Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 49, December 2003

 

 

Liz Wells

 

Reflections on Experimental Film: _The Undercut Reader_

 

 

_The Undercut Reader_

Edited by Nina Danino and Michael Maziere

London: Wallflower Press, 2003

ISBN 1-903364-47-7

277 pp.

 

'The often metaphoric thinking (in texts and interviews) throws up ideas in profusion -- both new thought and also new non-linear modes of thought production. These are unrecognisable as sufficiently sophisticated models of understanding in purely academic terms. Producing new connections which transcend old categories its oblique lines of approach seem unrigorous as they move beyond constraining forms of logic.' (200)

 

Rod Stoneman thus opens a critical discussion of Godard's forms of thought, as expressed through his films, which Stoneman characterises as 'quasi-theoretical' and welcomes as 'metaphoric thinking'; but the statement might equally characterise _Undercut_ at its best. Key features of the magazine included: eclecticism of style and thematic content; focus on medium, materials, and craft method; diversity of debates; interviews with practitioners; and a refusal of critical fashionability, for example, the focus on postmodernism which hijacked a number of other magazines and journals of the 1980s.

 

Publication of _The Undercut Reader_, which includes many significant articles and images, is very welcome. It reflects a resurgence of interest in film from that period and coincides with a year-long programme of artist's film in Britain at Tate Modern. However, I have found this review difficult, as, for whatever reasons, the editing leaves much to be desired. _Undercut_ was the magazine of the London Film-Makers Co-op; it ran to 19 issues (of which 4 were double issues) published variously from 1981 to 1989. That this was a period of immense cultural struggle and change in Britain was reflected in the magazine, although this is not particularly remarked in the Introduction to this Reader. The magazine functioned as a forum for debate, and as such a light editorial touch was appropriate. But retrospective selection and collation of material needs a clear sense and statement of purpose. There is no explanation of criteria by which pieces have been selected; two of the essays are prefaced by comments from their authors, but the others are not; there are no mini-biographies of authors and no indication of where they might be found now; more particularly, there is no general filmography, index, or attempt to indicate sources of materials referenced. All of this limits the usefulness of the book especially for those who might wish to reference it for teaching students who may not have seen films and other materials under discussion.

 

So why publish this selection of essays, interviews and photoworks? And why now? At one level, the collection summarises something of the tone and parameters of a magazine which, like many from that period, is now difficult to find (except at the British Film Institute, and a number of arts institutes and university libraries). The opening section of the Reader consists of five newly-commissioned brief essays whose collective function is to place _Undercut_ both in its era, and in relation to current issues, debates, and circumstances. In respect of the latter, all are somewhat coy! (Perhaps not surprisingly given the recent history of LFMC, LVA and The Lux Cinema!) But they are too brief to reflect in any detail or depth on debates and practices of the 1980s. The main part of the Reader consists of reprinted essays, interviews, and photo-texts, the great majority of which have not been re-annotated or amended in any way (other than layout). It is organised in sections: 'Avant-Garde Theory', 'Close-Up on Artists' (which will prove useful for anyone researching individual oeuvres), 'Cultural Identities', 'Experimental Animation', 'Independent Cinema', 'Surveys', and 'Video Art'. Inevitably such titles feel like an attempt to contain that which overspills borders. For example, some of 'theory' is comment or criticism, and 'close up' inevitably crosses over with theory and criticism as artists make critical assumptions, implicitly or explicitly, when discussing their work or the work of others. Likewise, whilst 'Cultural Identities' re-publishes proceedings from an event held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, questions of identity, albeit relating more to gender than to ethnicity, are variously woven throughout. But was it ever else? The Reader ends with a full list of issues and contents which, although interesting and potentially useful for anyone who wants to burrow back, reinforces questions as to criteria for inclusion/exclusion. What, I wonder, happened to other contributors listed in the summary of authors and topics? The question is not merely rhetorical. The magazine's history is now marked in a Reader in which a particular selection of essays is montaged and contextualised, in effect becoming an orthodoxy; we won't take this as *the* history -- we are all too skeptical for that -- but, as the most immediate record, somehow authority will seep to it. Although several key photoworks from the period are included (by photographers as diverse as Kennard, Knorr, Mahr, Paley, Spence), the magazine front cover is not illustrated in the Reader; yet another image fades!

 

In 1979 the Arts Council mounted a show at the Hayward Gallery, London, on _Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film, 1910-1975_ which, through emphasising earlier avant-garde experiments in the nature and potential of the medium, contributed to encouraging a materialist focus. This exhibition arguably acted as a key influence for those who set up _Undercut_, if only through determining which materials from earlier periods were seen and proposing how they might be located conceptually. Phillip Drummond's definitional discussion of 'Notions of Avant-Garde Cinema', with which this exhibition catalogue opened, was indicative. He asserted a binary opposition between dominant cinema and the avant-garde, noting difference of economic and social base, opposition to the classic realist text, concern with form and narrativity, and semiotic exploration of the image no longer anchored through narrative. The exhibition thus pointed to a relation between earlier modernist experiments of the 1920s and 1930s, and films which reflected the influence of structuralism in the 1960s/70s. At the time, this seemed in many ways an ill-matched combination since the pleasure of reveling in the image was often undermined by the dry academicism of the formal.

