19 January 2011

Transitions and Transgressions: The British Avant-Garde and Methods of Opposition, 1985-1994

Originally published in Filmwaves magazine, 2007.

By 1985, many of the diverse currents that had constituted late Seventies British avant-garde film had lost their momentum. Its individual filmmakers continued production, but the Structuralists found that younger filmmakers, particularly those from minority backgrounds, were not always interested in their debates, or strongly influenced by their works, further weakening a theoretical base already undermined by the feminist challenge.

The feminist theorists found that the next generation of female directors placed greater emphasis on the ‘personal’ aspect of the ‘personal is political’ slogan, exploring their bodies and sexualities more than social structures, thus challenging the cinematic gaze in a more instinctive fashion, and psychoanalytic and feminist film theory eventually interested academics more than women filmmakers.

The New Romantic filmmakers found that their counter-culture – its music in particular, shorn of much of its sexual radicalism – had been co-opted into mainstream popular culture, losing its radical edge. John Maybury, the foremost New Romantic director, continued working as an independent filmmaker, whilst Cerith Wyn Evans directed Degrees of Blindness (1988), a film that fell into a niche between ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’, categories that were slowly eroded throughout this period. Wyn Evans also worked closely with Derek Jarman, who became a powerful voice in opposition to the cultural, sexual and socio-economic policies of Margaret Thatcher until his death from AIDS in 1994.

Margaret Thatcher’s re-election in 1983, by a narrow majority, prompted an intensification of her ultra-Conservative programme that encompassed the miners’ strike and anti-union legislation, exacerbated by the right-wing popular press, the post-Falklands clampdown on the BBC, massive cuts in public spending, wide-scale privatisation programmes, the abolition of the Greater London Council and of the Film Act in 1985.

All of these reforms meant disappointment and despair for Britain’s left-wingers, particularly those in the arts – feelings that were compounded by Thatcher’s third electoral victory in 1987. The London Film-Makers’ Co-operative continued to survive, celebrating its twenty-year anniversary with the Light Years programme in 1986, and maintained its formalist principles in spite of the changes within Britain’s political and avant-garde film cultures since its inception.

Aware that Thatcherism had generated a climate in which dissident voices were increasingly barred from mainstream media representation, Peter Gidal argued that avant-garde opposition to the traditionalist, populist art funded and supported by Thatcherite cultural policy carried socio-political critique within its very form. Seeking to connect aesthetic and political conservatism (and, by implication, radicalism) Gidal told upcoming filmmakers that to denounce formalism as elitist ‘is to play straight into the hands of dominant representation, i.e. dominant forms’.

Perhaps the most intriguing formalist-informed voice that emerged under Thatcher was Patrick Keiller, a qualified architect who shot and edited his films before scripting them. The End (1986) juxtaposed images of a trans-European journey with a downbeat narrative delivered by a destitute, cultured traveller, followed by The Clouds (1989), which described a journey from Jodrell Bank to Whitby.

It was the beautifully shot London (1994) that represented Keiller’s crowning achievement. Perhaps inspired by William Raban’s Thames Film (1986), an investigation into the modernisation of London focused on the Thames combining archive and contemporary footage with John Hurt’s poetic narration, London explored the cultural state of the capital in 1992, contrasting the city’s rich history of accommodating poets and painters with the socio-cultural destitution effected by Conservative rule. A scene documenting the narrow re-election of John Major was complemented with a voice-over discussing its implications for the city’s population in harrowing terms.

London was produced by the British Film Institute in association with Channel 4, long after the British avant-garde had grown disillusioned with the broadcaster. Although the new income from Channel 4 partly compensated for cuts in funding, the funded films were nonetheless handled with reluctance by the institution, concerned with low ratings and advertising revenue – it seemed that Channel 4 feared the term ‘experimental’ (often used pejoratively in Britain), preferring to promote avant-garde works as ‘innovative’. By 1985, Channel 4 had realised that ‘not too much’ avant-garde film coverage ‘was needed in order to function as an additional peripheral attitude to [Channel 4’s] pluralist self-image’. Proportionally small, the coverage received scant promotion, and was often been buried late at night – less of a problem as the decade wore on, with 42% of British households owning a VCR by 1986, but still frustrating for those filmmakers who hoped that their works would gain wider exposure.

