Friday, July 17, 2009

Drill, Thrills, Myths and Migrants: Pete Walker's Cool It Carol! Pt. 2

Released in 1970 Cool It Carol! was written off as just another grubby film from a particularly repellent genre. Dick Richards, for example, writing in the Daily Mirror suggested that it was ‘a depressingly sleazy film, which is as near pornography as makes no odds.’ [xi] Alexander Walker was even more succinct, declaring the film to be ‘An orgy of trash.’ [xii] It was Dilys Powell, however, writing in the Sunday Times who clearly felt the most soiled. For her, watching what she called ‘a patch of untreated effluent’ was a ‘generally repulsive experience’.[xiii]

The film tells the story of a young man bored with the smallness of his provincial life who becomes convinced that moving to London will help him become the person he really wants to be. He even invents a story about a job waiting for him in the capital but actually appears strangely reluctant to make the break. A more mature and pragmatic female friend, aware of the fact that actions will always speak louder than words, challenges him to join her on the train. This is just a simple summary of the plot. The film’s strengths, however, can be found in the complexity of themes it explores and the way in which these themes find their cinematic expression. Walker uses the streets of London as the site for his exploration of the spaces between the poles of the permissive and the repressive and between the hypocritical and the hedonistic. In this way, following Fujiwara, the streets become Walker’s very own ‘special territory’. Additionally, and this is where the film’s particular complexity can be found, Walker uses this same territory to explore further thematic oppositions that exist between social mobility and stasis, experience and immaturity, personal fantasy and harsh reality, as well as questioning one’s desire for re-imagining one’s own identity. Like this Cool It Carol! stands as (an unintentional) companion-piece to John Schlesinger’s exploration of the same oppositions in his 1963 film Billy Liar.

Walker’s film also explicitly considers the significance of sexual desire and the problems that accompany its expression or repression. That this exploration of desire and its problems is based on the relationship between a seemingly fragile masculinity and a more dominant and therefore active femininity is another way in which Cool It Carol! shares a common purpose with Billy Liar. This time, however, instead of Tom Courtenay and the wonderful Julie Christie – the stars of Schlesinger’s film – Walker’s film couples Robin Askwith with Janet Lynn. Though at first glance these pairings might appear to be poles apart, there is still sufficient interest to be found in this second couple to warrant a closer examination of not only their presence within the frames of the film but also within the history of British cinema more generally. Indeed, as Leon Hunt suggests, Askwith ‘drew together most of what was left of a domestically oriented cinema’, including sexploitation, horror, sitcom movies, Carry On films, as well as the Children’s Film Foundation and also finding time to work with Pier Paolo Pasolini and Lindsay Anderson.’ [xiv]

Much like Billy Fisher before him, Joe believes that moving to London will somehow complete him as a person. If not complete him – and perhaps this is too strong a desire to be overtly explicit in Walker’s film – it will at least represent a step in the right direction. Indeed, as the film opens and we see just how humdrum Joe’s life really is, it is fair to say that taking a step in any direction as long as it leads away from where he currently is would be a significant one. Nevertheless, Joe has settled on heading for the capital. It is clear that he perceives London to be a place of opportunity and stimulation. Again like Billy Fisher, Joe has an alleged reason to move – to hook up with a Jazz musician he ‘met’ previously called Benny Gray. According to the tale he tells, Benny – Joe’s Danny Boon - is Joe’s passport to urban pleasure.

Carol (Janet Lynn), on the other hand, really does have a reason to move. She recently won a beauty contest and was told that she might have a future in the industry. She is keen to move to London to pursue her dream. Like Julie Christie’s Liz, Carol is determined and capable and will be going anyway – it is just a case of whether or not Joe will come with her. Joe takes some persuading but unlike Billy – about whom I would argue we can never really be certain – Joe does get on the train with Carol. As they head towards London it is the fantasy of their expectations that buoys them. On arrival, however, as this sequence is about to demonstrate, the reality of the London they discover is a fragmented and frenetic one, a far cry from the seamless hedonistic fantasy they imagined. Here, then, as they try to find their bearings, this sequence becomes an introductory exploration of the specific space that exists between the thematic poles of fantasy and reality.

Carol is thrilled to finally be in the capital and this is evident in her response to the new sights and sounds. Joe, on the other hand, is not so thrilled. Faced with the reality of a situation that had only really existed as fantasy, Joe is uncomfortable, uncertain, overawed and hesitant. Unlike Billy Fisher, who managed to avoid the moment when his tall tales about a job in London were fully exposed for the nonsense that they were, Joe is now facing the prospect of being found out. Already, Carol is looking to draw upon his ‘experience’ and it perhaps only her excitement that prevents her from actually realising the truth about Joe and his relationship with London. For someone seemingly so au fait with London life Joe finds it very difficult to assert the alleged extent of his relationship. Straightaway Carol asks him about meeting Benny and manages to sidestep the issue by declaring that they can’t burst in on him.

At the hotel Joe starts to unpack. ‘What are you doing?’ asks Carol, still under the impression that Joe has been telling her the truth. Carol wants to see the sites and so the couple head straight out again. Once back on the streets the tone of the sequence shifts slightly. The images were are presented with are of fast-moving traffic. These images are neatly contrasted with Joe’s attempts to move through these new spaces. Joe manages to fall from a bus and then finds himself unable to cross a road. Once again we are witnessing another way in which the fantasy of there being a place for him here in these spaces is undermined by the reality of his inability to find his feet. For Carol, however, her orientation is made easier here by her more realistic expectations. This is what she thought it would be like, she exclaims wide-eyed and enthusiastically. As Carol attempts to share her delight the tight framing of the couple results in a wonderful contrast by placing a perfect emphasis on Joe’s uncertainty and unhappiness.

A similar contrast here is evident in the tight framing of Billy while he is on the train with Liz at the end of Billy Liar. Liz, like Carol, is bouyed and positive about the prospects is what is to come. Billy, like Joe, is not quite so thrilled. Indeed, and despite the fact that there is a clear difference in tone between the two sequences, a similar sense of disquiet and discomfort is evident on both of their faces. Whether common purpose or (unintentional) companion piece, it is the facts of the framing of expressions in these examples from both of these films that offers an opportunity for further discussons of style, intention, composition and, perhaps most importantly, achievement to continue.

[xi] Dick Richards, Daily Mirror, 19-11-1970.
[xii] Alexander Walker, Evening Standard, 19-11-1970.
[xiii] Dilys Powell, Sunday Times, 22-11-1970.
[xiv] Hunt, p. 118. Furthermore, Askwith’s presence in Cool It Carol! is also interesting for the way in which he straddles the two types of investigation called for by Bruce Babington in his introduction to British Stars and Stardom. As Babington writes:

As regards future work on British stars, two kinds of investigations are vital. On the one hand (1) an attempt to understand, in close relation to the socio-historical complexities of British society, the underlying typologies of stars that the British cinema has produced; on the other hand, (2) studies of the individuals within those genres, their differences and similarities.

British Stars and Stardom: from Alma Taylor to Sean Connery (ed.) Bruce Babington (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 20.

Work of this kind has been underway for some time. In 2003, for example, Andrew Spicer published a detailed study of the representation of masculinity in popular British cinema. Though Spicer’s book goes to great lengths to chronicle the changing face of types of masculinity, as well as scrutinising the performances of particular stars, Robin Askwith is only mentioned in a very brief discussion.
Andrew Spicer, Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema (London, I.B Taurus, 2001), p. 192.