Whither the Avant-Garde: The ICA Biennial

By Chris Petit

Chris Petit has directed several features (Radio On, etc.) a Miss Marple for the BBC, and made documentaries about J.G. Ballard, air-stewardesses, weather, surveillance cameras, and used books. His novel, Robinson, was published in 1993, and he’s now finishing his next.

At the recent ICA Biennial discussion on whither avant-garde/independent cinema, the main unasked question was: wasn’t it ever thus? British independent cinema has invariably been about squabbling over too few crumbs, and as the debate unfolded, with its growing sense of déjà vu, the uninvolved listener could have been forgiven for asking, what year are we in? 1973? 1982? 1989?

The old argument about the superiority of film over video was trotted out yet again, along with that other chestnut: the sanctity of the film-going experience (a community in the dark sharing the dreamlike state of flickering images... zzzz!) versus the flatter worlds of tape and TV. Is the distinction still worth making? Less and less according to the programme notes, the gist of whose argument is that British independent cinema is alive and well and fraternising with its old enemy, TV, now the major sponsor of a tradition that was once its antithesis. TV could be said to have bought off and absorbed the opposition – in time-honoured English fashion – though this is too simplistic a conclusion.

The creation of an ‘independent’ production sector has allowed this only vaguely related ‘independent’ cinema to feed minnow-like off these larger creatures swimming in the commissioning pond. That much seems clear, though further definition is a problem as the word ‘independent’ has always lacked media clarity. When Channel 4 started there was the idea that the ‘independent’ sector of British cinema could decamp into TV. For a while ‘independent’ production companies could proclaim to be independent in both senses of the word. But nowadays independent production is more likely to mean Verity Lambert than Large Door.

Suffice to say that ‘independent’ cinema stood for an opposition to tradition, be it aesthetic or political. Even so, the word always was something of an illusion, its suggestion of a loose affiliation of like-minded people a mirage. The boundaries were too blurred and contentious, and too much territory was disputed by in-fighting. Suffice it also to say that TV is a sufficiently amorphous and hungry medium to pay lip-service to, and toy with, this tradition. It’ll take what it needs and discard the rest. The obvious attraction of this cinema is its cheapness. In budget terms, independent cinema is competitive.

There were those in the ICA audience who inevitably announced themselves excluded by this new deal, and argued, not without foundation, that new TV is much like old TV in its cronyism. These outsiders are the next generation, impatient in the way that the next generation always is, video’s equivalent of garage bands, using new technology to make zero-budget productions with no orthodox means of outlet.

But they needn’t fret. TV, in its voracity and efforts to find ever new ways of cutting costs, will turn its attention to the more talented among them and, as they become absorbed by the system, they will learn that the procedure is more complicated than their current noisy exclusion suggests. Their basic misapprehension is that there is only one threshold to cross and once entry is gained the film-maker frolics in the lush pastures of sponsorship. Wrong! A career in these margins, if career it can be called, consists of endless thresholds, with many that remain uncrossed. For every project made by a film-maker, half-a-dozen stay unmade; TV is market-led, even in its peripheries.

Furthermore, independent cinema brings with it its own problems – dogged by lack of cohesion and continuity and, dare one say, by lack of any great outside interest, compared to the world of the arts, with its high-brow sponsorship, broadsheet coverage and squabbles in print: Saatchis don’t sponsor David Larcher! As for TV’s patronage, it can be only partly beneficial. For a start, the commissioning process filters out anything that could be regarded as dangerously oppositional, and so a vital function of this type of cinema becomes even more marginalised. Endless meetings serve as a form of reduction until risk (and passion) become eliminated. TV is a process of consensus, as we all know, which results in a general conservatism. It is also less concerned with imagination than representation. These are generalisations, of course, but they hold in that most examples that stand against the argument (Gangsters, Edge Of Darkness, The Boys From The Black Stuff, The Prisoner and The Avengers, The Singing Detective, to take just drama) are remembered as exceptions to the rule.

Personally, I find myself veering between thinking that TV Is supposed to be crap, that is should be low-brow and populist (rather The Word than Middlemarch), and astonishment that one of the most extreme pieces of work in any medium in the last 15 years – Alan Clarke’s Elephant – should have been made for TV. This is not an entirely inconsistent view: English culture, like English life, gets more interesting if you knock out the middle and collide what’s left.

