Blog / David Curtis: Life Before the Co-op, The British Avant-Garde Film 1945-66

Antony Balch, Towers Open Fire, 1963

Posted on 14 Sep 2016
Tags London Film-makers' Co-operative / LFMC / Mark Webber / Shoot Shoot Shoot / David Curtis / Jeff Keen / Antony Balch / Margaret Tait /

Life Before the Co-op
The British Avant-Garde Film 1945-66

by David Curtis

On the occasion of the publication of the book Shoot Shoot Shoot: The First Decade of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative 1966-76 edited by Mark Webber (LUX, October 2016) we will be posting four essays on the LUX blog which were originally commissioned for the Shoot Shoot Shoot touring programme in 2002. This previously unpublished text by David Curtis traces the development of post-war avant-garde cinema in Britain, which led to the foundation of the LFMC in 1966.

            In the immediate period following World War II, two accounts of the international film avant-garde were published in quick succession, providing contemporary snapshots of the achievement of British film avant-garde to date; Richard Foster and Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema – the catalogue to their remarkable series of screenings at the San Francisco Museum of Art of 1947,[i] and Roger Manvell’s Experiment in the Film, published in Britain in 1949.[ii] Both sought to provide a comprehensive view by commissioning writings by an international group of authors. Art in Cinema’s thematic programmes had included work by just three filmmakers associated with Britain, the animators Len Lye and Norman McLaren, and Francis Bruguiere, the American avant-garde photographer who had worked briefly in Britain with Oswell Blakeston in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In Manvell’s volume, the director Edgar Anstey – himself an innovator in the documentary field – contributes a history of “the development of film technique in Britain”. True to his title but standing oddly in a volume dedicated to the avant-garde, he concentrates on achievements in the mainstream – from the scientific nature films of Percy Smith through to the polite dramas of Anthony Asquith – but gives a good account of his documentary colleagues en-route. He devotes just one short paragraph to the avant-garde, suggesting that the ‘art film’ and ‘abstract film’ were something developed in Europe, then concedes that “In England, Oswald [sic] Blakeston and Adrian Brunel carried out this kind of work”. In the documentary section he acknowledges there was something special about Len Lye yet struggles to make sense of him, summarising him rather patronisingly as a “something of a rolling stone in art, journalism, poetry and philosophy, a gay troubadour of the intellect”.

            The Festival International du Film Expérimental et Poétique at Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium, also in 1949, provided another overview and one in which the British avant-garde was rather better represented. At this, the first post-war Festival, Richard Massingham, Alberto Cavalcanti, Ivor Montagu, Oswell Blakeston, Adrian Brunel, Len Lye and Humphrey Jennings all showed work.[iii] But most of the films screened were over 10 years old, and this was very much the pre-war British team. Many were no longer active, or had left Britain to work elsewhere, during or even before the war.

            John Grierson, a talented filmmaker himself, and an enabler of film-experiment in the 1930s through his role as head of the Empire Marketing Board (1929-33), then the General Post Office Film Unit (1933-37), had left Britain in 1939 to move to America, then Canada, where he used experience gained in London to help found and shape the National Film Board of Canada. (He later returned to Britain in 1948.) Many artists whose talent he had supported followed him across the Atlantic. Len Lye moved to New York in 1944, pursuing the promise of work on The March of Time. Grierson’s ‘discovery’ Norman McLaren, a committed pacifist, also headed for New York where he briefly secured the patronage of Hilla Rebay of the Guggenheim, before being invited to the National Film Board by Grierson. He spent the rest of his life there as a kind of permanent artist-in-residence.

