All 8 entries tagged Social Realism
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April 10, 2008
Listen to Britain (1942): Dir Humphrey Jennings
Listen to Britain (1942): Dir. Humphrey Jennings
A Scots regiment singing 'Home on the Range' in Listen to Britain
Return to Humphrey Jennings main page
For formal perfection, for essence of Jennings - albeit extracted by McAllister - probably 'Listen to Britain' would be the one to put in the time capsule. It never palls I must have seen it hundreds of times, but still every time I notice something I hadn't seen before. Somehow it has captured life's rhythm and texture. To watch it is to experience life afresh with an awareness that usually eludes us. The tiniest things...There's the pleasure of recognition, but also I think a revelation of the poetry in the everyday. (Drazin, 2007 pp 155-156)
The Importance of Naturalness
Jennings seemed to be better than most at capturing people being very natural 'capturing it how it was'. Jennings didn't work to much of a preconceived script which was to be disadvantageous when it came to trying to raise money for a feature film, but it worked brilliantly in documentary. Listen to Britain has certainly proved to be a very influential film for Britian's documentary and realist film makers as Mike Leigh notes:
I also admire Jennings's Listen to Britain. It is a fantastic piece of film-making for all of us (and this includes me) who in our films have tried to build film stories in an atmospheric way, using all kinds of elements, including sound and music. Listen to Britain does this extraordinarily well, and with an incredible ease of editing. Although it is not a narrative film, it is an exemplary piece of film storytelling and it raises the hairs on the back of your neck every time. (Mike Leigh Channel Four Website)
Probably to be great at documentary you have to be opportunistic and take advantage of moments of serendipity. Drazin discusses how in the shooting of Listen to Britain at a primary school it was impossible to shoot inside because of the lighting conditions so the children were asked to do a dance in the playground. One of the girls had made a mistake and the cameraman wanted to do a re-shoot Jennings wanted the naturalness of a child making a slip:'... the child's half-stumble, with its quality of truth made the scene.' (Drazin, 2007 p 157). However the Film Maker Mike Leigh makes an interesting point about the way many people are scratching on Jennings films:
If you look very closely at Jennings's work, you start to see some very interesting behavioural detail. For example, he often gets people to scratch - all over the place, across all of his films. You can see that he told them to do it when the camera gets to a certain moment. On your first viewing, you just accept it as part of the texture but it actually does look very self-conscious. The reason he's doing it is to introduce some kind of realistic movement into the very static style of documentary at that time. Don't forget that it wasn't until after the war that BBC radio realised that you could interview a working-class person spontaneously. Before that, they used to go out and talk to ordinary people, then write a script, and then get them to read the script. (Leigh ibid)
Despite his powerful intellectual capacity Jennings and his own taste for so-called 'high culture' he was concerned to capture tastes and cultural practices across the board. The filming of Flanagan & Alan doing a show in a factory canteen has a well timed cut to Dame Myra Hess playing Mozart in the National Gallery to the Queen amongst others. There was nothing judgemental there, all were enjoying themselves and the music they loved providing a unity in difference. Jackson points out in his introduction to the Humphrey Jennings Reader that Jennings:
...would not turn people into allegories or types, no matter how benign the typing might be, and the outcome was that he was able to show the British at war as nobody else could. Those singing factory girls are neither dupes of capitalism nor Stakhanovite heroines: they are the women Jennings chanced to meet when he took his cameras down to the shop floor, and thier faces are vivid and unforgettable after half a century. (Jackson, 1993 p XV).
In the Editing Room
Jointly on the credits with Humphrey Jennings is Stewart McAllister an editor with whom Jennigs worked a lot. Joe Mendoza who was a young assisstant in the GPO film Unit at the time was asked to work with Jennings because he was the only person who could read a musical score in the unit. This was a prospect he found intimidating as Jennings had a reputation for shouting at people according to Drazin. Mendoza thought that Jennings had the visual brilliance whilst McAllister worked more on the issue of the music and creating a progression thorugh the film giving it some structure even though it isn't a narrative documentary.
In Listen to Britain McAllister has been credited with several important sections such as the build up of aircraft sound over the cornfield and the crucial cut from the Flanagan and Allen factory floor show to Myra Hess in the National Portrait gallery. Creative editing was especially important in teis film as around 25% was taken from existing sources note Aldrich and Richards.
Despite the importance of McAllister's contributions and his ability to work well with Jennings Aldrich and Richards comment:
Nevetheless it is hard to to accept that the overall conception, the continuing preoccupations, the structure even of the films are not ultimately those of Jennings. (Aldrich and Richards p 224)
They point out that Jennings always did the scripting and of course all the shooting of the footage and even where some of this was spontaneous it was also done in the framework of the masterplan in Jennings' mind. It is they note Jennings belief in a pattern but one in which:
...artistic form was a wider reflection of British history and of English life and culture. It is this consistent and coherent world view which ultimately marks Jennings out as the directing intelligence of the films... (Aldrich and Richards 2007 p 225)
Critical Reception of Listen to Britain
In many quarters a jingoistic 'up and at them' form of propaganda was the only thing worth having, Aldgate and Richards cite Edward Anstey of the Spectator who was a s scornful of the film as were the documentary purists writing in Documentary News Letter who were scathing about Words for Battle:
By the time Humphrey Jenings has done with it, it has become the rarest bit of fiddling since the days of Nero. It will be a disaster if this film is sent overseas. One shudders to imagine the effect upon our allies should they learn that an official British film-making unit can find the time these days to contemplate the current sights and sounds of Britain... (Cited Aldgate and Richards 2007, pp 222-223)
However, in reality it went down well with audiences in fact the description below sounds closer to a rock group reception than a 'documentary' screening. The deputy head of non-theatrical distribution for the Ministry of Information (MoI) reported that:
All sorts of audiences felt it to be a distillation and also a magnification of their own experiences on the home front. This was especially true of factory audiences. I remember one show in a factory in the Midlands where about 800 workers clapped and stamped approval. (Aldgate and Richards 2007 p223)
Roger Manvell then working as the Films Officer in the South West and later North-West of the country reported that he always showed a Jennings film because of the :
...poetic and emotional life they gave the programmes as a whole. I do not exaggerate when I say that members of audiences under the emotional strains of war ... frequently wept as a result of Jennings' direct appeal to the rich cultural heritage of Britain.... (Manvell cited Aldgate & Richards 2007, 223 )
Overall Listen to Britain is a powerful film which through a very creative notion of documentarism manages to not only capture fragments of everyday life but unify them in a way which is at the highest level of myth-making thus comfortably achieving the aims of the MoI. The Spectator commentator was proved spectacularly wrong. This geninely was propaganda as art an extraordianry feat and one which Triumph of the Will doesn't come near thankfully.
Screenonline: Listen to Britain
Screenonline: John Krish. Editing asisstant on Listen to Britain
Pembroke College International Programme: Theory and Practice of Documentary Film
Victor Burgin Exhibition inspired by Listen to Britain
Corner, John. Sounds Real. Cambridge Journal of Popular Music. (Reality Check: You'll Need to Pay for this one)
Guardian on a documenting Britain exhibition in Liverpool 2006
DUFAYCOLOR - THE SPECTACLE OF REALITY AND BRITISH NATIONAL CINEMA
British Cinema and The Ideology of Realism Chapter 1. (Somebody's interesting looking thesis)
Please follow link to the British Cinema Bibliography
March 17, 2008
Humphrey Jennings (1907–1950)
Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950)
One always hopes - without too much presumption - that one is helping to keep the work alive...Yet as the years pass these films, which should be familiar to every schoolboy and girl in the country, seem to be seen and known by fewer and fewer people. (Lindsay Anderson, cited Drazin 2007 p 159-60.)
Above Humphrey Jennings' Swiss Roll which is in the Tate collection
It is only recently that there has been some attention paid to the legacy of Humphrey Jennings yet many consider him to be one Britain’s best filmmakers if not the best yet the medium of documentary shorts that he worked in doesn’t gain the attention of the more flamboyant aspects of feature film narrative cinema. It was gratifying to find a comment which I very much agree with in book which arrived yesterday by Charles Drazin (2007) who draws attention the the fact that Sir Dennis Foreman who was director of the BFI in the early 1950s put on an exhibition of British films for the Italian government showing only Jennings films. Foreman reported that:
The Italians were absolutely stunned. They said "This is neorealism 10 years before we invented it"' (Foreman cited in Drazin 2007 p160)
Jennings was renowned for his very ‘poetic’ style of documentaries. Jennings studied English at Cambridge working as a poet and painter specialising in surrealism. 1934-36 he worked as a designer, editor and actor at the GPO Film Unit. Jennings was one of the least likely people to be in the British Documentary Movement given that’s its style of documentary realism was very distant to the sort of activities Jennings participated in. His restless eclecticism meant his energies were spread across a range of activities. Jennings partook in intellectual activities and was a poet, painter, critic, an organiser of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition which famously featured Salvador Dali speaking in a deep-sea diving outfit. In 1936 he also founded the Mass Observation Movement with two others. On top of all this he was a film maker.
Jennings: from GPO to Crown Film Unit
In 1936 he was one of the three founders of the Mass Observation movement along with Madge and Harrison. In 1939 he made Spare Time for the GPO film unit. It was only around ten minutes long yet its Kazoo band scene is highly memorable for Jennings’ more than almost any other film maker was able to capture the surrealism of everyday pastimes in which strange juxtapositions and ‘found objects’ are but a natural cultural occurrence.
During the war he made many ‘propaganda’ documentaries including London Can Take It!, Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1942) as shorts. His full length drama documentaries were Fires Were Started (1943), The Silent Village (1943) reconstructing the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice by the Nazis. Diary for Timothy was shot in 1944 and the beginning of 1945.
MacDougall has commented that documentaries influenced by the Grierson School had been the film maker confronting reality rather than exploring the process of reality as a ‘flow of events’. They could be seen as a style of synthesis which used images to develop an argument or impression. In this style comments MacDougall:
Each of the discrete images... was the bearer of a predetermined meaning. They were often articulated like the images of a poem, juxtaposed against an asynchronous soundtrack of music or commentary. Indeed poetry was sometimes integral to their conception, as in the The River (Lorentz, 1937), Night Mail (Wright and Watt, 1936), and Coalface, (Cavalcanti, 1936)”. (MacDougall in Nichols, 1985 p 277).
On this argument it can be seen that Jennings’ Listen to Britain - for many his ‘masterpiece’- belongs to this sub-genre of documentary. Certainly it was entirely observational in attitude as might be expected from one of the founders of the Mass Observation Movement. It is also clearly a propaganda film but one with a ‘voice’ which is very different from the propaganda documentary of a Leni Riefenstahl. As Dalrymple who became head of the Crown Film Unit commented:
“When we make propaganda we tell, quite quietly, what we believe to be the truth. The Nazi method is to bellow as loudly and as often as possible, what they know to be absolutely and completely false…We say in film to our own people ‘This is what the boys in the services, or the girls in the factories, or the men and women in the civil defence, or the patient citizens themselves are like and what they are doing. They are playing their part…be of good spirit and go and do likewise.” (Dalrymple cited Aldrich and Richards 2007 p 219)
Above a range of stills from Listen to Britain. At the bottom the Queen listening to Dame Myra Hess playing Mozart in the National Gallery which is bereft of pictures as they have been sent to the safety of old slate mines.
Whilst the approach of Dalrymple is clearly very patronising towards the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ it is also a denial of the myth-making of national ideologies that is essential to a propaganda agenda - where propaganda can be taken to be having specific aims and objectives or a strong preferred reading. What is especially interesting about Jennings’ wartime output is how they tended to avoid making direct reference to the Nazis altogether the fact that the Queen was in the National Portrait Gallery listening to a concert of German composers strongly signified an internationalism not an anti-German position. In Listen to Britain, Britain effectively became the defender of the civilised world for at the time it was made Britain and Greece which was about to fall were the only two European countries not under Nazi control apart from neutral countries. One must remember at that moment the Hitler – Stalin pact was still in force. But what Dalrymple said can certainly be applied to Listen to Britain for Jackson (2003) points out it is ‘free of these Riefenstahlian properties’ (bombast, overblown rhetoric and melodramatic theatricality). It seems to be commonly accepted that his wartime output were probably his best films.
"Voice" in Documentary
Bill Nichols suggests that as the documentary has developed one of the major contests between different forms has been centred upon the question of “voice”. “Voice” he argues is a narrower concept than style. It gives a sense of the text’s social point of view and of how the materials are organised to present the materials. Therefore “voice” isn’t restricted simply to one code or feature - spoken commentary for example: “Voice is perhaps akin to that intangible, moiré-like pattern formed by the unique interaction of all a film’s codes, and it applies to all modes of documentary”. (Nichols.B, 1985, p 260-61).
Nichols points out that very few documentary filmmakers are prepared to accept that “through the very tissue and texture of their work that all film making is a form of discourse fabricating its effects, impressions and point of view”. Jennings’ Listen to Britain is clearly a documentary form which isn’t reflexive in the way that the work of Dziga Vertov is and is clearly in a different ‘voice’. Man With a Movie Camera isn’t merely a symphony to the modern industrial city, or modernity in general it is modernistic in its reflexivity about the very making of a film itself as well as incorporating audience and exhibition. By comparison Jennings’ work has a deeply poetic quality which seduces the viewer. With strong justification the filmmaker and critic Lindsay Anderson described Jennings as “the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced”
Pat Jackson another director who was working with the Crown Film Unit at the time described him as a painterly director:
“It was terribly like a painter in a way; it wasn’t a storyteller’s mind. I don’t think the dramatic approach to a subject, in film really interested him very much. It was an extension of the canvas for him. Patterns, abstractions appealed to him enormously, and those are what people remember most you know”. (Jackson cited Aldgate and Richards 2007 p 220)
Jennings went to Germany in 1945/46 and made the short documentary A Defeated People (1946)
The film is an excellent piece of visual reporting, ably assembled and edited with a pointed and impartial commentary. There is no attempt to work up pity for the Germans, only a desire that we should realise what the war they started has brought back to them on recoil. The film ends with shots of children dancing in their schools, alternated with shots of German judges being sworn in to administer justice in the new Germany of democratic control. (Monthly Film Bulletin review March 1946)
Jennings' Postwar Period
Many suggest that his post-war period was less fruitful than during the war where he reached the height of his powers. Jennings’ last film before his tragic fatal accident falling of a cliff in Poros Greece whilst doing location work for a film was a documentary short for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Graeme Hobbs in a MovieMail review describes it as follows:
a film ‘on the theme of the Festival of Britain’, it is propaganda for the nation that urges the nourishment of tolerance, courage, faith, discipline and mutual freedom. Jennings’ central conceit is that the fabric of the nation takes its texture a mixture of poetry and prose, the poetry of imagination combining with the prose of industry and engineering, with its culmination coming in an invention such as a ship’s radar, which perfectly matches the two. Jennings took his cue for the theme from one of the Festival displays, that of the Lion and the Unicorn symbolising the two main qualities of the national character, ‘on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other, fantasy, independence and imagination.
