24 January 2011

Keys and Gray’s Linespeople Challenge: A Programme Pitch

You may have seen in the news that Sky Sports football presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys have been suspended from their posts after making a number of sexist remarks about lineswoman Sian Massey, who had (it turned out, correctly) allowed a debated goal by Liverpool’s Raul Meireles in their televised game against Wolves.

There has been much discussion of how to punish Gray and Keys for their trenchant chauvinism. Luckily, I’ve thought about it for a few minutes and come up with a watertight solution. Firstly, temporarily suspend Gray and Keys (lots of football fans are bored with them after all these years anyway) and replace them with Marina Hyde and Real Madrid TV’s Kay Murray. (They’d be more informed and more entertaining, after all.)

I wouldn’t have Gray and Keys removed from broadcasting or sacked by Sky, though – that would be overly vindictive for what was a momentary aberration. Instead, I’d make them the stars of a groundbreaking new programme on Sky One: Keys and Gray’s Linespeople Challenge. It would be a bit like An Idiot Abroad with Karl Pilkington, but with less Ricky Gervais and more football, which can only be good.

Every week, Gray and Keys would run the line at a different Women’s Premier League game. Assuming that they are neither fit nor qualified to do so, and assuming that they’ve never even tried to run a line in their lives (I have, it’s not easy), their training with Sian Massey and a female fitness coach would form the first few episodes of the show. Once they have gone through this rigorous process, clapped and cheered on by any female football fan who wishes to offer her support, they would be ready to step onto a WPL pitch.

All of their decisions would be poured over by a panel of female ex-footballers and pundits, armed with a deep-seated sense of spite, as well as no end of video technology unavailable to Keys and Gray as they run the line in front of anyone who wants to heckle them. Any wrong decisions (or even right ones) will be mercilessly mocked by both this panel and then, later, the cast of Loose Women, who will not just chastise their actions but also undermine their hard-won qualifications using a number of crude, outdated sexist stereotypes.

After each game, they could then meet the managers and captain of each WPL team and explain their decisions in the utmost detail, with reference to Association Football rules as necessary. At the end of the season, they could then return to their posts presenting football matches on Sky Sports, hopefully having learned a little more humility and humanity.

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.

13 January 2011

Structures Collapse: The British Avant-Garde Film, 1975-1985

Originally published in FILMWAVES, 2006.

By the mid-Seventies, the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative was the key institution within British avant-garde film. After a decade of intense creativity, the Co-op’s leading artists aimed to define and cement the historical standing of the LFMC, hoping to situate it as a crucial development within international avant-garde film culture.

The Co-Op filmmakers aimed to achieve this by producing a body of writing that would document the LFMC’s past, and establish a vibrant theoretical discourse that would support and influence continued filmmaking. Stephen Dwoskin’s Film Is (1975) was a comprehensive ‘underground’ history, combining personal memories with surveys of national avant-gardes, focusing on the Co-op in its treatment of Britain – the first of ‘the many film-makers’ co-operatives that began to spring up in Europe.’

Dwoskin was not the only LFMC protagonist frustrated at the critical neglect of the recent British avant-garde. Crucial in constituting debate around the Co-op’s work was Peter Gidal’s Structural Film Anthology, published to accompany the 1976 Structural Film Retrospective at the National Film Theatre Beyond emphasising the institutional importance of the Co-op, Gidal retroactively drew similarities in the Co-op members’ films into a coherent movement with a sound theoretical base, positing Structuralism as the crucial presence within contemporary avant-garde praxis.

Gidal’s Anthology, including his comprehensive ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’ originally published in 1974, ignited fierce debate about the constitution of film history. Malcolm Le Grice’s book Abstract Film and Beyond (1977) stated that ‘because my main concern with the modern movement has been to trace the aesthetic and formal developments, I have largely ignored political argument’ – Le Grice compensated by pointing readers towards his (and Gidal’s) writings on ‘the political implications of the film’s language, conventions and structure’. Abstract Film and Beyond was taken as an indication that the Structuralists prized formal exploration above socio-political engagement, and of their conceived narrative of film history – anticipating ideologically motivated criticism, Le Grice pessimistically conceded that ‘a neutral and inclusive history is broadly impossible.’

Two challenges were launched to the Structuralist hegemony – one from within that would extend the movement’s scope, and one from without, which saw Structuralism as irrelevant amidst the political conflicts that followed the 1973 power crisis. The challenge from within produced heated theoretical argument, which was conducted both through dialogue in journals such as Screen, LFMC magazine Undercut and feminist publication Camera Obscura, and through the creative application of their conclusions.

