Tuesday, June 12, 2012

'My Usual Self is a Very Unusual Self': Love, Loss and Longing in British Film Part IV

With this audiovisual meditation I am returning to a subject close to my heart, the British New Wave. This famous cycle of films brings to the fore many of the issues I am seeking to explore through this series of essays. Films like Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961), the 'subject' of this video essay, and others in the same series, can perhaps be best understood in terms of ideas like love, loss and longing.  In part this is evident in the impulses that led someone like Richardson to make films like this one; a love of cinema, desire for difference, a longing to make a difference, to add a significant landmark to the rapidly-changing landscape of European cinema. Further, these impulses were also evident in the responses of British film critics at the time. Movie, for example,  first published in 1962, loved 'other' cinemas so much that it caused them to view the British New Wave with unbridled scorn.  As Victor Perkins writes in the journal's opening attack on British cinema:

The request is not for a 'correct' approach to the necessary subjects. It is for a cinema which has style, imagination, personality and, because of these, meaning.
V. F Perkins, 'The British Cinema', Movie, No. 1 (June 1962), pp. 2-7, p. 2

Sight and Sound, the other key journal involved in these debates, was longing for British films to be able to take their place alongside other positive developments in European cinema like the nouvelle vague. Such was their desire for this that they initially championed films like A Taste of Honey before ultimately realising that the cycle had run its course. As Penelope Houston, the journal's editor wearily concludes:

[Compared to a cinema] headed by Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Demy, Rivette etc., we are fielding a second eleven and that is all there is to it.
Sight and Sound, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 1962), p. 5

But ideas of love, loss and longing are not the sole preserve of embittered and battle-weary critics and this what makes films like A Taste of Honey so interesting. As I have already begun to explore with my previous video essays,  these ideas can be seen to be at the heart of key areas of  postwar British cinema. The film's central character Jo, played so wonderfully by Rita Tushingham, is the embodiment of these ideas and the film charts her success, or otherwise, in coming to understand how ideas of love, loss and longing relate to her. This helps to explain part of my reasons for making this latest video essay, as I seek to demonstrate that Jo is not where she wants to be and is forced by the day-to-dayness of her life to imagine that she is in fact somewhere else. In this way, I have used two later films starring Rita Tushingham, Richard Lester's The Knack ... And How to Get It (1965) and Desmond Davis's Smashing Time (1967), to develop a new 'reading' of A Taste of Honey.

However, this only explains part of the impulse for creating this video essay. My other concern here was to note the stylistic and thematic trajectory that British films followed during this period. Inevitably, the sights and sounds of the British New Wave  came to be seen repetitive and overused and the tone and tenor of British films changed as audience tastes and society itself changed. As Jeffrey Richards writes:

Sober realism and earnest social comment gave way to fantasy, extravaganza and escapism; black-and-white photography and Northern locations to colour and the lure of the metropolis; Puritanical self-discipline to hedonistic self-indulgence; plain truthful settings to flamboyant, unrealistic decorativeness.
Jeffrey Richards, 'The Revolt of the Young', Best of British (eds.) Antony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards (Blackwell, 1983), p. 159

As Jo sits and dreams at her desk, the colour sequence from Smashing Time has been inserted to not only further develop my 'reading' of A Taste of Honey but to also extend this 'reading' outwards from the film to consider the changing face of British cinema in the 1960s.

For example, the feature of recurring faces across the history of this period and their relationship with geographical shifts in industrial activity is another interesting area for exploration. As Alexander Walker notes:

The British cinema had been moving geographically ever closer to London since the 'social realism' of the early 1960shad obligatorily located nearly every major film hundreds of miles north of the metropolis. It appeared that when Julie Christie had boarded the train south at the end of Billy Liar she had brought the British cinema along with her in the baggage van. A capital city is always a magnet; but it is extraordinary how many of the 'social realist' movie characters do an about-turn and reappear, often played by the same actors and actresses, in films that are more or less built on the dream (sometimes the nightmare) life of the metropolis. Thus Julie Christie, the liberated shop-girl of Billy Liar, turns up as 'Darling', the good-time girl; Rita Tushingham moves out of grimy tenement reality in A Taste of Honey and into the bleached-out limbo-land of The Knack.
Alexander Walker, Hollywood England (Harrap, 1974), pp. 289-290   
These are early days and these are early thoughts...

