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Like a Song: The Films of Anna Thew

By Yann Beauvais


To consider Anna Thew's cinematography is to explore a plural practice. She began working in film at the end of the seventies, engaging in film through painting, installation and performance. At that time British experimental cinema was dominated by the Structuralist Materialist school, which questioned the specificity of the medium and above all its materiality; the process of "film as film" as it unspools. This concern was with the event, that film depends on its materiality more than on illusionist or representational content. For a new generation of film-makers, this cinema was seen as ascetic, formalist, but more than anything it posited an approach which was grounded in modernism, besides which it was predominantly a male activity. That does not mean to say that women were excluded completely. There were exceptions. But the reductionism of propositions, as much as the aesthetic used, had its affiliation with this dominant group of practitioners.

Work on and around narration, work on more linear forms which had recourse to expression, were relatively banned from this field. However it is from around the mid seventies that the women's movement began to theoretically question this aspect and function of cinema, and turned in opposition to forms which were more explicit and consistent with alternative sensibilities and difference. It is during this same period that the "iron lady" (Thatcher) came to power in England, unleashing a radical backlash in the social and political field. It is against this background that Anna Thew's work in film should be considered.


Diverse strands lead us into the universe of this film-maker, and amongst those one discovers a sensitivity shared by many film-makers of her generation who began to use Super 8 film, that is a small size format without quality, rough, disposable and common. A format which distances itself from the more established industrial formats such as those used in experimental cinema of the seventies. She did not restrict herself to this format alone, but this was the vehicle which lent itself to capturing diary images as well as being useful for the preparation of single screen studies which would later be shown in the form of multi-screen works. "Super 8 lends itself to collecting diary images, but sometimes it is not diary but gathering, looking, in the same way as though you drew or painted things, only this is moving." (AT)

To use Super 8 is incidentally to embrace the pictorial aspect of the medium, the colour of Kodachrome, the grain, but also the physical ease of use of the lightweight camera with its macro (close up) lens facility. Recourse to this format, for this film-maker as for many others, (Teo Hernandez, Derek Jarman, Cordelia Swann to cite but a few), brings with it an acknowledgement of the body through gesture. Capturing, changing rhythms; a pulsating syncopation is found in several films, Shadow Film (1983), Ramblas Idiomas (1987), Tivoli Films (1988), Train from Dresden to Berlin (1994). It is worth noting that many of these Super 8 films will be re-filmed to become other films on 16mm, but differently from a great number of film-makers, the source material of these films will not be discovered until much later, once the secondary works from which they originated, have already been seen.

This manner of filming, which does not give precedence to one method over another, which asserts the flares, the elisions, the passages from image to image like pauses, reveals an immense freedom with respect to the camera, and for the film-maker inscribes the need to take hold of the camera to expressive ends. Extra-ordinarily, in these films the film-maker shares with Marie Menken this means of capturing the evanescent beauty of a garden in garlands of single frames on one day (Mourning Garden Blackbird 1984); or from season to season (Autumn Rush for Kurt Kren 2002), just as she re-captures the universe of Tivoli Gardens in a homage to Kenneth Anger. But here there are shots which she films of the fountains and garden which evoke the essence of the film. It is not the landscape as a thing in itself, but the representation of that landscape which is the favoured object.


So in Mourning Garden Blackbird the double screen placed one above the other, shows the frequent alternation of opposing times of day, with shots of trees in blossom appearing on the upper screen whilst the lower screen shows us different views of the same garden in the evening; or in winter or another time of year (see Autumn Rush). The vertical juxtaposition of two screens is reminiscent of the shape of a window opening out onto a garden, but it also evokes the shape of a painting. This is quite distinct from the multiple horizontals which the film-maker uses in Broken Pieces for the Co-operative (2000), or Train Pieces (2001) which operate on a system of de-phasing, of disjuncture and conjunction, so as to constitute momentarily, an apparently unique image.

In Mourning Garden Blackbird the double presentation never produces one single image. The image ceaselessly defies the oneness of the single screen in favour of an instability constructed through the interlacing of successive components which the sound of birds, or of traffic, or cries in the distance, prevent from crumbling. The passing image is denied its sole description through the intensity of the sound.

This capacity to allow fresh associations to surface; other scenes starting from a handful of shots, or voices, seems to derive from an art of collage which doesn't give precedence to the material relationship between things according to criteria of resemblance or analogy, but instead, favours their juxtaposition following principles which spring from collision or collusion, closer, in this sense that is, to the "exquisite corpse". These associations function like bridges spanning the two distinct strands of Cinema. It is in this sense that the play on language which haunts Anna Thew's cinema, must be understood. Language inhabits her films as does the event of painting, but if painting is re-discovered in visual effects which appear in relation to the superimpositions of layers of diverse elements (see LFMC Demolition 2004, Broken Pieces for the Co-operative 2000), it is also found in the mise en scène of sequences in the more narrative films, in the sense of theatre where even here, this is played out according to Brechtian principles, such as in Hilda was a Goodlooker (1986), Eros Erosion (1990) and Cling Film (1993).


