Alberte Pagán

MALCOLM LE GRICE interviewed

From Material to Emotion and Beyond

MALCOLM LE GRICE interviewed

From Material to Emotion and Beyond

Malcolm Le Grice interviewed by Alberte Pagán

[published 02-04-2020] [mi traducción al español aquí]

Malcolm Le Grice (born in 1940 in Plymouth, UK) is an essential figure of British cinema. As a historian, theoretician and filmmaker he helped prop up, together with Peter Gidal, the fundamentals of structural/materialist film – celluloid as material, projection as event, duration as a concrete dimension. He founded the London Film-Makers’ Cooperative workshop, which would shape the aesthetics of much of British experimental cinema. But, unlike Gidal, who would consistently reject any hints of narration – and its vehicle, the human being – in his films, Le Grice would soon allow “life” into his narrative investigations and later, with video, into his more personal and even diaristic works.

One of the most repeated words in the following interview is ‘mystery’ – and ‘mysterious’ – applied to his most intimate videos but also to his narrative ‘domestic trilogy’ and to early materialist films such as Wharf. In his analysis of Little Dog for Roger Le Grice now acknowledges the personal, family and even nostalgic elements that dwell in the film, something he had previously, consciously or unconsciously, rejected – he had tried to erase the family content and even tried to hide his own dog under a deceitful title. This mystery and nostalgia is not something that we now read into his films but rather they are elements already present even in his earliest works – it is only now, over the years, that these personal elements unashamedly rise to the surface.

The film performance Horror Film 1 is another example of how the passing of time becomes one of the meanings of the piece. As with Guy Sherwin’s Man with Mirror (1976), when witnessing Horror Film one can’t avoid comparing Le Grice’s last performance with the original one from half a century before – in that sense it is a piece about the melancholy of aging. Getting older from performance to performance, the human condition and the personal element all become part of the film. Just like in Little Dog for Roger, new meanings emerge from old films.

“I don’t necessarily believe everything I say”, says Le Grice. This self-imposed antidogmatic stance is the driving force behind films like Digital Aberration, which makes use of all the easy and sterile effects against which he had previously been fighting, and behind the narrative investigations of his ‘domestic trilogy’. If as a theoretician he had criticized Stan Brakhage’s romantic and symbolist personal films, now he is happy to call ‘songs’ the short films in his series Trials and Tribulations – impossible not to think of Brakhage’s 8mm cycle Songs (1964-1969).

Unlike Brakhage, Le Grice doesn’t turn his persona and his life and family into an art object. But he is personally present in Emily (the name of the title is a variation on the artist’s name), in Chronos Fragmented and in Digital Still Life. He wants “to bring the making of work closer to life”, something that video, less disruptive than film, allows. Individual authorship is back, but without psychology and the extreme subjectivity of Brakhage.

Le Grice is not alone in this change of direction – Mike Dunford rejected his previous materialist works like Still Life with Pear (1974) to begin anew with a series of more overtly political films. Le Grice’s films have always been political too, but in a more oblique way. There are direct political references in Chronos Fragmented, but in Neither Here nor There politics seems to happen off-screen due to the extreme close-up shots.

In Threshold the image lingers between abstraction and representation and in Yes No Maybe Maybe Not it becomes uncertain. The trembling camera in Academic Still Life also makes the content less precise. In the cubist Emily, After Lumière and Blackbird Descending there are different points of view of the same actions – of the same space-time. Digital Still Life, in which the editing follows the piano music, is a kind of digital version of the fauvist Berlin Horse; and as a painter Le Grice also likes working with colour-fields (Marking Time). But Le Grice is also an entertainer – his multi-screen installations (FINITI) and 3D experiments (Where When) are quite spectacular.

Malcolm Le Grice by Alberte Pagán

Filmography of Malcolm Le Grice

16mm films

China Tea (1965, 10′, 8mm, colour, sound)
Castle 1 (1966, 22′, b&w, sound)
Little Dog For Roger (1967, 13’, b&w, sound)
Yes No Maybe Maybenot (1967, 7’, b&w, silent)
Talla (1967, 20’, b&w, silent)
Blind White Duration (1967, 10’, b&w, silent)
Castle Two (1968, 32’, b&w, sound, two-screen)
Grass (1968, 10’, tape-slide, colour, sound)
Wharf (1968, 8’, tape-slide, b&w, sound)
Spot the Microdot (1969, 10’, colour, sound)
Your Lips 1 (1970, 3’, computer generated, silent)
Lucky Pigs (1970, 4’, b&w, sound, three-screen)
Reign of the Vampire (1970, 16’, b&w, sound; one and two-screen versions)
Berlin Horse (1970, 9’, colour, sound; one, two and four-screen versions)
Love Story 1 (1971, 8’, film-shadow performance)
Love Story 2 (1971, 10’, colour, sound, two-screen)
Horror Film 1 (1971, 14’, colour, sound, film-shadow performance)
Your Lips 3 (1971, 3’, colour, sound, computer generated)
1919 (1971, 12’, three-screen)
Newport (1972, 15’, b&w, silent)
Whitchurch Down (1972, 10’, colour, sound; one and three-screen versions)
Threshold (1972, 17’, colour, sound; one and four-screen versions)
Love story 3 (1972, 10’, film-performance)
Horror Film 2 (1972, 25’, colour, 3D shadow-performance)
Blue Field Duration (1972, 8’, colour, sound, two-screen)
White Field Duration (1973, 12’, b&w, sound, two-screen)
After Leonardo (1973, 22’, colour, silent; six-screen and performance)
Don’t Say (1973, 10’, b&w, silent, two-screen)
Pre-production (1973, 15’, slide-performance)
Matrix (1973, 18’, colour, sound, six projector-performance)
Four Wall Duration (1973, 22’, colour, film-loop installation)
Gross Fog (1973, colour, sound, film-loop installation)
Joseph’s Coat (1973, colour, film-loop installation or performance)
Principles of Cinematography (1973, 15’, film-performance)
Screen Entrance Exit (1974, 10’, film-performance)
After Lumière – L’arroseur arrosé (1974, 12’, colour and b&w, sound)
After Manet – Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1975, 60’, colour and b&w, four-screen)
Art Work Series (1976-77, 21’)

Includes:
Academic Still Life (Cézanne) (1976, 6’, colour, silent)
Time and Motion Study (1977, 15’, colour, sound)

Domestic Trilogy (1977-1981, 260’)

Includes:
Blackbird Descending – Tense Alignment (1977, 120’, colour, sound)
Emily – Third Party Speculation (1979, 60’, colour, sound)
Finnegans Chin – Temporal Economy (1981, 80’, colour, sound)

Video/Digital films

Sketches for a Sensual Philosophy (1988, 60’, TV Commission)

Includes 9 films:
Digital Still Life (1984-6, 8’, colour, sound, computer and video)
Like a Fox (1988, 6’, colour) (in collaboration with Gill Eatherly)
Rock Wave (1988, 8’, colour, sound)
Arbitrary Logic (1984-86, 5’, colour, sound, computer and video)
Juniper and the Myths of Origin (1988, colour, sound)
Veritas (1988, 6’, colour, sound)
Heads I Win – Tails You Lose (1986, 7’, colour, sound; computer and video)
Beware (1988, 5’)
Et in Arcadia Ego (1988, 8’, colour, sound)

Trials and Tribulations (1990-2004, 48’)

Includes:
Rape (1990, 3’, colour, sound)
Weir (1993, 1’, colour, sound; 2007 three-screen version)
Prelude (1993, 2’, colour, sound)
Race (1993, 3’, colour, sound)
Warsaw Window (1994, 2’, colour, sound)
Cidre Bouche (1994, 2’, colour, sound)
Balcony Water Colour (1994, 3’, colour, sound)
Seeing the Future (1994, 1’)
Out of the Crypt (1995, 12’, colour)
For the Benefit of Mr K (1995, 1’, colour, sound)
Joseph’s Newer Coat (1998, 16’, colour, sound; three-screen version)
Digital Aberration (2004, 4’, colour, sound)

Chronos Fragmented (1995, 55’, colour, sound; broadcast 1997)
The Cyclops Cycle (2003, 60’, colour and b&w, sound)

A series of three-screen video works including:
Joseph’s Newer Coat (1998, 16’, colour, sound; three-screen version)
Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman (1998, 17’, colour, sound)
Still Life and Lunch in Little Italy / Still Life and Letter from Toronto (1999, 7’)
Jazzy – Jazzy – Jazzy (2000, 5’, colour)
Neither Here Nor There (2001, 8’, colour, sound)
Travelling with Mark (2003, 6’, colour, sound)
Cherry (2003, 2’, colour)

Unforgettable – That’s What You Are (2002, video and photo installation)
Portraits and Particulars (2004-08, 49’)

Includes:
Critical Moment 1 (2004, 1’, colour)
Autumn Horizon number 3 (2005, 6’, colour)
Unforgettable (that’s what you are) (2006, 5’, colour; single screen version)
Lecture to an Academy (2006, 9’, colour, sound)
Of Keys and Beauty (2006, 2’, colour)
Anthony Dundee (2006, 2’, colour)
Waiting for Ian (2006, 3’, colour)
H2O-0C-24.02.06-12.01GMT – 03,50.40W – 50.16.30N (2006, 3’, colour)
DENISINED – SINEDENIS (2006, 3’, colour, sound)
Again Finnegan (Portrait of Jack) (2006, 3’, colour, sound)
Taint (2007, 3’, colour)
Self Portrait after Raban Take Measure (2008, 8’20’’, colour, sound)

Water Lilies after Monet (2008, 3’, colour, sound)
Absinthe (2010, 1’, colour, sound)
Jonas (2013, 3’, colour, sound)
Yann (2014, 9’, colour)
FINITI (2011, 30’, multi-screen video)
Where When (2015, 26’, colour, sound, stereoscopic video)
Marking Time (2015, 6’, colour, sound, stereoscopic video)
The Probability of God is About Zero (2015, 23′, colour)
Dark Trees (2020, 9’, colour, sound)

INTERVIEW

This interview took place on 8 June 2019 in A Corunha during the (S8) X Mostra de Cinema Periférico, where Le Grice presented a retrospective of his work. Some of Le Grice’s statements during his master class, presentations and Q&As have been incorporated into the interview. Questions about Finnegans Chin were answered by e-mail on 3 November 2019; about Blackbird Descending on 13 and 16 December 2019; and about Dark Trees on 18 February 2020. The interviewee revised the final draft on 3 March 2020.

PAINTER OF MOVING IMAGES

You come from painting. Do you consider yourself an artist working with film or a filmmaker?

Now I think more of myself as an artist working with film; but not only with film – I now almost exclusively work with video and digital video. I haven’t shot film-film since 1982. I think the last film material I shot was probably around 1980-1981. Since then I’ve only ever shot material with video or have generated things with a computer.

You have worked with film, computers, video, digital. What are the differences? Or rather, which is the best to work with for a film painter?

