Ever since 1891, when Thomas Alva Edison – the quintessential American – became the inventor of the motion picture rather than his brilliant English employee, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, the British cinema has had an American-sized chip on its shoulder. And the British avant-gardists are no exception to that rule.
So it should come as no surprise that Great Britain was the only country to truly take the American avant-garde seriously. And it did so in the classic fashion: by trying to do its parent one better. By its own telling, the British avant-garde was aesthetically purer and infinitely more ideologically correct than its largely “decadent bourgeois” American counterpart. The BFI has just released a fine summary of that bizarrely Oedipal moment, as manifested in Malcolm Le Grice’s Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, a collection of his essays on film, video and digital art. The title is rather misleading; while several more recent essays do discuss computer-based art, the overwhelming majority were written between 1972 and 1982, and functionally predate the digital era.
One of the key figures in the British avant-garde, Le Grice was simultaneously one of its finest filmmakers and most important theorists, beginning in the late ’60s. Best known for his wonderful book, Abstract Film and Beyond (1977), Le Grice tirelessly wrote, showed films and organized film collectives.
By the late ’60s, America boasted two great filmmaker/theorists – Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage – so England turned out its own in Peter Gidal and Malcolm LeGrice. Gidal, actually a transplanted American, was the louder, more polemical, and possibly more influential of the two. But the almost comically rigid crypto-Marxist formalism Gidal so vehemently defended spawned some of the most unbearably dreadful movies known to man: namely, his own. Many people (including myself) read Gidal’s essays and want to see what his films look like. After seeing those films, few choose to inflict them on others. Rarely has it been easier to dismiss a manifesto on the basis of what it advocates.
Le Grice is another case altogether. Superficially, his ideas seem very similar to Gidal’s, but he took them with a grain of salt that made all the difference. Where Gidal often comes off as something of a bully in print, Le Grice is rather more circumspect. Even while advocating a radical, formal purity clearly inspired by Marxist politics and rhetoric, he maintained his peculiarly English modesty and sense of humor.
The difference between the two becomes most apparent in comparisons of their films. Gidal’s sterile aridity is in marked contrast to the pathos of Le Grice’s Berlin Horse (1970) or the transcendently witty puzzles of Blackbird Descending (Tense Alignment) (1977). Unlike Gidal, Le Grice never let his theorizing get in the way of his films. One often gets the sense that he jiggers the theory to accommodate his movie. Which is as it should be, and all too rarely actually is.
Unfortunately, Le Grice was hardly immune to the windy, ideologically-inspired bloviating that dominated the ’70s and ’80s. Most of his essays spend an inordinate amount of time ruminating on the political implications of various editing strategies. It gets very tedious very quickly, and even if you do manage to slog through it, none is of any more than historical interest, if that. It gets a lot more interesting, however, when Le Grice just goes ahead and describes what was going on in the London film scene, what people were making and seeing, and what they had to say about it.
Thankfully, Le Grice includes transcriptions of his late ’70s debates with Brakhage and Sitney, held in Boulder, Colorado in 1978 and Millennium Film Workshop in New York in 1977, respectively. The Le Grice/Sitney debate, in particular, is fantastic. One of the few film theorist/historians active in the ’70s possessed of a healthy dose of cynicism, Sitney forces Le Grice to defend his already haphazardly supported dogma. Both are good-humored, and the exchange is fascinating.
On the whole, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age is a tough sell. Le Grice’s more recent writings are of the least interest. But his writing in general suffers from the forced academicism that blights most books on film theory. It’s unfortunate, because he seems capable of better.
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