Seemingly Jennings was always engaging with the enigma that is the ‘national’ character. Certainly he was never patronising towards those he represented and he carried his brilliance lightly able to empathise with his subjects who were ordinary people well before the Italian neo-realists started to carry out their post-war aesthetic approach. Arguably Jennings was a neorealist in methods before his time his content was far more poetic represented than Rossellini’s and was probably a more powerful representation of nation and a call for unity than a film such as Paisa. Hopefully Jennings will not always remain so under-recognised and hopefully he will be inspirational to new film makers who could do worse than to study Jennings closely.
- The Changing Face of Europe (1951) (segment 6 "The Good Life")
... aka The Grand Design (UK)
- Family Portrait (1950)
... aka A Film on the Theme of the Festival of Britain 1951 (UK: subtitle)
- The Dim Little Island (1949)
- The Cumberland Story (1947)
- A Defeated People (1946)
- A Diary for Timothy (1945)
- Myra Hess (1945)
- The Eighty Days (1944)
- V. 1 (1944)
- The Silent Village (1943)
- Fires Were Started (1943)
... aka I Was a Fireman
- The True Story of Lilli Marlene (1943)
- Listen to Britain (1942)
- The Heart of Britain (1941)
- This Is England (1941)
- Words for Battle (1941)
- London Can Take It! (1940) (uncredited)
... aka Britain Can Take It!
- Spring Offensive (1940)
... aka An Unrecorded Victory
- Welfare of the Workers (1940)
- Cargoes (1939)
- The First Days (1939)
... aka A City Prepares (UK)
- Spare Time (1939)
- S.S. Ionian (1939)
... aka Her Last Trip
- Design for Spring (1938)
- English Harvest (1938)
- The Farm (1938)
- Making Fashion (1938)
- Penny Journey (1938)
- Speaking from America (1938)
- Farewell Topsails (1937)
- Locomotives (1934)
- Post-haste (1934)
- The Story of the Wheel (1934)
Only Connect: some aspects of the work of Humphrey Jennings: Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
Screeonline Biography of Humphrey Jennings
Channel Four. Humphrey Jennings: The Man Who Listened to Britain
British Film Resource page on Humphrey Jennings
Guardian: Derek Malcolm on Humphrey Jennings
Kevin Jackson in the Guardian on Humphrey Jennings
Humphrey Jennings The Man who Listened to Britain. Channel Four documentary available on DVD
Telegraph on Jennings 2007. "True Poet of Cinema"
English Heritage awards Jennings a Blue Plaque. (Recognition at Last).
Simon Garfield on his book Our Hidden Lives about the Mass Observation Movement
The Mass Observation Movement archive
Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, Special Humphrey Jennings Issue (Winter, 1961-1962)
Guardian: The Buried Secrets of British Cinema
BBC The Film Programme Radio 4. You can download a Realplayer file here of a discussion with Kevin Jackson Biographer of Jennings
BBC David Puttnam on Movies With a Message. You can download a Realplayer talk here on Diary for Timothy
Radio Prague pages in English on Lidice and Jennings portrayal of the Nazi massacre there. Many Associated links.
Aldgate, Anthony and Richards, Jeffrey.2nd Ed. 2007. Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War. London: I. B Tauris
Jackson, Kevin (ed.) 1993. The Humphrey Jennings Film Reader. Manchester: Carcanet
Jennings, Humphrey (ed.).1987. Pandaemonium. London: Picador
Jennings, Mary-Lou (ed.)1982. Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet. London: British Film Institute
Lovell, Alan and Hillier, Jim. 1972 Studies in Documentary. London: British Film Institute/Secker and Warburg,
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 1986. 'Humphrey Jennings: Surrealist observer'. In Charles Barr (ed.). All Our Yesterdays (London: British Film Institute,
Orwell, George, 'The Lion and the Unicorn', in Sonia Orwell (ed.) Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume 2 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1970)
Russell, Patrick. 2007. 100 British Documentaries. London: BFI
January 19, 2008
Contemporary British Directors: Paul Greengrass
Return to Contemorary British Directors hub page here.
Paul Greengrass has had a history of working at the cutting edge of documentary and also writing making firstly with the Granada World in Action TV documentary series. Although he should not be regarded as politically radical his career has been one which has sought to make liberal democracy become more transparent and it appears as though he sees the role of media as making a powerful contribution towards this. His treatment of events in Northern Ireland, his contribution to the Spycatcher book, which tore into the British establishment in the 1980s. His documentary United 93 underpinned the power and determination of ordinary people who will sacrifice themselves for others in the face of a totalitarian terrorism expressed on this occasion by the despised Al Quaida. Most of his early work has trodden where many other filmmakers and creative people have feared to tread. As as John Patterson in The Guardian puts it:
Five years ago, Paul Greengrass was an avowedly political, low-budget British filmmaker working within the documentary-style tradition that constitutes the core - the deepest, oldest thread - of British cinema; now he's a big-name director making kinetic, visceral Hollywood movies that are eagerly awaited at multiplexes worldwide. Ultimatum, budgeted at $125m (£62m), looks set to become one of the biggest hits of the summer. Funny how things turn out.
Greengrass went to school in Kent, winning a scholarship to Sevenoaks School, and started his film-making career with a super 8 camera he found in the art room. He made a series of animated horror films, using old dolls and bric-a-brac props. He went on to Queens' College, Cambridge, and then, inspired by the story of Woodward and Bernstein's uncovering of the Watergate scandal in All the President's Men, decided to become an investigative journalist. (Guardian overview of Greengrass).
He worked with the "World in Action" (ITV, 1963-99) - TV documentary series. The series itself gained a reputation for being cutting edge and hard hitting often being more controversial and less mainstream than the main BBC competitor of the time which was Panorama. As Greengrass commented in a Guardian interview:
I arrived there 1978-79. The great days of World in Action had been the 1960s and it had lost its way somewhere, somewhat, in the mid-70s, but the onset of Margaret Thatcher gave it this tremendous new lease of life. (ibid)
During the 1980s, Greengrass also co-authored the controversial book Spycatcher with former MI5 Assistant Director, Peter Wright. The book, which detailed Wright's attempts to ferret out a Russian spy from the ranks of the British intelligence agency, was banned by the government and held from release until 1988. In the mid 1980s Greengrass met the controversial filmmaker Alan Clarke who had made Scum and had had a strong influence upon his thinking. Greengrass has also been influenced by the realism of Ken Loach particularly Kes and also Peter Watkins’ controversial documentary The War Game.
It seems as though Greengrass’s film Resurrection (1989) taught him a lesson about drama and film making which allowed him to break with the strongly social realist mode of his previous work enabling him to film an event which it wouldn’t be possible to witness – a brutal mock court martial. It allowed him to take his aesthetic approach to a different level. The film was nominated for a Golden Bear winning some jury awards at the Berlin Film Festival.
We were using the dispassionate, observational documentary eye I had developed, if you like, on recreated events, and the collision between the two allows you to get at a bigger truth than you could by using just the one approach or the other. (ibid).
From Gritty documentaries to Hollywood Action Adventure with an Edge
For many followers of Greengrass who seemed to be following a path well trodden by many British directors working within a social realist mode it came as a great surprise when Greengrass was chosen to direct the Bourne Supremacy (2004). It was so successful - apparently netting $175 million in the box-office that he directed the Bourne Ultimatum (2007). It hasn't won Greengrass friends everywhere as a summariser from the Independent on Sunday noted in an interview with Harold Pinter and Time Out magazine which was scathingly critical:
I saw a film, The Bourne Ultimatum," Pinter begins, "and I thought: Fucking hell! This guy is clearly the strongest man in the world. He can beat up about 12 people in about 35 seconds and kill half of them.
