultural shift which seems to threaten society and is subsequently repressed and driven underground is then seen as an accommodatable fringe of society and subsequently suppressed in an overground role with the label 'avant-garde. In the United States, where the term 'underground' was first applied to the cinema, avant-garde film-making had been an important, if largely unrecognized, activity for the previous fifteen years.
As Parker Tyler pointed out, 'Once there was no Underground, nominally speaking, there was only an "avant-garde," an "experimental film," and "poetic film. Thus the term was used not only — as Ken Jacobs later defined it — to describe an anti-establishment gesture from a political perspective and to mark the break with 'experimental' and 'poetic' film- making,2 1 Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History, p. Adams Sitney, 'Ken Jacobs,' Afterimage, no. But with the easing of obscenity laws in the U. Sheldon Renan, whose own book was titled The Underground Film, suggested that the term was 'outdated and meaningless' as early as In England, the term 'underground' was used more generally to refer to a cultural activity which, due to more liberal laws under a system of 'club' membership which technically removes the activity from the public sphere, was not subject to the same repression; thus the underground here tended to be culturally ignored or even socially persecuted, but not legally prosecuted though connexion with drugs later 1 Gideon Bachmann, 'New American Cinema,;Films and Filming, September , p.
Duplicated magazines and home movies. Both movies and magazines were called underground because they were so totally divorced from the established communicating channels and because they were intensely concerned with the use of the obsession for sex and religion as a weapon against the spiritual bankruptcy which begat the bomb. There is revolt against the commercial system, and social and political revolt, or often rather revolt against politics and in favour of anarchy.
But there are important distinctions which suggest that the term 'avant-garde' is today far mere appropriate than 'underground. Secondly, as noted by Tyler, 'uncritical permissiveness' was ' The underground has no need of criticism because it remains a network of cognoscenti who define themselves by their distance from society and its culture; but the avant-garde, which has cultural pretensions and a sense of its historicity, demands a critical practice to culturally inculcate itself, even if only as a fringe activity. Poggioli, echoing T. S, Eliot, states that while the avant-garde 'cannot and should not aspire to the academy, [it] can and should aspire to the tradition: a tradition conceived of not statically but dynamically, as a value constantly evolving 1 Tyler, op.
The modernist project in the arts might be briefly described as the interrogation of the fundamental representational properties of any medium, and an analysis of the modes of perception offered by that medium. English film-makers discussed here — many of whom received formal training in the other arts — are as involved in those issues as artists in the media of painting, sculpture, poetry, and music, and the attitudes of the avant-gardes in those arts have significantly informed the attitude of avant-garde film-makers.
This coincidence of attitude was signalled by Andy Warhol whose early films remain an important influence on contemporary avant-garde cinema in as he turned attention away from the increasingly academicized avant-garde of painting and silk screening by transferring those avant-garde strategies to film. The avant-garde is of a radical nature, seeking the roots of cinematic representation. It is true that many underground films shared these concerns and thus are now part of the avant-garde tradition , but their social intervention was not, at that time, 1 Poggioli, op. The aspirations of the avant-garde are aesthetic — aesthetic in its radical sense of 'to perceive' aisthetikos.
This is sufficiently distinct from those broad aspirations of the underground to motivate Tim Harding to write at Oxford in that 'The "underground film" no longer exists. Thus it might be argued that the history of avant-garde film-making in England extends back only as far as Avant-garde activity before that time — discontinuous and never documented neither literarily nor visually, nor transmitted orally to constitute a tradition — would more properly be referred to as the 'prehistory' of English avant-garde film. Yet the significant, if isolated, events of that prehistory merit discussion. Since the notion of an avant-garde practice implies the existence of an academy, no avant-garde in film could be defined as such until the academy became firmly established in the s.
The extra-academic nature of 'primitive' cinema is one of the factors which makes that 'primitiveness' attractive to the current avant-garde. The paradigm of that industrial academy was, of course, Hollywood. And in France, in Germany, in Russia, notable challenges were made to the hegemony of that academy. London in the s, like Paris and Berlin, generated an atmosphere which was sympathetic to independent non-Hollywood productions, including the avant-garde. Richard Griffith, writing of the intellectual film enthusiasts at the end of the silent era, mentions that, 'Their leadership came mainly from Britain, which, though it had produced few films and no good ones, seems to have been a fertile field for the ideal of cinema perfectionism.
