27 April 2011

Shoot Shoot Shoot: The London Film-Makers Co-op and the film culture of Sixties Britain

Originally published in Filmwaves magazine, 2006.

In Britain, critics and historians often look to align cultural shifts neatly with decades, trying to place artistic and intellectual trends within ten-year time-spans. This allows ‘the Sixties’, for example, to act as historical shorthand for a period of left-wing radicalism and intense counter-cultural and avant-garde activity, but as is often the case, these trends cannot be placed as neatly within a ten-year period as common cultural memory might insist.

It was not until the mid-Sixties that the first organised British avant-garde collective was constituted. In the first half of the decade, certain ‘experimental’ filmmakers, film poets and documentary makers continued to operate outside the mainstream cinematic culture, as they had during the Forties and Fifties, producing varied, innovative works without any central organisation, shared aesthetic principles or real interaction.

The London Film-Makers Co-op, and other avant-garde filmmakers in Sixties Britain, reacted strongly against the British documentary tradition, and often against narrative, retained by the Free Cinema directors and the French Nouvelle Vague. The Co-op filmmakers (and they were very much filmmakers rather than directors) were not noticeably influenced by the agitprop tradition inaugurated by Norman McLaren and developed after the war; neither, with one or two exceptions, did they appear indebted to Len Lye’s abstract films, the Close-Up group or, indeed, any of Britain’s experimental film heritage.

The Co-op filmmakers displayed an impressive knowledge of film history – of mainstream cinema, art and avant-garde film and ‘underground’ works past and present. Jonas Mekas’s Cinemathèque in New York, which showed films by Mekas as well as gay avant-garde filmmakers such as Jack Smith, Ron Rice and (particularly) Andy Warhol (grouped under the banner of ‘New American Cinema’), which drew heavily upon numerous Sixties counter-cultures, provided the main inspiration, both for their aesthetics and their organisation. They tended to prefer films by artists, eschewing the ‘psychodrama’ popularised by Maya Deren, whose influence upon the New American Cinema was not inconsiderable.

Dwoskin and Le Grice were the group’s main historians, both publishing books on the history of avant-garde and abstract film. The Co-op members were aware of developments in European artistic and intellectual circles, too, and the calmer political circumstances of Sixties Britain allowed them to focus more determinedly on film form, and film culture, than any of their avant-garde predecessors.

The Co-op was founded in 1966, combining production, distribution and exhibition within a single unit. Initially, it was based at Better Books on Charing Cross Road, which was popular with British avant-gardists – the Situationist artist Ralph Rumney noted, ‘They did tend to have better books.’

The telegram sent to announce its inauguration gives a sense of their determination to make stridently avant-garde films:


The barbed reference to Sight and Sound reflected their desperation with the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund, which, in its thirteen years of existence, had failed to engender any real experimental film culture or foster any interchange of theoretical ideas. The founding members of the Co-op – Jeff Keen, Malcolm Le Grice and the Americans Peter Gidal and Stephen Dwoskin among them – lamented Britain’s lack of prowess in the visual arts. Dwoskin, who became one of the Co-op’s main protagonists after arriving in London from New York, noted that there were ‘hardly any indigenous films or film-makers about at the time.’

Dwoskin characterised the Co-op as one of many ‘liberating influences’ of the late Sixties, as London attempted to become an ‘all-night city’ like New York. This affinity with American counter-culture was reinforced when Better Books closed in 1969, after the Co-op had been evicted, relocating to the Arts Lab in Drury Lane. The literary crowd of Charing Cross was exchanged for an audience more committed to ‘underground’ cinema, more passionate about music than poetry or philosophy.

But what films did they see? Part of the Co-op’s attempt to generate a film culture involved acquiring and screening works by filmmakers they endorsed – by 1969, its library held over 200 films, mostly from the New American Cinema. But more important were the films they made themselves, a process Dwoskin described as ‘constant search for an individual film language’, peculiar to their time and place, developed through their films and through discussions in their journal Cinim.

Although some of the Co-op members, particularly Le Grice and Gidal, were film theorists, its members initially concentrated on practical filmmaking. John Latham’s Speak (1962), quickly acquired by the Co-op, who welcomed him as a member, was one of the more conscious nods to Britain’s avant-garde tradition. Speak was clearly inspired by Len Lye and Norman McLaren’s works, but was far more intense – the playfulness of Lye’s animations was replaced by a searing intensity, with Latham’s colours bursting out of the screen, accompanied by an aggressive soundtrack. Critic Raymond Durgnat described it as ‘an exploration in the possibilities of a circle which speaks in colour with blinding volume’.

