Three seminal 70’s films from the London Film-makers’ Co-op

The girl Chewing Gum
Still from 16 mm film , The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) courtesy of the artist

Tate Britain recently celebrated 50 years of the London Film-makers’ Cooperative with a screening of six films and a display of archive material. I was struck by their manifesto which defined film “as language, as poem, as instrument of passion and logic” but against “the gimmick, the kitsh, the chi-chi, the B-feature worship”.  This gives a flavour of the era when artists’ growing aversion to the dominant pop art movement of the 60’s was leading to a deeper engagement with the world.

John Smith   The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976

This off-the-wall, ground-breaking film was the best thing in this exhibition. It is based on the conceit of passers by in a Hackney street apparently responding to instructions of a mildly hectoring but encouraging film director. “Come on look at me…good”. The commentary takes a more surreal turn as a slightly erratic zoom to a clock face is accompanied by the director calling out “Now the clock to move to jerkily towards me”.  Like all Smith’s work this wryly amusing take also offers deeper insights – in this case into the illusory nature of film. The Tate website includes an In Focus research project exploring the theoretical and historical context of the film authored by a leading moving image art scholar, Dr. Erika Balsom. She argues that, as a film about film-making, it pushes the post modern envelope much further than the popular Truffaut film, La Nuit Americaine, which I remember hugely enjoying as a teenager on its 1974 release. Its opening live action street scene is like an inverse of Smith’s, when it is revealed that the apparently real passers by are in fact extras choreographed by the director.

Malcolm Le Grice   Threshold, 1976

Viewable online this intriguing and visually captivating film uses multiple recycled and distorted versions of a short sequence of activity around a border post. The migrants and guards are presented through red and green filters of different strengths to give a dream-like aura. For me the red/green binary evoked a blood-chlorophyll /stop-go/ death-life symbolism. Its title points to its universal relevance applicable in the U.K.’s current political crisis which is driven by the atavistic fear that boundaries represent, a concept so brilliantly illuminated through the the seminal ethnographic work,  Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas.

Lis Rhodes  Dresden Dynamo, 1971

This startling “optical sound” experience is an experimental abstract 16mm film work that predates the Vasulka’s similar video-generated Machine Vision but has the same visceral impact. Letraset and letratone is directly applied to the celluloid and then fed through filters to produce the final version. The sound track is generated by the film itself and this is uncannily like the drone of WW2 bombers. You feel the phalanx of planes, the cascading of bombs and the snapping of the Dresden firestorm. As Tacita Dean might say “Bring back celluloid. There is something more authentic about it than digital film.”