Gazwrx: The films of Jeff Keen

The BFI have just done us proud with a box set of Jeff Keen films entitled Gazwrx, not to mention various screenings of his works – and all from brand spanking new prints! Keen was one of the earliest and best British underground film-makers. He was largely self-taught and is blessed with a beatnik sensibility that converges with the hippie scene of the later sixties but remains a distinctive strand within it. As a starting point for all this, imagine a surrealist remake of Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (1959) set in Brighton and you’re not a million miles away from Like The Time Is Now (1961); except, of course, the comparison glosses over Jeff Keen’s singularity. Wail (1960) is probably more typical of Keen’s cinematic sensibility; a crazy mix of animation and live action footage featuring Hollywood werewolves, high art and gang violence. Using 8mm film, Keen created scratch video 20 years before anyone else had thought of it. The resultant mix and match of high art and lowbrow popular culture runs through forty years of his film work.
From the early sixties right through to the late seventies Keen worked with an ensemble of players who might be compared to the troupe John Waters deployed in his midnight movie hits before making the transition to Hollywood director. Although both men clearly set out to entertain their audiences, the similarities pretty much stop there because Keen created shorts not features, had no time for narrative and made extensive use of animation and double exposure. So the results are closer to Ira Cohen’s Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968) than Pink Flamingos (1972). But as in John Waters’ far more conventional flicks, Keen’s ensemble of actors liked to dress up and act out as exaggerated comic book versions of themselves: and some of them were rather fond of taking their clothes off too, particularly Jeff’s wife Jackie Keen. One can sense from the films that there were sexual shenanigans going on off-screen that fuelled the bad craziness caught on celluloid. But if sex and nudity don’t do it for you, there are also cardboard ray guns, monsters, endless explosions of paint and other pyrotechnics. The titles of the films in the Gaswrx box provide a good indication of their content: Cineblatz, Marvo Movie, Meatdaze, The Cartoon Theatre of Dr Gaz, Return of Silver Head, Victory Thru Film Power, Kino Pulveriso, The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke, Omozap, Artwar Fallout, Plasticator etc.
One of the great things about this BFI box set is that it allows you to follow Keen’s development from 1960 to 2000, and thereby see how he adapted his singular sensibility to different technologies (8mm, 16mm, video) and changing times. There is a major shift in his work that occurs at the end of the 1970s, when rather than a tribal ensemble acting out before the camera, Jeff himself in a paint splattered boiler suit becomes the main focus of attention (with much of the camerawork handled by his daughter Stella Starr, who also appears in many of the movies from a young age). My own preference is for the earlier work, and my favourite piece by Keen is the 33 minutes of madness known as White Dust (1972).  That said, the later shorts show Keen at his most aggressive. Although he is always entertaining and quick to offer his audience visual jokes, by the eighties a sense of frustration enters Keen’s work, and alongside it there seems to be a desire to punish those viewers who try to passively consume his movies as mere divertissements. Reaganomics possibly had something to do with this, because a similar anger bubbles through much underground art video produced in this period; the work of Pete Horobin, for example, also tests the limits of the viewer’s endurance, albeit in very different ways to Keen. Putting the focus firmly back on Jeff Keen, his films are always entertaining but are also far more complex and referential than they might at first appear to a casual – or indeed, an attentive – viewer. While having having read André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja isn’t an essential requirement for the enjoyment of Keen’s exuberance ouvre, it is just one of many many things that he explicitly references.
Jeff is still alive and well and living in a two room flat in Brighton, but at 85 he seems to have retired from active film-making. The closest figure we have to Keen currently making movies is Damon Packard; although, of course, the younger man substitutes Keen’s love of science fiction with slasher film obsessions. Packard is also at a serious disadvantage in that the cinema clubs and underground art centres where Keen’s films played in chaotic but sociable environments to audiences who were often bombed out of their minds on drugs, no longer exist. The nearest you’ll come to that now is inviting some friends over to your pad to watch highlights from the Gazwrx set while enjoying something that might well be more intoxicating than beer! And if that proves a success why not follow it up with a midnight home screening of Packard’s Reflections of Evil (2002)?
Gazwrx: The Films of Jeff Keen was released by the BFI on 23 February 2009 in both DVD and Blu-ray editions with a list price of £34.99 for 570 minutes of footage!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Antony Balch on 2009-03-03 12:07:24 +0000

Alongside Jeff Keen I was one of the first people to embrace art, horror and exploitation films with equal enthusiasm, a view that was hardly shared by the average film critic of the sixites. So a comparison between Keen’s work and my shorts “Towers Open Fire” and “The Cut-Ups” might be nice!