It crystallised partly around an institution, the London 1 The primary definition of 'history,' according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary is 'a continuous methodical record of public events. The Film Society was designed to support films which were not commercially viable at a time when there were no specialised, cinema theatres in London, and when respectable journals offered little reporting and almost no serious writing on the cinema.
Ivor Montagu, one of the founders of the Society, recalls that both the industry and the public were sceptical of the Society's idea of considering 'film an art. Emerson' and Man Ray who published some photographs and a short piece on his film work. Nevertheless, until it ceased publication at the end of , Close-Up provided some of the best film criticism in the English language, supported the work of The Film Society, and consistently pressed for the expansion of screening and production facilities in England.
Robert Herring wrote in that, 'London has no salle d'avant-garde. There is no place in London where good pictures can be regularly seen. It is absurd and maddening to go on cooing over the cinema when, in England, one is ignorant of Dulac, Dreyer, Epstein, Gance even Close-Up also reported on the efforts, by individuals and groups abroad, to stimulate avant-garde film-making.
It was apparently never completed, as evidenced by Close-Up's silence on the project after two initial announcements of the work as 'in progress,' and the lack of any trace of the film today. Oswell Blakeston, a regular contributor to the magazine, first produced I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside on his own, then completed the more successful abstract film Light Rhythms with Francis Brugiere though in Blakeston's favourable review of the film in Close-Up he neglects to mention his own participation as co-maker. An unsigned column Macpherson? The public of the future should be able to buy or borrow films as it now buys or borrows books. They came to naught. The reasons for the failure of an indigenous avant-garde practice to flourish even temporarily are too complex to adequately analyse here.
But it should be noted that in other countries where the avant-garde produced significant works — France, Germany, Russia — there was a larger national reaction against Hollywood dominance, as opposed to England, whose subjugation became increasingly abject. Paul Rotha wrote in that, ' Kraszna-Krausz, commented in on the imminent demise of the avant-garde: 'One saw that the Avant-garde could claim more right of existence if it was connected with a whole army behind it —practically or only 1 Defries, 'Criticism from Within,' Close-Up, October , p.
One saw that outpost struggles can be a cute thing, but if they want to fulfil their purpose they need a system, a plan. Which is lacking today. Cavalcanti, whose avant-garde films — made in Paris in the 's — had a 'documentary' aspect, became a somewhat more conventional documentarist when he joined the GPO film unit in As pointed out by David Curtis in his book Experimental Cinema, the isolated abstract animators were the only avant-garde film-makers able to support themselves during this period, by doing commercial usually advertising work.
Lye made several other important animated films for the GPO in the years before the war; that the only British avant-garde films included in Rotha's encyclopaedic list of 'outstanding films1 are three by Lye Colour 1 Kraszna-Krausz, Review of Stuttgart Exhibition, Close-Up, December , p. Griffith has stated that, ' That is, these documentaries did not challenge the fundamental representational postulates of dominant cinema, though they did utilize those representational postulates differently from the mainstream cinema.
Close-Up folded in , The Film Society in With the advent of the war, and the further emigration of Lye to New York in , even sporadic avant-garde efforts ceased. If any film- makers were working anonymously during the following fifteen years, their anonymity seems assured. Not until I did any public activity recur, and it was to be in Brighton, the traditional birthplace of English cinema. There Jeff Keen managed to get involved in the film society of the Brighton College of Art his womanfriend was a student there, Keen was neither student nor staff member and began making films. Keen worked in the only format available to him — 8 millimetre — and out of his background in surrealist automatism tried to forge a completely manic film: 'I was interested in the idea of a total 1 Griffith, op.
At the end of , Cine Camera magazine started the 'Experimental Film Register' to distribute 8mm experimental films to film societies, and Keen's original versions of Wail and Like the Time Is Now were the first two to be distributed. The project folded six months later, the library having never exceeded six films. Keen's involvement and dedication to the medium attracted a small group of students and other artists, including Piero Heliczer from America, who knew the notorious Jack Smith in New York. Keen operated the camera for Heliczer's Autumn Feast, shot in Brighton in By the mid-sixties, Keen's group — including people like the Australian concrete poet Jim Duke and the young Tony Sinden who has subsequently made his own, quite different, films — developed the anarchic multi-media 'happenings' so attractive to the English 'underground,' which was the immediate precursor of the English avant-garde film scene.
