‘The fiercely original film-maker, poet and artist Jeff Keen, who has died aged 88, defied categorisation. He produced a vast body of paintings, drawings, sculpture and punchy Beat poetry, but is best known for his films, which incorporated collage, animation, found footage and live action – often all in one work. Keen used highly innovative techniques of superimposition and editing, and frequently etched and degraded the film surface. Works such as Marvo Movie (1967), Rayday Film (1968-75) and Mad Love (1972-78) were shot with his friends and family either at home, on the streets of Brighton or at the local tip; their fantastical, DIY countercultural qualities evoked the spirit of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the early cinema pioneers of Brighton, where Keen lived. Despite making his first film in his late 30s, he completed more than 70 films and videos throughout his life.
‘Keen was born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and had a love of wildlife, art and books as a child. He attended grammar school and gained an Oxford scholarship, but this was thwarted by his national service in 1942. Keen was given experimental tanks and aeroplane engines to trial during the war, and would frequently refer back to this period in films such as Meatdaze (1968), which included bombers and sirens on its soundtrack, and Artwar (1993).
‘After the war, Keen developed a love of movies and comics and attended a small art college in Chelsea. London life encouraged his love of the arts, especially surrealism, Picasso and Dubuffet. When he moved to Brighton, Keen took up work as a landscape gardener for the local council. In 1956, he married Jackie Foulds, who was the muse for his films in the 1960s and 70s, playing the characters Vulvana, The Catwoman and Nadine. Keen himself had a B-movie-style “mad scientist” alter ego named Dr Gaz.
‘One of his early films, The Autumn Feast (1961), was made with the poet Piero Heliczer, who was part of the Warhol set. From the early 1960s, Keen experimented with “expanded cinema” (film events that exceed the normal modes of cinema projection), combining multiple projections and live art performance. A regular contributor to the “happenings” scene of 1960s London, at the Better Books shop in Charing Cross Road and elsewhere, he also participated in the International Underground Film festival at the National Film Theatre in 1970 and continued to make expansive, surrealist-informed 16mm epics such as White Dust (1970-72) and The Cartoon Theatre of Dr Gaz (1976-79), as well as 8mm diary films. He painted throughout the 60s and 70s and made artist books inspired by his films.
‘After Keen temporarily separated from Jackie in the early 1980s, his films became more abstract and introspective. He worked in front of the camera more, sometimes donning absurdist paper disguises, almost as if life had not only merged with art but fully collapsed into it. In Blatzom (1986), he became a moving sculpture/drawing hybrid. His friends and family were still involved: his daughter, Stella, operated a second camera and the editor Damian Toal came on board to help with violent, industrial-style videos such as Plasticator (1990s). Artwar was commissioned and broadcast by Channel 4.
‘Keen’s interest in myth, surrealism and romantic painting complemented his love of movies and comics, and he continually absorbed new references into his work. His highly frenetic videos of the 1990s included homages to Apocalypse Now, Rambo and Predator as well as Budd Boetticher westerns. Although his work has always been featured in historical surveys of British experimental and avant-garde cinema, these qualities distinguished his films from more purely formalist works made at the London Filmmakers’ Co-Operative, an organisation he helped to found in 1966. It meant his work was often more appreciated by skaters and punks than followers of the canonical avant garde. The extreme, short edits in his playful, visceral films have helped to keep his work fresh and alive; they still zap with energy decades later.
‘I worked with Keen throughout 2008 on a series of restorations, a film season and a BFI DVD boxset, GAZWRX: The Films of Jeff Keen. The process was undertaken at great speed, much like the pace of his films. We discussed everything from B-movies to Wagner to William Blake. I followed his instructions diligently along the way, but discovered that in speeding up some electronic drawings made on a children’s toy, and turning them into a two-channel video, we had made a new piece of work, Omozap Terribelis + Afterblatz 2. He grew excited and wanted to make more new things, despite his declining health. It was typical of what had been his persistent desire, even need, to make art. As he said in the early 1960s: “If words fail, use your teeth. If teeth fail, draw in the sand.” Whatever it takes, art must happen.’ — William Fowler
Jeff Keen Website
Jeff Keen @ IMDb
Jeff Keen @ Experimental Cinema
Jeff Keen @ Hales Gallery
The Estate of JEFF KEEN
GAZWRX: the films of Jeff Keen
Jeff Keen – Noise Art
“When words fail, use your teeth!”
Shoot the Wrx, Artist and Film-maker Jeff Keen
Jeff Keen: Artist and film-maker celebrated for his playful approach
Jeff Keen @ letterboxd
R.I.P Jeff Keen
ART WAR! An Appreciation Of The Films Of Jeff Keen
Stewart Home on the films of Jeff Keen
Jeff Keen in drawings, paintings and film
Jeff Keen – Gazapocalypse | The Tanks
(Jeff Keen) Shoot the Wrx! exhibition walkthrough
WONDERLAND: Why are people finally taking notice of your films?
JACKIE KEEN: A year ago I wrote to the BFI saying that it was disgusting that my husband had been sidelined. I explained that I had seen him devoted to making movies for decades working on a shoestring, doing the whole thing by himself, and never stopping –
JEFF KEEN: Well, I’ve stopped now. [Laughs]
WONDERLAND: Why have you been ignored for so long?
JACKIE: Partly it’s his fault, because he’s not interested in chatting people up. He’s too shy. In fact, I said in the email to the BFI that if Jeff knew I was writing at all, he’d be cross with me.
JEFF: Oh well. It’s old stuff, that is, Jackie. I’ve given up film now.
JACKIE: Yes. But it hasn’t given you up.
JEFF: Well, it has in a way, I think.
WONDERLAND: How do you mean?
JEFF: I’ve kicked the film habit.
JACKIE: But you haven’t kicked the drawing habit.
JEFF: No. I can’t kick that. I fall back on that. I’m still drawing all the time.
[Jackie goes into the next room and comes back with her arms full of boxes, plastic wallets and folders. She hands over the sketchbooks]
WONDERLAND: These are incredible.
JEFF: These are just from the top of the pile… It’s all part of it. It’s all part of the story.
JACKIE: He was never //not// drawing, were you Jeff?
JEFF: No, love. [Little laugh] I used to sit in my flat; I have a chair that’s convenient, and I used to sit there until it got too dark, every night. So I’ve got quite a lot of books lying about.
WONDERLAND: These are the contents of your mind, Jeff!
JEFF: Pouring out. But they don’t want to see them, that’s the damn trouble. The BFI obviously are just thinking in terms of film and I understand that but… I have been bored by it. To be honest, I am exhausted by it. And I don’t want to talk about it.
JACKIE: Now, don’t say that.
JEFF: Anyway, a lot of my stuff was outdoors. It’s gone.
WONDERLAND: Did you used to go around Brighton graffiti-ing?
JEFF: I started doing graffiti in the 60s. I remember the first time, it was the other end of town, the road running underneath the railway bridge where the London trains go over.
JACKIE: I was keeping watch to see nobody came to arrest him. And you were spray-painting ‘Deep War Hurts Says Doctor Gaz’
WONDERLAND: Why did you first move here?
JEFF: I came on a chance a few years after the war. It was a very different place then, almost like life on another planet. I got a summer job working in parks and gardens and stayed on for 12 years. That job came to an end in ’63: we had a very bad winter, and I remember going along the seafront scraping up sludge and snow, throwing it into the road for cars to spin it back at me again as I walked along the road, and that was the end for me.
WONDERLAND: And how did you get into film?
JEFF: I wasn’t thinking about film at all when I was younger. I was an artist, really, from the start. It was only much later that filmmaking was thrust upon me, when Jackie was at the art college.
JACKIE: There was no film society, so Jeff did everything, behind the scenes. It was ostensibly me, but it was all Jeff: he was the backroom boy.
JEFF: I found I liked getting behind a camera. I was the only person with spare time, so I finished up making the films to show.
WONDERLAND: Did you teach yourself?
JEFF: Yeah. Nothing in it really. [Laughs] You can learn to use a camera in a few days, and the rest follows.
WONDERLAND: Do you think in pictures?
JEFF: I suppose I do.
JACKIE: That was one of your slogans, ‘Kill The Word’ –
JEFF: ‘Don’t Let It Kill You!’
WONDERLAND: How did you meet?
JEFF: In a coffee bar called Tinkie’s.
JACKIE: Jeff saw me in the street first.
JEFF: Oh yes, actually, when I first saw her, it was rather terrific. She was walking down from the Clocktower, all in green: green hat, green coat, green shoes. And I thought, ‘God, there’s someone with style.’ [Laughs] She was being chased by a loping man.