"The whole thing is totally unreal. I was stupefied by it, it was so lacking in intelligence." He adds that he sat in the cinema "seething, thinking: What am I doing here, being bombarded by this sound? It knocks you out."
The interviewer pointed out that Oscar-nominated Greengrass is considered a master of dramatic realism.
"Paul Greengrass?" replies Pinter. "I saw Bloody Sunday, I also saw United 93: that fellow is no chump."But: "I've never been able to write a film which I didn't respect, I just can't do it."
John Patterson in the Guardian was rather more sympathetic to the project than Pinter and in doing so comes to a position which finds cross-overs between auteurism and genre cinema almost identifying a British hybrid genre of the 'political-realist action-action thriller':
Bloody Sunday may be political and tragic, but it's also an action-movie manqué. Indeed, the idea of a left-progressive action-movie director isn't even that novel: in Britain it's almost a mini-tradition. Peter Watkins is an action director without compare - witness Culloden or Punishment Park. And no one shot mayhem and violence more compellingly than Clarke. Given such forebears, the move from Bloody Sunday to Jason Bourne is an entirely natural and seamless one. (My emphasis; Guardian ibid).
Patterson has a point for it is clear that Pinter has little notion of the action adventure genre and in this sense we can point to the subversion of the sterotype.
And instead of the usual boringly indestructible, mindless right-wing macho man in the lead, the left-leaning Matt Damon plays the isolated and existentially solitary Bourne as a man whose memory may have been erased, but not his sense of morality or his essentially liberal strain of patriotism. It's all subtly embedded within a framework of thrills and violence, but it's there none the less. Greengrass wouldn't be Greengrass if it wasn't.
Whilst Pinter from a more realist mode is right to criticise the impossibility of Bourne being able to whisk aside several hardened CIA operatives just like that this is merely a convention of this type of film. This can be seen in films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It is a dramatic device for when Bourne meets the Arabic operative sent to kill him in a hand to hand he only just makes it similarly he only survives the car chase by chance. Here he is taking on his own kind the super-killer of which he is the Ur-figure gone wrong. As a political thriller there is a long tradition of defending the supremacy of the American political system against corrupt methods which would ultimately undermine the very raison d'etre of the United States Constitution itself. This appears on John Gresham novels and films and older films such as Clear and Present Danger dealing with drug cartels. Although not directly dealing with an American theme these kind of highly secretive undercover operations by states are also critiqued in films such as Spielberg's Munich.
What Greengrass brings to this more American sub-generic category is a decidely British aesthetic which arguably has its heart in European cinema itself. Greengrass brings a gritty realism which belongs to the tradition of the British gangster-heavy (Chibnall) tradition which hasdeveloped thought films such as Brighton Rock, Get Carter (made by Mike Hodges who also worked for World in Action), The Long Good Friday. All of these involved corruption of some sort usually amongst police and local government. Greengrass is well placed to deal with higher level governmental corruption because of his involvement with the Spycatcher affair. all those British gangster films are strong on a sense of place. This is an aesthetic that Greengrass has brought wioth him. One can compare the car chase scene in the Bourne Ultimatum with the ridiculous street shoot out in Heat, to gain a real sense in the difference aesthetic which as Patterson notes is one which is a:
... patented newsreel-style, quasi-documentary, highly organic aesthetic - non-professional casts, few effects or soundstages, lots of hand-held and SteadiCam, much wobble and blur, extremely long takes, cut together in sequences often made up of hundreds of microscopically attenuated shots -... (ibid)
In the Guardian interview with Patterson Greengrass comments that he sees the Bourne character as analagous to Patricia Highsmith's Ripley character becuase there is a duality:
I love Matt in it. He's not only a brilliant actor, but also brilliant in that part because he's a wonderful player of duality - you think of [Tom] Ripley and other parts he's played. You don't know which side of that duality he's on at any moment. And that's Bourne: a duality, a killer who's redeemed himself, the man on the run with a dark past, so he's perfect. You couldn't ask for a better actor in the part than Matt.
I don't think that this is a good analogy at all because Ripley is an entirely amoral opportunist. The comparison revolves around the issue of individual agency. Ripley sees an opportunity and takes it and gradually becomes involved in murder and then serial murder and his character declines. Bourne is an allegory for the honest truly democratic USA which has literal agents within who are suborning the true nature and aims of the country. Bourne represents this tension, this duality. We know he has truly broken with this dark instilled past when he fails to kill the other super-agent at the end of the car chase. When this person is positioned to kill Bourne a little later he lets him go asking why Bourne failed to kill him. Here the conversation allows for self-reflexivity for it is a question which many americans including their military are asking themselves: is what is going on in Iraq just? Are we making things better or worse? By what authority are we here? Given the CIA information about "Weapons of Mass Destruction" was the excuse for the USA to go to war and for the British Government to follow suit despite there being no clear evidence then means that we can see the Bourne Ultimatum as an allegorical critique of American foreign policy.
It is this lack of recognition by Pinter of the necessity to work within popular genres in order to subvert them if one is able to amount any critique at all within the American cinematic system. It is a reading that will have flown over the heads of many viewers of the film inevitably but audiences have many ways of viewing a text.
Other recent non cinema work
The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999). ITV Documentary. Directed by Greengrass.
Omagh Channel Four TV Documentary. Greengrass was the producer and writer of this.
The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007
The Bourne Supremacy,2004
Bloody Sunday, 2002
The Theory of Flight, 1998
The Sweetest Thing, 1995
Indie London interview with Greengrass
BBC the Writer's Room a Q & A with Paul Greengrass
A Times overview of Greengrass's work
Guardian: Hollywood's Favourite Brit
Guardian overview of Paul Greengrass
Independent on Sunday. Noting Harold Pinter's disgust at The Bourne Ultimatum
Working Title entry on Greengrass winning BAFTA with United 93
Sight and Sound Review of Bloody Sunday
British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) for Bloody Sunday
An interesting comparative review by the well respected David Tereshchuk who was actually at the Bloody Sunday Event reporting for the BBC
Return to Contemorary British Directors hub page here.
December 30, 2007
It's A Free World,2007: Dir: Ken Loach
It's a Free World. 2007. Dir Ken Loach
(See also the Kinoeye Reference Section: Globalisation)
IntroductionThis entry is currently going to be limited to being a webliography rather than a full critique and analysis. It is part of an ongoing analysis of contemporary British cinema and its responses to the processes of globalisation and diaspora which are a major feature of contemporary networked society. As such it is cross linked to this entry: Contemporary British Cinema: Representing the World Locally
It's a Free World (2007)
From the persepctive of the successes of British cinema and the importance of their film makers this is a prize winning film gaining an important award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival of Best Screenplay, Venice Film Festival 2007 as well as Best Film, Seville Film Festival 2007. Yet again the British cinematic system prefers to recognise profits rather then prophets so this did not appear in a multiplex near you despite the accolades.
The film has a title which is steeped in irony for what it is seeking to do is to represent at the level of the individuals who play their part how these parts link up to the wider scheme of things. The fact that Angie and her mate Rose don't have any form of secure work to go to as a matter of providing for everyday existence means they need to become entrepreneurial. when you have nothing behind you in terms of financial or cultural capital (a combination of education and contacts to work with) then people become attracted to the 'cowboy', 'shadow', 'underground' or 'black' economy. Angie and Rose establish a recruitment agency for migrant workers, who come to Britain because conditions have become so bad for them in their original countries of residence. combined with the entrepreneurs who are a bit further up the scale actually providing the underpaid and deperate conditions in which the migrants get recruited into form the other link in the equation. The migrants form an essential part of what Marx called the 'reserve army of labour' and what Loach is doing here is introducing audiences to this palpable aspect of globalisation.
