If… (UK, 1968)

Relevance returning

I first saw If…, rather bizarrely, at school as part of an English lesson. Presumably the whole year (4, I think – 10 in ‘new money’) was seeing it as there was a buzz about the ‘sex’ scene. Unfortunately our teacher stopped it at the point Malcolm McDowell and Christine Noonen wrestle naked, explaining to us that we wouldn’t understand the symbolism. It was an all boys class and we weren’t interested in the symbolism. I’m not sure why they showed us the film and don’t remember any follow-up lessons; maybe these Comprehensive teachers (though we were a Secondary Modern year having failed our 11+s) were being subversive. This would have been 1976-7 so nearly ten years after the film was released; I guess it had recently been shown on TV and recorded to videotape. My only other memory was puzzlement about the ending, but then I did live a life ‘sheltered’ from any sense of the Swinging Sixties and Punk which was getting going at the time.

40+ years on If… has lost none of its power; if anything, its relevance has returned given the extreme public school bozos currently in office in the UK. In recent years a few victims of the ‘public school’ system, such as George Monbiot, have gone public about the trauma they suffered whilst being educated. Certainly the beating McDowell’s rebel Mick takes is grotesque, but it is the mental cruelty the system imposes that has a greater impact. I remember when we went to Secondary School the rumours were we would have a head put down a toilet; in If… it happens.

The self-perpetuating oligarchy, seen in the ‘old boys’ network’ and employment practices of many influential institutions (such as the Press), that is so damaging to the life chances of those outside the ‘gilded circle’ and the country as a whole. The Othering of anyone not like themselves allows the ruling classes to create such obscenities as the Universal Credit in the belief it is the right thing to do.

Lindsay Anderson is an interesting director who made few feature films; I notice he directed some of the TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60). His filmic roots were in Free Cinema, where the representation of working class life was less patronising than mainstream productions of the time. This fed into the ‘gritty realism’ of the British New Wave, though my memory of This Sporting Life (1963), Anderson’s first feature, is that it has expressionist elements as well. By the time of If…, his second feature after the short The White Bus (1967), surrealism had become integral to the narrative; it’s present in the short too.

Anderson had taken This Sporting Life to the Karlovy Vary film festival, in Czechoslovakia, where he met director Miloš Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček who were shooting A Blonde in Love. Anderson invited Ondříček, who with Forman fell foul of the censors after The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko, 1967), to shoot in the UK. Ondříček told Anderson he couldn’t guarantee the colour consistency in the chapel scenes of If… so they were shot in black and white. Ondříček also shot The White Bus which also mixes film stock.

Capriciously Anderson decided to shoot other scenes in monochrome too and this adds to the decidedly Eastern European new wave look of the film; something that also is accentuated by the surreal moments. The first of which is the aforementioned ‘sex’ scene where the characters are suddenly naked and roaring like tigers; apparently McDowell suggested to Anderson they do the wrestling naked and Anderson said ‘Okay in Noonan agreed.’ Of course McDowell put the suggestion to Noonan as Anderson’s idea… Some commentators seem to think the sex scene is ‘real’: Mick’s mate, Wallace, places a saucer on the coffee to keep it warm while it’s happening. However, I think that act is motivated by Mick putting Missa Luba (played by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin in an arrangement by Father Guido Haazen) which he seems obsessed by. Wallace knows that Mick’s going to be absorbed in the music for its duration; the naked wrestling is the fantasy he has while listening.

Whether the wrestling happens or not is immaterial, but ‘the Girl’, as she is known in the dismissive ‘sixties’ way, is clearly a fantasy figure. Her second appearance is through a telescope leaning out of her window which cannot possibly be in Mick’s view. She turns up at the conflagration at the end too. In this film calling her ‘the girl’ works because she is a figment of imagination.

The marginalisation of women in the film is understandable given its milieux. Mary McLeod plays the apparently buttoned-up wife of housemaster (Arthur Lowe at his lugubrious best portraying ineptitude) is seen wandering around the boys’ quarters naked whilst they are all watching a rugby match. It is a brilliant scene emphasising the repression of women, both sexually and as individuals, in the school..