JACKIE: Oh Jeff you make it sound –
JEFF: No, it’s true. [Laughs]
WONDERLAND: Have you always felt like an outsider?
JEFF: Living here in Brighton I’d always been outside the mainstream. From the very outset I never really fitted in, even as a filmmaker. Not that it mattered much, you know, I didn’t mind. I just carried on filming.
WONDERLAND: Did you want to be accepted?
JEFF:No. Not really. I never really tried for it.
WONDERLAND: Let’s talk a bit about your childhood. Where were you born?
JEFF: Trowbridge, Wilts. I remember the road. I don’t remember the house. It was a bad birth. My mother was quite old, forty-something. And I was the first one. And it was November and from then on it has been a difficult road!
WONDERLAND: What did your parents do?
JEFF: My mother took on local nursing. And my father didn’t do anything really. He was out of the war, the First World War, where he’d been in a minesweeper off the coast of Ireland, rescuing bodies from the Lusitania, when it sank in 1915, all that sort of thing. Over a thousand people died, a hundred children. And he didn’t want anything more to do with that.
JACKIE: Jeff’s father was amazing. [Jackie goes to the shelf and brings down a photo album] He had the most fantastic sense of humour, and he used to love dressing up.
JEFF: Actually these photographs say far more than words. They need sticking back in again, Jackie.
JACKIE: [Takes one out, a headshot of Jeff in soldier’s uniform] I love this one of him as a soldier. His face radiates warmth, intelligence and his poetic nature.
WONDERLAND: Did you do a lot of destroying things when you were a kid?
JEFF: No I don’t think I did. I was very mild-mannered. [Laughs] I didn’t like the destruction of birds’ eggs, all that. The things I destroy in my films don’t answer back! I remember my cousin, who lived next door, he had this habit of shooting little birds, he got a Diana air pistol for Christmas. He had these starlings down from the nest, on a little table and he put them out on there and shot them and it was a bit of a shock. That night I felt this irritation in the throat, and that was the Scarlet Fever starting.
WONDERLAND: What did you want to be when you grew up?
JEFF: I think I always wanted to draw. I used to draw birds, natural history. My first job was at the local store in Trowbridge just before WW2. Sainsburys, actually, and I remember drawing aeroplanes there. Bombers and things like that. Everyone was talking about war. It was in the air.
WONDERLAND: Comics are obviously crucial to your art. Did you read them when you were a boy?
JEFF: I discovered comics when they started to become popular in this country in the late 50s. They were quite sensational: you could buy them in corner shops, you’d get a collection of comics down beside the door as you went in, mostly national comics, not Marvel then. But I don’t draw like comics. I love them, but I don’t set out to imitate them, you know?
WONDERLAND: Do you remember your first trip to the cinema?
JEFF: My mother took me. It was Chaplin’s film about the circus, I was less than five and I remember screaming out: I was upset when the horse goes on the loose, and everything started to fall about. I was frightened… It’s difficult to imagine really how important the cinema was to us. During the war, of course, it became even more important. People would just flock to them, it was the only entertainment… and the smoke from all the cigarettes used to rise.
WONDERLAND: What did you do in WW2?
JEFF: Nothing much! I was at a secret location about ten miles inland from Great Yarmouth, fitting reject flying fortress engines into Sherman tanks for D-Day.
WONDERLAND: You said earlier that you’ve given up film –
JEFF: I haven’t been making films for some time. And I feel now I’m too weak. [Laughs] You’ve got to be strong, I think, to make films. Unless you’ve got other people to help you. I work in that precarious place of being without money most of the time… It’s strange, you know. I was always happier making films than trying to explain them. Now it’s come to an end, I should be stopping and thinking, but I’m not really. I’m trying to forget.
