Category: News

Tim Cawkwell on Peter Gidal

Reviews of “Flare Out” and its launch at Tate Britain

Filmmaker and writer Tim Cawkwell has reviewed both the book Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016 and its launch event in two separate blog posts.

“Unlike Joyce, he does not opt for the mellifluity of nonsense, or rather seeming nonsense, but instead for the pleasure of spikiness. His music is of the sharply modern plink-plunk kind rather than the seductions of melody and harmony. Yet it does keep you reading.”

The book review is online at Tim Cawkwell’s Cinema and his observations of the screening at Tate Britain on 14 April 2016 are here.

New Kurt Kren Book

Passages of Peter Gidal’s writings (excerpted from Materialist Film) appear in a new volume on Kurt Kren, published by Intellect Books and edited by Nicky Hamlyn, Simon Payne, and A. L. Rees.

Kurt Kren: Structural Films is a 298 page book that collects together interviews, film scores, new and out of print texts on the work of the Austrian filmmaker. A screening and book launch takes place at Close-Up Film Centre on Monday 30 May 2016.

“A series of quick cuts resulting in short bursts of half-second film movements, in Kurt Kren’s Trees in Autumn (Bäume im Herbst) (Austria, 1960) can instigate a specific one to one relation rather than becoming a variegated jumble of images or an impressionistic haze. Bit such a process as in this film forces the viewer to make of the possible jumble of images discreen and separate segments. The process of the film demands a disruption of the  ‘normal’ cultural codes of viewing. Each shot becomes analysed and examined during the viewing, simultaneous to the moment to moment shock of each suceeding half-second ‘flash’.” (Peter Gidal)

Malcolm Le Grice on Peter Gidal

“Some Introductory Notes on Gidal’s Films and Theory” (1979)

My work and Gidal’s has frequently been bracketed together, most recently under the term Structural/Materialist (a Gidal formulation) – the bracketing being applied equally to the films and theoretical writing. This double harness has caused us both some problems, obscuring the differences between our work; none the less, with the level that the public critical debate has reached, I would rather have my position confused with his than with any other film-maker. Which is to say, as the lines are drawn to date, in spite of our differences, there are considerable areas of agreement between us. In the strict sense, we have never developed a joint position nor presented any co-operative manifesto, but we have had many long conversations over the last decade which have influenced the development of our positions considerably.

It would be impossible to trace the path of those discussions, the effects of which have become incorporated in our work, but it is partly to develop some of the thoughts which have passed between us recently that I am writing this introduction. As Gidal pointed out when he asked me if I would do it, I have never written on his work at any length (nor he on mine for that matter) – though we have been publicists for each other. I could not let this preamble pass without pointing out that if the fact of film-makers writing on each others’ films seems a little incestuous – before cries of nepotism – if some of the critics in this country had spent a little more time on the current British film culture we could have spent more of our time on film and theory and less on publicity, reviewing and polemics.

Our most general area of collaboration, which I will not dwell on, has concerned the development of the working context for experimental film. We have both been deeply committed to establishing conditions for production, presentation and distribution of independent film in a pattern radically different from that of the dominant film industry. Gidal, like myself and a number of other avant-garde filmmakers, has put a considerable amount of time into these issues through entirely practical and frequently mundane tasks mainly within the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, but also within the Independent Filmmakers’ Association and on committees in the British Film Institute.

Our most general area of agreement has been a deep hostility to the way in which international capitalist corporations have controlled the development of film culture and the effect this has had on the predominant assumptions about film structure. This hostility has been expressed variously as an opposition to narrative, illusionism, identification, catharsis and so on. As the dialogue between Gidal and myself has become more sophisticated, some of the approaches to these oppositions have differed in detail, but the underlying resistance to compromise with the forms and mechanisms of dominant cinema remains common. If my own recent films have related themselves overtly to the problems of narration, identification and cinematic illusion, it is because I have encountered them (perhaps in error) as a consequence of the direction of my work.

Gidal has maintained a more distinctly oppositional stance, certainly at the level of theory, frequently expressed in the prefix ‘anti-’ (anti-narrative, anti-illusion), and while his films would seem to maintain this opposition into their construction, they are more problematic in this territory than the diametric rhetoric would suggest. On the other hand, his major theoretical work, the “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film” and its extensive footnotes, traces many of the difficulties and complexities this oppositional enterprise encounters.

To deal with Gidal, it is necessary to consider both his work as a film-maker and a theorist. He has referred to Althusser to support the independence of the two practices and he has further pointed out how historically there have regularly been discrepancies between artists’ work and their theorisations and rationalisations. Whatever the independence, one from the other (and it is clear that they are distinguishable discourses), in Gidal’s case they should be related to each other. Not only does the theory seem to address some of the films’ problems quite accurately, but he has particularly encouraged through the form of presentation of his work, that the achievement of the films, as it were, be tested against those aims defined in the theory.

If we were concerned with a general review of Gidal’s work, then like with any other artist, his early films would be seen to contain many of the initial issues which become more clearly reworked later. However, without dismissing his earlier work, it is possible to encounter the most pertinent problems which he raises through reference to a few more recent films and his major theoretical text “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film” (Studio International, November 1975). Any one of Bedroom (1971), Room Film 1973, Film Print (1974), Condition of Illusion (1975), Fourth Wall (1978), or Silent Partner (1977), can be studied and related to his major theoretical article, and while they are all different works in detail, their concerns are remarkably consistent.