The surrealism highlights the ludicrousness of the public school rituals of fags and ceremonial beatings. These probably appear more ridiculous now than they would have at the time (you could get caned at the school I attended) but Anderson clearly has nothing but contempt for the ‘system’. It certainly chimed with the zeitgeist as it was a box office success, coming out in the year of youthful rebellions across the world as the forces of reaction met an end game. Unfortunately the right has been in the ascendent since the ’70s and are having to be fought again.

McDowell’s Mick reappeared in Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).

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Defence of the Realm (UK, 1985)

When the fourth estate meant something

As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.

The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.

Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.

It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.

Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.

A Kind of Loving (UK 1962)

Unkind loving?

In a recent post on The Day the Earth Caught Fire I suggested that British new wave films had a tendency to be misoygnist and two films I’ve seen recently seem to confirm this. I wasn’t taken enough by Look Back in Anger (1959) to blog about it but A Kind of Loving is a brilliant film and stands up well 57 years after its release. Its tale of sexual frustration and repressive mores is both of its time and universal (or at least what passes for universal in western culture). Alan Bates’ Vic’s fumbling seduction of newcomer June Ritchie’s Ingrid is a story no doubt enacted many times, even today when the shadow of the 60s’ sexual liberation has at least, for most, meant a ‘shotgun wedding’ is unnecessary.

This passage from Chris Beckett’s recent novel Beneath the World, A Sea is apposite:

‘…there were a million songs to tell you that, a million movies–but she should know by now, without needing duendes to remind her, that those exciting and ridiculously hopeful feelings were basically a trick played by biology, which saw an opportunity for reproduction looming, and duly turned on a tap to flood your bloodstream with a drug not unrelated to heroin to dampen down your critical faculties and accomplish the formation of a couple. As soon as you reached that longed-for peak, the descent began almost at once, not necessarily to some sort of hell, obviously, but back to a place where, as before, you were essentially alone again, except that, if you’d not been careful, you were now shackled to another person–not a ‘soulmate’, and not your missing ‘other half’, but simply another person–whose needs you were now required to take into account every single day unless and until you could summon up the courage and energy to disentangle yourself.’

For Vic the entanglement of marriage includes Thora Hird’s battleaxe mother-in-law and a wife who is compliant to her mother rather than husband. James Bolam is already channeling his ‘likely lad’ of two years hence as Jeff, whose cynicism allows him to characterise women a ‘praying mantises’ who eat their sexual partner; as he says: “And you know what they eat last don’t you?” Of course such misogyny was mainstream at the time even if it has just about been shoved to the margins now (though by no means absent from right wing discourse; a recent headline in The Times stated, ‘Tory leadership contenders show off their wives and policy’). There can be a fine line between a film representing something, in this case misogyny, and condoning it. However, in one scene Vic is standing under the marquee of a cinema showing Victim that suggests the film is on Jeff’s side.

As John Hill noted, in Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, women in the new wave were often associated with the new consumer culture which was represented negatively when compared to ‘authentic’ working class culture. In A Kind of Loving Vic misses his Dad’s brass band concert after he’s cajoled to watch a crass TV game show.

The script, by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, is great as is the source novel by Stan Barstow published two years earlier. It is also not entirely on Vic’s side. After he decides to leave Ingrid he seeks validation from both his sister and mum and it’s forthcoming from neither. When the couple have sex Ingrid asks about ‘precautions’ and Vic replies he ‘wasn’t able to’ when we know he bottled buying condoms from a woman pharmacist.

As is often the case with the British New Wave, the location shooting is as crucial as performance and narrative. Denys Coop’s cinematography is superb, evoking the grimness of ‘up north’ and offering some fabulous chiaroscuro shots of back alleys. John Schlesinger directs what was his first feature brilliantly and he went on to make two other new wave classics, Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965). The cast are also exemplary: it’s a British classic.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (UK-Malawi, 2019)

Uncertain feeling

‘True life’ stories are invariably uplifting and the title gives away the film’s denouement. While that’s not a reason to avoid a film I was feeling a little uneasy about the prospect of being made to feel good about a film set in rural Africa. Was the purpose of the film to salve my western guilt about those less privileged than I?

There was no need to worry because director-star and scriptwriter Chiwetel Ejiofor has ensured that there’s enough realpolitik about, in this case, rural Malawi that the uplifting ending can’t disguise the privation suffered by the people. The film is based on the titular hero’s book and we duly get the end credits filling in what happened to William Kamkwamba next. But the journey there is truly tough as Ejiofor ensures we understand the problems of education, politics, climate change and capitalism that beset the village community. Most striking of all is the need for free education for all children.

