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Experimental cinema of the 60s conference

In the beginning was the image
the films of Don Levy and Peter Whitehead

A two-day symposium of screenings and talks
re-evaluating the work of the Slade art school film unit alumni

Special guest speakers:
Peter Whitehead and James Quinn (producer, Herostratus)

Has a festival of atrocity films ever been held?. . . It seemed likely in the late 60s, but the new puritans of our day would greet such a suggestion with a shudder. A pity – given the unlimited opportunities which the media landscape now offers to the wayward imagination...
J G Ballard

On Friday 24th – Saturday 25th September 2004 in Norwich, UK, the School of Film and Television at the University of East Anglia (UEA), in association with Norwich School of Art and Design (NSAD), Cinema City and Screen East, presents a two-day symposium which re-evaluates the film work of two critically overlooked yet singular pioneers of the modern British cinematic image: Don Levy and Peter Whitehead. Both men studied at the pioneering Slade Art School film unit early in the 1960s under the tutelage of Thorold Dickinson, one of British film history’s most notable directors. Dickinson became Britain’s first Professor of Film and is the father of modern film studies. Some of Dickinson’s students, such as Raymond Durgnat, became part of the first generation of film scholars, critics and teachers – leaders of a new movement dedicated to the historical and aesthetic analysis of film. But the other facet of Dickinson’s legacy was the emergence of a new breed of filmmakers rooted in the documentary tradition yet dedicated to experiment and cinematic adventure.

While Peter Whitehead is celebrated by a small but devoted audience, the late Australian expatriate filmmaker, Don Levy, has been all but forgotten. Yet Levy made one of the most ambitious experimental features of the 1960s. He was the beneficiary of a rare stroke of luck for an experimental filmmaker directing a first feature: to acquire mainstream funding with very few creative fetters imposed upon him. It was on the strength of Levy’s documentary on theories of time, Time Is (1964) for the Nuffield History of Ideas film unit that James Quinn, then head of the British Film Institute and subsequently producer of Levy’s sole feature, Herostratus (1967), obtained the funds for the film to be made. It was Quinn who introduced the film at its premier at the National Film Theatre in April 1968. Thirty-six years later, as the perfect reintroduction of the feature into the public consciousness Quinn, now in his eighties, will introduce this rare screening of Herostratus.
Levy’s choice of story was very contemporary. The title refers to the legendary figure who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. This act of vandalism was committed solely for the purpose of gaining fame and notoriety after one’s death. Levy adapted this concept to the mythic mass media image of Swinging London and the cynical consumerism at its center. A young man decides to turn his act of suicide into a mass media spectacle by selling it to a marketing company.

At the time that Herostratus was being premiered, a group of backers who witnessed Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967) at the New York film festival funded a new film project, which became The Fall (completed late in 1968), an exploration of assassination as media spectacle in the wake of the public deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Herostratus and The Fall were made almost concurrently. They both embody an early preoccupation with the diminished aspirations of the Sixties and the fetishisation of death as media spectacle. Both films were much maligned in their times and were seen as too outré for critics and audiences at large to comprehend. Yet today we are media savvy, most of the techniques and themes of the avant-garde have been appropriated by advertising, MTV and the rapid-paced, fragmentary postmodern editing of high-octane contemporary cinema. With a recent BBC series, Time Shift, dedicated to a critical re-evaluation of the 60s, being shown on British screens over the summer and the Home Secretary’s recent diatribes against the culture of 60s liberalism, it is perhaps a timely occasion to re-examine these films which were critical in their own times of the consumerist myths and triviality surrounding the diluted and illusory “Swinging Sixties”.

Although these two main features form the centre-piece of the symposium there is a beguiling array of rarely seen non-fiction shorts also included in the programme of screenings. At UEA, on the ‘Levy day’ (24th September), the morning will be dedicated to showing his ‘Experimental Shorts’ and Time Is. Also featured in the programme will be Whitehead’s Wholly Communion, a document of the gathering of the beat poets at London’s Albert Hall and ostensibly the first ever work of ‘direct cinema’ in Britain. The film manages to capture almost every highlight not only of the poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Adrian Mitchell, Harry Fainlight et al, but also the eccentric behaviour of some members of the audience. It is being shown here as a prelude to the day’s main feature, Herostratus, which re-appropriates, to impressive effect, sequences from Wholly Communion of Ginsberg orating his declamatory poetry.

The following day is dedicated to Whitehead with a screening of The Fall
at NSAD in the afternoon, which the filmmaker himself will introduce. The finale of the programme of events will be a wrap party, free of the intellectual baggage of the rest of the festival. This final event is to be held at Cinema City. The idea here is to hold a memorable, enjoyable and popular evening of pop promos made by Whitehead in the 1960s. The running list includes films of The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Nico, The Small Faces and more. The grand finale of the festival will be a screening of a rarely seen road movie made by Whitehead with The Rolling Stones. This is a one-off screening and an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans, aficionados and scholars of the Sixties to see a precious celluloid gem, once described by Josef von Sternberg as "…a very beautiful film. It is and will remain a very valuable social document.”

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