Last year, in April 2015, I programmed three screenings of the filmmaker William Raban's work at the 61st Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Each screening was followed by William and I in conversation. Here is an unedited version of a text I wrote for the catalogue.
When William Raban first screened work at Oberhausen in 1975 the Frankfurter Rundschan newspaper’s film critic singled it out as ‘one of the most fascinating contributions to the festival’, noting its continuity with, and departure from, abstract film of the 1920s. Raban’s three-screen film, Diagonal, takes as its subject the most basic unit of cinema: the projector gate and shutter. By adapting his camera with extension tubes to lengthen the focus, Raban was able to capture the scene where the film frame is animated in the projected light beam. Screened in a cinema, a single strip of celluloid passes through three projectors simultaneously, beaming images of projected light. The viewer becomes conscious of the frame (whether gate, shutter, film or screen) as a space where edges contain and divide the projected illusion from the darkened present of the auditorium.
Perhaps it seems amiss to open this essay by discussing another’s view of a film absent from this profile of Raban? For me, the Rundschan critic’s voice was instructive in several important ways. In anticipation of this profile, it’s a register, a trace in the archive, of Raban’s enduring engagement with experimental cinema. This remarkable span reminded me too of – freed me from – the undesirability of a retrospective for diverse work that advances its own complex temporalities and presences (there was no theory underlying the making of Diagonal, Raban explained to me, rather the theory is the film itself). Finally, to begin with an absence evokes the many films that remain absent in this profile.
Raban discourages generic labels attributed to his work – structural, landscape or expanded film, poetic documentary – because of the way it implies a disconnect across the different phases of his career. If we attend to what the films propose, considering their relations as belonging to a continuum, what might emerge? Preoccupations with spatial and temporal displacements present in Diagonal seem apparent already in one of Raban’s earliest film, View (1970), which emerge, transformed, in 72–82 (2014) or About Now MMX (2010). What emerges, too, is an intense political engagement, whether arising from the cinema’s apparatus – a politics of spectatorship, or from the everyday rhythms of the neoliberal city. Each concerns duration.
The first programme of this profile, which might be titled ‘People, Places, Histories: Fallibility of Memory’, features Raban’s most recent work, 72–82. The following two programmes, ‘Mapping Place: Views From Home’ and ‘Continuous Time: All About Now’, attempt to delineate preoccupations that achieve a remarkable synthesis in 72–82. If the former programme explores the changing physical and human geography of Raban’s long-term home of east London, the latter poses questions about eventhood, history and the cinematic and experiential intangibility of ‘now’.
72–82 – at Oberhausen, the film’s world premiere outside of the U.K. – is a film about the first decade of the London arts organisation Acme. Layering music, printed matter, letters, documentation of performances, and recent oral testimony, it reconstructs two interrelated aspects of Acme’s activity: the provision of affordable short-life houses and ex-industrial buildings to create living and studio space for artists in and around East London and the radical art scene centred on Acme gallery in Covent Garden. If the transient, ad hoc inhabitation of derelict properties led to a lack of proper documentation, the gallery, an important platform for Acme artists, became a site of relative visibility. In the film, Raban supplements the title with ‘fallibility of memory?’, pointing to the plurality of possible histories, while questioning the legibility and permanence of what constitutes the historical record. As an Acme house tenant, an exhibiting artist at Acme gallery, and a documenter of events, Raban waivers ambiguously between modes of bearing witness. The documentary value of his film of pyrotechnics artist Stephen Cripps – the only in circulation – features alongside film works, Time Stepping (1974) and Autumn Scenes (1978). For the first time Raban samples his oeuvre as an informational archive to be released into the service of narrative.
Since the mid-1970s Raban has lived in an Acme house in east London’s Bow, a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Throughout much of the 19th and 20 century its economic fortune hung on London ports and docks, which, at their peak in the 1930s, gave employment to a hundred thousand people. When containerisation, rapid handling of goods and the relocation of docks upriver began to occur from 1960s onwards, many docks closed, including The Millwall Dock on the Isle of Dogs, close to Raban’s home, leading to widespread unemployment throughout the East End. In its wake, in the late 1980s, came the Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher’s plan to develop a financial centre far exceeding the docks in scale. Gathered around One Canada Square, a symbol of power and commerce, came office, retail and residential development, and transport infrastructure.
This is the setting, beneath One Canada Square’s shadow, of Raban’s Under the Tower Trilogy, which observes the rhythms of everyday life, from car, on foot and children’s push chair, of food produce markets, gangland leader funerals, nationalistic celebrations, and gentrification. With an astute formal eye, he plots the occultish tower, suspiciously surveilling it as it, he implies, surveils those who live within its shadow. The tower comes to symbolise sublime separation: between ‘the people’ and the neoliberal administration (an administration of financialisation, privatisation and deregulation). From Civil Disobedience, a time-lapse film journey from the Houses of Parliament to Dover, soundtracked by David Cunningham’s mix of Thatcher’s Belgrano speech, to the finality of the Iron Lady’s funeral in Time and the Wave, the spectre of Thatcher hangs over this programme. Finishing with Time and the Wave is an act of remembrance. Raban’s filmic mapping – his sites, as well as sights, repeated throughout these films – is a stratified, textural remembrance of a political figure’s enduring legacy in place.
View (1970) opens the third programme, which might be called ‘Continuous Time: All About Now’. Not screened for over twenty years, it’s something of an outlier within the programme, but as one of Raban’s earliest films it announces an enduring concern with temporality – actuality, potential, and the permanent and changeable – explored in About Now MMX or The Houseless Shadow. In the former, Raban spent three months filming from the 21st floor of Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in London’s East End (overlooking the wards of Under the Tower Trilogy). It shows Canary Wharf, the City of London beyond, and the streets, shot in close-up with a long lens and time-lapse photography, during the height of the financial crisis. Its fragmentary nature resonates with View: ‘Reductively,’ Raban writes, ‘About Now MMX can be seen as the accumulation of the 39,350 still frames that were exposed over a period of 3 months. Each one of those frames can be understood as the present moment from that time of filming – all the frames going before, are locked into a past tense and all those yet to be exposed are mere speculations about a future time that hasn’t yet happened.’ Implicit in this is the synchronicity of the film as a chronicle and optimistic seer (capitalism’s death). In the Houseless Shadow Raban allows a recitative of Charles Dickens’ ‘Night Walks’ essay to sound over contemporary nighttime street-level views of London described 150 years earlier. As with Time and the Wave (which uses Dickens’ account of the Duke of Wellington’s State Funeral from ‘Trading in Death’), Houseless Shadow powerfully captures a sense of the historical record’s re-evocation of what is happening right now, suggesting a more poetic, yet perhaps pessimistic, sense of continuous time.
In the philosopher of urbanism Henri Lefebvre’s notations on ‘rhythmanalysis’, written towards the end of his life, he observes how ‘in order to grasp and analyse rhythms,’ particularly those of the street, ‘it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely: be it through an illness or a technique.’ Lefebvre continues: ‘A certain exteriority enables the analytic intellect to function,’ however, he cautions, ‘to grasp a rhythm it is necessary to have been grasped by it; one must let oneself go, give oneself over, abandon oneself to its duration’. Certainly Raban is an analytic filmmaker. Whether giving attention to cinema’s apparatus or the street, we feel he is a filmmaker who has been – indeed is – also grasped by his subjects.