Sunday, 29 March 2009

Gazwrx: The films of Jeff Keen

The BFI have just done us proud with a box set of Jeff Keen films entitled Gazwrx, not to mention various screenings of his works - and all from brand spanking new prints! Keen was one of the earliest and best British underground film-makers. He was largely self-taught and is blessed with a beatnik sensibility that converges with the hippie scene of the later sixties but remains a distinctive strand within it. As a starting point for all this, imagine a surrealist remake of Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (1959) set in Brighton and you’re not a million miles away from Like The Time Is Now (1961); except, of course, the comparison glosses over Jeff Keen’s singularity. Wail (1960) is probably more typical of Keen’s cinematic sensibility; a crazy mix of animation and live action footage featuring Hollywood werewolves, high art and gang violence. Using 8mm film, Keen created scratch video 20 years before anyone else had thought of it. The resultant mix and match of high art and lowbrow popular culture runs through forty years of his film work.

From the early sixties right through to the late seventies Keen worked with an ensemble of players who might be compared to the troupe John Waters deployed in his midnight movie hits before making the transition to Hollywood director. Although both men clearly set out to entertain their audiences, the similarities pretty much stop there because Keen created shorts not features, had no time for narrative and made extensive use of animation and double exposure. So the results are closer to Ira Cohen’s Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968) than Pink Flamingos (1972). But as in John Waters’ far more conventional flicks, Keen’s ensemble of actors liked to dress up and act out as exaggerated comic book versions of themselves: and some of them were rather fond of taking their clothes off too, particularly Jeff’s wife Jackie Keen. One can sense from the films that there were sexual shenanigans going on off-screen that fuelled the bad craziness caught on celluloid. But if sex and nudity don’t do it for you, there are also cardboard ray guns, monsters, endless explosions of paint and other pyrotechnics. The titles of the films in the Gaswrx box provide a good indication of their content: Cineblatz, Marvo Movie, Meatdaze, The Cartoon Theatre of Dr Gaz, Return of Silver Head, Victory Thru Film Power, Kino Pulveriso, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke, Omozap, Artwar Fallout, Plasticator etc.

One of the great things about this BFI box set is that it allows you to follow Keen’s development from 1960 to 2000, and thereby see how he adapted his singular sensibility to different technologies (8mm, 16mm, video) and changing times. There is a major shift in his work that occurs at the end of the 1970s, when rather than a tribal ensemble acting out before the camera, Jeff himself in a paint splattered boiler suit becomes the main focus of attention (with much of the camerawork handled by his daughter Stella Starr, who also appears in many of the movies from a young age). My own preference is for the earlier work, and my favourite piece by Keen is the 33 minutes of madness known as White Dust (1972). That said, the later shorts show Keen at his most aggressive. Although he is always entertaining and quick to offer his audience visual jokes, by the eighties a sense of frustration enters Keen’s work, and alongside it there seems to be a desire to punish those viewers who try to passively consume his movies as mere divertissements. Reaganomics possibly had something to do with this, because a similar anger bubbles through much underground art video produced in this period; the work of Pete Horobin, for example, also tests the limits of the viewer’s endurance, albeit in very different ways to Keen. Putting the focus firmly back on Jeff Keen, his films are always entertaining but are also far more complex and referential than they might at first appear to a casual - or indeed, an attentive - viewer. While having having read André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja isn’t an essential requirement for the enjoyment of Keen’s exuberance ouvre, it is just one of many many things that he explicitly references.

Jeff is still alive and well and living in a two room flat in Brighton, but at 85 he seems to have retired from active film-making. The closest figure we have to Keen currently making movies is Damon Packard; although, of course, the younger man substitutes Keen’s love of science fiction with slasher film obsessions. Packard is also at a serious disadvantage in that the cinema clubs and underground art centres where Keen’s films played in chaotic but sociable environments to audiences who were often bombed out of their minds on drugs, no longer exist. The nearest you’ll come to that now is inviting some friends over to your pad to watch highlights from the Gazwrx set while enjoying something that might well be more intoxicating than beer! And if that proves a success why not follow it up with a midnight home screening of Packard’s Reflections of Evil (2002)?

Gazwrx: The Films of Jeff Keen was released by the BFI on 23 February 2009 in both DVD

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