This tradition was an influence upon the Co-op’s conception of Structuralist filmmaking, a more theorised advance on the abstract film pioneered during the Twenties. Many of the Co-op filmmakers wanted to create works that demystified the filmmaking process, believing that ‘narrative is an illusionistic procedure, manipulatory, mystificatory, repressive’. For example, Peter Gidal’s films of the period, such as Room (1967) or Hall (1969) were reminiscent of Michael Snow’s works, aggressively refusing any single, simplistic interpretation in narrative terms, even if Gidal’s shot composition suggested that action had occurred in the given surroundings.

Gidal was not just opposed to ‘identification’ in Hollywood film. He also disdained many of Europe’s leading art-house directors, scorning Antonioni and the ‘much less talented Bertolucci, Pasolini, Losey, not to mention committed right-wing directors’.

A film’s form was also its content, with the Co-op refusing to employ conventional narrative or ‘stars’ (in the way that Warhol’s films had); their films mostly avoided any explicit political commentary, even after the student radicalism of 1968. Some of their films, such as David Crosswaite’s Man with the Movie Camera (1972) or David Parsons’ Mechanical Ballet (1972) playfully nodded to their avant-garde predecessors, suggesting a far greater interest in form than in social issues.

Gidal seemed sceptical about ideological filmmaking, stating assertively, ‘That a film is not a window to life, to a set of meanings, to a pure state of image/meaning, ought to be self-evident’. Their aim was to stimulate their audience, not by making fact-based documentaries or by creating narratives and characters infused with political symbolism (which they still believed rendered their audiences passive), but by actually involving them in the filmmaking and screening processes, which often fed into each other.

The Structural approach engendered the Co-op’s development of the Expanded Cinema. The traditional space of the cinema had been modelled on the nineteenth-century theatre, with Griffith, Méliès and others establishing filmic conventions that drew on drama, vaudeville and literature. The European avant-gardists of the Twenties, often artists, had taken their films out of cinemas and into galleries; this did not become common practise in England until the Sixties, when the Drury Lane Arts Lab provided the perfect exhibition space for the Co-op artists’ experiments.

Once films were taken out of the cinema – with its darkened room, fixed seating and single screen – numerous possibilities were opened up. Films could have live soundtracks of great complexity, the projectionist could be visible to the audience, and utilise than one screen – in short, they could become performances, or events, rather than mere screenings.

These performances still involved films, though, which owed debts to a variety of sources. Stan Brakhage’s experiments in painting directly on to film were developed by Gill Eatherley, whose Hand Grenade (1971) was painted in light over extremely long exposures, projecting three different edits of the material simultaneously over a soundtrack by German musicians Neu. An advertisement for an evening of her films promised, ‘The filmmaker will be present and participate in all the screenings.’

Malcolm Le Grice also collaborated with an avant-garde musician for his dual-screen film Berlin Horse (1972), commissioning a soundtrack from Brian Eno that drew heavily on the American minimalist compositions of the Sixties. Le Grice’s work consisted of two 16mm films – one shot by Le Grice in 8mm and refined in 16mm, the other a piece of found early newsreel. The films showed a horse first being exercised, then led away from a burning stable, both sequences having been treated and re-coloured at the Co-op.

The two (or even three) screen idea proved very popular within the Co-op. Its possibilities seemed endless – filmmakers could experiment with contrasting images and colours, or even differing duration or time-scales. Double-screen films allowed time to be frozen or fractured by using two 16mm projectors, often with one showing “real time” alongside a similar film which deliberately drew attention to the filmmaker’s manipulation of time through editing.

William Raban and Chris Welsby developed River Yar (1971-72) together; it combined footage of the river at the autumn equinox on its left screen with the spring equinox on its right, with day and night the same length on either screen, highlighting the way the camera modifies time perception. Raban’s Diagonal (1973) used three projectors, with one screen spilling over the ceiling and another on to the audience, with a double-exposed rectangular image of the projector gate moving diagonally across the screens.

Perhaps the most radical Expanded Cinema experiment under the Co-op’s auspices was Annabel Nicolson’s Reel Time (1973). Very much a performance piece that used film, no two showings of Reel Time were identical. A film of Nicolson sewing was run through a sewing machine, then through a projector, situated behind the filmmaker/performer. The perforation of the image then appeared on the screen, visible where it was not covered by Nicolson’s silhouette. Periodically the film would snap in the projector gate, requiring Nicolson to repair it, until the performance ended with Nicolson declaring that the film could no longer be salvaged.

