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opening up the terra incognita of experimental film

danni zuvela: the ubu and garry shead films on dvd


Ubu Films Poster, 1968 Ubu Films Poster, 1968
“FOR THE AVERAGE FAN, AN EVENING IN THE COMPANY OF EXPERIMENTAL SHORTS HAS TRADITIONALLY CONJURED VISIONS OF DENTAL SURGERY,” OBSERVED PAUL ARTHUR IN CINEASTE IN 2006. HAPPILY, THE SUCCESS OF THE LAST SEVEN YEARS OR SO OF THE “UNPRECEDENTED OUTPOURING” OF WHAT ARTHUR CALLS “ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL NON-MAINSTREAM WORK,” HAS PROVEN THAT THERE ARE AS MANY EAGER NON-AVERAGE FANS AS THERE ARE EMINENTLY WATCHABLE EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA RELEASES.

Beautiful DVD box sets detailing the work of avant-garde film luminaries like Guy Sherwin and John Smith, for instance, have proven that commercial publication need not, in Arthur’s words, “maim experiences of fragile art in the process of making it more available.”

Two very welcome Australian newcomers to this field of “exotic yet user-friendly DVDs” are Sydney Underground Movies: Ubu Films 1965-1970, and The Experimental Films of Garry Shead, published in 2011 by Melbourne-based commercial outfit Contemporary Arts Media (Artfilms). Both DVDs are timely additions to the field of Australian screen history, performing a vital dual function of promotion and archiving for the little-seen world of Australian avant-garde visual culture. Albie Thoms, David Perry, Aggy Read and John Clark formed the Ubu Films collective in 1965 in Sydney, operating as a co-operative that not only made, but distributed and exhibited films throughout the 1960s international circuit of avant-garde film. The DVD provides an efficient survey of work carried out in the collective, ranging from their early burlesques and parodies (Blunderball, 1966; The Tribulations of Mr Dupont Nomore, 1967), through kaleidoscopic handmade ‘cameraless’ animations (Bluto and Moon Virility, both 1967) to complex experimental meditations on friendship (David Perry, 1968 and Album, 1970), pregnancy (A Sketch on Abigayl’s Belly, 1968), underground culture (Infinity Girl, 1968) and Thoms’ major opus, the feature-length Marinetti (1969).

Sydney artist Garry Shead was a member of the extended Ubu clan who also made a series of shorts throughout the early 1960s. The films on the Shead DVD naturally cross over with the Ubu films in many ways: key personnel are shared and there is the same joyful use of film as a medium to inscribe countercultural lifestyle in films whose plots are essentially alibis for diaristic work, such as Ding a Ding Day (1961-1966) and the effervescent group effort The Film (1966-67; also included on the Ubu disc). But there are key differences here; where Ubu’s films lean towards the bawdy and abstract, Shead’s films cleave more to his figurative, expressionist inclinations. Less psychedelic than they are psychological, the works on this DVD collectively reveal the shadowy vein of eros that Shead biographer Sasha Griffin has identified as a constant motif across the artist’s oeuvre.

The release of these DVDs could perhaps be seen as symptomatic of what rock writer Simon Reynolds has called the ‘retromania’ of our contemporary era, whereby an embarrassment of high-tech riches is manifesting, paradoxically, as we are increasingly mesmerised by our analogue past. There are, undoubtedly, some marked contrasts between the context of the vibrant Sydney scene in which Ubu and Shead’s films were made, and the ‘historical turn’ of the information age. These films are the product of an era suspicious of the past (as in Jerry Rubin’s famous ‘never trust anyone over 30’ remark), a period that sought to dismantle backwards-looking traditions and instate in their place a ‘counterculture.’ They were made at a time—almost unimaginable now—where access to the means of audiovisual production and dissemination were mostly outside the hands of everyday people. And, unlike feature films—demographics-tested, continuity-scripted, produced under Fordist divisions of labour for maximum efficiency—these films were often improvised, created with whatever means were available, with the chief aim of contributing to a community ethos of radical alternative entertainment.

