In the recent Marc Karlin round-table event at Picture This, Kodwo Eshun remarked this project reflected a current need to return to the archives of what Jean-Luc Godard named ‘Cine-Marxism’. Sheila Rowbotham, the Writer in Residence at the Eccles Centre for American Studies in the British Library and friend of Marc Karlin, was also on the panel. Here is a story where all these figures overlap.
In 1969 Jean-Luc Godard was in London filming British Sounds, a project he was making with Kestral Films for London Weekend Television. He approached Sheila Rowbotham for permission to use her Black Dwarf article, ‘Women: the struggle for Freedom’ written in January 1969 with the front page ‘1969: Year of the Militant Woman?’. His idea was to film her with nothing on reciting words of emancipation as she walked up and down a flight of stairs – the supposition being that eventually the voice would override the images of the body. Rowbotham declined. Consequently, another young woman agreed to walk up and down the stairs and Rowbotham did the voiceover. Here’s a section of the film.
This is an edited extract from Sheila Rowbotham’s memoir ‘Promise of a Dream’ describing the exchange with Godard.
Godard came to Hackney to convince me. He sat on the sanded floor of my bedroom, a slight dark man, his body coiled in persuasive knots. Neither Godard the man nor Godard the mythical creator of A Bout de Souffle, which I’d gone to see with Bar in Paris, were easy to contend with. I perched in discomfort on the edge of my bed and announced, ‘I think if there’s a woman with nothing on appearing on the screen no one’s going to listen to any words,’ suggesting perhaps he could film our ‘This Exploits Women’ stickers on the tube. Godard gave me a baleful look, his lip curled. ‘Don’t you think I am able to make a cunt boring?’ he exclaimed. We were locked in conflict over a fleeting ethnographic moment.
British Sounds was to have an unexpected series of repercussions which I did not grasp at the time. Humphrey Burton, then head of arts at London Weekend Television, refused to show it. The ensuing row fused with the sacking of Michael Peacock from the board of LWT in September 1969. Whereupon Tony Garnett and Kenith Trodd from Kestral, along with other programme-makers, resigned in protest. LWT decided to go for higher ratings and bought in an Australian newspaper owner called Rupert Murdoch. The last thing he wanted to do was to make a cunt boring.
This is a still from Marc Karlin’s The Serpent, a film on Rupert Murdoch 28 years later.
Sources – Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties. S,Rowbotham. (Verso:2002)
The Berwick Street Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975) was filmed to support an attempt by the women’s movement to unionise London’s night cleaners. Shot in black and white, and punctuated with sections of black leader, Nightcleaners fuses political documentary with a rigorous reflection on the materiality of film and the problems of representing struggle. Here is a short scene.
The collective was founded by Marc Karlin, Humphry Treveleyan, Richard Mordaunt and James Scott. During the filming of Nightcleaners they were joined by artist Mary Kelly. Here is a bio from the early 1970s out of the archive.
Humphry Treveleyan and Marc Karlin were both members of Cinema Action, the left-wing film collective, in the late 1960s but both left dissatisfied with the group’s formal commitment to film-making. With Nightcleaners, those expecting a didactic film, found one that was nuanced and exploratory, both in terms of form and working class representation. The film used black spacing which slowly draws contemplation from the viewer and the fragmented soundtrack, together with time lapse sequences, applied pressure on the image, questioning its ability to record actuality. At the time, Screen journal declared it undoubtedly the most ‘important political film to have been made in this country’ and predicted it ‘to provide a basis for a new direction in British film-making’ . Claire Johnston’s Jump Cut review proclaimed Nightcleaners was ‘redefining the struggle for revolutionary cinema’.
The revolution failed to materialise and Nightcleaners remained firmly underground. Naturally being a collective project, Nightcleaners seeps many histories and it remains a complicated assignment to gain an exact understanding of the creative intentions of the film from those involved. To this day tensions linger, as you can witness from the exchanges between feminist writer Sheila Rowbotham, a campaigner with the Cleaners Action Group at the time, and Humphry Teveleyan in the Q&A.
