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Jeff Keen Eulogy By His Daughter Stella Keen

Jeff Keen in Marvo Movie film still

As much as the underground film and art worlds mourned the passing of iconic British avant-garde media artist Jeff Keen back on June 21, his passing was, of course, felt more deeply by his surviving family members. At Keen’s funeral, his daughter Stella Keen — aka Stella Starr — delivered an incredibly moving and inspirational eulogy for father, which is reprinted in full below. The Underground Film Journal is honored that Stella has granted us permission to publish it:

They say a person’s life should be measured by their deeds not words.

My dad’s life can be measured by both — and what words! What actions! An amazing legacy of life’s work by a wonderful man who was an original, a genius — true to himself and who just got on with it.

He worked every day and always said an artist shouldn’t have to explain what he does — the work should speak for itself. It’s not about money or the prestige! It’s not about who you know, what’s on your CV, or even notches on the bedpost or the kind of décor you have in your home! It’s about truth, beauty, love and kindness.

To create -– as you live your life — with passion and joy and hopefully inspire others. It’s fabulous — amazing — to think that my dad’s work will continue to inspire people for many generations to come.

My greatest tragedy is that I wasn’t able to show any grandchildren to my dad, but there will be continuity to the Keen line somehow and, certainly, I am making sure his legacy continues to be protected and promoted long after I’m gone. Also his influence continues to filter through my own work which will hopefully go from strength to strength and inspire others as well.

There have been and will continue to be many things said about my dad as an artist, but I just wanted to talk a bit about him as the father I knew.

A couple of days before he died he started singing the fabulous theme tune to Douglas Sirk’s amazing film Written on the Wind. We then got into a discussion about how great Sirk’s films were and how the titles of them are like Pulp Fiction titles and that these have a unique poetry of their own. We also said what a great Superman Rock Hudson would have made… and so it went on from there.

This is just an example of the way we could talk about anything and everything and that’s what I’m already missing the most. Because he wasn’t just my dad, he was also my teacher, my anchor, my port in a storm — padre and compadre. We worked together so closely for all my life and understood each other so well — very similar I guess — so that when he died it felt like half of me had been ripped out. It’s ridiculous but I can only equate it to how Ernie Wise must have felt when Eric Morecambe died!

2 brief quotes from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake — which is the last book my dad gave me:

Energy Is Eternal Delight.

And then this, which sums up beautifully my dad’s simple life pattern!:

Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.

As well as the amazing education he gave me in all the Classics — which included not only the arts but science, history and philosophy — I also learnt the other important things in life. Strong moral values and good manners, unconditional love, kindness and belief in yourself and your abilities. His teaching involved pointing me in the right direction and making sure a wide range of information was available to me so I could discover and understand things for myself. Any questions I had about anything he could answer — he had an amazing encyclopaedic mind.

He enjoyed with me so many things. Gardening and the beauty of nature and animals. Taught me to recognise different plants, birds and their songs. We also enjoyed picnics, cake and jelly and ice cream! And he always got a kick out of taking me to things like the Fair to practice rifle range shooting and see the bikes ride the Wall of Death. Also muddy stock car races and wrestling matches! Comedy shows and movies as well as opera and theatre.

He taught me the joyful release of tension to be had from creative swearing and the importance of having a sense of humour at all times! To be true to yourself and make your mark in this life. Most importantly of all he showed me that you can create magic from nothing. On screen and behind the camera he was a magician, a showman — an anarchic playful catalyst for amazing things to happen. Outside that world, he was a sweet natured gentle man — a mild mannered English watercolourist — with a wonderful sense of humour and stoicism that got him through the worst parts of his illness.

He wasn’t always very demonstrative but we always knew how much he loved us. When he met my mother he always gave her a red rose. When I was born he always left a red rose on my pillow. And so we leave red roses for him now.

He loved his friends too and was deeply saddened at friend’s deaths. He wasn’t perfect by any means. He was stubborn as a mule, work obsessed and rubbish at staying in touch with people — mainly due to incredible shyness and modesty as well as his strict work regime! But he often talked about friends with affection.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the tributes that flew in from friends and people he’d only met briefly or who had never met him but been inspired by him. It’s wonderful to know that he touched so many lives. We’ve printed some of them in the booklet I put together there. I only need to look at all the people here today and all those who couldn’t make it but wanted to be here, to know how much people thought of him. It’s those of you who didn’t know him that I feel saddest for — you really missed out! As Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles at the end of Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man!”

