The evidence of Jeff Keen’s genius has been hidden in a two-room Brighton flat for fifty years… Wonderland hails British Art’s most neglected hero.
The chances are you won’t have heard of Jeff Keen. You won’t know his films. You won’t know his art. You certainly won’t have seen him, as I have, sitting in a burgundy velour dressing gown, a two-bar electric heater inches from his slippered feet. Or listened to him talk, softly and passionately, in the cold, cramped Brighton basement that he’s too frail to leave. Yet this is a man who, until a couple of years ago, was still appearing at his own screenings as his anarchist alter ego Dr Gaz, dressed in a paint-splatted boiler suit, dust mask and a skull-and-crossbones T-shirt and was once dubbed “the most important man in cinema. Period.”
It’s only now, after forty years of neglect – and a desperate email from his wife Jackie that miraculously found its target – that the British Film Institute has finally acknowledged his position as one of the country’s seminal filmmakers with a season of his work on the South Bank and the release of Gazwrx: The Films of Jeff Keen on DVD. Better late than never, you might say. But the BFI’s art-gallery arm needs a hard slap. In a feat of spectacular short-sightedness, not one of his dazzling paintings, sketches, photo-novellas, posters or installations – many of which, as he puts it, “sprout out from” his extraordinary animations – will be on show. So, even as his cinematic endeavours are celebrated and saved for posterity, Keen’s art will be completely ignored. Again.
A Jeff Keen film is singularly difficult to describe. But it’s no exaggeration to say that he has melted, burned, blasted, torn, cut, scribbled and spray-painted his way to a new understanding of cinema’s potential. Almost forty movies since 1960, all made on a pittance by a man on a mission to rip up the medium and start again. The titles give you a sense of the gleeful spirit with which they were created: Marvo Movie, Meatdaze, Joy Thru Film, Mad Love, Omozap, Artwar. Together, they function as a series of barely controlled animated explosions, the celluloid embodiment of Picasso’s maxim that ‘every act of creation is first an act of destruction’. They’re what the projected contents of Topol’s mind – as he has his brain washed in Flash Gordon – ought to have looked like. Legendary New York filmmaker Jack Smith came closest to capturing the assault of wild colours, graffiti, plastic toys, home nudity, comic-book graphics, melodrama, carnival, and hardboiled men’s mags, when he wrote of Keen’s Autumn Feast that “it sends us spinning into the street, undone and toothless”.
Today though, Keen is drained of fervour. His memory is not what it was; his appetite for some sort of recognition as an artist, even as the BFI pumps thousands of pounds into his cause, is gone. It’s all too little, too late. He’s 85. He’s tired. And he has cancer. “They’ve left it too long,” he says, without bitterness, when I ask how he feels about all the attention. “If they’d done it even a couple of years ago, I could’ve been much more… flexible.” But Jackie – whose once striking beauty is captured in many of her husband’s films – still burns with the kind of rage that inflamed Dylan Thomas. The fuel is not the fact that Keen is growing weak. But the fact that it is happening here: in penury and in obscurity.
Jackie and Jeff have been married for 53 years, but before his illness, were in fact living apart. Keen’s own tiny rented flat is five minutes’ walk away. It’s a journey he has been strong enough to make only once in recent months. Today he’s too ill to come with me. Jackie gives me the key. It’s like walking into someone’s mind. Every available scrap of space is filled with evidence of his deep love of pop culture. Plastic guns form a collage on the wall; Sindy dolls are crammed into accidentally compromising positions with Action Men; melted plastic sculptures litter the surfaces. The effect is overwhelming; and somehow desperately sad. Fifty years of paintings and drawings – page after page of green-bound books with felt-tip squiggles, sketches or exquisitely rendered pen-and-wash creations – are stacked against the walls, piled in drawers, crammed in shoeboxes, wardrobes, or on the floor… “I’ll have to get someone in to get rid of it all,” says Keen, back at Jackie’s place. “I’m going to go round and just stand in there and decide what to do. The last time I was there I had ideas, you see. Now I have none at all.”
