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Peter Gidal

By Ian White


Using language isn't often (or always) easy. Peter Gidal, "The Anti-Narrative", 'Screen', vol. 20, no. 2, 1979

As I say what one repeats is the scene in which one is acting the days in which one is living, the coming and going which one is doing, anything one is remembering is a repetition, but existing as a human being, that is being listening and hearing is never repetition. It is not repetition if it is that which you are actually doing because naturally each time the emphasis is different just as the cinema has each time a slightly different thing to make it all be moving.
Gertrude Stein, "Portraits and Repetition", 'Lectures in America' (first published 1935)


It (unending duration) positions the viewer in a place of seeing, i.e. perception, without conflating that into knowing (as it is one extreme function, not the whole), without mixing the two up. The separation of the two underlies avant-garde film from Warhol on.
Peter Gidal, "'13 Most Beautiful Women' and 'Kitchen'", 'Undercut' no.1, Spring 1981

This was where I started: with a question about what it means to make Peter Gidal's films the subject of a piece of writing, with the inevitable process of translation or evidence of "understanding" that this incurs. This becomes a problem because of the way in which it implies a potential re-inscription onto the films (in somehow "explaining") of the very modes of knowledge which they construct themselves against -the works themselves attempt to defy, structurally, any received notions about how, traditionally, "cinema" might operate, and by doing so question also the ways in which cinema is described, inscribed, "read" by standard interpretative practices.

Peter Gidal is a (self-theorising) theorist as well as a (self-defined, structural-materialist) filmmaker. Yet there is no indexical relationship between his writing and films, exacerbating a simple matching between theory and proof, so the problem becomes how to describe when the films themselves are precisely not about description, but about process, about something being produced not reproduced: not representational (although they do show recognisable things, sometimes) but anti-representational, anti-narrative - structural. In as much they are like a resistance, an exclusion zone, engaged in manifestations of "unpleasure" that effectively block normative response instead of facilitating it and this attempt is political, a resistance to capitalist (patriarchal?) structures through which "cinema" might be otherwise understood (capitalism and patriarchy). So should this process of questioning not extend to the business of me writing this? Should it not question this business, what this (critical/cultural) "industry" is also about - would this not be the best way to "describe" the films, to raise a question about this piece of writing as you are reading it?


In the first draft of this essay the opening paragraph would have read:

Peter Gidal's writings are not Peter Gidal's films. I am writing this. You must be reading this, but you do not have to. Reading is different to watching. To write this is an implicated activity, about to be necessarily non-descriptive, just _______ ; resistance, something, nothing. To know (each word implicates), for me to know, is prescribed by its refusal, specifically, by the films of Peter Gidal, because they cannot be "known". Peter Gidal's films are not Peter Gidal's writings, which have already fed into, back to, reading (writing) that is not watching, is not Peter Gidal's films, nor Peter Gidal's writing. So I am writing this, caught because: if there is not knowledge but there is perception there also cannot be a translation (description) because there is not representation...

That was one start point that was not liked editorially (and I did not necessarily disagree) because of the imperative to communicate i.e. because of how things in this "business" of education must be organised, because of the already inscribed ways of knowing or coming to know that Peter Gidal's films attempt to challenge. Another startpoint, the first-draft second paragraph was more narrative:

Peter Gidal came to England in the summer of 1968, just days after Andy Warhol was shot, steeped in philosophy, a fine canon of European existentialist writers and playwrights, and having studied theatre directing himself...

It would have been a deliberately truncated (begun to be abandoned) narrative imposition, a reproduction.


At the end of Conditions of Illusion (1975, 30mins) a quote from Louis Althusser's 'On the Materialist Dialectic' scrolls slowly from the bottom of the screen.

It is meant to be read, not made impossible to read like the flying quotations he uses in 'Assumption' (1997, 1min). The quotation is also found in his 1975 seminal text 'The Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film', neither necessarily coming before or after the other - that is the text not describing the films but being of the films. In part it reads:

A 'theory' which does not question the end whose by-product it is remains a prisoner of this end and of the 'realities' which have imposed it as an end.

If "'theory'" is the (/one?) "by-product" of an end, by implication it must question this end rather than effect its summation, be equally of process or it will let the "real" in by the back door, the "real" of course which is unknowable.

Peter Gidal was a pivotal member of the London Filmmakers' Co-op and taught at the Royal College of Art from 1971 to 1983.

Ian White is a writer, curator and artist.

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