Ejiofor plays William’s dad I wondered whether his charisma was a little too powerful for his character, the melodramatically named (and presumably actually named too), Trywell. Obviously his star wattage was essential to getting the movie made and he, creditably, even learned to speak the local language, Chichewa, though much of the film is also in English. However, he is such a fine actor, and patriarchy is so strong in the African community, that ultimately the casting worked because it made clear how hard it was for William to challenge his dad.

Ejiofor defended the decision to distribute via Netflix (see here) but his hope that it would also be seen in cinemas appears to have been dashed (apart from some festival screenings). Obviously much is lost on television when the cinematography, courtesy of Dick Pope, is widescreen. Presumably the BBC’s involvement means it won’t be too long before it appears on terrestrial television.

As Extinction Rebellion activists make their presence felt, it’s important to see the impact climate change is having on communities who live on the verge of starvation. It might give some perspective to the whingers who have been complaining about the prospect of having to change their lives or face annihilation. It seems some believe that climate catastrophe will only affect poor countries (I spoke to an American who was relaxed about the idea that Bangladesh will disappear), not understanding that there is only one ecosystem on planet Earth.

Mandy (UK, 1952)

Wall of silence

Mandy was Alexander Mackendrick only non-comedy Ealing film and by my reckoning it is one of the great films of British cinema. A highly intense melodrama, the film focuses on a congenitally deaf girl, played brilliantly by Mandy Miller, whose middle class parents fight over how best to care for her. Terence Morgan’s dad, Harry, is a typical male who wishes to hide from difficult choices whilst Phyllis Calvert’s mum, Christine, refuses to give up on their daughter. Jack Hawkins plays his usual stiff upper lip hero, a teacher who cares deeply for his charges.

The script, by Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham (based on Hilda Lewis’ novel The Day is Ours), parallels Mandy’s disability with the failure of communication between the adults, including the repressed Harry’s parents. If my description of Hawkins above sounds disparaging, I don’t mean it to be as when he agonisingly starts to fall for Christine his pain is apparent. He has to fight Ackland, a trustee who cares more about appearances than the children, who plots his downfall. This man’s hypocrisy is subtly portrayed through his secretary with whom he’s clearly having an ‘affair’. (Funnily enough the actor playing the role, Edward Chapman, reminds me of Brexiteer Tory MP and entirely unself-aware idiot, Mark Francois).

It’s designed to be a tear-jerker and Mackendrick’s direction intensifies this further; even the act of a child slipping their hand into an adult’s becomes laden with emotion. He uses expressionist devices sparingly but with devastating effect. As Mandy peers out of her backyard, a (almost) choker shot (cutting her off at the neck) emphasises her pained loneliness. Shadows veil characters as repressed emotions threaten to break out. A close-up of the back of Mandy’s head signifies her deafness. At one point the sound disappears to mimic Mandy’s experience and the silence is devastating.

There’s a educational element in the film that never feels contrived: a new teacher struggles to deal with the children and the etiquette of ensuring deaf people can see a speaker’s mouth is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Charles Barr, in Ealing Studios, suggests the film is about childhood in general in the post-war era and certainly the old fashioned characters, Harry’s parent and the wing-collared trustee, are shown to be in the wrong. Presumably this was the time that ‘children should be seen not heard’ was at last being challenged as compulsory education to 15 extended childhood.

The scene when Harry hits Christine for her stubbornness reminds us that domestic violence was (almost) acceptable. A lawyer even suggests that although women often deserve it the courts frown upon it. That Christine later accepts she deserved hitting is doubly chilling and is not something that the film vindicates.

Mackendrick directed only a few films and this, and Sweet Smell of Success, deserve the appellation ‘great’.

Nae Pasaran (UK, 2018)

The people united

The right still excoriates the trade union movement, justifiably because it stands in the way of rampant exploitation of the workers. The propagandistic aspect of this vilification in the 21st century is obvious because the unions have been emasculated by Thatcherite legislation which, shamefully, the Blair government refused to undo. In the 1970s the unions did have power and it’s no coincidence that inequality in British society has been steadily rising since they were defeated. Nae Pasaran is a timely reminder of the importance of international solidarity, even more so now when the insular xenophobes are on the rise, with its story of Scottish workers refusing to repair Hawker Hunter fighter jet engines.