Success abroad and straight to DVD in the UK
As is frequently the case this British film received accolades at a prestigious film festival however because of the distribution and exhibition in the UK being so weighted against more independent films this film was distributed differently.
"Osella" for Paul Laverty at Venice Film Festival:
"It's a Free World" wins "Best Screenplay"(Sept. 9th 2007) Paul Laverty won the "Osella" for the Best Screenplay for "It's a Free World" (directed by Ken Loach) at this year's Venice Film Festival. Besides the drama was awarded with a EIUC Human Rights Film Award and got a special mention a the Signis Awards.
Trailer in Italian available here
Review from Amanda Palmer of It's a Free World as part of a film review programme from Al Jazeera
Director: Ken Loach
Producer: Rebecca O'Brien
Screenplay by: Paul Laverty
Music by: George Fenton
Cinematography by: Nigel Willoughby
Editor: Jonathan Morris
Production Design: Fergus Clegg
Angie: Kierston Wareing
Rose: Juliet Ellis
Karol: Leslaw Zurek
Geoff (Angie's father) : Colin Caughlin
Jamie: Joe Siffleet
Webliography for It's a Free World
The Sweet Sixteen Website It's a Free World This website is a core resource for anybody interested in or studying the cinema of Ken Loach. Not only does it provide details of the film but in depth production note, external links and extracts of interviews form the actors are included.
Observer report on It's a Free World
Socialist worker interview with Ken Loach about Its a Free World
European Films.Net Review of It's a Free World
Reuters Report on It's a Free World
A different Reuters Report on It's a Free World
Guardian interview with Loach and Laverty at the Southbank
Independent Review of It's a Free World
Fujifilm PDF on Its a Free World. (Excellent images on this)
Loach makes union workers aware of wider issues attending screening for Unison branch
Webliography for Migrant Labour conditions in Britain
May 08/2008: "Gangmaster Stripped of License". The BBC reports on real life exploitation of Polish workers. Loach is not exaggerating!!
BBC Video on migrant labour conditions:
RETURN TO BRITISH DIRECTORS HUB PAGE
December 24, 2007
Lynne Ramsay (1969-)
Along with many other British director entries this entry is 'work in progress' nevertheless it will provide a basic signposting to other available resources on the web in the first instance until I'm able to make a fuller evaluation.
Morven Callar (2002)
Screenonline Biography of Lynne Ramsay
Guardian Interview with Lynne Ramsay
Guardian on Ramsay's development
Another Guardian Article on Ramsay
BFI NEws Ratcather wins Sutherland Trophy
Magical Urbanism:Walter Benjamin and Utopian Realism in the film Ratcatcher
RETURN TO BRITISH DIRECTORS HUB PAGE
October 21, 2007
The British New Wave: Social Realist film of the 1960s
The British New Wave
Julie Christie in John Schlesinger's Billy Liar
The beginning of the 1960s was marked by the appearance of a range of feature films which took up serious social issues and were placed within the contemporary cultural context. The films are described as social realist and described as a British ‘New Wave’. The description of these films as a 'New Wave' should not be confused with the contemporary French films that were coming out of France from the Cahiers du Cinema milieu of directors. Some commentators regard the British New Wave as being influenced by the French New Wave. This seems inappropriate as the period usually defined as the French New Wave was happening more or less simultaneously. Arguably there was at least a two way influence as the acceptance of Chabrol and Truffaut in the British Free Cinema series makes clear. What is more likely is that any French influences that were the precursors to the Nouvelle Vague proper such as Louis Malle’s Les Amants were being seen in Britain particularly as future British ‘New Wave’ directors Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson were organising the Free Cinema events at the National Film Theatre from 1956 - 1959 as well as developing film criticism on the magazine Sequence earlier on. Cinematically it was Italian neo-realism which had made a strong influence on both British and French directors although both groupings went in different directions. It is the ‘Left Bank’ documentarists not always seen as the heart of the French nouvelle vague such as Resnais, Duras and Marker who are seemingly more influential. To this must be added the legacy of Humphrey Jennings who was enormously important to Anderson, Reisz and Richardson.
Seeming Western Cultural and Economic Synergies
At the meta-level directors in Western Europe were part of the cultural moves towards creating fully modern societies in Western Europe. By the 1950s this process was generally gathering pace at this time. Both France and Britain were overcoming post-war shortages and whilst there was a new optimism being generated in Britain after the 1950 Festival of Britain and its espousal of new technologies the mid-1950s saw the post-Suez recognition within both Britain and France that the political world had shifted entirely to a mainspring centred upon the USA in tension with the USSR. The older empires were finally having to readjust to a new world order.
The growing postwar mood was not just restricted to the countries of Western Europe. Polish cinema was making its own mark as the Free Cinema programme which featured several Polish directors makes clear.
What is Social Realism?
Cinematically the British New Wave is part of a tradition of social realism within British film which has seen many shifts since the growth of the British documentary movement in the 1930s. Realism is a difficult concept because encapsulated within it there are a range of changing aesthetic conventions all of which have as a central concern the intention of representing ‘the world as it really is’ or ‘life as it is really lived’. Lay (2002) points out:
There is no universal, all-encompassing definition of realism, nor is there agreement amongst academics and film-makers as to its purpose and use. But what we can say is that there are many ‘realisms’ and these realisms all share an interest in presenting some aspect of life as it is lived’. Carroll (1996) suggests that the term should only be used with a prefix attached. This is because another important feature of all realisms is how they are produced at specific historical points. The addition of a prefix, such as social-, neo-, documentary-, specifies the’ what’ and crucially, ‘when’ of that movement or moment. What is regarded as ‘real’, by whom, and how it is represented is unstable dynamic, and ever-changing, precisely because realism is irrevocably tied to the specifics of time and place. ‘Moment’” (Lay, Samantha, 2002: p 8)
As Andre Bazin also noted, each era looks to the technique and aesthetic which can best capture aspects of reality, thus realism is in itself an aesthetic construct dependent upon a set of artistic conventions and forms. The British New Wave is a part of this process. It has been noted that for a film to be realist rather than just realistic there are 2 necessary fundamentals. There must have been the intention to capture the experience of the event depicted and secondly the film-maker must have a specific argument or message to make about the social world employing realist conventions to express this.
Raymond Williams has argued that the four main criteria of social realism incorporate the following features:
- Firstly that the texts are secular, released from mysticism and religion
- Secondly that they are grounded in the contemporary scene in terms of setting, characters and social issues
- Thirdly that they contain an element of social extension by which previously under-represented groupings in society become represented
- Fourthly there is the intent of the artist which is mostly a political one although some artists have used the genre as route into a mainstream film-making career.
Social Realism and Representation
Social realist texts usually focus on the type of characters not generally found in mainstream films. Social realist texts draw in characters who inhabit the social margins of society in terms of status and power. This ‘social extension’ has usually involved the representation of the working class at moments of social and economic change. Hill has noted that this is not just a matter of representing the previously under-represented but that these subjects are represented from different specific social perspectives.
For example there was a shift in modes of representation of the working class from the Grierson documentaries of the 1930s to British Free Cinema documentaries and the British New Wave features which followed on from the Free Cinema Movement. Free Cinema and New Wave chose to represent the working class neither in victim mode, nor in heroic worker mode as had been done previously. The working class were to be seen as more energetic and vibrant.