            Alberto Cavalcanti, Grierson’s great sound-innovator, and his successor at the Post Office, returned to his native Brazil in 1949; Robert Flaherty – imported by Grierson for his ‘eye’ had returned to his native America after the success of Man of Aran (1934). László Moholy-Nagy made several films while based in England after 1935, but had moved on to set up the New Bauhaus in Chicago. At the war’s end, Kenneth Macpherson, editor of Close Up (“the only magazine devoted to film as an art”[iv]), and co-author with the imagist poet HD of the extraordinary experimental feature Borderline (1930), moved to the USA, where he produced Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy (1946). This was to be Macpherson’s final involvement in film. Richter had himself been a transitory contributor to the British pre-war scene (Everyday 1929) but had taken his own teaching talent to New York’s City College.

            Other artists who had remained in Britain after the war had their own reasons to cease involvement with film. Anthony Gross – the most innovative figurative artist-animator anywhere in Europe in the pre-war years (Joie de vivre 1933, Fox Hunt 1937 and the incomplete Around the World in 80 Days 1936[v]), served as a war artist but made no more films, returning full time to painting and print-making. Perhaps the greatest loss to film at this time was that of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, who arrived as refugees from Poland during the war and made two rarely seen but remarkable experimental films (Calling Mr Smith 1944 and The Eye and The Ear 1945) for the Polish government in exile. They spent the remainder of their lives on work in other media – painting, drawing, and writing.


Cover of Roger Manvell's Experiment in the Film, 1949.


A new beginning?

 

            A chance to look forward, perhaps even to kick-start a new wave of experimental activity came in 1951 when the Labour government staged The Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank as a celebration of national achievement and renewal, and to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Exhibition. A committee which included John Grierson commissioned and selected films to be shown in the Festival’s futuristic Telecinema, designed by Wells Coates, which incorporated Britain’s first ‘full-screen television’ projection system. The committee’s difficult task was to reflect this forward-looking spirit in its commissioned films, while having few of the pre-war team of filmmakers left to call upon.

            Nor was experiment at the top of the committee’s list of priorities. The main ‘Festival Film’ was The Magic Box (John Boulting), which re-stated William Friese-Greene’s claim to be the inventor of cinema; but Norman McLaren was persuaded to contribute to the occasion and produced two three-dimensional abstract films for the Telecinema – Around is Around and Now is the Time – using dots and loops created on an oscilloscope – surely inspired by the pioneering experiments in a similar technique of Mary Ellen Bute, with whom he briefly worked in New York in 1939. Documentary commissions went to Paul Dickson (David, a narrative portrait of a Welsh mining community), Basil Wright (Waters of Time, a river-symphony that with hindsight seems like an elegy for London’s dockland; a worthy successor to the great city symphonies of the 1920s) and to the pre-eminent filmmaking artist of the war years, Humphrey Jennings.

            Jennings’ essay-film Family Portrait rather loyally attempts to summarise the characteristics of the British nation as depicted thematically in the Festival exhibitions, following the pattern of his earlier montage-studies of British society, Spare Time (1939), Diary for Timothy (1946) et al. Lindsay Anderson accused Family Portrait of a “lack of passion”, and damned it for perpetuating the “sentimental fiction” of family-life and “taking refuge in [symbols of] the past”.[i] Jennings was perhaps uneasy with the idea of a national celebration outside the context of the ideological struggles of war, and frustrated by the limited opportunities in his given theme for exploring unfamiliar social territory; the strengths of Spare Time, or Fires were Started (1943). It was probably time for him to move on to new subjects; but he died aged just 43 in 1950 in an accident while researching a film in Greece.

            Following Waters of Time, Basil Wright made many superbly-crafted documentaries in the 1950s such as Stained Glass at Fairford (1956), but never again worked on the scale of his Festival of Britain film or achieved the poetry of his pre-war Song of Ceylon (1934). Such complex essay films would all but disappear till the advent of multi-channel public service television in the 1970s and 1980s. And perhaps Song of Ceylon’s formula was unrepeatable; it was as much a young filmmaker’s voyage of artistic self-discovery as it was an attempt to encapsulate the culture of a remote people in sounds and images. (Flash-forward to David Larcher’s epic journey across half the world, and into himself, in Monkey’s Birthday 1975).

