Avant-garde Cinema

The British avant-garde film movement surfaced in the late 1960s when it was stimulated by the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (LFMC) and by American influences such as Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. Key figures in Britain included Steve Dwoskin, Andy Meyer, David Curtis, Peter Gidal, Malcolm Le Grice and Annabel Nicolson. Instead of using the term ‘avantgarde’, they chose labels such as structural, abstract, experimental, expanded or free. Their broadly structural and formal point of view quickly spread into disparate organizational, artistic and political currents, resulting in the evolution of a diffuse and variegated group.

British popular audiences had been left cold by earlier film movements, such as elitist avant-garde experiments, middle-class realism (Anderson, Richardson, Reisz and so on), critiques of the upperclass (as in Losey-Pinter films), and even the Workshop Declaration. For the most part they were absorbed by Hollywood films, and were often suspicious of political or avant-garde cinema in Europe. Ironically, the British avant-garde’s practical foundations in structuralism and formalism enabled it to assimilate radical changes without engaging revolutionary ideologies. It cut away the visionary anti-Americanism that underlay American structuralists. Concentrating on material aspects of the medium, it forced subjective existential choices and non-hierarchical mental activity on the viewer, as in Malcolm Le Grice’s Little Dog For Roger (1967) and Yes No Maybe Maybe Not (1967), Peter Gidal’s Room (1967), Roger Hammond’s Window Box (1972), Mike Leggett’s Shepherd’s Bush (1971) and Steve Dwoskin’s Moment (1969). Its intention was to challenge cinema’s illusionism and voyeurism with its own formal image making.

This formula encouraged eclectic organization. As the LFMC’s democratic workshop approach developed in a climate of anti-imperialist radicalism, beat poetry and Peoples’ Shows, new film networks rapidly grew up around the British Film Institute (BFI), the Other Cinema and the Independent Film- Makers’ Association. Many film-makers were located in the London art schools, and were supported by the Arts Council of Great Britain’s Film and Video Artist’s Sub-committee set up in 1977. By then the whole movement was saturated with the cultural politics and aesthetics of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The formalist canon was soon infiltrated by underground, anarchic, and gay critiques associated with film-makers such as Derek Jarman, James Mackay, John Maybury, Steve Chivers, Holly Warburton, Michael Kostiff, Cerith Wyn Evans and Isaac Julien. They frequently trans-gressed the film medium in the Super 8 festivals in Europe (1984– 7), and innovatively fused video and film techniques (particularly Jarman and Peter Greenaway). Academic critiques were mostly deconstructive and psychoanalytic, theorized in Screen and Framework. These reflected Gidal’s structural/ materialist focus on freeing the subject from the instrumental and reproductive power of the camera, and Laura Mulvey’s negation of the voyeurism of narrative film. Peter Wollen, whose long-term goal was to synthesize formalism with the political aesthetic of the European avant-garde, combined with Mulvey to produce landmark films: Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons (1974) mimes the play by Kleist, and interrogates the role and grounding of feminist images; and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) explores the mother/child relationship in the encounter of Oedipus with the Sphinx, opening with mythic images of women and ending with an Egyptian sphinx with Greta Garbo’s face. Whereas Gidal
and Le Grice were interested in the material aspects of ideology, Mulvey and Wollen were moving towards a critique of ideology itself, and of mythologizing in the film medium. Related works include Steve Dwoskin’s Girl (1974), which films a naked woman who returns to the camera thus disturbing the audience’s voyeuristic position, and Carola Klein’s Mirror Phase (1978), which analyses home movies of her daughter’s mirror recognition of herself. In Telling Tales (1978), Richard Woolley deconstructs British culture by examining film clichés of television soap serials like Crossroads and Coronation Street. William and Marilyn Rabin’s Black and Silver (1981), based on Velasquez’ painting Las Meninas, is an experimental narrative of Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta, reflecting on the medium of film. Peter Watkins’s work aims for reflexive critical practices that will more generally undermine the conventions of the medium.

Questions of narrative technique, subjectivity, documentary, and autobiography are worked consistently by feminist film-makers who broke with the LFMC to set up their own circles in East London. Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979) dissects popular narrative by using Mimi’s return to La Boheme to investigate her own death as a conventional source of sentiment and drama. Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983) uses the gold rush for surrealist metaphors about the search for knowledge. Lis Rhodes’s Light Reading (1978) investigates the formal aspects of film through autobiographical materials, developing earlier concerns of Le Grice’s films about point of view and narrative space. Most of these films are interested in the medium of film and its narrative codes and conventions. For the British avant-garde, form and content of the medium have always been a central part of the message. While Le Grice is currently involved in computer and electronic image making, others are interested in live reproductions of illusion, and correspondences of image and sound. The focus on film as material has always persisted. The avant-garde has never since its structuralist beginnings reflected violent politics, but it has always been in line with radical groups such as the Leeds Animation Workshop, Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Its strong point has been its ability to adapt to and successfully engage in a wide spectrum of audiovisual media, ranging from film and television through to video and animation.

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