GAZWRX: The Films of Jeff Keen Blu-ray review

The most unusual Blu-ray release we've ever seen. But that's no bad thing...

When British cinema’s enfant terrible Ken Russell claims that a filmmaker’s work ‘went right over my head and seemed a little terrifying, but I’m all for it’, it’s understandable that you might be worried about what you’re getting yourself in for. Suffice to say, GAZWRX: The Films of Jeff Keen is unlike any Blu-ray release this writer has seen before. But that’s one of the reasons I treasure the BFI so highly, it’s ability to constantly surprise and challenge viewers with releases that would simply be unlikely to find a release anywhere else.

Born in 1923, Brighton-based artist Jeff Keen started making films when he was 37 for his local art school film society. Over the following 40 years he has produced a cannon of unique and imaginative short films that draw on all aspects of popular culture. It’s an incredibly esoteric body of work that takes its influences from his own experiences during World War II, as well as comic books, cowboy films, punk, men’s magazines, 50s sci-fi movies and more, often set to the kind of unsettling and visceral soundtracks that wouldn’t seem out of place in a David Lynch film.

Sex and violence
As weird and alienating as Keen’s films might seem at first, there is a playfulness to his experimentation with form and the very medium of film that quickly draws the viewer in and allows them access to the worlds of sex and violence they explore. And there is a lot here to get to grips with, courtesy of three discs packed full of Keen’s work.

The first disc (the sole Blu-ray platter in the set) brings together 27 of his Super 8mm and Super 16mm films, grouped into five categories: Early 16mm Films (1967-1976), Dr G’s Home Movies (1972-1979), Family Star (early ‘70s – early ‘80s), Self Portrait (1979-2000) and Artwar Super 8 (1990-1995). Naturally, for an experimental filmmaker who makes the medium itself as important as the visuals he is recording, the rough and ready, lo-fi aesthetics of Keen’s work is as important as any other part of it. As such, it’s impossible to judge the AV qualities of this Blu-ray disc by the standards we usually apply. Colours are washed out, grain runs rampant and the source material is plagued by all manner of marks and scratches. But that’s exactly what the artist was aiming for, and the disc’s AVC 1.33:1 encode does a magnificent job of capturing every technical imperfection and pebble-sized piece of grain inherent in the image. Giving the nature of the source material, it would be difficult to ask for anything more. Likewise, the Linear PCM dual-mono audio is unlikely to win any awards or give your AVR a real test, but it is as perfect a representation of the original soundtracks as we can imagine hearing.

Standard definition
The second and third discs in the set are both standard DVDs with perfectly acceptable (if understandably softer and less precise) MPEG-2 visuals and Dolby Digital dual-mono soundmixes. Disc Two houses ten of Keen’s Standard 8mm Films, breaking them into three separate galleries – Early 8mm Films (1960-1969), Family Star Continued (1968-1969) and Self Protrait Continued (1980s). This standard-definition platter also serves up the first extra features in the set in the form of Art Flies Free and Jeff Keen Interview. The former is a short 3min portrait of Jeff Keen containing some clips from his early experimental films, while the fairly self-explanatory 25min interview gives the filmmaker/artist the chance to discuss his life, art and thoughts on cinema.

The third disc focuses on Keen’s Video Works, with the ten films split between two categories – Rayday Videos (1990-2002) and Artwar Videos (1990-1995). As with the previous disc, content is presented with MPEG-2 transfers and Dolby Digital dual-mono soundtracks that do a fine job of replicating the artist’s original intentions on your home theatre setup. The disc also offers up another bonus feature in the form of the 1983 documentary Jeff Keen Films, where he gets another chance to discuss his work, its influences and his thoughts on avent-garde cinema.

Rounding out this impressive boxset is a 96-page booklet offering up short synopsis of Keen’s films, some sketches by the filmmaker, a filmography for his experimental shorts and a collection of essays. The latter do an excellent job of exploring the man and his films in considerable depth and detail, and are well-worth reading if you find yourself captivated by his work.

BFI Video, Region B Blu-ray/Region 2 DVD, £35, On sale now