For Further Reading
John Hill, Sex, Class and Realism (BFI Publishing, 1986)
Film Moments (eds.) Tom Brown and James Walters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Robert Murphy, Sixties British Cinema (BFI Publishing, 1992)
BF Taylor, The British New Wave (Manchester University Press, 2006)
Alexander Walker, Hollywood England (Harrap, 1974), pp. 289-290  

Friday, May 4, 2012

Re-composing Powell and Pressburger: Love, Loss and Longing in British Film Part III

For the next addition to my series of audiovisual meditations on love, loss and longing in British film, I have taken two so-called 'composed' Powell and Pressburger films, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and re-composed them. In this way, I'm using one film to read another or, indeed, each film to read the other.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

'I'm Just Confused by Candles and Prayers': Love, Loss and Longing in British Film Part II

For the next in my series of meditations on love, loss and longing in British film, I thought I would return to some earlier thoughts about Two a Penny and Privilege, two films both released in 1967.  I have always been taken with the thought of placing these two films alongside each other and seeing whether or not this produces anything interesting in relation to issues that they may be addressing or, and perhaps more importantly, how these two views of a similar theme diverge.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Love, Loss and Longing in British Film: A Series of Meditations


Here is the first in a new series of visual meditations on love, loss and longing in British film. When thinking about where to start, I was taken by the following statement from Robert Murphy's Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-49. Writing on British melodrama and the position of women in British film from this period, Murphy makes the following observation:
With its dimly-lit interiors, its hysterical heroine, its threateningly expressive shadows, its theme of doomed love, its creation of a hostile and repressive world, it is difficult to understand how [Brief Encounter] fits into an aesthetic of realism at all [...] (p. 111) 
The feeling of 'What if ...' hangs heavy over Brief Encounter, so heavy in fact that it doesn't take much to start speculating about an alternate version of the film, one in which Laura succumbs to the violence of the passion she is trying so very hard to repress. Following this train of thought leads you nicely 'behind' the film, further into the expressive shadows noted by Murphy or, indeed, deeper into the darkness that surrounds the portrayal of the film's central performance. Once here, we might be moving closer to Manny Farber's sense of film performance:
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. (p. 155)
Works Cited
Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, Expanded Edition (New York, Da Capo Press, 1998)
Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-49 (London, Routledge, 1989)

Friday, March 16, 2012

1970s British Cinema and Word Clouds: Fragments 1,2

Traditional histories of 1970s British cinema tend to offer linear accounts of industrial fragmentation and economic difficulties. Alternative and avant-garde practices are described as running counter to and separate from the dreary commercialism of a mainstream cinema seeking to survive, while being dominated by external and more popular product from elsewhere. Generating a word cloud from these accounts would result in the following: ‘drab’, ‘dismal’, ‘dull’, ‘defensive’, ‘drained’, ‘desperate’, ‘dross’, ‘disappointing’ and ‘difference’ (Walker 1985). Later accounts would allow words like ‘transition’, ‘marginal’, ‘independent’, ‘quality’, ‘complexity’, and ‘exploitation’ to be added the same cloud (Higson 1994). Moving on, we find further words like ‘shlock’, ‘dross’, and ‘dissatisfaction’ appearing (Sargeant 2005). A recent upsurge in critical interest has sought to place a greater emphasis on the ideas of achievement and diversity. Here, the words ‘fragmentation and transformation’ are also included (Newland et al 2010). Ultimately, however, we are simply left to rely upon a series of words to account for one of the most visually arresting and diverse periods of in the history of British filmmaking.
         As an alternative, we might view this period not as a history of words but as a history of moments, some valuable, others not necessarily so, but all equally significant to our understanding of this period. The fragments of this history can then be transformed, like the many separate particles found in a kaleidoscope, given new shape and significance and seen in a new critical light by a shift in viewpoint. In this way, for example, the wind, weather and water of Chris Welsby Stream Line (1976); the power drills and pathology of Pete Walker Frightmare (1974); the paganism and pyrotechnics of The Wicker Man; even the puerile pantings of Robin Askwith in the Confessions series, to identify just a few moments from this period, all coalesce to form a new vision of a cinematic landscape and hence a new understanding of 1970s British cinema. A view of this kind of would be contrary to accepted visions of an isolated cinema lacking in continuity (Higson, 1994: 216-7).
       To make this movement from words to moments I am guided by the recent reassertion of a long-standing conviction that film can sensibly be understood ‘as a medium made of moments’. The organisation of events and experiences in this way is, as (Brown and Walters 2011: xi) suggest, ‘a means of understanding and shaping much wider culture’ but, ‘for film, the moment has a special resonance’. Furthermore:
An understanding of film can be profoundly shaped by an understanding of the moment and, furthermore, the extent to which a critic may use their understanding of film as a moment-by-moment medium to structure their understanding of the ways that film can challenge, inspire and move us to thought. (Brown and Walters 2011: 4)