The Independent Film Association monitored Channel 4, and its work with the Independent Film and Video Department carefully, interesting in ‘transforming society and its media’. The lofty aim of transforming society through the media, or even just transforming its media, never stood a chance in the post-Falklands broadcasting climate, but the IFVD were able to produce Sketches for a Sensual Philosophy (Malcolm Le Grice, 1988), EETC (David Larcher, 1986) and Jarman’s Blue for Channel 4, who already commissioned and produced Jarman’s fascinating Wittgenstein, with Jarman’s sacrificing of sets in favour of lavish costumes and Terry Eagleton’s script transcending the channel’s meagre budgetary allowance.

Some of the most intriguing televisual works of this period, excepting Keith Griffiths’ C4 documentaries on Robert Breer, Len Lye and Abstract Cinema (1992), were the sixty ‘One Minute TV’ pieces aired by BBC2’s Late Show in the late Eighties and early Nineties. These included William Raban’s Sundial (1992), wryly suggesting a new role for the Canary Wharf tower, and John Smith’s Gargantuan (1992), an amusingly corny one-movement film about a man and an amphibian. Nicky Hamlyn’s Minutiae (1989), shot in one continuous take without editing, explored the space around the absent Late Show interviewer’s chair.

Perhaps the most intriguing fascinating broadcast commission was Search (Newcastle) made by Wendy Kirkup and Pat Naldi. Commissioned by Tyne Tees and broadcast during commercial breaks in 1993, Search consisted of twenty ten-second sequences captured from a synchronised walk by Newcastle’s 16-camera CCTV system.

Kirkup and Naldi’s methods for jolting viewers out of complacency induced by familiarity with contemporary media forms were idiosyncratic, but they typified a generation of upcoming film artists who had concerns besides furthering the Structuralist discourse. Filmmakers from ethnic and sexual minorities preferred to make works that directly addressed social conditions specific to their subcultures rather than channel their energies into theoretical debates or the organised Left, which was in disarray.

With the emergence of a strong black rights movement and black musical subculture came black film groups, such as Sankofa and the Black Audio Film Collective, both founded in 1983. Sankofa’s most influential productions included Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983) and Territories (1985), which drew on a wide range of sources in an attempt to critique representations of ethnicity in mainstream media. Passion of Remembrance (1986), directed by Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien (who also made the influential Looking for Langston about black gay US poet Langston Hughes in 1988), explored gay identity and experience in relation to ethnicity

These filmmakers were aware of the Structuralist tradition, but felt black independent film needed ‘a radical departure from other film practices’ that prevented First World critics from easily assimilating black film into recognised discourses, becoming concerned with establishing a black (film) history that they then extended. Citing the poets Derek Walcott and Aimé Césaire and filmmakers such as Henry Martin, Horace Ove, Imruh Bakari Reece and Lionel Ngakane (particularly Jemima and Johnny) as inspirations, Black Audio member Reece Auguiste, contributing to an article with Gidal, Isaac Julien and Martine Attille, stated that ‘Our point of departure is that each generation writes its own history.’

Attille highlighted the difficulty of talking of a ‘monolithic Left’ in the same article, stating that ‘[Sankofa’s] practice is about encouraging dialogue rather than indoctrination.’ A poetic comment on the neglect of black history, Attille’s Dreaming Rivers (1988) was an evocative work about Miss T., a Caribbean woman deserted by her family, who relate fragments of a life only partially remembered when attending her wake.

The Black Audio Film Collective began with tape-slide experiments including Expeditions, Signs of Empire and Images of Nationality (1984), before Handsworth Songs (1985), criticising the decline of British race relations in the wake of the Handsworth, Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots and the suspicious death of Cynthia Jarrett. The Black Audio films tended to ‘suggest the political documentation or revelation through juxtaposition’, striving to avoid didacticism, inspired more by sampling techniques in black music than by Eisenstein’s dialectical montage.

The Gorilla Tapes group of ‘scratch’ video artists Jon Dovey, Gavin Hodge and Tim Morrison, also ‘sampled’ video images to create new meanings. Commander in Chief (1985) was emblematic of their sharp media satires, taking images of Thatcher, Reagan and popular entertainment culled from television and caustically setting them to music.

With funding bodies keen to promote diversity and Channel 4 willing to showcase works by minority directors, minority films did receive considerable funding, but this created some competition between subcultures, emphasising rival demands for special consideration and, to some extent, necessitating emphasis on social difficulties rather than positive cultural activity.

Jarman’s work in this period, often funded by Channel 4, maintained its sexual radicalism, often aestheticising it, as in The Angelic Conversation (1987) and The Garden (1990), or making it integral to full-length narrative pieces that implicitly or explicitly criticised Thatcherite England, such as The Last of England (1987) and Edward II (1991). John Maybury engaged directly with the most important issue for the 1980s gay rights movement – the prevalence of, and reluctant governmental reaction to AIDS – in Remembrance of Things Fast (1993), which explored various aspects of the gay and drag queen scenes using fast editing of colourful footage, celebrating a culture that thrived despite the devastating effects of the disease.

Tina Keane, heading established her name with Shadow of a Journey (1980), engaged increasingly with the idea of woman as subject, as well as with contemporary video techniques. The Faded Wallpaper (1968-1988) took Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s fin-de-siècle story about a woman maddened while gazing at her wallpaper as its inspiration, showing a desperate face upside-down on a mirror, with hands tearing at the paper and voice declaring that the imagination comes solely from its relationship with the external.

Jayne Parker’s film Almost Out (1985) explored the interaction between mother and daughter, developing earlier feminist film explications of patriarchal social relations. Almost Out incorporated the process of filming into its narrative, presenting the naked daughter filming her unclothed mother in a studio, who is in turn filmed by a cameraman, asking searching questions about this relationship and (by implication) its shaping by a male-dominated society.

Kayla Parker’s A Cage of Flame (1992) was an animation wryly exploring menstruation, and whilst female animators were resistant to being grouped together (like Attille, they felt any such social grouping was inherently problematic, hiding different interests within it), women were integral to the revival of avant-garde animation in the Eighties and Nineties, which experienced its most productive period since the Thirties.

The Brothers Quay became key players within the animation renaissance with films such as The Street of Crocodiles (1986), adapted from the novel by Polish writer Bruno Schulz, and The Comb (1990), a nightmarishly surreal film set in a world of Victorian dolls.

Animation eroded the boundaries between ‘experimental’ and ‘mainstream’ (and the separate categories of ‘animation’ and ‘live action’), as techniques fostered by ‘experimental’ artists were co-opted into advertising and trailers, particularly logos for Channel 4 and BBC2, and those television networks funded and commissioned adult animations, making them integral to their late-night scheduling.

This flowering of animation was assisted by contemporary technology: the prevalence of computers meant that the laborious stop-motion or frame-by-frame drawing techniques could be circumvented or simplified, with artists such as Ruth Langford making films on a Commodore Amiga. Technology and content interacted, too: films like David Larcher’s VideOvoid (1993) played with the medium-specific aesthetics of video and video games, engaging with the swift popularisation of video media.

Margaret Thatcher’s programme overreached itself in 1990 with the poll tax debacle, and her resignation further altered a political climate already relaxed by the end of the Cold War. Although the administration did not change, her successor, John Major, pursued a more moderate conservatism and the Labour Party, under Neil Kinnock and then John Smith, began to appear a credible electoral force, without yet having abandoned its leftist principles.

