– Spring 2010

Magic Tricks? Shadow Play in British Expanded Cinema

Lucy Reynolds

Tags: Laura Mulvey, Malcolm Le Grice

Malcolm Le Grice, Horror Film 2, 1972, film-performance. Courtesy the artist

Malcolm Le Grice, Horror Film 2, 1972, film-performance. Courtesy the artist

In 1972 a group of British experimental film-makers performed Horror Film 2, a 'shadow action' film performance by Malcolm Le Grice, at the London Filmmakers' Co-operative cinema. The striking tableau they presented incorporated the simple theatrics of shadow play and elements of playful performance enacted behind a screen, producing illusory effects with coloured light beams cast across objects, including a vase of flowers, a table, chairs and even a plastic skeleton.1 The audience viewed the performance from the other side of the screen with the aid of 3D glasses, in reference to the 3D-movie experience popular in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, where the illusion of three dimensions, rendered by red-and-green light filters, was intended to make on-screen monsters viscerally present in the space of the auditorium. But despite its use of 3D glasses, Horror Film 2 produced the opposite result. Rather than bringing an illusion of concrete form to the immaterial film image, the shadowy projections of the performers - fellow Co-op film-makers Gill Eatherley, Annabel Nicolson and Roger Hammond - created shifting discrepancies of scale and perceptual ambiguity as they moved between the objects behind the screen, alternatively illuminated and cast into shadow by Le Grice, who orchestrated the array of light sources.

Yet what makes this little-known example of British Expanded Cinema so mesmerising is not just its interactions of performance and coloured shadow, now glimpsed only in photographs or brief descriptions of the period. As this text considers, the use of shadow play in Horror Film 2, and other examples of British Expanded Cinema such as Eatherley's Aperture Sweep (1973), opens up a host of interpretative connotations that go beyond the chronologies of

  1. Horror Film 2 was shown in 1972 at the London Filmmakers' Co-operative and at Plymouth College of Art, where Le Grice had studied. Exact dates for both events are unspecified.

  2. Whilst Gidal and Le Grice, often seen as the spokesmen for the concerns and aesthetics of the London Filmmakers' Co-op, made favourable references to the works of Snow, Sharits, Conrad and others in their articles, they are also clear about the distinct difference between the earlier Structural movement and their own materialist explorations. For a full atomisation of the differences and similarities see Michael O'Pray, 'Framing Snow', Sighting Snow: Afterimage, no.11, Winter 1982-83, pp.51-65.

  3. A rudimentary film workshop was first established by Le Grice at the New Arts Lab in 1969, and then at the 'Dairy' on Prince of Wales Crescent, both in London, in 1971. The London Filmmakers' Co-op was unique amongst the film co-operatives that proliferated in experimental film culture of the late 1960s and early 70s; it gathered all aspects of film production and dissemination under one roof, from cinema to film workshop. For more details see Mark Webber (ed.), 'Chronology of Events and Developments 1966-1976', Shoot Shoot Shoot: The First Decade of the London Film makers' Co-operative & British Avant-Garde Film 1966-1976, Special Edition newspaper, LUX, 2002, pp.6-7.

  4. Many LFMC film-makers, from Le Grice to Nicolson, Eatherley and contemporaries such as William Raban and Chris Welsby, came through the British art-school system and began as painters and sculptors. Therefore their reference points were not cinema, but the debates and practices of post-War Modernism. Le Grice, for example, acknowledges the importance of Robert Rauschenberg, whilst Eatherley refers to Fluxus, and also worked with the kinetic artist David Medalla.

  5. In his 1972 article 'Film as Film', Peter Gidal refers to Alfred Hitchcock's narrative cinema as a form of 'authoritarian fascistic control' because it 'forces people to react in more or less the same way at the same time'. Peter Gidal, 'Film as Film', Art and Artists, December 1972, p.12. Gidal's article is informative not only for his implication, through his allusion to fascism, that mainstream cinema spectatorship was a form of ideological control, but also for his overt identification of British Structural film with the visual arts and literature, with reference to Samuel Beckett and Roland Barthes, as well as to Minimalist sculpture, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

  6. The concrete poet Bob Cobbing's 'Cinema 65' film-screening events in the basement of Better Books in 1965 provided the impetus for the formation of the London Filmmakers' Co-operative in 1966. For further details see Maxa Zoller, '1. The Pre-History of the London Co-op: From HAT Film Club to Cinema 65', Aural History, online exhibition for British Artists Film and Video Study Collection, University of the Arts London, www.studycollection.co.uk/auralhistory/part1.htm (last accessed on 28 October 2009).

  7. Started by Jim Haynes in 1967, the Arts Lab in Drury Lane (1967-71) housed a gallery, performance and screening spaces and a café all under one roof. For a contemporary account of the Arts Lab and Haynes see Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, New York: Delacorte Press, 1968, pp.221-24.