That is not to say Nightcleaners ever went away. Indeed, Mike Sperlinger, LUX’s Assistant Director, states from 2002 onwards the film had regular screenings with many different audiences, striking a political chord particularly in a time where the erosion of the trade unions of the 1980s has noticeably come home to roost. Mike also observes a renewed interest in materialist film practises in oppositional film over the past ten years and Humphry Trevelyan adds the film has been adopted recently by the Occupy movement with a screening at UCL.
Nightcleaners (1974) and it’s ‘sequel’ 36′ to 77′ (1978) will soon be released by LUX on DVD.
This Q&A is chaired by Picture This director Dan Kidner with Mike Sperlinger and Humphry Treveleyan and poses the question; does a film need to explore form as well as content to be political?
The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary about Rupert Murdoch. Borrowing from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Karlin
tells the tale of commuter Michael Deakin (Nicholas Farrell), self appointed archangel, who falls asleep on his train and dreams of ridding Britain of the Dark Prince (Rupert Murdoch). The Voice of Reason stops him and not only exposes the futility of Deakin’s quest but confronts us, the silent majority, with our complicity in Murdoch’s rise to power.
Karlin guides us through the labyrinth of Murdoch’s psyche. Firstly ‘The Museum of the Fall’, a fable-like archive containing artefacts of Murdoch’s empire, where human sculptures display tabloid headlines that alter with the public mood, and where page three girls reveal the industrialisation of sex. Secondly, the telling silence that greets Murdoch’s 1989 address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where he calls for increased deregulation of television in the face of censorship. The Voice of Reason indicates to Deakin, “this is the silence of democrats … and the Dark Prince could bathe in that silence”
Karlin’s film is a stinging indictment on the Left’s failure to counter Murdoch’s increasing influence in the British media since the late 1960s, and consequently reveals the Left’s tendency to create their own monsters (Murdoch) in order to conceal their guilt. As Karlin remarks in an interview before his death, “In a way you could say it is a very healthy part of British democracy, whereby you invite the wolf who doesn’t disguise himself at all. But if you are going to invite the wolf, then you better start shaping up and debating.” Fifteen years later, over to you Lord Justice Leveson…
The Q&A is chaired by Picture This’ Dan Kidner, with Holly Aylett and Karlin’s cinematographer Jonathan Bloom.
Between Times (1993) looks at the fate of the British Left in the wake of Thatcherism. Over a cup of tea, A, the socialist, and Z, the post-modernist, investigate what now constitutes the men and women, individuals or collectives, who saw themselves as being the agency of change, i.e. until then the working class.
After the 1992 General Election defeat, the British Left were in a state of paralysis. Like today, the Left, swamped by the loudly proclaimed ‘end of history’ so often twinned with the death of Socialism, were searching for a viable alternative to the entrenched neo-liberal ideology.
In light of this, the film reveals the tension that existed between the ‘working class’ and the ‘political class’ in the early 1990s after a decade of shifting class perceptions and individual aspirations. From his notebooks at the time Karlin writes, ‘the subjects feel ill at ease in the political class’ tightly constructed corset or straight-jacket. Political language and culture does not correspond to the subject’s intimate and intuitive understanding of itself and its circumstances’.
Between Times explores the need for alternatives, new spaces and new realities that socialism, particularly the British bureaucratic variant, tended to exclude and abandon. ‘A’ notes, ‘we are taking a second breath’ and inhales fresh optimism from the Thurcroft miners attempt to buy their colliery from British Coal. To ‘Z’, however, this is just temporary turbulence. ‘Z’ used to believe these incidents added up to an organised, articulated political project, that each image was part of a continuing narrative, but now, he has come to distrust the Left’s history and its propensity to cling to, what he now believes to be, disparate imagery.
Between Times Fax © The Marc Karlin Archive
The Q&A includes Kodwo Eshun, artist, theorist and co-founder of the Otolith Group, Steve Sprung, filmmaker and editor of Between Times, and Picture This’ director Dan Kidner.
