A Cut Above

By Catherine Elwes


Undercut, the pivotal ’80s journal of experimental film, is revisited in a new collection

Structural materialist film, for all its horror of conventional film practices, itself became institutionalised after its rise to avant-garde prominence in the mid 1960s. By the end of the 1970s, founding fathers Peter Gidal, Malcolm le Grice and their champions, now senior members of the experimental film culture at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, also found themselves in key educational posts from the RCA to St. Martins. Here they were responsible for intimidating and inspiring a generation of students who arguably represent the most creative group of UK fine art filmmakers active before the cultural stage changed once again in the early 1990s.

It was this group of young filmmakers who in 1981 launched the magazine Undercut, from which this excellent anthology of articles is drawn. Undercut was linked to, but independent of the Co-op. Like the Co-op, the journal was ruled by principles of collective endeavour and the content of the magazine centred around practice as well as the theories that informed and transformed it. As was common among video and performance artists, filmmakers considered writing to be a part of their practice and were frequently inspired to write about one another. The Reader is rich in exchanges between artists, recreating the discursive ferment and aesthetic pluralism characteristic of the period that immediately followed the decisive moment of materialist film.

It is fascinating to read of the various strategies adopted by individuals to cast off the prohibitions of structural materialism and draw fruit from the desert that remained when the evacuation of meaning left the mythic material of film open to the elements. Informed by feminist analyses of representation, Nina Danino reintroduces the ‘intense subject’ as the kernel of filmic expression, the subject struggling to ‘find a way to speak itself’ in an alien linguistic tradition. Still convinced of the necessity to eschew the deceptions of characterisation Mike O’Pray nevertheless allows for an unconscious level of fantasy to circulate in the phenomenology of the filmic spectacle. Michael Maziere, similarly committed to reinstating subjective experience into film theory, offers the concept of ‘poetic empiricism’ in which knowledge may be grasped intuitively though the senses, associatively drawing on memories activated by the images on the screen. Notions of difference, of the radical potential of exploring the ‘other’ in the context of cultural, racial and sexual difference, are debated throughout the book.

New theories of visual pleasure, the urge to narrativise, the demotic potential of landscape, the evolution of hybridity and a kind of speaking in tongues that Rod Stoneman calls polysemy are similarly aired whilst the political efficacy of the varying forms these works take is hotly debated.

In his characteristic vertiginous prose, Peter Gidal upbraids the new generation for betraying the principles of materialist film and falling back into the illusion that “perception equals knowledge".

It remains for Nicky Hamlyn, in a lucid and elegant chapter, not only to point out the internal contradictions in the materialist argument but to argue for the importance of its lessons to the ’80s generation and indeed, the current generation of moving image artists for whom language is once again regarded as an unproblematic, transparent medium.

As one might expect, the Undercut Reader is predominantly concerned with film and, where video is discussed, much of the suspicion with which it was regarded in the ’80s is expressed… sometimes with startling hostility. Mike Dunford dismisses video in general as ‘a rush back to unreflective representation” and Scratch video in particular as “an unending stream of sweet vomit". It is left to Mick Hartney and Nick Houghton to delineate the specificities of the medium and reconfigure the project of early video art as the critique of broadcast television that it was. Historically, these distinctions are relevant, although the convergence of media in the digital age has dissolved the old oppositions of film and video. But many of the issues raised in both contexts are of contemporary relevance and I am cautiously optimistic that the book will be widely read by both practitioners and academics interested in the period (although they may be frustrated by the lack of an index).

I cannot guarantee that a younger generation of artists will be equally interested in this compelling evocation of ’80s debates around film, but if the book raises awareness and curiosity about the films that were made, then it must be marked as a success. Most of the filmmakers are still productive and although many of their innovations have seeped into the wider cultural landscape, their provenance is lost and much would be gained by recovering not only their writings but also their original films.

Catherine Elwes is currently writing a history of video art for publishers I.B. Tauris.

The Undercut Reader, Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video

Eds: Nuna Danino & Michael Maziere, Wallflower Press
£19.99 pbk 1-903364-47-7, 288 pages.

Also published by Wallflower:

Light Readings: Film Criticism and Screen Arts
By Chris Darke

Essays and reviews addressing important questions about the state of contemporary cinema, the values of film criticism, the rise of digital media and film in the gallery. Includes interviews with Atom Egoyan, Bill Viola, Olivier Assayas, Jacques Audiard and Xavier Beauvois.

"An inspired collection of essays on the interface of new medias and their mutual influences" – Film Comment

£12.99 pbk, 1-903364-07-8