Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

THE LONDON FILM-MAKERS' CO-OP 1966 to 1976


The London Film-Makers’ Cooperative (LFMC) was the counter-cultural distribution centre for underground/avant-garde/experimental/artists’ films that morphed into a place where films could be developed and printed outside commercial operations. It was collectivist in spirit, as enshrined in its various constitutions, and as borne out in practice.

 

I started this book with a sense of duty, a feeling that I ought to read it, and ended it with a sense of pleasure. I expected heavyweight reminiscences about the theory of the Co-op, and the films coming out of it, and found instead that a light touch has been applied to the whole project. For the twentieth anniversary catalogue of 1986, the only time in this book when it steps outside the 1966-76 time frame, the cover was a lampoon, clever and knowing but affectionate, of the spirit of the Co-op and its pretensions, praising them at the same time as sending them up. The meatiest part of the book is the way interviews with some of the key people interlace their way through it. These were conducted, largely in 2001-2, by the editor, Mark Webber, and to prevent them becoming indigestible he has grouped them in five lots to mirror the Co-op's five phases in its first decade (Better Books, Arts Lab, New Arts Lab, The Dairy, The Piano Factory) and used a cut and paste method to mould them into a coherent narrative. These interviews make attractive reading because people's voices come through and the memories are full of the personal.


The most vivid, outrageous even, story was that of Harvey Matusow, a name in my memory (through the LP ‘Harvey Matusow’s Jews’ Harp Band’), a shadow without substance. Online can be found a jaw-dropping account of his career on Wikipedia, and a New York Times obituary from 4 February 2002; ‘Shoot Shoot Shoot’ deals with his role in the formation of the Co-op. He had arrived in London having acted as an informer for the FBI, been a 'paid expert witness' to Joseph McCarthy, testified at HUAC hearings, and published a book on his role in 1955 called ‘False Witness’ only to be jailed for forty-four months as a result of being found guilty of perjury on the grounds that he had been "paid to lie about members of the Communist Party". He then danced to the music of time by turning up in London -- FUSATL (Failed in the US, Try London). There is an acerbic contribution from Ray Durgnat, film critic and an original Co-op committee member, naming Matusow as the “the perfect conman basically”, whose film The Enchanted Pot “went on for twenty minutes that felt like twenty days”. According to Webber’s chronology Matusow's reputation went before him: in October 1966 “Matusow’s notoriety [secured] good attendance at the press conference to announce the Co-op at their Better Books HQ." It seems quite in character that he had organising energy, but there were suspicions that he was a CIA 'watcher' or spook (although Matusow is quoted in an interview as saying, "The CIA and I never worked together.") Whatever the exact truth, the mere perception of him as unreliable inclined New York film-makers not to cooperate with London, which was not a great way for a cooperative to operate. In February 1967 the matter was resolved when Matusow was thrown out of the Co-op “due to alleged pilfering from spontaneous Festival receipts". Providential perhaps, although the Co-op then had to wrestle with other Americans, for example Jim Haynes and Jack Moore, before it could really begin to taxi and take off. That was a feature of the decade: you could find yourself attracted to its landscape only to find a year or two later that it had changed.


One key feature of those first ten years was the collective spirit, especially fostered by the workshop created by Malcolm Le Grice's pioneering installation of printing facilities. These were primitive but a barrier had been breached, and it led to subsequent improvements. The Co-op was not just a screening space, not just a distribution office, but a meeting place where film-makers could make their films on the printer, relegating what they did with the camera to a secondary role. This was in a way the London Co-op's Unique Defining Point by comparison with other countries, and the book gives proper space to it: Le Grice describes how the workshop was established, and Mike Leggett contributes a fascinating piece, for something so technical, on 'early experimentation with printer and process' at the workshop.


That collective idea created leading spirits, while others worked more in the background. A system was introduced of changing the programmer every year, and the workshop coordinator every two years. Guy Sherwin pinpoints the tensions that arose: a community of artists/film-makers was created but in referring to the period after 1975 the constant turnover of personnel meant that the Co-op "lost its memory". [But see addendum to this review at end.] It proved not to be sustainable in the long-term, but it produced something vivid at the time, and worth celebrating fifty years later.


This collectivism flourished in the corner as it were, so it was important it had the opportunity to step into the centre of the room when the Festivals of International Underground (1970) and of Independent Avant-Garde (1973) Film were held at the National Film Theatre. These were eye-opening to the quantity of films being made in different countries and to their variety, not least in quality. At the time it seemed the next step was to move from the centre of the room into the public square. This did not happen, but there was some movement. A festival was held in Bristol in 1975, and therefore outside London, and a Festival of Expanded Cinema in 1976 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and therefore breaking out of the cinema space. In 1976 as well an International Forum on Avant-Garde Film was mounted in Edinburgh, juxtaposing films by Vertov, Alvarez, Straub and Godard among others, and work by Snow, Raban, the Heins, Le Grice, Gidal and Dwoskin among others. Were these two avant-gardes about to make a powerful synthesis that would change cinema? The answer was no.


