The accompanying book display can be found in the reading room of the BFI Reuben Library
“Talking about film is something of a contradiction in terms, it’s already the wrong medium.” – Alexander Mackendrick
I have chosen 30 film books for the BFI’s library display and will cover six of them in more detail here. It’s been an invigorating and, at times, nostalgic task to set about re-acquainting myself with some of these works, many of which I read enthusiastically nearly two decades ago, when I started the infinite task of educating myself about film history.
I grew up with what some critics have called the golden age of British TV. Like many kids of the 1970s and 1980s, I loved watching re-runs of Ealing comedies on TV, a firm favorite being The Ladykillers (1955). As a teenager I saw Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and was stunned by its razor sharp dialogue, so I was curious to see Paul Cronin’s documentary Mackendrick on Film, which covers Mackendrick’s long period teaching at Cal Arts. The footage of Mackendrick’s teaching doesn’t disappoint, but the material is reproduced in its full, unexpurgated form in Mackendrick’s book of collected writings On Film-Making (edited by Cronin, Faber and Faber, 2004).
While I have never been particularly drawn to making works of fiction deploying actors, I still think there is much to learn from him as a filmmaker. Mackendrick famously covered his classrooms with slogans. The one that always chimed with me was:
“Ambiguity does not mean lack of clarity. Ambiguity may be intriguing when it consists of alternative meanings, each of them clear.”
This resonated with me, as I considered if my earlier films were perhaps guilty of deploying a theory of disintegration rather than enunciating more complex historical structures and motives.
Another early influence on my filmmaking was Lindsay Anderson and the Free Cinema movement. The loosely formed group utilised the newly available hand-held 16mm Bolex cameras, often rejecting sync sound in order to remake the documentary into a more subjective and poetic form, taking up the manifesto that “No film can be too personal… Size is irrelevant and perfection is not an aim.”
Accounts of the movement – as well as Anderson’s later fiction work (of which the Mick Travis trilogy were some of my favourites) – are just some of the many illuminating essays featured in Never Apologise (Plexus Books, 2004), a compendium of Anderson’s writings on film. Alongside historic texts published in Sequence or Universities and Left Review (which went on to become New Left Review), editor Paul Ryan worked with Anderson to collect his contemporary reflections and comments – a sort of catalogue raisonné of his life’s work. On the Free Cinema films, he writes in 1957:
“they have not been made according to any plan or program, instinct came first, we discovered our common sympathies after”.
While reflecting in hindsight on his classic Free Cinema short Every Day except Christmas (1957), he writes: “it was personal, it was a feeling that, essentially, a documentary film is a portrait of the person who makes it”.
Lindsay’s diaries are also well worth reading and provide an insight into his private life and his often tumultuous relationship with the critics and Hollywood. Since we’re on the topic, I’d also recommend seeing the hilarious and curmudgeonly self-portrait Is That All There Is (1993), the last film that Anderson made before his sudden death in 1994.
It was after I left college, around 2000, that I first saw (nostalgia) (1971) by Hollis Frampton. An uncompromising, intellectual filmmaker, Frampton had an erudite mind and an acerbic wit. In ‘For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses’ (first published in Artforum in 1971 and then collected in Circles of Confusion, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983), he predicts that the whole of art history will eventually become a mere footnote in the history of film – although in this essay he is really just describing his own predilections.
Trawling the Library of Congress searching for films to incorporate within his magnum opus Magellan, Frampton also presciently describes the future films or practices of such diverse artists as Ken Jacobs (in particular Star Spangled to Death), Mark Leckey, Abigail Child or Adam Curtis when he writes:
“There is no evidence in the structural logic of the filmstrip that distinguishes ‘footage’ from a ‘finished’ work. Thus, any piece of film may be regarded as ‘footage’, for use in any imaginable way to construct or reconstruct a new work. Therefore, it may be possible for the metahistorian to take old work as ‘footage’ and construct from it identical new work necessary to a tradition.”
Apart from the insights of a few key clued up tutors, studying at Duncan of Jordanstone, with its emphasis on video art, resulted in the total omission of any kind of experimental film history from my education. So, guided by regular trips to the university library and taking in the few screenings available to me, I set up about attempting to correct this. As many of the films were unavailable to see, it was through discovering written descriptions in film books such as Peter Gidal’s Materialist Film (Routledge, 1989) or the Hayward Gallery’s catalogue Film as Film that I would glean a second-hand knowledge of British experimental film.
Clearly Gidal is an important figure in this history and his political ‘anti-illusionist’ materialist programme influenced generations of filmmakers to come, from John Smith to Cerith Wyn Evans, right up to the present day with artists such as Charlotte Prodger and Mark Fell. Indeed, some of my own works would not exist had I not encountered Gidal’s films and writings (though he may not wish this compliment).
In re-reading sections of his book for this piece, though, I was struck by two things. One is the date that it was written – 1989 – a time when structural film had largely been consigned to the dustbin of history by a nascent generation of black, queer and feminist filmmakers empowered by Jeremy Isaacs’ inclusive agenda at Channel 4 and other progressive initiatives like GLC, Four Corners etc. Materialist Film, when viewed in this light, looks like an exercise in legacy making.
The second thing that struck me is the parochial factionalism of Gidal’s polemic. Rather than showing solidarity by writing about the next wave of independent filmmakers, like Black Audio Film Collective, Cinema Action, Poster-Film Collective, Amber, Berwick Street Collective and Stuart Marshall, Gidal is too busy getting caught up in his own rhetoric – of whom, as Stephen Heath points out, is following the correct structural/materialist party line – to look around.