Incredibly – ridiculously, when you see the skill and wit obvious in even his crudest doodle – Keen has never sold a piece of his art. Last summer, an unscrupulous acquaintance from Jackie’s college days offered the Keens ten thousand pounds “for everything”. Mercifully, they felt uncomfortable with the offer and, although desperate for the cash, turned her down. But the strain is beginning to show. The council are threatening to stop paying the rent on Jeff’s flat because he is being cared for round the corner. “It’s like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” says Jackie, turning to her husband. Her voice cracks: “I just… I wish for the impossible, that someone could help us find somewhere warm with a bit of space where you could be comfortable and you could have your work with you and it would be safe. Instead you’re imprisoned here with me, sitting in that chair all day.” His reply is gentle: “Yeah. I’m okay. Don’t worry about me, love.”
WONDERLAND: Why are people finally taking notice of your films?
JACKIE KEEN: A year ago I wrote to the BFI saying that it was disgusting that my husband had been sidelined. I explained that I had seen him devoted to making movies for decades working on a shoestring, doing the whole thing by himself, and never stopping –
JEFF: Well, I’ve stopped now. [Laughs]
WONDERLAND: Why have you been ignored for so long?
JACKIE: Partly it’s his fault, because he’s not interested in chatting people up. He’s too shy. In fact, I said in the email to the BFI that if Jeff knew I was writing at all, he’d be cross with me.
JEFF: Oh well. It’s old stuff, that is, Jackie. I’ve given up film now.
JACKIE: Yes. But it hasn’t given you up.
JEFF: Well, it has in a way, I think.
WONDERLAND: How do you mean?
JEFF: I’ve kicked the film habit.
JACKIE: But you haven’t kicked the drawing habit.
JEFF: No. I can’t kick that. I fall back on that. I’m still drawing all the time.
[Jackie goes into the next room and comes back with her arms full of boxes, plastic wallets and folders. She hands over the sketchbooks]
WONDERLAND: These are incredible.
JEFF: These are just from the top of the pile… It’s all part of it. It’s all part of the story.
JACKIE: He was never //not// drawing, were you Jeff?
JEFF: No, love. [Little laugh] I used to sit in my flat; I have a chair that’s convenient, and I used to sit there until it got too dark, every night. So I’ve got quite a lot of books lying about.
WONDERLAND: These are the contents of your mind, Jeff!
JEFF: Pouring out. But they don’t want to see them, that’s the damn trouble. The BFI obviously are just thinking in terms of film and I understand that but… I have been bored by it. To be honest, I am exhausted by it. And I don’t want to talk about it.
JACKIE: Now, don’t say that.
JEFF: Anyway, a lot of my stuff was outdoors. It’s gone.
WONDERLAND: Did you used to go around Brighton graffiti-ing?
JEFF: I started doing graffiti in the 60s. I remember the first time, it was the other end of town, the road running underneath the railway bridge where the London trains go over.
JACKIE: I was keeping watch to see nobody came to arrest him. And you were spray-painting ‘Deep War Hurts Says Doctor Gaz’
WONDERLAND: Why did you first move here?
JEFF: I came on a chance a few years after the war. It was a very different place then, almost like life on another planet. I got a summer job working in parks and gardens and stayed on for 12 years. That job came to an end in ’63: we had a very bad winter, and I remember going along the seafront scraping up sludge and snow, throwing it into the road for cars to spin it back at me again as I walked along the road, and that was the end for me.
WONDERLAND: And how did you get into film?
JEFF: I wasn’t thinking about film at all when I was younger. I was an artist, really, from the start. It was only much later that filmmaking was thrust upon me, when Jackie was at the art college.
JACKIE: There was no film society, so Jeff did everything, behind the scenes. It was ostensibly me, but it was all Jeff: he was the backroom boy.
JEFF: I found I liked getting behind a camera. I was the only person with spare time, so I finished up making the films to show.
WONDERLAND: Did you teach yourself?
JEFF: Yeah. Nothing in it really. [Laughs] You can learn to use a camera in a few days, and the rest follows.
WONDERLAND: Do you think in pictures?
JEFF: I suppose I do.
JACKIE: That was one of your slogans, ‘Kill The Word’ –
JEFF: ‘Don’t Let It Kill You!’
