projection 18

Silent Q
7pm / 9 June 2010  
Irish Film Institute (6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin)

The first of an ongoing collaboration between the Experimental Film Club and the IFI. ‘Silent Q’ explores the deconstruction of television in the comedy of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and director Richard Lester in the 1950’s, placing it in relation to Dada silent cinema and the subsequent avant-garde scene of New York in the 1960’s. The programme includes films by Jonas Mekas, Richard Lester, René Claire and Francis Picabia.


( 1924, 14 mins, b&w, 35mm screened from DVD )

( 1960, 11 mins, b&w, 16mm )

( 1956, 25 mins, b&w, 16mm )

( 1963, 37 mins, colour, 16mm )

This programme brings the viewer on an unorthodox path through familiar territory of 20th century avant-garde and commercial film and television forms. The comedy of the Goons in England in the 1950's and the New York scene of the 1960's and 70's, as viewed through the camera of Jonas Mekas, are rooted in well documented eras, but not often experienced in the same breath. European Dada from decades earlier may be equally exhaustively documented, but seeing these works alongside their descendants reveals a skeleton of modernism in a more visceral manner.

is a short film directed by René Clair in 1924. It consists of loosely connected narrative sequences. Artists who were, at that point, neither part of Tzara's Dada camp nor Breton's surrealist camp, take part in a series of 'comedic' gags. Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray play a game of chess on a rooftop, a ballerina is revealed to be a bearded man, a huntsman shooting an ostrich is shot himself, a funeral hearse is drawn by a camel and a funeral procession chase begins. Picabia said of the film: "Entr'acte does not believe in very much, in the pleasure of life perhaps; it believes in the pleasure of inventing, it respects nothing except the desire to burst out laughing."

'The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film' is a short film directed by Richard Lester and Peter Sellers in 1960. It became a favourite of the Beatles, which led to Lester being hired to direct 'A Hard Day's Night'. Again, it consists of loosely connected narrative comedic situations, and, like an 'Entr'acte' of its own era, it hosts a number of English artists and performers in cameo apperances. Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan weave their way through groups more familiar from the later 'Carry On' films. But the inversion of social hierarchy through seemingly random devices is as prevalent in Lester's work as it was in Clair and Picabia's.

'A Show Called Fred' is the first episode of television comedy directed by Richard Lester and starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and many of the above-mentioned 'Carry On' crew. 'Fred' was very much the fore-runner of Spike Milligan's infamous 'Q5' ( from which this programme takes its title ). Influential and controversial though they were, works like 'Entr'acte' and 'The Running, Jumping' film, were relatively underground influences. But Milligan's experimental comedy broke through onto the level of a mainstream commercial audience. It dissolved the conventional TV sketch show format, predating Monty Python and led the way for outrageously surreal comedy on mainstream television.

More so than comedy, it seems the critique of social order is the thread running through these works, achieved by the application of apparently random devices common in many Dada and Surrealist practices, but which seem to manifest themselves most comfortably in the form of processions. The funeral procession of 'Entr'acte', the chasing campers of 'The Running, Jumping' film, the forlorn exposed television crew members of 'Fred', simultaneously recall the polarities of the silhouetted hillside figures of Bergman's 'Seventh Seal' and the closing title sequences of 'The Benny Hill Show'. These processions lace together three distinct periods and groups of experimenters.

'Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol: Friendships and Intersections' is a film made by Jonas Mekas in 1963. Like many of Mekas' impressionistic diary-like films 'Scenes' is a poetic, unbiassed visual document of New York of the early 1960's. The random and documentary style of Mekas' approach inevitably leads to a more picaresque, scene by scene, experience which lends itself well to the building of processions and the inversion of hierarchies.

Like the above films, but without the overt comedy, 'Scenes' is a procession of key personalities of the place and time. Jack Smith and Maria Montez, Stephen Shore and Nico, are all seen with Andy Warhol and Mekas, at the first public performance of the Velvet Underground. Andy Warhol: "The second the main course was served, the Velvets started to blast and Nico started to wail. Gerard and Edie jumped up on the stage and started dancing, and the doors flew open and Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin with her crew of people with camera and bright lights came storming into the room and rushing over to all the psychiatrists asking them things like:

'What does her vagina feel like? Is his penis big enough? Do you eat her out? Why are you getting embarrassed? You're a psychiatrist; You're not supposed to get embarrassed.'

The targeting of psychiatrists is pure Dada / Milligan / Python, and Jonas Mekas and Barbara Rubin with crew and camera storming into the room is not entirely unlike Spike Milligan turning the television camera around 180 degrees and proceeding up the aisles into the audience to the dismay of the television producers almost a decade earlier across the Atlantic. But the real link can be seen in Mekas from a decade later, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono became an integral part of the New York experimental filmmaking circuit. The nonsense poetry of Milligan, and the directing of Richard Lester, had been a big influence on Lennon's lyrics and art generally. With the help of Jonas Mekas, Lennon, with Yoko Ono, began making experimental films in the late 1960's and early 1970's. This thread will be continued in later parts of this programme, but for now, the link begins with the Velvet Underground, making their first public 'procession' while Q5 and the Beatles were cooking.

Curated for the EFC by Alan Lambert.

Films provided by Re-Voir, Paris / BFI National Archive, UK / Lightcone Distributors, Paris


IFI Irish Film Institute:
BFI British Film Institute Archive:
Re-Voir, Paris:
Lightcone, Paris:
Jonas Mekas: