Author: Sandra Lim
Format: Performative documentary
Duration: 19’ 19”
Published: November 2014
The sixties and seventies avant-garde film tradition of British Structural-Materialist films and in particular the early formative films and theorizations of Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice, are more commonly known as a form of counter cinema which opposes the representational, narrative and documentary practices of mainstream/dominant cinema. The early polemics of the tradition emphasized a focus on real time equivalence and the material processes and procedures of working with the filmstrip (Gidal, 1976: 1-22). This resulted in an aesthetic, which foregrounded film grain and artefacts, and the experience of a film unfolding over time. In light of recent theories of film spectatorship which acknowledge that the perceptual experience of film and video textures and grain, are also potential a source of tactile and embodied knowledge (Marks, 2000: 162-179), my PhD proposed that early British Structural Materialist films might be reconsidered through a phenomenal lens, in order to shed light upon the ways in which these films can also be understood as engendering knowledge through the perceptual and haptic spectatorship of the non-representational practices that are characteristic of these films. In this respect, my PhD research considered the documentary potential of early British Structural-Materialist films, in terms of the phenomenal capacity of key films within this tradition, to engender forms of embodied knowledge relating to memory and moods. My research further proposed a synthesis of formative filmmakers Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal’s methods of practice in a digital video practice-based context, as a means for responding to, and correlating a variety of forms of urban and everyday experience.
My primary research questions were therefore: What forms of knowledge do early British Structural-Materialist films potentially convey through perceptual and haptic spectatorship? How does each artist’s film method contribute to the production of embodied knowledge in the viewer? How might the film-based methods of the formative Structural-Materialist filmmakers be synthesized for urban documentary research through digital video practice, in order to access both representational and non-representational knowledge of the urban and everyday environment?
The first ten years of British Structural-Materialist films led to a number of strands of practice based upon the original aesthetics, including an urban-based documentary/counter documentary form, as most evident in the work of artists such as John Smith, William Raban, and more recently, films by Mirza and Butler. These artists have in common the goal of contesting the authority and agency of the filmmaker to document, know or represent reality. John Smith accomplishes this in his films through a method, which sets an ironic mode of telling in contradiction to the apparent real time equivalence of the audio-visual content (Elwes, 2002: 64-71). This is apparent in films such as The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) and Worst Case Scenario (2001-2003). In addition, Raban can be observed to achieve this goal by defamiliarizing the audio-visual content through a unique method, which blends a technique of intellectual montage after the Russian constructivist filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Eisenstein, 1929: 29-30), with the Structural-Materialist concern for time and equivalence in shots. This is evident in films such as: Sundial (1992), A13 (1994), Island Race (1996) and MM(2002). Additionally, Mirza and Butler find ways in films such as Non Places (1999) and The Exception and The Rule (2009), to assert and contest the idea of the constructed nature of the documentary text (Mirza and Butler, 2010). Moreover Mirza and Butler may be observed to achieve this goal in their films, through a bricolage technique of overlapping and often contradictory narrators, set against the spectacle and effects of re-processed film and/or the effect of real time equivalence. In these different ways, these artists’ films are prefigured and shaped by a set of assumptions in which knowledge is already a given. The filmmakers begin with the assertion that the authorial regimes entailed with the act of documenting are irreconcilable with the notion of truth, and set out to illustrate or demonstrate this contention through counter documentary measures in their films.
My research does not assume these artists’ goals or aim to advance upon these artists’ reflexive methods and techniques, since my view is that knowledge or critical conceptions are not rationalized ahead of experience, but begin with our perceptions and lived experience in the everyday, as is the case with phenomenological method (Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 22). The aim of my research was therefore, to take an alternate phenomenological approach to the urban pro filmic content and documentary, by employing and synthesizing the methods of early British Structural-Materialist filmmakers, in order to gain embodied knowledge of urban lived spatiality, through an immersion in space, lived experience, and phenomenological interpretation. The video work presented with this paper constitutes a body of work, which explores lived spatiality in relation to the urban and everyday environment. Two other urban documentary studies and videos conducted in locations in and around Kemptown also formed a part of this research project. Overall, my research trajectory is to continue investigating lived spatiality in relation to the urban and the everyday, either through audio-visual moving images, or possibly, through other art and media formats.
My Research methods are derived from the fields of British Avant-Garde film and the tradition of early British Structural-Materialist films, Philosophy of Phenomenology, Urban Studies and Music.
