Tuesday 9th March

Back in London, on spring break, I have been asked by the art gallery Raven Row to come to a discussion about the Edinburgh Film Festival and particularly the Brecht and cinema event of 1975 that was organized with Screen magazine. I’m intrigued but also alarmed at how little I can remember. I rope in Mark Nash at the last minute. Mark edited Screen in the latter part of the seventies and was a witness to the unbelievable level of psychic violence and personal aggression into which the Screen board degenerated, as it became a huge success. As I expect the evening to be one of nostalgic self-congratulation, I want someone in the audience who knows how ghastly it all became. In fact as we have a drink the night before Mark reminds me that, after I had left Screen, the whole saga had a truly tragic end as Claire Johnstone who had been a major force in transforming the Edinburgh film festival in the seventies descended into madness and suicide.
Raven Row is a bright well constructed gallery fizzing with ideas and exhibitions and the evening begins to feel better. I’m delighted to find that one of the Gallery staff Sue Haddon was a Consortium student but I’m ashamed that I don’t remember her until she reminds me that in her student days she was a punk and, suddenly her face swims into memory. Lauren Wright, one of my very favourite Consortium students, always fizzing with energy and ideas, is also there with the great news that she’s passed her Ph.D viva and got a job.
The curators (as everybody now seems to be called) have chosen well in getting a full range of left positions in the cinema. Margaret Dickinson, who worked with Simon Hartog represents the left within the industry, Felicity Sparrow represents the Co-op which supported avant garde film making over five decades, Noreen MacDowell represents the most activist film making. The trouble is that 40 years ago there was no agreed discourse and the intervening years haven’t helped. Paul Willemen who was married to Claire Johnstone might have tried but Paul was always, in my view, violently sectarian and if his beard and hair are now white, age has not mellowed his face or his analysis. He starts the evening with a triumphalist account of Edinburgh in the seventies that, although intelligent, is busy fighting battles more ancient than Thermopylae. When I speak I stress that I haven’t the knowledge to contribute much to the discussion. I wasn’t someone who worked in the industry in the seventies, I wasn’t even a cinephile. I came back from a year studying with Althusser and Derrida in Paris and was asked to lunch in the Lee Ho Fook by Peter Wollen and Sam Rohdie. Brecht’s writings on the cinema had just been translated into French and very rapidly I found myself editing the magazine with Ben Brewster in a period that I still remember as full of excitement and hope. But that period was very brief. Whatever Screen might have contributed to film culture effectively came to an end when all the members of the editorial board closely associated with secondary education resigned. By an irony of history that only hits me when the very efficient Petra Bauer and Dan Kidner send me an electronic copy,the edition of Screen that published the proceedings of the Brecht Edinburgh event also included their letter of resignation.
I end by leaving the particular and turning to the general failure of collective efforts to live and work differently in the seventies. These failures involved huge numbers in the developed world but the fictions, memoirs, histories that might enable us to understand that moment do not exist. The failures were so bitter and damaging that no-one can bear to think about them. But only when that history is understood might we challenge the extraordinary ideological dominance of neo-liberalism.
I am hoping that some of the young people in the room will speak but most of the evening is oldies bemoaning the present. As I have decided, as a spiritual exercise, to resist these pleasures I am unable to join them. When finally a youngish person does speak it is not to offer any historical analysis, there is an invocation of politics but the politics invoked is in fact the residues of the discourse of the Third International without any realisation of what discourse is being spoken nor that its political and economic analyses are completely discredited. This indeed is the ‘politics’ which features in so much postcolonial and art discourse. It may signify a desire but otherwise it has no meaning whatsoever. The words of Franco Fortini (from the first issue of Screen that I edited with Ben Brewster in 1974) come back to me “ It may be that we have not yet despaired enough”. And yet the energy and vibe of the place is not at all despairing. More paradoxes.

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2 Responses to “Tuesday 9th March”

  1. Paul Willemen Says:

    Talk about ‘fighting battles more ancient than Thermopylae’. Colin MacCabe, who posted this smug self-congratulatory note, obviously regards anything positive that he fails to understand as ‘triumphalist’, and it is extremely wearysome to have to note the continuing aggressiveness of people such as Colin who confess to being an utter ignoramus as far as film is concerned – indeed, he writes that he doesn’t even like cinema – yet insists on being judge and jury in matters relating to film culture. I blame Tony Smith for all this: when he was (a by and large very good) director of the British Film Institute, he appointed Colin as head of production when Colin hardly knew which end of a camera had a lens in it.
    Somebody who does not know about cinema and who admits to not caring about cinema (at least not at the time that he was involved in that cultural practice) should shut up about cinema, just as a matter of cultural hygiene.
    paul willemen

  2. Hema Ramachandran Says:

    Yeah! Good ol’ Paul! Age has not withered nor customed staled his intelligence and biting humor…

    Paul wherever you are I hope you are well.

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