by Catherine Jessica Beed

Malcolm Le Grice‘s canonical 1970 avant-garde film Berlin Horse was his first full-length experiment with manipulation of the image. The film is essentially combined in two parts. The first, a small sequence of footage of running horses, intially shot in 8mm colour, later refilmed in 16mm black and white, and the second part, segments from an early film The Burning Stable (1896). Both sections were treated by Le Grice with the same process. His black and white footage was subjected to multiple superimposition using colour filters, creating a fluid ever-changing solarized image. He describes the effect of this process as ‘[working] in its own time abstractly from the image’.

The 8mm sequence was shot in Germany and subsequently refilmed from the screen in various ways, by running the film at several different speeds and by placing the camera at different angles. The result is a true example of abstracting the image, an experimentation of the film medium with relation to sound, colour, dynamism and examining the concepts of time.

‘It attempts to deal with some of the paradoxes of the relationships of the “real” time which exists when the film was being shot, with the “real” time which exists when the film is being screened, and how this can be modulated by technical manipulation of the images and sequences.’ – Malcolm Le Grice

Indeed ‘time’ as a concept seems to be one of the most important elements here, regarding the audience as an axis upon which to propel the idea and perhaps oscillate between the time of our reality and the reality of the time within the film. With such a looping dynamic, the paradoxes become apparent, especially if the film is screened (as it often is) in a gallery space, on two screens.

To deal with such non-concrete ideas, there is the potential for a personal realisation. In this instance, Le Grice’s imagery is coaxing and intoxicating. The continuous loop becomes a hypnotic draw, and where the soundtrack mirrors the image in its repetition, it is clear that the musical landscape is integral to the piece by way of motion, action and continuity.

The score for Berlin Horse, created by the musician Brian Eno, could be argued to be as important as the image, rather than being a secondary undertone. Le Grice described the conceptual approach to abstraction in film as an attempt to “establish an analogy with music” and here it is achieved by finding parallels between colour and musical composition. He also defined Berlin Horse as being within the artistic practice of “chromatic music”.

The lunging and the running of the horses in their landscape seems to correspond with and dance upon the notes of the sound structure, the rhythm as parallel, the image determined by the cyclical track, and vice versa. This waltz with the senses is consistently experienced by the viewer, involving one’s thought processes through the film’s playful and provocative immediacy. That control and movement between the relationship of the film to the film audience, whether the intention is to abstract the conceptual idea or perceive the poetic thought, is important in discussion of the film as an art piece.

Interestingly, Le Grices cites influences from improvisational jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie and expresses interests in “the blend between music and recorded sound” and the structure of the sound, for example, he compares the music in another of his 1970 works Reign of the Vampire to Brian Eno’s music in Berlin Horse. Both films are concerned with looping soundscape structures.

Le Grice had experience as a painter before his transition into filmmaking, and found inspiration in painters such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His previous artistic practices are evident in Berlin Horse in his understanding of the way every element fits together, the flow of colour and the choreographed motions to the music, each part is vital to the finished result. In painting, the process is as important as the product; every brush stroke is visible and acknowledged. This is very much a similar truth in avant-garde filmmaking, the process that determines the outcome is apparent and perceptible to the eye. Berlin Horse as a great example of this, is all about the method, what can be done with film and how it aims to transcend previous limitations within the medium.

 The pathos and beauty of the visual must be mentioned, the colour changes in their frantic fervour make a lasting impression. The fascination of relation of ‘real time’ to that of ‘time perception’ and also, with the juxtapositon of the two film sequences together becoming a poetic conceptual idea captured with sensory vibrance and cyclical movement, the work is immensely engaging. With Berlin Horse Le Grice created a piece that still resonates with exuberance and audacity today and along with his other works, the film upholds an influential place in the history of avant-garde and experimental cinema.