Critics generally accept that women have faired badly in the representations of the British New Wave, although Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) and TV docudramas Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home helped redress the balance. By the 1980s social realist films such as Letter to Brehznev (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) reflected the changing nature of society and the growing importance of women in the workforce, not only women but humour too was more apparent. This approach continued into the 1990s with films such as Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997). Some have argued that the portrayal of women took a retrograde step in the mid to late 1990s as they became adept consumers unsupportive of husbands as in Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Alternatively women became victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse Stella Does Tricks (1996), Nil By Mouth.
It has been argued that in general the representation of the working class has shifted from being producers to consumers reflected in a move which has seen members of the working class in more privatised domestic environments and leisure-time settings instead of as members of geographical communities or in workplace environments where collective bargaining procedures are in place. Hill sees this as starting with British social realist films of the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s and 1990s.
Whilst social realist representation has tended to focus upon white working class males there has been some breakthrough in terms of race in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Bahji on the Beach (1994). The changing sense of Britishness has been represented through cultural hybridity and multiculturalism from the mid 1980s through until Chada’s Bend it Like Beckham moving from social real to a more fantasy mode in the process. Recently social extension has begun to be granted to the position of asylum seekers and refugees and those effected by the diasporic forces relating to globalisation and the collapse of the psot-capitalist states (Soviet Union / Communist China). Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000) and Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) which keeps in the frame wider issues of the structures of globalised inequality from a social realist perspective.
Another facet of social realist representation has been a tendency towards autobiography suggest Lay (2002). Starting with the work of Bill Douglas and Terence Davie, Lay suggests that this was present in films such as Wish You Were Here (A retro-social realist film), Stella Does Tricks, East is East and Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999). It is arguable that these films contain within them a nostalgic look backwards from a working class perspective which in some sense echoes the growth and success of the ‘heritage film’ in British cinema.
The British New Wave
The ‘New Wave emerged in Britain at a time when Macmillan’s concept that the British as ‘a people’ had ‘never had it so good’ was a dominant feature. The long economic boom which had gathered pace during the 1950s alongside the developments in the welfare state and the growth in power of social democratic discourses of meritocracy had led to the emergence of a new social formation of better educated, assertive and frustrated, smart grammar school educated younger people who wanted to see the fustiness and stuffiness of a system based upon status and respect shift into a meritocratic environment. It is difficult to gauge exactly how important the effect of the liberated meritocratic consciousness of United States culture and the British experience of this during the war impacted upon the general level of consciousness but indicators from the work of Jacky Stacey on British working class women audiences who preferred the more meritocratic sentiments of Hollywood to the RADA driven accentuation of much British post-war cinema points to deeper underlying societal shifts.
The description of cultural phenomena as ‘New Waves’ is an important metaphor which if it is extended fully leads one to note that there were deep up-swellings and currents from which the wave developed. That theatre and cinema and book publishing were challenging the old mores driven by a combination of liberal and social-democratic sentiments can, ironically, be seen as a part of the success of the long economic boom which allowed the youth of the time the relative economic security to dream about other futures. Certainly it would be unwise to split cinema from this rapidly changing socio-cultural milieu. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the positioning and fantasy of Billy Liar (1963) which came at the end of the social realist phase of the ‘New Wave’ and has a more ambiguous nature both in its style and in a recognition that there is social change happening fast. Julie Christie and Schlesinger represent this dramatic shift in Darling.
The Major British New Wave Films
Room at the Top (1959): Dir Jack Clayton
Look Back in Anger (1959): Dir Tony Richardson
Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960) : Dir Karel Reisz
Taste of Honey (1961): Dir Tony Richardson
The L Shaped Room (1962):Dir Bryan Forbes
A Kind of Loving (1962): Dir John Schlesinger
Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962): Dir Tony Richardson
This Sporting Life (1963): Dir Lindsay Anderson
Billy Liar (1963): Dir John Schlesinger
Directors and Actors
The major New Wave directors were Anderson, Reisz and Richardson coming from a background of the Free Cinema. The films dealt with working class subjects and focused on a range of concerns particularly in relation to young people. The films dealt with abortion, prostitution, homosexuality, alienation due to lack of communication and relationship breakdown. The films were intent upon representing a non-London working class environment and were shot in towns such as Nottingham and Mamchester. Black and White fast film stock gave a grainy feel to the film. This was also necessary to cope with the shooting conditions which tended to go for natural lighting and outdoor sets.
Conventional stars were not used rather ,young, usually more working class actors predominated such as Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay. Two of the women most associated with the movement Rita Tushingham and Rachel Roberts interestingly didn’t ‘make it big’ although Julie Christie who came in on the tail-end of the movement in Billy Liar did. The New Wave didn’t actually contribute to the growing pool of regional actors rather it was the way society was changing. Local authority grants for attending drama colleges meant larger numbers were attending and the growth of social realist theatre as well as the rapid growth of TV was creating the demand for more actors. The overall expansion of media was creating pressure for more representation of a wider number of subjects and the sentiments created around the ’People’s war’ had contributed to a widespread recognition of the need to represent the working classes. As Lindsay Anderson had written
‘The number of British films that have ever made a genuine try at a story in the popular milieu, with working class characters all through, can be counted on the fingers of one hand... This virtual rejection of three quarters of the population of this country represents a more than a ridiculous impoverishment of the cinema. It is characteristic of a flight from contemporary reality.’
The films were based upon books and plays who had direct experience of working class life such as Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, David Storey, Shelagh Delaney.
Tom Courtenay in The Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner
Frequently Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top (1959) is considered as the first of the British ‘New Wave’ films however Hayward considers that his film is best seen as one of the precursors to the movement with Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) being the real beginning of the movement. The film starred Richard Burton. Following this came Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) starring Albert Finney then A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1962), with Rita Tushingham. A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger, 1962), Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962), This Sporting Life (Anderson, 1963) with Rachel Roberts and Richard Harris. By 1963 over one third of film production was broadly New Wave showing that British cinema could resist Hollywood - at least for a short time.
Rita Tushinham in Taste of Honey
Losey / Pinter’s The Servant also came out in 1963 and their depiction of upper class decadence can be seen as exploring the same socio-cultural phenomenon that Visconti had begun to depict. Visconti was to explore this in depth through firstly The Leopard and later The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig. Pinter and Losey were to explore the impact of the growth of the New Universities and the changing media scene on the encrusted cloisters of academia and the upper classes in Accident a few years later. The sentiments in these films by Losey and Visconti are a serious exploration of the writing on the wall for the European aristocracy. Here it is possible to draw comparison with Louis Malle’s The Lovers in which Europe’s other well known upper class film-maker explores the decadence and isolated world of the French and international Haute-Bourgeois, the provincial bourgeois and the newly emergent class of the independent thinker and doer. That it is the representative of this class who ‘gets the woman’ who is herself marked by a break with a break in conventions about the role and position of woman is indicative of a changing consciousness at a European level, in the light of post-war disillusion with a class system which led Europe to disaster and was twice rescued by the USA.
This Sporting Life
The social realist films of this ‘new wave’ period were based upon a range of novels and stories which had already made significant inroads into the British psyche. They were adaptations which involved the original authors themselves. The crossovers with theatre were seemingly much stronger than in France. The point is also important as some critics such as Armes have in a rather small minded way pointed out that the directors associated with these films such as Richardson, Anderson and Reisz, were from an upper middle-class public school and Oxbridge background. Linking these directors with Visconti and Malle shows that the European aristocratic hegemony was clearly crumbling and that a new hegemonising process based around a meritocratic process was emerging. Over the longer-term Visconti in Italy and Anderson in Britain might be said to the most consistently left-wing of these directors. John Hill’s later review of the criticism of the British ‘New Wave’ directors attempted to undermine the reductionist sour grapes of Armes and Durgnat by taking a textual approach which noted that although the directors were outside of the class they were representing which can be discerned through the ’marks of ennunciation’ articulating a critical distance between observer and observed. As Aldgate and Richards point out this analysis still left the contextual aspects of criticism largely unexplored.
