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October 21, 2007
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British 'New Wave'
with a 16mm camera, and minimal resources, and no payment for your technicians, you cannot achieve very much - in commercial terms. You cannot make a feature film and your possibilities of experiment are severely limited. But you can use your eyes and your ears. you can give indications. you can make poetry. (Programme notes to Free Cinema 3)
The Free cinema movement in Britain is rightly described on the cover of the BFI three disc set called Free Cinema as a "highly influential but critically neglected" movement in cinema history. This article sets out to help publicise and establish a wider critical discourse around this body of films. Free Cinema itself started out as a cultural event at the National Film Theatre (NFT) in 1956. This proved to be extraordinarily popular and allowed Karel Reisz who was programme planner at the NFT at the time as well as an active film-maker to hold another five programmes which went on until March 1959. The films themselves were documentaries which were made in the spirit of the quirky at times quasi-surrealist fashion tradition of Humphrey Jennings rather than in the more seemingly "objective observer" tradition of Grierson. The full six programmes afforded enthusistic audiences to see a range of films that would have been almost impossible to see otherwise and all the screenings were a sell out. Critical and audience success are the two benchmarks by which we can judge the success of the movement.
An International Dimension
Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson were responsible for putting together the six programmes and their own films were screened in Free Cinema, Free Cinema 3: Look at Britain and Free Cinema 6: The Last Free Cinema. Importantly the other three Free Cinema programmes screened the work of Foreign Directors including Lionel Rogosin, Georges Franju and Norman McLaren in Free Cinema 2. Free Cinema 4: Polish Voices screened work by Roman Polanski, Walerian Borowcyzk and others. Free Cinema 5: French Renewal screened work by Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. When one looks at the directors who made their films in Britain as a part of this series of programmes one can see that there was a strong committment to opening up the cinema to a wide range of international mainly European influences including some from behind the Iron Curtain which must have taken some organising only a couple of years after the infamous Hungarian uprising.
Movement or Tendency?
According to Lindsay Anderson this film movement or tendency coincided with the seminal theatrical work of the period John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956). Anderson was responsible for assembling the programme of shorts and documentaries which were to be shown at the National Film Theatre. The concept of being ‘free’ cinema meant that the films were made outside of the framework of the industry and because the films were personal statements about contemporary society. Hayward (1996) suggests that tendency is a better term than a movement in so far as the Free Cinema programme was eclectic and international rather than being comprised of directors who had a common style and common ideals. There were three directors who did form the basis of a movement, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson. According to Tony Richardson the term free cinema was originally invented to describe the documentary films made by these directors during the 1950s. Later Anderson was to deny that Free Cinema could be described as a movement.
Regarding the documentaries they considered that these should be made free of all commercial pressures and based upon a humanistic and poetic approach. In espousing these sentiments their work owed more to the poetic realism of Humphrey Jennings than to the more positivist sociological inflections of John Grierson. The intellectual backdrop for this approach came from the magazine Sequence which Anderson had founded in 1946. Many articles had focused upon the conformity and apathy engendered by the documentaries of the time whilst others targeted at the feature film had criticised the lack of aesthetic experimentation.
In Sequence Anderson and Reisz concentrated upon issues of style and criticised the conformity in feature films in terms of the narrative structure which was largely based upon the Hollywoodised ‘classic narrative cinema’. They also attacked the bourgeois nature of this cinema and accused it of lacking reality because of its very weak representation of the working class. They also criticised the industrial giants Rank and ABC (part of Warner Bros) which were the only two feature film companies in distribution and exhibition at this time.
Overall I tend to come down on the side of the argument that argues it was a movement, for the notion of tendency seems to imply a much looser milieu whilst this one was relatively compact and just like Neorealism and much of the French New Wave the leading members had been working on the same critical magazine. If it wasn't bound by a tight manifesto it was more than just a bunch of people drifting along as the following quotation from Anderson taken from the Free Cienam 1 programme indicates:
Talking with Karel, Tony and Lorenza about the miserable difficulty of getting our work shown I came up with the idea (at least I think it was me) that we should form ourselves into a movement, should formulate some kind of manifesto and thereby grab the attention of the press and try to get a few days showing at the National Film Theatre. (Booklet accompanying the BFI Free Cinema DVD).
Anderson notes later that even though they got an interview on Panorama the manifesto was a ploy to get Momma Don't Allow, Oh Dreamland and Together all screened. It is clear that they were overtaken by thier success and that there was an audience out there wanting more and different content. The problem with manifestos is that they can act as poles of attraction and create their own impetus.
These films were not made together; nor with the idea of showing them together. But when they came together, we felt they had an attitude in common. Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday.
