9.04 Cultural Influences

The film provenance of Exploding Cinema has been discussed earlier from what might be called a cultural history perspective. With oral history we can gain insight into another form of historical provenance which is embedded in the family histories of the participants. This shows how cultural forms reproduce themselves and are coloured by a collective amalgam of personal experiences as well as being formed from more diffuse cultural forces. The early influences of the Collective were reported as being via books, television, home movie or slide shows, Saturday morning children's film clubs and drive-in cinemas.

But one influence stood out as going much further back. This is Duncan Reekie's remarkable family connection with a famous star of the musichall, Little Tich.

A relative was Little Tich, the Great Little Tichâ Little Tich was a very famous comedian and musichall performer whose act consisted of wearing shoes that had very, very long built-up sections at the front. This would allow him to lean forwards slightly and then more, and more, and more, until he was leaning forwards at a completely untenable angle! (Laughing) Then he'd be able to stand back up again. And then the other thing he did was he would dance on these big shoes and sort of do some very strange dances. And then, he would jump up and stand on them, like almost stilts or something. (DR)[1]

The influence of books was varied and ranged from second-hand non-fiction to hip existential classics of the Sixties (read in the Seventies).[2]

I lived in the suburbs like all Australians do, and it was very boring. I was reading English comics all the time. I just wanted to be in England all the timeâ I loved books but my family didn't do any reading at all. I don't know what they did - they are all very shady. I used to like archaeology and science and stuff like that. From an early age I used to go to the library and read loads and loads of non-fictionâ The house was full of junk. It is a very nice sort of Sixties house, but it is full of old Victorian rubbish. My dad collects books everywhere, (and old sewing machines and everything), it is just piled high. Its like the Adams Family house. (CK)

I suppose books were my main influence when I was a kid, rather than film. I read an awful lot of existentialist literature when I was about 16 - 19 that I think had quite an affect of me, I read all the Sartre trilogy and lots of Samuel Beckett and Kafkaâ I read a lot of trash as well, a lot of Tolkein Novels. The Tolkein craze was definitely part of that. (JT)

The core collective members were born into the heyday of Television. They were part of the first television generation. By the mid-Sixties to early Seventies television had saturated the population and the content had got beyond the naivety of the Fifties.

I was always a real TV addict, and films as well really. My parents are quite old, so I grew up with watching old films with them, and really being immersed in old film culture, and knowing all the names of the actors and actresses from the Thirties onwards, and directors. I used to like gangster films, and musicals, just anything old. Anything made before 1970 I really like, the same with books. (CK)

I loved Science Fiction things on TV. Things that I really remember are things like Dr Who, and The Tomorrow People, a slightly spooky children's science fiction series. I was a complete addict for that, both me and my brother. Lost in Space, all those things. (JT) 

I remember seeing colour television for the first time, being taken to see it by my father and being quite amazed. But no, we had a black and white one. Things like Department S would be a favourite programme of mine - it was very strange. It was like a camp Seventies version of The X Files, which was much stranger than The X Files. There was a character in it called Jason King played by Peter Wingard, and he then got his own series. There was another very strange programme I used to like called Ace of Wands which was about a kind of hippie warlock detective. That was in the Seventies as well. They should revive that. There were a few very strange attempts to have a counter cultural pulp sort of genre, hippie detectives and things, which were quite interesting. But I used to watch everything. I was very omnivorousâ I never thought I was going to be a filmmaker particularly but I just used to watch TV all the time. (DR)

I have discussed the importance of home movies to the underground style in general and as a framework from which to understand the oral cultural frame that surrounds Exploding Cinema.[3] The biographical experiences suggest that 35mm slide shows may have been more ubiquitous than Super 8 film in the Sixties.[4] The experiences of both reveal important similarities with the Exploding Cinema format. From the ever present whirring of the projector to the audience interjections and close connection with the subject matter on screen.[5]

