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Keen, Jeff (1923-2012)

Director, Writer, Cinematographer, Editor, Actor

Main image of Keen, Jeff (1923-2012)

Jeff Keen is one of the most prolific and longest working experimental filmmakers in Britain. His directness and intuitive understanding of archetype plus his persistent and evolving referencing of popular culture means that his work appeals as much to skaters and punks as to followers of the canonical avant-garde.

Born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, Keen started making films in his late thirties, having already served in World War II (a pivotal experience) and worked for Brighton's Parks and Gardens. His first 8mm pieces, Wail (1960) and Like The Time Is Now (1961) were presented at the local art school film society. Only a few other people (such as Margaret Tait, John Latham and Bruce Lacey) were making experimental films in Britain at the time. Although he has no recollection of having seen any American experimental work at this time, Keen's films share some basic similarities with the early work of Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith in that they have friends perform and interpret other versions of themselves through costume and characters. They also involved animations at home and actions at the local tip, all executed at great speed. The Pink Auto (1964), screened using two projectors, is one of the very first examples of expanded cinema.

As the 60s progressed and the cultural shift saw more empowerment for a younger generation, Jeff Keen found greater support for his films. Marvo Movie (1967), among others, was made with support from the BFI. In 1970, the NFT held the First International Underground Film Festival. Keen and friends presented his Rayday Film (1968-70) using a variety of projectors and personal performance. It took its name from Keen's magazine, Amazing Rayday, published in Brighton since 1962.

In the 1970s, the London Film-makers' Co-op turned away from figurative imagery and emotional engagement, focusing almost exclusively on the formal qualities of film itself. While Keen's work was heavily concerned with issues of construction and projection, it did not shy away from visceral and forceful expressions of self, and of a range of mythic characters and themes. These manifestations reflected his interest in and love of comics and B movies, further filtered through his WWII experiences and his appreciation of surrealist art.

Despite the difference between his films and those of others at this time, his work found support with Co-op screenings and inclusion in exhibitions such as the Hayward Gallery's 'Perspectives on Avant-Garde Film' (1978). He showed his multi-screen 'Diary films' alongside tape compilations of girl groups, jazz bands and film scores. The images drew on family holiday experiences as well as the costume- and character-filled capers from the 60s and after. At this time he also made the longer, single-screen Arts Council funded films White Dust (1970-72) and Mad Love (1972-78), demonstrating a fondness for popular film history and taking conceptual approaches to experimenting with narrative elements. The more overtly sexual elements to Keen's films developed in parallel with the rise of feminism, and were not always well received.

In the 1980s, the home movies and appearances from family and friends were replaced with a highly controlled and expertly paced editing style. War references become more explicit and the imagery becomes more violent. Keen himself becomes the sole performer and he otherwise uses paper props, image-layering and dynamic animated collage techniques. After The Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke (1979-84), a sort of coda to his earlier stylistic phase, even the titles to his films become more abstract and, again, violent: Blatzom (1983-86), B-B-B Bom and Lifestorm (1990s), Plasticator (1990s), Plazmatic Blatz (1991) and Kino Pulveriso (1993). There are numerous versions of the Artwar film (Channel 4, tx. 1/8/1994). Visceral and abstract articulations of his memories of life as a veteran, like many works from this period, they were created on video tape.

Jeff Keen has made well over fifty films and an enormous number of drawings, paintings, sculptures and poems. He has exhibited nationally and internationally in an eclectic range of public and private spaces; from galleries and cinemas, to shops and beach-fronts, to television and DVD.

Will Fowler

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Artwar (1994)Artwar (1994)

The creativity of destruction enacted by experimental genius Jeff Keen

Thumbnail image of Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke (1984)Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke (1984)

Hallucinatory riff on gangsters, war and horror by no-budget master Jeff Keen

Thumbnail image of Marvo Movie (1967)Marvo Movie (1967)

Rapid-fire, surreal, pop-art curiosity by Jeff Keen

Thumbnail image of Meatdaze (1968)Meatdaze (1968)

Frenzied short cramming a full film programme into 10 minutes

Thumbnail image of White Lite (1968)White Lite (1968)

Dizzying psychedelic short, the third part of Jeff Keen's informal 'trilogy'

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Thumbnail image of Psychedelia and the BFIPsychedelia and the BFI

Far-out experimental voyages into the unconscious

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