Art flies free: a profile of Jeff Keen

Oh what a difference two-and-a-half decades make in a human’s twilight years! There are two interviews included on GAZWRX, BFI’s recently-released DVD retrospective of Jeff Keen’s filmography. One was shot in 1983; the other in 2008 and the change in the man couldn’t be greater or more devastating. In the first interview, we are presented with a sixty year-old auspicious firebrand du jour whose immense presence is matched by his booming voice. Broadcasting cinematic homilies in a commandeering tone while projections of his films scatter across his face; to the alternatively-minded film aficionado he is as inspiring as Dr. King was to the disenfranchised American black man of the early sixties. Fast forward twenty-five years, though, and we find Keen as bearded bemusement personified, looking all the more lost and bewildered due to incessant interrogation from a ludicrously impatient and patronising interviewer named William Fowler (a man presumably trying to diversify his C.V. by doing a feature on some old kook who apparently made some crazy films in the sixties)

This transformation would surely be less upsetting were it a lesser artist whom age had rendered a confused and doddering old man, but Keen’s films are so vital and gloriously inspiring that the very notion that the mind which devised them isn’t all there anymore is quite shocking indeed. Watching GAZWRX one gets the impression that this is a man blessed with an unfair capacity for ideas. From his early black and white 8mm works to his latter Omozap videos, his films may be alternately disorientating, confusing and even nauseating or disturbing but it is inconceivable that one could ever find them boring.

Keen started making films in 1959, invigorated by the fact that he had a ready-made captive audience at the film society which he was running at the time. Considering the contemporary artistic climate and the fact that they are full of the rapid-cut imagery from popular culture (Ironically rendered quite inaccessible to the masses by its very presentation) which would, broadly speaking, come to define his whole career, it is understandable why these early films are often aligned with the pop art scene. Keen often refutes this assumption, though, instead pointing towards Jean Dubuffet as a reference point for his oeuvre and this is understandable. Like Dubuffet’s art, Keen’s films often give the impression that they are what a madman or child might create had they immense technical skill and indefatigable patience.

To take for example a particular highlight of Keen’s early 8mm works, the three minute Flik Flak (1964-65) features imagery from American comic books, monster movies, wartime photography and much more besides, all flecked with paint and sporadically altered by the magic of film. Notable moments of such trickery include a toy film camera moving of its own accord aimed towards a water-pistol, which in turn shoots a crudely drawn heart from its barrel; and an image of Jeff Keen’s wife – and star of almost all his films of the sixties and seventies – Jackie Keen crying heart-shaped tears. All this is backed at first by Keen’s signature soundtracks of radio static and sound poetry, and then latterly by a dynamic jazz score, which in its swing reflects the irrepressibly cavalier attitude exuded by the film.

Despite the work’s inherent opposition to what Laura Mulvey referred to as narrative film’s “hermetically-sealed world” (One surely cannot become absolved in the scopophilic pleasure of watching constructed reality when one is constantly bombarded with reminders that one is watching a film), Jeff Keen’s films also often exude a kind of naturalistic warmth which cannot be found in a mainstream cinema ostensibly catering far more to the audience’s emotions. This is due both to Keen’s resolutely D.I.Y. approach to moviemaking (even when digital technology was incorporated into his films it was in the form of ‘My First Sony’ – a sort of computerised etch-a-sketch) and also to his consistent casting of friends and family. This latter tendency is perhaps best exemplified by Keen’s many diary films featuring his daughter, wife and friends (decidedly more idiosyncratic than the average home movies in that they were edited in camera and used often randomly determined multiple exposures) and one of his longer films (and one of the few to be funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain), White Dust (1970-72). Comprised of various Keen associates dressing up as archetypal fantastic characters, White Dust is a film which could conceivably be seen as a bunch of adults playing dress-up but actually comes off as a brave deconstruction of the mythologising Hollywood tradition.

I do not emphasise this warmth at the expense of Keen’s more nihilistic and destructive tendencies, however, and in the Keen filmography there can certainly be found some of the best depictions of war and chaos in the history of cinema. These elements are most obviously articulated through Keen’s Artwar series of films, which feature insanely frenetic battles both between animated toy soldiers and through found footage of the first gulf war, but run as a thread throughout his entire oeuvre. For example the handgun, perhaps man’s most destructive invention, has been identified by the artist himself as one of his greatest fascinations (“It condenses power. It fits into the hand beautifully”) and melted action figures; crudely scrawled explosions and photos of men rendered faceless by violent scribbles litter the Keen canon.

Looking back on such a fearsome body of work, it is almost inconceivable to imagine that it was created by the man seen interviewed last year, a man who fails to finish many of his sentences; for whom it seems an immense effort to move across his studio in order to absent-mindedly pick up a painting and, when criticising today’s art, can only muster “it’s all a bit shit really”: a description which could never be applied to his own work.

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