For Memory (originally TV and Memory) was a co-production between the BFI and the BBC. Marc Karlin started writing it in 1975, shot it between 1977 and 1978 and concluded editing in 1982. Ironically, a film about TV and Memory was forgotten. It remained neglected until the BBC finally broadcast the film in a sleepy afternoon slot in March 1986.
For Memory is a contemplation on cultural amnesia. Karlin, with his cinematographer Jonathan Bloom, built a model city in a studio. The camera snakes around the imagery city, seeking out fragile testimonies from voices that fail to conform to a collective history. It is an essay on a city that forgets and remembers, and how it forgets and how it remembers. Historians E.P Thompson and Cliff Williams, anti-fascist activist Charlie Goodman and Alzheimer sufferers deliver banished memories from outside the city’s bounds.
The film opens with an emotional interview with the members of the British Army Film Unit recalling the images they recorded after the liberation of the Belsen Concentration Camp. Karlin wrote For Memory as a reaction to Holocaust, Hollywood’s serialisation of the genocide. He asks: how could a documentary photograph die so soon and be taken over by a fiction?
The Q&A is chaired by Holly Aylett, documentary filmmaker, lecturer and cultural sector director, Luke Fowler, a Glasgow based artist and filmmaker, and Sheila Rowbotham, Writer in Residence at the Eccles Centre for American studies in the British Library.
This month Picture This, in association with the research project “In the Spirit of Marc Karlin”, held an exhibition and screening programme focusing on the work of British filmmaker Marc Karlin (1943-99). Marc Karlin is an important but neglected figure within the British film avant-garde of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Arnolfini, hosted a weekend of screenings and talks which began with the seminal, Nightcleaners (1974). Shot in black and white, and punctuated with sections of black leader, Nightcleaners fuses political documentary with a rigorous reflection on the materiality of film and the problems of representing struggle. The programme continued with three films that Karlin made for television in the 1980s and 90s. For Memory (1986), features E.P. Thompson, and explores historical memory, Between Times (1993) looks at the fate of the British Left in the wake of Thatcherism, and The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary about Rupert Murdoch told through the lens of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Each film brilliantly captures the mood of the left in Britain through the 80s and 90s, whilst the aesthetic and political issues, and questions, they raise remain relevant and urgent.
The weekend ended with a round table discussion with contributors Holly Aylett, Jonathan Bloom, Kodwo Eshun, Luke Fowler, Andy Robson, Sheila Rowbotham, Steve Sprung and hosted by Dan Kidner.Picture This presents Marc Karlin, Roundtable discussion.
The audio from the weekend’s Q&As will soon be up.
Picture This, in association with the research project “In the Spirit of Marc Karlin”, is pleased to present an exhibition and screening programme focusing on the work of British Filmmaker Marc Karlin (1943-99). The Video Shop at Picture This hosts a presentation of photographs, documents and journals, whilst at Arnolfini, Picture This will present a weekend of screenings and talks (see below for full programme).
The screening programme at Arnolfini (13 – 15 April) begins with the seminal, Nightcleaners (1974). Initially commissioned as a campaign film in support of an attempt by the women’s movement to unionise London’s night cleaners, the film soon became something else entirely. Shot in black and white, and punctuated with sections of black leader, Nightcleaners fuses political documentary with a rigorous reflection on the materiality of film and the problems of representing struggle. For Memory (1986), featuring E.P. Thomson, explores historical memory, Between Times (1993) looks at the fate of the British Left in the wake of Thatcherism, and The Serpent (1997) is a drama-documentary that portrays Rupert Murdoch as the Satan of Paradise Lost.
Each screening at Arnolfini is followed by a Q&A with one of the filmmaker’s former colleagues, and the weekend concludes with a roundtable discussion featuring all the contributors.
The project is generously supported by Arts Council England. With special thanks to Arnolfini, BFI, LUX, and In the Spirit of Marc Karlin (Holly Aylett, Hermione Harris and Andy Robson).