There are artists who are meticulous. They prefer to perfect and manicure their art before showing it at what they consider the exact right moment. They erase the sketch marks, increase the fidelity, prune and primp until they have what they consider a well-polished, finished product. These artists showcase their work deliberately. They stick to what they know. Their experiments, if they experiment at all, are carefully considered. Artists like this may go years without releasing anything, and when they finally do, it is an event.
Jeff Keen may have been one of these artists. After all, each of the films we are running today are, for all intents and purposes, perfect. But, especially after watching him go bananas with a blowtorch in Plasticator, it’s hard not to picture him as another kind of artist: the kind that throws everything against the wall and sees what sticks. The absurdly prolific, wildly experimental, multimedia double album kind of artist whose work requires sifting through and whose mistakes are often successes in their own right. Keen might agree -- after all, the alter ego he cooked up for himself was aptly a mad scientist named “Dr. Gaz.” Keen worked primarily in film but it is apparent even from his films that he liked to work with all kinds of material -- they often prominently feature him drawing or painting or melting -- including but not limited to the physical film itself, which he often altered.
Keen spent his childhood in the English county town of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and was a bright student -- even earning himself a scholarship to Oxford. Unfortunately, it was 1942 and he was called to service in World War II. After the war, he relocated to Brighton. In 1960, at age 37, he made his first film: 8mm short called Wail. Despite being Keen’s first foray into film, Wail finds many of what would go on to be his hallmarks already intact: varietal technique (in Wail’s case, live action and animation), personal home movies, juxtaposition, violence, and pop culture cues. It would not, of course, be his last -- not by a longshot. Wail kicked off a career that spanned forty years and produced more than seventy films (not to mention who-knows-how-many drawings, paintings, sculptures, and poems.) In 1962, he began publishing his own magazine called Amazing Rayday.
The experience Keen had in World War II factors largely into his work. Even in the small cross section we provide today you will notice recurrent allusions to warfare via liberal use of images of tanks, guns, and explosions. Considering his late start, it’s not altogether unlikely that his time in battle inspired him to explore his own creativity in the first place.
The aptest description of Keen may have been made by The Boar’s Daniel Neofetou: “this is a man blessed with an unfair capacity for ideas.1” His work conveys this so clearly. Despite blatant streaks of pop art (though Keen disagreed), Dadaism, and surrealism, it is difficult to come up with a comparable filmmaker, whether it be in Britain, America, or anywhere else. Each of these films is so chock-full of weird, wonderful, and disparate ideas that a shot or a sound rarely lasts for more than a few seconds. It’s hard not to picture Keen frantically working with camera, scissors, crayons, or anything at hand, to capture his spontaneous energy in real time.
Keen was among the first experimental filmmakers in Britain. His early work was showcased at a small art school and, slowly but surely, he built up a small following in Britain’s artistic community. 1967’s Marvo Movie, one of Keen’s most regarded works, was made with support from the British Film Institute. Eventually, Keen would be a member of the BFI, as well as the London Filmmaker’s Co-Op (which he co-founded) and the British Arts Council. In 1970, he released Rayday Film at the First International Underground Film Festival, held at the National Film Theater.
These are impressive affiliations, especially for someone who was such a pioneer of the do-it-yourself (DIY) ideology. That is only a testament to the strength of the films. It is not hard to tell from his work that Keen was DIY to the bitter end, whether he was using cheap and easily adaptable 8mm film or putting his wife Jackie, daughter Stella Starr, and friends in ridiculous costumes and situations. He made no concessions that would disrupt his vision. This fierce independence resonated especially with the counterculture (as it always will) from the beatniks to the hippies to the punks, all of whom embraced Keen’s continually exciting work.
An uncompromising DIY attitude can have its downside, however, as just about any dedicated artist would tell you. Sadly, widespread exposure to Keen and his work did not come until very recently, as he and his family struggled with his cancer and the ensuing financial problems. In 2009, BFI released a 9 hour, long-overdue DVD collection of Keen’s work entitled GAZWRX. Earlier this year, Keen’s paintings and films were well received in an exhibition at The Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York City. Recognition, though, is not what Keen was after. Keen had no choice but to create.
Last week, on June 21, 2012, Jeff Keen died at age 88. He left behind a broad, inimitable, and joyful body of work that we will be poring through for decades to come. His impact cannot be understated. By my estimation, the best way to honor his work is to keep it up. Dip a barbie doll into a vat of India ink and see what you come up with. Find a blowtorch. Put your smartphone camcorder to good use! Better yet, create whatever you want however you want. The operative word is “create.” No one’s going to fill Jeff Keen’s shoes, but everyone could stand to take a little inspiration from him. After watching these films, to not is damn near impossible.