In 1975, Peter Wollen wrote of the fierce divide between the Co-op tradition, prizing aesthetics above ideology, and that represented by Jean-Luc Godard and Straub/Huillet, prioritising political commitment, in his influential essay ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’, which traced the division back to the Twenties works by the Dadaists and Surrealists on one side, and the Soviet filmmakers on the other. The challenge from without eschewed theory and aimed to stand outside either avant-garde tradition, its directors (with little central organisation) preferring instead to draw on counter-cultural trends and the poetic ‘underground’ style of the New American Cinema, which also resisted incorporation into Wollen’s binary opposition.

Many anthologised Structuralist filmmakers furthered their stylistic development without being prolific theorists. William Raban’s Thames Barrier (1977), for example, was an ambitious multi-screen film documenting the construction of the barrier; its skilful manipulation of filmic time represented the apex of a technique that Raban had evolved throughout his practical career. However, theory – as Gidal defined it, ‘written retrospective history which can function as a basis for its own practice (theoretical practice) and/or the practice of film-making’ increasingly came to dominate proceedings within the LFMC, as its leading artists aimed to develop their theory and practice in relation to each other.

The main challenge from within came from female artists, who broke away from the Co-op in the late Seventies to set up their own East London organisation, Circles. Lis Rhodes’ influential work Light Reading (1978) drew as much from Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac’s poetic traditions as the more formalist LFMC trends, suggesting a split that was artistic as well as political, with stylistic approaches assuming ideological connotations. Rhodes used the catalogue for the 1979 ‘Film is Film’ exhibition, in which women filmmakers refused to participate, to express dissatisfaction with the male domination of the definition of history. Rhodes questioned the usefulness of portraying Structuralism as a cogent movement, suggesting that ‘seeing “difference” is more important than accepting “sameness”’ and emphasising the need for female filmmakers to research and write their own histories.

Laura Mulvey also stated the need to recast female directors within avant-garde history. Citing Dulac, Deren, Agnès Varda and Leni Riefenstahl as important protagonists in Modernist experimentation, Mulvey also demanded rigorous feminist critiques of mainstream film: her own, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema was published in Screen in 1975. Mulvey’s essay deconstructed the patriarchal story-telling methods of classical Hollywood narratives, which demanded that viewers identify with a (heterosexual) male subject. Although it drew much criticism from those who felt Mulvey failed to account for homosexual subject positions, or those of heterosexual women, her writing was hugely influential, particularly in introducing Freudian psychoanalysis into film theory.

It was not enough for women to reconsider history or critique contemporary film cultures: they had to create their own. Mulvey welcomed the fact that feminists were taking a ‘cautious’ interest in Modernism, and that the avant-garde displayed a ‘sense of the relevance of the feminist challenge.’ Mulvey’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977, with Peter Wollen) creatively manifested her narrative theories, and aimed to offer a radically alternative means of cinematic representation of women. Mulvey’s earlier work with Wollen, Penthesilea (1974) also embodied their theoretical conclusions – appreciating that this would restrict understanding of her films by both non-academic feminists and the wider public, Mulvey stated that, ‘The problem is that counter-institutions which lack a theory tend spontaneously to reflect the ideology in reaction to which they were formed.’

Economically and politically, there was a constant sense of worsening crisis, leading some artists to feel that pure formalism was socially irresponsible. The oil crisis, the eruption of the Irish Troubles, football hooliganism, strikes, inflation, unemployment, the impotence of the Labour government and the election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader in 1975, and Prime Minister in 1979, all served to undermine the gains made by the Left since Harold Wilson’s original election in 1964, such as the 1970 Equal Pay Act, the 1975 Sexual Discrimination Act, and the three Race Relations Acts passed between 1965 and 1975.

Despite the introduction of the 1974 Terrorism Act (after which the police broke into the Co-op’s premises and mounted a dawn raid on William Raban’s house), Structuralist and feminist theory often avoided current political issues, and for many upcoming filmmakers, Structuralism seemed unjustifiably detached from the social concerns of contemporary Britain. The feminist challenge provided a link with post-1968 left-wing circles, but the aggressively formalist nature of its films and the academic nature of its theoretical development distanced it from the ‘underground’ film culture that was forming amidst the mounting political and cultural turbulence.

Away from the Structuralist and feminist debates, left-wing propagandist units such as Cinema Action (also targeted by the police) prioritised ideological commitment, opposing any formal experimentation that they believed would put their political message beyond the immediate comprehension of a proletarian audience. Nightcleaners (1975), made by the Berwick St. Collective and intended for circulation through the labour movement, began as a ‘conventional’ documentary recording a strike, but was elaborately restructured in editing. The Collective – including ex-Cinema Action members Marc Karlin and Humphrey Trevelyan and former LFMC associate James Scott – forged middle ground between agitprop and formalism, and the position Nightcleaners unexpectedly occupied attracted fierce, occasionally violent criticism.

First shown at the Serpentine Gallery in May 1975, Nightcleaners’ audience was not, it was commonly understood, going to be ‘restricted to the “theoretically aware”’, despite its initial screening in a gallery rather than at a more politically specific venue. Its formalistic ambitions, lauded by many (not least in the pages of Screen, which exacerbated the divide) were deemed inappropriate by other critics, though not the cleaners themselves.

Suppressing such industrial action was a stated aim of Margaret Thatcher after her appointment as Conservative Party leader, but her election in 1979 also had many negative implications for Britain’s film culture, particularly those operating on its margins. Film was treated strictly as commerce rather than culture (more so than in the previous decade) and the assistance given to the industry by the Films Acts was passed out, and abolished entirely in 1985. Department of Trade and Industry cuts in funding of schools, colleges and adult education meant that budgets for extras such as film hire were swiftly slashed, depriving independent film not only of income but also of justification for financial assistance. ‘Recreational’ adult education courses on current affairs, women’s issues or media, which frequently used independent film, were deemed lowest priority and were soon curtailed.

Thatcher’s ascent was precipitated by an intensifying social unrest, to which numerous economically and socially (particularly ethnically) disenfranchised groups and individuals attempted to formulate political and artistic responses. Most prominent, and most feared by the mainstream media, was the punk rock explosion of 1976, which launched many new musical and cultural voices, and raised the profile of extant artists who were considered influential upon the movement.

Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway launched their cinematic careers long before the Sex Pistols were antagonising the tabloids – in fact before Thatcher replaced Edward Heath as Conservative leader. After making visually striking shorts informed by his background in painting, such as A Journey to Avebury (1971), Garden of Luxor (1972) and Stolen Apples for Karen Blixen (1973), Jarman made an impression with his controversial feature films Sebastiane (1976) and Jubilee (1977) after turning down Ken Russell’s invitation to design sets for his film Tommy (1975).

Sebastiane, set in Rome in 300AD, transposed into film ‘age-old visual motifs aestheticising beautiful, tormented boys in Mediterranean settings’, being a dark, sensuous exploration of homosexual lust within the social conventions of the early Christian era. Jubilee, however, tapped far more explicitly into modern anxieties, establishing Jarman as a director keenly in tune with contemporary counter-culture.

Jubilee savaged right-wing delusions of English grandeur, particularly the idea of the ‘second Elizabethan age’, contrasting them with evocations of violently anti-Thatcherite cultural undercurrents and reminders of England’s economic decline. Beginning in the year 1578, Queen Elizabeth I asks her court magician to give her a vision of ‘the shadow of her time’ – she is promptly transported to the late Seventies, with Britain teetering on the brink of revolution amidst the hollow Silver Jubilee celebrations.

Along with the Sex Pistols’ single God Save the Queen, Jarman’s film became one of the key cultural products of the Jubilee, hijacking the celebrations to launch an incendiary attack on conservative values. More than any other work, Jubilee transposed the spirit of early punk music into cinema: several personalities linked either to punk (such as Siouxsie Sioux, Toyah Wilcox and Adam Ant), gay subculture (Richard O’Brien, Lindsay Kemp) or both (transgender punk frontperson Jayne County) appeared in the film, for which Brian Eno composed the music. Like some punk rock, Jubilee set out to shock its audience, and like some punk, its construction was inchoate, its raucous soundtrack, satirical commentary on the establishment and visceral murders rejecting any imposition of coherent narrative.

Jarman’s influences were numerous, reaching far beyond the spheres of independent and avant-garde film. Beyond engaging with the modern political situation, British history and punk/post-punk music (he also made Psychic Rally in Heaven with the experimental band Throbbing Gristle), Jarman drew extensively on literature, producing a radical interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1979), the documentary Waiting for Waiting for Godot (1983) and Pirate Tape (1983) with gay beat author William S. Burroughs.

Jarman was also linked with the New Romantic subculture that sprang from the New Wave movement that followed punk, rejecting the bleak aesthetics and explicit social commentary of post-punk bands (who also influenced Jarman’s development). Instead, New Romanticism was formed within London’s club culture, particularly its gay clubs: deeply cynical about – and consequently disengaged from – politics, New Romanticism instead valorised style, with high-camp fashion icons such as Leigh Bowery turning costume into an art form that constantly strived to excel itself, and embraced futuristic electronic music.

