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This comprehensive historical account demonstrates the rich diversity in 1970s British experimental filmmaking, acting as a form of reclamation for films and filmmakers marginalized within established histories. An indispensable book for practitioners, historians and critics alike, it provides new interpretations of this rich and diverse history.




This book acts as a form of historical reclamation, demonstrating the complex and rich diversity in 1970s British experimental filmmaking. The intention is to integrate films that have not received adequate recognition into the field alongside those that stand as accepted texts. While filmmakers such as Derek Jarman, Ian Breakwell, Jeff Keen, David Larcher, Margaret Tait and Peter Whitehead have been recognised in 1970s histories, this collectively extensive (image-rich and representational) body of work has been overshadowed by structural and material film experimentation taking place predominantly at the London Filmmakers Co-operative (LFMC). I also advocate for the recognition of films by Jane Arden and B. S. Johnson — albeit perhaps awkwardly situated within this history — as these are sufficiently innovative and experimental to warrant inclusion. This re-evaluation of the history, situating more personal, poetic or expressive forms of filmmaking alongside the already well-established history of formal, structural/material film, brings unique insights to the fore and importantly recognises the richness and diversity in 1970s experimentation. While LFMC histories are already fairly well-documented, they also, in my mind, problematically focus too much on 1970s filmmakers/ theoreticians Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice’s structural/material(ist) theoretical positions, thereby also belying the rich seam of material produced at, and affiliated to, the LFMC during the decade.
Patti Gaal-Holmes

1. Questions of History

What are the decisions made when a historical moment is selected, con- textualised within particular frameworks and used to narrate the past? What exactly is the evidence determining the ‘facts’ of history? Should history, as cultural historian Marius Kwint suggests, ‘fully admit to its illusory and constructed nature, and stop pretending that it refers to a real process which is amenable to systematic analysis and even prediction’?1 Should it admit to the sometimes arbitrary choices made by the historian who follows a hunch or a path with a head already full of ideas, but who through necessity gets momentarily side-tracked as new discoveries make themselves visible? What are the positioned approaches taken by historians, bringing their world-views to shadow the table where chosen sources are spread out for examination? How are these sources revealed in the light of the future moment of the new history’s arrival? These questions raise possibilities which the practice of history brings to the fore, and to my mind these positioned approaches cannot pretend to exist within the certainties of a definitive methodology. Instead, I believe they should embrace an openness required for a methodology of discovery more akin to Paul Feyerabend’s ‘conviction that anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemolog/ (Feyerabend’s italics).2
Patti Gaal-Holmes

2. Institutional Frameworks and Organisational Strategies

This chapter examines how a complex network of institutional frameworks and organisational strategies enabled the fragile cultural development of 1960s experimental filmmaking to become a thriving endeavour by the end of the 1970s. Filmmaker and critic Michael Mazière identified that filmmaking was ‘part of a complex web of support which include [d] education, social context, artists’ organisation, access to technology and the possibility of proper exhibition.1 Individual funding was also, as we shall see in this chapter, ‘linked to technology, social and political context and cultural practice’.2 With increased filmmaking developments in the decade it was, however, also necessary, particularly for funding bodies, to appreciate this film form as a personal statement made with a camera — ‘a world of individual inquiry’ — rather than the ‘formal world of Hollywood, with its production crews of hundreds’.3 Film workshops would be central to developments and the Independent Film-makers Association (IFA, 1974) for a time provided a kind of unifying platform for the heterogeneous modes of independent filmmaking practices in Britain. While the LFMC was one of the main workshops for the kind of filmmaking discussed here, not all experimental filmmakers were affiliated to it; and it is useful to understand its location within the wider framework of other opposi- tional/independent practices, particularly as these all sought financial recognition from government funding bodies.
Patti Gaal-Holmes

3. Experimental Film and Other Visual Arts

This chapter focuses specifically on relationships between experimental film and visual art practices such as painting, sculpture, photography and drawing, thereby providing a clearer understanding of correlations between the two fields. Close relationships are evident in films used for expressive, personal purposes and in those taking more formal or conceptual approaches to experimentation. Some discussion of the broader visual arts will first be outlined to identify particular aesthetic, theoretical or political preoccupations informing artists and filmmakers. Thereafter, films will be discussed in the context of specific visual disciplines or movements. This categorisation is, however, not to be read as an attempt to fix a taxonomy on the films, but rather to inforrr the reader where relationships can be drawn between diverse practices. While many experimental filmmakers were informed by the visual arts, there were also prevailing interests in cinematographic recording devices and in taking oppositional approaches to the conventions of narrative, commercial cinema.
Patti Gaal-Holmes

