John Ellis on Peter Wollen

Curator's Note

On 17 October 1984, UK Channel 4’s monthly cinema programme Visions showed this ten minute visual essay by Peter Wollen. His brief was to present a personal view of the month’s film releases, made up of a montage of extracts. As one of the two producers of the Visions series, I was exploiting the fact that distributors at that time allowed us to take pretty much what we wanted as extracts. Peter’s was the first in a series of nine Clips made by directors and critics including Neil Jordan, Sally Potter, Chris Petit and Mick Eaton.

Peter contributed this reflection on time and the nature of art, supplementing the extracts with a spare narration in his own voice. He uses a single sequence from Hitchcock’s Rope as the backbone of the montage, cutting back to it in the artificial/real time of the sequence whenever Brandon Shaw discussed the nature of art. This strict adherence to the duration of the single shot dictates the length of each of the selected extracts from the month’s other releases which range from Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (given a Proppian narrative analysis) to Terence Davis’s gruelling autobiographical trilogy. Each film receives an astute caption review in Wollen’s words, arguing for the merits of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (a wonderfully fluid three minute sequence) and offering a persuasive political analysis of Satyajit Ray’s The Home and the World.

The essay ends with a demonstration of Hitchcock’s hidden cut (there was no need back in the pre-digital 1984 to explain the durational limits of shooting in 35mm). It is bookended with sardonic clips of a movie audience watching mayhem (Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise) and a suitable coda from Andrei Rublev.

Now that the visual essay is an established genre, the ambition of Peter’s first Clips is clearer than perhaps it was at the time. He is identifying various dimensions of time (the liveness of broadcasting, the nine minutes of Rope, the month of these new releases, the contemporaneous nature of his comments, the long years of Davis’s youth in an environment hostile to his gayness, the centuries of tradition overturned in The Home and the World) and demonstrating how cinema is able to inflate, conflate, elide and even repeat these times at will. That, he seems to tell us, is the real art of cinema.

Visions was Channel 4’s cinema programme, producing 32 editions between November 1982 and November 1985. For more details see      

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