Category: News

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

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