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William Raban

By Darren Green

1. Introduction

Reflecting on both his early experiences studying painting at St Martins and his formative approach to filmmaking, William Raban has written "It was a time for experimentation where ideas were the driving force rather than preoccupations with style or the desire to simply put dazzling images onto the movie screen" ('Lifting Traces', Filmwaves, Spring 1998)

If one theme remains constant throughout his work it is a commitment to this core idea and, as a result, trying to pin down Raban into easy categories of 'style' or 'period' is difficult and pretty pointless. He has been described, along with his friend and fellow artist Chris Welsby, as one of the finest exponents of the genre known as 'Avant-Garde Landscape' film working in this country. However, the breadth and diversity of his work beyond the early landscape films should not be neglected. From experiments in painting 'lifting traces' from nature to his most recent film and installation pieces, Raban engages with pushing the medium, holding on to the fundamental belief that "making films is about showing people things, not telling them how to interpret the world."

2. Exploring the Medium

Raban started making films (around 1970), having studied painting.

His concerns with the relationships between nature and the filmic process, that would become inscribed into some of his early film work, could be found in his earlier approach to painting. In his series 'Wave Prints' he spilled oil paint onto the sea and traced the waves onto sheets of paper. He wrapped canvas around a tree trunk and re-visited it, adding washes of coloured dye until finally removing it, finding the effects of the weather and natural decay had produced "...self-formed marks on the canvas... the product of direct organic time process". This interest in process and 'duration' (what Peter Gidal calls "a material piece of time") would bring him into contact with like-minded artists who were engaging with film.

In the early 1970s, as a member of the London Filmmakers' Co-Operative, Raban would combine the co-op ethos of hard line politics, rigorous intellectualism and formal experimentation to produce some of the most enduring work of the period. As part of the 'Filmaktion' group he would experiment in the realm of 'expanded cinema', a film form that would later become aligned with 'installation' art. In these pieces, the relationship between audience, theatre, projector and light beam were all engaged in deconstructing the conventional apparatus of cinema - a project that was in keeping with the radical politics of the time.

In Take Measure (1973) he physically unwound the film through the audience from projector to screen; Diagonal (1973) used three projector beams extending beyond the screen into the theatre space and centred on the workings of the projector gate. 2'45" (1973) recorded and repeatedly re-filmed the event of projection and interaction with the audience, screen and filmmaker. These pieces are some of the most resonant (and characteristically witty) of the period whilst also providing clues for themes that he would continue to develop.

3. Landscape and Duration

In Time Stepping (1974), Raban takes the relation between time, the actual time of filming and its representation back onto the screen as a starting point for what Le Grice describes as a 'rhythmic space-time game played by two cameras'.

The cameras rapidly shoot and pan from a doorway to both ends of the street and the two sets of footage are edited together, with overlaps superimposed. Again, there is a 'cubist' effect as the image seems to try and tear itself from the screen.

Two other films also play with time in this way. In Colours of This Time (1972), Raban undertakes a formal experiment, exploring the colour temperature of daylight as it changes in the context of a static park scene over the course of a day. The film has a sharp, inventive use of time-lapse and takes the time to play with formal 'structures' while still retaining a strong aesthetic quality (Raban's work is strong on the beauty of composition, even when unintentionally!). Autumn Scenes (1978) consists of three parts each showing a different approach to the use of screen space by (in the first two sections) using a moving camera and juddering jump cut editing that creates an expressionistic effect. In Concrete Fall this draws attention to the relations between dead concrete materials and organic movement. Fergus Walking again mirrors After Duchamp in its cubist representation of a moving figure. The films also reveal Raban's fondness for editing in camera and why he likes to edit slowly with film and manual cutting "The speed relating to the natural rhythms of my own thought process".

Amongst the different qualities in Rabans film there is a direct literary aspect that has tended to be neglected in much of the critical writing. For example, the composition of Thames Film (1986) is notable in that the mixture of old footage, photographs, maps, drawings and sketches are juxtaposed with film of the river shot from a mostly low point of view - on a small boat - that ebbs and flows with the river tides. The soundtrack includes spoken testimony, a record of the same journey made in 1787 and snatches of readings from Eliot. This, together with the conflation of rich textual material, gives the impression of a diary, a record that contains and contrasts past and present whilst generating new meanings from the tension between the two. Raban continued aspects of this approach in From 60 Degrees North (1991), commissioned by Channel Four. One of the many strengths of both this and Thames Film is the hint at experiments with the documentary form that followed whilst having roots in the earlier, more direct 'landscape' pieces like Thames Barrier.