The end of the 'prehistoric' phase of English avant-garde film practice was coincident with the internationalization of the American avant-garde film movement, The impetus and influence of this movement at that point enjoying its most dynamic period in its year history on the London scene cannot be overstressed. The real catalyst seems to have been not the reports from New York nor the scattered screenings at the National Film Theatre in ,2 and a programme brought by P. The first 'ripples of activity' — according to Stephen Dwoskin1 — were generated by the Knokke-le-Zoute festival of experimental film held at the end of Dwoskin is quick to add that these ripples caused by films and film-makers passing through London appeared to make, at that time, almost no impact at all.
Tony Balch was there fairly frequently, as were Hugh Shaw, Pip Benveniste, Gustav Metzger, and George Salamos3 Balch, Benveniste, and Salamos did later make films on their own, but none became significant avant-garde film-makers. Jeff Keen made it up to London for one day only — to see Jack Smith's films. Despite the significance of the films themselves, there simply was not the appropriate audience to appreciate them, nor the appropriate means or energy to respond to them. Dwoskin's own history parallels the emergence of a 1 Dwoskin interview, London, 15 March Where not specifically noted, subsequent biographical data is from this interview.
Adams Sitney, New York, 30 May When he arrived in London in with films he had made shot in New York, there was nowhere to screen them or finish editing them. He claims to have made an active search for a London film scene in and '65, a search that was intensified when Joan and Bob Adler arrived for a stay of several months early in The Adler household was apparently a meeting place for Jack Smith and friends; Bob did sound on Flaming Creatures, Joan was in Normal Love Smith's un- finished film ; she also worked in the same publishing house as Dwoskin. Frustrated at finding nothing nor no one of interest in London, they placed a phone call to Jonas Mekas in New York to see if he knew of anyone in London.
He didn't. Dwoskin moved to Notting Hill not long afterwards, where he met a neighbour, Ron Geesin, who worked in a local antique shop and occasionally played piano in the local pubs. Geesin shared musical interests with Dwoskin, and had recording equipment — which prompted Dwoskin to record sound for the films he had brought with him: Asleep, Alone, Chinese Checkers, Naissant when screened in New York, they were shown with separate magnetic sound; the final married prints were struck in Geesin was involved in the music programme, and it was decided to have a 'film night' for the festival as well.
Dwoskin recalls that it was there that Bob Cobbing first saw his films and approached him about the activities at the Better Books bookshop. Bob Cobbing was the man 1 Dwoskin interview. It is appropriate that the beginning of the history of English avant-garde cinema should have taken place in a bookshop. They grew from the 'underground' movement.
The underground in England got off the ground in the literary scene in Jeff Nuttall — author, poet, jazz musician, performance artist — describes the activity which centred around the Better Books bookshop on New Compton Street in those years: 'October There is a peculiar atmosphere to these Better Books functions, a sort of curious mixed atmosphere, part Quaker, part Anarchist, part decadent. The crowd usually consists of idealistic figures in publishing, up and comings, amiable potheads, one or two celebrities, and a rash of kids of all three sexes.
It 'was definitely the meeting place for artists of all kinds in London at that time. The regular screenings began early in soon after Cobbing arrived. He initiated the 'Hendon Film Society' in along with another of Cobbing's organisations, 'Writers' Forum', plus poetry, jazz and theatre groups, these societies eventually became 'Arts Together' — another example of the cross-fertilization of the arts at that period. However, the very act of showing non-commercial movies in the atmosphere of Better Books — Genet's Chant d'Amour had its British premiere there — was bound to have had a stimulating effect.