What I get most pleasure out of is working with digital video. One, it is non interruptive of my life when I’m shooting it. It’s unobtrusive. With the kind of new technologies, smart phones and high quality [devices], there’s no way your life is destroyed by all the production problems of film – no crew, you know, you do the whole thing yourself. I enjoy also very much the capacity you have with editing and construction using a very good editing system, which also has wonderful opportunities for sound mixing. So I enjoy that much more than I ever enjoyed working with film, I mean, the hours I spent in the dark with the [Debrie step-contact] printer. And also when you shoot film you don’t know whether what you shot is any good or not until the next day, when maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. And it also gives me a much better scope of what I can do with the modifications of colour and of frame; I can slow things down, speed things up, I can integrate sound and image… So as an artistic medium it’s much nicer for working than film. Laying a soundtrack in film on a Steenbeck [flatbed editor] is a pain. It’s dreadful when you are trying to lay three or four layers of sound, or trying to find a piece of something among your editing stuff. For me, for my selfish pleasure, I like digital video. I’m no longer really interested in computer film, in generating things digitally.

Many of your films make a reference to painting – Cézanne [Academic Still Life], Seurat [Digital Still Life], After Leonardo, After Manet, Water Lilies after Monet.

When I’m working I’m very conscious of the whole discourse of art and to a certain extent also of music and of cinema. When I’m doing something as an artist I always recognize the points of contact with the common language of art. I see art as a continuing discourse of which I’m only part. My landscape is the history of art. Our culture, including history, has now become, with the digital and Internet, completely fused together. When I was a young person I saw [Calude] Monet’s Water Lilies [1920-26] in the Jeu de Paume in Paris and it was amazing, so they always stay with me. And that crucial artistic memory produced my piece Water Lilies after Monet. Even Absinthe, which is a very short film, is sort of in the artistry theme, because of Degas and Picasso, all of whom painted absinthe drinkers. When I was in Prague for a show I found this little café that still is selling absinthe, and I thought I’d try it.

After Leonardo was born as a six projector film piece, based around an image of the Mona Lisa, which I hate – as a painting it is awful. I had a deteriorating black and white close-up reproduction of the face of the Mona Lisa which I had torn out from a magazine. The cracks and tears were material signs of the passage of time. I got very interested in the way the meaning of an icon changes over time. Duchamp’s version [L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)] is satirical. Mine is not satirical at all but neither is it an homage – it’s more about how there is no permanence in the meaning of an icon, maybe the most famous painting in the world. Then I used the original piece of film for the multi-screen video installation. Now every time I do it I record it and incorporate the rerecorded images into the next performance. In that sense there is no final version.

After Leonardo – Behind Leonardo (Le Grice, 1958).

Even DENISINED-SINEDENIS, your portrait of artist Dennis Oppenheimer, was made ‘after Marcel Duchamp’.

When I do something I like not just to relate what I’m doing to what other people have done in the past, but more to recognize and to admit the connection, for example the Duchamp connection in DENISINED. Duchamp was particularly interested in palindrome and palindromatic structures. In Anémic cinéma [Duchamp, 1926] the words in the title are also a palindrome, although partial and not complete. That’s why my film is called DENISINED – which means ‘Dennis signed’ – because Dennis Oppenheimer signed a photograph of an original plan for me. We were in an exhibition together in Kassel and he gave me this plan for one of his artworks [Mind-Twist-Ordering], and I said, “Would you sign it?”, and he signed it. And then, with no connection, [while we were talking] I took these [four] photographs of him on a low resolution Palm organizer. I had no idea of what I was going to do with it. The film is called DENISINED and then SINEDENIS, which is like ‘cinema Dennis’, so it’s a play with words, a double palindrome, a palindrome and its mirror. And I can see the connection with Duchamp. We didn’t hear it very strongly yesterday [during the projection at the (S8) Mostra], because the sound was a little low, but the music is based on Bach’s crab canon [from the Musical Offering, a collection of canons and fugues], which is also a complete palindrome. But then I reversed the palindrome so it goes from the beginning to the end and then back to the beginning. That’s how the music is constructed. The whole film is constructed as a series of palindromes, starting with the photographs, sequenced ABCDDCBA. And then there are changes in the timing, so that they animate with the increasing speed. When I make the work with that concept I know how it relates to Bach and I know how it relates to Marcel Duchamp. So I can actually acknowledge that connection.

You seem to be very fond of the impressionists. Your films can also be very impressionistic. But you have called yourself a fauvist, and some of your films have very bright colours. You are a colourist even in performance pieces like Horror Film and 3D films like Marking Time, which overlaps colour-fields. Are you more of a fauvist than an impressionist?

Certainly I like the impressionists, but I’m more interested in the way that at that point art became genuinely modern and in a funny way it began to be much more linked with science. I don’t mean science as in technology, I mean science in the sense that the painter, the artist, was looking at the world and, not having a ready-made system for producing, their activity became an enquiry. The really crucial one is Monet’s Rouen Cathedral [series, 1892-94], which is a scientific work in a funny way. That’s the attitude of science, of actually not knowing the answer to something and using the artwork to uncover that. And then you have abstraction, you see. When I say abstraction I don’t mean non figurative. What I mean by abstraction, and actually Bill Brand was saying something similar to this [during his presentation at the (S8) Mostra], is that you abstract, you take the colour from the object or take the shape of an object from the object, you break up the world of the object into its components. This is abstraction. And once you have abstracted it you put them back together again, or you can change bits of it and put it back in a different way. So I think that when I’m working with colour my first point of reference is, in artistic terms, the Fauves, Matisse, because they are the first people to separate colour from the object which it relates to. And that’s for me the fist stage of abstraction. But then there’s also the major shift of Cubism. I don’t think there’s been a major philosophical shift in the issues around representational art since Cubism. There have been fashionable changes, but I’m not convinced there have been fundamental changes, you know, in the same way that Einstein’s definition of relativity has been fundamental in science. We now are modifying and building bits on Einstein, but that moment was very radical; and for me Cubism and that period of impressionism to postimpressionism was the point when art was not only expressive, but they were creating a new physical-philosophical position through space and time and colour and abstraction, which I think I’m still in. And of course you could do fashionable things, things that look very different, but then art, instead of becoming an element of philosophy and intellect, becomes part of fashion and entertainment. So I’m still interested in this question of how you can do something where there’s – I don’t exactly like the word – a ‘philosophical’ content that reflects on the way that you think. The way that you perceive is for me related to how we mentally understand and construct the world. But it’s true that Art is aesthetics, and I’m not so interested in the didactics. There you have the question of Structuralism: I was called a structuralist, but I was never sure whether I was a structuralist or not. Peter Gidal, whom I admire enormously, invented the term ‘structural/materialist’ because we all thought we were materialists. P. Adams Sitney in America invented the term ‘structural’. Peter and I thought that his interpretation of structuralism was slightly off, slightly wrong, it didn’t relate to [Ferdinand de] Saussure’s ideas. Peter was a much more learned theorist than me, he’s much more scholarly than I am. He did the proper reading, while I do just some of the proper reading. We felt that we should think about structuralism a bit more carefully than just saying that formalist films like Michael Snow’s are structuralist, which I don’t think they are at all. I tried then to separate a kind of new formalism from structuralism. Someone like Bill Brand is very much of a formalist, he imposes formal structures on the work, but my work was never really like that. My work was always very intuitive. I was always post analytical. After I made a work I was always analyzing what I was doing. I was not starting from theory. Materialist: Yes, I think we were consciously materialist. I was a Marxist, ha ha.

Were you? Or are you?

Well, I think I was a Marxist and I read Marx, but I was more interested in Freud than in Marx. Freud is more amusing to read than Marx. And I travelled a lot in the Eastern countries. I was a romantic that believed in the Russian revolution and the idea of a Marxist revolution. When I travelled in the Eastern European countries, including Russia, I knew what a mess it was. It was less socialist than the social democrats in Europe. It was even verging on the fascistic, with Stalin and people like that. So I had to reconsider that. Even theoretically I think Marx got some things wrong about the relationship between labour producing and consumption. Cutting out the middle person meant that there’s no connection between what was produced and what was needed –you saw that particularly in Russia. But that was our understanding of materialism in the political sense. In films we were thinking of materialism as coming out of the presence of something. Of course the symbolic is there, but we were more interested in the material.

And the means of production of that material.

That’s right. But then that takes you only to a certain point. You can’t make the content simply about how you made the film. Otherwise it becomes more narrow than making a symbolic work. So at a certain point I felt like I could invent whatever I wanted to invent. I never thought of myself working within the category of a structural materialist, although the materialist aspect is definitely built into the work. Although a much bigger question arises with the digital – “Where’s the materialism after the digital?” There’s no material. You have a computer box, but the computer box isn’t the material. What goes on in there is just interactions of electronics, not even ones and zeroes, we think of it as ones and zeroes but what’s going on in there is just an interaction of electrical pulses at almost the speed of light, there’s no material. The material comes when you translate that back out into something that relates to our senses.

The pictorial tradition is also present in China Tea, which is a still life.

Still lifes are very much related to the history of art. China Tea was the very first film that I made. It was shot with two Standard 8mm cameras, not Super 8. I was mostly into painting and drawing and started trying things with film. I projected the two films side by side. At that time my wife also played the piano and we bought a very broken down old grand piano and I crazily decided to renovate it. I took all the strings out and so on. Whilst I was doing it I made some musical works, what they now call a prepared piano, and recorded the sound with a very cheap tape recorder. When I did China Tea I decided to use some of the tapes that I’d made with this prepared old grand piano. And that’s the soundtrack.

Lightbulb Assemblage (Le Grice, 1965)


BEGINNINGS – PERFORMANCES AND DOUBLE PROJECTIONS

Your beginnings as a filmmaker are not very common. You started with a double screen film, China Tea, and a performance piece, Castle 1.

That was to some extent an accident. First of all, about the performance with a light bulb, Castle 1 – the film wasn’t strictly a performance, but it was a performance because it was in the present and you were very aware that you were in a particularly space, that there was a conflict between the film image and sitting in the audience, because the light bulb illuminates the audience and destroys the screen. You can’t see the images when the light is flashing. So you are constantly in and out. You can’t go into the film. So in that way it’s a kind of performance. When the light bulb illuminates the audience the meaning of the film switches from what’s going on on the screen to what happens in front of the screen. It is about how the audience constructs… their meaning. It shifts the meaning from what the filmmaker intended, the narrative that was behind the film, to the activity that was going on in the audience, making their own construction. It was actually concentrating on the present.

You shot your own material (a flashing light bulb, which is a mirror of the light bulb hanging in front of the screen), but the images are mainly found footage. Where did you find them?

Castle 1 was the first 16mm film I made. I needed a more direct relation with the media, and not going through commercial laboratories, not writing scripts, not raising money, but make films in the same way I made paintings. I would start something and didn’t know where it would finish, as with improvised music. I found the footage in a dustbin in Soho, the heart of the film industry in England. As I was walking to St Martins to teach I found these huge bins. It was what is called found footage, which is rather stolen footage. This was before I knew Bruce Conner. David Curtis showed me A Movie [Bruce Conner, 1958] when I showed him my film, and we talked about how to make films cheaply. In London there was no experimental film scene at all, only me and Stephen Dwoskin. And we thought that we should have a filmmakers’ workshop. So I made up a kind of optical printer using an old projector, and it worked. And then I made a processing machine. And I did all my films, after Castle 1 and up to maybe 1968, on this equipment. It was very hands-on.

The London Film-Makers’s Co-op’s optical printer was an essential tool for much of British materialist filmmaking.

There is a misunderstanding of ‘optical printer’. I never used an optical printer – Optical printers have a separation between the original and the copy with a lens between that allows resizing and speed changes. I only ever used a contact printer. This included the home made printer used in my early films and the more sophisticated Debrie step-contact printer I installed at the Co-op. Any ‘effects’ I made that looked like optical printing were done by cheating and misusing the contact printer – doing things it was not designed for!