Ding A Ding Day, Garry Shead Ding A Ding Day, Garry Shead
For some, there is likely be a certain unease with the films’ capture by the digital—congealing spontaneous moments like so many specimens of a wilder, freer bygone era. On the other hand, along with the vital preservation function, the release of these films on DVD offers us an opportunity to revisit and reconsider the issue of historical consciousness in the art of the 1960s. Garry Shead’s work as a ‘paint’ artist is clearly informed by historical modes (his DH Lawrence paintings, the Royalty series), evident in his film art on this DVD, which draws on the tropes of silent cinema (Four Eyes The Fastest Gun, 1967) and on Australian outback mythology grafted onto the outlaw iconography of classic Westerns (The Stringybark Massacre, 1967). And Ubu, of course, had as their matrix Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, to say nothing of their self-consciously atavistic invocation of proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry, from whose 1896 play Ubu Roi they drew their name and pataphysical inspiration.

Perhaps a more compelling explanation than yet more ‘retromania’ for the emergence of these releases, here and now, lies in the reconfigured economic and structural imperatives that have resulted in the lowest ever costs for digital (re)production and sales. As Artfilm’s Kriszta Doczy explained in RT106, recent developments in online selling technology have rendered DVD retail more possible than ever before. While the telecining of the images is not noticeably improved in quality from the much-loved Ubu VHS that was in circulation in the 2000s, this DVD release has the complex advantage of a newly digital existence.

As the bitter international battles between commercial exploitation/intellectual property rights and the internet’s intransigent gift culture continue, two points about peer-to-peer sharing now seem incontrovertible. Firstly, that online interaction and contribution activities are an ineradicable feature of any realistic prediction about the future of media; and secondly, that these practices result not just in the theft of intellectual property, but in the creation of actual economic and cultural value under informational capitalism. The advantage for Artfilms is that, thanks to the new media elision of the distinction between producer/distributor/exhibitor, they are able to distribute these digital publications either as hard copies or streamed online with educational licenses—a major advance as education increasingly moves online. And for the legacy of Ubu—whose collaborative production and exhibition in live, often radical or underground settings infuses the works with the spirit of resistance to commodification—there is something fitting in the thought that these previously unavailable 16mm films are being newly converted to data, which may now be sought and shared by the growing band of people who are discovering the curious appeal of experimental film via the internet.

As any music fan knows, in the era of download culture there is a growing awareness that the gift/theft and commercial models are no longer entirely discrete economic spheres. When we can get films (or music) nearly instantaneously, the purchase of the artefact needs to be motivated by other factors: the object itself needs to impress, a fact London’s Lux have cottoned onto brilliantly with their gorgeously covetable boxsets. The Artfilm releases are attractively but not luxuriously produced, their design taking full advantage of the aesthetics of their respective subjects. The Shead package is dark and brooding, replete with dreamlike film stills that perfectly cue the viewer’s expectation of what’s to come. And, appropriately, the Ubu DVD fairly vibrates with the eye-gouging day-glo aesthetics of David Perry’s poster design, its lurid aqua cover opening to a violently yellow gatefold, an Ubu poster that invites the viewer to “Turn on With Ubu Films.” But with lean extras relying mostly on existing information about the artists, and standard shiny cardboard housing for the DVDs, these releases aren’t trying to attract the packaging fetishist. Their no-nonsense foldout design will, evidently, store easily on library shelves, and, lacking myriad liner notes, booklets and other custom inserts that elevate new bespoke music and film collectors’ editions, are far more likely to be able to be borrowed (and returned) intact by waves of film, new media, art and communications students around the world. For the releases are squarely—and sensibly—aimed at acquisitions officers in public institutions the world over (as Artfilms puts it, they are “primarily a website for academic and public libraries, teachers and students”). Given the paucity of access to this work for students and teachers, the pragmatic targeting of the Artfilm releases is laudable, an ideal opening up of what Paul Arthur terms the “terra incognita” of avant-garde film history to the next generation of inquiring minds.


Sydney Underground Movies: Ubu Films 1965-1970; The Experimental Films of Garry Shead, published by Contemporary Arts Media; http://artfilms-digital.com

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 28

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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