According to Cobbing, a lot of the same people were involved in his societies — Hendon, 1 Nuttall, op. Final frustration with the film- society atmosphere — 'they [the Federation of Film Societies] were a very stupid crowd,' claims Cobbing — led to the formation, on 13 October , of the London Film-Makers' Co-operative. The formation of the co-op was an extremely important step, and the history of the co-op will figure prominently in this history of the English avant-garde. It represents not only the commencement of a new era in English film-making, but also represents a certain continuity with the past and an organic development from the spirit of the times. Initially, the people who ran 'Cinema 65' also ran the co-op. Yet it should be noted that Cobbing cited, as 1 Bob Cobbing and Paul Francis were joint secretaries responsible for membership and distribution, respectively , John Collins was treasurer, and Phillip Crick was editor of Cinim.
Only the chairperson, Harvey Matusow, was a newcomer. Cobbing sees the early co-op as an extension of 'Cinema 65,' somewhat justifiably. The influential alternative newspaper International Times was founded by Jim Haynes, who had recently shifted his 'Traverse Theatre' group to London from Edinburgh. Raymond Durgnat confirmed Matusow's significance in noting that 'Matusow generated the energy for the switch from the Better Books film society atmosphere to a co-op. This was a crucial festival not only in terms of publicity for the co-op and for the movement as a whole, but also because a comprehensive view of these films was for the first time available to a large audience.
The programmes ranged from Maas to Menken to Brakhage to Anger. The co-op, during this first phase — the Better Books phase — managed fairly well despite some organisational and personal problems. The occasional open screenings initiated by 'Cinema 65' became institutionalised, first on a fortnightly basis and then as demand required, since there was not enough new material being made to sustain the more regular open screenings.
But still there were complaints that the co-op relied too heavily on American films1 and, as a result, a series of technical workshops was organised for September The demand for equipment and training out-ran the demand for screening time. The founders of the co- op were primarily interested in the development of a film culture through the efforts of a provocative periodical Cinim and a good distribution library and screening programme. This was in contrast to many of those who showed up at the first meetings wanting to become involved in the filmmaking aspect and wanting production facilities, feeling that this was the best way to promote independent film-making.
Even Steve Dwoskin, one of the founders who, as a film-maker, might be expected to sympathise with those who wanted the emphasis placed on production, felt that this would be a redundant service; 'we were working on the premise that anyone who wants to make films will make them somehow, and that the important thing is to show them [films]. Bob Cobbing's first words to this author were, 'If you want to talk about the beginnings of the Film-makers' Co-op, the things which come immediately to mind to me are financial problems, scandals, personalities at war with each other and that sort of thing For this thesis clearly is not merely interested in personal disputes or in establishing the veracity of various allegations; but in the case of the co-op those personalities seem to have significantly influenced its history, and as such should be understood as contributory factors in its development.
Cobbing asserted that this was 'a very important factor in the beginning of the co-op,' but he also feels that these hassles made no difference in the artistic content or quality of the films, or of which films got made and which didn't. That is, he tends to see the organisational system as independent from artistic production, a viewpoint in opposition to the one presented here. The first chairperson was Harvey Matusow, the American who had arrived not much earlier with a film and the names of some people in London and who certainly served as a catalyst.
Matusow's history is curious, to say the least. Apparently he was an informer for McCarthy and an FBI agent who turned in many New York artists and later turned on the FBI itself and received a five- year prison sentence for perjury. That may be dubious, but what seems less dubious in its corroboration by several sources Cobbing, Dwoskin, Curtis is that Matusow pocketed some of the funds collected at the box office of the Cochrane Theatre during the 'Festival of Underground Movies.
They remain on the perhaps dubious level of 'common knowledge' in London at this time. Matusow left London some time ago and is reportedly in the U. He was still in the chair as of January , but left shortly afterwards. He later resigned when the responsibilities became very real and he felt he couldn't devote the necessary time and energy. Admittedly, the position of 'executive officer' had been established on a trial basis, and yet this would seem to point to a falling out. Not long afterwards, Collins was accused of embezzling some of the receipts of Cinim. Dwoskin even accuses Collins of giving the money to the Arts Lab film-makers to buy the film stock which was used for the filming of the Grosvenor Square riots.