The light bulb and its shadow, in and out the screen. Castle 1 at the (S8) Mostra.

In Castle 1 we can see the world’s first Nuclear Power Station to generate electricity, Calder Hall in northern England. Was the audience aware of the origin of the images in the film?

I was involved in the campaign for Nuclear disarmament. I don’t know whether we automatically assumed that nuclear energy power station was a completely bad thing. What we were concerned about was the bomb. I made up the film with fragments of films I found in dustbins in Soho. I didn’t shoot any of this, except for the light bulb. I was obviously part of that period. There was a strong left wing Marxist kind of movement in London, and I thought that was part of it. But I also think that this is in some ways a kind of paranoid film, for the content. It is a bit out of control. I chose the images because they had some charge for me, not to make any point or meaning. For example, the digger that comes over is very threatening for me. And the dolls being painted are like the audience. And the Labour Minister of Transport Barbara Castle is also present. So there are some emotional charges in this material which were not intended to be there in the original material. As in After Leonardo, history changes the meaning of images.

Was the film titled after Barbara Castle?

Barbara Castle, seen leading a political rally [“about the impact of the modern vehicle”], was another kind of link, but the real reference was [Franz] Kafka’s Castle [1926. Le Grice will revisit Kafka in For the Benefit of Mr K]. The images have a charge but their meaning has not been settled – they could have different meanings. There are scientific documentaries; walking along with an electronic sensor on the ground; first images of the Harrier Jump Jet taking off with a load of observers from different countries, including Africans, and then images of the audience from very different ethnic cultures; images of a nuclear power station, interior and exterior; and cranes. They are basically industrial images, often threatening. And then there is a woman talking funnily about how she made a business making and painting dolls. The film very much matched the 1966. It belongs in that time. I don’t think I could make this film now in the same way, particularly because I was very unkind to the woman who’s talking because she was actually saying things that she was attached to and it is sort of making fun of her. I didn’t want it to be satirical, really. I was thinking more of the repetition of what she said, “If you first don’t succeed, try again, try again…” In the film there’s a lot of repetitions. The repetition idea became very important, and was also paralleled by other strategies, including [William] Burroughs’ cut-ups.

The montage is all random and I did it intuitively. I cut it up, put it in a bag, and took it out and edited randomly. If I didn’t like it, I would change it. Then I had multiple reprints done, seven I think, through the laboratory. And I would reedit from the reprints. Some of the reprints were kept, others were changed. I did the same with [the double screen] Castle Two, though Castle Two was structured differently.

Castle 1 is a very aggressive film. The aggression comes both from the content in the screen (the fear of the nuclear bomb) and from the light bulb outside the screen (which switches on and off).

It is a very aggressive film, a pre-punk film. It was not making cinema but destroying cinema. I hate the light bulb – it is sadistic and fascistic. I made the film as an attack on the audience, but it was also an attack on myself. I was trying to break my own assumptions about what cinema could be. It was completely primitive – I had no idea about experimental film, and I started to make it really in the same way I was making paintings. And the light bulb had actually appeared before all this in three or four paintings of mine, with the light bulb descending in front of the paintings and sometimes flashing. In a way it is about electricity and the way cinema is depending on electricity, but the real subject is the economics of the military industry.

You mentioned Bruce Conner, and both A Movie and Crossroads [we saw Ross Lipman restoration at the (S8) Mostra] share the atomic content with Castle 1.

I was very critical of Bruce Conner. I was hostile to the very predictable psychology of the images. His films can be satiric, but there is no real criticism. What is there is individualism and sexism. And Crossroads aestheticizes the bomb. And that is why the government agreed to give him the footage, because they knew.

“The light bulb had actually appeared before all this in three or four paintings of mine.” Castle (Le Grice, 1964).

Your first film, China Tea, is a double screen projection.

The multi-screen was slightly accidental. The Arts Laboratory in Drury Lane, which was where we could present the work, was run by David Curtis. It was not very large a space with a projection box, a sloping floor of mattresses and a wide screen. And it had two projectors. We had discussions about cinema happening in front of the screen, in the space of the audience, and not behind it, and this led me to explore multiprojection, particularly, early on, double projection, which is a kind of comparative thing. I was interested in doing things with two projections and comparing both screens, because all my double projection work is comparative. It is not multi-screen in the sense of, you know, [Stan] Vanderbeek; it’s not random. My double projection work is always very controlled. One screen may be the negative of something while the other one is the positive, like in Yes No Maybe Maybe Not. Berlin Horse goes through black and white to colour and one screen stays black and white and the other changes to colour. And then we had projectors whose speed you could change slightly, so when I was projecting I could go from 16 to 24 [frames per second] and change the timing between the screens, as in Little Dog for Roger, a double projection with one projector running at 24 fps and the other at 16 fps. But we didn’t see it properly here [it was screened as a single screen film at the (S8) Mostra].

Was the original version of Little Dog for Roger a double screen projection then?

It was always a double screen projection. Now, because it’s so difficult to have two 16mm projectors, I’ve got it as a digital version. But in this festival they are film purists and didn’t want to show the digital, they wanted to show the film. I almost had to fight with them to [show digital films], but that’s OK. So my double projections weren’t so much to do with spectacle, they were more to do with comparative relations and small changes.

ABSTRACT FILM AND BEYOND

When you started making films you were not a film buff. But then you wrote a history of experimental cinema, Abstract Film and Beyond [1977].

Well, I had to research it.

Is your filmmaking related in some way to your criticism, or vice versa?

Firstly you have to understand that in 1964-66 in London there was no experimental film scene at all, nothing. It was a group of cineastes who founded the New York Film-Makers’ Co-op. Following that, a group of persons started the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, but of the original LFMC only Steve Dwoskin, an American working in London, was a film-maker. Simultaneously I was working with David Curtis at the Arts Laboratory. I was making film before I even knew about the New York Film Co-op. From 1964 up to the middle of 1966 I was working completely unaware of the American underground and of experimental film. I was a complete primitive. I started making films without an idea of what I was doing. I knew nothing about the tradition of experimental cinema in Europe, I didn’t know about Man Ray and [Fernand] Léger; it wasn’t part of London’s art culture.

And at the same time, like every other child of my generation, I went normally to the pictures. I’d go into Saturday morning children’s movie shows. When I was in London from 1961 I was very aware of Truffaut, Resnais, Godard, all of the then supposed avant-garde. I was very aware of all that because it was in the cinemas in London. So, when I started to put film together, I wasn’t ignorant of what was going on in cinema, I was pretty well informed. I had to research and find things like [Dziga] Vertov because that was again not part of the normal culture. And I wasn’t a cineaste, so when I started making film I already knew that what I wanted to do was not even what people like Godard were doing. I knew I wanted to do something different. I felt that even what the best of them – Godard and Truffaut and Resnais and so on – were doing was a kind of 19th c form, in a way drawn from the 19th century novel, with a protagonist and the relationship between the representation and the person who is watching it. It seemed to me very old fashioned. So I knew where my position was, but I did not know the connections I had with experimental cinema. Very quickly I learnt about and looked at work from America, the underground films, Maya Deren and [Stan] Brakhage particularly. David Curtis brought a lot of their stuff over to London and there were festivals there for experimental cinema. At the same time I quite actively was trying to find out about the early European experimental cinema. So I had to do the research and find films to look at. To get all that information probably only took me a year. From then, I wasn’t a primitive. Even though I was inventing my own production system, with the printer and so on, I wasn’t a primitive. I knew what I was doing and how I was relating.

So you became a historian out of necessity.

I wrote because no one else was doing it. Peter Gidal and I and John Du Cane used to write for Time Out, you know, the London magazine. When the film co-op was starting to do screenings, and the Arts Lab was doing screenings, we were promoting them. And I would write 200-word pieces about films that I actually didn’t even like. But I would promote them, you know, I’d say, go and see these films. And then I more seriously wrote for Studio International for nearly four years, a column every month, because I was by then touring quite a lot and wherever I went I would look at other people’s work and write about them and all that sort of thing. I did it because no one else was doing it. It would have been very nice if we’d got a P. Adams Sitney in England, but there was no P. Adams Sitney in England. It was down to the filmmakers, it was down to us, me and Peter Gidal and John Du Cane, to do the writing and to present the theory and the publicity.

Filmmakers at the LFMC were more socially and politically leaned than they were in the USA.

That’s partly because of the more social-democratic tradition in Europe and in Britain. America, even though you’ve got the film co-op, was still very individualistic. The London Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and the workshop there, was really genuinely democratic. People would help each other and we were influencing each other, you know, William Raban and Gill Eatherley and Annabel Nicolson and Peter Gidal and Mike Dunford and all, we were seeing each other’s works and we would never be saying to ourselves, “He’s stealing my idea”. You know, the ideas and the visual experiences were being shared. The LFMC was incredibly important, but I don’t regret its closure. The Co-op stopped being necessary. It was necessary for production reasons, but now digital production is very cheap. And Lux took its place as a distribution centre.

Little Dog (Le Grice, 1968)


LITTLE DOG FOR ROGER

Was the original 9.5mm found footage in Little Dog for Roger black and white or colour? Was it a single take or several?

It was in pieces, just fragments in black and white. My family was a strange family. My father was, in a funny way, not working class in the usual sense of the industrial working class. My father was a scrap metal dealer, but he was a bad business man. His background was very proletarian, but not politicized working class, right? He was a rogue – he would spend money more quickly than he made it. But he was a very nice man. And he was always messing about and experimenting and so. He had a scrap metal store where people would come and sell their junk and somebody came in with a camera and said, “Look, can you give some money on this camera?” He would say, “Alright, here you are.” That’s how he got a 9.5mm camera. I was probably 11 or 12 years old. And there was a strange little shop in Plymouth, where we were living, that rented 9.5mm films (Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse) and then we got a projector. It had a light bulb but it was not an electric projector, it was hand cranked. As my father was absolutely hopeless with any technology I would be the one who would run the projector. And on weekends he used to send us down to the shop to rent 9.5mm films of all kinds of stuff. I would bring back four or five of these and then, this was before television, my whole family, my aunts and uncles, would come in for a drink and I would run the 9.5mm films. And I discovered that when a sprocket broke the image freezes, although the light bulb wasn’t strong enough to burn the film. And then I was doing Popeye the Sailor, no sound, and he says “I’m eating my spinach because I know what is in it”, and he takes the can and he eats it like that and the muscle comes up. And then I would run it backwards and everybody, after a few drinks, would be in fits of laughter. And I’m watching all these things and experimenting, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Then my father would also shoot films although he had no idea if it was good. At one point we moved into a house that had a huge basement, absolutely enormous, but it flooded with water. When we left – I went to London – I discovered some bits and pieces of film in this basement, including the material for Little Dog for Roger which my father had shot on 9.5mm film. It was all kind of broken up and damaged. I was there, and my brother, and my dog, but I wasn’t even thinking of preserving the family content. I just took it. And when I started to think about working with film seriously, after Castle 1, I was interested in the film material, because I was already quite consciously thinking about bringing a modernist approach into cinema. I was then experimenting with the projection system. I did most of the Little Dog for Roger pieces under a sheet of glass, laying the 9.5mm onto the 16mm and exposing it. I was doing it in short pieces. And when I did my first experiments with my home-made printer, the cogs weren’t working, so you get this skidding, and where people might throw that away I thought, “No, that’s interesting, because it tells you something about material…” It’s funny how it is in a way unconscious, but partly conscious. Like with everything I was doing at the time, I didn’t know at the beginning what it was going to look like at the end. I would look at the film half-way and say, “That’s interesting, that’s not so interesting”. So I kept all the things that went wrong with the printing. I didn’t intend them to go wrong, you know: they went wrong. I had this material which had gone wrong and gradually built this up, resurrecting it, but not paying much attention to the content. If the content was there, it was unconscious.