It would be like a family get togetherâ with about fifteen or eighteen people. A lot of the events would be embarrassing moments with the children, and everyone would scream with laughter. My brother being forced to hold a chicken by my dad and crying was always a favouriteâ But I think it is the darkened room, whirly projectors, sort of thing - and the breaking, snapping, smoke coming out, that sort of thing, which is very much like the Exploding Cinema really, in lots of ways. (CK)

(Dad) took loads and loads of slides, mostly holiday pictures, from quite an early ageâ We had very formal, very exciting slide shows, where all the lights would go down. We would have sandwiches and crisps and we would watch ourselves in Lake Windermere or whateverâ It was nice and kind of tedious at the same time - it seemed to be the thing you did in those days, and I know a lot of my friends that did that as well. If you didn't have cine-cameras, that is what you did. You made it a bit like a cinema, you put the lights down and you projected the slides. So, yes, I have got a very fond attitude to slides, you know, slide projection and that idea of reliving memories through slides. (JT)[6]

Home movies and slides also provided the first experience of film making, both taking pictures whether movie or slide and of course all the different modes of being 'caught' on camera.

My dad used to shoot pictures from the 1940s, on Standard 8 and then on Super 8. He was always getting us to come outside and take pictures of us, films of us. Which was a lot of us walking towards the camera all the time. So I grew up with someone who was always taking photos. You could hear him say, 'Walk towards the camera'. And we would say, 'Oh God! Do we have to?' I really hated itâ There is a record of all six children doing that, all of us walking towards the cameraâ But they are just such beautiful (images)â (CK)

Next there were the experiences of watching proper mainstream movies that were outside of the norm of darkened space and passive seated audience. First there was the common young person's experience of the Saturday morning 'flicks'.[7]

In South Africa we used to go to the Saturday Movie Club every Saturday. We'd see Flash Gordon shorts before a feature film, and it was thrilling because our parents would drop us off, and we would go into the cinema. We were about seven or eight (years old), and you would be inâ like a sea of kids. And they would all be like wriggling, and wriggling, and they all had sweeties and packetsâ Then as soon as the lights went downâ absolute all hell would break loose. Everybody would be screaming at the top of their voices and lollies and things would be flying aroundâ It was thrilling! Then we all settled down and watched Flash Gordon and whatever the Saturday movie was. (CR)

Another form of movie presentation that challenges the dominant cinemas normative mode is the drive-in. The spectacle and informality of drive-ins could have been an influence on Exploding Cinema. I have already noted how the drive-in heralded the new B Movie genres of Horror and Rock in the Fifties.[8]

Drive-ins were a big deal for us every Friday evening. It was like a religious kind of thing. Regularity on Friday evening - get home from school - tidy up the flat. Mum gets home and we all get together and go down to Chicken Lickin' and get our tubs of barbecue chicken and chips, Coca-Cola and then shoot down to the Silver Mine Drive-in. Goodwood was another good drive-in, and there was quite a fewâ

My favourite one is Silver Mine. You go up this huge mountain range, and then as you get to the top you start curving down like that (gesturing), and then there would be this huge silver screen and all these cars. You could see them, like the lamps going up and down like that as they spun into their places. Then we would drive down into that. You would drive around trying to find your mound, and trying to get close to the screen. Then you would park your car and get this huge clunking cast metal speaker - clunk it on the side of the window and set-up camp. We would go off to play on the swings for a while and then we would have dinner. Then we would go back and play on the swings some more and all the kids would be down at the swings shouting and fighting and carrying on. All the ads would beâ these huge fucking things would be going on above your head, and you were like on the swing going whey-hey! It was pretty exciting. I mean you could turn around and see all these cars parked thereâ and the wonderful smellâ [9] The massive canopy (of stars) and also the heat, you know, and the smell of the fast food and popcorn. It was everything that you lovedâ Hot nights with crickets making their noise in the backgroundâ That was a really big experience for me you know, the Drive-In. (CR)

