Thoughts on Screen

By Catherine Elwes

william-raban.jpgFrom left to right: Thames Film, 1986; William Raban; A13, 1994

The subtle London meditations of William Raban make time real

William Raban is an established experimental filmmaker, whose commitment to the business of creating and experiencing film stretches back to the early 1970s, when his practice evolved in the creative ferment of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op together with such luminaries as Malcolm le Grice, Annabel Nicholson and Gill Eatherley. To celebrate his achievements, the BFI have recently published a DVD collection of Raban’s works, including early structural experiments exploring the specificities of the filmmaking apparatus and mid-career films such as Thames Film (1986), part visual poem to the river, part historical document. The anthology comes up to date with recent works that, in the case of A.13 (1994) and M.M. (2002), mark a fusion between the more lyrical tendencies in Raban’s work and a continuing engagement with the problematics of representation, technology and spectatorship.

Time – actual, illusory and projected – is a thematic thread that unites this diverse portfolio of work. In his early films, Raban binds himself and the viewer to the rhythmic, clockwork materiality of film cameras and projectors in an attempt to pin down something that could be described as NOW. As the artist says, tied to the pulse of the clicking shutter, ‘time becomes real’. In one of his most materialist moments, Raban forces his camera to gaze directly into a projector’s gate, emitting pure light. In Diagonal (1973) the ‘eye’ of the projector is interpreted by the camera as a simple black square in a field of light. The illusory forward march of time in narrative film is reduced to a minimum in slow diagonal pans across the gate, creating a sense of continuous present, with camera and projector locked into a flickering staring contest.

And yet the work demonstrates the impossibility of ever defining the present as either existential experience or ideological concept. In spite of Diagonal’s apparent stasis, time slips away both in the duration that marks the viewing of the film and the temporal gap that has opened up between the historical moment in which the film was made and the fleeting present in which Raban, interviewed at the end of the DVD, describes how he made the work. ‘Now’ is already two points in history.

History also permeates Raban’s epic documentary, Thames Film. Drifting down the river in a spectral craft, Raban records in long meditative sequences the landscape of faded industry that characterised the river in the 1980s. In the editing of the film, Raban dissolves from historical prints to equivalent contemporary views, searching out the past in the places where its traces remain. Already distant in the age of pre-urban renewal, the film is a tapestry of ghosts reflecting the condition of film itself, a medium that, even as it brings those ghosts momentarily back to life, is always, already in the past.

The more recent past is evoked in Raban’s film A.13 which, like Thames Film, creates a portrait of London through a series of Vertovian impressions recorded by the artist as he wanders the streets, his eye pinned to the ordering frame of the viewfinder. Time is periodically crunched through time-lapse sequences and we fly the streets at dusk, scattering a vertiginous trail of city lights as we go. Over the 12 minutes of the film, the eponymous Limehouse Road Link comes to life, with no concern for the communities it carelessly displaces.

In M.M., the troubled frame of the Millennium Dome rears up, half-naked, surrounded by the rubble of its own building site. Raban reaches further back in time and shows us footage he shot in 1987 when the power station that used to stand on the site was demolished. Although these films might seem to weave a subtle critique of Thatcherite free market ideology and the dominance of transportation over the needs of a community, they also speak of Raban’s lifelong fascination with the business of representation, of the world experienced through the lens of a wilful, itinerant camera. As he puts it, it is the rhythmic pulse of the shutter, and the purring of the projector that hold the artist’s and viewer’s thoughts, that focus the attention and contrive to make the process of looking and the marking of time material... real.

If this DVD collection is experienced as a video on a small screen, it will not do justice to the mesmeric properties of the projected experience of Raban’s films. My recommendation would be to find a data or video projector and set off a metronome or some mechanical counter to reconstitute the beating of time that the projector once provided. It will not match the delicate palate of colour and tone of the original films, but it will give a sense of the immersive quality and poetry that Raban has achieved in a life’s work of putting ‘thoughts on screen.

Catherine Elwes is an artist, writer and lecturer.