There’s a kind of nostalgia in the music.

It’s kind of nostalgic. But I didn’t think of it as nostalgic. I thought of it more as kind of interruptions, you know. I would never run the thing continuously. The soundtrack that we heard last night [at the (S8) Mostra] is very poor. My digital version is much better because it’s cleaned up a bit. I haven’t changed it but I just filtered it a bit now and then. 16mm soundtracks are awful.

My father would play piano badly, my mother sang quite well and danced. And at the end of the 1940 war they were doing a concert party where they would go round to the troops locally in and around Plymouth, because there was a big American Naval base there. And I would go with them whenever they were doing a concert party, and the songs that were there came from records which they had, so the [Little Dog for Roger] soundtrack is also made up from those records.

Why did you call the film Little Dog for Roger? Who’s Roger?

One of my first very good students became a very important artist called Roger Ackling. I liked him a lot, we talked a lot, and he was interested in doing some films. And he said – I think he was quoting from The History of Mr Polly [HG Wells, 1910; Chapter Six: Miriam] –, “When you are accosted in the street by someone and you don’t want to spend too much time talking to them, you go, ‘Ah, little dog’.” And this is a quote. I’ve never actually discovered it. So ‘Little Dog’ is a way of getting away from someone you don’t want to talk to in the street, and the Roger in ‘for Roger’ is Roger Ackling. Because apart from anything else I didn’t want to say “This is my little dog”. I wanted to not personalize it in that sense at that time. Now I don’t know, I think there’s something interesting about it, 60 years on it’s more interesting. That kind of mystery in the images begins to be more interesting to me now, that kind of sense of the inevitable loss and of the passage of time, which I didn’t think about at all when I was making it. I was actually positive about it, you know, “This is just about structure, and about form and material.” I thought I was doing a film about material cinema. And it is about that, and it is so paralleled to two other works that I think are very similar. One is by George Landow, Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, etc. [1966], and the other one is Rohfilm [1968], by Wilhelm and Birgit Hein. And none of us knew about the other films. They have in common being about materiality. But now when I look at it there is another kind of content which I almost denied from the start when I made it, which is the sentimental content, the fact that it is me and my brother and my mother, and the scary thing is that my mother there, a beautiful young woman, doesn’t exist anymore. It is a kind of funny content there that I had ignored, I had tried almost to say it was not there. I think my early things are too long, Little Dog for Roger is probably too long. But I said that in a screening in Germany with Mark Webber, who was working at the Lux in London, and we travelled together – another film of mine is Travelling with Mark – and I introduced the film in that way, I said it might be too long, and Mark, who was sitting at the back, said, “Not long enough”.


YES NO MAYBE MAYBE NOT AND DIGITAL ABERRATION

Yes No Maybe Maybe Not is a double screen film with a double image: the Battersea Power Station and the water lapping against the riverbank.

I got very interested in loop printing and superimposition printing. In Yes No Maybe Maybe Not there are superimposition of negative and positive in loops, where one of the layers is two o three frames shorter than the other one, so that it creates a kind of moving bas-relief.

Was the water lapping the riverbank also filmed in Battersea?

Yes, but I don’t remember exactly where – somewhere nearby on the riverbank.

It is a silent film. How do you decide when to use sound and when to keep it silent?

That’s a good question. [Long pause.] My inclination is normally to have sound. Occasionally there are films where it doesn’t seem to me there is any connection between the images and the sound. If there is no reason for the sound, I don’t use sound. But there’s not very many works where I don’t use sound. Almost all of them have some sound, even in a structural type of work like White Field Duration, which never gets shown now, and on which the sound is just the sound of the white noise on the soundtrack. Actually I think I don’t like the idea of just sticking music on, you know, I like the idea if this music or sound and images have a relationship to each other, and mostly the sounds – for example in Even the Cyclops… – were sounds that were recorded with a visual recording, so they are constructed mostly from natural sound. There’s a little constructed music, but mostly not. I was always rather against the idea of making a film and then stick music on it.

But that’s exactly what you did in Digital Aberration [a video incorporated into the series of ‘video poems’ or ‘songs’ Trials and Aberrations, which took up video outtakes from the Chronos Project].

Of course, yes. But that’s again a little complicated. There are two versions of it. There’s one with my grandson’s soundtrack, which is what we heard here [at the (S8) Mostra screening], and there’s another one where I made the music soundtrack, which was in a funny way more related to the process. Well, it’s too complicated, but that film is a self punishment for my dogmatic views that you could not make anything good with computer work unless you learn to programme, right? That was my dogma: you could never do anything good using off the shelf software. Of course we are talking about a certain period of time. My daughter was making video and she came to visit me once and wanted to use my editing system, a primitive editing system called Pinnacle. And while she was editing a short film of hers she was looking at all these transitions in the programme. “Why don’t you use them?” I said, “No, I only use a cut and a dissolve. No, I’ll never use all that awful stuff.” She said, “Oh, you should use it.” I said, “No, I really don’t like it.” Then when she’d gone home I thought, “Why not make a film in one morning using all and every one of these dreadful effects built into the system?” I started doing it and of course three or four weeks later I was still working on it. I started to play with it and do things like change the speeds, change the superimpositions and so on. I was really getting interested in something which is awful and is absolutely in every respect against my principles. I didn’t have a soundtrack. But then my grandson and his sister came to visit us and we had breakfast. Sometimes we have a healthy breakfast, with muesli and fruit and so on, but when you’ve got little children they like Coco Pops and all this, so at the supermarket I bought a box of cereal, which came with a free music authoring programme for children, with samples and so on. It was a free CD you put on your computer to make music. So I then started to play with this and again got really interested in it. I found I could do some things that weren’t intended in the programme. So my first soundtrack for Digital Aberration was my own soundtrack made with this programme. But then [my grandson] Ben [Le Grice], who is now a DJ and makes music, saw the film and said, “Could I make a soundtrack for it?”, and I said, “Yes, of course.” And he made the soundtrack [in 2014]. And in a funny way it makes it more contemporary. It’s quite nice to have something that pushes me a bit.

So now you have the two versions.

I have the two versions. And I prefer his version. I often have more than one version of something.

SNOW-BLIND

Blind White Duration reminds me of Michael Snow’s One Second in Montreal [1969], made one year later.

Blind White Duration – do you mean the one with the white and some shots with a little bit of snow?

Yes, the ‘snow-blind’ film, white screen with some flashes of images in the middle. [Not to be confused with White Field Duration.] In both films we see the same snow-covered urban landscapes and the same insistence on temporality. I don’t know whether you were aware of the American avant-garde at the time. But were the Americans aware of what was going on in London?

I filmed Blind White Duration on a snowy day in Harrow [London] while walking to the Tube station. It is an interaction between the white screen and the snow. I made it before I knew Michael Snow’s work. Pretty much at the same time Michael Snow’s work was shown in London. I certainly like One Second in Montreal. But no, they weren’t related. I discovered my interest in One Second in Montreal after making it. I can understand what Michael Snow is doing in his film because of what I’d been doing. Michael Snow has been very appreciative of my work. So there is a connection. I don’t know. Of course I was influenced by aspects of Michael Snow, like I was influenced by any good work other people were doing. I like particularly the double arrow [↔ (1969)], which for me was the most interesting one. I find Wavelength [1967] less interesting in a way, although actually it is a very good film, and it bears watching again. Of the American filmmakers (Snow is Canadian) I find Michael Snow and Tony Conrad the two most interesting. And [Paul] Sharits, to some extent. We were very good friends and I appreciate his work. And I appreciate Hollis Frampton’s work, but I don’t like it as much. Myself and Peter Gidal and the London people gravitated to those so called structuralist filmmakers in America and very quickly there was a point of contact. Rather than [Stan] Brakhage. I like Brakhage, of course, but we were all very critical of Brakhage’s romanticism, and there was a big polemic, which I was part of. But he is a great filmmaker. But then we were fighting to get seen and recognized. Eventually the British and the European were seen in America at the Millennium Film Workshop, which was almost the only place that really was interested in taking up European work.

In White Field Duration random scratches build up on clear leader. Were you aware of Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film [1964], which tackles similar questions?

No, I didn’t know it. Of course since then I am more informed about Nam June Paik. And also I had a fairly strong contact one way or another with Takahiko Iimura. I knew him quite well and I like his very austere work. He and I were doing some similar things, like punching holes, for example. Yes, there were connections there.

Spot the Microdot.

I agree. In Spot the Microdot you punch the film, and Iimura had done something similar in On Eye Rape [1962].

That’s right. Something similar. He saw mine and I saw his work, and we got on very well. Do you know Taka?

Yes. I interviewed him here at the (S8) Mostra a few years ago.

It’s not easy to talk to him. But I like him very much. And I like his work. I think he’s underestimated, and especially some of his really austere work, which is about time and numbers. I think he’s a good filmmaker. I wrote actually a nice article about his work. I think I’ve done my duty with that.

Berlin Horse Composite (Le Grice, 1970)


BERLIN HORSE

Berlin Horse, which you have called ‘a Fauvist film’, makes reference to a village called Berlin, in Germany.

Yes, it’s a village called Berlin, near Hamburg. It was one of the places that we came across in our 1968 tour through Germany. I had my 8mm camera and we had a little time to spare between Hamburg and the next screening. And the person who organized the screening in Hamburg took us out in his car to show us around, and we came across this village of Berlin where they were exercising a horse. I was taking 8mm colour film all the way through Germany, but when I came back and looked at all the material the only thing that interested me was this very short piece of the horse being exercised. And I suppose I was again already thinking in terms of the kind of function of the loop, right? But this was a loop in reality. I’m clearer about it now than I was when I did it, you know, but I was obviously thinking about loops and repetition, because I was also beginning to think about that in the sound recordings I was making. Then I projected the 8mm onto a screen and with a 16mm camera shot it from different directions at different speeds and so on. That gave a 16mm negative and positive.

Black and white?

Black and white. It was re-coloured with colour filters, a very simple and random process. I also did multiple superimpositions in the printer.

But the original was colour.

The original was colour. I think once or twice I showed it as four screens with the original 8mm beside it, because I was experimenting also with presentations, then.

And then you compare your Berlin horse being exercised with the horses being led from a burning barn in an Edison newsreel.

The Edison newsreel of a barn fire I picked it up in Soho. But I had no idea it was Edison until a long time later. And I joined the two things together, not sure that there was any good reason for it, except it seemed to work. And people seemed to like it.

Why did you choose Brian Eno for the soundtrack?

Brian Eno was in the audience when I first showed Berlin Horse and Reign of the Vampire in London, and it was before Roxy Music had taken off. And he said, “I have been working on some sound systems that are like that, do you want a soundtrack for any film?” And as I wasn’t happy with the sound on Berlin Horse I said yes, and he produced me two soundtracks and said, “Choose one”. And it was because he was experimenting with the same kind of way with sound as I was experimenting with loop printing with the film. Berlin Horse is a double projection, but the sound comes out of just one of the prints.

