24 November 2009

William Raban

A review of the BFI's William Raban DVD, originally published in FILMWAVES in 2004.

A chimney collapses in a cloud of smoke, and the camera cuts to a scene of regeneration, the construction site around the Millennium Dome. In this moment, the thematic and stylistic evolution in William Raban’s work since the London Filmmakers’ Co-op is encapsulated. River Yar (1972, co-directed with Chris Welsby) combined a willingness to explore the possibilities of film – not just the camera, as Vertov, one of the Co-op’s icons, had done, but also those of projection and the experience of exhibition – with an interest in the effect of time on space. Raban’s experiments with film materials are documented in theFrame, with extracts from Diagonal, 2’45” and Angles of Incidence detailing his foregrounding of celluloid and its ability to capture moments.

The films on this collection, from the BFI’s British Artists’ Films series, focus largely on Raban’s post-Co-op work: the documentary highlights the importance of the dialectic between filmmaker (or film projectionist) and audience in the LFMC performances during the early 1970s. Consequently, the earliest full film incorporated here is Thames Barrier (1977), which serves to highlight the gap between cinema and home viewing. The three-screen film, documenting the construction of the Barrier from a fixed vantage point, combining real time with time manufactured by the shutter, works best on a large canvas, the aesthetic qualities of the changing light losing something in the translation to television. Here, Raban distances himself from commenting on the mechanisation that he captures, the use of a single image (over three screens) denying the film overly complex semiotic capabilities.

This linguistic awareness is heightened in A13 (1994). Using only found sounds, Raban combines footage of newspaper presses, John Major, fishermen, a homeless man, market stalls (these scenes feel like a wry contemporary re-working of Lindsay Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas) and an Anti-Nazi League protest against the election of BNP councillor Derek Beackon to create a film that, while concerned with the proliferation of mass media and linking Major’s specious post-Thatcher politics with the rise of the far Right, celebrates the plurality of contemporary urban life and retains an optimistic tone. MM (2002), covering the construction of the Dome and the celebrations of New Year’s Eve, works along similar themes, highlighting the massive response to a division of time that is, of course, arbitrary.

Raban’s reflective, ambivalent approach to cinematic Modernism reaches its apogee in Thames Film (1986), the obvious centre of this compilation. Narrated by John Hurt, it is the closest Raban comes to a conventional documentary, incorporating archive film from 1921-1951, panoramic photographs taken in 1937, Brueghel the Elder’s painting The Triumph of Death and T. S. Eliot reading Four Quartets. Raban centres a study of the sites of modernity, and the meanings that time has inscribed into them, on the Thames, juxtaposing shots of the river in 1986 with readings from Thomas Pennant’s Journey from London to Dover (1787, close to the emblematic date of ‘modernity’, 1789). Modernity is put on trial: Pennant’s links between British imperialism, technological advances and the Thames are juxtaposed with derelict products of the Industrial Revolution and pompous voiceovers from post-war newsreels anticipating the collapse not just of the Empire but also the ideals which supported it.

This is an important release from the BFI, who have ignored the Co-op for too long: a compilation of Chris Welsby’s work is also planned, also featuring a commissioned documentary. The package is lovingly presented, with extensive notes on Thames Film and an illustrated filmography. It is a triumph for the BFI and for anyone interested in the British avant-garde.

Old journalism/writing

What better way to launch a blog than with links to a bunch of old stuff? (I'll call it "background"). So here, in no particular order, are a few things I've written that can be found on the web:

I wrote an obituary for the writer Paul Ableman, published by The Guardian on 8 December 2006.

In September 2007, the Dalkey Archive Press published my book on the English author Rayner Heppenstall. Their journal, Context, carried an article I wrote on Heppenstall in Issue 18.

This is one of my favourite pieces - an interview with Richard (Dick) Witts, who fronted Manchester post-punk act The Passage and published an influential critique of the Arts Council. I spoke to him about music policy, and The Independent published the result in September 2008.

Foto 8 magazine used a short story I wrote, 'Keep Still', inspired by a song by the Manchester band Performance, on their website.

Here is an article I wrote in October 2008 after political correctness went dangerously insane and Manchester University labelled one set of toilets in the Union basement 'Toilets with urinals' and 'Toilets without urinals'. Trans-accommodating bastards.