Independent cinema traditionally has had an oppositional quality, often by definition radical, whereas TV, with its bias towards balance, is though invariably political, only fitfully radical, and over the last 15 years has become less so. My impression is that most commissioning now is a result of social rather than political choice. (Cf. the pamphlet yet to be written: The Significance of the Groucho Club in the History of TV Commissioning. Nor is it accidental that the Charlotte Street restaurant trade boomed during Channel 4’s tenure there).

The commissioning editor, previously anonymous, is a high-profile post-80s figure, often with a track record of in-front-of-camera experience and other jobs in hand: a face with a non-exclusive contract. The vanity of autourism (masquerading as ‘agenda’ to use the fashionable term) is now the privilege of the TV executive.

The independent production sector is in many ways the legacy of Thatcher’s small business ethos (the new nation of shopkeepers). It is of necessity entrepreneurial, and TV is falling in with the rest of Britain by becoming part of the new warehouse/supermarket culture. Sure, there’ll be some kind of ethnic beans of display, but there’s plenty that doesn’t get stocked. With so much on show it’s easy to overlook what’s missing. Increasingly TV shops for product (shopping is now recorded as the UK’s principle leisure activity) and in the end is probably more choosy than cinema, which occasionally shows signs of entertaining considerations other than pure product.

Post-1968, independent cinema, and its attendant critical writing was often rigid and dogmatic, humourless and charlatan, paranoid, isolated and polysyllabic, but there was at least some sort of afterlife for the films in question, a tradition which the Biennial is trying to resolve, to its credit. By being written about this cinema became part of a general catalogue and, painful though that process often was, there was at least a line of opposition. Now, by contrast, everything seems based on general agreement: the consensus of current TV and film journalism, the consensus of the commission. In TV production all the effort goes into the setting up of a project, more so than in the case of cinema, where at least there is some form of release at the end of the process. When there’s not much prospect of an afterlife, all the work goes into the birth.

This is rarely a straightforward process. Dealing with the BBC involves understanding arcane rules of grace and favour probably unseen outside the corridors of St Petersburg in its pre-revolutionary heyday. Try getting a decision! From my experience it is quicker to set up a feature film at the moment than a music and arts documentary! But we all know that the BBC is in trouble. Its behaviour conforms to that of any large organisation forced to examine its spending policies and cut costs. The fate of its middle managers is in keeping with that of middle management elsewhere: an increased workload with diminished powers. As for Channel 4, it is now largely TV as packaging. If it reflects the times it is because it has become as themed as the rest of Britain: TV as primary colours.

A walk down the corridors of the BBC shows how Britain, as usual, continues to reverse into tomorrow. Bits of it look shiny and new, but too much is caught up in the repeats of the past. In terms of product, the BBC lags way behind the often unnoticed social revolution that has been going on for the last 15 years. Most TV, beyond live sport, feels curiously unconnected from the times we live in.

As for the future, there will be an acceleration of images, that much is clear, but how these images will be transmitted interests me less than how they might fit into the already established shape of things.

Travelling around the country, it is possible to see evidence of the new Britain being put in place. There has been a migration away from the centre to the peripheries, a movement reflected in the decline of the High Street and in the dismantling of hierarchic organisations and their relocation in Colorado-like retail business parks. Any Sunday outing already shows a Britain that in all likelihood will look pretty much the same in 30 years’ time: milling crowds in carefully preserved Cotswo(r)ld villages selling their middle-brow tat; milling crowds in the perimeter warehouses and garden centres. What is and will be on offer is a mixture of heritage and DIY, and the social and cultural emphasis will be increasingly on the latter: fend for yourself.

Mainstream British cinema will no doubt continue in its own way, propelled by its most exportable impulses: heritage, particularly comic heritage. This was obvious in the case of Four Weddings And A Funeral, less so in The Crying Game, which nevertheless confirms, if you accept the Irish questions as part of English heritage, and take the twist of the central relationship as a variation on that old comic standby, the odd couple.