Malcolm Le Grice performing Horror Film 1 at the (S8) Mostra.


HORROR FILM 1

You had a one-off performance called Love Story which ended up being Horror Film 1. How does a love story become a horror film?

All my titles are slightly enigmatic, not descriptive. Horror Film, which is a shadow performance, has nothing to do with horror. Only the horror I can feel if the loops break in the middle of the performance. And Love Story 1 and 2 are completely abstract. The titles come to me as poetry. But it’s more complicated than that. Love Story was a colour-field piece. But there was also Love Story 2, which I never show now, which was performed with Paul Sharits in London. It’s a dreadful and really awful film. At the time I was generating a lot of colour-field stuff with the printer at the Co-op. We were experimenting with it. I could make lots and lots of material because I could do the colour-field pieces very easily there and I had a very cheap kodak film stock supply. I can’t even remember. I’m not sure whether I like it or not. This Love Story 1 is not actually a performance but a two screen colour-field film. I never use it. I only use it now to take sections out for my loops for Horror Film. And I made a film called Blue Field Duration, which is a double projection of slowly changing colour-fields. I saw it recently and it wasn’t so bad. Love Story 1 is for me a bit uninteresting, otherwise I’d still be showing it.

Actually your film career started with a performance, Castle 1.

Really all the performance improvisation came as a result of me working with William Raban, Gill Eatherley and Annabel Nicolson, in what now is called Filmaktion, which never really existed, it was not formal in any way, it was just us working together. We had a weekend in a studio in an exhibition at the Gallery House in London [in March 1973]. And I was experimenting with all sorts of multi-projection, looping, performances and sound performances and swinging microphones. And then Horror Film came out of that, and Gross Fog and Four Wall Duration and various sort of sculptural film projections, you know. Those things were performances. And then William [Raban] was doing some reading performances, and in my Pre-production I was using text and people sitting reading. And I also did Principles of Cinematography, a performance where I read from the book Principles of Cinematography [Leslie J. Wheeler, 1953] in front of a screen where clear leader was being projected. So these performances really came out of the Gallery House exhibition, of having an experimental situation where we were exhibiting and inventing at the same time.

Will Horror Film 1 vanish when you stop doing it?

Everybody could do Horror Film. There is a woman in New Zealand [Louise Curham] who does it occasionally, sometimes with students, and I gave her her own materials for it. Anybody could take it on. This was maybe the last time I do it, because now I’m not in the right shape for it. It’s a bit embarrassing for people seeing someone who is nearly 80 doing things like that. I’m actually offering it to anyone who wants to do it.

Horror Film 1 is consistent with your interest in colour-fields.

Horror Film is like a painting, but is also about time and space, like a sculpture. It holds up completely in the contemporary world. There is no symbolism in it, just colour-fields. I started to experiment with shadow performances in 1973 at the Liverpool Filmaktion exhibition. William Raban did a black and white time-lapse of the performance [Timelapse of Filmaktion at the Walker Art Gallery June 1973]. What I did then is almost identical to what I do now. Of course there are small changes, depending on the place, the space, etc. It’s a magic piece, really. It’s something that illusionists do and call it magic. One of the things I like about it is that everyone can see exactly how it’s being made. There’s no mystery to how it’s made, and yet something comes out of it that is quite exceptional. I don’t mean because of me. You can see the way the colours work, and the changing scale in relation to the screen. I’m very happy about it. I’m very tempted to do the same piece in black and white – it would be not so exciting for the audience, but philosophically it would be great. But I’m afraid I’m an entertainer and I don’t want to bore the audience.

The parallax effect is incredible, it is the main way we identify space, because we reconstruct space in our brain. That’s why I did Horror Film 2 [3D shadow performance] and that’s what I do now in 3D [Where When, Marking Time]. 3D films are the only films where the spectators have to change focus, re-focus. I’m interested in that. But it is not only the technology – the content is important. Technology is only part of the language.

Filmaktion in Liverpool 1973 (photo by Louise Curham).


COMPUTERS

You were one of the pioneers of computer generated images, as in Your Lips 3.

I actually started working with computers in 1967. I managed to get access to the biggest computer in Europe, the Atlas, at the British Atomic Energy Research Establishment, a highly secured place. How they let me in I never understood, because I was a hippie with long hair down to the middle of my back. I would go there and I learned how to programme in a programming language called FORTRAN IV, and it took me months and months of visits. You didn’t have a keyboard, you punched into punch cards. Every time I got a report back which said “Error error error”, and you had to rewrite it. It took me nearly nine months to get 8 seconds of actual film. You had a camera mounted in front of the computer’s cathode tube. It was an animation system completely controlled by the computer, which generates an image, moves the camera forward a frame, and so on. I actually shot the material in black and white, negative black and white lines, graphic representations of atomic processes. I made the colour versions on the Co-op’s Debrie printer. And then I linked it up with sound that I had made with what now they call a prepared piano. Your Lips, which is a pun on ‘ellipse’, is primitive computer art, very linear and abstract. I would reuse these images in Threshold, superimposed on found footage of frontier guards at the Gibraltar border with Spain. I don’t show Threshold as a single film, but as a performance with four moving projectors, and every time is different, like improvised jazz.

And then, after your narrative ‘domestic trilogy’, you made the computer-generated Digital Still Life, Arbitrary Logic and Heads I Win Tails You Lose, which were included in Channel 4’s Sketches for a Sensual Philosophy.

It was a phase which was extremely interesting for me. It was at a time when there were really no software that you could use. I had to invent my own software. Sophisticated computers were incredibly expensive but my Atari was as sophisticated as almost any computer, and very cheap. You had to work through different sorts of resolution, it wasn’t high resolution but it was very engaging for me. I liked the process. The three works that I generated on the computer, Digital Still Life, Arbitrary Logic and Heads I Win Tails You Lose, were developments of a very complicated programme that I wrote that linked whatever was going on in terms of the colour values, the positioning, the tempo, etc, in the picture construction or generation and the audio. They were completed with a single interactive programme and that was very interesting to me that I was actually able to write something like that. There were lots of nested loops so one could put the value system in at the beginning and the rest of it was generated. I didn’t edit, I didn’t sequence anything, unlike now when I’m video editing, you know. That was entirely generated, and each of those works, if I changed the initial number values, it would produce a different work. But the objective then was whatever they produce would be interesting. Arbitrary Logic was my first interactive programme experiment. It was a playable programme – if you left the bottom series of the image to run, it went through a logical shift through the spectrum, from yellow through to dark blue. But if you clicked with the mouse any of those points it shifted that point in the sequence into another pitch or another colour, and the pitch and the colour used the same number system. It was quite complicated. I actually played it live as a performance with musician Keith Rowe, from the band AMM, running the programme from the Atari computer on a big screen. Arbitrary Logic got me very interested in the possibilities of interactivity, although that was not a direction I wanted to take.

It was a very particular project but again it obscured in a way that territory that I really want to get into, which is much more about the psycho philosophical cultural relations that come through a much more complicated or in-depth language you get with film. Now I am working with digital video. In a way there’s nothing that I can’t do that I want to do in digital video. The computer in that sense is quite limited, and of course now I have to give up on the idea that you have to do the programming, because actually most of what is now being available to you is much more general purpose, it’s not so specific. I used to say, “If you were using a computer programme that you didn’t write, then actually the artist is the person that wrote the computer programme.” But I don’t think that now because now it’s very general purpose, and the meaning isn’t the programme.

Manet drawing composite by Malcolm Le Grice (courtesy of the author).


AFTER LUMIÈRE, AFTER MANET

In After Lumière (L’arroseur arrosé) you reenact the same action four times from different points of view. Is the same piece of music repeated in each section, or was it recorded several times, one for each section?

The music is synch sound and was played three times. It was not dubbed later. I filmed the same action four times from different viewpoints, but the first one is silent. Then I filmed one section with the microphone outside the house, one with the microphone further outside, and one with the microphone in by the piano. When at the end the piano player comes out you can hear her footsteps as she walks across.

Your wife Judith Le Grice is the piano player. And she plays the Gnosienne no. 1 by Satie.

Yes. Judith hated Satie, but I made her play the Satie piece. I thought it belonged to the period.

William Raban is one of the performers.

He’s the man with the hose. He had his Gauloises in his pocket, so he wrecked all his Gauloises every time he got wet.

You chose the first narrative film in history as a base.

Yes, the first narrative film. And it’s a really stupid narrative, but quite spectacular. It was stupid when Lumière did it, it’s a bad joke, not even a good joke. And then the boy gets caught and spanked. And I didn’t want the boy to get spanked, and in my version it is a her, a girl [Marilyn Halford] dressed as a boy, and she laughs – you get little bits on the soundtrack, it is a sort of hidden real narrative of what’s going on behind the scenes. I also added a third character, the piano player, the woman of the house. But at the same time I was interested in the film material – four different materials for the four sections, black and white positive and negative, and colour negative and positive. It’s a film I think I like.

It’s a kind of period piece, very 19th c. – the costumes, the music. Why is it that Lumière, ‘the last of the impressionists’, is so much loved by experimental filmmakers?

Well, Lumière was before filmmakers became too sophisticated. The material is itself, and it is right on the ‘front’ of the screen, it’s not just for what’s represented behind the screen. It took me four years or so to establish the screen as the base point, the screen as environment. I asked myself the question, “Is there a materialist way of using the film camera?” I was kind of thinking in terms of, “If you have a continuous unedited film take, that thing that is on the recording of the film is a material recording, right?, it’s an indexical signifier, and if it’s unedited it becomes reliable evidence, OK?” Actually what you can see on the screen is all you can see as a ‘reliable’ record so it also becomes about what you can’t see – what’s hidden on the other side of the frame. It also tells you what you don’t know as well as being reliable about what you do know, and that becomes your area of speculation.

Malcolm Le Grice in After Manet.

My After Manet (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe), the four projector full screen piece, was an attempt to use the actuality of the recorded image as an equivalent to a materialist form, rather than a representation of form. That was the sort of background theoretical position we had. At the point when I made After Lumière the idea was that, by having someone dressing up in a Victorian costume, I was even going against experimental film, right? I was actually in some ways aware that I was breaking even the rules of experimental film. And I was interested in this. Really it is a mystery film, you don’t know what’s going to happen next and you are trying to work it out. And you think, “Oh gosh, it’s going to repeat again”. But then you have got a new viewpoint from the inside. It is actually a quite carefully structured film, although technically very badly made. I quite like the amateur aspect of it. I used to show it after I’d screened the original Lumière – I still have a copy of it but I can’t find it.

In After Manet (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) the four points of view are simultaneous and not successive as in After Lumière.

In After Manet I worked with some of the same people as in After Lumiére. [The four camera operators were the Filmaktion members William Raban, Annabel Nicolson, Gill Eatherley and Le Grice.] Though shot after After Lumière, its conception pre-dated that film. After working with the material of the film and concerned about what happens in front of the screen, I wondered whether I could do something that was materialist in the same way, but returning to using the film camera, which I had almost given up. I can’t avoid a little bit of jargon, but you probably know the kind of theoretical notion of the indexical signifier, the idea that the image on the film that was recorded through the camera was a sort of indexical signifier rather than a symbolic signifier.

It was a very complicated piece. Each of the four people ‘own’ a camera, so there are four cameras and four actors. It’s based on Manet’s painting Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which is itself based on Fête champêtre by Giorgione. I took that theme of the picnic on the grass with the same combination of men and women, and four cameras.

