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  • TBC
  • Documentary
  • 2009
  • 585 mins

GAZWRX - The Films Of Jeff Keen

GAZWRX - The Films Of Jeff Keen

Synopsis

BFI boxset spanning 40 years of explosive, lightning fast home-made artfilms by Brighton-based collagist Jeff Keen

About

In 'Cineblatz' (1967), the 16mm short that opens this retrospective of Jeff Keen's filmwork, the viewer is subjected to a high-impact barrage of evolving images, at once comic and terrifying. Glossy magazines are cut up and reconfigured, newspaper pages are defaced with animated squiggles, comic-book superheroes fly out, over and through at superspeed. Pictures appear only to burn up or be torn apart, toys dance in ferocious stop-motion before melting into pools of plastic decay, a hammer plunges down on an image of the assembled House of Commons - all to a crackly soundtrack of treated shortwave static.

It is a hyperkinetic panorama of 1960s popular culture in meltdown, where seemingly nothing stays still for more than a single frame, as the artist ejaculates ideas onto the screen faster than the eye can properly register. Lasting just three minutes, 'Cineblatz' is exhilarating, orgasmic even - but also thoroughly exhausting.

It is in fact a potential problem that faces the reception of this near-comprehensive collection of Keen's already individually overwhelming films. Certainly the BFI deserves praise for assembling the Brighton-based artist's vast body of work (spanning 40 years) so that his extraordinary innovations in do-it-yourself movie art (decades ahead of the home-DV generation) can at last be recognised, and the thematic unities underlying his developing vision can be properly appreciated.

That said, his manic exploding of modern culture is, even in small doses, too much to take - a sort of exercise in aesthetic oversaturation. Hit someone with a hammer enough times, and they will stop paying attention and just drift into numbing oblivion - and so the intense concentration required to follow these pieces' impossibly quick editing proves difficult to maintain even for a short time, let alone for the near nine hours of bludgeoning onslaughts compiled here. "When words fail, use your teeth," is one of Keen's slogans but while these discs may strike you dumb, they are best consumed in little nibbles rather than big bites. You have been warned.

In a sense, the boxset's encyclopaedic approach to collection completes (or, more correctly, continues) a process that Keen began himself. For the visual collagist has long been a collector of physical and cultural detritus to recycle into art.

Keen's work is filled with motifs, postures, cuttings and 'found footage' lifted from pulp literature, B-movies, comics and television, as well as children's toys and props that he has salvaged from dumpsites - and indeed many of his 'film diaries' shot between 1968 and 1978 feature the local tip as the site where his family and friends are seen at play in their makeshift masks and costumes. These are emphatically products of junk culture, where everything is cheap trash, but nothing is truly disposable.

Keen would also increasingly collect, remix and fragment his own work. '24 Films' (1970-1975) is, as its title suggests, a dizzying compilation of his shorter pieces, as is 'The Cartoon Theatre Of Dr Gaz' (1976-1979). In 'The Pink Auto' (1964), 'Family Star (The Mutt & Jeff Icecream Sundae + Mothman)' (1968-1969) and 'Diary Films' (1972-1976), Keen projects several of his 'diary' films simultaneously over two or even four screens.

Holiday movies and recorded 'happenings' (each individually edited and double-exposed in camera) all play out in arbitrary parallel - and in the later 'Artwar' sequence of films he endlessly reconstitutes/obliterates his own back catalogue through superimposition, randomised juxtapositions and rhythmic scattergun editing.

Screenings of these works would often be accompanied by live commentary, interventions and actions, all of which would themselves be recorded and often find their way into later pieces. Accordingly, perhaps the best way to watch these films is sped up, in the wrong order, and on several DVD players at once - or even cut randomly into your own home movies. Keen would no doubt approve.

Amidst all this filmic flotsam and jetsam, Keen is himself a frequent, if ambiguous, presence, both as artist and performer. He appears in a multitude of masks and under a number of anti-heroic guises - Dr Volta, The Breathless Investigator, Mr Soft Eliminator, Omozap, and especially Dr Gaz, the latter described by Keen in one of this boxset's extras as a "violent and art-destruct alter-ego of a certain mild-mannered English watercolourist". It is Gaz who gives this retrospective its title (GAZWRX), and it is Gaz who represents this most creative artist's most destructive (or deconstructive) urges. What Keen paints, draws or sculpts, Gaz graffitis, rips and burns - and what Keen films, Gaz cuts up, paints over and scratches.

This ongoing tension in the work dramatises Keen's ambivalent feelings about his own personal history. If the slogan "Cut back to 1942" is glimpsed in several of these films, it is because that is the year when Keen was called up to join the British Armed Forces in the war effort. Stationed in Yarmouth, he worked on converting aircraft engines for use in floating tanks for the D-Day landings and both his duties as a reassembler of disparate parts, and his obsession with the instruments of war, already apparent as motifs even in the mashed-up gun-duelling of his very first film 'Wail' (1960), become an all-encompassing element of his later art. This culminates in the 'Artwar' films where images of the artist at work and footage of war (in both its real and cinematic forms) violently collide in a jarring Götterdämmerung of creativity and chaos - and the one is not so easily distinguishable from the other.

Keen's home-made, no-budget works are dialogue-free triumphs of in-your-face editing, coming at you so fast and furious, and in so many layers, that there is little room for anything as banal as narrative - and those few pieces where something approaching story is allowed to emerge are very much the exception to the rule.

The silent 'Breakout' (1962), for example, may appear to outline a noirish nightmare in which a man (Robin Blashke) is pursued by a pair of hardboiled killers in their Pontiac Continental, but it is (significantly, one suspects) an unfinished piece; while the longer 'White Dust' (1970-1972) and 'Mad Love' (1972-1978) are not diegetic works so much as brief and unresolved sketches of archetypal B-movie scenarios, performed mostly by Keen and his friends in his home or in and around "a certain well-known seaside resort". They represent that strange (and strangely attractive) nexus where Hollywood cinema meets home movie, so that Keen is, as ever, exploring the traffic between the public and the personal.

"We're all", as Keen puts it in Margaret Williams' included documentary Jeff Keen Films (1983), "collage artists today, switching from one channel to another, flicking through magazines, re-editing as we go." The films here offer a peculiar window into that process - before smashing the window to pieces.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Stella Keen, Avril Hodges, Tom Fowke, Steve Wynnard, Jeff Keen, Jas Duke, Raymond Barker, Jackie Keen, Robin Blashke, Tony Sinden
  • Director: Jeff Keen
  • Writer: Jeff Keen
  • Producer: Jeff Keen
  • Photographer: Jeff Keen
  • Composer: Bob Cobbing, Andrea Lockwood, Jeff Keen

In a nutshell

Keen's homespun experiments in montage and collage are by turns fast and furious, funny and horrifying, head-spinning and headache-inducing - and despite spanning four decades, they form a remarkably coherent body of work.

by Anton Bitel

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