14 of Jeff Keen’s 49 films
‘The realities of brutal gang violence collide with war paintings and a horror movie werewolf in this extraordinary action and animation mix. Keen recognises the dynamic links between different cultural forms plus popular culture’s potential for violence and subversion.’ — Lux
The Autumn Feast (1961)
‘Jeff Keen lauds it up in Brighton with beat poet and Warhol associate Piero Heliczer. They transform the landscape and set the beat meter going. The dialogue between UK and USA Underground filmmaking starts here. Stylish, fun, scandalous and revolutionary, in Jack Smith’s words “it rubs the very noses of out mannequins in our own mould and sends us spinning into the street – undone and toothless”.’ — bfi
Instant Cinema (1962)
‘This early quick-fire cut-up animation melds machine gunfire with scratched film. The soundtrack was made by Keen in 2007 with a wasp synthesizer and a shortwave radio.’ — letterboxd
Flik Flak (1965)
‘Comics, monsters and a zombified Keen are gently desecrated in this paint-flecked film that also features a picture of Jackie Keen crying heart-shaped tears.’ — letterboxd
Marvo Movie (1967)
‘Movie wizard initiates shatter brain experiment Eeeow! – the fastest movie firm alive – at 24 or 16 f.p.s. even the mind trembles-splice up sequence 2-flix unlimited, an inside yr very head the images explode-last years models new houses and such terrific death scenes while the time and space operator attacks the brain via the optic nerve-will the operation succeed-will the white saint reach in time the staircase now alive with blood-only time will tell says the movie master-meanwhile deep inside the space museum.’ — Ray Durgnat
the entire film
‘In Cineblatz, the viewer is subjected to a high-impact barrage of evolving images, at once comic and terrifying. Glossy magazines are cut up and reconfigured, newspaper pages are defaced with animated squiggles, comic-book superheroes fly out, over and through at superspeed. Pictures appear only to burn up or be torn apart, toys dance in ferocious stop-motion before melting into pools of plastic decay, a hammer plunges down on an image of the assembled House of Commons – all to a crackly soundtrack of treated shortwave static. It is a hyperkinetic panorama of 1960s popular culture in meltdown, where seemingly nothing stays still for more than a single frame, as the artist ejaculates ideas onto the screen faster than the eye can properly register. Lasting just three minutes, Cineblatz is exhilarating, orgasmic even–but also thoroughly exhausting.’ — letterboxd
‘With Meatdaze, Jeff Keen tried to create a full cinema programme all in one film. He divided it into six sections, of which three main parts can be discerned: rapid animations (the cartoons of the programme), naked people at play (the supporting feature) and finally a collage of action and superimposition (the main feature).’ — distrify
White Lite (1968)
‘White Lite is something of a mystical film. It feels like we’ve gone through the looking glass and entered another world, despite the fact it was largely shot in the flat of its director, Jeff Keen. The film greets us with the invitation “meet anti-matter and the bride of the monster”, pointing to Keen’s love of B movies and a reference to The Bride of the Atom (US, 1955) or The Bride of the Monster as it was later known, a film by Ed D. Wood Jr. The homage comes some 12 years before Wood achieved considerable notoriety as winner of a Worst Director of All Time Award in 1980 (and 26 years before he was immortalised in Tim Burton’s affectionate tribute Ed Wood).’ — autohystoria
the entire film
Rayday Film (1968-76)
‘‘Rayday Film’ (1968-76) is a sort of crazed homage to comic book superheroes (the title comes from a comic-book Keen himself produced). Sped-up, multi-exposure footage shows Keen’s wife and friends acting the role of various masked or costumed characters, and performing weird, cultish rituals in various locations around Brighton, where they all lived. Thrown into the mad mix are images of toys and dolls being melted, sections of damaged film stock, fragments of stop-motion animation, and a montage of TV clips showing wartime atrocities. Oh, and the soundtrack is a near-constant cacophony of overlaid tracks, forming a pulsing, shrieking vortex of white noise. Needless to say, there isn’t much in the way of a coherent plot. And yet, amidst the sensory assault, certain themes can be picked out: war, and media representations, and the dark mythological energies that lurk beneath the surface of civilised existence.’ — Time Out (London)
the entire film
The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke (1984)
