Thursday, September 8, 2011

BS Johnson - Fat Man on the Beach

Hi Everyone It has been a while since I have posted so I thought I try and pick up some post-holiday blogging momentum by posting this great TV programme from 1973 starring the late, great BS Johnson. I am only posting Part One but the other parts can easily be found on YouTube. Enjoy ...

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Man in the Denim Jacket

In an alternative version of British cinema history, the year 1976 might have been notable for John Smith making Confessions of a Driving Instructor and not The Girl Chewing Gum.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

LUXONLINE - Chris Welsby: The Man and his Work

This afternoon I am posting a link to the great LUXONLINE site dedicated, as the site states, to 'exploring British-based artists' film and video in depth'. In particular, I want to draw your attention to the work of the great Chris Welsby. I have always been very taken with Welsby's films, 1976's Stream Line, in particular, and always look to include them in any module on British cinema I am delivering.  For this part of the course I always programme Stream Line to be screened with Norman Cohen's Confessions of a Driving Instructor, released the same year.

From a personal perspective, I find Welsby's films compelling for many, many reasons - reasons that I am still trying to find the words to explain. That might be something for the future. For the moment I am content to let the man speak for himself:

For further information, here is the link to Welsby's homepage.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rachel Roberts and This Sporting Life: Fragments #1 and #2

During an interview with Films and Filming, Lindsay Anderson describes the process of making his 1963 film This Sporting Life. He begins by outlining what he thinks the film is not about. It is not a film about sport, he states. Nor is it ‘to be categorised as a ‘North Country working-class story’. In fact, as he continues:
I suppose that the film is primarily a study of temperament. It is a film about a man. A man of extraordinary power and aggressiveness, both temperamental and physical, but at the same time with a great innate sensitiveness and a need for love of which he is at first hardly aware.
Further, as Anderson continues:
Throughout This Sporting Life we were very aware that we were not making a film about anything representative: we were making a film about something unique. We were not making a film about a ‘worker’, but about an extraordinary (and therefore more deeply significant) man [...] [i]

Richard Harris’s performance of Frank Machin, Anderson’s extraordinary man, has a brutal noise about it, one made even louder and louder by the ‘gruelling’ and ‘claustrophobic’ spaces of the film. [ii] Indeed, the roaring gestures which characterise this performance, the shoves and the shrugs, the punches and the pulling, all work to ensure that Harris’s performance reaches and then nearly exceeds the upper limits of their physical amplitude, threatening, like the man himself, to destroy everything that aims to contain them.
Yet we need to remember here that these gestures would lose their volume and sink into the silence of an empty film were it not for the fact that these same spaces were also occupied by someone equal to this noise; Rachel Roberts as Margaret, the target (which is a far more appropriate word here than the usual object) of Frank’s affections. As Anderson explains:
This is a woman whose feelings, though fierce, are almost continually suppressed: the relationship deepens without self-explanation, without conventional avowals, through incessant conflict, with all the feelings between or under the lines. It called for an actress of exceptional ‘interior’ quality, with a real wildness within, as well as the capacity for an iron restraint. [iii]
Anderson is right. Roberts’s presence in this film does warrant this kind of praise. However, subsequent accounts of this film, tend not to fully explore Roberts’s contribution or capacity. Geoffrey MacNab, for example, notes what he calls a ‘rawness and vulnerability’[iv] but goes no further other than to suggest that her character is also ‘hardbitten and recalcitrant’.[v] Roberts fares no better with Robert Murphy when the best he can suggest is that her character is a ‘brooding, witchlike presence’ within the film. [vi]  Leonard Quart is more descriptive but equally less expansive when he notes that Margaret is ‘perceptive, sour, emotionally and sexually frozen’.[vii]
Perhaps we are falling victim here to the tendency towards summary, a reductive process as described by V. F. Perkins, one where all that is distinctive and interesting about the visual – whatever and all that that might mean – is reduced to simply a verbal statement.[viii] The limiting tendency of this approach – especially when applied to the  matter at hand, Roberts’s presence in This Sporting Life -   is tellingly evident when Manny Farber laments the fact that the criticism of acting ‘has always been quick to cover a performance with a blanket word.’[ix] In addition, as Robert Kolker outlines, a summative approach of this kind is indicative of a further problem. As he continues:
When critical attention is given to character in the particular film, the tendency is to fall into the trap of psychological realism [...] and begin discussing the character as if he or she had an existence rather than a function within the total narrative structure. Between these extremes fall the adjectives: such and such a player gave an ‘edgy’ or ‘nervous’ performance, was ‘brilliant’, was ‘absorbed’ in the role. And, that final refuge of unexamined assumptions, was ‘believable.’[x]