            Other so-called documentary talents who survived into the post-war era included Richard Massingham and Jacques Brunius. Massingham’s most overtly avant-garde works were also pre-war, his Tell Me If It Hurts (1935) and And So To Work (1936) self-financed and made while he was still practising medicine and running the London Fever Hospital. Thereafter he produced numerous short films – advertisements, public health and safety films – marked by economic and essentially visual story telling, and a self-mocking middle-class humour. Moving House (1949), The Cure (1950), He Won’t Bite You and Introducing the New Worker (both 1951) are indicative titles. Brunius was as much a writer as filmmaker, and based his long and polemic essay “Experimental Film in France” (for Manvell’s book) on his own experience as a filmmaker, and his time spent as a collaborator and actor with René Clair, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Prévert and others. (If only he’d been asked to write the British section.). The critic Ado Kyrou described him as “the only surrealist writer who has systematically occupied himself with cinematographic theory”.[ii] There are echoes of this critical acuteness in his magazine articles for The Listener, and Sight & Sound. Brief City (1951-52), directed by Brunius and produced by Massingham was commissioned by The Observer newspaper as a reflection on the achievement of the Festival of Britain site – a city in microcosm, described as ‘brief’ because it was torn down with indecent haste by a new Conservative government. David Robinson describes the classic surreal trope of “the total surprise” of its opening shots, “a dream prospect of wind-whirled litter wrapping itself round the bleak ghost of the former pleasure-ground”.[iii] Brunius and Massingham together directed and produced the gently subversive children’s fantasy film Family Album (1952) in which they both acted, and The Blakes Slept Here (1953), which was the last film either of them made. Massingham died in 1955, Brunius in 1967.

            In one further Festival of Britain project, the Painter & Poet series (1951), artists including Henry Moore, Mervyn Peake, Ronald Searle, Michael Ayrton, and John Rothenstein were invited to select a poem and provide illustrations for it, which the producer/director John Halas undertook to put under the rostrum and turn into a film. Though the results were conventional and hardly the meeting of minds across disciplines that might have contributed to film language’s evolution, the series is historic as an early manifestation of the desire to involve visual artists in the filmmaking process – to broaden and enrich the development of film as an artform. This bright idea has recurred at intervals over subsequent decades – becoming a favourite of committees and bureaucrats spending public funds – in relation to film, later television, and the digital domain. What is now known as the ‘arts documentary’ was being invented by BBC Television at this time, and the conviction that a dose of art might benefit film also contributed to the decision by the BFI to set up the Experimental Film Fund in 1952 (later renamed the BFI Production Board in 1966), an off-shoot of the Telecinema Production Committee. First amongst its aims – as defined by committee members in 1953 – was “to explore proposals to give the creative artist, such as the painter or the composer, much closer control over the design and production stages of a film”.[iv]


Film still from Jeff Keen and Piero Heliczer's The Autumn Feast, 1961. Courtesy the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection.

            The essential Massingham technique of dealing with adult problems through childlike performance and the visual metaphors of silent-cinema is paralleled in other British films of the period such as The Pleasure Garden, by visiting American poet James Broughton, and Wendy Toye’s The Stranger Left No Card (both 1952). Of these, Toye’s is the more daring – a cryptic mystery story set to music with performance choreographed to the last second, reflecting Toye’s background as a dancer and director of musical theatre. Broughton’s extended parable of love repressed then finally released (appropriately featuring his lover of the time, Kermit Sheets) is notable mostly for its location – the ruined gardens of Crystal Palace – and its astonishing cast of British character actors caught in their youth – Hattie Jacques, John Le Mesurier et al., and in a bit part, the filmmaker’s mentor and producer, Lindsay Anderson.

            The genre persisted throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s – surfacing in works such as the young Ken Russell’s Amelia and the Angel (1956), and the early short by Dick Lester The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1962), where theatrical whimsy mixes with the anarchy of radio comics The Goons. Russell went on to work on a series of celebrated arts features for the BBC, and eventually to make energetic and sometimes daring feature films such as The Devils (1971), on which Derek Jarman worked as a young set designer. Lester made the iconic (for good or ill) 1960s feature The Knack (1966) and the Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night (1965) and Help! (1966). In other words, both directors successfully made the transfer into the mainstream, carrying some of this adolescent energy with them.


Artists and film

 

            Drawing on similar roots, Bruce Lacey and Jeff Keen chose to work without funding, and to remain and operate in what most people would have described as the amateur spheres of 8mm and 16mm production. Using friends as cast and crew, organising their own screenings, they passed round a hat for contributions, in what would become the standard economic model for many filmmaking artists thereafter. Lacey began his filmmaking while at Hornsey School of Art (Head in Shadow 1952, Agib and Agab 1954). He appeared in front of the camera in most of his loose narratives, often in wild costumes or in his robot persona, sometimes presenting the completed film within a live theatrical performance. Jeff Keen was already making photoplays or home-movies when in 1961 he met poet Piero Heliczer, former child-star of Italian cinema and later part of Andy Warhol’s wide circle. Together they worked on The Autumn Feast, the rather melancholic precursor of Keen’s many no-budget remakes of scenes from B-Movies, Japanese monster movies and Italian peplum. Heliczer provides an interesting physical link between Keen and Jack Smith’s and Warhol’s similar mining of Hollywood kitsch just a few years later. In other films and videos in Keen’s forty years of activity he reworked the recurring classic themes of art and literature – Mad Love (1978), Artwar (1993) – weaving together drawings, text and live action in wild montage and layers of superimposition. He has also made ‘books of the films’, cardboard cut-out sculptures of film-characters, and film-related performances.

            Among the first artists to benefit from the Experimental Film Fund’s support were several animators. The Hungarian artist Peter Foldes and his wife Joan, both Slade graduates, received funding for two very painterly films (almost literally animated paintings) – Animated Genesis (1952) and A Short Vision (1956), the latter a savage Cold War parable ending in nuclear catastrophe. Foldes was a protégé of Halas, and together they made an earlier semi-abstract film The Magic Canvas (1945-51). Foldes went on to become one of the pioneers of the figurative use of computer animation, working in France and Canada. Only one film would seem to have been made by Peter King – The Thirteen Cantos of Hell (1955), a long, silent, black and white version of Dante, peopled by Wyndham Lewis-like elongated Vorticist figures. Other animators eschewed public funding and took their chances in the commercial industry, which with the growth of cinema advertising, and particularly television commercials (after the launch of the BBC’s commercial rival ITV in 1957), offered the possibility of making a living even as an individual maker, and occasional chances to experiment. Lotte Reiniger had escaped Nazi Germany before the war, and made her first silhouette film The Heavenly Post Office for the GPO in 1938 before moving to Britain permanently in 1944, thereafter regularly making children’s films for television till the end of the191960s. George Dunning and Dick Williams (both from Canada), and Bob Godfrey (from Australia), all sustained dual careers – as makers of art-animation who supported themselves by their industry work; hoping the two could be brought together – with differing degrees of success. 


A Free Cinema

 

            Free Cinema was the first film movement as such to have been sustained (if modestly) by funding from the Experimental Film Fund. The key players – Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson – came from similar backgrounds to Jennings: an Oxbridge classical / literary / theatre education, to which was added passionate cinephilia (they were all writers on film). They shared Jennings’ desire to portray the lives of ‘real people’ on-screen, qualified by an even greater sense of social detachment. Their early short films chose popular culture subjects – the market-life of Covent Garden in Richardson’s Every Day Except Christmas (1957), the Margate pleasure-ground in Anderson’s O Dreamland (1958), and the night life of Piccadilly Circus in Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner’s Nice Time (1958). Their use of hand-held cameras and rejection of authoritative voice-over were radical for the time, and helped establish 16mm as the preferred medium of independent voices thereafter, just as the contemporary short films of Godard and company would in France. But as in France, the leading figures in Britain were dreaming of making drama and feature films and would move on; and it is the more marginal figures who continued to make films of more lasting interest to the avant-garde. Michael Grigsby (Tomorrow’s Saturday 1960) wedded himself to the tough but formally structured and poetic documentary, and set up the first collectively-owned film equipment pool – Unit Five Seven in York (1957) – as a strategy for maintaining independence, a decade before the founding of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op and the building of its workshops. Lorenza Mazzetti, a contemporary of Michael Andrews at the Slade School of Art where they both studied painting, made a short drama based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis while still a student in 1953, then completed her mini-feature Together (1955) with BFI Fund support. Using sound effects but little dialogue, and superb photography by Walter Lassally, this tragic story of two deaf-mutes (played by Andrews and Edouardo Paolozzi) was a reflection of Mazzetti’s own traumatic war-time childhood, was produced by Anderson (bringing it into the Free Cinema orbit), but it its spirit is essentially that of early neo-realist Fellini and Rossellini. Mazzetti returned to Italy and founded a puppet theatre but made no more films.

            Margaret Tait was not a member of the Free Cinema group, yet she embodied its spirit more completely than many of those who were. “These films are free in the sense that their statements are entirely personal. Though their moods and subjects differ, the concern of each of them is with some aspect of life as it is lived in this country today.”[i] Trained as a doctor, Tait had spent the war in India, where the culture and society made a deep impression on her. Wanting to make a film about Indian life, she enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale film school in Rome to learn film-craft. There she observed Rossellini, De Sica and others at work – but on completing the course she returned to her native island of Orkney, and began to make her distinctive, low-key but incisive portraits of people and places. Portrait of Ga (1954) is almost a home-movie – she films her mother looking shyly into the camera, smoking, and skipping off down the winter-sunlit road, accompanied by an non-sync recording of her Orcadian voice responding to her daughter’s questions. Orquil Burn (1955) documents in hand-held but immobile shots a local stream from its source to the sea. With modest subjects such as these, she devoted herself to building a picture of Scottish life in simple images and sounds, assembled as in poetry for visual rhyme ahead of narrative. The thirty or more films she made in her lifetime are wholly free of self-conscious art and the ‘tartanry’ (the pursuit of Scottish kitsch) that has often bedevilled documentaries and features shot in Scotland. She rarely received any financial support, and financed her art by continuing to practice as a doctor well into the 1960s.


Film still from Antony Balch's Towers Open Fire, 1963. 

            By the beginning of the decade, artists who worked primarily in other media began to show an interest in film. Edouardo Paolozzi’s A History of Nothing (1963) was a natural adjunct of his print and collage-making; another way of linking images. (With different collaborators he made two later films in a similar vein.) John Latham’s filmed record of the making of his book-painting ‘Star’ (Unedited Material From Star 1960) was followed by the dynamic animations Talk (1961) and Speak (1963), and occasional conceptual film/video works thereafter (including some for television in the early 1990s), all highly individual. The most cinematic work of this period was the collaboration of cinema owner and distributor Antony Balch and author William Burroughs. Towers Open Fire (1963) and their even more radical The Cut Ups (1967), were both developments of Burroughs’ cut-up method applied to film-narrative. Yoko Ono had made films during her involvement in Fluxus in New York before coming to London, and her feature-length No. 4 (1966) – the famous ‘bottoms’ film, made in London with her then partner Tony Cox – revisited, with new cast, an idea used in an earlier Fluxus short. It ran in a commercial cinema for a week, courtesy of friendship with Balch, and she continued filmmaking throughout her London years, with John Lennon as a collaborator on some and a participant in others – his is the smile in No. 5 (Smile) (1968), another Fluxus remake – and with the benefit of access to the resources of the Beatles’ company Apple.


Film artists

 

            By the mid sixties the young painter Malcolm Le Grice and the young sculptor Barry Flanagan had joined the staff at St Martins School of Art (where Latham was still teaching), and independently they began making films alongside work in other media. With their very different approaches – one very hands-on, the other more detached – their teaching at St Martins helped shape some of the most important films by artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s – the so-called structural filmmaking associated with the Film-Makers’ Co-op (Le Grice) and the conceptual film and video work associated with the Lisson, Jack Wendler and Nigel Greenwood galleries (Flanagan). The ideas and energy of these divergent groups emanating from the college were one of the catalysts to the explosion of activity that occurred around the turn of the decade. Activity at St Martins was soon joined by centres of artists’ filmmaking based at North East London Polytechnic, Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art (and later at Polytechnics in Exeter, Newcastle, Maidstone, Brighton and Sheffield).

            Also contributing to this explosion was a growing perception that it was possible and indeed interesting to aspire to be an independent filmmaker – whether artist or auteur – which was promoted by the example of a number of widely reported and much discussed careers. Leading exponents of ‘independence’ were Peter Whitehead and Don Levy. Both were associated with the film studies (not filmmaking) course that was established at the Slade School of Art in 1960 by another survivor of the pre-war industry (and Film Society organiser), Thorold Dickenson. In the 1960s Whitehead came almost to personify the nouvelle vague concept of la caméra-stylo – the camera-pen; he was the man with a 16mm camera always to be seen filming at arts happenings, rock concerts and political events. His kinetic short films made for the emerging Rolling Stones (such as Lady Jane in Charlie Is My Darling 1964) have been credited with inventing the music-video form; as his self-financed record of the night the poets took over the Albert Hall, Wholly Communion (1965), became the model for a new form of more engaged and participatory arts documentary. He went on to make feature documentaries and a semi-fictionalised feature Daddy (1974) with Niki de St Phalle before suddenly dropping out and developing a second career as a trainer of falcons for Arabian princes. Don Levy made carefully crafted but spectacular sponsored movies for corporate and educational companies (Time Is 1964 and Crafts of Fez 1966) which supplied images for his more personal Five Short Films or Five Film Poems (1965). These tiny, crafted essays in style counterpoint the spoken word with images. His brave experimental feature Herostratus (1967) was supported by the BFI Experimental Film Fund but was critically dismissed, and controversy about its funding deprived him of a second chance. The experience left both him and the BFI wounded and disillusioned, and he abandoned filmmaking for academia in the USA. But a way forward was opened for James Scott, Steve Dwoskin, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter and the many others who became interested in the long-form experimental film. For those more committed to artisan modes of production, the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (of which Dwoskin was a founding member in 1966) soon developed from its roots as a film viewing group to one in which filmmaking was a central activity. 

David Curtis, 2002

 

[i] From the statement/manifesto that accompanied the first Free Cinema screening at the National Film Theatre in 1956.

[i] Anderson’s postscript to his famous 1954 Sight & Sound article “Only Connect”, reprinted in Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet, Mary-Lou Jennings (ed.), BFI, 1982.

[ii] Obituary notice in Sight & Sound, 1967.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] ‘Experimental Film Fund 1951-59’ in British Film Institution Productions Catalogue 1951-1976, John Ellis (ed.), BFI, 1977.

[i] Published by the Art in Cinema Society, San Francisco Museum of Art 1947.

[ii] Experiment in the Film, The Grey Walls Press, 1949.

[iii] Two other British artists showed work: Jack Chambers (no relation to the Canadian artist) and Ivan Barnett (spelled incorrectly in the programme as Yvan Bernet). Norman McLaren showed as a Canadian, solely presenting his recent American and Canadian work.

[iv] This was the claim on its title page – but there were others, not least Film Art.

[v] Released as the fragment Indian Fantasy with BFI support in 1956.