Dwoskin referred to Collins as a 'turncoat' because of his association with the Arts Lab, and it is precisely because he was directly caught in this conflict that his case is interesting. Also Durgnat interview. These problems might have been considered petty egotism or selfishness if the existence of the co-op hadn't been threatened by the closure of the Better Books bookshop. They were alarmed at the underground reputation of the place, and demanded that any 'controversial' books — i. The shop was ordered to close at 6. Cobbing and company were finally tossed out on 6 October Haynes, who had frequented some of the Better Books happenings, was sympathetic to the idea of holding co-op screenings in the Arts Lab.
The Lab was designed to have theatre space, cinema space, gallery space, restaurant space — the complete arts complex. Curtis was already a member of the co-op at this point, but not a pivotal one. He had joined Haynes' Arts Lab project not only because of interest in cinema, but also because he and his wife, Bridget Peppin, were looking for a new atmosphere in which to display and sell art. Most importantly, plans were begun for the building of a permanent workshop and the acquisition of permanent processing and shooting equipment.
The location of the Arts Lab in Covent Garden placed them near the London School of Film Technique and this provided some inspired and malleable young film-makers. The last co-op screening to be held in the Better Books basement was on 11 August, and the next week 18 August the show was hosted by the Arts Lab, despite the fact that the Lab didn't fully open until 25 September. Weekly programmes including one rather unsuccessful open screening were held at the Arts Lab through September, although the last screening of the month 26 September was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, demonstrating the co-op's independence from the Arts Lab.
Two more Arts Lab screenings were held in October, but the September bulletin notes that 'it is not yet certain where the venue for screenings from October 20th onwards will be. The new cinema was to be equipped to project 8, 9. Twenty American film-makers had been asked to deposit prints with the co-op library. Optimism was in the air, and the November bulletin which announced these plans opened with the exultation, 'The London Film-Makers' Co-operative lives!
But what really killed these plans for expansion, these plans for the continuation of the Better Books atmosphere and mode of operation, was the loss of the shop at 80 Long Acre before it had even opened. The lease, as it turned out, had not been signed during the months that work was going on to make the shop ready. Then, early in the new year of , a group of people from the 'Middle Earth Club' a hip club with a drug reputation were sheltered on the premises one night after a bust of the club by police. Whether it developed into a party or not is in some dispute, but the police were called at any rate, and the landlord subsequently balked — the lease was never signed.
The eclipse of the co-op at this point was more than matched by the rise of the Arts Lab, in terms of its screening policy as well as its production policy. After February the cinema gave consistent support to the avant-garde representing a shift from the previous autumn's programming of classics and European 'art' films — a shift motivated to a great extent by the festival in Knokke-le-Zoute in December1. By March, plans for building film processing equipment had been drawn up by Drew Elicott and given to David Curtis, and Malcolm Le Grice and Ben Yahya were ready to go ahead and try to put it together.
Most importantly, the Arts Lab was becoming the place where new film-makers — Le Grice and Yahya among then — were being 'discovered' and encouraged. The next extant one is dated 13 March , and is important because it deals with the proposed merger of the two factions. There was, obviously, a realisation that their concerns did overlap to a great extent, plus the realisation on the part of those connected with Better Books that they were losing momentum to the Arts Lab and the realisation by the Arts Lab that they needed the formal organisation and recognition that 1 For a list of films screened at the Arts Lab between October and September , see Appendix II.
For a fuller discussion of the aesthetic impact of the Knokke festival see page 49 below. The announcement for the joint meeting issued by the co-op gives the impression that the Arts Lab, in an effort to get completely away from film society connotations, dictated the goals of the incorporated group: During discussions between the prime movers of both organisations, it was felt that the future Cooperative should be solely a provider of services and facilities for film- makers. Thus the future co-op will not have Viewing Members and will not organise film shows other than on a promotional basis. The Services and Facilities to be provided are: 1. Bulk ordering of materials at reduced prices.
Co-operative use of equipment and experience. Co-operative use of developing, printing, and editing facilities. Distribution and promotion. For it was insisted that the co-op be dependent neither on a bookshop for office space nor on the Arts Lab for processing facilities. Adams [Sitney] and a certain amount of common sense the Arts Lab and the film co-op have jointly formed the London Film-Makers Distribution Centre to distribute all the films that we come across. The office floated around various members' hones, and the production equipment was initially built at Le Grice's house in Harrow, thereby avoiding the predominance of either camp.
