Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film


‘If you cannot express clearly what you are trying to say, then you have not understood it yourself.’ This guiding principle does good service in trying to achieve lucidity, and to avoid the verbal complexity that leads to obscurantism.

Yet what are we to make of Samuel Beckett’s prose, especially the distillations of his shorter texts? On first reading, they do not seem lucid, and yet on deeper acquaintance the connection between expression and understanding begins to become clear, so that the meaning emerges from a fog. The meaning is different from what we are used to, and the trick is to get used to the new meaning. The prose ends up lucid.

This train of thought is prompted by reading ‘Flare Out Aesthetics 1966-2016’ by Peter Gidal. Gidal is an independent film-maker with work over five decades, and a founding member of the London Film Makers’ Co-operative (LFMC) in 1966, fifty years ago. When I embarked on the book, I half knew what to expect, having seen some early Gidal films long ago and having encountered the polemical style of his writing. The half I did not know turned out to include a passion for the work of Samuel Beckett. Three pieces in the book are devoted to his work, and his name crops up regularly. Secondly, Gidal's prose often works to capture a Beckettian quality, one which he astutely links to the rhetorical device of oxymoron. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “A rhetorical figure by which contradictory terms are conjoined so as to give point to the statement or expression.” (The word derives from the Greek oxus sharp and moros dull or foolish.) Gidal concurs: oxymoron is “the self-contradictoriness when writing ‘about’ something”; he says it can occur within a paragraph, a sentence, a phrase of three or four words, “or at rare moments, even within the use of one word.” It takes practice to get it right, and this leads him to reflect that in order to mean a number of things writing should be “structured materially to allow the echoes of what it could have said but does not say, or does say in spite of having possibly almost not been said”. This is in the territory of Eliot’s ‘intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ (in ‘Four Quartets’), and it does seem initially that Gidal's prose is so tortuous in pursuit of the oxymoron that it becomes tortured, and even incomprehensible. On the other hand, it does also, like Beckett's prose, revel in the pleasure of hitting the mark. The dust jacket of my copy of Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ contains this mystical comment, “When the meaning fades, the music tides you over,” a brilliant phrasing for which the copywriter should have got a bonus. Is the same true of Gidal's writing? Unlike Joyce, he does not opt for the mellifluity of nonsense, or rather seeming nonsense, but instead for the pleasure of spikiness. His music is of the sharply modern plink-plunk kind rather than the seductions of melody and harmony. Yet it does keep you reading.

This may not sound like a compliment, but it is meant to be. On the other hand the book does manifest something straightforwardly off-putting. The pieces betray a time and place, Western Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century when ‘ideology’ was a favoured word, one which makes me reach for the whisky bottle. I could not always pin down what Gidal meant by it, but sometimes it is clear. His introduction, written for the book and therefore very recent, includes reference to “the dominant ideology’s literary and cinematic experience”. I am unsure whether to take this mildly, namely as a swipe at the way society organises itself to write and to make films in a way that excludes marginal or radical style. Or does he have something fiercer in mind? Is it a belief that the powerful actively conspire to oppress? He certainly thought that in the 1970s when he wrote ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’ in which he was prepared to equate the production of beauty with fascism, or to speak of the “bourgeois oppression of the dominance of the work”. During a talk given at the Co-op in 1976 he urged the study of dialectics, although he sugared the pill with praise of Thelonius Monk, Jackson Pollock and Karl Valentin,but was then prepared to say (and repeat it in print in 2016) that "It is useful to study Marx and Lenin and Mao." Useful?? History has not been kind to the latter two.

Despite this, 'Theory and Definition' remains Gidal's most high-profile piece and his most valuable. While the polemic mode is off-putting, it is also necessary at times. The essay is a call without compromise for going back to the beginning of cinema again, a lesson surely learnt from Gidal’s study of Warhol’s films. The ringing statement, “Each film is a record of its own making” and therefore “militates against dominant (narrative) cinema”, still rings. That occurs in the paragraph headed ‘Production’. Other headings referred to ‘Film as Material’, to ‘The Viewer’ (whose mental activation is necessary, who is called to abandon passivity), to ‘Identification’ (the mechanism which commercial cinema cannot do without, preventing the viewer being a producer of ideas and knowledge), and so on. Towards the end, Gidal ventures on a canon of twenty-three films, not intended to be definitive but to assist structural/materialist film virgins, of which there must be a considerable number still.

The essay is the best thing in the book, partly because it links so clearly with Gidal's own film practice. When I first encountered his films in the early 1970s I instinctively linked them to the New American Cinema of the time, in particular Warhol and Snow. While Gidal did admire these two film-makers in particular, it began to dawn on me that the LFMC, especially through the writings of Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice, wanted to point to a large rift between British and American practice. Re-reading the piece now makes this idea even clearer.

One thing withheld from the book, I suspect deliberately, is a coherent biography of the author. Everyone has a story, but we have to be content with tantalizing hints:

  1. He did Latin at a German Gymnasium aged 13, and loved it.
  2. It was at boarding school in Switzerland in 1963, aged 17, that he first encountered Beckett's 'Endgame'.
  3. In 1966, he did an interview with Eric Burdon, the lead singer of The Animals, for a magazine called 'Vagabond'.
  4. His visit to Warhol’s New York Factory in 1967 made a big impact.
  5. He refers to his “largely self-imposed exile during Vietnam”, which he chose, like a number of other young Americans, to spend in this country.