This critical appreciation and debate was also conducted in the magazines Webber helpfully brings into focus. Cinim (three issues from 1966), Cinemantics (three issues from 1970), Cinema Rising (three issues from 1972), and best of all, Afterimage, which broke the fourth-issue curse and published thirteen issues between 1970 and 1987. This was an exemplary small magazine, erratic in publication, stylish in appearance (I felt its influence on the design of ‘Shoot Shoot Shoot’) and full of striking content, both on formally radical films, the results of the Simon Field tendency, and on left-wing radical films, the result of the Peter Sainsbury tendency, where both were engaged in pushing the boundaries of cinema’s possibilities further. Afterimage number 6, from the summer of 1976, has sat forlornly on my shelves for many years, but it was a pleasure to read in ‘Shoot Shoot Shoot’ Deke Dusinberre’s essay from that issue on "the English aesthetic" in avant-garde film of the 1970s. This item provides one of the culminations to the book and should help to stimulate a critical reappraisal of what these films, and the Co-op idea, achieved.


However, the precise nature of that achievement is not the subject of this book, but we are given signposts towards making judgements. The best thing in it is the chronology of the period that Webber includes, a timeline crammed with necessary detail, and a properly scholarly piece of work. It is what a historian would call 'splitting' – the atomistic account of events that leaves one in the dark, but tells you where the light switch is. What is also needed is 'lumping', taking those multiple small bits and constructing from them something coherent. Until this happens, there can be no proper assessment of what the Co-op achieved, but reading the book prompts larger reflections. Immediately striking is the Co-op's trajectory during the period. It started with one viewpoint but as time went on new vistas emerged. Initially, the spirit was fiercely libertarian, the seeds of which were in the rock-music revolution of the 60s, the arrival of public sexual permissiveness courtesy of the pill, the vogue for marxisant modes of thinking, and the seductions of experimentation for its own sake, especially with the new twentieth-century technology of film. This made for an explosion of free expression which privileged the act of inspiration as much as the result.


That was the Better Books phase of the story. In the Arts Lab phase, that freedom of expression flourished but it was grounded, at least in London, by the creation of facilities for making films outside expensive commercial structures. That brought film-makers face-to-face with the material of film and the means of its construction: acetates, emulsions, printing processes, splicing etc. And with that came the Co-op's central moment, one that distinguishes it from the USA. The physical materialism of the films produced the radical demystification of film-making which in turn forced the viewer into an appraisal of his or her role in the projection. And by the end of that first decade, the most fruitful direction, in fact the logical next step, was opened up by film as installation, a development that posed a knotty question: how do you preserve those occasions so they can be repeated elsewhere? It turns 'film' upside down. Film was the perfect invention for the machine age, since it was infinitely reproducible. With performance it suddenly became one-off. One of the most poignant recollections of the book is by Annabel Nicholson about her Reel Time, a performance event involving a space, a screen, a long loop of film, a beam of light – and a sewing machine. Plus the artist and the audience. I saw it myself in the mid-70s, but unless Nicholson performed it hundreds of times in many different places, its engaging whimsy may be too easily forgotten – or best remembered as a concept in the mind. Perhaps instructions exist for performing the performance, but time’s arrow makes it more and more difficult: where to find an analogue projector, a long loop of film, a sewing machine even? This move towards the unique performance unconsciously reflects the art-school background that essentially formed the ethos of the Co-op, to which the idea of the reproducibility of films from a master negative began to seem slightly second-order.


This America-Europe divide is key to ‘Shoot Shoot Shoot’. American film-makers like Warhol, Brakhage, Snow, Frampton, Jacobs and many others, were central presences in shows at the Co-op. But this did not stop it from becoming militant in its assertion of the value of European, and especially English work: Le Grice, Gidal, Sherwin, Raban and many others. Mike Dunford laments the fact that a magazine like Artforum, when it covered film, was exclusively about Americans, a fact which seemed to him to be 'imperialism'. A better word would be 'dominance'. The films from America were bigger, longer, less grunge-y, more various, and I admit to finding them at the time much more compelling than the English work. Yet this 'dominance' did evoke a creative response from the English film-makers. Only David Larcher in Mare’s Tail found a way of responding wholeheartedly to the visionary vein in American underground cinema, but Michael Snow’s Wavelength can be seen in hindsight as making a large impact, since his formalism seemed a way of reining in the romantic tendencies inherent in the American underground while preserving its radicalism. The film-makers at the Co-op largely seem to have had an art-school background which valued radical experimentalism for its own sake, linked to a distrust or even straightforward dislike of narrative cinema. Here was another divide, articulated by Raymond Durgnat, who found himself to be ideologically impure: "They [the radical formalists] didn't understand that you could like both Frank Tashlin and also avant-garde pictures." The American avant-garde by contrast was more complex in its origins. While Warhol and Snow came out of an art-gallery background, Brakhage and Jacobs were closely familiar with the history of the art-film. While Frampton wrote some highly original critical essays in the American grain, in particular on photography, his films were a separate achievement. By contrast, Le Grice and Gidal, to take the two particular eminences in London, were Continental: "It works well in practice, but will it work in theory?" The articulation of the theory behind their practice seemed to become as important as the work itself. This both illumined what was going on and at the same time risked creating a barrier. To experience their films to the full – 'enjoy' would be the wrong word – you had to buy into their ideology.