  8. For a more detailed explanation of the events leading up the LFMC's move to the Arts Lab, see David Curtis, 'English Avant-Garde Film: An Early Chronology', Studio International, Nov/Dec 1975; M. Zoller, Aural History, op.cit.: Mark Webber, 'Shoot Shoot Shoot', online tour, www.luxonline.org.uk/tours/shoot_shoot_shoot(1).html (both last accessed on 28 October 2009).

  9. Stuart Laing, 'The Politics of Culture: Institutional Change', in Bart Moore-Gilbert and John Seed (ed.), Cultural Revolution? The Challenge to the Arts in the 1960s, London: Routledge, 1992, p.90.

  10. D. Curtis, 'English Avant-Garde Film: An Early Chronology', Studio International, November/ December 1975, revised 1978, republished in Michael O'Pray (ed.), The British Avant-Garde Film: 1926-1996, Luton: University of Luton, 1996, p.116

  11. Malcolm Le Grice, 'Real TIME/SPACE', Art and Artists, December 1972, p.39.

  12. I write in the present tense here because Le Grice continues to perform Horror Film 1. It most recently was performed at Tate Modern, London as part of the 'Expanded Cinema for Rothko' events, 29 and 30 November 2008. See www.tate.org.uk/modern/eventseducation/film/16146.htm (last accessed on 28 October 2009).

  13. Le Grice refers to Sharits's visit in his article 'Real TIME/SPACE', op. cit., p.43. John du Cane also reviewed Sharits's visit in 'Freeing Film', Time Out, 3-9 November 1972.

  14. The notion of film without film, or 'para-cinema', has been most notably advanced by the film scholar Jonathan Walley, in relation to the film works of Anthony McCall and Tony Conrad. See JonathanWalley, 'The Paracinema of Anthony McCall and Tony Conrad', Avant Garde Film: Critical Studies, Edinburgh: Editions Rodopi, 2007; Jonathan Walley, 'The Material of Film and the Idea of Cinema: Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-garde Film', October, no.103, Winter 2003, pp.15-30.

  15. M. Le Grice, 'Real TIME/SPACE', op. cit., p.43.

  16. As Le Grice defines it: '…the Real TIME/SPACE event at projection, which is the current tangible point of access for the audience, is to be considered as the experiential base through which any retrospective record, reference or process is to be dealt with by the audience. This reverses the situation common to the cinematic language where experience of the real TIME/SPACE at projection is subsumed by various aspects of manipulated retrospective "reality".' Ibid., p.39.

  17. Ibid., p.43.

  18. Victor Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow, London: Reaktion Books, 1997, p.132.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid. Also see pp.130-31 for a fuller discussion of van Hoogstraten's engraving and the role of Kircher's spectacular lantern shows in the process of the demonisation of the shadow. Ibid.

  21. M. Le Grice, correspondence with the author, March 2009.

  22. Laura Mulvey, Death 24 X a Second, London: Reaktion Books, 2006, p.43.

  23. Ibid., p.42.

  24. 'However, he [Kircher] did not want to pass himself off as a sorcerer, and denounced the quacks who used optics to take advantage of the credulous.' Laurent Mannoni, The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000, p.xxv. Also see L. Mulvey, Death 24 X a Second, op. cit., p.41.

  25. Foster takes the term specifically from Walter Benjamin's 'Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligensia' (1929), Reflections, New York, 1978, pp.181-82. Cited in Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1993, p.158.

  26. Ibid., p.168.

  27. Ibid.

  28. For key scholarship on the period of early cinema see Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: British Film Institute, 1990.

  29. M. Zoller, 'Interview with Malcolm Le Grice', X Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s, Vienna: MUMOK, 2000, p.141.

  30. H. Foster, Compulsive Beauty, op. cit., p.164.

  31. Two screens, initially dark and without image, are projected. Eatherley performs a sweeping motion across the right-hand screen with a broom, and, shortly afterwards, a silhouette of herself performing the same action appears on the left-hand screen. Eatherley continues to sweep the right-hand screen in unison with her on-screen shadow self as the screen gets lighter and lighter. 'The original idea was that - I'm cleaning the screen - and the screen gets cleaner and cleaner so therefore it gets brighter and brighter. Which is what it does - because it starts off dark and ends up completely bright so therefore it was getting cleaned.' G. Eatherley, interviewed by the author, December 2008.

  32. See Sigmund Freud, 'The Uncanny' (1919), in S. Freud, The Uncanny (trans. David McLintock), London: Penguin, 2003, pp.135-141. Freud also acknowledges the research and writings of Ersnt Jentsch on the uncanny effect of 'waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata'. Ibid., p.135. Laura Mulvey expands on the theories of both men in relation to the automaton and the different emphases of their theories of the uncanny. See L. Mulvey, ' Uncertainty: Natural Magic and the Art of Deception,' Death 24 X a Second, op. cit., pp.33-53.

  33. V. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow, op. cit., p.239.

  34. Ibid., p.134.

  35. Ibid., pp.236-39.

  36. Ibid., p.241.