I see no reason for this to change, especially as TV has a long tradition of comedians, usually fostered by radio, who graduate without much difficulty to international cinema. A slight change has occurred in recent years in that British cinema has become more ecologically sound in its adherence to the principles of recycling. Now everyone gets another chance: Loach, Frears, Blair. Gone are the curmudgeonly slow fades of Lindsay Anderson and Michael Powell.

As for any alternative tradition, there is a hiatus. Jarman is dead and Greenaway is too much his own man to be an influence on others (and, increasingly, the cinematic equivalent of a Brussels Euro-MP). Most hope seems to lie in the emerging DIY school, which one sees in the films of Patrick Keiller and the Brothers Quay. As creators of their own systems, they demonstrate a self-sufficiency that is at least one way forward.

In 1979, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Tony Rayns noted that what united British directors was the very thing that separated them: their isolation. This quality is both a strength and weakness of marginal British cinema. It allows careers to film-makers like those above who, in the face of high odds manage to establish themselves, but at the cost of a wider continuity. British cinema of all types is too full of one-offs. It is a point of curiosity and puzzlement that landmark films like Performance and Peeping Tom end up having curiously little influence in the long run. (The initial fate of both was not helped by indifferent distribution and critical antipathy).

The question of Britishness raises itself in the selection of films in the Biennial. To what extent are they British and does it matter if they are or are not? Even those which do dramatise English life aspire to an American-type toughness (which is not to make a case for or against them). Most of the films in the programme are distinguished by a strong sense of individuality, but whatever sense of identity or rebellion they have tends not to be national.

The point here is less to do with what the films have to say for themselves, but with the larger question they raise about the tradition of such a cinema in Britain. First, they are curiously un-date-tied. Each work, in terms of subject if not technology, could have been made at any point in the last dozen years. Though many of them address a fashionable agenda – to use the modish word again – of gender, eroticism and sexual politics, I wonder about their capacity to prove a lasting influence. Perhaps it was always so with the British avant-garde; or perhaps this new sense of statelessness is to do with the erosion of old boundaries. I would like to think so, but doubt it. More likely, the programme is further evidence of the continuing vacuum in which British avant-garde cinema exists. If there are two things the British mistrust it is the commercial and the avant-garde. Lindsay Anderson remarked towards the end of his life that the problem was that the British just don’t care about culture.

It is in face of this indifference that one has to ask, in the end, what does the British avant-garde reflect and what does it contribute? Would it be missed if it weren’t there? Again, this is not to denigrate the films on display, merely to point out the irony that independent cinema suffers, in the long run, from the same problem as TV: things get quickly forgotten. This is in part to do with an absence of critical writing (and hence memory). Cinema, until now, has been within the scope of living memory to anyone born up to the mid-century. Critics like Godard, Raymond Durgnat, Paul Schrader, Manny Farber and David Thomson were able to access the ‘history of cinema’ as it unfolded. The sheer volume of TV makes this virtually impossible, and few have tried. TV criticism amounts to no more than dinner party commentary. There is no equivalent to Manny Farber writing here about TV, except perhaps Ian Penman, who is woefully under published.

I wonder in passing: are there or were there ever the English equivalents to Un Chien Andalou, Straub and Huillet, or Michael Snow’s Wavelength? Even our landscape, which has inspired so much visual art, doesn’t seem to interest film-makers, whereas the American avant-garde has a strong topographical tradition. Nor does the essay form used by European film-makers seem of much concern to us. How cinematic are we? Sometimes I wonder if many directors who are assumed to be cinematic aren’t in fact theatrical, a list that includes Greenaway, Jarman, David Hare and Terence Davies. Film for all of them is to do with the staging of scenes that is linear and time-based rather than spatial, each scene carefully framed. Godard once pointed out that most modern film-makers misunderstand the term framing, taking it to mean the composition of a particular shot rather than its relationship to the one before and the one after. The centring of the image, to the exclusion of what Godard meant, is what most cinema is mistakenly about, and perhaps the main reason why British cinema is so peculiarly inert (theatrical and repetitious).