The two films that I chose as case studies in relation to first research question were the formative films Little Dog For Roger (1967), by Malcolm Le Grice, and Peter Gidal’s Room Film (1973). In the literature, the spectatorship of Little Dog For Roger has been more commonly acknowledged as conveying a sense of nostalgia attributable to the personal nature of the artists’ own home movie footage (Elcott, 2008: 11). I argued that this explanation did not account for the sense of nostalgia that the viewer experiences in viewing the film, when the images are not sourced from viewers’ own past. I therefore proposed a phenomenal analysis of Little Dog For Roger, which did not begin with a predetermination of the experience of nostalgia based solely upon the boyhood images contained in the film, as a source of Le Grice’s own feeling of nostalgia. Instead, I asked the question of how the phenomena of the images, sounds and music in movement were woven together, to engender a sense of nostalgia that correlates to the viewer’s own personal experiences/history.
On the question of how Le Grice’s film method contributes to the production of embodied knowledge in the viewer, I observed and experienced throughout several instances in the film, that Le Grice’s unique method of re-observing and re-processing the filmstrip resulted in a subjective – objective interplay of music, sounds, images and momentary gaps in the audio-visual moving images, which were subsequently embodied as sensations of arrhythmia and out-of-breath-ness, of running and skidding and outdistancing oneself, much like the sensations of childhood play. Moreover, a sense of nostalgia came to the forefront of these experiences, in the way that they were consolidated as fleeting, embodied reminders of my own past childhood. This analysis was based upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s idea that our memories are a result of the qualities in the object, which we recognize in ourselves, as relived through their temporal setting (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 25). Le Grice’s film method therefore suggested a way of accessing non-representational and historical knowledge of oneself in relation to history and collective experience.
Similarly, Gidal’s Room Film has been noted as promoting a sense of struggle, due to the viewer’s inability to resolve the dark and grainy contents of the films’ images. This effect has been mainly attributed to the anti-illusionist counter cinema goal of subverting dominant cinema’s goal of completeness (Hamlyn, 2003: 131). Yet this explanation bypasses the question of how the sense of struggle, which the film elicits, might also be a meaningful experience in and of itself for the viewer. I therefore proposed a phenomenal analysis of the film, which could take into account how the viewer’s subjectivity is actually structured to enact or embody struggle, and furthermore what the sense of struggle might mean for the viewer in terms of knowledge production.
On the question of how Gidal’s film method contributes to the production of embodied knowledge in the viewer, I observed throughout several instances in the film, a subjective – objective interplay of sounds, images (albeit very grainy) and momentary audio-visual gaps throughout the film. These were perhaps less patterned or structured, as with Le Grice’s method, being more dependent upon Gidal’s hand held observational camerawork, and could be described as ambivalent in terms of feeling intentional and unintentional throughout its movements and directions. This led to an alternating sense of the camera and correspondingly oneself, as being pulled along into an intense interrogation of the dimly lit space of the room, alternating with a subsequent sense of withdrawal, as the camera seemed to disengage through the momentary perception of audio-visual gaps in the film. Such gaps were a result of flares of light and over exposed film and/or the beginning and ending points of reels of film, which also flare out.
Moreover, as this alternating sense of immersion and withdrawal was continually repeated and experienced without an end in sight, these senses progressed into a feeling of struggling with and against the filmmaker’s subjective camera, in an effort to actualize and enact our own subjectivity or being. This experience in fact intensified into a something of anxious struggle by the end of the film and provoked the question of why am I anxious? Why am I struggling? Arguably this effect is a form of disclosure in and of itself, since it seems to lead one to inquire more generally about one’s own set of circumstances or to contemplate one’s own lived spatiality. My analysis of the film was based upon the German phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger’s writings on being in time, and the idea that anxiety is a primal mood, which serves to guide “Dasein” or a social subject towards reflection of one’s own authentic/in-authentic existence in the world (Heidegger, 1962: 232-235). Based on this interpretation, I concluded that Gidal’s film method offers a way of accessing non-representational and embodied knowledge of oneself in relation to ones lived environment and collective experience, and therefore offers a potential way to document our everyday relations in lived space.
In answer to the question of how the film-based methods of the formative Structural-Materialist filmmakers could potentially by synthesized for a form of urban documentary research, the main conclusions I came to regarding Le Grice and Gidal’s methods, were that neither method was entirely dependent upon the medium of film for the resulting effect. In this way, Gidal’s observational yet ambivalent camera method, seemed equally possible with a range of hand held digital video cameras, and Le Grice’s method of re-observing and gestural re-processing of audio-visual moving images, also seemed possible with contemporary digital editing programs such as Final Cut Pro 6. The question then became that of how these methods could be put into practice in both the field and studio, employing digital video practice.