Put these experiences together and you can practically reconstruct an entire Exploding Cinema show from them. The mixture of influences implies the cultural background of the collective was close to a working or lower middle class, but not a typical working class, cultural experience. The culture of the lower classes cannot be reduced to its stereotypes of popular culture, especially after the opening up of tertiary education and its associated intellectual aspirations to the masses from the Sixties.[10]

In my adolescence I started to watch seasons of Jean Luc Goddard and Bunuel films and my dad was kind of interested in Bunuel because of the Spanish connections. Jean Luc Goddard, yeah, I was so bowled over, because he combines literary interests with all these elements of anthropology and sociology but with trash genre narratives and just great visual motifs and, so many different influences. (He) wasn't just like a filmmaker he was like a film maker/ writer/ poster maker, and polemicist. I was just so excited even (though I was just) watching those things on TVâ

Then I started going to art cinemasâ The Everyman mostly, also The Scala and The Ritzy and... When I eventually moved to London I would probably be going about twice a week and often one of those visits would be to see a double or a triple bill, so I'd probably go and see about five or six films a week. (PT)

From these early stirrings of interest in film there were still barriers to be crossed before the idea that films could actually be made, rather than simply consumed, was internalised. Not least of these barriers was internalised sexism.

I was always interested in film makingâ but I was a technophobeâ I was quite nervous about filmmaking. I think its definitely a gender thing. My father and brother were the scientists and me and my mother, we didn't change a light bulb, you know what I meanâ They did everything. There was a big gender differentiation of technology and I saw film technology and I thoughtâ I was nervous of it. One of the ways that Exploding Cinema was a big inspiration to me was that I saw the way people fiddling with Super Eight. (JT)

Of course men are also infected with lack of confidence and this may be especially true of lower class men. Experimental film could be a way for the social outsider to see what was possible. Here is Paul Tarrago's first encounter with Maya Deren.

As I left college (doing Spanish) I started going to loads of evening classesâ That's where I started seeing a lot of work that I'd only vaguely read about - both experimental and art cinema. Like Maya Deren's film 'Meshes of the Afternoon'. The first time I saw that I just thought, 'Wow!'. I could see how you could do it, it wasn't unbearably complex, and it wasn't exclusive. Even though it was made about forty-five years before I'd seen it, I could see a way in. I could imagine making it, which was really exciting. I'd read about how she'd made it as well, so that made it even more possible. At the same time I was going to these classes and learning how to operate film equipment and thinking 'Yeah I can do this', so that's how I started making films. But I was kind of quite overwhelmed by the usual thing of self-doubt so I didn't really progress in the way I would have believed that I would have progressed as a film maker. -

'The Requiem for an Ice Baby' was the first time I actually showed a film I was happy with to an audience - that people liked, andâ I was asked back to show it again at the festival thing."[11] (PT)

Another sort of barrier to making films was disillusionment with the art world or the film industry as a context for work.

At college I got a little disillusioned with the art world, with the workings of the art worldâ The best thing that can happen to you is to become a famous artist. And then you have to deal with all the 'having to sell yourself'. (TZ)

Even once radical organisations become institutionalised and even unworkable in their later years as Duncan Reekie found:

I learned about the way the film industry worked and the way that the funding organisations worked. And I started to meet a lot of people who were involved in the funding organisations or who were involved in so-called political film making, or oppositional film making, or whatever you want to call it, and independent film making. And I began to become very disenchanted with the whole thing and I began to realise that, if you were going to make political films, then you had to rethink the project, the project had to be totally rethought.

