In the years between the two World Wars, a number of films emerged in Britain as alternatives to mainstream commercial filmmaking. These were supported by the appearance of specialist exhibition outlets (of which the most important was the Film Society) and critical journals (notably Close Up).
These cultural practices reflected an intellectual approach to the cinema, in which the medium was promoted as a modern, vanguardist art form. A number of films that did not fit in with commercial cinematic practice were championed, specifically those films seen as representing innovative aesthetic uses of the medium. Most admired were European movements of the 1920s: German Expressionism, Soviet montage and the French avant-garde.
Len Lye was one of the few filmmakers working in inter-war Britain to have established an international reputation in experimental filmmaking. Though his British oeuvre was by no means limited to the making of abstract films, this was the area that most interested Lye and he has sometimes been viewed as the only genuine avant-garde filmmaker of this period. This is undoubtedly an overstated case, but Lye earned his reputation through a sustained and idiosyncratic body of films that were often brilliantly inventive and technically accomplished.
Jeff Keen is one of the most prolific and longest working experimental filmmakers in Britain. His directness and intuitive understanding of archetype plus his persistent and evolving referencing of popular culture means that his work appeals as much to skaters and punks as to followers of the canonical avant-garde.
The post office film unit established by Sir Stephen Tallents in 1933 will be forever associated with John Grierson and his idea of documentary cinema. During his spell in charge (1933-1937), Grierson oversaw the creation of a film school that he attempted to direct towards a socially useful purpose. J. B. Priestley remembered, “if you wanted to see what camera and sound could really do, you had to see some little film sponsored by the post office or the Gas, Light & Coke company.”
Though the artist’s quest for ‘alternative’ forms of consciousness can be traced back to 18th/19th century English visionaries like painter and poet William Blake and writer Thomas de Quincey (and, in other cultures, far beyond) the term ‘psychedelic’ – from the Greek psyche (soul) and delos (manifest) – gained currency in the mid-to-late 1960s to describe the experiences associated with hallucinogenic drugs (particularly LSD) and the music and art which evoked such experiences. In music, the psychedelic scene was particularly associated with San Francisco and with London, where it found its twin homes in the UFO club on Tottenham Court Road and Middle Earth at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm.
Derek Jarman was the maverick radical of the British cinema during the late 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s. His highly idiosyncratic form of avant-garde art cinema managed to sustain itself due to his personal reputation as an auteur, as an enfant terrible, and to his more or less public private life.