During the early sixties, a collection of British filmmakers formed part of England's own New Wave and left an indelible mark on an industry that up until the late fifties, remained rather stagnant, due in part to a quota system meant to nurture new talent whose work was guaranteed a place on local screens when American movies were dominating theatre circuits.
Britain had its own star system, its own roster of talented writers, directors and producers who made their own share of award-winning and internationally successful films – David Lean perhaps being the most well-known of that era – but to the country's New Wave filmmakers, the quota films were dull retreads of style and substance long outmoded and out of touch with the daily lives of Britons.
Quoted in the superbly detailed booklet that accompanies Facet's 3-disc set, Lindsay Anderson wrote of his film O Dreamland (1953), “British documentaries rarely give the impression of having been made by human beings: they seem rather the well-turned product of a highly efficient, standardized industrial process… [a] please one-please all,” and although he's specifically referring to documentaries, his view could also be applied to the bulk of familiar escapism both cranked out by the British studios, the American satellite companies embedded in England trying to use up their frozen pounds sterling, and of the American product which rarely embraced the neo-realism in European films, let alone tackled serious social ills (unless they were backdrops within a formulaic genre entry or central to specific noir films).
Europe's postwar film industries seemed to move in unique directions by the late forties and fifties: Polish films such as Border Street / Ulica Graniczna (1949) examined aspects of Nazi brutality or focused on realistic working class characters and their own vulnerable emotional and sexual relationships; East Germany at first grabbed anti-Semitism and postwar guilt by the horns before warping stories into Communist propaganda; France seemed to offer a mix of socially conscious commentaries as well as lively escapism; criminal thrillers seemed to function as safe guilt, retribution, and justice metaphors in West Germany, in addition to escapist romantic pageantries like the Sissi series; and Italy's neorealist movement seemed to fall out of vogue in favour of social dramas, broad comedies, and antiquity epics in blazing Technicolor.
One could argue that Britain had yet to be jostled by its own home-grown filmmaker rebellion, assaulting all things conventional and blah; the monotony of idyllic images, clichés, familiar nationalistic rhetoric, and beneficial social behaviour were ripe for attack, and therein lay the foundations of the Free Cinema movement: to show Britons living in raw, unadorned, everyday surroundings, yet in a manor that both educated a people about their cultural uniqueness, and demonstrated their social fabric held virtues in spite of vicious class divisions.
The pain of growing up poor or middle class in industrial towns and cities and grey neighbourhoods are anchors of the ‘angry young man' films by Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, Jack Clayton, Tony Richardson, and Karel Reisz, yet before these filmmakers produced their own breakthrough feature-length works, they had started to find their own voices by examining their surrounding world within the short-form documentary.
Sometimes bitter, investigative, cruel, or impressionistic, the films by these burgeoning filmmakers were made within official government film units, for corporate bodies or as independent productions, but Facets' 3-disc collection, which ports over the contents of the BFI Region 2 set, presents those core works mostly financed by the BFI Experimental Film Unit that were screened as part of the Free Cinema programs, screenings basically designed by the represented filmmakers to show off their own work that often didn't fit any formal genre, mold, nor could be programmed into a straight theatrical venue.
The name 'Free Cinema' was chosen for its catchiness, and certainly in the case of co-founder Anderson, the six-part series offered him a chance to screen a few older, unreleased works that no one wanted.
Small wonder it went beyond its original one-year plan.
Call it revolutionary or savvy marketing by socially conscious filmmakers, but Free Cinema sold a program of short films about Britons that were vocally frank, provocative, sly, or experimental in technique. Some 50+ years since the series ran from 1956-1959, there's still much to admire in their audacity, and the sometimes unsuccessful efforts by young lions trying to scream louder using grainy 35mm and 16mm film.
THE FILMS: DISC ONE
“As filmmakers we believe that no film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.”
- intro statement to the Free Cinema 1 program by directors Lorenza Mazzetti, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson
One of the beauties of this 3-disc set is its replication of three of the six main programs that made up the original Free Cinema screenings, enabling us to relive the experience, albeit in a more private forum, and watch gritty, rule-breaking films by some of England's most enigmatic and sometimes least-prolific filmmakers. With the exception of Tony Richardson, few of the directors showcased within the series enjoyed busy film careers, yet the personal nature of these works arguably symbolizes how each maker wasn't concerned with establishing the foundations for a profitable commercial career.