He was at the Ludwig-Maximilian Universität in Munich in 1966/67 (so I imagine him as a ghostly presence in Edgar Reitz’s Zweite Heimat), and it was at the university that he engaged with Hegel’s aesthetics. This philosophical background is an important part of Gidal's mental world, and besides Samuel Beckett, no name crops up more regularly in the book than that of Spinoza. Perhaps ‘metaphysical’ to describe his background is a better word than philosophical. There is a case for saying that the work of some of the film-makers at Co-op was consonant with the empirical tradition in British philosophy at the time, especially the language philosophy of which AJ Ayer was the father, and Russell and Wittgenstein the godfathers. Just as these philosophers ask questions such as what do we know, and how do we know that we know it, film-makers at the Co-op were asking what are the true materials of film, and how is our perception shaped by these materials. Gidal was doing the same but in a more assertive, radical mode – a more ‘metaphysical’ one  – in order to deeply disrupt identificatory processes in watching films and to force the viewer to consider not just perception but knowledge as well. In 1988 (in the essay ‘In Representation or Out? Some condensed notes on aesthetics and politics’) he wrote: “There is always a split between knowledge and perception, between what we know and what we see,” and in the previous paragraph he makes as clear a statement as any in the whole book: “First of all I try to make films, secondly I try to make films where each image, each object, is never given the hold of any recognition.”

There are almost no jokes in the book (I only found one) but there is a sense of engagement with the world, with Beckett obviously, but with painting as well: there are essays on individual works by Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Thérèse Oulton. There is also an engaging admission in his introduction that he has recently been reading Bertrand Russell’s ‘History of Western Philosophy’, “which is both endless fun and funny to boot”.

This prompts him to remark that pleasure and instruction came straight from two millennia ago. This train of thought put me in mind of Plato's provocative Theory of Forms with its levels of reality: ideal form in the ideal world (first order); imperfect copy in the physical world (second order); representation of imperfect copy in art, a copy of a copy, and the reason why art would not be allowed in his Republic. Because the projection of film images is mankind’s latest and cleverest device for copying reality, does this make of film the most third-order species of art there has ever been? In no way is this true and millennia of human culture assert the falsity of the idea. One of the virtues of structural/materialist film was to state the validity of film in itself. ‘Film as film’ is not a Gidalian phrase, but the experience or process of watching film to undermine identification is central to his theory and to his practice.

In the essay ‘Technology and Ideology in/through/and avant-garde film: an instance’ of 1980, he begins by stressing that the LFMC found a central purpose in making equipment to hand for its members, so that the technology of film and the physical process of working with a machine became central, allowing film experimentation in a quite new way in this country. Another key purpose was the sense of the Co-op as a social venture. I am sure that these heady aims will be brought out  by the exhibition at Tate Britain, 'Shoot Shoot Shoot', to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Co-op's founding.

I am left however with one particular puzzle. Right in the opening paragraph of the 'Theory and Definition' essay, Gidal writes: “One must beware not to let the construct, the shape take the place of the 'story' in narrative film.” I thought that this must be a serious swipe at the so-called structuralist (US-style) films coming out of America, of which I have always taken Hollis Frampton's Zorn’s Lemma as a paradigm, a film whose construction has to be understood by the viewer as a narrative: ‘which images will replace which letters? I can remember the sequence of the alphabet, but how will I remember the sequence of images? The suspense of this film is killing. . .’ But no, in the initial canon of structural/materialist (British-style) films that Gidal creates towards the end of the essay, he includes Zorns Lemma. I think we have to turn to Gidal's film practice to get a clearer sense of what he is doing. Room Film 1973 denied the viewer any chance of constructing a narrative. Instead the boring was a defining principle, not boredom draining away into tedium (as in Warhol’s Empire) but boredom boring into the eyes, challenging you to keep watching. Warhol said of his initial work that he wanted to make films the viewer could turn away from and still find there when they turned back. Gidal, on the other hand, is throwing down a challenge to the viewer: “Turn away if you dare.”

Yet the work is not always like this: Key (1968-69) starts with a non-figurative granular image, but then pulls back from it and the contours of a face begin to emerge, and then from being in focus it starts to lose focus, so that the screen ends up as a blankness. As a structural/materialist film it is a concise lesson in the strategy of 'not identifying': we are first tantalised and then denied. However, the two pieces of music in the film (Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ played backwards and then some hard, unidentifiable, muffled pounding) add a palpable atmosphere. The end result of the whole is a narrative of a kind, in which the film’s shaping and construct tell a larger story.

In the end, I have still not got clear in my head the ideal structural/materialist film, but then I'm not sure I want to. Films should resist ultimate definition on paper, and offer us ambiguities. What we had not thought of can be as important as what we had.


The book is published by The Visible Press (= Mark Webber and María Palacio Cruz) and is a beautiful production. It is a good size, 268 pages, not too heavy, not too light, has a durable binding, a bookmark ribbon which is classy, an embossed cover (even more classy) and a good classical typeface. What is more it is well edited and well proof-read, and though there is no index, I concluded that that was not really necessary. Go to: http://thevisiblepress.com/flare-out/


Mark Webber has also curated ‘Shoot Shoot Shoot: The London Film-Makers' Co-operative 1966–1976’ at Tate Britain which runs from 20 April to 17 July 2016. Go to: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/display/bp-spotlight-shoot-shoot-shoot-london-film-makers-co-operative-1966

There is a brief biography of Gidal on Lux Online:  http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/peter_gidal/index.html