During the summer of , things appear to have been going well. Production facilities were progressing, plans for another issue of 1 At least, there is no record of ratification and Le Grice recollects that it was never formally adopted but simply became accepted; there is reference to the constitution in the 8 August bulletin Appendix III. Curtis files. The reconciliation of the two camps — a consummation devoutly to be wished, since it would have allied the critical orientation of Durgnat, Cobbing, etc. Hartog recalls that the personal splits remained 'a considerable source of tension'2 and Durgnat flatly commented, 'I could never figure out why the two groups couldn't get together.
But they couldn't. I guess they despised each other too much. The specific problem was over whether to hire Carla Liss as a paid, full-time distribution secretary. Cobbing claims to have opposed the hiring of Liss because it was not financially feasible it did turn out to be feasible and because he hadn't been consulted, as treasurer, in advance. When Liss arrived in November , Cobbing 1 Washington, op. Liss symbolised — to the Londoners — the ambivalence engendered by looking to the U. It was a question of trying to be nourished while avoiding being smothered. London at that time was absorbing a great influx of disaffected American youth who were escaping the military draft and the trauma U.
The American stimulus was undeniably healthy — up to a point. Dwoskin Haynes, Matusow, Hartog a British national raised in America , and other, more transient, Americans were indispensible to the underground culture of the mid-sixties. And that aggressive American style of hustling, noted Durgnat, made it 'difficult for Britons to sort out the gifted and reliable from the others. Cobbing wrote in the spring of of his 'disappointment at the almost complete lack of co- operation from the New York Film-makers Co-operative. Jonas Mekas was to arrive here late last November or in December with fifteen 1 Cobbing interview.
Or so it was said. Co-op tried to make contact with New York without success. There was either no reply or negatives or misleading information. When Sitney returned to London in April with an invaluable collection of American films, he was asked again to deposit them in the London distribution library. Their reticence was due not to arrogance, but because London rental fees were much lower than American rentals; it was uneconomical to have a print made for the limited British distribution. She had had experience in the New York Cinematheque and was known and trusted by many of the major American film- makers. And she was offering to re-organise the London distribution library. Sitney's tour to the provincial universities had established, for the first time, a solid distributional base.
It was imperative that the London co-op capitalize on this development and not lose what might be their only chance to acquire all those American films. And the films were not likely to come without Liss. For most, it was not too much to swallow. Curtis, among others, welcomed it. Le Grice goes on to add, 'The resignation of Bob Cobbing was in some ways a simple disagreement about policy, and did NOT represent a major split in the co-op' Le Grice files. Dwoskin had already written bitterly, in the spring of , 'As far as it can be seen today the main influence of the New American Cinema so called "underground" films on Britain is mainly to see who in Britain can get the most American films to show in Britain. Those then in control of the co-op made their choice, Cobbing chose to resign.
The film programmes shown at the Arts Lab during its two-year existence became associated with the tendency to embrace the established U. But more important is the fact that the development of its screening policy during the crucial year initially reflected a changing attitude toward film in London, and then almost immediately began generating the main energy for the broadening of that change.
The programmes for autumn just after the Arts Lab had opened were dominated by films like Hallelujah King Vidor , The Wild One starring Brando as an 'underground' hero , Lolita Kubrick , the split, and Le Grice's public role has been that of conciliator. But in private he has acknowledged the tension that existed. Le Grice interview, 22 April Cobbing's departure did represent a major split, though by that time his act was more symbolic than threatening. But by February , after Curtis had returned from the Experimental Film Festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, the programming changed significantly.
Note that these lists were compiled from pre-screening publicity announcements and that any last minute changes of programme have not been accounted for; the lists represent programming policy, not what was actually screened. During this period the programming was not dominated by American films as is often asserted now , though they were clearly an important influence.
In general, these screenings, while valuable and interesting, didn't seem to have the overall thrust of the programmes Curtis later organised at the Institute for Research in Art and Technology hereafter known as IRAT, though occasionally referred to in other literature as the 'New Arts Lab'. This development of more rigorous programming — of total commitment to the avant-garde — can be understood in terms both of the changing sensibility of David Curtis and the broader development of a film culture in London which could sustain such programming, indeed demanded it.