John Maybury and Cerith Wyn Evans, part of the ‘Blitz crowd’ prominent in the London clubs, represented New Romanticism in film, were both visibly influenced by Jarman, as well as earlier gay filmmakers such as Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger. Maybury, who designed sets for Jubilee, moved from Super-8 (preferred by many younger British filmmakers to the 16mm and 35mm formats used by most LFMC members)) to video, like Jarman eventually producing music videos. His early Tortures That Laugh (filmed in 1978) borrowed certain aesthetic devices from Structuralist film, combining them with Surrealist-inspired imagery, a hypnotic soundtrack and exploration of narcissism, drugs and sexual dissidence – content that rarely punctuated the works of the Structuralists.

Jarman often launched vitriolic attacks on Peter Greenaway, with whom he shared more similarities than either director would have cared to admit. Both set many of their films in London, a city in which the social polarisation exacerbated by Thatcher’s resented ‘two nations’ project was most immediately visible. Both filmmakers structured many of their works upon deeply personal visions of English landscapes that rejected conservative visions of a Victorian (or earlier) ‘Golden Age’, and both abstained from the theoretical debates occurring as they developed their signature styles, leaving them unconstrained by past self-positioning.

Beginning his career in 1962, Greenaway’s short films, including H is for House (1973), A Walk Through H (1977) and Vertical Features Remake (1978), developed an idiosyncratic style that reached its zenith in his breakthrough feature film, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), which concerned an aristocratic Englishwoman employing an artist to paint portraits of her husband’s estate in exchange for sex. Unlike Jarman, who explicitly modernised the Shakespearean period, Greenaway stretched archaic Restoration conventions to their limits, making a ‘very artificial film’ about ‘excess in the language [and] excess in the landscape’.

The Draughtsman’s Contract was funded with money from both the BFI and the Independent Film-Makers’ Association, founded in 1974 to provide a radical alternative to mainstream film production. The IFA soon became as important an institution as the Co-op, encouraging exchange between theoreticians and practitioners, and striving to open up professional opportunities for independent filmmakers, although the precise aims of the organisation were never quite clarified.

The IFA board’s investments in the early 1980s tended ‘to represent a compromise … with a tendency to polarisation’: money was split between minor investments in Co-op and workshops films, and major investments in arts features, particularly The Draughtsman’s Contract, which represented a watershed in the IFA’s relationship with feature film and television.

The establishment of Channel Four in 1982 radically changed the relationship between British independent filmmakers and television. By 1984, many IFA activists worked for, or were funded by the new channel, with its imperative to ‘encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes’. The channel broadcast a range of works by gay and lesbian filmmakers and ethnic minorities, as well as more prominent Co-op and Structuralist filmmakers (including profiles of Le Grice, Margaret Tait and Jeff Keen), New Romantic works and films by Jarman and Greenaway. However, concerns were raised that collaboration with Channel Four, which tended to hide avant-garde works in inaccessible time slots, would negate the stylistic and political radicalism of anti-mainstream film, allowing avant-garde forms to be incorporated into advertising, and eventually destroy the very idea of independent filmmaking.

The relationship of Britain’s independent and avant-garde filmmakers with television was to become of increasing importance throughout the Eighties, particularly with Channel Four, which commissioned and broadcast many works by young animators, lending animation a position within avant-garde film culture that it had not enjoyed since the days of Len Lye and Norman McLaren.

By the mid-Eighties, the pluralistic undercurrents in British avant-garde and alternative film culture had completely undermined the supremacy of the Structuralist movement, despite the emergence of talented filmmakers such as Ian Owles, Nicky Hamlyn, Rob Gawthrop, Michael Mazière and Jean Matthee, who evolved the Expanded Cinema style into what became known as ‘installation work’.

The emergence first of feminist artists, then of gay and lesbian directors interested in pop counter-culture, and finally of black and other racial minority filmmakers – largely ignored during the Seventies but increasingly influential during the Eighties in the wake of the Brixton riots – did not owe nothing to the mostly white, male Structuralist filmmakers. The feminist challenge sprang directly from the Structuralist movement and its institutions; Greenaway shared their interest in Modernist film history and borrowed some of their techniques, as did Maybury within New Romantic film.

However, the Structuralist influence diminished upon each subculture that arose, and the black filmmakers found little of relevance in their works, drawing upon a very different cultural history. The erosion of Structuralism was largely consequent upon changes in the political climate – by the mid-Eighties, after the miners’ strike, Thatcherism seemed as unassailable as had the Co-op ten years earlier, and further changes within British avant-garde film culture would occur in opposition.