Hill’s Marxist inflected criticism led to a critique of these films which saw them as misogynistic and many commentators return to this point, however, Murphy has since commented that for the first time women were playing in roles that were far carrying a far more serious emotional weight than the ‘...pathetically trivial roles women had to play in most 1950s British Films.’  In many ways this gender issue needs a careful film by film analysis. By the time of Billy Liar (1962) for example Julie Christie is playing an extremely dynamic role. She feels able to hitch-hike anywhere and comes and goes as she pleases, she is able to transcend the petty provincialism of Nottingham and move to London where she knows that lots of things are happening. By comparison Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay) despite his fantasy life is unable to summon the courage to make the break and move to London and make his dreams come true. In that sense the criticism of the New Wave that it focuses on individuals rather than the possibilities of class solidarity is relevant. The underlying message of Billy Liar is that the newly emergent youth of the 1960s have the possibilities they must have the courage to take these opportunities. That is was a young woman who does this is encouraging from a gender equality perspective. In this the film can be read as a precursor of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life also 1963 is perhaps more ambiguous. It can be argued that the representation of the Rachel Roberts character is negative, to the point that she commits suicide however this representation of a woman who is left on a small widow’s pension and is struggling to survive financially yet resists the pressure to be made dependent upon a man is an underlying theme. That she finds suicide the only way out can be read as a comment upon a society that does not make the necessary social space for women. The pressure to succeed at any cost is one which Machin, played by Richard Harris, finds hard to bear. His working life is brutalising and he has come out of the mines into Rugby League a sort of modern gladiator he is unable to provide Mrs. Hammond with what she wants.
Unlike the cover which describes Mrs. Hammond as ‘frigid’ it is perhaps better to examine the character of Machin whose machismo soon expires when faced with advances from the wife of his boss. Machin likes to control and runs away when he can’t. In this sense it is not unreasonable to argue that there is a crisis of masculinity being represented in which power, sexuality and control allied to class position are all in the process of being renegotiated. The film is also a representation about the possibilities of escaping a drab and dangerous working class life. The professionalisation of sport is just beginning and the film strongly relates to the changing media environment. Stardom is counterpoised to living in a run down terraced house. The incongruity of the Mark IX Jaguar owned by Machin underscores the point.
In their brief review of the critical literature on the British New Wave Aldgate and Richards note that ‘probably the most trenchant critique’ of the British ‘New Wave’ came from Peter Wollen. Wollen’s criticism largely hinges on a textualist based comparative analysis which judges the British ‘new wave’ with the Cahiers group of French directors who for Wollen’s appear to encapsulate the whole ethos of the French Nouvelle Vague. The SPECT construction of the French New Wave is considered in depth in the section on France, here it can suffice to ask whether the methods and methodological approach were appropriate or rich enough to justify the scathing tone of the attack on the British directors. Drawing on Michael Balcon’s wartime pamphlet Realism or Tinsel Wollen notes that within the British cinema there has been a strong element of a preference for ‘realism’ over ‘tinsel’ an aesthetic structuring which Wollen associates with nationalism:
This system of value, though most strongly entrenched on the left, ran all the way across the political spectrum. For the right, as with the Left, the aesthetic preference was bound up with nationalism. ‘Tinsel’ was of course bound up with Hollywood escapism and, in contrast, realism evoked local pride and sense of community... British critics praised films they liked in terms of their realism and damned those they did not as escapist trash. The French New Wave, however, aimed to transcend this shallow antinomy.’
This mode of rhetoric has become a self supporting argument rather than a more fully coherent one based upon differing nuances and circumstances. In the same piece Wollen has conflated the ‘Left Bank’ artists such as Duras and Resnais, more renowned for making documentaries in the earlier 1950s. It is intersting how wollen attacks the crucial diffrence between representations of nation between British and French New Waves. French New Wave was very much a Parisien affair whiclst British New Wave had the guts to represent different parts ogf the country effectively. This could be read as two different nationalisms at work in different ways.
Wollen has seemingly eschewed linkages between how the Italian neorealists might have had an effect upon the British shift to realism, there is no linkage with the surrealist impulse which underpinned the work of Humphrey Jennings and which significantly influenced the Free Cinema movement. An appreciation of the non-realist approaches of Powell and Pressburger is also absent. If, for Pressburger especially, ‘Art’ was to function as a form of transcendence then Billy Liar can be seen as playing out the possibilities of transcending one’s social reality either through the growing media through comedy which reverts to fantasy as the limitations of the possibilities overwhelm. Fantasy is carried through the Julie Christie character which emerges in Darling. Both can be read as a critique of ‘false aspirations’ carried by the nouveau professional classes as well as a deliberate sidelining of the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ argument.
The British cultural milieu was certainly very different to that of the French in which certain overlaps such as their relations to empire could be noted. If there is a trenchant critique to be made of British ‘New Wave’ then it resides more in its failure to properly represent the diasporic influxes that were changing the cultural and social composition of the industrial cities that they were representing. In this the British were probably no worse than, nor better than, the French. Very few films of the period dealt directly with issues of diaspora and decolonisation. In that sense British New Wave was not realist enough!. In terms of the aesthetics of the British New Wave the use of locations such as back allies, cobbles, seaside towns in winter and empty railway stations works to create a feel which has been described as an aesthetics of urban squalor. Some commentators have considered that this acts to 'romanticise' the ‘decaying infrastructure of industrial Britain'  However given that many of the films are dealing with the changes in society the representation of urban and industrialised spaces needs to be considered alongside the representation of newer factories,
Another critique of British New Wave espoused by Wollen was in its lack of ‘modernism’. In fact the modernism classed as an aesthetic was apparent in the sound tracks, which incorporated British popular music in working class leisure venues, from the skiffle group in Saturday Night Sunday Morning to the dance hall scenes in Billy Liar and This Sporting Life. Interestingly the main music was written and performed by Johnny Dankworth in several of these films including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the non New Wave The Servant and Darling. This reflected a strong rise in modernist aesthetics strongly influenced by the culture of the USA. While no sound track is likely to ever compete with the Miles Davis extraordinary and entirely improvised one for Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, the incorporation of Britain's most influential jazz musicians of the time is indicative of an approach that belies Wollen’s seeming Francophilia and as pointed out above dates from the 1956 Momma don’t Allow . Arguably the British new wave films were tackling a more interesting range of discourses and were coming from a different place to the French processes of modernisation. The task of analysis is to be searching for a greater depth of understanding of these social processes not indulging in a ranking exercise.
