First Person

Finding a Home in the Avant-Garde

Finding a Home in the Avant-Garde

I grew up in a small town in southeast England, and when I was a teenager, film became one the most powerful ways in which I began to imagine the world beyond it. I knew I would have to leave to explore it, though: Horley didn’t even have a cinema. (The Regent, located in a beautiful art deco building, closed in 1981, the year I was born.) But watching BBC2 and Channel 4 had given me hints that a realm of film beyond the blockbuster fare at the Screen in Reigate or the Crawley multiplex existed, and the bands I liked referenced Jean Cocteau, Werner Herzog, and François Truffaut in their lyrics and on their record sleeves. But arriving at the University of Manchester in 2000, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to immerse themselves in cinema with me, and I was astonished to find that the university didn’t even have a video library.

My undergraduate years were lonely, and when I had nothing to do—sometimes in the hours between lectures, but more often on evenings when my flatmates wanted to get drunk in cheap bars and I didn’t—I often went to the Cornerhouse, a gallery and three-screen cinema near the campus. I discovered art-house film at the start of my second year, an especially unhappy time when I found my courses uninspiring, couldn’t relate to my flatmates, bickered with my friends from the music scene, felt alienated by Manchester’s gay and lesbian culture, and had horrendous problems with depression and insomnia. Occasionally, I’d leave feeling baffled by what I’d seen, and wished I had a companion to talk it through. But mostly, the movies I encountered were recognizable as narrative films. 

It wasn’t until spring 2003, weeks before I was due to graduate, that I noticed the Cornerhouse offering something that promised a total break with what I was accustomed to: Shoot Shoot Shoot: The First Decade of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative & British Avant-Garde Film, 1966–76. The season, which included several programs of short films that “fell into the netherworld between film and fine art,” sounded incredible. With my final exams looming, I could not commit to all of it, but I made time for a screening called “London Underground,” a showcase of how “avant-garde film flourished in mid-’60s counterculture.” The first selection, Antony Balch’s Towers Open Fire (1963), was made with William S. Burroughs, whom I’d read as a teenager, but otherwise, I didn’t know a single name on the list. Unfamiliarity was never a problem: the Cornerhouse always gave out a sheet of A4 with background information. Shoot Shoot Shoot, however, came with a broadsheet newspaper—helpful in disabusing me of the notion that the films were about London’s Underground rail network.

Towers Open Fire proved the perfect way in. It attempts to visually represent Burroughs’s fragmentary prose style, combining his monologue with strobe cutting, flicker, and hand-painted film. It was intense. Jonathan Langram’s Gloucester Road Groove (1968), a gentle two-minute capture of the lively street in the swinging sixties, provided a little let-up, but the next two works, which married images I’d never seen with sounds I’d never heard, smashed my sense of what cinema could be. Importantly, they both demanded I let go of story. I’d never been great at following plot, and was hampered in particular by poor facial recognition. But I did have a strong sense of narrative arc and was always able to sense when a film was building to a conclusion. Refusing structure, Jeff Keen’s Marvo Movie (1967) drifted onto the screen, with disconnected images of dolls, political parades, comic books, racist caricatures, newspapers, and other objects fading into each other, set to the disjointed words and noises of concrete poet Bob Cobbing. The film jolted me into awareness of the dizzying cavalcade of contradictory symbols and messages to which the media exposed me all the time.

Amid such a diverse set of works, Keen’s aesthetic really stood out, but John Latham’s Speak (1962) upped the ante. Discs flashed across the screen, in and out of focus, to a noise soundtrack; at times it felt like they were attacking me, but the sheer ferocity allowed me, for once, to blot out all other anxieties and lose myself in the images. Both films disappeared as suddenly and as strangely as they arrived, feeling like something that had occurred outside of time itself.

The last film in the program experimented with rhythm in a way I found utterly mesmerizing. Stuart Pound’s Clocktime Trailer (1972) apparently “derive[d] from a mathematical process that condenses a feature-length work into a short ‘trailer.’” That wasn’t clear to me, but the film was hypnotic, with shots of a woman reading in a room changing from negative to a red tint, constantly flickering, with a minimalist piano soundtrack playing throughout. More than anything I’d seen before, this made me think of film as a visual art form and want to make work in that tradition—and believe it might be possible, despite my lack of formal training.

Certain aspects of the films stayed with me over the years, in fragments: the tone and texture of Pound’s piano soundtrack, if not the melody; the rapidity of Keen’s montage, far faster than even the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, but not so much the actual images. However, the impact of the screening would be felt slowly, as other things were more pressing. I handed in my completed dissertation and began revising for my final exams, and couldn’t find time for any more trips to the Cornerhouse, for Shoot Shoot Shoot or anything else. There weren’t any LFMC anthologies available on video or DVD, and none of their work was showing on Film Four (an offshoot of the terrestrial Channel Four, which, I learned, had aired such things during the 1980s). I desperately wanted to see more, and spent my final summer living with my parents in Horley looking online, to no avail. I resolved to find a community of avant-garde film fans when I moved to Brighton to do my Master’s degree, and visiting friends there over the summer, I found a printed program for the Cinematheque, which intrigued me as much as the LFMC one had earlier that year.

The Cinematheque was a nonprofit film club run by several filmmakers, including Ben Rivers. Sadly, I only caught its final eighteen months before the group lost its space in Brighton’s trendy North Laine district, but there was a real sense of community about it, as it attracted every enthusiast for alternative, art-house, and avant-garde film in the small city. And sometimes beyond: for its penultimate event, a two-day screening of Fassbinder’s epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, people came from London and slept in the cinema. I went to that, and to several LFMC events, some introduced by surviving Co-op members, among them Malcolm Le Grice, Peter Gidal, William Raban, Lis Rhodes, John Smith, and Guy Sherwin. I wanted to make films in a similar vein.

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