As part of my film studies A level, I had to watch ‘Thelma & Louise’ five times. ‘Thelma & Louise’ is not a bad film, of course, it’s actually rather good, but I had imagined I’d be watching Ingmar Bergman and film noir and Bunuel and the Nouvelle Vague and all that, not watching two Hollywood stars drive off a cliff. Five times. Coursework marked and final exam sat and passed, however, I went to University. As I filed into the film theatre for my first lecture, they were projecting a Jeff Keen film. I sat and watched, mouth slightly open in amazement: this, I thought, is more like it.
Keen’s films remind you of why Edison called his early film projection device the Kinetoscope – they are full of motion and energy, crazed, febrile things that burst onto the screen in a barrage of crashing planes, mushroom clouds, plastic soldiers, fires, floods, sexy girls, super heroes and super villains, often starring his friends and family and set to intriguing and ear popping soundtracks. The young Keen had fought in World War Two (he called it ‘the best time of my life’) and the violence and anarchy of that experience was a major and indelible influence on him. After demobilisation, Keen spent a single term at Art College, but was working as a gardener with Brighton Council’s Parks Department when he made his first short film in 1959. A cineaste and organiser of a local film club, it suddenly occurred to him that he could make a film himself, so he borrowed an 8mm camera and set out on a fifty year career (to date) as the UK’s most prominent avant garde film maker.
Keen’s work is undeniably experimental, but it often seems like the product of a parallel universe film industry: Hollywood with the boring bits taken out, a gleeful disordering of narrative that goes wherever it likes, however it likes, at 250 miles an hour: comic books, high art, popular cliché and the avant garde, all delivered in one super fast short burst of energy, like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
It is my pleasure to say that Jeff Keen is still alive, and, at 87 years old, is finally enjoying the recognition that his remarkable work and life deserves. For the full Keen experience, please buy the amazing BFI box set ‘GAZWRK’: it’s cheaper than you think, and essential at twice the price. From that very box set, here is 'Instant Cinema', a film he made in 1962 (although the soundtrack is from 2007). Prepare to be stimulated!