After this I became interested in the idea of multi-viewpoint, as well as in the choices that you make between screens. So I did a number of works including three feature length films I did for Channel 4 [the ‘domestic trilogy’] which were exploring the idea of multi-viewpoint. Slightly constructed narratives, not truly narratives with a proper story, but narratives in the sense that something was happening, but actually taking up the question of how you construct a meaning or a narrative that comes from the multi-viewpoint of the participants, rather than from the single viewpoint of the director.

Where did you shoot After Manet? Did you rehearse before shooting?

It was shot in north Devon on a farm where Mike Leggett was living at the time. We did not rehearse the action but each of the performers, who were also the camera operators, were given strict instructions for the ‘rules’ of shooting and an outline of the general structure. It was not exactly scripted but there was a set of rules about the movement of the cameras. For each reel of film the camera position moves, and they become identified with the people. When there is a negative sequence the images could include the other cameras, and if it is positive they can’t include any view of the other cameras. And from that point it was all improvised.

NARRATION AND THE DOMESTIC TRILOGY

In the late 1970s you made what you call your ‘domestic trilogy’, which is sort of narrative. Can experimental cinema be narrative?

It was a difficult step. I still don’t know for sure how to talk about that. There were three films, Blackbird Descending (Tense Alignment), Emily (Third Party Speculation) and Finnegans Chin (Temporal Economy), and they were made when it was possible to get funding for longer films through the British Film Institute, the Arts Council [Le Grice received grants from the Arts Council in 1974, 1977 and 1979] and Channel 4 particularly. There was also this big debate which was going on on two fronts – one, about feminism and film; and the other about film structure, film language, semiotics and so on. And of course I was involved in that sort of debate and I have to say I was influenced by that debate. It was also an opportunistic step in the sense that the money was there, but it was more than that. I never quite agreed with the idea that we tried to make the British experimental film like the European art film. I never wanted that, even with those feature films. Unlike Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, who wanted to be with Straub-Huillet in that kind of European art film. I didn’t want that, but I was to some extent influenced by the attempt to reinvestigate narrative or elements of narrative. The best writing I did about this, one of my best essays, is “Problematising the Spectator’s Placement in Film” [1981], which is in the book Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age [2001]. It is a good essay because it actually takes on the question of how viewer identification functions through ‘identification’ with viewpoint (of the camera) in the cinema – a suturing of the viewpoint between yourself and the apparent viewpoint of the person in the film. I was thinking a lot about that. At the same time when, after Finnegans Chin, I looked at the three films I thought, “This is not the right direction for me”. Actually I felt I was more right with the previous shorter experimental films that I had made. So I started to think, “I’ve got to reconstruct that and not take on these grand things which seemed to be flirting with narrative”. I still thought that narrative was retrograde, even though my three long films are not really narrative, Emily is not really narrative, it’s about the components of narrative, maybe, and certainly all three of them are about the components of narrative. Blackbird Descending is about four different viewpoints, a bit pedantic, you know.

But it works.

But I didn’t want to carry on doing that, and so after Finnegans Chin I spent a lot of time doing drawings, hundreds and hundreds of small drawings, really kind of trivial works.

WHARF

Did you stop making films?

There was a little gap until in 1982, I think, I bought the first of the Sony Video8 cameras. I loved it. I would take pictures and put them on my TV and I really liked that. So I got back into thinking how can I link what I do as a filmmaker more to what happens in my life. So it almost becomes a diary. I try to avoid calling it a diary, it’s not like [Jonas] Mekas’ diaries, but fragments from my own life which then I bring together in a way where the meaning is shifted into something not just personal, symbolic. All the material in the best works, like Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman, is completely personal. Everything in that film is shot by me, shot by me not for the film, but shot because I was shooting it, and it has a personal connection. But I’m looking always for the point where the personal is more than that, which is universal – I don’t mean universal, I don’t like the word, really, I don’t mean mythical even, for sure. Although I flirt with the mythical, like the connection to the Greek mythology. It’s not that I believe in the Greek gods, but it gives you a way of thinking. And alchemy – the structure in Even the Cyclops… is Earth, Air, Fire and Water. I know that’s not the construction of the world, I know Earth, Air, Fire and Water isn’t modern science in any way, but it gives a way of thinking that allows your own psychological relationship to it, to have something that has more universality, a kind of symbolic culture. First of all that shifted me from those narrative things, though there’s always a little narrative. I don’t know if you saw the little tape-slide piece Wharf, with the two people: that’s a narrative film, but I don’t know where the narrative is. Grass and Wharf were both tape-slide pieces

Did you take the photographs in Wharf yourself?

Before making films I used to take photographs. And I had those photographs and they had a mystery for me. I’d made them before I left Plymouth for London, which was 1961.

Were they taken in Plymouth, then?

That was in Plymouth. They are probably from 1957-58, while I was studying in Plymouth. When I did a tour in Germany in 1968 with my early films and some other things, organized by Birgit and Wilhelm Hein in Germany and Austria, I had made these photographs into a tape-slide thing, with two slide projectors, fading from one slide to another, a bit like a magic lantern show, and a tape-recorder with the music, two sound tapes which I was also mixing live. I could reconstruct the sequence for the digital video version because I recently happened to discover somewhere in my pile of old photographs this contact sheet where I had made these stills for the slides and I knew which order it was. I used to show it as part of a big ongoing thing which included sections of the film Talla, a very early personal/narrative/subjective film which I like very much. I would do this as a continuous performance, and they, Talla and Wharf, would overlap with each other.

I like the ‘latency’ of images. I’m interested in images that have a kind of latent meaning, a meaning you are not quite sure what it is. I like it when there is a sort of element of mystery about it that intrigues you, which doesn’t ever answer itself or get resolved, because there is an energy still there of uncertainty and mystery. These two people in Wharf – I’ve got no idea who they were, they were in a very strange situation, walking around this wharf. First of all it’s the mystery of not knowing what you are looking at – when the film starts you don’t know what you are seeing. Then you see this person, or something that looks like it is a person, and we all want to see people.

Yes. Narrative starts with people.

And then when you get to the people you don’t know why they are there. So it’s that kind of element of mystery.

What is the first image we see in Wharf? It looks like a kind of scaffold.

It is a swimming pool in Plymouth, which is a town rather like A Corunha. What you see is a big diving board right on the front of the swimming pool. You look at the film and you don’t know what it is. It just looks like a bit of industrial something.

Who is Emily? Malcolm Le Grice in Emily.


EMILY

This mystery you are fond of can also be found in Emily (Third Party Speculation), a film I love. The main character [played by yourself] is there and the woman enters, he is there but she cannot see him; she hears the sound of the door, turns her head and sees nothing. It’s like a kind of ghost story.

I agree. Emily is the best of the trilogy, but it’s a bit hippie. I don’t know. But yes, it’s fine. But I also like bits of Blackbird Descending, not all, and Finnegans Chin, although I was very irritated by the camera person. I worked with a camera person instead of doing it myself, and I didn’t like the way he shot it, and he would never do what I asked him to do, and so I kind of have a bad feeling about it. But there are some good things in it. And the monologue, the dialogue, is very nice, the spoken word in Finnegans Chin is really good. People don’t realize how good it is. I look at it and I think, “Yes, something’s going on there.”

Where was Emily filmed? Is it your own house?

Yes, it was my house, but the location was not important as the work was about dissociation of the senses and their re-construction – sound from image, image from touch.

Who is Emily? Is she, like Finnegan, a character from a nursery rhyme?

As you are now getting all my secrets – Emily is me – it is my Anima – it is M L E (in English it is said ‘em el lee’) and is M Le Grice, so the full anima is Emily Grace or M Le Grice. I carried on the ‘joke’ in an essay I wrote for a book on VALIE EXPORT [Staging EXPORT, VALIE zu Ehren (2010)]. Valie and I were born only one day apart – she in Vienna and me in Plymouth – so my fantasy essay sees us as brother and sister. The essay [“Naming Names and Telling Tales” by Emily Grace] is of course a complete fabrication but based on some real facts. I even invented a bio for Emily Grace – this was also published in the book (and I never allowed my real name to be included in the book).

Finnegans Chin was transmitted on TV [in April 1983]. What about the other two?

No, Emily was not shown on TV. It was Finnegans Chin and Chronos Fragmented [in July 1997]. And Sketches for a Sensual Philosophy [in July 1990 and September 1991], which was a series of video pieces. They were shown on Channel 4. You must have seen Emily at the National Film Theatre, I imagine. That was a beautiful projection. Yes, it’s a good film, I think. Ha ha.

[Other Le Grice films transmitted on TV were Berlin Horse (1979 and 1993 on C4), Horror Film (1982 on German ZDF) and Little Dog For Roger (1985 on Austrian TV).]

BLACKBIRD DESCENDING

Where was Blackbird Descending filmed? Is it your house? There are some seasonal changes in the garden. How long were you filming?

This was in my house in Harrow – the same house used in Emily and also used by Laura Mulvey in parts of Riddles of the Sphinx [1977]. The film was shot over a short period between Autumn and Winter.

Is the title a reference to Wallace Stevens’ poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”? Is the structure of your film based on that poem (both have 13 sections)? At the end of your film there is snow, as in the last section of the poem.

No, they are not related – I did not know the poem.

Maybe the title alludes, in reverse, to the “Lark Ascending” poem by George Meredith (or the musical piece, based on the poem, by Vaughan Williams)?

No. Blackbird Descending was first inspired (like Finnegans Chin) by a nursery rhyme – “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie. When the pie was opened the birds began to sing; wasn’t that a dainty dish, to set before the King. The King was in his counting house, counting out his money. The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey. The Maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes – when down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.” Thus “The Maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes when down came a blackbird…” equals Blackbird Descending. Also the distinct group of characters – King, Queen and Maid form a partial basis of the viewpoints (approximately). Plus Lis Rhodes, who is the typist, is the Queen/Blackbird, creating the fiction and reflecting on the creation of the fiction as a fiction.

You use ten-and-a-half-minute sequences. You even separate the first ones with black leader. And 13 10-minute sections give the length of the film. But after the seventh section it is difficult to identify the splits, as the editing becomes more elaborated. Did you keep this division in mind while editing? Or just forgot about it?

The uncut 400ft/10 minute sequences become the reference point for an edited review in the later part of the film.

In the end credits you acknowledge the influence of some films: Condition of Illusion [Gidal, 1975] (indoor space, writing on paper, loops); Wavelength [Michael Snow, 1967] (the photograph on the wall); At One [William Raban, 1974] (handheld camera in room and duplication of shots), The Visit [Tim Bruce, 1976] (simultaneity of continuous takes). But I believe your Blackbird also has points in common with Frampton’s (nostalgia) [1971]: time and space (voice and image) are split, and the spectator must make an effort to reconstruct it.

I accept this but it puts all those issues into the context of film as an indexical document.

On the wall there is an old photograph of what looks like a Japanese couple in front of their house. What is it exactly and why is it there?

The picture is just that. I think it simply draws a parallel between two kinds of domesticity, but again your guess is as good as mine.

How did you choose your actors? I read somewhere that you looked for performers who were not familiar with the activities they had to perform.

The selection was a little random. Jack Murray (who prunes the plum tree – a Prunus) often complained that I used performers like inanimate objects in a still life. The script did not allow the performers any space for improvisation. All their actions and dialogue are formal – even mechanical.

The film is about how the spectator constructs their own space-time. In that sense it is similar to After Manet, After Lumière, Emily and Finnegan. Shouldn’t we be talking of a ‘quintet’ rather than a trilogy?

I am not sure about this – After Manet and After Lumière were the first works of mine that explored the identification of viewpoint with a character (performer) in the context of treating film as indexical. But these do not take on the problems of a constructed fiction (narrative) nor the issue of the shift of identification from camera to character identification in the same way that Emily, Blackbird and Finnegan do. But my interpretation can be faulty! But it’s true all that work concerns itself with the condition of the spectator.

Blackbird shares with Emily a ghost-like quality. In Emily the characters share the same space, but maybe not the same time: they should be seeing each other, but instead they ignore each other. In Blackbird, towards the end, you introduce a ‘negative space’ where the camerapersons and microphones become visible, as if we could enter below the surface of the narrative. Was this ‘mystery’ something your were aware of when making both films?

Many of the underlying concepts of reconstruction by the spectator of fragments of represented reality are common in Emily and Blackbird… But Emily is about how to reconstruct a psychological space and Blackbird is more specific about the relationship between the viewpoint of specific characters – the identification by the audience with a represented character – see my essay “Problematising the Spectator Placement in Film”. This representation of the act of filming (the camera and tape-recorder, what you call the ‘negative space’) is now the aspect I think is largely unnecessary. I’m working on a new edit, although I have not completed a full re-cut as the digital copy I have is too low resolution. There are certain bits of it which I think are just not very interesting and don’t work, but the fundamental thing with the four characters and the four different viewpoints is working, and I think it quite interesting.

The negative space in Blackbird Descending.

What are the changes in the new edit?

Basically – I have taken out almost all the representation of the act of filming – all shot in negative – I don’t think this adds to the basic ‘struggle’ of the spectator to construct a coherence in the work.

I’m sorry to hear that. I think this ‘negative space’ is very powerful and essential to the otherworldliness and mystery of the film.

It is really important to know that the artist is not always the best judge of their own work. So – you may be right that the negative sequences in Blackbird should remain!!! In many things I do not trust my judgement. The use of this negative device to show the camera originated in After Manet. I set up a rule in it that when the negative material was being shot the other cameras could be seen – but never seen in the positive. I continued this device in Time and Motion Study and re-explored it in Blackbird. But remember, even when the camera is seen in the negative another camera that is not represented is also shooting this – an infinite regression.

Blackbird is also about an ‘eternal recurrence’ – the same actions happen time and again (although not perfectly aligned), through editing. But then, at the end, the repetition becomes ‘real’, diegetic: the ringing of the phone repeats inside the narrative, as does the coffee the man brings up and the taking in and out of the clothes. The taping and replaying of the sounds also duplicates their presence and temporality.

Yes – recurrence – but possibly not eternal as each repetition is a new version from a new subjective viewpoint. It is also a movement forward each time it ‘repeats’ so it implies other possible constructions of events and times (parallel universes?).

Timing script of Finnegans while editing (courtesy of Malcolm Le Grice).


FINNEGANS CHIN

The references to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in your Finnegans Chin are obvious: The ‘perpetual’ song “Michael Finnegan” has the same role as the song “Finnegan’s Wake” (about a Tim Finnegan) in Joyce’s novel; both are about the perpetual cycle of life (“again and again”); and both you and Joyce drop the apostrophe from the title. What brought you to Joyce and Finnegans Wake?

As I told you – I have never read Finnegans Wake completely. I have only ever read it in short sections and bit-by-bit. My starting point for Finnegans Chin was entirely the repeating song that I knew from a very young age as a child. The Irish song says: “There was a man called Michael Finnegan, he grew whiskers on his chinnegan. The wind came out and blew them in again. Poor old Michael Finnegan – begin again.” It’s a loop thing you do with children. And the performer sings this. Of course it’s related to Finnegans Wake, but it isn’t about Finnegans Wake.

I can’t find much information about Jack Murray [the performer in Finnegans Chin]. He also collaborated with you in Emily and Blackbird and as assistant in After Lumière. Who was he? What was his role in your ‘domestic trilogy’?

Jack Murray was a great friend for many years. He was a great film enthusiast and made information films for the government. He was also a very talented amateur actor/performer and – in a way – frustrated that he had never made this his real profession. My collaboration with Jack gave him the opportunity to be involved in some real creative film-making. The collaboration was mainly technical – he was a good producer and film technician. However – I brought him in as a ‘performer’ in Blackbird Descending and then as the central character in Finnegans Chin. He was very easy to work with and we had a long and pleasurable relationship until he died of lung cancer from smoking in the late 1990s.

Did you write the script? Did Murray have room for improvisation?

More than 90% of the script was pre-written entirely by me. All the word-plays and hundreds of puns were very carefully written by me and read by Jack un-changed and not improvised. I also included a few stories and improvisations related to Jack’s experiences as a child and young man in Edinburgh. These were made from edited audio recordings I made of Jack answering a set of my questions. These stories belonged to Jack. It is worth noting that Jack was Scottish (from Edinburgh) – not Irish – I never made any attempt to link my Finnegan directly to Joyce’s Finnegan and Irish culture. However, I was aware that my games with both verbal and visual language were very generally influenced by Joyce and a form of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ (repetitive dreamlike structure).

The film was funded by Channel 4 and filmed in a TV studio. Did you reconstruct the house in the studio? Did funding and the availability of a studio change your way of filming, or your idea of filming?

The film was shot in a large studio space at St Martin’s College of Art during the summer vacation (but rented by me from the C4 budget). Each (imaginary) location of the film – the breakfast room – the bedroom – the bathroom – stairs and hall-way were all constructed – and existed together for the whole shoot. They were very loosely based on a typical small suburban house of the kind Jack Murray lived in at that time in London. The final studio shot tracked around the whole set in a single take – revealing the construction. The final section of the film (revealing a kind of more documental reality) was shot in Jack’s home.

How long did it take you to film it? Did you rehearse much?

I do not remember the exact time it took – but it was about 3 or 4 weeks in the summer. We did not rehearse the script or general shooting plan – this was all pre-planned and the monologues were all pre-recorded – only the very last shots in the actual house were shot lip-sync. We did improvise the dance sequence in the studio and made a number of takes that were later edited. Most of the time was taken in setting the lighting and rerunning the very strict camera pans and tracks. Very difficult and with a very slow cameraman.

The film is very painterly (chiaroscuros, elements lit against a black background, distribution of space inside the screen), but it is also very musical, as the repetitions in the music have a counterpart in the repetitions in the shots and in the action. In a couple of instances, this parallelism is made obvious, as the cuts in the editing coincide with the notes in the music. Were you thinking in musical terms when filming and editing? Was the music commissioned for the film? Was it created after seeing the images, or made independently?

The music was performed by two ‘busking’ musicians. Whilst I was preparing the film I heard the Violinist and the Flute player (separately) playing in the London Underground stations. I put a note with my phone number in their ‘hats’ and invited them to contact me for a possible film job – which they both did. I had selected them because they were each able to improvise and had a kind of Celtic (Finnegan) feel. The other music was provided by a Chinese Chin or Cheng – a stringed harp like instrument (this is also the Chin of Finnegans Chin as well as the chin of his whiskers!). There is a small section of a Musical Saw – actually I faked the musical saw sounds with a primitive sine-wave synthesizer. (I ‘played’ the synth and the Chin/Cheng). The music is in a way very traditional film-music – making a counter-point to the visual action. Much of this was post-synced in the edit.

Finnegans Chin is subtitled “Temporal Economy”, but, like Emily, it is also very much about a “spatial economy”, as we as spectators construct the space (the door frame though which we see the stairs, the coat rack and the bike) just by adding spatial meaning to independent shots which we learn to read as belonging to the same place. Was the combination of elements (hat, umbrella) in the screen made through superimpositions, or just through lighting?

The reference to Temporal Economy is related to an essay of the same title [“Towards Temporal Economy” (1980)] that I wrote at about the same time. It is in Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age. In the film I was mostly thinking about the construction of a time experience through repetition and ‘corrective’ review. However – I accept your reading also as a ‘spatial’ economy. All the changes in the objects were achieved by lighting. None were super-imposed.

The times in the alarm clock go from 4:20 to 9:56, although not sequentially. Why these times? I could count about 7 awakenings. Does the action take place in a week?

I was not aware of the fact that there were seven times – I was more interested in the idea that time could go backwards as well as forwards in the repetition – and the relationship between the biological clock and ‘authorized’ public time determined by ‘going to work’ each day.

I believe I heard you say you were not quite happy with the film and that you would change things in it. What things? What is it you don’t like about it?

I would not change any of the basic structure – and in re-watching the film I am really happy with all the voice – word-play and stories. I am only unhappy that some of the camera movements – pans and tracks – are too slow. If it were possible – and I had a very high res digital version – I would find a way of speeding the camera movements – without speeding the actual movement of the characters.

Diagram of the space in Finnegans while preparing the film
(courtesy of Malcolm Le Grice).

Then, some 25 years later, you return (“again”) to Finnegans Chin and make Again Finnegan (Portrait of Jack), where you recover some shots from Finnegans Chin [Jack Murray shaving]. What made you go back to Finnegans Chin? Was it a kind of homage to the late Jack Murray?

I now treat the film as a little portrait of Jack, who had died recently, in 1998 or 1999. But I did not make Again Finnegan as an homage – just a portrait of a great friend. Of course there must be a sentimental element but I don’t stress that. And I just picked that particular piece as a portrait of Jack – I had a not very good digital copy of Finnegan, but nevertheless I had the material. I was doing a number of little portraits, Jonas Mekas [Jonas], Oppenheimer [DENISINED], yann beauvais [Yann]… which I still do. It was a very easy and usable section, and I wanted to be able to show that in a way I can’t really be always showing, because if I showed Finnegans Chin, which is a long film, I wouldn’t have got time to show anything else. I tend to be doing shows with audiences who aren’t well informed or who hadn’t seen all this, and all they would see is Finnegans Chin. And I like that bit of film, I love Jack, he’s a great friend.


CRHONOS FRAGMENTED AND THE CHRONOS PROJECT

Chronos Fragmented is a ‘home movie’ made up of ‘video poems’. But to understand the film we should be talking about your concept of RAM [Random Access Memory] editing.