It’s the 20th anniversary of one of his best friend’s deaths -– the marvellous Australian poet Jim ‘Jas’ H Duke who also starred in the early films. I just wanted to read a bit that Jim wrote about us:

I first met Jeff Jackie and Stella when we were all living in St. Michaels Place — a crumbling Brighton slum. Jeff said, “We’re making a movie tomorrow, would you like to be in it?” In no time I was dressed in yellow tights and wrapped in purple cape and teeshirt with ‘Marzman’ on the front and ‘I am Brian Donlevy’ on the back, striking attitudes in the middle of the Brighton municipal garbage dump — a Martian landscape littered with the remains of lost civilisations and thus very suitable for titanic epic movies.

Me and the Family Keen found loads in common: like Z grade Hollywood and comic books down the ages, Sam T. Coleridge, the Romantic Movements and the compulsion to act the goat in public. Jeff at the time was fond of quoting Edgar Allen Poe’s statements as to the superiority of briefness over length and that if you couldn’t do it in one go it wasn’t worth doing in the first place. To which you could add Gandhi’s thoughts that all the best things are done at home. Jeff is quiet and undemonstrative, with a restricted domicile and radius of action. All his space is inner space, all his trips internal.

From 1968 to 1972 I saw the Family Keen in action almost every day. Calm Jeff in his camouflage jacket cradling his camera, Jackie made up like a sexy lioness and distillation of every spirit drop of movie queendom and Stella — all grave natural regal dignity, a Chinese princess with a love comic. All in front of walls covered with movie stars, movie screens, discarded movies, discarded movie costumes — a mighty atom of a world in themselves — proof positive of the victory of art over economics and the uncrushability of human creativity.

Plus, a couple of lines from a poem that dad sent Jim:

How well our footprints echo thru yr last retreat
Your gods and mine now appear as if by magic.

The Surrealist Andre Breton said:

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.

The Pagans and Celts believed that Death wasn’t a finite thing at all but simply a new journey we all take — a cyclical flow that is part of life and Nature — a return to the earth. Our bodies are incredible — beautifully designed machines which have a certain life span. The soul however — the spirit of us that drives this machine and makes us the unique individuals we are — is something else that seems to continue on in a different form after the body has stopped working.

There are many things in life we still don’t understand and I love that there are still great mysteries! That’s how it should be. Yes they’ve discovered the ‘God’ particle and will continue to find out much more — which is marvellous — but equally there will always be the Great Unknown.

Having experienced what I felt at the time of his passing and certain signs since then, I am as sure as I’ll ever be of anything of this continuity. On that most terrible day of my life, I felt not only the worst pain I’ve ever felt but an extraordinary sense of joy for him — an inexplicable surprising feeling that completely overwhelmed me.

Since then I have felt what I can only describe in a corny way as being wrapped in a warm blanket of love and aware of his presence in many ways — you may scoff at such stuff but it’s very strong, very real. It’s almost like he’s going to keep appearing in my life like Obi Wan Kenobi saying “Use the Force, Stella!”

I very definitely felt his spirit fly free that day and he never let go of my hand, even after death. I take great comfort in knowing his spirit flies over the fields and woods — much in the same way as he used to cycle all around Wiltshire in his youth.

I’m wearing green today as it’s one of my dad’s favourite colours and also traditionally the colour of renewal, Nature and rebirth. My dad really wanted a Viking funeral — to be sent off on a burning boat — so we picked the next best thing. We are in this beautiful Anglo Saxon church by an old hill fort overlooking wonderful Sussex countryside. My dad enjoyed many country walks and looking at old churches like this. I also have very fond memories of him reading to me great poems like this one by Thomas Gray — I’ll just read a brief extract now:

From Elegy in a Country Churchyard:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

He died on the Summer Solstice — the longest day, and also his mother’s birthday. His ashes will be buried according to his wishes where his parents are buried in a field by the church where he was baptised in Holt, Wiltshire and a stone will mark their graves. There will also be a memorial service at a later date in Brighton when we organise a tree planting for him.

And so we are near the end of the long voyage home.

Safe journey Soldier, Gunslinger, Superhero. When the day comes, I’ll see you in Valhalla, Dad, for jelly and ice cream!

We salute you!

–Stella Keen aka Stella Starr
Theatre of Fur Cinematic Dance Theatre Production, Vavavavoom! Cabaret & School of Burlesque, Jeff Keen Archive & Arts/Events Management
http://www.stellastarr.co.uk/
http://www.theatreoffur.co.uk/
http://www.vavavavoom.org.uk/
http://www.yourinnervamp.co.uk/
www.myspace.com/vavavavoom_burlesque
http://www.jeffkeen.org.uk/ & http://www.kinoblatz.com/