Tim Cawkwell's Cinema
LITTLE DOG FOR ROGER
Why should the 1960s have seen a strong interest, emerging it seems from nowhere, in the beginnings of cinema? The most concrete manifestation is the publication in 1965 of 'The Archaeology of the Cinema' by CW Ceram, and one answer to the question is in the loaded use of 'archaeology' in the title: the book was digging beneath the accumulated sediment of film history, such layers as the development of a sophisticated film language, the invention of the means to record speech which brought the coming of the sound film in 1927, and the increase in the global reach of the medium. Beneath these layers was the one at the bottom, the story of how scientists and engineers applied the discovery of the phenomenon of persistence of vision first to optical toys and then to the strip of film that ran through a camera and then through a projector.
But there is a much larger picture as well in the cultural shifts taking place in society. Film was being democratised in the home movie which was in much more use after the war, especially in the USA but also in Europe. Secondly, with post-war affluence, modernism in the arts entered a new, vigorous phase. What was needed was an encounter between the simple technology of movies and the human imagination. It came. Initially the fascination was with the single frame and how even this 'atom', as it were, could be visible to the naked eye, a narrative that begins in 1920s Europe (example: Le Ballet Mécanique), disappears with the advent of sound technology, and then re-emerges in the film underground of the 1950s and 1960s (examples: 48 Köpfe aus dem Szondi Test, A Movie, Mothlight). A line of approach to understanding this phenomenon is the modernist idea (before postmodernism made this idea seem antiquated) of visual art being true to the materials from which it was made, such as paint, clay, marble, acetate, the picture frame, the film frame, and so on. Interestingly it was in Europe rather than in America that this materialist approach to film was most vigorously pursued, and one of its pioneering spirits was Malcolm Le Grice.
His second 16 mm film was Little Dog for Roger, made in London in 1967/68. [Note 1] Included in the Le Grice Fest in May 2016, with events in London at BFI Southbank and Tate Britain, was a welcome showing of the film, an apparently insignificant work that had significant repercussions in terms of heralding something new in British film. It perfectly links modern cinema with the beginnings of cinema, leapfrogging, probably to Le Grice’s great pleasure, six decades of commercial movie-making. It takes a scrap of home movie showing a woman and a small boy playing with a frisky young dog by a bridge in the countryside, and transforms it. We're not shown the film simply running through the projector giving us the illusion of reality. We are first introduced to it as a blurred zip being pulled through a channel. From this blur emerges something recognisable, the little dog running, in fact running and running and running because repetition and variation are key strategies of the film. To subvert the illusion still further, we see frozen frames, footage upside down, etc. Right from the beginning it was a two-screen film, and it was as a two-screen film, in digital format, that it was shown on 16 May 2016. Two screens naturally enhance the watching of it still further by the interaction of what we see on the different screens, reinforcing the idea that the experience of watching the film is as important as the content on the screen.