Language, in all its forms, is seen as an essential element of Anna Thew's cinema, manifesting itself either in the shape of the sound or as graphic sign, such as in Blurt (1983) and Blurt Roll 2 (1987). Word and language - but here we should speak of languages, infiltrating every element of the films. But if language invades the film space, it is done in an exceptional way. We are never in the presence of a voice which would overwhelm or provide the image with its meaning. Rarely does the voice dominate, excepting in the "conversations" with Steve Moore in Assemblage for Eye Drift (1996), or with the mother's voice in Hilda. The voice is always plural and functions according to the classical polyphony found in the Fugues of J.S. Bach.

The disembodied voice over is not synchronous with the physical body which one sees. The voice is there to be heard. With Hilda the experience of film lends itself to the act of listening, in a similar way to Sue Friedrich's handling of her own accounts of childhood in Sink or Swim. The fragmented delivery of the narration entices listening. The images of the film subsist as floating fragments which come to emphasize, contradict or complement the meaning of the voice. The recourse to theatricality in scenes echoing memories does not merely underscore the distance inherent in the suggested reconstruction, but more frequently appears out of phase with it.

The apparition of a young man dressed as a sailor is not synchronous with the evocation of the memory which describes him. This play on separations enriches the film. Separations between the voice and the text, between the enunciation and its referent release a surge of sensuality, occasionally a voluptuousness that simple verbal recollection can barely hint at. This distance between the various texts, between the word and its sign, or the tonality of its rendering, lets us savour dissonance and points to a possible relationship with the multi-screen work.


Anna Thew's work in sound is marked by the multiplicity of languages spoken, sung or written. This multiplicity highlights the distinctiveness of each of these languages, their scansion, their dynamic and their poetry. This collision of languages in the body of the film, whether it is Italian, German, or French, in the same breath, questions the insularity of the dominant language. English becomes one language amongst so many others.

The film-maker speaks by means of this polyphony. Consequently the original version is also plural, in the manner of the pieces of music and film from which she composes her works. Each film is coloured by the places, the towns which the film-maker passes through, the memories, the men, her desires, which she documents in a distinct way and which she assembles in mosaics from which the joins, flare outs and scratches are not discarded. The film must be understood as a body, and consequently a body which is malleable, endlessly transforming itself. This constant renewal reveals itself in Anna Thew's films in the re-cycling of sequences from one film to another. This method acts on the notion of motifs as much as it performs as a rhythmic element, permitting the films to be seen as cinematographic poems which, from individual experience, are freed to make way for other songs. In this sense, her work shares along with Anne Rees-Mogg, for whom she has a great admiration, the power to evoke something from next to nothing; a family photo, a chord of music, concretising the experience of the past with the bias of experience of an individual consciousness.


In this way Berlin is seen in several Super 8 films and multi-screens, but finds its way into Hilda in the cabaret scene. This consciousness, as for many film-makers working with "personal cinema", is externalised in the mise en scène. But most certainly this inclusiveness brings us back to the fashioning of identities, and consequently, irrespective of the distance in styles, points to Maya Deren. To play a role, but also to film and express the body through the process of filming, are two stances which the film-maker plays to advantage. At night, identities are less defined; they evolve with the rush of experiences. Role playing permits the game of decoding, of having fun, so there are scenes of cabaret and of dressing up in rubber.

In this role play Anna Thew stands side by side with film-makers who have worked with issues of minority and gender. This outburst of expressiveness, of desire, allows her to work directly on inhibitions which frequently encumber sexual representation, particularly where this is presented in conjunction with AIDS. So Cling Film (1993) confronts inhibitions linked to heterosexual transmission; the notion that to promote a sensuous campaign for safer sex (sans risque) is not judged to be worthwhile. This film is located in a line of works of activism in which affirmation and denunciation are never detached from the need for pleasure, slicing through so much puritanical and moralist clap trap where sex is a thing banished to the strict confines of the need to reproduce. This film, with the body centre stage, shares with the new queer cinema, the delight of filming 'corps désirant'. One thinks here of certain films of Derek Jarman, Isaac Julian, for whom the scenography of the body; references to mannerist painting or genre painting, is used as a strategy for contaminating cinema with other propositions.


Cling Film offers a series of vignettes which are in turn, both provocative and hilarious (a night clubber whose dick goes limp at the sight of a condom). Here and there texts come to graft themselves onto the surface of the film like parasites; in the manner of derailing directives, so at the height of pleasure, language comes back on track. But pleasure is never left far behind as bodies flaunt themselves, appearing on camera for pure pleasure, like in Cling Film, Stevie's Tattoos in Spring (1994), and Terra Vermin (1998), but also to a different extent in Mario Montage (1999), re-filmed from some sequences of Mario Montez. These films work on the question of sexuality but above all on the issue of desire and its portrayal. The Super 8 camera, the macro lens, becomes a caress, it lingers over the body, tattoos, the grain of skin, fine hairs..

The work in sound, as much as the work in image, belongs more than anything, to the notion of collage, but it is not possible to speak of an aesthetic of found footage, first and foremost because the majority of the films are not "found", but also because in the manner of certain diarists, Anna Thew re-cycles her own images and re-configures them not just depending on the project, but also dependent on their presentation.

This desire to propose a new configuration at each presentation is not unreminiscent of the work of the live performer for whom each concert or performance is not to be repeated. In this sense, Anna Thew again tends to elicit and draw on the expressiveness of the moment long after the object she has made use of, has evaporated. The work of film is then etched with nostalgia like a return journey home.

Yann Beauvais, Paris 2005
Translation Philippa Langlois, film references Michael Maziére.

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