The Co-op filmmakers performed a staggering number of experiments with double or triple screen film screens, the possibilities of film as performance and with painting directly on to film, as well as leading abstract film, film poetry and the idea of ‘underground’ film as conceptualised by the New American Cinema directors into fascinating new directions.

There were, however, several other cineastes in Britain during the Sixties and early Seventies who, despite taking a more conventional approach to filmmaking than the Co-op, made decidedly avant-garde works. One of the most interesting (and more neglected, cinematically) figures was B. S. Johnson – the iconoclastic, aggressively Modernist novelist who made a mark with his novel Albert Angelo (1964), in which holes were cut into the pages to allow readers to see into the novel’s future – who branched into directing in 1967 with his short film, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them.

Bizarrely, Johnson chose to write his film – which was primarily about the decay of the human body with age – in iambic pentameter, cutting at the end of every line (his original intention to cut with every syllable proved unfeasible). This formal and conceptual rigidity put Johnson at odds with his contemporaries, who perceived him as an antiquated Modernist. You’re Human Like the Rest of Them somehow worked, aesthetically, although Jonathan Coe has remarked that it is difficult to view the film on its formal terms given its inherent morbidity, describing it as ‘fifteen minutes of the most downbeat material ever committed to celluloid’.

After a disastrous festival screening of Paradigm (1968), an indulgent film shot in a nonsense language that owed far too obvious a debt to Samuel Beckett, Johnson changed style. Unlike the Co-op group, he was prepared to put his filmmaking at the service of propaganda – Unfair (1971) was a blisteringly unsubtle attack on the Industrial Relations Bill proposed by Edward Heath’s Conservative government, after which Johnson abandoned the agitprop style.

However, Johnson’s most fascinating experiment was a film for television entitled Fat Man on a Beach (1973). Filmed just two weeks before his suicide, it featured Johnson on Porth Ceiriad bay in North Wales, veering wildly from tributes to his favourite writers to discussions of Jungian archetypes, from acid seriousness to daring black humour, often deconstructing filmmaking techniques or his own poetry in a playful dialogue with his televisual audience. Even if his works did not significantly affect the course of British experimental filmmaking, they remain intriguing artefacts of their time, and (at their best) highly entertaining.

Peter Watkins was another director who, like Johnson, used the television film to great effect. The BBC produced The War Game (1965), but its restrained, subversive use of the documentary format pioneered during the Thirties (which had become televisual convention), showing the effects of a nuclear bomb hitting Rochester, was banned from being shown on television. Watkins took the film into cinemas, winning an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967.

The stark, brutal style that underpinned The War Game, putting the documentary style employed by the BBC to the service of a savage critique of the political system that engendered the nuclear threat (particularly relevant so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis) reached its apogee in Punishment Park (1971). This pseudo-documentary followed two groups of dissidents in Vietnam-era America – one on trial, the other staking their freedom on an attempt to reach an American flag, without food or water, in the Californian desert.

Watkins’ films eschewed shocking moments, his restrained style refusing to jolt the audience until the film ended, whereupon it was forced to consider the political ramifications of the events documented. Punishment Park contrasted disturbing and often absurd arguments between conservatives and insurgents, student radicals and civil rights activists with the increasingly violent proceedings in the desert, climaxing in a bitter stand-off between the British documentary crew and the American guards.

The Free Cinema directors continued to operate – Lindsay Anderson’s powerful If … (1968) mercilessly attacked the British public school system, while O Lucky Man! (1973) used the musical form to deliver a critique of capitalism stronger than those of his Free Cinema contemporaries. Tony Richardson moved further into the mainstream, most notably producing The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

Geoffrey Jones continued working, producing the striking montage film Locomotion (1975), which told the history of Britain’s railways using stock footage, archived photographs and drawings rhythmically cut to a soundtrack by Don Fraser. Lye, McLaren and Margaret Tait also continued to develop their styles, although their most important contributions to Britain’s film culture had already been made.

Other talents were emerging, too – Peter Greenaway made his mark with H is for House (1973), despite having begun his directorial career in 1962. The Berwick St. Film Collective produced Nightcleaners (1975), a film which took the British documentary tradition and infused it with the more aggressively ideological practices developed by the French Dziga Vertov Group, following the campaign to unionise the women who cleaned office blocks by night.

By the mid-Seventies, television had become established as another medium for directors wishing to develop their craft – some filmmakers found it offered a wider audience and different formal conventions, others wished to radically explore the possibilities of the cinematic experience as a counterpoint to the passivity they felt television demanded of its viewers.

The latter was definitely true of the Co-op, which had made its most important contribution to British avant-garde film by 1975. It launched numerous filmmakers, some (like Sally Potter) who moved into slightly more conventional filmmaking and others (Gidal, Le Grice, Raban) who remained committed to the Structural and Expanded Cinema discourses, and produced a huge number of diverse, intelligent and engaging films. Although the Co-op continued to exist well beyond the end of the decade, Dwoskin felt that ‘Emotionally, the Co-operative never formed a whole, though its members had the same intellectual approach’, something that changes in personnel did nothing to help.

The Co-op, or certain practices that it pioneered and developed, was hugely influential – David Curtis noted that ‘the trends that have endured are precisely those that sprang from original and distinctly English impulses’. However, the densely theoretical, formalistic attitudes that underpinned the Co-op’s creativity, and particularly their engagement primarily with experimental film history and culture, were soon to become less fashionable, as the political unrest of the mid-Seventies, the establishment of radical feminist and gay rights groups and the emergence of punk rock and other new counter-cultural movements necessitated another revolution in Britain’s avant-garde film culture.

8 April 2011

George Orwell and Me: Some thoughts on being longlisted for the Orwell Prize

My relationship with George Orwell began at Oakwood School in Horley, Surrey, in 1997, when our GCSE English class had to choose two texts for our open study. We were told to pick a novel by anyone on a list of nineteenth century authors, and compare it to anything we liked from the twentieth century. I’d long been curious about this book called Nineteen Eighty-Four, about which I’d kept hearing: I immediately decided that this would be my modern choice, and discussed with my teacher, Miss Davis, which should be my older text. Eventually, we agreed upon A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells.

By the late twentieth century, few people interested in literature and politics could have come blind to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even The Daily Mail – my parents’ paper of choice, which, I soon realised, was well out of step with its author’s ethos – used terms such as ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Big Brother’ in scaremongering editorials, and I’d noticed the word ‘Orwellian’ deployed to attack anything from European legislation to ‘political correctness’. Even before I bought my copy of Orwell’s final novel, it felt vital to reclaim his name and concepts from this constant, casual appropriation.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was the first serious novel I ever read, breaking me out of my teenage diet of The Simpsons and Sensible World of Soccer – and my lazy anti-capitalist rhetoric, replete with hammers and sickles drawn on my exercise books. Here was a flood of ideas: from the first sentence, where ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it was clear that this book would be all the more terrifying for making a familiar world strange. Once I reached the famous Party slogan ‘WAR IS PEACE’, I was hooked: the concepts that underpinned the novel, especially Newspeak and the political weighting of language, transformed my understanding of the possibilities of writing – and my way of seeing the world, demanding serious thought about how ideology impacted upon people’s lives.

I couldn’t finish the book or write my essay fast enough. During lessons, the class had time to read whilst the teacher did her marking: having been so dazzled by Nineteen Eighty-Four, I feverishly consumed Animal Farm, borrowing it from the person next to me when he wasn’t using it. My work came back: the teacher had given it 54 out of 54, with a note saying that it was ‘the best Open Study that I’ve ever read’ and praising my insights into Orwell’s text, particularly my assertion that ‘Big Brother’ did not even need to exist to function as a means of social control. (Sadly, along with my thoughts on Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller – another text that deeply impressed me, by a writer I found spiritually, stylistically and politically akin to Orwell – it is lost.)

Reading Orwell’s novels, and studying the Cold War, fostered a keen interest in the relationship between literature and politics. Much of what I read dealt with politics, and I saw politics in much of what I read. When I couldn’t, I got bored. Reading constantly at sixth form, my view of politics in literature became very broad. I saw not just the ‘high’ politics of Orwell, Primo Levi or Chinua Achebe, but the social politics of Kafka and the French existentialists, who had an equally strong effect on me: Camus’s The Outsider crystallised everything I felt about the world in just a hundred pages, whilst Roquentin’s resolution in Sartre’s Nausea to write ‘something beautiful, as hard as steel, that makes people ashamed of their very existence’ made me want to write myself. (Most of what I produced then would have made nobody ‘ashamed of their very existence’ but me.)

During the first year of my History degree, I chose to study the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War. This meant returning to Orwell, for Homage to Catalonia. I was compelled by the idea of the intellectual as acting agent, finding Lenin’s The State and Revolution (written amidst the chaos of Russia’s summer of 1917) essential reading; I found this to be political writing of the highest order, encapsulating perfectly the bitterness of the socialist revolution betrayed by the brutal imposition of Stalinist orthodoxy.

I wish I’d read The Road to Wigan Pier before Homage to Catalonia. Nearly seventy years after Orwell’s account of the disastrous infighting that crippled the Republican fight against Spanish Fascism was published, I lamented the continuing divisions that hampered opposition to the neo-conservative order, at this point pursuing catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What caught my attention in Wigan Pier was not so much the first part, documenting working class lives, but the second, attacking other socialists of various creeds. Orwell’s was a complex intellect, capable of writing social commentaries (such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) with resonance for a wide number of ideological positions, but here I disagreed, leaning towards the Popular Front approach that arose in France in the late Thirties. Perhaps, though, we had ended up in similar places, and I did Orwell a disservice by reading him backwards.

Then I left Orwell behind. Discovering Modernism, I became obsessed with experimental or avant-garde writers: whilst I found Orwell challenging, I discovered plenty of other authors whose prose style excited me more. (Although I disagreed strongly with undergraduate friends who maintained that Orwell was “a bad writer”.) My exploration followed the line of French writing that began with Flaubert and ran through Baudelaire and symbolism, Zola and Naturalism, Huysmans and decadence, Apollinaire and modernism, Breton and Surrealism, Blanchot and existentialism, Beckett and absurdism, Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. I took in Wilde, Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence too, and these two routes lead me to the man on whom I would publish my first book: Orwell’s former flatmate, Rayner Heppenstall.

Heppenstall remains contentious amongst Orwell scholars for his account of an incident when Orwell lost patience with him as he returned, loudly, from a drunken night out, and raised a shooting stick over his head. This was published in Four Absentees, Heppenstall’s memoirs covering his friendships with Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Eric Gill and John Middleton Murry, issued in 1960. (Richard Webster's assessment of the incident is here.) At this point, a decade after his death, Orwell had near-saintly status within Britain’s literati, as the post-war reaction against modernist experimentation found its zenith, and his favouring of moderate socialism over Marxist-Leninist communism appeared more prescient after the Hungarian Uprising.

The personal politics around this did not concern me: with the protagonists departed, all I cared about was what remained on the page. Heppenstall’s approach could scarcely have differed more from Orwell’s: his works were deeply subjective and highly introspective, his war novel The Lesser Infortune taking place almost entirely within his own mind as he suffered a nervous breakdown. His prose was beautiful – apparently ornate at first glance, but every word was vital. I tried to cut key lines when I quoted them for my book, but to do so seemed criminal.

In form, Heppenstall was daring. His debut novel, The Blaze of Noon (1939), was narrated by a blind masseur, and the resultant perspective felt unlike any other I’d read – except the later nouveau roman works to which it was often compared. Unlike most other fiction of the late Thirties, it all but avoided ideological or social politics, influenced by Freud and Nietzsche rather than Marx; it was critically acclaimed, but after an initial wave of publicity following The Evening Standard’s objection to its ‘poultry-yard morals’, it vanished, overtaken by the global conflict. A similar fate befell his second novel, Saturnine – a brilliant picaresque portrait of the chaos in London in the months around the outbreak of war; as Orwell’s star rose, Heppenstall’s faded.

Later works, particularly The Connecting Door and Two Moons, were even more inventive, but his brand of formal exploration did not attract widespread critical or public attention. His works have long been out of print, unlike those of Orwell (who remained Heppenstall’s friend until his death), whose stock increased with each passing year. I don’t have space here to do full justice to the idiosyncratic beauty of his eight novels, particularly the earlier ones, but my article for Context, the Dalkey Archive Press publication, is here.

So I learned from Orwell that political writing was an art, and from Heppenstall that the art of writing had been politicised. In their differing ways, both inspired me to write, and write as I do: to ‘write as though it matters’, as B. S. Johnson put it in his list of praiseworthy living authors – which included Heppenstall. Years after my journey through literature began with Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am proud to have published a book on Rayner Heppenstall, and to have written the introduction to the reissue of The Blaze of Noon that will appear later this year; and I am proud that my Transgender Journey blog (the politics of which are covered here) has been longlisted for the Orwell Prize.

I have still never read A Modern Utopia.