Malcolm LeGrice

“Le Grice’s work has spanned across media from film/video/digital, to computer, in various contexts and forms, with the concomitant material and linguistic complexities analysed in his published writing across decades. Since being at the technological centre of filmic exploration at the London Filmmakers Coop, Le Grice has continued with a similar line of experiment with video and digital cinema, that is, the exploration of colour, texture and sound, the unpicking of systems and structure, combining images as visual music.” – J.Hatfield

Born in Plymouth in 1940, Malcolm LeGrice is probably the most influential modernist filmmaker in British cinema. LeGrice’s work has explored the complex relationships between the filmmaking, projecting and viewing processes which constitute cinema as a medium, and shows an intense interest in the processes enabled by optical printers and by the combination of different types and gauges of film stock.

He started out as a painter in London in the early 1960s and turned to filmmaking in the middle of the decade with the Super-8 film ‘China Tea’ (1965), which he followed with ‘Castle 1’ and ‘Little Dog For Roger’ (both 1966), made mostly from re-worked found footage. ‘Castle 1’ can be seen as prophetic: for screenings of the film in 1968, LeGrice hung a light bulb next to the screen, flashing on and off at regular intervals and, when on, obliterating the screen image, a practice used in Martin Creed’s Turner-prize winning installation some 35 years later.

In the ’60s his work was informed by the radical politics of the period in opposition to the Vietnam War and US cultural imperialism, and extended to a deep hostility towards the ‘illusionism’ of Hollywood and other commercial cinemas. This tendency was particularly manifest in ‘Spot the Microdot’ or ‘How to Screw the CIA’ (1969), which includes found footage of GIs in battle. But LeGrice’s approach to cinema was also animated by a modernist impulse to put the central focus on the properties of the medium itself, turning them into the ‘content’ of the work. For instance, in ‘White Field Duration’ (1972-73), a white screen marked only by a scratch running across clear celluloid, activates an intense perception of projection time. This film was also performed as a two-screen event and LeGrice’s installations at times extended to four or even six screens. From the late-sixties onwards, his multiple screen work was often accompanied by live performances interacting with the projection event (‘Horror Film 1’ (1971) and ‘Horror Film 2’, (1972)).

LeGrice’s best and most complex work was done in the ’70s when, in the face of an intense hostility towards narrative cinema manifested by some of his avant-garde colleagues, he made a trilogy – ‘Blackbird Descending’ (1977), ‘Emily’ (1978), and ‘Finnegans Chin’ (1981) – which elaborated a critical kind of storytelling in which both the formal aspects of cinema and the very structures of narrative are explored in relation to each other: The films are set in the film-maker’s own domestic environment and achieve a combination of intellectual and aesthetic intensity rarely seen in any kind of British cinema. LeGrice also engaged with art history (‘After Manet’ (1975), ‘After Leonardo’ (1973)) and with the pioneers of cinema (‘After Lumiere’ (1974) and ‘Berlin Horse’ (1970) – in which he included a re-filmed Hepworth film of 1900, ‘The Burning Barn’).

In addition to being a prolific filmmaker, LeGrice played an influential role in the critical and institutional promotion of avant-garde cinema in Britain. He was a prominent activist in the Drury Lane Arts Lab, where he formed Filmaktion with William Raban, Annabel Nicolson, Gill Eatherley, Mike Dunford and David Crosswaite, and organised mixed-media shows. He was also a pioneer in the educational domain, initiating the trend towards establishing filmmaking sections in art colleges, a policy that bore fruit in the 1980s as new generations of filmmakers emerged from these courses. He is also an inveterate polemicist: his book, Abstract Film and Beyond, provides both a historical and a philosophical context for the British and European avant-garde cinemas, and he has contributed regularly to the journal Studio International.

LeGrice carried out the first experiments with computer-based film making in Britain (‘Your Lips 1’ (1970)), and though it was a preoccupation that he laid aside after 1971, it came to dominate his media practice (along with research into digital art) from the 1980s onwards. Since 1997 he has headed the media research programme at Central St Martin’s art college in London, accompanying his activities with critical-historical reflections.

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