FREE CINEMA 1 (February 5-8, 1956)
O Dreamland (1953)
By 1953, Lindsay Anderson had already made a quartet of short industrial films for Richard Suttcliffe Ltd., a company specializing in custom-built conveyor systems: Meet the Pioneers (1948), Idlers at Work (1949), Three Installations (1952), and Trunk Conveyor (1952). The first film in the Free Cinema series, O Dreamland (1953), was unusual in that it was filmed by Anderson while he was co-directing Thursday Children (1953) with Guy Brenton in the town of Margate.
Dreamland was shelved until 1956 when Anderson felt he had the right venue for his work, and while cruder in look and style than his industrial films, it has a very distinct, acidic tone.
Admittedly this is a bit of a generalization, but local town and city carnivals were treated by American filmmakers as a positive cultural venue: garish visuals and shock rides and rigged games were part of the old-time charm that surrounded kids and teens, and the carnival was a place where parents took their kids each summer, fostering an annual tradition their own kids could pass on to their future rugrats.
Carnivals and sideshows were also safe locales for young lovers, and even when transposed to mystery (Alfred Hitchcock's premedidated murder sequence in Strangers on a Train), trash horror (Ghoulies 2) or visceral social dramas (The Girl Next Door), the carnival was and remains a place steeped in authentic and fabricated pop culture nostalgia.
Anderson's take on a local carnival isn't nasty or meant to unmask a hidden evil; instead, the director focuses on the garish acts as experienced by real patrons: the torture chamber friezes, the hideous cheap mechanical dolls, and the bursts of bawdiness from vendors selling novelties, like female dolls who flash bare boobies at the flick of a switch.
No one seems to be enjoying themselves, patrons look uncomfortable as they meander through cheap displays, and the impressionistic mix of asynchronous sounds is oppressive, particularly when cackles and songs are repeated like vulgar shouts through a megaphone. The photography is coarse and unflattering, and the edits focus on the grotesque.
Dreamland is a film that celebrates nothing, and even for Anderson, it's the opposite of his industrial films that extolled the virtues of their subjects - modern technology bringing goodness on a national and local scale - and one wonders if Anderson's decision to shelve the film came from having watched the finished Dreamland and realizing it lacked additional dimensions or subtext; as it stands, it's a crude and intriguing work, but it also feels like an effort edited from hastily shot footage with a very narrow perspective.
Momma Don't Allow (1956)
Completed in 1955, Momma Don't Allow was the first film by future feature film directors Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, each having come from very different backgrounds. Richardson had risen up the ranks through BBC TV, whereas Reisz was programmer of the NFT (National Film Theatre) and author of The Technique of Film Editing, a standard textbook for several decades, so it's no surprise Momma Don't Allow is both an editorial experiment and subtle comment on class behaviour within the Wood Green jazz Club in North London.
Filmed over nine evenings, on the surface it's a montage of dancing youths and young adults while the Chris Barber Band plays straightforward Dixieland jazz. One onscreen performance has partial sync sound, but like many of the Free Cinema efforts on Disc 1, the music is subjugated by images, which in Momma, string together men and women as they finish up their working class jobs, get dolled up, and head out to a jazz club for some dancing and drinking.
On one level, Momma is a snapshot of various youths assembling under one roof to dance, socialize, stare, ogle, posture and blow off steam after a long day in dullsville, but things get a bit more interesting when a group arrive in the chauffeur-driven limo, with the driver grabbing and pocketing the hood ornament for safekeeping. The upper-class girl in the group doesn't become the doc's focus, but the filmmakers keep cutting back to her efforts to co-mingle, and one sees a well-off lass blending with the locals, getting a bit tipsy, and being completely outshone by better dancers.
The others maintain actual choreography with their partners, whereas the lass lazily pirouettes with her long and increasingly annoying shawl, and she's passed on to other men more out of frustration and boredom than anything else. She eventually leaves with her group and heads home in her snazzy sedan, but Reisz and Richardson play with the footage and discreetly comment on the kids, the adults, the Teddy Boys, and the rich folk who manage to find their own satisfaction when at any time outside of the club walls, they'd likely maintain formal class divisions and prejudices.
The doc goes on longer than it should, but the Chris Barber band is decent, and some classic blues tunes give the doc a bit of juice when the montages of sweaty, dancing couples gets a bit tiresome.
Richardson would flip back to TV before directing his feature film debut, Look Back in Anger in 1958, whereas Reisz would direct another youth-centric short, We Are the Lambeth Boys (1958), before making his own feature length splash with the superb ‘angry young man' film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1960.
