Subversion!

By Nicola Woodham

duncan-reekie.jpgDuncan Reekie

Underground cinema gets a going over in Duncan Reekie’s ‘definitive’ history


If you can hear the sound of cracking that may be several noses being put out of joint in contemporary film circles due to Duncan Reekie’s new book for Wallflower Press, Subversion, The Definitive History of Underground Cinema. But that’s nothing new. Reekie doesn’t get up in the morning to please people. This book sets out to rattle a few cages and set a few records straight. Duncan Reekie is, in his words, ‘a filmmaker, performer and has been an underground film activist for the last 20 years.’ He is a founder of the London-based radical open-access screening group Exploding Cinema. Subversion is inordinately comprehensive, yet he tells me, he had ruthlessly to cut it. There is a sense of longevity, of importance, of a setting to rights, although this setting to rights does not have a liberal, easygoing tone of voice. There is some riotous mud-slinging, Reekie half smiling, half scowling. But there is no other way the book could have been written. The whole point of Reekie’s project is to encourage the formation and continuity of a filmmaking experience outside the restrictive, clean and compromising institutions which ‘sustain’ the contemporary film maker. This is a history book in the old fashioned sense – polarised, biased and opinionated.

He argues that ‘the book came about because of my activism in the underground scene. It became obvious quickly that unless you made some theoretical, political opposition apart from the actual staging of events and making of films, as soon as you stopped what you were doing, the water would close over your head. There would be no memory. I began to realise with more research that this had happened to a lot of other people and, if you wanted there to be an alternative and if you believed that what you were doing was an alternative, you had to communicate that.’ He argues that the options to exist outside the state became reduced for filmmakers in the ’90s, with more and more people having to follow the same pre-destined career paths into film, and that these career paths were validated by particular repressive histories, so as a result, he says ‘I became aware that the thing to do, the subversive thing to do, was to write another history, which was an oppositional history and insert that into the culture, and see what would happen.’

subversion-at-the-curzon.jpgSubversion at the Curzon Soho

Subversion charts the uprising of underground movements from medieval culture to the film networks of today. Yet, he also locates particular repressive acts which have quashed these surges of radicalism in key licenses and bills. What could be bleak is rescued by a carnivalesque sense of humour and a proposal for a manifesto of underground filmmaking today. By drawing together these historical moments, hawk like in his citing of obscure sources, he observes a continuity and energetic connectivity in underground artistic and filmmaking gestures.

He locates the ethos of underground filmmaking in popular culture. There are detailed accounts of the ‘penny gaff’ theatres, peep shows, phantasmagorical illusionism, magic lantern shows, all of which were ‘convivial and festive’, open access and attractive to a range of audiences. There is also a chapter dedicated to amateur cine culture, British Independent Film from the twenties to the sixties, and the tracing of the roots of underground cinema in jazz and Beat culture. He also challenges the idea that the birth of film was an immaculate conception by re-reading Eisenstein’s theory of montage in the context of Eisenstein’s historical connections with the theatre and the music hall. This intricate web of detail sets out to provide an alternative history, a context for iconic milestones in filmmaking which, Reekie believes, have been presented by educational bodies as operating in a vacuum.

exploding-cinema-flyer.jpgExploding Cinema flyer

Notably, he refutes the idea of anti-art being unable to exist outside the institution of the avant-garde and locates the real experimental life in the ‘mongrel underground’ of bohemia. This no-art of the eighteenth century French bohemians he sees as the real precursor to the anti-art of the Dadaists. This is seen in contrast to the current culture of repression of desire evident at the time. Here is a delightful record of the activity of a complex subculture which developed as an ‘underground network of cafes, cabarets and beggar prophets selling poems door to door, which at its margins blurred the borders between the artist, the popular entertainer, the criminal and the insane.’ I laughed out loud at the description of the activities of Maxime Lisbonne (a man after Reekie’s heart surely). A revolutionary and a convict, he could be seen walking through Paris in a flamboyant uniform and would talk in the Café du Bagne (Tavern of Convicts) about his experiences, a performance which would involve the dramatic shackling of the waiters dressed as life prisoners.