Excerpted from the opening section of “Some Introductory Notes on Gidal’s Films and Theory” (1979) by Malcolm Le Grice. Originally commissioned for the BFI’s Independent Cinema Documentation File No. 1: Peter Gidal (November 1979), later republished in Millennium Film Journal No. 13 (Fall 1983) and Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age (BFI, 2001).

The Bruce Baillie Project

“I want everybody really lost, and I want us all to be at home there.”

In collaboration with Canyon Cinema, Los Angeles Filmforum, Interior XIII and Distral, Garbiñe Ortega and Frankie Fleming have embarked on a campaign to preserve and share Bruce Baillie’s work. The project includes publication of a bilingual book (English / Spanish), featuring contributions from Steve Anker, Andréa Picard, Scott MacDonald and others.

A traveling film series programmed by Ortega, entitled ‘All My Life: The Films of Bruce Baillie’, has had its premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, and will now embark on a tour to several cities throughout the US, Spain, Mexico City, and to Tate Modern in London. The retrospective includes 14 of Baillie’s films shown in dialogue with works by his contemporaries such as Stan Brakhage, Robert Nelson and Chick Strand.

Please support this initiative by donating to the Bruce Baillie Project Kickstarter campaign to help fund the preservation of Baillie’s films, complete the book and facilitate the ‘All My Life’ tour.

Watch Baillie in conversation with P. Adams Sitney at Lincoln Center here :-


Michael O’Pray on “Close Up”

There’s a rare opportunity to see Peter Gidal’s “feature length” film Close Up on Friday 20 May 2016, aptly screening at London’s Close-Up Film Centre. Michael O’Pray’s perceptive review of the film, originally published in Monthly Film Bulletin in January 1984, appears below as image and text. 

Michael O’Pray on “Close Up” (1984)

In the past, Peter Gidal’s view of the role of film in politics, and vice versa, has been one of extreme scepticism and antipathy, as his films and writings bear testament. None the less, and paradoxically to some, his theoretical stance has been virulently political – Marxist-Leninist, in fact, where that includes an anti-humanism and the idea that the political is never transparent, but always a position and practice within other discourses. For him, the ‘political’ film has been the lair of the liberal-humanist or ultra-leftist, where political dealings are carried out in the currency of phantasy and ‘bad faith’, whether it be under cover of ‘agit-prop’, socialist realism, ‘deconstructed narrative’, or whatever. In true modernist vein, film-making for Gidal is a confrontation with filmic representation, asserting its contradictions, undermining its semantic stability, insisting on its materialism. His work displays a moral and aesthetic rigour that never apologises for its difficulty, non-meaning and aggressiveness, and that consigns vast areas of film to the dark regions of the bourgeois, the reactionary, the fascist. In this context, Close Up is a provocative and potentially dangerous pulling together of two opposing aspects of film form – namely, a ‘documentarist’ soundtrack comprising interview material with Nicaraguan revolutionaries on the subject of art, propaganda and imperialism, and an image track of much beauty, veering toward the abstract as the camera moves ceaselessly over the objects in a room, or those represented in a blown-up photograph.

Gidal’s previous film Action at a Distance (1980) also used a soundtrack, in that case of a woman reciting repeatedly a few lines of poetry. As his films are usually silent, this interest in sound signifies, it seems, a new level of exploration. The fact that, in Close Up, it produces what, for Gidal, ought not to be – a political film (admittedly, of sorts) – is complicated by the tension he sets up between image and sound. For the first third of the film, the hand-held camera constantly moves over mundane objects in a room, often so close up that they are unrecognisable and out of focus. Colours are muted so that at times the film seems to have been shot in black-and-white. The effect is one of anxious movement and formal beauty, but without the easy charm and narcissism to which this mode of film-making is prone. The screen then becomes blank and the soundtrack begins, so that for about fifteen minutes the spectator confronts an empty screen and listens to the interviews, carried out in Spanish with an American male interpreter. The recording is rough, busy sounds can be heard in the background, and there has obviously been no attempt to provide any ‘professional’ polish.

The change is abrupt and disconcerting, and the irony, as it were, deafening. In the darkness, we listen to the polemics of revolutionaries who we know are under real threat (after the Grenada invasion, the effect is even more pointed). In one brilliant move, Gidal creates a space in which the memory of the visual track swarms in the mind. The issues of art, image, propaganda, aesthetics, understanding, reality are all brought into question as a provocation, an accusation, a reminder, a knot of puzzlement and unease. At one point, an image fades up for a moment and fades back like a bad memory. Close Up’s nearest counterpart – and Gidal would reject the association – is Straub and Huillet’s Too Early/Too Late, where the force of film as film, of materiality, of pessimism, is profoundly communicated. At a time when British cinema in the independent sector provides a dismal, visually illiterate and politically dubious product, Close Up is crystal hard, intransigent, and film in extremis. In short, one of the best ‘political’ films made in this country.

Michael O’Pray
Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1984