Integral to the development of an urban documentary research method, was the application of Urban sociologist French Philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s theory of space, and proposition that space is constituted in a number of social spaces that are experienced by users and inhabitants as an interplay of subjective and objective relations (Lefebvre, 1991: 182-284), thus bringing into play the proposition that early British Structural-Materialist film’s employ methods of practice with the potential to engender a similar interplay of objective and subjective experiences for the viewer, through audio-visual and perceptual spectatorship. According to Lefebvre, a rhythm analysis of space is a way of encompassing and accessing the subjective and objective relations that constitute the lived relations of space, or our spatiality. Moreover, this form of analysis requires a gestural system of practice that involves a lived practical immersion in space, with the ability to adopt a measure of exteriority, which allows for the analysis and interpretation of phenomena. In all, Lefebvre suggests that one must apply attentive eyes and ears as well as a head and a memory and a heart, such that one does not privilege an instantaneous moment, or pure sensation in order to decode space/spatiality (Lefebvre, 2004: 27-36).
In my documentary study of the London Underground/Westminster Station, I adopted Gidal’s observational and ambivalent camera method with a hand-held video camera, as a way of initially immersing myself in, and intentionally observing the urban environment. This also allowed for more objective movements to take over, based upon the inherent flow and movements of people in relation to the structure and order of the architectural layout. The video footage, which I captured in the early summer of 2005, became a base from which to perform a re-observation and processing of the footage later in 2010. In the time that passed, re-watching and observing the original footage evoked the sense of immersion I felt moving through this space, and the sense of moving with and against the flow of people. The footage also triggered memories of the terrorist attacks on the London Underground, and especially the day to day feeling of anxiousness in light of threats of imminent terrorist attacks, and a forced calm of nationalist collectivism in carrying on as usual – as promoted by the government and media outlets. In this respect I also composed a musical score employing major and minor progressions of chords and scales alongside the audio-visual moving images, as a way to invoke the memory of these contradictory moods, which were called up in re-viewing the video footage. The extended edit of Underground included with this paper, presents the original footage alongside the re-processed footage.
The outcomes that I aim to promote through my PhD research to other practitioners include:
The idea of materialist aesthetics as a form of gestural/rhythmic practice is not necessarily medium specific. Also, that embodied knowledge such as memories and moods are a result of lived spatiality. Moreover, embodied knowledge has the potential to communicate implicitly, the problem of how we live in the urban and the everyday, and therefore, it is important to find ways to decode and document such intangible and qualitative data. In this respect, my research also suggests that it is important to acknowledge that documentary practice and research is as much art, as it is fact.
My research was funded in part by a Faculty of Art studentship, provided by the Centre for Research and Development at the University of Brighton. In addition I also acquired small grants from the CRD to cover some of the costs of production relating to equipment. Underground was shown at The London International Documentary Festival in 2011, and was programmed as part of the Invisible Cities Program. A small review of the video was featured in the online film magazine Little While Lies: Truth and Movies London, along with several other films, as part of a larger review of the Invisible Cities Program. Underground was also screened at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto in 2012, and was nominated for the Best Experimental film category. I presented aspects of my research more recently at the BRAFFTV conference Film Media and Social Engagement, as part of a panel theme: Multi-Media Art and Multi-Sensory Engagement at the University of Toronto on October 19th 2013. The extended edit of Underground, was also recently accepted for distribution by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) in Toronto Canada.
Eisenstein, Sergei (1929) “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, edited by Jay Leda. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Inc. Reprint, 10th 1977.
Elcott, Noam M.(2008) Darkened Rooms: A Genealogy of Avant-Garde Filmstrips from Man Ray to the London Film-Makers’ Co-Op and Back Again Grey Room, Inc. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Elwes, Cate (2002). “John Smith Talking Film with Cate Elwes” in John Smith: Film and Video Works 1972-2002
Gidal, Peter (1973) Room Film
Gidal, Peter (1976) “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film” in Structural Film Anthology, edited by Peter Gidal, 1-22. London: British Film Institute.
Hamlyn, Nicky (2003)Film Art Phenomena, London: British Film Institute.