In making the film, Le Grice did a very significant and creative thing, in which his practical imagination responded to how he envisaged the work in his mind. He did not just find a bland piece of home-movie footage for radical reworking but built his own printer to process the film. Throughout his career Le Grice has displayed a special aptitude for the technology of film-making, and Little Dog for Roger was an early, supreme example of it. This printer allowed him to take a negative from filmed footage and to take a work print from the negative. Using a projector for this stage was comparatively straightforward even if the use of a rheostat to control the exposure to light was unscientific if effective (it was also used to make instant fades); the problem was with processing it. He first tried using a large drum to run the exposed film through a fixative, but this did not work. Instead he devised a 'continuous processor' whereby the film ran through a series of loops: four times through a developer, four times through a fixer, and twice through a washer. To dry the film it was passed through a channel and then a gate with a hair-dryer blowing on it. To process a ten-minute film took one and a half hours. The whole thing had a DIY quality but it shows Le Grice first of all undaunted by the technical challenges, and secondly, realising – perhaps one of the first to do so in those libertarian times – that just as home processing was liberating for still photographers, the same idea could be liberating for film-makers faced with the immense costs of film processed in commercial laboratories. [note 2]
As it happens, the movie footage Le Grice used was not neutral material. Unlike his Berlin Horse of 1970 which used a shot of a horse running in a circle filmed by him and juxtaposed that with a black-and-white newsreel of horses being led from a smoke-filled barn, it was not 'randomly' found but taken from his parents’ collection of home movies. The people in the film are a twelve-year-old Malcolm, his mother, and above all his dog (not Roger’s). [note 3]
Le Grice resents the way biography is dragged into one's experience of the artwork, as if the life behind the work is more important than the work itself. Yet with the triumph of the subjective in 20th-century art, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the movie footage is of his own family, that it was shot by his father, and indeed that it was his dog. After the showing of the film, someone asked if Eadward Muybridge, the celebrated 19th-century photographer of animals in motion, was a presence in the film. Without answering that question directly, Le Grice referred to the idea of the photograph as a time bomb in which the contemporary image, possibly bland at the time, takes on colour and meaning in time, as if its potency was bottled at the moment of making and only seeped out over the years. This means that a personal photograph is encountered over time – and the more we hurtle in time from the moment of making, the more meaning it takes on. It is not unlike Plato's theory of anamnesis “according to which the soul had pre-existed in a pure state, and there gained its ideas” (Oxford English Dictionary), and the act of memory brings them back from a condition of oblivion. In a moment of uncluttered reflection, in a cool hour, a memory surges to the top of one's consciousness, or as Shakespeare puts it (in sonnet 30): “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past. . .” When Proust chose as the title for his long novel, ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’, he thought of time past being brought back by involuntary memory triggered by a sensation. Le Grice’s film on the other hand is a straightforward piece of voluntary memory.
Film of a little dog running is just matter with no public meaning, and it is only by reworking it, re-filming it, renewing it that it takes on a more than private significance and that connects it with the universal experience of remembering the past. Both the still photograph and the moving image have the power to trigger something in our memory. When I first saw the film, I registered it as a quintessential material-structuralist film in which the experience of the material as a projected film was unmasked to reveal its component parts: the film acetate, the frame numbers, the sprockets which, because the gauge was 9.5 mm, were in the centre of the film strip and not on one side, and negative as well as positive footage. What did not register on that first viewing was the soundtrack in the form of bits of popular song from (I would guess) the 1940s or before. This music, so primitively recorded by modern standards, feels quaint, with a nostalgic, cloying quality, which Le Grice subverts by using it in snatches: it is offered then snatched away. Instead of making it nostalgic, he makes it strange; instead of making it cloying, he makes it hypnotic. Like the film image it becomes a trace memory, something captured only in part.
Seeing the film again in 2016 after four decades was to experience, in my case involuntarily, a version of the photographic time-bomb since the film became a different experience, evoking the asceticism of sitting on a bench in the London Film-makers’ Co-op cinema (either Robert Street or Prince of Wales Road), in a properly darkened room, assaulted by these raw, non-digital images. It's is not a question of thinking, ‘those were the days,’ but remembering the impact of these films: viewing films would never be the same again.
Perhaps Le Grice had a similar experience because in his notes for the 2016 showing he wrote: “I thought it was about film as a medium and material – scratches, sprocket holes, dirt, slippage in the projector, blank screen, gaps in the soundtrack – I forgot that one of the boys was me, the other was my brother, the young woman was my mother – now dead – and behind the camera in 1952 was my father. The dog was mine, nothing to do with Roger – that's another story.” On the other hand, his notes to the film in the 1971 LFMC catalogue show an awareness of what future was in store for the film as he refers to “the deterioration of records like memories” playing a “part in the meaning of the film”.
If memories are ‘traces’ in the mind, in this trace idea the form of the film plays a key part, for Le Grice chooses not a formal or mathematical approach, but rather a free-flowing, improvisational one, as if this memory kept recurring in an unplanned and undirected way. This is reinforced by the looped quality of the film, as the footage keeps coming back, a formal idea much more formally executed in Berlin Horse, which with Brian Eno's music, is close to the musical minimalism of Glass and Reich just beginning to make its presence felt in the late 1960s. Le Grice in fact cites jazz as the source for the form in Little Dog for Roger, and from that one can go back to the classical idea of the rondo, in which the principal subject deliberately recurs between variations.