Two American filmmakers, Warren Sonbert and Nathaniel Dorsky, have been equally influential on my work. Sonbert – something of a mentor figure to Dorsky – lived for music as much as film and would go to great lengths to contrive tours for his films in order to catch whatever appealing new opera premiere he wished to see in Europe at that time. Filming familiar tourist locations or current events from his own particular perspective along the way, Sonbert employed a method of polyvalent editing – a technique influential on Dorksy – that eschewed conventional editing methods traditionally based on dramatic or illusionistic principles for a methodology that embraced a multiplicity of connections:
“in virtue of color, subject, shape, shade, texture, the screen orientation of object, the direction of camera or object movement, or even the stasis thereof.”
P. Adams Sitney eloquently covers most of Sonbert’s oeuvre in his Eyes Wide Open (Oxford University Press, 2008), but in keeping with filmmakers writing on their own work, I’m choosing to highlight here a special issue of the film journal Framework (vol. 51 no.1, Spring 2015), edited by Jon Gartenberg and dedicated to Sonbert and his writings. I’d also like to submit a short tract by Nathaniel Dorksy, Devotional Cinema (Tuumba press, 2nd edition, 2005).
Dorsky is a gently radical force in experimental film. In contrast to Frampton, he calls for filmmakers to exist in the present, that is to say, the filmmaker should be open to the multitude of possibilities and experiences life can offer on a moment-to-moment basis. By honing skills to see the world afresh – an attention to light and detail, and the ability to render these details through the prism of a camera – an alchemical shift can occur whereby the viewing experience produces a positive and healthy experience on the audience. By citing historical examples like the films of Dreyer, Antonioni and Ozu, he finds palpable evidence of the ‘transformative’ nature of cinema.
I would like to end with an insightful quote by the Canadian film teacher and Frampton scholar Michael Zryd, who for me sums up, most memorably and succinctly, at least one of the aims of the experimental film project while discussing the work of Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton in the essay ‘Experimental Film as Useless Cinema’, from the edited volume Useful Cinema (Duke University Press, 2011, ed. Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson):
“experimental film was a pedagogic model that sought to transform consciousness while resisting dictating, didactically, what the parameters of that transformed consciousness should be.”
Luke Fowler’s full list of film books
To accompany his library talk, Fowler has selected our collections focus January display for the reading room at the BFI Reuben Library and chosen the publications listed below:
Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson. Useful Cinema.
Rick Altman. Sound Theory, Sound Practice.
Lindsay Anderson (ed. Paul Ryan). Never Apologise: the Collected Writings.
Paul Arthur. A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film since 1965.
Holly Aylett (ed.) Marc Karlin: Look Again.
Erika Balsom. After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation.
Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner. Working Together: Notes on British Film Collectives in the 1970s.
Robert Beavers. The Senses. (Revised 7 September 2008) in Aurora 2008: The Infinite Measure (ed. Adam Pugh).
Robert Beavers (with an introduction by Jonas Mekas). Still Light: Film Notes and Plates.
Stan Brakhage. Metaphors on Vision.
Michel Chion (ed. Claudia Gorbman). Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen.
David Cleveland and Brian Pritchard. How Films Were Made and Shown: Some Aspects of the Technical Side of Motion Picture Film 1895-2015.
Guy Debord (ed. Ken Knabb). Guy Debord: Complete Cinematic Works: Scripts, Stills, Documents 2003.
Teresa De Laurentis. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction.
Nathaniel Dorsky. Devotional Cinema.
Kodo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar (eds.). The Ghosts of Songs: the Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998.
Hollis Frampton. Circles of Confusion : Film, Photography, Video: Texts, 1968-1980.
Jon Gartenberg. Warren Sonbert: Selected Writings. Framework. Vol. 56.no 1. Spring 2015.
Peter Gidal. Materialist Film.
Stefan Grissemann, Alexander Horwath, Regina Schlagnitweit (eds). Was ist film: Peter Kubelka’s Program Cycle at the Austrian Film Museum.
Albert Hunt. The Language of Television: Uses and Abuses.
Derek Jarman (ed. Shaun Allen). Dancing Ledge.
Boyd MacDonald. Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to “Oldies” on TV.
Alexander MacKendrick (ed. Paul Cronin). On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director.
Gregory J Markopoulos. Quest for Serenity: Journal of a Film-Maker.
Gregory J Markopoulos (ed. Mark Webber). Film as Film: The Collected Writings of Gregory J. Markopoulos.
Elizabeth Weis and John Belton (eds.). Film Sound: Theory and Practice.
P Adams Sitney. Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson.
Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook (eds.). Subjects and Sequences; A Margaret Tait Reader.
Paul Willemen. Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory.
Gene Youngblood. Expanded Cinema.
To add to his selection we have selected books on, or with writing by, Luke Fowler:
Steven Bode (ed.). Luke Fowler The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott.
Nicholas Cullinan (ed.). Tacita Dean Film.
Luke Fowler. Two-frame films: 2006-2012.
Isla Leaver-Yap (ed.). 8 Metaphors (Because the Moving Image is Not a Book).
Adam Pugh (ed.). Common Ground.
Beatrix Ruf, Julia Peyton-Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist (eds.). Luke Fowler.
Rebekah Rutkoff. Robert Beavers.
Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald. The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema.
Thanks: The Modern Institute, LUX, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.