The year was 1973 and on September 11th General Pinochet launched a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The coup was American backed as corporations were worried about Allende’s policy of nationalisation. Nixon was the president and Henry Kissinger the Secretary of State (unbelievably he won a Nobel Peace Prize): enough said. I remember (as a youngster) thinking Kissinger was some kind of hero as he was repeatedly represented on television news as a peacemaker in the Middle East. That was a lie then propagated by mainstream media; ‘fake news’ isn’t new. The current American government is trying to engineer a coup, shamelessly supported by the EU in recognising the unelected opposition leader as the the man they want in power. One thing that distinguishes the Trump administration from that of Nixon’s is that, amongst all the lies, the truth sometimes appears. National Security Advisor John Bolton admits the attempted coup is about oil; something Bush jr. didn’t say about Iraq.

Hence Nae Pasaran is particularly timely as it reminds us of America’s disastrous interventions in Latin America; Pinochet tortured political prisoners and thousands were killed. It also shows us how powerful international solidarity can be as the consequences of the workers ‘blacking’ the engines included the release into exile some of the political prisoners. These exiles included writer-director Felipe Bustos Sierra’s dad and he tracked down the surviving members of the trade unionists who were instrumental in ‘blacking’ the engines. After the documentary’s title sequence, that fills in the history of Chile 1973, we arrive in Scotland and meet these ageing heroes. If this sequence is a little long, they tell Sierra what they remember of the time, there’s a pay-off at the end when their achievement receives official acknowledgement. The middle parts of the documentary consist of tracking down the fate of the engines and the impact the Scottish boycott had.

I just managed to catch the film on BBC’s iPlayer service (it disappeared yesterday) as it was only broadcast in Scotland; a rather parochial decision as it would have been a public service to ensure the film was broadcast to the nation.

Denial (UK-US, 2016)

Heroes

As we appear to be in a post-truth society when any old bollocks, amplified by social media and social disengagement, is believed this case from the 1990s deserves airing. Holocaust-denier, David Irving (Timothy Spall), sued historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) because she called out his lies. Despite being American she was obliged to defend herself in British courts, which lean heavily toward the accuser. The film painstakingly delineates the complexities of the case and David Hare’s script superbly shows the legal issues that made the case difficult for the truth.

Her legal team, no doubt crammed with Public School-Eton educated folk, were clearly brilliant at their job. It just goes to show that idiots like Boris Johnson aren’t entirely typical. Unsurprisingly Lipstadt wants to take the stand to defend herself; she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. However as Tom Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton (Lipstadt’s lawyer) says, this would just play into Irving’s hands as survivors’ memories are notoriously unreliable.

Millions of pounds were spent on the case which, from Irving’s accusation to the verdict, lasted years: all to reaffirm the truth. That it was necessary shows what a mess we’re in; now, for example, anti-vaxxers are succeeding in getting parents to risk their children. The lies, or course, are usually political in nature: the less people understand the world the more likely they are to support ‘populists’ who appeal to emotion rather than intellect and shit on ‘the people’. We know how well that turned out in the 20th century and it’s important that social media is also used to ‘call out’ the lies of those who would mire us in ignorance for their own purposes. Yesterday Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith told Bloomburg opinion polls showed most people in the UK where happy to leave the EU with a ‘no deal’. Either he’s a liar or stupid (probably both) and his coughing as he spoke suggested he was choking on something.The ‘bullshit asymmetry principle; states: ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it’; it is amply illustrated by Denial.

There’s a chilling moment at the summing up of the cases when the judge asked Rampton, who was busy proving that Irving was lying, ‘what if Irving believes what he’s written?’ Rampton looks rattled but recovers to explain the self-serving nature of Irving’s deception. There’s little doubt that Trump believes whatever comes out of his mouth as he seeks to mould the world to his will and it is the news media’s duty to challenge this however it fails on a daily basis. One of the reason why we’re still floundering to deal with climate change, for example, is because the ‘other side’, usually sponsored by fossil fuels, is given a platform. The BBC even gave Tommy Robinson a platform (even using his own meme of his gagged face!) and so helped normalise right wing extremism. The truth can be like, as EH Carr put it, a historical fact which is a sack with no shape until you put something (perspective) into it. However, there are no ‘alternative facts’ regarding the existence of the Holocaust that require investigating.