The immediate impact of the Knokke festival on the English film scene may be debatable,1 but its long-range impact is undeniable. It influenced the subsequent course of the English practice in two main ways: it provided a much broader frame of reference in terms of screenings of avant-garde films from abroad, and it emphasized the need to stimulate domestic production of avant-garde films. Curtis has acknowledged the importance of Knokke in the development of his sensibility,1 but an article he wrote at the time — published in International Times — cultivated a tone of critical sympathy rather than wild enthusiasm which is not completely unexpected from someone who had been to New York the preceding year to look at some of the 'classics' of the American avant-garde.
He was specifically impressed with the work of Kubelka, Markopoulos, Snow, Sharits, and includes favourable comments on the German and Italian entrants, emphasizing the international nature of the festival. What is most striking, however, is his silence on the British films, a silence broken only by the disparaging comment that Richard Saunders' The Park sponsored by the BFI was 'the worst film' of the festival.
Curtis clearly thought that things were happening in the film world, and that they were happening elsewhere. As noted above, there was a subsequent shift in the programming at the Arts Lab. But more important was the package 1 Curtis interview. This time as opposed to the visit the show had a proper presentation in the NFT with the attendant publicity, and it was completely sold out. It is here to stay The importance of this cannot be overstressed. I think we now have the basis of an active provincial cinema circuit. Now that the summer is here we are getting a lot of foreign film-makers arriving at the open screenings — their presence always makes me feel much more optimistic about things.
University film societies began to programme avant-garde films regularly. Weightman, who was hostile to 'the contemporary cult of mindlessness,' noted the popularity of the programmes with some dismay. The sustained shift in consolidating an aware audience for avant-garde films can be seen by examining the screening programmes for IRAT during a similar period commencing the following year — from October to September The programmes changed more frequently than at the old Arts Lab, and they were more consistently geared to the avant-garde. There were occasional screenings of films from Germany those of Nekes, Dore 0. This depth and pace were maintained until IRAT lost its quarters in January , indicating that there was an audience to sustain it.
England was acknowledging a cultural history and, to a certain extent, accepting it. But this meant accepting American dominance in that history. For the number of screenings at IRAT during this period which were partially or wholly devoted to American films far exceeds the number devoted to European films or English films or to open screenings. In that festival, Britain had only five films in competition of twenty British films submitted and three of those were made by Steve Dwoskin: Chinese Checkers, Naissant, Soliloquy.
One of the others was made by Clive Tickner, who was really more interested in feature length films; of the film in competition Conversation , he wrote that it was 'really a study for a large film,' and that 'the theme of this short experiment is that of a problem of 1 Ibid. Ronald Laing' and concerned repetitious action modified through lenses, filters, change in film speed, etc. In comparison, thirty-six of those ninety in competition were from the USA, fourteen from Germany, and nine from Belgium.
There is, of course, some danger in using statistics in this way, making quantitative judgments at the expense of qualitative ones. For instance, the fact that eleven British films [actually, eight 'British' and three 'Scottish'! Thus BFI 'shorts' began to look a lot less 'experimental. But Knokke did also offer the hope of an increased European response to the Americans. As Curtis wrote, 'One of the most important occurrences at Knokke was the meeting of representatives of film co-ops and individual film makers who distribute their own work Adams Sitney, and one of its functions was to have been the distribution of American films.
But the Europ did represent a desire on the part of the Europeans to collectively stimulate their local film activity. Europ also offered the hope of international co-operation in firmly establishing the emerging avant-garde film practice. Cobbing, Dwoskin, Hartog, and Curtis attended those early meetings. Cobbing recalls that it generated 'tremendous excitement' at the time. Hopes for the Europ were sustained throughout the summer of , the meeting having been postponed until November. When it was finally 1 Curtis, International Times, op. The report was laconic: 'No European co-operative is founded, as the ideas and aims of the filmmakers differ too much and its ability to work therefore seems too doubtful.
Yet despite the failure of the Europ to materialise, its firm commitment to an alternative organisational structure — the co-operative — as the foundation for an avant- garde film culture certainly determined subsequent events in England in As pointed out above, it was during the following winter and spring that the struggle between the Better Books faction and the Arts Lab faction for control of the co-op became intense.
