INTERVIEW: WILLIAM FOWLER

white-dust-jeff-keen

By Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais. Originally published in Film Panic Magazine, issue 1, June 2013 

In 2009 the British Film Institute released GAZWRX: The Films Of Jeff Keen, this is easily one of the best collections of films the BFI have released and is clearly a labour of love. The man behind this fantastic release is William Fowler, Curator of Artists’ Moving Image at the BFI National Archive. In the following interview William tells us about making GAZWRX and his encounters with Jeff and his work.

DANIEL & CLARA: How did you first come across the work of Jeff Keen and what interested you about his films?

WILLIAM: I had a general sense of him and his work quite some time before I actually saw anything. He always seemed like an outsider, like a sort of awkward fit with all the other experimental work I was seeing in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and yet his work was hardly ever shown. It was strange. Then in 2002, I finally saw Marvo Movie (1967) during the LUX’s Shoot Shoot Shoot programmes. It was obvious that he had a totally unique sensibility – particularly amongst the British scene. For a start, it looked like Jeff and his friends had a lot of fun! That film and all the rest of his work from that period have a kind of loose freedom that seemed very jazz and beat influenced. I also recognized and really responded to the visceral intensity of the work.

DANIEL & CLARA: Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating GAZWRX, how you worked with Jeff, the process of selecting films and what discoveries you made along the way?

WILLIAM: Credit needs to be given to Sam Dunn and Jane Giles from the BFI for wholeheartedly embracing not just the very concept of a Jeff Keen DVD but the grand overall project. They injected a whole load of support and enthusiasm which allowed it to take on the epic scope that it did. We transferred all the films that we could find to HD, in the case of 16mm and Super 8, and then SD for the standard 8mm films. I then watched everything – video work too – with Jeff and Jackie Keen and discussed what would work and how. The scribblings from those viewing sessions became the basis for the film notes that I later wrote for the DVD. In that first tranche of work, I would say that one of the big surprises was The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke (1979-1984). It has a very pronounced red and blue colour design and is quite beautiful and mystical – it’s Jeff being more overtly surrealistic. It’s also quite melancholic and slow, which is unusual for the films of his that feature friends and family. In a way that film is the coda to that whole early period and a sort of melancholic goodbye to a certain way of working.

DANIEL & CLARA: What challenges and difficulties are there in releasing this kind of films on DVD? Some of this work was initially created as expanded cinema pieces, how did you work out how to present it for home viewing?

WILLIAM: Some things required extra work – like compositing the multi-screen films, adding soundtracks, even doing a bit of editing, making a title card for Omozap in Artwar (1990-1995) – which he loved. We even speeded some things up! We were virtually making films in some cases. Diary Films (1972-1976) was put together according to footage I had seen in the 1983 Jeff Keen Films documentary and by conferring closely with him. I had also seen him present multiscreen films at the Phoenix Gallery in Brighton in 2005. Still, I think he was a bit surprised when he saw it – pleased but surprised. There are technical and interpretative challenges when it comes to releasing experimental or underground film on DVD but there are also challenges about just getting them out into the world at all! DVD mastering is expensive and more niche releases typically don’t make their money back, sadly.

DANIEL & CLARA: A lot of the original films are on standard 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm lm so you had to telecine them. Did you digitally restore, grade or enhance any of the films? Can you tell us a bit about this process?

WILLIAM: All the films would have been colour and contrast graded before the compositing and other work. It was a lengthy, complex process that got crammed into about nine months. The idea being that we wanted to get it out there while Jeff was relatively well and could enjoy it. I hadn’t looked at the boxset for a while until a few months ago and when I did all the work, decisions and worry came flooding back. It was a hell of a lot of work, more than I can ever really explain. I wanted to do Jeff justice.

DANIEL & CLARA: What are your impressions of Jeff after meeting and working with him, what was he like and what can you recall from your encounters with him?

WILLIAM: We often spoke about William Blake, comics, music and old B-movies. He was amazingly gentle and yet I could sense a kind of resolute seriousness and determination within him – and also some frustration. An intellectual rigour was always hovering in the background. I’ll always remember an early encounter when with great pride he showed me Artwar – the Last Frontier (1993) and then another occasion when we discussed the incredible mythic power of the Lady of the Lake story. Those were the pre-Gazwrx days.

DANIEL & CLARA: Which of his films is your favourite and why?

WILLIAM: I would struggle to choose between White Dust (1970-1972) and Return of Silverhead (1980s). They are both transcendental: they transform the stuff of everyday life into myth and wonder. Yet somehow they’re both sad and introspective too. Both films are incredible.

DANIEL & CLARA: What can you tell us about the films that didn’t make it into the GAZWRX collection? What sort of work is it, how many are there and what are the chances of them being released or screened?

WILLIAM: There are a few diary films left over, plus a reasonable amount of video pieces that we didn’t find at the time. The 35mm blow-up restorations the BFI National Archive made also need screening more. I’m not sure how much that work registered with people. These at least are being shown at Anthology Film Archives in New York at the end of August, 2013. I’d like to do more screenings.

DANIEL & CLARA: Jeff’s work seems to be finally starting to reach a much wider audience, in part due to GAZWRX and of course all the incredible work Stella (Jeff’s daughter) is doing in publishing his poetry and exhibiting his artwork. It’s a shame that it was only towards the end of his life that he started to receive the recognition he deserves, why do you think it has taken so long?

WILLIAM: I think Jeff had mixed feelings about really getting his work out there. He was too busy making the stuff to promote it or show it to the right people. To some degree it may also have been too close and personal to him to really push it. Artist film used to be called ‘personal filmmaking’ at one point and with good reason. This whole field has had a pretty chequered history too. It’s only really been within the last five years, I would say, that anyone outside a pretty small minority has been interested in the older historical work. The fact that Jeff’s paintings and poetry are being seen – probably for the very first time in many cases – is also helping people to reframe his whole output and make it feel new, or newly exposed. The traditional fine arts still have enormous power.

DANIEL & CLARA: I feel as if the British film industry struggles to fully support its own artists and maverick filmmakers, do you agree and why do you think this is?

WILLIAM: It’s a poor state of affairs but I think when you talk about ‘industry’ you’re really talking about economics and therein lies the problem. Cinema needs artists and mavericks more than the galleries do but it’s not very good at supporting them. But then should we need money and people to pat us on the head to make us be creative? Sometimes we do, but hopefully not always.

DANIEL & CLARA: What would you say is Jeff’s key contribution to the art of cinema?

WILLIAM: He truly realised cinema as the seventh art – in that he used and incorporated all the different art forms to make his singular vision. He worked with performance, poetry, music and painting. And all different types of different painting styles too – pop, surrealism, graffiti etc. In many cases the boundaries between these things became totally blurred. Ink on a 16mm optical soundtrack was used to create sound, for example, in the case of White Lite (1968). He transposed the William Blake maxim ‘energy is eternal delight’ into celluloid matter. Too fast was not fast enough.