Comment by Bob Cobbing on 2009-03-03 13:00:41 +0000

What, no mention of my contribution to the Jeff Keen ouvre?

Comment by Tony Sinden on 2009-03-03 14:12:24 +0000

Groovy man coz you know I’m a part of Jeff’s tribal ensemble. And while I appeared in Keen films I also made my own, which are way more conceptual.

Comment by John Latham on 2009-03-03 16:22:37 +0000

Using his cans of spray paint Jeff uses his films to demonstrate the least event again and again… the spray produces an action (dots of paint) in a pre-existing, a-temporal omnipresent (the white cinema screen)….

Comment by Brion Gysin on 2009-03-03 17:20:43 +0000

I found Balch’s shorts a little tight.

Comment by THE PLAGIARIST on 2009-03-03 17:21:59 +0000

Eat my shorts!

Comment by David Seabrook on 2009-03-03 17:24:09 +0000

Kent police discovered me dead in my Canterbury flat in January 2009 following a break-in.

Comment by 1818 on 2009-03-03 18:17:59 +0000

I’m eighteen just don’t know what to do…… and 1818 saw the first publication of Frankenstein… later an important series of movies for Jeff Keen…..

Comment by B on 2009-03-03 18:58:47 +0000

Thursday, August 07, 2008 . Anniversary. Current mood: amused
Everything was celebrated in those days; 40 years since that protest; 25 years since that war; 20, 15, 10 years since some cultural event or other, some LP release, some painting, some strike. The Inactivist International had decided, in the spirit of this tradition, to recreate certain actions of Stewart Home, cultural worker and prankster, inserting, for the fun of it, new actions with preposterously obscure histories.
A programme of events was scheduled over a two week period to coincide with the Olympics, using the sporting event as a template. B, The Hysterical Div. of The Inactivist International, proposed opening and closing events mimicking the overblown Sports Schmooze. It was agreed that The Diana Accident Re-enactment Kult would open and The Stewart Home Alone Three would close. The centre piece of the Stewart Home Festival of Brighton was a dramatic recreation of the infamous Pavilion Theatre Levitation.
R and H secured the use of the Hope for the duration of the festival, convincing the landlord with tales of unfeasible publicity. It was immediately renamed The Lift. Festival flyers and posters celebrating the original Levitation were produced. A local radio interview with Stewart was recreated with H as SH.
The opening ceremony took place on August 8th 2008 at 8pm in The Lift. The D.A.R.K. consisted of 6 people, 1 of whom represented the wall; the other five were the car, Henri Paul, Dodi, and Di. All were naked, different coloured body paint offered the only clues. To a brutal soundclash of Burning Car and Warm Leatherette, the six recreated a slow motion version of the crash, hands and mouths met with cocks and cunts, body paint smearing and mixing as the six writhed toward a simultaneous sexual ecstasy, as the moaning increased, subtly positioned microphones amplified the sound and it was added to the mix. At the points of orgasm slides showing the crush black Mercedes were flashed over the interconnected bodies. The sound of a car being crushed and it all went dark.
The members of the local press who were present didn’t know how to react. Suffice to say Publicity was generated, but The Lift was lost. Events were relocated to The Cowley Club, except the Levitation which would take place as the original had. Following a piece in the Evening Anus condemning the D.A.R.K. as filth and The Inactivist International as ‘dangerous’, a large crowd assembled to watch the recreation of the Levitation. The Inactivists took the roles of the Neoist Alliance while the D.A.R.K. played the TOPY agitators. A largely bemused crowd looked on. When everything was over both sides claimed success.
Other events included recreations of Stewart Home performances, either from recordings or memory, with different Inactivists playing SH; A Glob Art exhibition was held at The Permanent Gallery; and an ‘musical’ featuring ‘actors’ miming to a CD of Home reading Pure Mania remixed over Britney Spears’ Greatest Hits.
The Closing Ceremony took place on 24th August 2008 at the Cowley Club. It featured The Stewart Home Alone Three, Brighton’s premier Stewart Home tribute band. Formed by The Inactivist International following the demise of their earlier outfit The Ne’er-Do-Wells, The S.H.A.T. performed simplified versions of the songs found on Stewart Home Comes In Your Face. A large crowd filled the Cowley Club and B spat and snarled his way through the numbers at breakneck speed, Towards A Gay Communism received a particularly rapturous reception. There was no nudity and no impromptu sex.