The original group was homeless, the newer group had a good home and a growing following. Into this atmosphere were injected the lessons of Knokke: a dynamic avant-garde was not only a possibility, it was a reality in the U. The co-operative model of operation seemed to be the solution to England's malaise. There was a desperate need to stimulate more film-making. England was not as affluent as America, and film equipment and material was correspondingly more expensive. Steve Dwoskin, who has made films both in New York and London, has written of the economic handicap in England which hindered prolific production of independent films: Film is expensive anywhere Film processing laboratories, being expensive and geared to professional, bulk users, have little sympathy for the small user and experimenter.
They also act in Britain as censors, because the authorities invoke fear of reprisals against them if they do not and any censorship, especially based on fear, is confused and dangerous. Again, the model of the co-op posed itself as a solution. Collective use of processing and printing equipment, as well 1 Dwoskin clearly documented this in his book, Film Is, pp. Malcolm Le Grice was one of those who was aware that 'filmmaking needed to be made cheap, so as to avoid the necessity of finding a backer, or applying to the BFI Production Board for a grant before films could be made. Le Grice and Yahya did most of the work, and, since there wasn't enough space at the Arts Lab for all the work and equipment, it was built at Le Grice's house in Harrow.
But by that summer an operable system had been worked out though Yahya destroyed most of his own footage in early experiments. All the films Le Grice showed at the Arts Lab in autumn were printed on that equipment. But it was an extremely important step psychologically, because it strengthened the argument by the Arts Lab group that processing facilities could be economically built and run.
It effectively guaranteed that the development of production facilities would become the single most important value of the co-op as it was being reconstituted. Thus the successful operation of the processing equipment signalled the 1 Le Grice, unpublished draft of letter to Time Out, February Le Grice files. And it signalled the beginning of what was to become an aesthetic of process which was based on the very equipment and processes inherent in its use as discussed in chapter four. The search was immediately begun for space in which to relocate the co-op which would have adequate space for the processing equipment.
For in November there was a split among the Arts Lab group, once again involving alleged mismanagement of funds. David Curtis and Bridget Peppin, along with about ten others, finally left when Jim Haynes allotted some of the chronically short cash to his crony Jack Moore for a personal project. Meanwhile, the dissident group had started searching for new quarters, even before the final demise of the Arts Lab. But the co-op was now spiritually as well as literally homeless, and desperately needed quarters in which to establish the production side of its operations. Co-op screenings, too, were suffering; they became irregular with the loss of a direct venue. There were occasional screenings at the Imperial Cinema on Portobello Road, which had recently been acquired by the Electric Cinema Club.
They were sympathetic to hosting shows by visiting film-makers and offered a special split-the-gate deal for co-op screenings. She began her distribution work out of Curtis' Covent Garden flat. By spring, she was cited for her efficiency — she had greatly expanded the library through acquisition of American films, and produced a large and covered! The co-op had finally found official headquarters for the first time in almost two years. It was at this point that the last two of the original founders — Steve Dwoskin and Simon Hartog — left, giving way to 'youthful years and greater enthusiasm. Le Grice has recalled that 'the difficulties of establishing the workshop were enormous However, the workshop functioned finally for about a year, and an enormous amount of films were printed and processed there, helping the emergence of, not only a number of new independent film-makers, but a particular kind of approach to the medium which was particular to London.
In most ways, it was superior to the first Arts Lab. Its organisation was more democratic and its activities more geared to production and involvement. But the co-op, used to being homeless, managed to survive. It was soon given new space in the old dairy on Prince of Wales Crescent, and spent some months preparing the premises and reinstalling the production equipment. In September of it was opened2 and the co-op began a tenure of almost four years in the dairy. It was here that the production values became completely dominant,3 and here where the aesthetics of process flourished.
The importance of the screenings again declined. Significantly, this was due not to a lack of venue, but to the shift in priorities. Which position will keep the element in the same place of the screen regardless of scrolling? Setting the same style for all controls. When you reach the end of a paragraph in column 1, you want to start the next paragraph in column 1 on the next page. What type of break should you insert at this point?
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