Heidegger, Martin (1962) “Care as the Being of Dasein: The Basic State-of-Mind of Anxiety as a Distinctive Way in Which Dase in Is Disclosed” Being in Time. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Lefebvre, Henri (2004) “Seen from the Window” in Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Continuum.
Lefebvre, Henri (1991) “Spatial Architectonics” in The Production of Space. Oxford, OX: Blackwell Publishing.
Le Grice, Malcolm (1967) Little Dog For Roger. UK.
Nichols, Bill (1994) Blurred Boundaries. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Marks, Laura U (2000) The Skin of Film. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962) “’Association’ and the ‘Projection of Memories’” in Phenomenology of Perception, 15-29. London; New York: Routledge, 1962. Reprint, 2003.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964) “The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences ” in The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics, edited by John Mc Cumber and David Michael Levin. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.
Mirza and Butler, (2009)The Exception and The Rule, UK/Pakistan
Mirza and Butler, (1999) Non Places, UK.
Mirza and Butler, “Texts: Images I Wish I Had Filmed but Couldn’t” at General Public Berlin: Wednesday February 10, 2010. No.w.here, http://www.mirza-butler.net/index.php?/project/images-i-wish-i-had-filmed-but-couldnt/.
Raban, William (1992) Sundial, UK
Raban, William (1994) A13
Raban, William (1996) Island Race
Raban, William (2002) MM, UK.
Raban, William (2004) “Theframe – William Raban” Interview on DVD. London: British Film Institute.Smith, John (1976) The Girl Chewing Gum, UK.
Smith, John (2001-2003) Worst Case Scenario, UK.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows.
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
The author raises an interesting point about structural-materialist films, and her supporting research statement is clear and consistent. Nonetheless, the text could have presented a more detailed, in-depth explanation concerning how the phenomenological qualities of such works might foster their documentary potential. This main hypothesis is quite promising and certainly deserves a longer paper on its own. The research statement is not able to fully develop its complexity, serving but as an introduction to inform the reader/viewer of aspects that inspired the making of the work Underground. Hence, we are led to expect a sort of closure of the argument from Underground, but the work is likewise unable to demonstrate by itself alone that “materialist aesthetics as a form of gestural/rhythmic practice is not necessarily medium specific”.
While the aesthetic strategies deployed by Underground, in both the pro-filmic recording and its later digital processing, are indeed non medium-specific, they seem unable to escape the tradition of audiovisual representation to which structural-materialist cinema was opposed (as noted by the author herself).
In the first part of the work, glimpses of characteristic visual signs, written texts and architectural elements, and particularly the direct audio recording, take over “the observational and ambivalent camera method” employed by the author. Thus, the identity of the London Underground/Westminster Station as the specific place depicted imposes itself over sheer feelings of “lived spatiality” of the urban environment.
In the second part, one must consider that the “re-observation and processing” of the original footage basically consists of its slowing and reversal, accompanied by the substitution of the direct audio by an especially composed soundtrack. In which way these elements configure a “materialist aesthetics”? The soundtrack, with its very strong presence, seems to be the main expressive element in this segment of the movie, promoting a very specific interpretation of the urban space that leaves very few open to the viewer’s experience and imagination. In doing so, it also seems to move further away from the practice of structural-materialistic filmmaking, which favored a less illusionistic treatment of sound.
Considering that the inclusion of the piece in JMP Screenworks means to foreground its consistence as a media research project reflecting on film history, further explanation about how the aforementioned contradictions are articulated by Underground’s two parts would be welcomed. I suggest that the author does a more detailed exegesis or analysis of her own piece, just as she did with the works of the other filmmakers.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with re-edited statement
This video (Underground) is reasonable, and has some interesting moments visually and structurally, but is neither novel, nor particularly original in any way that I can identify. The work’s stated relationship to 1960s & 70s “Structural-Materialist” film- and in particular the two works of Gidal and Le Grice that are referenced is very problematic, and I would suggest is based on a confused understanding of the works and their context as well as the artist’s well-documented intentions and theoretical positions. The written statement is well-organised and argued and does raise some interesting points, but neither supports the submitted video in terms of her stated intentions, nor convinces me that the work represents a re-evaluation or discussion of the films it references. The writing and presentation are fine and clear and there are no serious problems with it.
The applicant suggests the following three criteria which I have copied below, and I have responded to each of them briefly.
1) Does this research (video) successfully engender non-representational knowledge such as moods or memories in a personal and/or documentary capacity for the viewer?