Comment by K Mail on 2009-03-03 19:40:04 +0000

Yeah, totally dug the Keen screening I caught down on the South Bank last week! K.

Comment by Nigel Ayers on 2009-03-03 23:25:21 +0000

Jeff Keen just so totally rocks!

Comment by Media Blasters on 2009-03-04 02:48:42 +0000

Since you like Jeff Keen you should check out our Shriek Show label that specializes in obscure horror and exploitation films such as “Ultimo mondo cannibale”, “La notte del terrore” and “Zombi 2”. We have been criticized for subpar DVD transfers, poor customer service and hard-matting films in the wrong aspect ratio for the sole purpose of anamorphically calibrating the films to wide-screen televisions, but we have also been praised just as much for the amount of effort we put into tracking down as many supplemental materials as possible for even the rarest films, including interviews with the filmmakers and photo galleries.

Comment by Ronnie Rude on 2009-03-04 09:28:37 +0000

I’ve always loved ‘Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda’! especially the soundtrack by Angus MacLise which is a lost gem of sub-psychedelic experimentation. And now I need to check out Jeff Keen. So thank you for posting this review you whingeing bloody pommie commie pooftah!!
(I mean that as a term of affection of course)

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-03-04 10:57:51 +0000

If you really loved me you’d go down on me… And don’t forget it isn’t just Angus MacLise on the “Thunderbolt Pagoda” soundtrack, you’ve got the likes of Henry Flynt in the improv ensemble playing on it too!

Comment by Dave Kelso-Mitchell on 2009-03-04 13:04:30 +0000

Yes Flynt is a groovy fucker.
Surprised to find there is no Keen on Ubuweb, but there’s loads on Youtube, including this little gem;
And Dire turned me on to this last night (totally not connected, but it’s too beautiful not to share)

Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-03-04 18:37:48 +0000

But this may be the most beautiful scene…

Comment by Sean Kaye-Smith on 2009-03-27 21:59:51 +0000

I’ve just seen a programme of Jeff Keen’s films at the Arnolfini in Bristol, and you’re right, the BFI have excelled themselves with this restoration/reissue. And they’re soon to do it again; they are currently remastering the work of Jane Arden (1927-82), in particular the three experimental features she made with Jack Bond: ‘Separation’ (1967), ‘The Otherside of the Underneath’ (1972) and ‘Anti-Clock’ (1979). They are all due for DVD and blue ray release Summer 2009. The Keen and Arden projects show the BFI at their best: preserving and promoting the interesting, off-beat corners of British film. Let’s hope there’s more to come.

Comment by Cliff Burns on 2009-05-09 14:23:00 +0000

GREAT piece on Keen–have to confess, I’m a late arrival to this particular bandwagon. Only came across the man’s work thanks to a recent piece in SIGHT & SOUND. Unfortunate, seems to be damn little of Mr. Keen’s stuff available in North America and certainly nothing like the ambitious BFI box set released in the U.K. in February. So far, I’ve had to settle for YouTube snippets and scanning sites like this one for all I can learn about this singular artist. Anyone know of any Region 1 (North America) compilations, even on VHS? Do tell…

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-05-09 16:20:54 +0000

Sorry Cliff, I have no leads on Region 1 Keen. Maybe you should go to his website and use the email to send an enquiry. Obviously you can’t watch PAL on an NTSC systerm, but you should be able to watch the BFI disks on a region free DVD player with a projector or else on a computer with DVD playing software.

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