Europe or America? In view of the subsequent cultural arguments over who preserved the true flame of the avant-garde, this might seem an important question. In fact it is a trivial one. There is no question that the American underground films of the sixties made an impact when they arrived in Europe, no work more so than Michael Snow’s Wavelength. This had won the Grand Prize at the Knokke-le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival in Belgium in December 1967 and was shown at the Arts Lab in London in September 1968. This is not to argue that Wavelength was an influence on Little Dog for Roger, but it helped to create a mood of aesthetic radicalism which the film takes up. However, in hindsight the moment can be seen also to be heralding a significant fissure. While the American avant-garde espoused formal radicalism, it did not jettison the heroic role of the modern American artist. Le Grice's work at this stage was resolutely materialist in its focus on the viewer’s engagement with the raw matter of film. It is an example of British 'dryness' set against American 'ambition'. This is partly explained by America being a richer country so that film-making materials were more readily to hand, thus allowing the grander statement to be made. But that is not the whole story: Le Grice and other LFMC filmmakers were naturally empirical in their approach.
There is a teasing coda to this story because thirty years on from Little Dog for Roger Le Grice made Even the Cyclops Pays the Ferryman in which his father makes an appearance as an image embedded in a flow of video imagery on three screens variously associated with fire, air, earth and water, the four elements of Greek cosmology. The Cyclops, the one-eyed giant of ancient Greek mythology, is a coy reference to his father who, as a merchant in scrap metal [note 4], lost an eye disassembling a refrigerator. Still in the world of Greek mythology, in death he had to pay the ferryman Charon to take him across the Styx in order to enter the underworld. So the film's title is saying that even fathers must pass on, and the film itself is clutching at the precious images left behind, as well as a fading piano melody played by his father which is used on the soundtrack. It displays all Le Grice's multi-screen virtuosity, allied with a complex sound mix, to create an immersive experience that echoes the nature of the subconscious, essentially anti-realist and dreamlike, in which an image of Le Grice’s father flows past.
This brings us back to Little Dog for Roger because it is Le Grice's early attempt to create an anti-realist, dream world from which images fly out. Re-connections with the past are not so much fluid as fugitive, not so much indefinite as evanescent, and so different from the plain photographic one-to-one record of the past.
Tim Cawkwell/June 2016
with thanks to Malcolm Le Grice for help in preparing this piece.
- Malcolm thinks the film was shown at the Drury Lane Arts Lab in 1968 along with other films of his. 1968 was the year of revolution – as acknowledged by a film programme at the London Co-op on 12 August 1972, ‘Films for the year 1968’, which included Little Dog for Roger along with Yes No Maybe Maybenot, Dwoskin’s Me, Myself and I, three Gidal films, Crosswaite’s Puddle, and from North America, Frampton’s Surface Tension and Snow’s Standard Time. I believe, without being certain, that I was present.
- It blazed the way, not that this home-made printer in Le Grice’s garage was the one installed in the Robert Street Arts Lab in October 1969. That was a newly acquired step printer and neg/reversal processor acquired through the good offices of an art-loving millionaire called Victor Herbert. This involved the calling in of a loan from an Australian painter, Arthur Boyd, and Le Grice leaving his house with a bag of notes to the value of £3000. This enabled the Co-op to purchase a second-hand Debrie step printer from Kay Laboratories, one that would withstand the rigours of multiple users. It weighed two tons, and had to be brought in by crane.
- Berlin Horse uses colour, a benefit of the new Debrie printer. Little Dog for Roger is in black and white, “because the bulb was such a low wattage the colour temperature was too red to print colour...and I could not develop colour on my processer.”
- Was his father’s occupation where Le Grice gained his hands-on proficiency with machinery, and thus the technology of cinema?
Malcolm Le Grice, May 2016
Le Grice's original sketch of the basic principle of printing (above) and of how using a projector to do the printing would work (below)
original sketch of his home processor (above)