Alongside these historical accounts is a re-historicising of the notion of what is independent, experimental or avant-garde. He specifically refutes the idea that the avant-garde is the cutting edge project which sets out to test the establishment. He does this by carefully tracing its history to expose its flaws and its dependency on the establishment and the state. He indicates that however the avant-garde tries to bolster itself with legislation, funding criteria and inscrutability, shielding itself with auratic power, the underground will always resurface. The messy, mischievous human spirit will reveal itself.

exploding-cinema-heart-logo.jpgExploding Cinema logo

So he goes on, anarchically to locate loopholes in professed radicalisms from the Dadaists through to the London Filmmakers Coop (LFMC), culminating in a caustic re-reading of the ‘trinity of texts by Curtis, Gidal and Wollen’ which appeared in Studio International in 1975, devoted to ‘Avant-Garde Film in England and Europe.’ He argues that the radical endeavours of the British Underground in the ’70s disintegrated when it metamorphosed into a state-supported exclusive arena which rejected the mainstream and popular culture; a subsuming which resonates with the clampdowns on alternative culture he documents in the rest of the book.

This implicit connectivity between these different cultures subtly manifests as a subtext, even while on the surface some of the material in the book is complex and overlapping. It’s only toward the end of the book that Reekie locates the contemporary alternative in the more subversive projects of the New York Cinema of Transgression and the New London Underground. I wanted to hear more about the contemporary underground and its achievements rather than a deconstruction and exposé of the failures of revered texts. I think this gives further power to those texts; whereas the last chapter, ‘Resolution: State of the Art’, which unfolds the activity of Exploding Cinema, the potential for internet-based radical film communities and London-based collectives, i.e. the stuff which would have a poignant resonance for a lot of readers now, was a mere 13 pages. Reekie retorts that ‘once I started pulling one string of the jumper, I had to go back to medieval fairs, I found everything was connected.’ He says, ‘to me it was necessary to do a kind of an autopsy, an exorcism’.

amateur-cine-world.jpgAmateur Cine World

He acknowledges some might suggest ‘that, instead of going over old ground and including all these old texts, if you’re so opposed to those people, what you should do is strike out and be completely autonomous from that history and that theory and construct your own positive theory because, by criticising them and giving them book space, you are legitimising those arguments. My feeling with that the trinity of texts, and the latest generation of work that was based on them, because they come up again and again in the art schools and the universities, is that you have to confront them. They have to be critiqued and deconstructed before you can move on.’

He accepts that his own book has complexities, paradoxes and overlaps, but states that ‘it’s not meant to be a checklist.’ On that note, I take him to task on the omission of regional underground cinema activity in Britain. He recognises it, but also feels there is another book to be written, one that would also include ‘Europe, Australia, Canada’, but he stands fast in paying tribute to his own experience and the memory of the London-centric New Underground of the ’80s and ’90s.

When I mention the sense of more than one voice in the book, including a twisted preacher-like tone resonant of his performances, he mentions an early role as the Faith Crippler, who attempted to make people ill through faith. He says he has always used a hectoring, prophet-like aspect to his performance, as opposed to the academic, passionless, objective voice which he loathes. I ask if he’s keeping the argument fluid and pulling the rug from under people’s feet in his book. He agrees. ‘I like to think there is a sardonic, paradoxical irony somewhere.’

I mention his naming and shaming of the LFMC. He says he hasn’t had any comeback yet, that the people he criticised know ‘what I am after’, contrary to the ‘bloodbath’ that he pre-empted and, ‘anyway’, he says, ‘it’s fun, it’s entertaining. It’s about being human and saying “that pisses me off, or that it is wrong”, having a subjective human voice. You may head an institution and you’ve got a reputation, so you have some kind of legitimate weight behind your opinion but, to me, it’s just an opinion, and my opinion is just as valid as yours and in the end the audience will probably warm to the most entertaining voice.’


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Subversion is available from Wallflower Press, Wallflower Press

Nicola Woodham is a mixed media artist based in London and a lecturer at Brunel University where she has developed a video production course: Film, Horror and the Imagination.