Skip to main content
Lux Online Home Themes Artists Work Education Education Tours Help Search
Upside Down Feature
John Du Cane reviews Peter Gidal's film of the same name for Time Out, December 1972

Extracts from a talk with Peter Gidal

'I didn't want to set up a hierarchical event, where the meaning is complete in any sense. I don't believe in dominating the viewer; but I do expect him to work as hard as I work. I want the viewer to have his own dialectic. I don't want him to just put together my jigsaw puzzle. An 'Art' film means that you spend ten hours putting together the artist's jigsaw puzzle and a non-art film means you get it right away. Either way you're being dominated, either way there's the artist with his jigsaw puzzle. I'm interested in the viewer not working out my meanings. but in doing a process, the way I'm doing a process, which may mean that the film I have and the film the viewer has are almost equal, but opposite. Which dialectic is strongest. whether it be time moving in a circular way against words which arc flashed, or the authority of the word versus the image, doesn't matter. But the fact of a dialectic happening is important ... a constant dialectic rather than a received statement, or interpretation. Art as interpretation has no value whatsoever. 'People have difficulty with my work because of their narrative sensibility. Narrative is a stricture. It has come to be the only way people can identify with their own emotions through an alienated process of identification with an art work. It makes them cry, it makes them laugh.. presumably they're not cry- ing and laughing in their own lives so they get it out of 'art'. But for me, that's not what is important, certainly not in film. People have been taught that passivity gives them a pleasure. They're being dominated, being walked over. The most brutal, elitist and condescending film maker is not some esoteric, over-difficult experimental film maker but someone like Ken Russell or Alfred I Hitchcock. They're fascists accepted by the fascist mentality of the passive viewer, the hysterical, catatonic viewer, sitting in his seat in total silence, fear and paranoia and think- ing that it's pleasure when the real pleasure actually comes out of the work you do yourself, the dialectics you do, the decisions you do. But people have been taught that those kind of decisions aren't 'entertaining'. Slaves are their own worst enemies.


Peter Gidal's 'Upside Down Feature' is one of the most important films to have been made in this country. It makes a complex and original foray into the nature of film, and, by extension, confronts its audience with a thorough reappraisal of its ways of dealing with film. I found the film exhilarating, but it's unfortunately necessary to add a rider that if you're unused to this type of film, expecting anything remotely similar to what the Big Boys from Wardour St dish you up. then you're in for a major piece of culture-shock which could mean anger, frustration and resentment. The first section of the film presents a negation of normal expectations about film's content. The sequence of a girl walking down a street. placed at the beginning of a film immediately raises a host of questions about that girl: who does she represent, where is she going, what's going to happen to her and so on. Attention is focused on what is being represented rather than on how that representation is being produced. We think of the girl, we make associations about her, she reminds us of this and that. We don't think very much beyond this. Gidal reverses the sequence. turns it upside down, puts it into negative (black and white) and overlays a soft wash of colour. That original content subsides and gives way to an appreciation/analysis of the film's physics. The initial reorientation process that results from attempting to reverse the sequence and to identify 'what is happening' gives way to a study of the lines of force, of motion as it is initiated by camera movement and of image-tactility as it is emphasised by the bas-relief quality of colour on black and white negative. There follows a five minute section of darkness and the introduction of sound. Film is potentially and normally a combination of light and sound. We expect and want both in our experience of film. The loss of image and the expectation of its return distract initially from close attention to the sound itself, a complex piece composed with two transistor radios. We see no film and yet we know that we arc still cxper icncing film. The previous. silent, visual sequence is remembered in the context of a self-sufficient, after-the-event soundtrack. There is a continual shift in attention: to the sound in itself, to the sound as it affects (he dark space, to the shape of the previous sequence, to a cow sideration of the duration of the present darkness as something that paradoxically reduces attention to the sound as much as it allows increased concentration on it. In distinction to normal cinema, where sound is a complement to the film, the sound acts as an interruption in and separation of tile film. The next part utilises reprojection to reanalyse a sequence of traffic shot through a cab window. The original camera stare, interrupted by spontaneous grasping zoom shots at a particular car, is 'broken into' by a curious, searching, hesitant exploration of segments of the image. First and second generation camera movements, motor/film speeds and types of represented motion arc put in dynamic tension. Relations of tension arc established, for instance between forward movement of camera (zoom), forward movement of represented image (the forward traffic flow) and the forward movement of the film in time, all of which movements are subject to reversal and change in speed and direction. Ihis ten minute reanalysis is followed by the whole three minute original sequence upside-down, from which the minute of analysed material had been taken. Titles suddenly appear: 'A Film by Peter Gidal', jiggling slightly, with the frame bar introducing itself into the image, emphasising the jerky movement of the single frames through the projector. The information presented by the titles takes on a film-meaning which is distinct from its verbal meaning. This sort of semantic polarity creates a type of dialectic that is the hallmark of Gidal's film making. The relation between two different reading-procedures is reintroduced in a later sequence where a clock is seen for seven and a hall seconds, but with the image inverted. The repetitions are punctuated with equal periods of white, whose duration appears to change as a result of changes in the analysis of the clock-image. A stream of words flash onto the screen, upside down, in reverse and too fast to read. Gradually, while other imagery continues, the word.', arc 'normaliscd' until eventually we have the whole passage (a brilliant quote from Bcckett on Proust on Time) appearing the right way round and at a readable speed. Before we reach the end of this development the words undergo numerous transformations, as the verbal meaning begins to take its many shapes through the abstract clusterings. As the passage's meaning becomes relatively easy to decipher the imagery becomes correspondingly more distracting, breaking into a series of giddy and very beautiful upside down pans round a landscape. When the passage is at its slowest, the camera is busy panning up and down a naked girl putting on/taking off her bra. The worth end and (heir accumulated semantic resonance adds an extraordinarily powerful dimension of thought and feeling to what is a highly sensual and beautiful event. A still image of a Man Ray/Duchamp photograph that is actually of dust on a coffee-grinder but could easily be an aerial-view landscape has a thin green line painted on it. It wavers and turns to blue again, emphasising that the apparently motionless image is actually a series of discontinuous events. The line carries on into a final twenty-lIve second loop of a girl going through a series of facial movements from laughter to silence. The second type of movement illusion' in cinema is affirmed in relation to the flat material painted line.

Go to top of                             page