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Out of Tarr's Universe

An uncompromised vision (FW34)


It appears that British experimental filmmakers during the 1970s were more interested in challenging the identity of film than focussing on their own identities. For most of these ‘structural’ or ‘formal’ filmmakers the image represented within the film was perceived as secondary to the means of its construction. A more personal or autobiographical filmmaking, which employed figurative images or some semblance of narrative, was rejected for its allusions to mainstream cinema, seen as ‘illusionist’ and ‘dominant.’1 The film-maker Peter Gidal was quite categorical when he asserted ‘ An avant-garde film defined by its development towards increased materialism and material function does not represent, or document, anything.’

However, looking more closely it becomes evident that the artist’s presence is simply contained and expressed at different perceptual and temporal points in the film piece. It can be most clearly located in the film performance events known as ‘expanded cinema’ where presence manifested as a performative act and, more implicitly, through the artist’s interventions into the film process. This is not to suggest that in the latter there is some indexical ‘mark’ of the artist in any auteurist sense, akin to the gestural brush stroke of an abstract expressionist painter. The presence of the artist in structural/materialist filmmaking is more subtle and complex than that. To return to my first point, it seems that filmmakers involved in these material investigations were more interested in articulating the truth about the materials of film than asserting themselves. As a result their identity does not stand apart from the filmmaking process but is intimately enveloped in it.

Unravelling this further, another question needs to be considered. How did this effect those women filmmakers who are involved in a structural film practice yet wish to articulate a different, distinct identity? One which challenged the objectified, fetishised image of woman as historically presented by cinema? Was this in conflict with a rigorous non-representational practice like formalist film? In one of the few contemporary texts to specifically address this question, Laura Mulvey recognised the contradiction for feminist filmmakers choosing formalist means to address the politics of feminism. ‘But women cannot be satisfied with an aesthetics that restricts counter-cinema to work on form alone. Feminism is bound to its politics; its experimentation cannot exclude work on content.’3 How then did women filmmakers reconcile a formalist practice, which eschewed content, to an investigation of their own split position; as the artist directing and constructing the image whilst at the same time irrevocably pre-determined to be perceived as an object?

If the female image is not represented, where then is it located? The theorist Jacqueline Rose refers to ‘the attempt to place woman somewhere else, outside the forms of representation through which she is endlessly constituted as image.’4 So the issue of female representation is pushed even further outside the debates of avant-garde filmmaking. Rather than engage with the problem which exists within the image where the woman is ‘endlessly constituted’, it seems that avant-garde film’s lack of representational image altogether renders the debate around female image and identity in film even more invisible. It becomes a sort of double absence.

To address some of these questions and dilemmas we turn to a key work from the formalist canon, Annabel Nicolson’s film performance Reel Time (1973). First performed at the London Filmmaker’s Co-op in 1973, Reel Time is now seen as a seminal example of structural filmmaking’s engagement with film as event. Sitting at a sewing machine in the middle of the room, Nicolson guides a film strip through the needle without thread, puncturing the film. The sewing machine was hand operated, relying for its movement on Nicolson rather than an electric power source. The damaged film loop, which depicts her at the sewing machine, filmed earlier, is passed through a projector and then the sewing machine in an endless circular journey between the two machines. Another projector without film in it beams light on to Nicolson, casting her image as a large silhouette onto the adjacent wall. The projected film image of Nicolson deteriorates as the punctures in the filmstrip slowly destroy it and the performance ends when the film eventually breaks. Concurrently two readers recite snatches of instruction for threading a sewing machine and threading a projector.

iecing together responses and descriptions of Reel Time from the accounts of those who experienced it at the time, it now seems extraordinary that so little was made of Nicolson’s specific use of her own film image and her emphatic presence as a performer in Reel Time. The piece, highly praised though it has been, was discussed primarily in terms of its use of the projector and the filmstrip. It is surprising, given the centrality of Nicolson as the key performer and determinant in Reel Time, that no questions were raised about her own role in the piece. Malcolm Le Grice talks of Reel Time as challenging “assumptions about information, and even quite basic assumptions about entropy - the loss of information through dispersal or ‘noise’.”5 Didn’t anyone see significance in the fact that Nicolson is destroying an image of herself? In an overview of British structural filmmaking, ‘St George in the Forest: The British Avant-Garde’, Deke Dusinberre perceives Reel Time as ‘Another important piece in establishing the role of the projector in an expanded cinema context.’6 He sees the sewing machine needle as ‘mimicking’ sprocket holes and her cast shadow as “mimicking the image on the filmed screen.”7 Nicolson’s image is only read in terms of the film projector. This returns us to the notion of a double absence and Jacqueline Rose’s point about women being placed ‘somewhere else’. Nicolson has positioned herself at the centre of her performance, presented herself in three different images; as a real performative presence, as a filmed presence and also as her own shadow. However, in the writings of the time, and some since, she is rendered invisible in relation to the structural processes she utilised.