Godard has shown how it is possible to incorporate the avant-garde into other systems – essays, features, a two-part history of the cinema. Godard’s work is distinguished by a furious thinking, not just about content but also about form, a process of which there is little evidence here. Peter Wollen, who perhaps had the opportunity to apply Godard’s methods, has had only a fitful career as a film-maker and now teaches in Southern California; migration again. But then a tradition of thought (visual as much as philosophical) informs French cinema in a way that it does not ours. It can be applied across the board, so that Rivette, Marker and Rohmer, all very different film-makers, can also be seen as loosely belonging to it. To return t the question of isolation, it is almost impossible to find two directors in this country to link in a similar way. David Hare, Neil Jordan, Derek Jarman, Patrick Keiller, Peter Greenaway – do they have anything in common, and if not, then can we expect anything other than a fragmented cinema?

The case of Derek Jarman is interesting in relation to several films in the Biennial. On the evidence here, he was the most influential film-maker of his generation, with a strong contingent of camp followers. He is also an example of how English high culture – often homosexual – can comfortably absorb the avant-garde. Had he lived I have no doubt he would eventually have been offered a knighthood!

Mainstream British TV and cinema are pragmatic on the whole, and their reluctance to incorporate the more radical and visionary literary work – J.G. Ballard and Iain Sinclair to name two – is a mark of their limitations. However, we probably have to accept this as a fact. Sinclair’s is essentially a tradition of scavenging, and he has noted signs of the same impulse in the work of Patrick Keiller. I’m past being concerned about whether British cinema and TV are a cause for optimism or pessimism. They are what they are, so we might as well get on with it. The debates of the last 25 years have resolved nothing. Besides, the most interesting avant-garde work in this country is going on in the interstices – in fine art, publishing and performance – rather than in film or TV, both of which appear increasingly cumbersome media.

Look at the making of any big film or TV production and you’ll see that both are dinosaur media, with methods as cumbersome as any 19th-century industrial process. The time it takes, the labour involved (I’m constantly amazed at the length of film credits), the unwieldy size of the equipment and the quaint notion of making little railway tracks to move the camera – all belong to another world in the electronic age.

Sixteen years ago it took us a day to organise and shoot a fairly elaborate Steadicam 35mm shot around an apartment. Last year I shot its equivalent in 10 minutes myself of a Sharp Hi-8 with no discernible loss of quality. (One of the reasons I gave up making feature films was the school-like organisation of the days. They reminded me of bad playground experiences. Besides, you had to get up too early and spend too much time getting nervous about food!). If DIY is part of the next cultural phase, then we can look forward to two things. Much greater technical independence for film-makers as everything becomes within desktop reach. At the moment the only item beyond personal cost is post-production, and even that will soon be within range. With this – and one can already see it – will come the disadvantage of pared budgets. Once TV appreciates just how cheap it is to produce passable filler made by one man and a dog, we’ll all be expected to work for next to nothing. If you won’t someone else will, especially as any idiot can work a Hi-8 camera. However, if there is to be a new independent cinema in this country I can see it coming out of this area rather than the usual enervated ones dependent on subsidy.

For the moment, TV conspires to promote Hi-8 as an essentially amateurish medium that necessarily looks crappy. This is not true. There is no reason why it shouldn’t look good, even cut with 35mm film. The point about Hi-8 is that it opens up the margins again, those margins that TV has largely eradicated. It becomes possible to keep an alternative record of the times to that offered by TV, which, for all its voraciousness, is surprisingly slow to get around to cataloguing change.

For me, the biggest single technological breakthrough of the recent past is the development of the Sharp Hi-8, which frees the user from using the viewfinder, instead showing the image being filmed on a colour screen as it is being shot. Here is a camera that is a vast leap forward: what you see is what you get, with instant playback. No laboratories, no rushes, no transfer. The new microchip technology makes all previous forms nearly, if not immediately, redundant. The ponderous assembly of crews and production schedules become things of the past. Under this old system, film-making is invariably about what you can’t have: can’t have the track, can’t have the helicopter. Using Hi-8 I’ve found that I can shoot more or less what I want. Furthermore, distribution outlets will fragment as choice multiplies. Access TV will remove the editorial filtering that bedevils TV. CD-ROM should allow more flexible production and distribution, plus the introduction of new hybrid forms that combine image and text. Perhaps in 50 years’ time we’ll all be making films, just as we all now drive cars. Maybe even making films instead of driving cars.