4. Time and Tide

Raban's take on the 'poetic' qualities often ascribed to the medium is interesting.

At the same time as engaging with the conventional definition of the term - an evaluation of the formal qualities of image and sound based on aesthetics - he also approaches structure with a literal use of poetic codes. Rhythm, rhyme, meter, punctuation, resonance are all represented visually and, particularly in these 'documentary' pieces, give an impressionistic feel, a form of visual polemics minus the heavy didactic symbolism. A.L. Rees describes this as 'blending the structural film with the documentary' and this is perhaps at its purest in the 'Under the Tower' trilogy.

The first part 'Sundial' (1992) is a minute long, offering 71 rapid scenes, each showing the Canary Wharf tower at its centre. The camera records the tower from all angles at different times of the day with different foreground material each time. The rapid cutting and certainty of framing create a number of responses. The tower is represented as a three dimensional object that seems to lift from the screen, revealing further Raban's explorations in 'cubist' representations of objects and space. At the same time, the semiotic codes attached to the tower as 'symbol' (it has been described as 'Thatcher's Dick'!) are simply connoted.

The second part, A13 (1994) uses mediated images - through windscreens, mirrors and CCTV cameras - mixed with 'in camera' effects and rhythmic, percussive editing and soundtrack. The area around Canary Wharf and the Limehouse road link are revealed over a day (a 'nod' to the influence of Man with a Movie Camera and Raban's admiration for Vertov). Like Sundial, there is no overt explanation, Raban's rationale being "to see how far it was possible to construct meaning by sound and image alone".

In Island Race (1996) the focus shifts towards people. Margaret Dickinson has noted, "The world explored is one of public space and public events". Raban turns the camera eye on local politics and the racial tensions in the Isle of Dogs that were becoming more palpable during the course of the filming. Footage of local elections (the BNP had just won a bye-election), scenes from a recent anti fascist march, the London Marathon, shots of Ronnie Kray's funeral, are intercut with images of racist graffiti and celebrations of 'Empire' in the form of VE day street party celebrations. The film presents a palette of images without explanation or other usual documentary conventions imposed on them. Raban follows events as they happen rather than forcing a structure through editing. The viewer is left to ask questions and construct meanings relating to nationalism, community and identity from the ambiguity.

5. Documents

One of the pleasures of the trilogy is that each part has its own intrinsic qualities, allowing them to be viewed separately or has a whole without diminishing their power.

Another strength is that, although recognisably different from the formal approaches of earlier work, there is a consistency of tone that suggests a line can be traced back to Thames Film (and beyond) through to his latest piece MM (2002).

The primary focus for MM is the Millennium Dome in Greenwich and, as Canary Wharf can be coded as a comment on Thatcherism, the Dome is used as a visual metaphor to critique New Labour. The piece again refuses easy didactics and collapses together old black and white shots of the building of the Blackwall Tunnel, footage that Raban took in 1987 of the blowing up of the power station where the Dome now stands, film of the 1999 Eclipse, Millennium celebrations and a light show from the first New Year after Canary was built in 1992. The film conveys the inherent strangeness of the Dome as a monument in its particular space and time and also as a cipher for attempts at constructing a national ideal. Echoing the poetic dimension, MM is subtitled 'a film poem in eight stanzas' and acts as a kind of coda, extending themes developed in Thames Film and the trilogy and re-framing them in the context of the Millennium.

As his most recent works, MM, After Duchamp and the works in progress Wild Sea and The Straits of Dover show, two strands of Raban remain constant - a commitment to formal experimentation whilst at the same time being unafraid of revisiting thematic and conceptual ground. Different facets - landscape, narrative, documentary, experiments with process and duration - can be teased from his films at any point and in many combinations. In terms of consistency, it is in his exploration of gaps and spaces, be they between the organic and mechanistic, image, object and representation, painting and film, race and identity, historical and present. His work continues, asking questions and lifting traces.

Darren Green

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