‘The 16mm work is made up of three parts: out-of-date film stock accompanied by evocative piano, a noir style photo-drama set at Brighton train station and – the main piece of the film – a gorgeous blue- and red-dominated poetic psychodrama. The use of old film stock is not untypical for Keen; he would regularly use whatever material was at hand, often using different types of film stock within the same title, as here. As a low-/no-budget filmmaker, he frequently had little choice, but he often exploits the poetics of low-grade material as part of the process. Keen cut his images in the main section to a soundtrack provided by his daughter, Stella Starr, who recorded the cut-up of music and sound effects during a film show at the local cinema. Although not always credited, Stella has provided regular assistance to her father, beginning in the late ’60s and usually as camera operator. She also features as the blind-folded artist painting with a paper brush, a particularly dynamic image. The red- and blue-painted figures look partly to the new romantic art that was happening at the time but also look like ghosts of the people who’d appeared in Keen’s films for the last 20 years. The double-exposure of the ghostly figures, the slow-paced action, colour dominance and interplay between sound and image make this one of his most reflective films.’ — bfi
Keen’s sketchbook for the film
‘Treating apocalyptic and aggressive imagery with silence and slow washes of colour, Jeff Keen exhibits and works against his usual tropes.’ — letterboxd
Behind the scenes
Plazmatic Blatz (1991)
‘Stealth bombers hover like vultures over crashing waves and a ruined land. Using found footage and several thick layers of video, Keen presents a very visceral version of Armageddon.’ — LUX
‘Jeff Keen stands in overalls, poised with his tools before him. Then he lights a roaring gas-fueled torch, smashes a plate with a hammer, paints a giant esoteric symbol on the wall and starts up his film projector. This snappy one minute video provides a neat evocation of the Jeff Keen live experience and throws us right into the inspired montages to come.’ — LUX
the entire film
Omozap in Artwar (1995)
‘This refined and punchy series of films combines explosions and gunfire with strident performances at home and painting at the local tip. Possibly the culmination of all Keen’s themes and a potent reminder of his seemingly inexhaustible imaginative powers.’ — LUX
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I happened to read that Perloff interview yesterday. Very interesting. I totally disagree with her that Ashbery’s late work was weaker. I think she just missed something there. Anyway, thank you! new FaBlog! Everyone, Mr. Ehrenstein has updated his legendary FaBlog with a little number called ‘There’s Always A “7 Women”’, and why don’t you go check it out? ** Kai, Hi, Kai! A rare and wonderful boon/pleasure to see you! I never paid that much attention to Prefab Sprout for some reason, but that new reissue LP is just gorgeous. Hugs from Paris! You sound very alert for someone who just stepped into a radically different time zone. Congrats! Thank you again a lot for showing them ‘Them’, and awesome that ‘Jerk fits into your new thematic. Well, the TV mini-series is a Gisele project. She’s directing it. And we’ve been working on that for over three years. The next ‘live’ thing with her is an adaptation she’s doing of a play that Robert Walzer wrote as a teen. I’m supposed to write a secret play that will be happening invisibly within that play and directing the performers. Haven’t figured out how to do that yet but as soon as the TV script is finished and green lit, I’ll be working with her on that, plus Zac’s and my next film, plus a gif novel in progress, plus hopefully finishing a novel I started about 7 years ago. Busy and good. You have a break now, or does the teaching restart pronto? Love, me. ** Steve Erickson, It’s an interesting album, the Triad God. And, yeah, agree obviously about DEAFKIDS. ** _Black_Acrylic, Cool, glad the Dis Fig track snagged you. Let me know how the Halo album is. My interest has drifted away from her stuff, and I’d like to reengage if there’s a reason. ‘The Wild Bull’! I haven’t listened to that since I was a teen. Whoa. I will. Very nice. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. I forgot that about your flowers phobia. That is one oddball — in an interesting way — fear right there. Jeff Jackson is here in Paris! I hung out with him yesterday, in fact. I hope the doc appointment gives 100% good news. ** chris dankland, Hi, Chris! I’m really happy you’re into the gigs, and hopefully into that particular one. Don’t know Sean Nicholas Savage, no. Hm. It sounds just far afield — in an interesting way — from what I’ve been imbibing that checking him out feels refreshing, so I will. Thanks a lot for the directive. Thanks about the Ellis podcast. Yeah, it ended up being pretty fun to talk with him. We’d only had a few passing conversation before that. ‘Missing Men’, wow, that old thing. Thank you. That’s so kind. If it made you dream of doing things, I mean, nothing’s better. I’ll see if I can pat myself on the back. Seems possible. Take care, good buddy! ** Kyler, Hi. Thank you. It’s not a bad looking morning here so far. I trust yours, which is still in the future and cloaked in darkness but will be in place by the time you read this, functions similarly. Maybe your sister and I will accidentally without knowing it physically bump into each other on the street and yell ‘Fuck you’ at each other. Except I’m not a hair-trigger anger kind of guy, so I guess she’d yell, ‘Fuck you,’ and I would look at her askance and think, ‘What’s her fucking problem’?! Weirdos will inherit the earth. Word. ** Right. I thought a nice, extensive post about the late, great experimentalist Brit filmmaker and artist Jeff Keen would be just the ticket for today. See you tomorrow.