The void left by the authoritarian Prime Minister’s abdication and the Cold War’s end seemed exciting, opening space for artists to define and explore their own social concerns, although there were still pressing political issues with which to engage. The British National Party used the issue of immigration to rally support, and the election of Derek Beackon on to Millwall Council (their first elected representative) inspired William Raban to make A13 (1994), which celebrated the plurality of the urban community and implicitly linked John Major’s watered-down conservative policies to the failure in curbing the far Right.

One consequence of the collapse of Communism was the war in Yugoslavia, the severity of which appalled the international community. Breda Beban and Hrvoje Horvatic, two video artists based in Zagreb, moved to London at the war’s inception and made a number of films, starting with For Tara (1991) before Horvatic’s death in 1997, including Absence She Said (1994). This film spliced fragmented shots of domestic interiors with images of archetypal landscapes, with written captions evoking the troubled mind of the nameless central figure, creating a highly subjective take on the Balkan conflict.

Alia Syed’s film Fatimah’s Letter (1994) centralised a Pakistani woman living in London, at a time when Britain’s tabloids were making much of Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit’s notorious “cricket test” theory for determining immigrant loyalties. In a letter to a friend, written in Urdu, the woman remembers an event in Pakistan, but she populates the story with faces seen passing on the London Underground, showing how the two cultures become entangled in the individual mind, and how longing for the home country awkwardly clashes with the desire to integrate.

Syed’s film may have owed a debt to Measures of Distance (1988) by Mona Hatoum, centring on letters written by Hatoum to her mother in Beirut, appearing in Arabic text on screen but read in English, exploring the mother-daughter relationship but also the intense pain of displacement caused by war.

Along with the sweeping socio-political changes came a new generation of artist and ‘experimental’ filmmakers, many of whom achieved a greater level of fame (or notoriety) than their predecessors as the boundaries between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ (across the arts) were further eroded. Tracey Emin made the biggest impression, continually irking Britain’s tabloids: her film Why I Never Became a Dancer (1994) was a humorously self-referential work about her victimisation as a child in Margate.

Sarah Pucill established herself as an artist of promise with You Be Mother (1990), which used stop-frame animation to break the traditional boundaries between movement and stillness. Crockery is moved on a table in a dark room with the artist’s face projected onto a black backdrop, fragmented as it is seen in reflections of separate facial features in spoons facing the camera.

In 1985, the Conservative government seemed impregnable and invincible; by 1995, it was dead on its feet, undermined by scandal, division over Europe and a resurgent, resolutely neo-liberal Labour Party. The despair of the mid-Eighties was gradually replaced by a pluralistic jubilation in the collapse of monolithic power structures, which grew out of the shift from politics of organised resistance to focusing on social diversity amongst some opponents of Thatcher. This irrevocably changed Britain’s avant-garde film culture, thoroughly marginalising its theoretical strands as Jarman and Greenaway, rather than the Structuralists, exerted far greater influence over upcoming film artists.

The boundaries between avant-garde and mainstream film practices undoubtedly shifted – Jarman, Greenaway, Sally Potter and John Maybury, for example, all made full-length feature films broadcast in cinemas, but more importantly, on national television in prominent slots. Channel 4’s role in funding, commissioning and broadcasting films and animations sped up the process by which avant-garde techniques were incorporated into the mainstream, particularly with its appropriation of animation techniques for its logos and trailers.

For their part, most avant-garde filmmakers did not fully engage with the possibilities of television, seeing televisual broadcast of their works as peripheral rather than integral to their creation. However much Eighties film artists complained about the schism between Channel 4’s rhetoric and practice regarding avant-garde film, television accorded them far more exposure and funding than their Nineties successors, many of whom found that the changes in the political climate left them unsure of what to criticise after Tony Blair’s Labour Party swept to power, and their works became confined to the art galleries just as film theory became confined to the universities.

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