Despite Hayward's doubts there were a number of features in common between the British made films. They were all made in black and white using hand-held Bolex cameras that were only capable of 22 second shots at the maximum. They were documentaries and they largely avoided the use of didactic style voice-over commentaries.There tended to be a lack of narrative continuity and sound and editing was fairly impressionistic. There was also a conscious decision to go out of the studio and film the reality of contemporary Britain. The possibilities for this were improved as the revolutionary HPS (hypersensitive) film stock from Ilford came onto the market. Although the use of this has become associated with the French New Wave in an interview with Walter Lassally the main cinematographer of the British Free Cinema he points out that he drew the attention of the French directors to the use of the high speed Ilford film allowing for nighttime shooting. Another distinguishing feature which makes the work of these three directors a movement is the use made of Walter Lassally as the camera-person on four out of the six films which belong to this oeuvre. Because of the low funding available all were very low to low budget films.
When it came to making their own films unsurprisingly Rank was not forthcoming with finance for these trenchant critics of the British film making institutions. The British Film Institute (BFI) Experimental Film Fund and more surprisingly Ford’s of Dagenham which commissioned a series of documentaries called Look at Britain two of which were made by the Free Cinema directors: Anderson, Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). The BFI provided funding for Momma Don’t Allow (Richardson and Reisz, 1956).
Momma Don't Allow
Momma Don’t Allow explored the leisure particularly looking at jazz and dance and noting a mixing of the classes on the dance floor. The editing reflected the jazz syncopation and the importance of jazz and dance and emerging popular music was an important facet of the later New Wave features with Johnny Dankworth providing the music for Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning as well as for Losey’s The Servant (1963) -a film not usually classed as British New Wave but one which can be seen as part of the whole changing culture of Britain none the less. Dankworth also did the soundtrack for Schlesinger’s Oscar winning Darling (1965), which takes both his and Julie Christie’s career post-British New Wave and into London’s 'Swinging Sixties' with representations of a new media and show biz glitteratti and people trying to make it.
In Britain the cinematic ‘New Wave’ was born out of the conjunction of two tendencies with Richardson playing an important part in both. Firstly there was the growth of new sentiments emerging through the theatre and its responses to the growth of social consensus developed in Britain in the 1950s. Secondly there was the influence of British Free Cinema. In this sense it is perhaps better to talk of a rapidly changing cultural milieu especially in London which both senses and participated in changing British society and was made up from a range of generally younger artists operating in various branches of the arts.
The Free Cinema Films
Free Cinema Programme 1
Cinematographer Walter Lassally
O Dreamland, (1953): Directed Lindsay Anderson
Momma don't Allow (1956) Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson
Momma Don't Allow
Together (1956) Lorenza Mazzetti
Free Cinema Programme 3
Wakefield Express (1952): Lindsay Anderson
Nice Time (1957) Claude Goretta & Alain Tanner
Picadilly Circus from Nice Time
Everyday Except Christmas (1957) Lindsay Anderson (winner of the documentary prize at the Venice film festival)
Everyday Except Christmas
The Singing Street (1952): McIsaac, Ritchie, Townsend
We are the Lambeth Boys (1959) Karel Reisz
We are the Lambeth Boys
Refuge England (1959) Robert Vas
Enginemen (1959) Michael Grigsby
Food for a Blush (1959) Elizabeth Russell
The End is the Beginning
Unlike many artistic movements the Free Cinema movement was very clear about the sixth programme being the last one. It is extremly hard work being underfunded and on the edge. Prizes had been won and recognition had been won. Anderson, Reisz and Richardson were in a position to move on to making proper feature films. As the Times of 1959 noted they had made documentaries for thier generation in a style which marked the changing times for it was very different to the Griersonian method of 30 years ago.
It is important to recognise just how much they were part of a wider socio-cultural movement in the country as the Times notes. Richardson had co-founded the English Stage Production Company with George Devine. He had directed Osborne's very successful and groundbreaking Look Back in Anger in 1956 and this led to Osborne ad Richardson establishing Woodfall Films in 1959.
The new opportunities and the shift in culture allowed the full length features of the British Social Realist movement to emerge. This would probably not have happened had the Free Cinema not emerged in the first place.
This BFI page is a route into some excellent resources which are unlikely to be bettered.
Lindsay Anderson writing in Sight and Sound on Humphrey Jennings who was a core inspirational force for the Free Cinema directors.
Geocities on Free Cinema. This is an example of a website which only partially knows its facts. It asserts that it was founded on the precepts of Italian neorealism. In fact Humphrey Jennings had far more influence and he was a neorealist before neorealism! Second point is the argument that it was heavily influenced by the French New Wave. As it was Walter Lassally who passed over ideas to the French cinematographers about shooting on Ilford 400 ASA this doesn't quite add up, neither do the dates. The reality is that the most imaginative young film makers in both countries were developing different approaches to film making. The issue of how far there was an inter-relationship and cross-fertilisation of ideas is what needs to be explored.
Vertigo Magazine 2004 on: Documentary is Dead – Long Live Documentaries! This makes important reference to Free Cinema as well as considring the state of documnetary now in relation to TV. Julian Petley's comments about regulation are of particular interest.