 

But with hindsight, what seems more problematic was the use of binaries as critical method. Whilst clear oppositions help establish starting points (categories onto which broader and more complex pictures could be mapped) they no longer (and never did) seem adequate to interrogation of actual cultural processes. Peter Wollen's often cited essay on the two avant-gardes -- wherein formalist, and political, filmmaking are conceived of as distinct groups with ideological address as the key distinguishing characteristic -- was never a useful vehicle for comprehending the more messy actuality of what filmmakers actually made. The late 1970s feminist challenge re-articulated debates relating to aesthetics, politics and the politics of representation, further complicating an already complex picture. In this context, the Hayward exhibition can be seen as a claim for a particular history and legacy within avant-gardism, one which kept experimentation firmly within the harbour of formalism rather than risking more turbulent post-modern or political winds of change.

 

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed many key developments in film culture. The term 'independent' filmmaker dates from that time; a term that was always intended to reference independence of thought and creative challenge, rather than economic independence. For some filmmakers the relation between politics and aesthetics was central. For instance, Peter Gidal's book _Materialist Film_ (1989) was introduced thus:

 

'The political positioning of the viewer is crucial . . . as is the knowledge that representation is real, is material, is politics and ideology, ideology the politics of meanings. Without a theory and practice of radically materialist experimental film, cinema would endlessly be the 'natural' reproduction of capitalist and patriarchal forms.' [1]

 

That was only fourteen years ago, but the statement seems curiously outdated now, most particularly in reflecting early semiotic notions of the viewer 'positioned' by the text, or by political discourses. The language is that of post-1968, but the aspiration has as much in common with aspects of the avant-garde of the 1920s as with current modes and preoccupations, concerns which, arguably, relate more to consumerism and spectacle and are more likely to deploy irony, rather than deconstruction, as a critical tactic. It is interesting to note that, in a recent article published to introduce the current season of artists' films in Britain at Tate Modern, Gidal's comments are similar but modified:

 

'The notion of the viewer as inseparable from the viewed -- the act itself as an active viewing rather than a voyeuristic consumption -- separates such work (artists' film) both practically as well as theoretically and philosophically from so much work made then and the work often made now by non-film artists (artists who are not film-makers).' [2]

 

Here the viewer is conceptualised as actively engaging within discourses. His comment on the distinction between film, which for him involves programming and projection, and work made for gallery contexts is also key (I shall return to this).

 

The _Undercut_ collection can be evaluated as symptomatic of such (then contemporary) preoccupations. One thing that emerges clearly from the various essays and interviews is a focus on film as film, on the materiality of the image, on ways in which a medium contributes to constructing content, and on the production process. As Vanda Carter comments, introducing a discussion of animation, individual style is founded in the relationship between filmmaker, equipment, medium, and material (economic) circumstances. This very much reflects the concerns of the London Film-Makers Co-op at the time, which, despite the broader intellectual currencies of the era, might be viewed as 'late modern' avant-gardist (rather than postmodern). Individual contributions to _Undercut_ gain resonance when we remember this shifting historical context, as they become situated as contributions within a multi-layered dialogue (within which gender, and personality, played a part alongside aesthetics and politics). The magazine was London-based, and, as with many such initiatives, hovers between the parochialism of a particular group (albeit one within which there were many strands and interest-groups), and the (unearned) sense of authority associated with its London (capital city) base. For instance, much is made of the significance of structuralist film in its early days, but it is London filmmakers who are referenced, not those based in other parts of Britain. It is also two prominent London-based writers, Michael O'Pray and Malcolm Le Grice, who take the opportunity to briefly preface and comment on their original essays -- although this may reflect the ease with which they can be traced now, and their desire, as academics, to locate and contextualise their work. If more of the writers had taken this opportunity (or been offered it?) an interesting meta-dialogue might have emerged.

 

That said, Malcolm Le Grice's essay is one of three in the 'Avant-Garde Theory' section which remain refreshing and thought provoking, especially when related to current debates in digital aesthetics. Noting the limits of Metz's psycho-structural focus on the language of narrative (fiction) cinema and spectator identification processes, he argues that awareness of the materiality of film, of montage, and of the mechanics of the camera can operate to effect critical distance allowing the spectator to produce their own symbolic relationship to the film text. Michael O'Pray likewise tackles the limitations of theoretical models grounded in analysis of the mainstream by asking whether a psychoanalytic account of aesthetics, which is applicable to the avant-garde, is possible. What does it mean to respond to a film in terms of 'beauty'? (He cites Michael Snow's _Wavelength_ as a possible example). In the third essay, D. N. Rodowick suggests that, if there *are* two avant-gardes, what they have in common is a relationship to textual theory which is determining, in that experimental strategies are formulated responsively. Noting then contemporary tendencies in the avant-garde, he questions what is possible in terms of theorising the experimental, refusing any notion that the avant-garde, by definition, transcends or refuses theoretical work.