No, I don’t think it does. The music track is particularly manipulative and inappropriate in relation to the stated intentions of the maker. Such a strong and emotive soundtrack is very subjective and creates an overwhelming mood throughout the 2nd half of the submitted video. This is, I suggest, completely contrary to the author’s stated intention to “engender personal moods and memories for the viewer”.
2) Does this research demonstrate a unique and cohesive synthesis or application of the original Structural-Materialist film aesthetics?
No, to the contrary, it demonstrates a misreading of the genre and the theoretical position of the artists cited. The manipulation of time (editing and use of slow motion and reverse motion) does not have any structural or material justification or serve any “anti-illusionist” function, both of which were central concepts both in P Adams Sitney’s original formulation (See Sitneys’ chapter on Structural film in his book “Visionary Film”) or Gidal & Le Grice’s subsequent re visions.
3) Does this research successfully demonstrate the documentary potential of early British Structural-Materialist films?
I don’t think the submitted video demonstrates anything relating to the documentary potential of S/M films, and I think the written text needs to be re-considered if this was the author’s intention. This is an idea that would need a very substantial argument accompanied by a body of practical work. (Perhaps the author’s PhD dissertation attempts to do this, but I don’t think the video accompanying this submission does.) My recommendation would be that the author reconsiders her claims in light of the video she has produced, and either re-evaluate the work, or reconsider its relationship to the films she is citing, and/or make some more modest claims.
Contributor’s Rejoinder to Peer Reviews
I would like to thank the reviewers for their time and consideration, as well as the editors of Screenworks for the chance to respond to the reviewers’ criticisms and comments. As the peer reviews suggest, this submission provoked somewhat of a polarized response. I believe this is in part due to traditional notions of documentary as well as the associations that art historically Structural and or Structural-Materialist films bring to mind in terms of specific techniques and anti-illusionism.
My intention was not to make a Structural film/Structural-Materialist film in the art historical sense, or work within an anti-illusionist framework, but rather, to take some central, yet what I believe to be overlooked aspects (rhythm and ambivalence), in key works of the formative British tradition. Furthermore, my intention was to interrogate how these artists’ methods of practice, might also be considered as forms of non-representational documentary practice. A second concern was how to apply their methods of rhythm and ambivalence, in the context of a documentary work about the after effects of the terrorist bombings on the London Underground, and lived space.
In contemporary documentary theory, non-representational forms are integral to performative practice. For example, Nichols locates the performative aspects of documentary in the tension that arises from the marriage of observational techniques, which capture the referential realm, and the expressive (non-representational) codes of fiction (1994: 95). Similarly, Marks offers that when we perceive cinema with all of our senses, there is always a dynamic movement between the optical (referential) and the perceptual (non-representational), where haptic cinema encompasses both “embodied and mimetic intelligence” (2000: 190).
The main claim that I made about Le Grice and Gidal’s methods of practice, was that rhythm and ambivalence form part of a larger performative method of documentary practice in their early work. This entails movements between intentional engagement and disengagement, always in relation to a referential object. While the referential object might be minimized or obscured in their films, the referential is nevertheless present through the affirmation of the titles of each film, (Little Dog For Roger, Room Film) and through the obscured but not obliterated images which each film presents. In this respect, I also proposed that their methods of practice were not medium specific. While I gave an abbreviated account of how I came to these conclusions through phenomenological interpretation, a longer more detailed account is forthcoming in a paper devoted to this proposition.
The conditions of everyday life, in terms of the persistent heroic and stoic stances promoted by the government and media, matched by a sense of personal doubt and withdrawal, were tropes that I correlated with Le Grice and Gidal’s methods. This was enacted through a directed walk through of the location with a camera, interspersed with moments of disengagement occurring especially in the passage from walking to drifting onto the descending and ascending movements on escalators. In addition, the music was devised as a correlation to the physical movements occurring in the image, implied through a juxtaposition of major and minor diving and ascending chords, and the intensity of marching military drums enacting the tone to carry on. This was set against moments of disengagement as indicated by gaps in the music and silence. In this respect, the music was meant to be interpretive, performative and even figurative, rather than anti-illusionistic.
Underground represents the last in a series of works in which I experimented with the method I described above through sound and image relations. Overall, I agree that the whole project can’t be summed up by the one piece alone. In fact, Malcolm Le Grice who examined the PhD and audio-visual work to which Undergroundbelongs, suggested that the best way to get a sense of the project, would be to see all the work screened together in one sitting.