What were the achievements and the failures of the British avant-garde? Are these the right words even, since we remain unclear about what the criteria for success for such films are? Is it to do with creating the work that prises the viewer open, as it were, so that they located themselves in the time and space of the film being projected? Or is it to do with the 'aesthetic' moment when they respond to the potency of the film image, in which abstractions like beauty, precision, cleverness, even sublimity play a role? Further questions come to mind: what do other countries, other cultures make of these films? If they have a universal quality it has not been revealed yet. What of their enduring in time? Will the work be watched and appreciated by subsequent generations? Is the best that can be hoped for survival like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an engaging story in itself and illuminating the twentieth century in the way the Brotherhood illuminates Victorian Britain, but ultimately marginal? Or, more substantially, are these film-makers the equivalent of the metaphysical poets from the 17th century? There are two reasons why not: firstly, metaphysical poetry is arguably the greatest achievement of English poetic language, and surely film-making can do still better than the Co-op film-makers of the 60s and 70s. Secondly, metaphysical poetry capitalises on the English language having been set free by Tyndale and Shakespeare. The language of film is still stuck in the equivalent of the Middle Ages, i.e. blinkered about its possibilities, hesitant in its achievements, and straitjacketed by the social and cultural expectations that surround it. Answers to these questions need to be explored by millennials, not the generation that came of age in the late 60s and early 70s.              


Why does the book end in 1976? The answer is that ten years and the fiftieth anniversary make two round figures. In 1976, the Co-op revised its constitution and faced imminent relocation, which opened another phase in the story. In any case, the book had to end somewhere and an account of the period beyond must await another time. But you close it conscious of an encounter with the zenith of analogue film. Although there was plenty more to be done, video was around the corner making for a quite different experience of making and viewing, and beyond that too, although not even in embryo at the time, the birth of digital cinema.


The book sounds suspect on nostalgia grounds – the first rentals of LFMC films in September 1967 are expressed in pounds, shillings and pence, which is not just quaint but antiquated – but it is much more uplifting than that, and a galvanising story in the social history of Britain of the time. All power to the cinematic imagination.

 

© Tim Cawkwell 2017



ADDENDA:


1      Peter Gidal had been programmer at the Co-op from 1971 to 1974. On reading this piece, he sent me the following on how he remembered his time as programmer at the Co-op. It is in pastiche Beckettian prose, which has to be published in the form it was received:


"just that 4 yrs of work not only showing works cleaning floors once a week contrary to new histories that think we sat back made theory then stopped all but 3 or 4 people showing we showed 500 films by over 135 filmmakers in 3 yrs, washed floors once a week me and roger, took the money counted it on bus nr 31 on way home banked it next day , organized following months' works wrote pieces for time out virtually every week or two either caption or caption review or once every 6 or 7 weeks a few hundred words also got the films after writing filmmakers begging for more works here and abroad and also getting pix to time out and other places like art and artists and films and filming then organized info so e.g. italy would order a package of films recently  shown at the screenings and subsidize distribution salary and filmmakers 70% rentals by doing block bookings going to customs filling out forms doing international money transfers then showing next week's new works performances etc then back to cleaning during which time of course writing theoretical stuff and living. meanwhile david crosswaite setting up sound systems organizing machines cleaning them rehearsing projections double screen siemens single screen with separate tape tracks asynchronicities then filing papers for payments to filmmakers and getting films clean back into cans and distribution closets then closing the building around 11 pm and so on and so forth let alone the kiddie workshops roger and i did saturdays 6 months for kids under 8 using 8mm with zoom lense 5:1 bolex with kodak post the packets to kodak show the kids the works the following week roger helping them cut some stuff on 8mm editor also running over roof of building with 5 and 6 and 7 year old boys and girls filming and setting up situations not to mention their parents having an afternoon off as it functioned as a creche as well with hoots of laughter back to writing about english film versus american film throughout all this making our own films . . . "


 

2     My interview with David Curtis, one of the central figures in the whole story, forms an interesting complement to the book. It can be accessed here.