 

Looking back, one of the most striking features of the era was the then radical separation between film, video, and gallery arts, with video at that time seen by many as more related to television than to cinema or gallery exhibition. Yet experimental film was arguably even more disconnected from the art world than early video. In this respect it is distinct from the earlier avant-garde previously referenced, wherein, for instance, Man Ray or Moholy-Nagy moved between media (film, painting, photography). With hindsight it seems particularly odd that, whilst conceptual art, with its emphasis on ideas and visual language (and, to some extent, everyday experience as subject-matter) had challenged abstract expressionism in the gallery, film remained separate, caught up in itself (in this British history at any rate). Yet, structural-materialist film, with its purposeful exploration of visual language, montage, and rhythm, had parallels in the gallery; for instance, the 'art and language' group (late 1960s/early 1970s). John Roberts comments that might equally characterise the theoretical work of many filmmakers of the era:

 

'It makes little sense to talk about conceptual art as artists doing theory-as-art, as if conceptual art had the theory in place which they then designated as art. The theory took on a prominence because that is what artists necessarily had to do -- fitfully, pathologically even -- in order to clear away a workable space for practice.' [3]

 

Of course the key material difference lies in the time-based nature of film and video. Film and video inherently involve a series of images (usually also sounds) founded, as Deleuze suggests, in an inter-relation of time and movement. The distinction between film, video, and installation stemmed more from different contexts and conventions of exhibition (screenings vs installation; seated in the dark vs standing in the semi-light, etc.) than from ontological properties. Julia Knight offers some comment on this in her new essay (in the opening section of the Reader), reminding us of the material and time-based characteristics that video art shared with film -- as well as those which differentiate each medium -- and suggesting that by the end of the 1980s the distinction between the two had come to seem less important, as questions of accessibility, use, and context became a primary factor. In his new essay, Barry Schwabsky in effect extends this, pointing to a number of now contemporary artists variously in 'cross-over' positions between gallery and narrative film practices, and suggests that this is a good time to examine the links, if not, inter-relation, between the two rather separate worlds. Yes, this may be a good moment, but regrettably this collection, constrained by drawing exclusively on _Undercut_, cannot tackle this.

 

I first looked at _The Undercut Reader_ while sitting on a train in Scandinavia, (re)reading articles and reflecting upon this era in experimental film and video, having just attended two Masters fine art degree show openings in Oslo. Both included a significant number of digital video installations in genres ranging from documentary to experimental, and styles encompassing humour and pastiche (including a dis-articulated body presented as a three-small-screen re-interpretation of the eyes and lipstick mouth which -- to someone of my generation -- seemed derived from Warhol's multiple 'Monroe'). In one essay, Michael O'Pray notes that the orthodox postgraduate film study programme in the 1980s was at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster). Film studies, and media arts courses, have since proliferated; and time-based media now have secure footing in the gallery. I would be delighted to screen Jean Matthee's _Monroe_ for students -- if only to find out how it now resonates, given recent experiments in digital art. To expect underground or experimental cinema to be easily accessed is a contradiction in terms; and films disappear from view. Nonetheless, the value of _The Undercut Reader_ ought to lie, in part, in its ability to open up history for those who were not there to enjoy the films, the debates, the personality clashes, and the institutional politics, first time round. A clearer editorial line would have contributed to positioning debates; a list of resources, archives, or of contributor biographies might have helped access materials. Such practical considerations do not in themselves undermine the validity of the collection, as a historical documentation, but they do limit its contemporary purchase.

 

University of Plymouth, England

 

 

Notes

 

1. Peter Gidal, _Materialist Film_, p. xiii.

 

2. Peter Gidal, 'Time Regained (Sort Of)', p. 32.

 

3. John Roberts, 'Photography, Iconophobia and the Ruins of Conceptual Art' in Roberts, ed., _The Impossible Document_, pp. 11-12.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_ (1983), trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1992).

 

Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_ (1985), trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone Press, 1989).

 

Philip Drummond, ed., _Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film, 1910-1975_ (London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979).

 

Peter Gidal, _Materialist Film_ (London: Routledge, 1989)

 

Peter Gidal, 'Time Regained (Sort Of)', _Tate_, July/Aug 2003.

 

John Roberts, ed., _The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966-1976_ (London: Camerawords, 1997).

 

Peter Wollen, 'The Two Avant-Gardes', _Studio International_, vol. 190 no. 978, 1975; reprinted in Peter Wollen _Readings and Writings_ (London: Verso, 1982).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Liz Wells, 'Reflections on Experimental Film: _The Undercut Reader_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 49, December 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n49wells>.

 

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