As described by Lindsay Anderson in the DVD booklet, Together began as a work called Glass Marble, directed by Lorenza Mazzetti and Denis Horn about two deaf mutes and their daily trials in dealing with people and finding work in industrial London. According to Anderson, her colleagues had abandoned the project, leaving Mazzetti alone with roughly edited 35mm footage, and the BFI none too happy that their monies and the allowed artistic freedom had not spawned a fully completed film.
Anderson helped in the film's editing; his longtime cinematographer, Walter Lasally, shot additional footage; and one of Free Cinema's leading multi-threats, John Fletcher, applied his skilled sound recording and editing skills to mix a rich track of impressionistic sounds.
The final work is one of the longest among the set's shorts, and but it suffers from focal difficulties. Inspired by Italian neo-realist films, Mazzetti labors too long on the day to day trials that repeat the same messages: the men's friendship and trust is unbreakable, and it's vital to their survival in a world ignorant or outright unkind to their silence.
Daniele Paris' score also beats to death a children's rhyme sung by the local street urchins to taunt the two men, and in performances by a chamber and small jazz orchestra; the music is well-done, but it merely adds to the monotony that hits around the midsection, and lingers before the piquant finale.
Flaws acknowledged, Together is also a compassionate little gem that captures the nuances of friendship and its strength when cruelty exists in the men's home, at the dinner table among the landlord's family, and in local bars, and Mazzetti also makes extensive use of the gloomy industrial streets in postwar Britain: the rubble from bombed buildings have been cleared to shape neat dirt mounts, some skeletal homes remain at corners, and an immense factory wall recalls the huge penitentiary walls that went on for blocks in films like Two-Way Stretch (1960).
The postwar playground is particularly striking, because it captures a similarly disturbing slice of grubby urban childhood, as vividly interwoven in the Alistair Sim drama, Hue and Cry (1947). The kids in Together aren'told enough for physical violence or theft, but their endless taunting and public humiliation are well within their bounds of nascent gang behaviour.
The photography is largely quite beautiful, and the finale is well-tied to the characters' physical issues which only become a liability when one is separated from the other. Mazzetti aims for a cold nihilism which is perhaps the only punctuation she could affix to the film after the characters get stuck in a long and repetitive groove.
FREE CINEMA 2 (September 9-12, 1956)
Unlike the prior British-only program, the second was devoted to the works of foreign directors, and was comprised of Lionel Ragosin's Oscar-Nominated On the Bowery (1955), the Oscar-winning Neighbours (1952) by Canada's influential Norman McLaren, and Le sang des betes (1948) by France's Georges Franju. While these films not part of the Facets or BFI sets, the McLaren short is in the Norman McLaren boxed set from Koch, and Franju's short is part of the special features on Criterion's Eyes Without a Face DVD.
FREE CINEMA 3: “LOOK AT BRITAIN!” (May 25-29, 1957)
Wakefield Express (1952)
Like his industrial films for Suttcliffe Ltd., Wakefield Express was a commissioned work, meant to celebrate the paper's 100th anniversary, but like O Dreamland, the film remained unreleased until Anderson plopped it into the third Free Cinema program in 1957.
Much like his first Suttcliffe film, Meet the Pioneers (1948), Wakefield deals in minutia – specifically the myriad individuals representative of the key roles from minor to major in an organization that produces a sophisticated product for the masses. The paper is a product, but unlike a physical machine, it's newsprint held together by the daily doings of locals.
The small town events scribbled in notepads by beat reporters are as dull, trivial and painfully trite as in contemporary local publications, and whereas some may find the war memorial, childrens' singing, and a shut-in's birthday worthy of their curiosity, the doc only kicks into gear when Anderson chronicles the processes of submission, editing, typesetting, proofing, and printing when the paper is published at its central headquarters.
The doc's final third becomes an ephemeral snapshot of a publishing routine that's rarely seen today when so much is computerized, with the linotype process being particularly fascinating. The pacing is brisk yet informative, and Anderson and team members Fletcher and Lassally obviously had more fun crafting the doc's extensive montages, with a particular emphasis on the mechanical details of the printing machines (a fascination equally potent in Meet the Pioneers).
Nice Time (1957)
Although photographed using light-sensitive 16mm stock by John Fletcher, Nice Time was directed by Swiss and French directors Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner, and basically follows waves of families, couples and singles as they look for entertainment throughout Piccadilly Circus on what's designed to represent a single average Saturday night.
The directors shot a wealth of footage over 25 weekends, and constructed a vivid portrait the Circus, but though it's a neat little snapshot of the area's drawing power, there's tremendous editorial manipulation going on, which reveals a lot about the filmmakers, including their own cheeky sense of humour.
