“It went right over my head and seemed a little threatening, but I’m all for it.” Those words are from director Willy Russell describing a trilogy of films from experimental film maker Jeff Keen. As I’ve sat and watched a number of Keen productions on the new GAZWRX Blu-ray set, I’m tempted to agree with Russell…and then some.
Born in 1923 and a soldier in World War Two, artist Jeff Keen – now aged 85 – began making films when he was 37. Based in Brighton, Keen revels in the odd and the weird, as well as a large dollop of the mundane in amongst the madness.
Inspired by popular culture in all its vulgarity and brilliance, his interests varying from cowboy movies to comic books, 50s men’s magazines to cartoons, Keen wields his camera like a schoolboy waves a large stick, swinging it around with apparent wild abandon and hoping that he hits upon something interesting.
Sound is a vital element in Keen’s work (although some early 8mm footage provided here is eerily silent) with screeches and screams playing over various odd images. Music also plays its part, from old calypso tunes to the less obvious.
Split screen is a favourite technique of the director, the overlapping of home movie footage with shots of the local dump or flashes of animation helping to bring the ordinary alive.
Films such as Artwar Fallout + Artwar 3 and Artwar Loop 1 segment the screen into distinct halves, one relaying images of war while the other has more homegrown commentary on conflict, with drawings and sketches of death and pain.
Other movies, such as those in the Self Portrait section, offer up smaller segments from the mind of the director. Selecting two at random, Kino Pulveriso and Kino Staccato, there are once again images of warfare that might not have a narrative flow but that have a common theme: destruction.
There are over nine hours of Keen’s work on this set, disc one presenting a number of them in glorious Blu-ray, while discs two and three are standard DVD. Although the films were never designed to look like standard cinema, they are crisp and bright on these discs, the intense imagery even more interesting on a larger screen.
As noted by Willy Russell, actually understanding the work of Keen isn’t easy, his style so unique that even referencing his films with other directors is near impossible: they literally have to be seen to be believed.
Of course the very fact that Keen’s films can’t be compared is the whole point, his need to constantly be himself an obvious element of everything we see on these discs. While I’m hard pressed to claim that every film is a classic or that the work can’t be criticised simply because there is little to compare it with, there is something to be said for the sheer exuberance of the movies that should be applauded.
It’s tempting to say that these films are an acquired taste, but I’m not sure how you set about acquiring that taste. The visual references that permeate these films, from Mickey Mouse to obscure comics and images of war, are ones that most viewers will recognise to some degree, so does that mean we’ve all acquired a taste for them?
The half hour documentary on this set shines some light on the mind of Keen, and it’s intriguing to hear his thoughts on the world. Made in 1983, the programme looks remarkably recent, with Keen’s views still as prescient now as they were 25 years ago.
With few ways for people to easily see Keen’s work, this set is clearly something special. Film and art students in particular will surely be inspired to go outside with a handheld and start filming.
Whether or not these films appeal to a wider audience is less certain, the breaking of the usual cinematic rules a barrier to easy acceptance. I’d certainly recommend this set to anyone who likes to experiment with their viewing, though perhaps trying the local library first or attending one of the upcoming touring programmes for a sample could be a better option.
Blu-ray Special Features
- Brand new interview with Jeff Keen
- Art Flies Free (2000) – experimental documentary by Ian Helliwell
- Jeff Keen Films (1983) – documentary with interview
- 96-page booklet featuring paintings, drawings and collages by Jeff Keen plus articles by Tony Rayns, Ray Durgnat and Jack Sargeant
- Title: GAZWRX: The Films of Jeff Keen
- Certificate: 15
- Release date: 23 February 2009
- DVD Cat no BFIVD775 (4-disc set) RRP £34.25
- Blu-ray Cat no BFIB1008 (1 Blu-ray & 2 DVD disc set) RRP £34.25
Image copyright BFI