WONDERLAND: How did you meet?
JEFF: In a coffee bar called Tinkie’s.
JACKIE: Jeff saw me in the street first.
JEFF: Oh yes, actually, when I first saw her, it was rather terrific. She was walking down from the Clocktower, all in green: green hat, green coat, green shoes. And I thought, ‘God, there’s someone with style.’ [Laughs] She was being chased by a loping man.
JACKIE: Oh Jeff you make it sound –
JEFF: No, it’s true. [Laughs]
WONDERLAND: Have you always felt like an outsider?
JEFF: Living here in Brighton I’d always been outside the mainstream. From the very outset I never really fitted in, even as a filmmaker. Not that it mattered much, you know, I didn’t mind. I just carried on filming.
WONDERLAND: Did you want to be accepted?
JEFF:No. Not really. I never really tried for it.
WONDERLAND: Let’s talk a bit about your childhood. Where were you born?
JEFF: Trowbridge, Wilts. I remember the road. I don’t remember the house. It was a bad birth. My mother was quite old, forty-something. And I was the first one. And it was November and from then on it has been a difficult road!
WONDERLAND: What did your parents do?
JEFF: My mother took on local nursing. And my father didn’t do anything really. He was out of the war, the First World War, where he’d been in a minesweeper off the coast of Ireland, rescuing bodies from the Lusitania, when it sank in 1915, all that sort of thing. Over a thousand people died, a hundred children. And he didn’t want anything more to do with that.
JACKIE: Jeff’s father was amazing. [Jackie goes to the shelf and brings down a photo album] He had the most fantastic sense of humour, and he used to love dressing up.
JEFF: Actually these photographs say far more than words. They need sticking back in again, Jackie.
JACKIE: [Takes one out, a headshot of Jeff in soldier’s uniform] I love this one of him as a soldier. His face radiates warmth, intelligence and his poetic nature.
WONDERLAND: Did you do a lot of destroying things when you were a kid?
JEFF: No I don’t think I did. I was very mild-mannered. [Laughs] I didn’t like the destruction of birds’ eggs, all that. The things I destroy in my films don’t answer back! I remember my cousin, who lived next door, he had this habit of shooting little birds, he got a Diana air pistol for Christmas. He had these starlings down from the nest, on a little table and he put them out on there and shot them and it was a bit of a shock. That night I felt this irritation in the throat, and that was the Scarlet Fever starting.
WONDERLAND: What did you want to be when you grew up?
JEFF: I think I always wanted to draw. I used to draw birds, natural history. My first job was at the local store in Trowbridge just before WW2. Sainsburys, actually, and I remember drawing aeroplanes there. Bombers and things like that. Everyone was talking about war. It was in the air.
WONDERLAND: Comics are obviously crucial to your art. Did you read them when you were a boy?
JEFF: I discovered comics when they started to become popular in this country in the late 50s. They were quite sensational: you could buy them in corner shops, you’d get a collection of comics down beside the door as you went in, mostly national comics, not Marvel then. But I don’t draw like comics. I love them, but I don’t set out to imitate them, you know?
WONDERLAND: Do you remember your first trip to the cinema?
JEFF: My mother took me. It was Chaplin’s film about the circus, I was less than five and I remember screaming out: I was upset when the horse goes on the loose, and everything started to fall about. I was frightened… It’s difficult to imagine really how important the cinema was to us. During the war, of course, it became even more important. People would just flock to them, it was the only entertainment… and the smoke from all the cigarettes used to rise.
WONDERLAND: What did you do in WW2?
JEFF: Nothing much! I was at a secret location about ten miles inland from Great Yarmouth, fitting reject flying fortress engines into Sherman tanks for D-Day.
WONDERLAND: You said earlier that you’ve given up film –
JEFF: I haven’t been making films for some time. And I feel now I’m too weak. [Laughs] You’ve got to be strong, I think, to make films. Unless you’ve got other people to help you. I work in that precarious place of being without money most of the time… It’s strange, you know. I was always happier making films than trying to explain them. Now it’s come to an end, I should be stopping and thinking, but I’m not really. I’m trying to forget.
Words: Louise Brealey
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #17, Feb/Mar 2009