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