In his account, Stanley Kauffman does come closer to the complexity that I feel is in existence here when he writes:
From the start [Rachel Roberts] strikes notes of fierce resignation: glad she is through with the turmoil of love and sex, fearful of the young man, savagely defensive of her isolation. We see the man progressively affecting her, but this is no waking Sleeping Princess; it is sex that is being stirred, little else, and she doesn’t like it.[xi] 
Yet, when I watch the same film and the same performance I see the same things as the others I have described. However, I feel that I see much more. In fact, I believe that watching Roberts in this film allows me to come to understand how, to quote Andrew Klevan paraphrasing Stanley Cavell, ‘our disposition towards a narrative is not necessarily tied to our identification with character – however elegantly refined – but lies equally with appreciating the performer’s capacities for revealing and withholding aspects of the character’s sensibility.’ [xii] In keeping with Klevan’s project, and extending it beyond the range of his original intentions, I feel that I want to argue that Rachel Roberts ‘inhabits an appropriate place.’[xiii] But what does this mean?
          One possibility is to suggest that the credibility of (her) performance and hence the appropriateness of her place ‘is created out of coherence and harmony with the film’s environment – including the camera and other elements ‘outside’ the visible fictional world’.[xiv] Indeed, as Jean-Luc Godard has suggested elsewhere: ‘If destiny and death are the cinema’s pet themes, then there must be a definition of the human condition within the carefully controlled presentation which is mise en scène.’[xv] As Godard suggests:
Jealousy, contempt, all the doughty deeds of the heart must keep a watchful eye on sudden and nonchalant or slow and passionate gestures. The cinema makes reality specific. It would be useless for it to try to make more of the instant than the instant itself contains.[xvi]
Furthermore, as Klevan continues:
Attending to the moment-by-moment movement of performers [...] enhances our understanding of of film characterisation. It encourages us to attend to a character’s physical and aural detail and reminds us, because we are prone to forget in our literary moods, of their ontological particularity in the medium of film. A living human being embodies a film character.[xvii]
All of which echoes V.F. Perkins’s claim for an understanding of what he calls the ‘invisible effect’. Perkins is discussing the way in which Hitchcock’s Marnie offers an example of how action can be both ‘invisible’ and used to precise effect. Though he is also making claims for the recognition of Hitchcock’s contribution to the sequence he is describing it is the praise he reserves for Marnie’s movement that makes his argument so pertinent. As he explains:
The creation of significant gesture here serves to show what I mean by the ‘invisible’ effect. The spectator can understand the action of the sequence without becoming aware of the device as relevant comment. It does not demand interpretation. But if he does examine the device and relate it to his knowledge of the heroine the significance of the moment is enhanced.[xviii]
And I read Perkins’s use of significance here as meaning the way in which attention to Marnie’s movement allows the action evident on the screen to be imbued with something more than just the simple acknowledgement of motion. Rather than simply saying, ‘Look, she is moving her head.’ Or, ‘Look, she is moving her head again.’ Perkins is asking to us to ask, ‘What does it mean for Marnie to move her head at this particular moment in the film? Or, ‘There, Marnie moved her head again. I wonder what is interesting about about the repetition of the action?’ Perhaps,  Stanley Cavell is useful here for his thoughts on how the significance of a moment might be enhanced by the presence of a performer. As he writes:
One recalls the lists of stars of every magnitude who have provided the movie camera with human subjects – individuals capable of filling its need for individualities, whose individualities in turn, whose inflections of demeanor and disposition were given full play in its projection.[xix]
Indeed, this is exactly the sense that Manny Farber tries to convey when he writes that
The meat of any movie performance is in the suggestive material that circles the edges of a role: quirks of physiognomy, private thoughts of the actor about himself, misalliances where the body isn’t delineating the role, but is running on a tangent to it.[xx]

[i] Lindsay Anderson, ‘Sport, Life and Art’, Films and Filming (February 1963), pp. 16-17.
[ii] Anderson, pp. 16- 17.
[iii] Anderson, p. 17.
[iv] Geoffrey MacNab, Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema (London, Cassell, 2000), p. 191.
[v] MacNab, p. 206.
[vi] Robert Murphy, Sixties British Cinema (London, BFI Publishing, 1992), p. 28
[vii] Leonard Quart, ‘This Sporting Life’, Cineaste, March 1997, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p60, p. 1
[viii] V. F. Perkins, Film as Film (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972), p. 79.
[ix] Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, Expanded Edition (New York, Da Capo Press, 1998), p. 154.
[x] Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 15.
[xi] Stanley Kauffman, A World on Film (New York, Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 1966), p. 211.
[xii] Andrew Klevan, Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation (London, Wallflower Press, 2005), p. 9.
[xiii] Klevan, p 3.
[xiv] Klevan, p. 5.
[xv] Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, Translated and Edited by Tom Milne, (New York, Da Capo Press, 1972), p. 21.
[xvi] Godard, p. 21.
[xvii] Klevan, p. 7.
[xviii] Perkins, p. 77.
[xix] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 35.
[xx] Farber, p. 155.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fragment #13: 1967 - Cliff Richard versus Paul Jones