I'd been going round slagging off the (London) Film Co-op for quite a long time on very little evidence and people started to say to me, 'Well, how can you slag off the Filmmakers' Co-op when you don't know anything about it?' So I went and worked voluntarily at the Film Co-op for three or four months and it was just really a miserable experienceâ I became involved in the Co-op politics and the collective politics, the democratic politics that was going on. And basically it was infighting and horrible personality clashes. And it basically confirmed all my worst prejudices, (which was very gratifying)".[12] (DR)

A similar experience can be got from the commercial world as Colette Rouhier found:

I was an Art Director in advertising. I came to London to be an Art Director here. I had done an award winning TV commercial in South Africa, and I had high hopes for myself. Got here, hated it - really hated the sceneâ It seemed to be really mercenary, in that anything will goâ -

I then got onto the film degree in the Polytechnic in Central London. I started off brilliantly, had a great time in the first year. The second year was not bad. But the third year was a nightmare - a fucking nightmare, everybody was into this ridiculous idea of being the writer or director and so on. You are different to us, because we are 'techies'. And there becomes this rift, this real rift, almost like they had joined a union there and then. And the union wasn't about helping to make films, it was divisiveâ Where they would be saying 'Where do you want the camera?', 'You didn't give me a shooting script?'. And rather than trying to help the process, it was getting all dysfunctional. And I thought to myself, my God, if this is what the film industry is like, this fucking hierarchy thing, and everybody fucking being brats within the hierarchy, then I really don't want to be there. (CR)

The lived experience of a wide range of dissatisfactions like this makes for a powerful and radical collective drive. The problems that these people had faced were solved by their engagement with Exploding Cinema. [13] Of course in the long term the marginalisation of Exploding Cinemas activity sets long term collective members with other challenges in terms of prolonging such activity, whilst their generational peers were rising through a more conventional career path. [14]

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[1] Little Tich (1869-1928) was one of the great legends of music hall who was at his peak in the 1890's. Little Tich, aka Harry Relph, was just four feet high. He was most famous for his dance with 28-inch long boots on. The boots are now displayed in the Blacksmiths Arms in his home village of Cudham in Kent. See Little Tich, Giant of the Music Hall by Mary Tich and Richard Findlater (Elm Tree Books, London 1979). Hear him on 'The Glory of Music Hall Vol. 3' (Flapper PACSCD-9476), 'Gems of the Music Hall' (Flapper PASTCD-7005) and 'Golden Years of Music Hall' (Saydisc SDL-380).

 

[2] This was the first period of history in which books became ubiquitous and easily obtained very cheaply second hand, often being thrown away or sold at jumble sales.

 

[3] See Chapter 2.

 

[4] Another important home media mentioned by Jenet Thomas in her interview is her dad's experiments with a reel to reel audio 'tape recorder'.

 

[5] Of course 35mm slides are the main materials of the distinctive Exploding Cinema 'd┌cor'. These were also known as colour transparencies.

 

[6] "From about eight, me and my brother had little cameras, and they were Instamatic cameras and we documented everything - mostly holidays, but also pets". Jenet Thomas interview.

 

[7] 'Saturday morning flicks' is the slang from my own youth in the Fifties. There were also Saturday afternoon matinees. See Seeing in the Dark, edited by Ian Breakwell and Paul Hamond (Serpents Tail, 1990).

 

[8] See Chapter 7's analysis of programme imagery.

 

[9] "We moved to Durban and for a short while had a house that over-looked a drive-in. We used to sit and watch the movies from our balcony". (CR)

 

[10] See Jonathan Rose's monumental The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (Yale U.P. 2001)

 

[11] The 'Pick of the Year' Xmas show at Las Casas 1992.

[12] Duncan's involvement with the London Filmmaker's Coop was in early 1991.

 

[13] Either by giving direct access to the most expressive and creative processes of filmmaking or by giving them a platform and collective support from which to be critical of the system that had oppressed them.

 

[14] At the time of writing (2001) people had found different solutions to the career problem: Thomas trained as a projectionist and is working at the Ritzy; Colette trained in web design and teaches video and design in a College of Further Education; Duncan was completing a Ph.D. at Falmouth Art College, Jenet and Paul both teach part-time and are focused on their film making. A newer member Damon, who joined after the interview period, works in Soho as a DVD technician in the post-production industry. Caroline Kennedy was last seen selling 'space hoppers' at a stall in Spitalfields Market.