4. Visionary, Mythopoeia and Diary Films

In this chapter, personal, expressive films informed by aspects of the countercultural movement, psychoanalysis, mysticism, the occult, popular culture, literature and diaristic approaches to filmmaking are discussed. Although relationships with the visual arts are also evident, the personal, symbolic or metaphoric use of image tends to be central to many of the films under discussion here. For some filmmakers, such as Margaret Tait, it was merely the joy of ‘stalking’ and capturing images, offering unique records of individual lives, that drew her to film. For others, connecting these to greater personal mythologies or psychological narratives was also central to developments. Many of the filmmakers discussed here trained in art schools, with others informed by their work as avant-garde writers (B. S. Johnson), poets (Tait) or playwrights One Arden). Some had affiliations with the LFMC, although others were oblivious to its existence; and while cinematographic recording and structuring devices also informed aspects of filmmaking, these would generally not form the overriding focus of these films. At the outset of this chapter a number of key issues relating to the counterculture, psychoanalysis and personal approaches to filmmaking are discussed, as they provide contexts informing filmmaking. Thereafter, films are considered in greater detail, referring (where applicable) to P. Adams Stacy’s taxonomical definitions of ‘psycho-dramatic trance’, ‘lyrical’, ‘mythopoeia’ and ‘diary’.1
Patti Gaal-Holmes

5. Experiments with Structure and Material

While dominant, commercial cinema was about the compression of the time/space continuum and the illusion of the passage of time through narrative, the intention of structural and material film was to raise awareness of duration, film material and process, to encourage viewer-reflexivity and demystify the filmmaking process. A focus on the relationships between film content and film form identified that structural filmmaking was ‘often theorised as a cinematic relation — and disjunction — between signifiers and signified.’1 A.L. Rees additionally noted that’ [d]uration became the hallmark of British structural film, a “road not taken” by the mainstream cinema or by the lyric direction in avant-garde film’.2 This type of film experimentation explored film medium and structure, revealed processes and procedures in filmmaking and took an anti-Hollywood stance to counter symbolic image use and narrative structure. While initially there were considerable US influences fuelling debate and filmmaking — notably in the form of New American Cinema screenings (1964/68) and close contacts with the New York Co-operative — British experimentation was boosted by a number of active and influential individuals, including filmmakers/theorists Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal and activist/film programmer, and later Arts Council officer, David Curtis.
Patti Gaal-Holmes

6. Women and Film

This chapter explores the diversity in 1970s women’s experimental filmmaking, considering how women engaged either explicitly with feminist discourses or followed their own directives to make experimental films, unconfined by historical precedents or legacies that might restrain their male counterparts. Films were informed by feminism, developments in the arts, formal experimentation and by film theories related to Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics and structuralism. Wider political and theoretical frameworks related to feminism and women’s filmmaking are discussed at the outset to contextualise the complex spheres of influence. This will be followed by discussions prevalent in the 1970s, deliberating whether a feminine aesthetic existed, as these provide some particularly interesting frameworks for consideration. Thereafter, a range of experimental films will be discussed, focusing on the domestic, the gendered film text, the aesthetics of ephemerality and how history, language and ideology were used to question women’s historically inscribed roles.
Patti Gaal-Holmes

Conclusion: (Re)cognitions and (Re)considerations for This History

In the opening passages to Nadine Gordimer’s recent collection of short stories, she notes that ‘[t]he past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognises it’.1 This recognition is, of course, central, to the any new historical unfolding or distillation. For without recognition, the history lies only as quiet and still as the mute sources the historian Keith Jenkins refers to and which the researcher attempts to make speak. This book has its origins in research undertaken for my doctoral thesis as part of a 1970s British cinema project. My love of 1970s experimental films, their earlier antecedents and later successors, which I had come across in my research as an artist/filmmaker (working with both film and video amongst other media) inspired me to take on the guise of historian and map this complex, but rich and beguiling field. At the outset it was the many diverse films which equally enthralled, intrigued or perplexed that spurred me on. The discovery that this history was in parts biased, misaligning certain filmmakers and failing to account for the actual diversity in the already established history of structural and material experimentation, was made plain by the recognition that the ‘return to image’ phrase - perpetuated throughout these histories -was simply not true. The accepted understanding that ‘image’ made a return at the end of the decade has allowed for a neat packaging of 1970s history — notably the theoretically informed dominant structural and material position — to set it apart from other types of filmmaking allegedly emerging at the end of the 1970s/ beginning of the 1980s.
Patti Gaal-Holmes


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