Gidal makes you giddy. To mark the launch of a book of his selected writings, ‘Flare Out Aesthetics 1966 to 2016’, on 14 April 2016 Tate Britain hosted a screening of four of his films followed by a reception. Peter Gidal (born 1946) was a founder member of the London Film Makers’ Co-operative and propounded a firm line on ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist film’ (to take the title of his most high-profile statement, published in ‘Studio International’ in November/December 1975).
Gidal as remembered
Gidal at Tate Britain 2016
The sternness of his writing left me unprepared for the charm with which he introduced the films that night. It derived from a riff on his expectations and anxieties in preparing for the evening, including the familiar one, ‘Would anyone come?’
They did come. We saw films both from the beginning of his career and more recently, namely Key (1968-9, 10 min), Copenhagen/1930 (1977, 40 min) and not far at all (2013, 15 min), all of these being prefaced by an uncharacteristic (I think) apéritif, Assumption (1997, 1 min), a rapid-cut series of images of the Film Co-op, overlaid with texts which were unreadable quotations from Gidal’s august predecessors whose names you could read: Augustine, Anselm, Walter Benjamin, Emily Dickinson among others. On reflection I thought its purpose was unexpected: a trip down memory Lane, a bit of Gidalian heart beating in that stern, rebarbative front.
The lesser-known (I think, but I’m not sure) film was Copenhagen/1930, which uses photographic images taken by George Gidal in Copenhagen in 1930. It started with a restless movie camera, showing then part showing, then shifting and disrupting, a still photograph of two boys. The film then got going with a sequence of the photographs which had been assembled in a large album. Was George Gidal Peter’s father? I think we should have been told but Gidal coyly ensured he did not let us have this information. The effect was not this time nostalgic but it was memorializing. The photographs seem mostly to have been taken in a public park in the centre of the city, and had a poignancy: ten years from 1930 these people were going to be consumed by the torments of Nazi occupation. One image was of soldiers marching, so you might think that it was a Fascist parade these people were attending, and they did not deserve better. But I felt lenient towards them – they were engaged in public pleasure and on the evidence of the photographs did not deserve punishment.
I may have wildly misunderstood the film, but Gidal’s films do have an element of tease about them. The early film Key is an elegant statement about the materiality of the photographic image constructed around a zoom-out from indecipherability to something discernible and then a refocusing of the image so that the grains merge into a uniform blankness. The tease comes from the soundtrack: near the beginning a minute or two of the harmonica break from Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, instantly recognisable even when played backwards and imparting a mangled melancholy to the image, a seduction offered then withheld, then near the end a heavy pounding, a muffled industrial music, an echo of the Velvet Underground in full-on Exploding Plastic Inevitable mode, again for a minute or two, grinding and un-melancholic.
The film feels much more loaded with meaning than you initially expect, as did not far at all from over forty years later. Gidal called it in his notes “different yet the same, but not”. This is a film of sky with clouds and inevitably recalls his Clouds of 1969 (that is the ‘same’ he refers to), but it is also different, as he says. The camera zooms in and out of the clouds, goes into focus and out again, the screen goes into white-out and blue-out, then lo and behold, a vapour trail comes into sharp focus, streaking across the sky, and the diffuse dematerialization suddenly focuses on something signifying: this distant vapour trail is on the surface of the film and therefore ‘not far at all’. The film shifts up a gear and we see some vivid footage of the sun’s corona revealed during an eclipse. I was suddenly back in the ‘oh wow, far out’ era of Jordan Belson and the Brakhage of Dog Star Man, in a word, cosmic – except it was far from far out, Gidal is telling us, but instead not far at all. As if to destroy any cosmic intention, the soundtrack starts with an alarm (which woke me up after the silent forty minutes of the Copenhagen film) and then takes up a pounding, industrial noise during its length. Tubular bells it was not, on purpose I felt.
My review of Gidal’s ‘Flare Out Aesthetics’ can be found here: http://bit.ly/PeterGidal
Key can be viewed at Lux Online: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/video/artists/peter_gidal/key.html