Well, I should be as honest as I can about it. Actually we should be talking perhaps about two different things. One thing is the film Chronos Fragmented and another was the Chronos Project, a very long project I kept for about ten years. Ideally the Chronos Project worked like this – First I kept a huge database with material I shot with no pre-defined purpose. I always had a camera with me and I was shooting material all the time, whatever it was, without thinking about why, so it becomes kind of like a diary, though I already said I resist the term ‘diary’ because what I do is not about keeping a proper diary record but just shooting material. I’d been doing this with video8, with Hi8 and with digital video till I had a huge database. I collected some 40 Video8 tapes, another 20 or 30 Hi8 tapes and a huge amount of digital video. How did I deal with all this material? Could I make a database? That was my ambition. So I wrote a complicated computer programme which actually catalogued all the material and did an initial edit of the material, its structure. I went through the material to check the time base and the roll that it’s in, so I knew where to find each shot. And for each shot I wrote, just randomly, any words that come into my mind that relate to the shot – it can be descriptive, it can say ‘pan’, it can say ‘red’, it can say ‘face’ or ‘cup’. I didn’t have categories. I did this for all the material, and the next thing was to take my database and analyze all the word systems and see which ones are repeated and so on, so if I then go ‘moon’ and look for ‘moon’, the system will find all the shots that have ‘moon’ in it, alright? I also had a value or preference system – I’d just say, “This is an interesting shot because it has it got a latency value”, and I would grade it from 1 to 10. Then I could use the computer for doing various selections. It was also possible because I was then using a computer controlled Beta Video recorder system. I could use a programme that would generate an edit list that I could then put into the computer and I would swap the things over when it asked me for a certain tape. And the programme would bring together a kind of coherence; it would do a very crude but effective assembly based on certain verbal choices on the database. It produced a kind of thinking material which I then would look at but not necessarily stay with – The decisions I make are eventually very subjective. In a way what I’m doing is looking for a theme, as Vertov used to say. Vertov would shoot material and then in the editing, instead of imposing a theme, he would look for a theme. I could change the edit, I didn’t have to stick to it. I used some of the same material in FINITI and in Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman. I am often reworking material that I already have. This is something I like about the digital, that you don’t have necessarily a definitive version.

But of course in Chronos Fragmented there are some other things. I was travelling a lot at the time and I was getting into this kind of ‘wholist’ view, like I wanted to treat my environment as being the whole world, and the way people behave in the whole world, and the similarities there are between people in different places, and what motivate people in different continents. Chronos Fragmented is actually a global film, though I never thought of it too much like that. David Curtis said he was a bit concerned about it because it was almost like a film about globalization. But it wasn’t. It’s a very personal kind of relationship. It says things like the sun sets in the west and rises in the east – in that way it’s sort of prophetic, it’s like foretelling the new culture that is coming from China. But I knew what I was saying. So there’s all sort of things going on in the film.

It’s a kind of travelogue. You filmed in Croatia, China, Hong Kong…

And Serbia and Bosnia.

And you were travelling with a Ladislav.

[Croatian experimental filmmaker] Ladislav Galeta. But only for a small section – not all of the journey, by any means. The film is much broader than that. Sometimes I was travelling on my own, sometimes with Judith [Le Grice]. The image goes beyond the political content. First you see image – and if it has political content, fine, it’s interesting, like the stuff in Croatia. I was there at the time when they were a new nation.

“Birth of a nation”, as you put it in the film.

Birth of a nation, yes.

I’m not quite happy about that part. You picture the Serbians as being the bad guys, matching up with western capitalist official history. You don’t mention the Croatian massacres of Serbs in the Krajina, the first ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslavian war and the origin of this “Birth of a Nation” you quote.

I know, I know. It’s all fascistic. In that particular conflict I’m fairly confident that the politics were driven by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Serbia was attempting to maintain that. Croatia has a dreadful history. Yes, I’m aware of that. I did a lot of research and I talked a lot to people who had been involved in the politics of Croatia, so I did know about that. So is this an element of romanticizing? No, I don’t think so. But it’s a better film than I think it might… I don’t show it now. I now go to it for certain images sometimes I want to reuse. You picked up some [in the Q&A after the FINITI screening at the (S8) Mostra], I don’t remember which it was.

Yes, this beautiful shot of children skating on ice you reuse in FINITI.

Yes, that came from Northern China.

And the Chinese ballerinas as well.

That was just after Tiananmen Square.

William Raban is also credited as cameraman.

I can’t remember what I have from William there. I don’t recall him shooting anything. There is an image in there of Alicia, his daughter, feeding at her mother’s breast.

Oh, so that’s his daughter.

But I don’t think that’s what I credited. I can’t remember.

You pay homage to William Raban in Self Portrait after Raban Take Measure.

William Raban has this wonderful film performance which is for me really about film material and the materiality of time. It’s called Take Measure [1973; it was performed by Raban at the 2016 (S8) Mostra]. He takes a piece of film from the projector to the screen, and the length of the film is the length of time it takes for the film to go from the screen to the projector, which consumes the film. And I thought, “How can I do something equivalent to that in digital, where there is no film materiality, just zeros and ones and electrical pulses?” And I chose the time it takes for the light to come from the sun to the earth, and so the film is that length of time, 8 minutes 20 seconds.

Neither Here nor There, like Chronos Fragmented, is about war, about the war against Afghanistan as seen on TV.

I always thought of myself as being political, but not in the sense of making propaganda political films. Also my material images, usually found footage, are related to conflict. I think it is more about how the media represents conflict in the war than about war itself. I never know for sure why I’m doing something. But I didn’t want to shoot it as if they were raw images – I actually had the camera often touching the screen of the television so the sounds and the images are coming from very close up. You wouldn’t be able to do it on newer TVs. I was obvious anti what was going on, but was in no position to affect that, I couldn’t intervene in that kind of political situation, so I could only reflect on it and show my own puzzlement about it, you know. I’m always puzzled about why these things happen and how they happen. What I have always tried to do with my films is not to have an opinion about something but change the way people see things.

PERSONAL CINEMA – EVEN THE CYCLOPS PAYS THE FERRYMAN AND FINITI

As with quite a few materialist and structural filmmakers (Bill Brand, for example), after a while your (video) work has evolved to become more and more diaristic and personal. You even started making portraits of people.

I know. Well, I think that’s one of the things that video does, you see. It’s less precious than film. And as I keep saying, while film is intrinsically material, digital video is not intrinsically material. It can be transformed into any direction, it could be transformed into music or whatever, it’s part of the digital system and it’s utterly transformable. It’s the ultimate abstraction, because it’s just zeros and ones. It allows you to be less precious. But then the question comes, “What about philosophy, how important was the materialist aspect of the films we did?” And it’s a conflict. I’m still asking myself, “Am I still doing something that is that kind of radical materialism? Am I still doing that when I’m working with digital and making a kind of symbolic film like Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman? Am I still doing something as radical as we did, I did, when I was working with film?” I don’t know the answer to that. All I can do is just keep doing it. And I make the decisions piecemeal, bit by bit. You make this, you don’t know whether you got it right, then you do something else. You are trying to do it right when you are doing it, when I’m editing a bit I’m trying to do it right, whatever ‘right’ means, but I don’t know whether the whole thing is right. I have been totally inconsistent in my work. There is no single thread through it, really. I never really was concerned about having a coherent and consistent way of working. Mine is quite random, by the way. One of my desires is to be an entertainer. And as I get older I get more unsure about what I do. So please don’t take me too seriously, because I don’t necessarily believe everything I say.

When I looked to FINITI I thought, “Actually there’s no coherence, it’s an incoherent work.” I noticed it’s a kind of bombardment of all these kind of thoughts which are actually only vaguely structured together into a single thing, and they remain often unconnected. I tried to connect them, sometimes using the aesthetic device, and there’s an underlying semiotic order. But I don’t know whether that works or not.

Is Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman part of the Chronos Project?

For Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman I didn’t really use the computer programme I used for the Chronos Project. For me it is a kind of requiem for the death of my father, and my father is the Cyclops because he’d lost an eye. He only ever had one eye but he was very good with it. When he died I actually shot material of him in his coffin. I was very fond of my father. I liked him a lot. He was a sensualist. In the film you get images related to him: he grew grapes, loved wine, he is seen playing the piano. He really was a great lover of life. The film is a sort of portrait structured so that the mid point, when the boat goes across the water, is the point of passage into death. It is not a religious work – it is mythological and materialist. It is about life and the decay of the body, and maybe recollection at the end of your life – for example images of the dancers. In a way I am dealing with the materiality of death outside of any kind of mystical or religious concept. As in Little Dog for Roger, if we did an interpretation, which I don’t think I should do, but if there is an interpretation it is about the way in which we deal with the inevitable loss. I was trying to enjoy and live with the present, which is a very difficult thing for us to do. Our biggest problem is memory — in a way we are cursed with memory, because we know there was something in the past which we lost. But I don’t want to get too serious. To counteract the morbidity we have creative play, creativity in the present. That’s why I like jazz music. I like something that is simply a creative play, dealing with structure and colour and form and shape and so on and inventing something that didn’t exist before. It’s not all about the question of loss.

The FINITI we saw at the (S8) Mostra was a new single-screen version of a six-screen installation. The linear (temporal) edit of Chronos Fragmented becomes simultaneous (spatial) edit in FINITI.

FINITI was a six-screen gallery installation at the Tate Modern. I much prefer a sitting audience because the work has a construction in time from beginning to end. When you come into a gallery you never get too deeply into the work, you only get bits and pieces. The single-screen version, made in 2013, is different — It is shorter and it is reedited.

All the multi-screen work, one way or another, is comparative. The screens are in a way talking to each other. They are very similar but not always the same, and it’s the differences between one screen and another that make up the content. In FINITI (the single-screen video) I’m not so sure about that. When it was a (separate) six-screen work on a long wall there was much more relationship between one screen and another. In the single-screen version they become layered on top of each other, so in some ways here multi-screen is more confusing than when the screens are separate. And I’m not sure at this point whether I like it or not. I’m always very doubtful about new work, about whether what I’m doing is the right thing or is not the right thing.

With the multi-screen I would have four or five different edits of the same material. One screen would follow one edit, another screen would follow another edit. [The single-screen version] is very difficult to identify, because it is so layered, but it is the same material edited differently. But I think that my interpretation is that this, the whole of the work, is something about unconscious memory. It is also about the way that the world comes in at me – imposes itself in a way that I can’t control. I may have my own personal psychological relationship going on but these images from the world (what’s going on in war zones) are constantly going on in parallel – it’s a parallel universe. I cannot have a reference to that in the images of my unconscious. It is a bit like a nightmare. You are glad when you wake up.

And it is about the transient, how you can’t hold onto the passing moment. One of my reactions against Hollywood is that it takes us away from our own transient trivial life and takes us into living through other people – we are living through these images, these imaginary people, and that seems to me to detract from our own experience, and our own experience is always transient, is always passing, and when you get to nice old age you become aware that something is passing and memory doesn’t help very much, because you can have very nice memories, but they are not the same thing as being there. There is an intrinsic tragedy of loss, I don’t want to go too much into that because I don’t feel tragic, but it is part of the human condition. How many photographs are people making everyday? Selfies and that? As if some way or another you can preserve that moment and keep it. In the end you can’t. In some ways what I am trying to work with the film is your awareness of the thing being continuously lost even at the moment when you are seeing it.

Dark Trees.


DARK TREES

Your latest film is Dark Trees. Have you shown it yet?

No, I haven’t shown it yet in public, I have only circulated it to friends, but just because there has been no opportunity. I am happy with it.

Where was it shot?

It was shot from where I live in Devon. The shot sequences were made at different seasons.

It is a very painterly and plastic film, and at the same time it is quite mysterious.

I am glad if it is mysterious. I am still wanting to avoid any obvious built-in interpretation. The work should be mainly about the meaning the viewer makes, not about me. Of course it is impossible to take out my psychology and sensibilities, but I hope for something more ‘universal’.

How long have you worked on it?

It was a very complex film to make and I worked on it for over two years, on and off, never continuously. Though the production techniques were very complex, I want to avoid diverting the response to the way it was made.

There is a material aspect to the sound (the wind grazing against the micro) which nevertheless add to the mystery of the images. How did you make the sound?

The audio is a mix of the sound recorded by the various cameras during the shooting. The sound was not recorded separately but not necessarily remaining with the simultaneous video recording.

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