James F. Collier's 1967 film Two a Penny stars Cliff Richard as Jamie, a troubled soul whose experience of his increasingly 'dangerous' world causes him to question the meaning of his own existence. Steven Shorter, the character played by Paul Jones in Privilege, directed by Peter Watkins and released the same year, is another troubled soul living in an equally 'dangerous' but very different world and is someone else finally forced to question the meaning of his own existence. In terms of intellectual intention and directorial desire, the two films are obviously worlds, poles and systems apart but a closer, more detailed viewing of each allows the case to be made for them to be viewed as deliciously inverted versions of each other - two sides of the same cinematic coin. That this may be true is in no small part due to the various ways in which both films present the performance of each crisis as it unfolds, as well as the more obvious questions that both Two a Penny and Privilege raise in relation to ideas (and fears) of organised religion, the cult of celebrity and the various forms of manipulation that inform, design and decide both of these things.

Cool It Carol! (Pete Walker, 1970)

Cool it Carol! contrasts two images of London belonging to two different generic representations – the ‘Swinging’ London of 1960s British cinema (‘This is what I thought it would be like,’ says Carol as they nearly get run over by a London bus) and the vice-ridden London of sexploitation. Carol and Joe (Robin Askwith) travel to London in search of the former and, instead, find the latter.
Leon Hunt, British Low Culture: From Safari Suits to Sexploitation (London, Routledge, 1998), p. 101.

[Cool it Carol!] develops an ambiguous and unsettling moral vision. Aptly described by David McGillivray as ‘a glossy and entertaining morality tale’ and a ‘stylish and attractively witty film of our times,’ the film simultaneously exploits and exposes the commodification of sexuality.
Jim Leach, British Film (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 134.

The final section of Cool it Carol! doesn’t quite know where to go, dissolving in a sea of jokey Keeler/Profumo references and retreating from its extraordinary middle section. […] This lack of a punitive or morally educative ending annoyed the The Daily Mirror’s Dick Richards: ‘Mr Walker, do you really believe that this ‘happy’ ending pays off for all the nudity, sex and trashy innuendo in your film? Who are you trying to kid?’ (19 November 1970).
Leon Hunt, p. 103

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On Boots, Suits and Being Bored: Fragments 4 and 5

Fragment 4
As Bronco Bullfrog unfolds Del meets Irene and they begin to go out together. There is a wonderful sequence where Del comes to Irene's block of flats on his motorbike to take her out for the evening. The early steps of this sequence are beautifully lit in a natural way and the frames are filled with sunlight. Del and Irene walk out of the shadows and into this light. Whilst I can make no claims for this very simple movement from darkness to light to be suggesting that something life-changing is about to happen but I do read it in terms of hope and optimism. If nothing else, this simple movement is at least suggestive of something positive. (There is also a connection between this movement and the white coat Irene is wearing, a garment that also hints at something possibly hopeful or hopefully possible. The coat is too plain to be glamorous and in any case glamorous would not be appropriate here. Nevertheless, its angled front pocket, large buttons and v-neck front mark the garment as something more than simply functional. It is a date after all).
Fragment 5
'Where we going?' Irene asks. 'Up the West End', Del replies. 'That your bike?' 'Yeah'. The dialogue here is simple but beautifully balanced, expressing the awkwardness of a first date capably within the limits of the actors' abilities whilst also sounding deliberately underwhelmed. The idea of being underwhelmed is significant here because it plays its part in the remarkable way in which the whole film manages to sustain and somehow celebrate this idea across its entire length. The lives of these characters are extremely underwhelming and as a consequence the film itself can appear to be similar. Yet, a form of cinema that celebrates the notmuchness of life is applauded elsewhere so why shouldn't this film be similarly lauded for exploring the boring and the unexciting. For most of us the world turns just too slowly and tightly and allows only simple glimpses of situations and circumstances instead of providing extended views of our own lives. Bronco Bullfrog is a simple glimpse in a similar way.