The short is bookended by shots of the central fountain stature that looks over the parade of revelers as they arrive, socialize, and eventually disperse among the neon and giant movie signage surrounded the expansive area. The names of theatrical films people are lining up to see are hidden or fragmented – a deliberate ploy to keep the focus on the people, or perhaps avoid rights issues – but by the end of the short we know some of the films in first-run circulation include War and Peace (1956), and Robert Aldrich's Attack! (1956).
There's plenty of candid, distant shots of wandering couples, separate groups of young women and studs, kids holding onto their parents hands, older couples, and a racially integrated couple – a rather rare glimpse at progressive relationships usually kept off American cinema screens.
Fletcher's camera was basically trained on everything, and that included some of the naughty elements, such as local peep shows, erotic clubs, and lurid posters – all captured and edited into clever montages that imply men were always taking peeks at naughty bits whenever they got a chance. It's obvious the discreet lechery is manufactured in Nice Time by intercutting shots of couples or single men glancing at one thing, and cutting to footage of bare-breasted pictures or a long poster of Brigitte Bardot's torso – images clearly shot at different times or likely as pickups.
The filmmakers also edit bare-chested stills from a peep show between footage of Teddy Boys playing pinball and spinning 45's in an arcade; we've no way of knowing whether the arcade contained peep booths, but directors Goretta and Tanner infer the images were either present in the locale, or intercut the faded up/down stills as impressionistic flash cuts, which work within the doc's format since the sound mix is also a broad collection of real location sounds, and post-sync chatter (such as two girls talking about shoes by the fountain, even though their lips in no way match the softly heard dialogue).
The trickery works, but it also reveals how much of the doc's construction is comprised of creative technical manipulation. When two shots of a torpedo sweater girl are tied to shots of men with wandering gazes, we know the filmmakers were having a lot of fun in the editing room, and knew a little old fashioned T&A would spice up their doc when the other montages were becoming a bit repetitive.
Nice Time is otherwise well-paced, and its best sequence is the finale that quietly follows the eventual dispersal of people, fruit cart merchants dragging off their wares, and drunkards and pranksters being ‘escorted' to the local police station by bobbies. The pre-recorded music bits by the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group are replaced by a beautiful vocal solo, whch has Nancy Whiskey's voice providing a soothing lullaby for an empty Circus in the wee morning hours.
It's a manipulative little piece, but a fine example of skillful editing and early sound design.
The Singing Street (1952)
The original Free Cinema program used an extract of this production by an amateur film group from the Norton Park School, and while the DVD gives one a chance to see the whole film, at 30 mins., it's brutal in its monotony of like-minded sequences.
The hook is very simple: pre-recorded folks songs of Glaswegian children support montages of mostly girls singing as they skip rope, walk in the streets, tease boys, and play about, and there's true ingenuity in the use of songs as the underpinning of poetic montages, but what would've been delightful at perhaps 10 mins. becomes endless at a length that's three-fold. There's no break between montages, although the bits are strung together as musical vignettes of one city's day of play during Easter.
The credits, cinematography, and sound are rough, but Singing Street has enough charm for perhaps the same cursory glimpse wisely given to the original Free Cinema audiences.
Every Day Except Christmas (1957)
Shot on 35mm, Lindsay Anderson's contribution to Free Cinema 3 was this Grand Prix award winner at the Venice Film Festival, following the entrenched, meticulous system used by flower merchants as they pickup their product and prep them for sales and distribution at Covent Garden.
Much as Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) provided a snapshot of the lively fruit market component before the busy market was relocated in 1973, Anderson's 1957 film is a rich time capsule of Covent Garden's busy activities, and again the director focuses on the nuances of every distribution stage, including the physical transportation of boxes, and the meticulous packaging of every delicate flower within.
No longer tied to a physical conveyor system or local news, Anderson was free to capture and editorially integrate routines, habits, dialogue (some partially synchronized), and personalities of his human subjects, and more than Wakefield Express, he showcases the physical toll on the workers. Certainly one theme within the film is the unsung hero who works under the cover of darkness to ensure your morning flowers are fresh and plentiful at the local store, and his/her position in a finely oiled human machine that cannot take a longer pause for rest, or any personal reflection.
Dressed in a formal jacket, white shirt and tie, we see the exhaustion on a street vendor's face and his rumpled clothes as midday approaches, and one could also argue that more than in his prior films, Anderson focused on a particular chunk of the working class whose products are consumed by the wealthy and middle-class; his film validates their efforts, and acknowledges the many other ‘transparent' workers that ensure perishable goods are ripe and ready at the crack of dawn.
Coming Next: FREE CINEMA - DISC 2
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan