Category: News

Return of the Two Avant-Gardes

At the end of 1975, the Studio International special issue on avant-garde film included the first publication of Peter Wollen’s astute but divisive essay “The Two Avant-Gardes”. This text, perhaps more than any other, set the tone for much of the debate on avant-garde cinema in the UK for the next year, and remains useful and often cited today.

In May 2006, through a coincidence of programming by different institutions, London audiences can choose which avant-garde they favour as retrospectives of prime examples of each camp run concurrently with each other. It seems somewhat ironic that in this case, the cinephiles Mulvey and Wollen are being shown in an art gallery, whilst the work of Malcolm Le Grice is screening in our national cinematheque.

Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen: Beyond the Scorched Earth of Counter-Cinema is at the Whitechapel Gallery from 12-22 May 2016. 

Crossing the Threshold: Experimental films and live performances from Malcolm Le Grice is at BFI Southbank from 4-28 May 2016. 

Malcolm Le Grice at BFI Southbank

The work of Malcolm Le Grice is featured in an extensive season of screenings and events at BFI Southbank. Crossing the Threshold: Experimental films and live performances from Malcolm Le Grice begins with premieres of films recently restored by the BFI National Archive on Thursday 5 May 2016. The season continues throughout the month and includes live performances, multiple projections, and discussions.

Peter Gidal’s text on Le Grice’s film Yes No Maybe Maybe Not, reproduced below, was first published in ARK, Journal of the Royal College of Art, Spring 1970. It was revised in 1974, and subsequently included in the Structural Film Anthology, BFI, 1976 and 1978.

Yes No Maybe Maybe Not

There are two basic sequences. An image of water splashing against a wall or barrier, and a long shot of Battersea power station (with its huge smokestacks, smoke rising out of them). Through precise strategy, which includes, however, elements of chance, Malcolm Le Grice has set up this film. [b/w, silent, 12 mins., 1967.]

The film starts with a negative image of the water superimposed upon the image-positive. Then we see Battersea power station superimposed upon itself (again negative on positive.) Then we come to variations of the power station through a change in synchronization, the negative is held back about four frames, and the sync is lost, creating a space between the negative and the positive. Following this, the water is superimposed upon the Battersea power station, to give us a triple layer of movement. The space between two equal opposite images that are several frames out of sync makes for the effect of bas-relief; also, the separation of two images (one negative, one positive) makes for a line-determined space of grey that varies in shape and tone according to the change of synchronization (moving, that is to say, the negative another 5,6,7,8 frames ahead of the positive). The interplay of same images creates the dialectic.

The larger the difference between two ‘same’ images (negative over positive) the larger the grey in-between shape becomes. Out of the space between two shapes we create a new image. As this new image is the product of the space usually considered a negative area formed by the separation of a negative and a positive image-layer, one cannot immediately grasp hold of the precise situation when watching it. To add to this, the second image, of Battersea power station, involves itself to the same triple extent. The intermittent negative shapes formed (negative not in film terms but in terms of the leftover space created by the separation of two shapes, either on negative or on positive filmstock) are defined by line. The image of foreground and background becomes reversed, and through the abstraction process we lose sight of 3D space representation. Here the illusion is one that can be visually clarified. As we focus on a certain space, we become aware of the process of separation of image, and cannot help but react to this impulse. The process-viewing itself is the content of this film. This becomes apparent. The film consists primarily of a 30ft. (50 second) sequence of the water, and a 25ft. sequence of Battersea power station. After Le Grice (who printed this film himself in the labs) came to the end of each section, he would start over with the same piece of material. The images themselves are not found images. They were filmed by Le Grice to be used specifically for the film. They are not chosen images that serve a purpose in terms of any specific meaning prior (or anterior) to the film. The play of the horizontal waves crashing repeatedly against the barrier, together with the vertical chimney, makes for a complex (therefore intense) image in its own right.

The repetition in this film points to an obsessiveness. When the waves hit the barrier, again and again, with varying areas of intermittent shape formed by the negative/positive image, we are led on to a path of studiously becoming involved with precision of vision and nuance of change. The loop-effect, which can never be securely ascertained, makes for a gap in our knowledge: we do not know whether the splash of waves is a repeat of the splash two seconds previously. Is it similar, or is it the same? We become deeply involved in watching. We attempt to relate the negative image space to the positive image beneath it, or next to it, as it seems in the final marrying of the two sections. Film does, after all, consist of a combination of illusionistic three-dimensional space and two-dimensional ‘abstract’ space, and this film makes the most sophisticated use of both.

The obsessive repetition of image as question/answer dialectic is shown as part of the intention in the title of the film. This thought-process, the internalized dialectic with the self, the posing of question and anti-question towards ‘maybe not’ rather than an affirmative is clearly a preoccupation for Le Grice. Together with the other elements and in terms of inculcated response and visualization, this approach has found its purest formation in this film. It is a masterly example of the perfection of which this idiom is capable.

Peter Gidal

LFMC archive at Tate Britain

Shoot Shoot Shoot: The London Film-Makers’ Co-operative 1966-76
Archive Gallery, Tate Britain, Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG
25 April – 17 July 2016

The exhibition Shoot Shoot Shoot: The London Film-Makers’ Co-operative 1966-76 in the Archive Gallery at Tate Britain is the first time that so many documents relating to the early years of the LFMC have been brought together. It includes posters, programme notes, press releases, newsletters, film stills, and notebooks. The majority of these items are loaned from the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection, a research centre based at Central Saint Martins, that was founded by David Curtis and Malcolm Le Grice in 2002. Additional materials are drawn from the private collections of the Cobbing Family Archive, Peter Gidal and Mark Webber, and the Tate library and archive.

Some of the materials on display will feature in the forthcoming book “Shoot Shoot Shoot: The First Decade of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative & British Avant-Garde Film 1966-76”, edited by Mark Webber, which will be published by LUX in autumn 2016. The history of the LFMC will also be told in a documentary presented by Miranda Sawyer, to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in early June 2016.

John Smith on Peter Gidal

“Thank you for depriving me of so much”

John Smith reflects on his experiences as a student of Peter Gidal at the Royal College of Art in an article on the LUX website. Read the complete text here.

“I learnt through our often heated and invariably politicised discussions that you didn’t have to like a film to get something from it, and that arguments can be stimulating and enjoyable. I realised that what you actually film is secondary to how you control its representation, that a film’s ‘drama’ can as easily be created by its material construction as its subject matter, and that meaning in film (and life) is infinitely malleable. Perhaps most importantly for my own work, I realised that filmic construction can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and that the most intense and engaging experiences can be generated by films that withhold or ration information and allow their viewers to imagine.”

Cineaste review

“Film as Film” reviewed in Cineaste

The Winter 2015 issue of Cineaste (Vol. XLI, No. 1) contains a glowing review of “Film as Film” by Los Angeles based critic Jordan Cronk. The magazine, which contains a review of P. Adams Sitney’s The Cinema of Poetry in the same issue, is now available on newstands.

“Markopoulos was notably averse to critical deconstructions of his work, which likely accounts for such a thorough philosophical inventory on his own behalf. A book such as Film as Film is therefore the perfect complement to his legacy, consolidaying the artist’s own words into a singular aesthetic testament, free of analysis yet presented with striking clarity of purpose.”

Jordan Cronk, Cineaste, Winter 2015