Compare Wollen’s tone with that of John Orr for example; Orr takes a more measured synoptic view of the cinematic processes of modernity, noting in Resnais Nuit et Brouillard (1955), that he moves from the documentary to the imaginary, a shift managed by Schlesinger’s ‘Billy Liar’ in 1963 for example but one set against the changing cityscapes of postwar Britain. Orr refers to Deleuze’s argument that neorealism opened up cinematic space in the new open spaces of Europe’s damaged cities. Whilst Deleuze argues that these were ‘anywhere spaces’ in which the exterior location did not have to define itself the cinematic space of Nottingham which served as location shooting for Saturday Night , Sunday Morning as well as Billy Liar was symbolic of class representation, and the rise of the working classes, it was symbolic of ‘creative destruction’ that great economic engine described so effectively by Schumpeter, with war acting as the great catalyst to this enduring process at the heart of capitalism. It was also symbolic of social, economic and cultural progress. Rather than being associated with the deeply alienated cinematic/ geographical spaces of mainland Europe, British cinema largely avoided the apocalyptic mood of continental Europe.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
The story telling of the British new wave was outside of the frenetic and frantic pace of Hollywood and also outside of the cinematic time of the emerging mainstream European modernists like Fellini or Antonioni. British cinema had the intensity of the theatre underpinning it and much of British New Wave was like a kammerspiel on location. It was a variant on mainstream modernism and modernity which was perhaps informed by British pragmatism as much as aesthetic theorising but it also owed something to Rossellini and Visconti.
It is Rocco and His Brothers (1960) which charts the changing world of the Italian peasant classes as they come to industrial cities such as Milan to create new lives which is arguably one of the more influential films. The role of boxing for example as a sport drawing its workforce from people trying to escape working class drudgery is explored by Visconti. The treatment of the girlfriend of the Rocco by his brother who finally murders her has resonances with This Sporting Life. Where Visconti does score over the British New Wave in terms of class representation is his specific use of recognising that class solidarity is the way forward for the new working classes in that sense Visconti is more of a political film maker than the British New Wave directors.
In summary the British New Wave worked upon an emergent element of realism which sought to represent elements of the working class and its changing environment. Criticisms have been levelled that the films concentrated on characterisations at the expense of the possibilities of class solidarity as a way forward. This marks a break from the brief associations which were made between the Free Cinema movement and the New Left centered around issues of art, representration and didacticism. In that sense the underlying discourses can be seen as ones which promote a meritocratic society in which opportunities are available but it is down to the individual actor themselves about whether they make a success of these opportunities.
There have been many criticisms from feminist critics that these films are generally misogynistic as on the whole they don’t have positive representations of women playing roles as key protagonists within the films. It is possible to take Wollen’s critique seriously in one way for if the lack of ‘tinsel’ which he criticises within the realist mode of the British New Wave is extended to humour then many of the films fall into this category, Look Back in Anger never rated as a side-splitter neither did This Sporting Life. On the whole Billy Liar manages to transcend this tendency which helped to give the impression of British New Wave social realism its grim and gritty reputation. By comparison Truffaut’ 400 Blows, Tirez sur le pianiste and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle were welcome breaths of fresh air displaying a lightness of touch with parodies of gangster movies. In the content of location shooting in the latter two films and even in the more prosaic autobiography Truffaut finds a lightness of touch even in the grim institutions.
British New Wave: A Webliography
Jazz in 1960s British New Wave Cinema: An Interview with Sir John Dankworth http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/743/1/DankwortharticleJP.pdf
Open University History and the Arts on British New Wave
The Importance of Humphrey Jennings as an influence on the British New Wave directors should not be underestimated, several of these directors like Reisz, Anderson and Richardson were also deeply involved in thte Free Cinema Movement
Lindsay Anderson on Humphrey Jennings: Sight & Sound, Spring 1954
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British New Wave
British Cinema: Social Realism – Webliography
Free Cinema the Precursor to the British New Wave
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.
Senses of Cinema Review of the BFI Triple DVD release of Free Cinema
Guardian review feature on the Free Cinema movement.
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.
June 16, 2007
British Cinema: Social Realism – Webliography
This page functions as a portal into the important strand of British filmmaking described as social realist. Laid out chronologically this portal will be particularly useful for:
* Those unfamiliar with the history of the British cinema
* Students following undergraduate film studies course to provide an overview before tackiling more in depth work
* 'A' level media students following the current (2006 /07) OCR Media A2 Unit on Media Issues & Debates: Contemporary British Cinema. For the OCR unit it will historically contextualise the continuing use of social realism as a successful film form
* The WJEC Film Studies A level "British & Irish Cinema" Unit.
Social realism has played an important role in both British cinema and TV. The British documentary movement which developed under the leadership of John Grierson was enormously influential in stimulating what became a strand of fiction film described as social realism.
Humphrey Jennings who started out with this movement brought a sense of the surreality of popular culture in everyday life to his work. His wartime docu-dramas and documentary work are exemplary pieces of art working across genres to produce some of the best work ever made by a British director.
Jennings was an inspiration to Lindsay Anderson and those who gathered around him in the British 'Free Cinema'. Technical discoveries by cameraman Walter Lassally were to influence the work of the French New Wave Filmmakers and cinematographers.
The documentary work made by them led into the 'British New Wave' at the beginning of the 1960s.
This in turn led to social realist films and TV documentaries in the mid to late sixties with Ken Loach and Producer Tony Garnett being exemplary. Cathy Come Home was a TV drama which heldped the housing charity Shelter to set up. Poor Cow and Kes are classic Loach films from this period.
While the 1970s and 1980s saw less work of this style films such as Meantime by Mike Leigh were very influential. The actor Gary Oldman was outstanding in this and returned to this form as a director in Nil by Mouth made in the late 1990s.
There was a return to popularity for this kind of film in the 1990s particularly by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. This has continued up until 2006 with Ken Loach winning the Palm d'or at the Cannes festival for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) combining social realism with history.
Brtish social realism has also been strongly influential in other types of films which have combined genres into hybrids such as social-realist / comedy. The Full Monty (1997) and Brassed Off (1996) are good examples of this. Perhaps the first hybrid of this type was Billy Liar (1963) at the end of the British New Wave. This film provided a bridge into the 'Swinging Sixties' particularly in the next film by John Schlesinger Darling which starred Julie Christie as well.
The BFI "Screenonline article on comedy" cites several films which also appear elsewhere as social realistically inflected. Films dealing with changing British identity often combine social realist aspects of life with comedy including East is East (1999) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002).
Webliography laid out chronologically
This covers the British documentary movement and via Free Cinema moves into British Social Realism
Documentary Film Units and Film Sponsorship
BFI Screenonline Biography of Paul Rotha
Kinoeye: Humphrey Jennings page.
Links previously on this page are now on the above page plus many more. The page is still under development and further links to analysies of his films are in the pipeline.
Lindsay Anderson director page.
From Lindsay Anderson to the Free Cinema
The British New Wave: Social Realist film of the 1960s
The Impact and Influence of Social Realism in British Cinema a useful Screenonline article.
Tony Aldgate of the Open University discusses British Social Realism
Social Realists in British Cinema from 1990
These two directors have a reputation for working mainly within the social realist tradition although the approaches are still very different. Loach tends to be more macro whilst Leigh is more micro with a style closer to Kammerspiele or chamber plays.
Other British Directors who have used social realism
These directors have made films at times which have been strongly influenced by social realism:
Stephen Frears with Dirty Pretty Things, 2002
Lynne Ramsey Ratcatcher
Michael Winterbottom Welcome to Sarajevo (1998) is a social realist influenced film based upon a true story. His recent The Road to Guantanamo (2006) is a political response to the events and aftermath of 9/11.
Some Social Realist Films From 1990
Life is Sweet, 1990: Mike Leigh. It is marketed as a 'bittersweet comedy" which is quite a good description of many of the social realist / comedy hybrid films
Raining Stones, 1993: Dir Ken Loach
Nil by Mouth 1997: dir Gary Oldman
Authors of British Social Realist Films
Here is a link to Alan Sillitoe author of Saturday Night Sunday Morning commenting recently on the coming ban on smoking in public places