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).

Advertisements

The Miraculous Virgin (Panna zázracnica, Czechoslovakia, 1967)

Sinister fascists?

Štefan Uher’s Slovak film, that was banned post-’68, is an example of nadrealizam; a neologism conjured to avoid association with surrealism, which the right associated with Jewish culture (Sigmund Freud). Slovakia had sided with Hitler during the war. As such it can be expected to be a difficult film to follow as its dream-like narrative isn’t meant to be logical. However, it becomes clear that the artists’ infatuation with the ‘virgin’, Anabella (Jolanta Umecka), is an amour fou as they project their desires onto her. Anabella flits from one man to another vaguely amused by their attentions. Umecka made her debut in Knife in the Water and this was her last film, five years later. On the Second Run DVD there is a ‘finding Anabella’ extra: a short publicity film showing Uher’s quest for an actor to play the role. There are also excellent interviews with Slovak scholars about the film.

The film is set during the war, at the start there is an air raid where people take shelter in what is ostensibly Bratislava’s railway station but it was actually filmed in the amazing Brno conference hall, which has an extraordinary vaulted ceiling. As is common in eastern European ‘new wave’ films, the black and white cinematography, by Stanislav Szomolányi, is exceptional. As far as I can tell this is the only film by Uher available on DVD (in the UK at least) which is unfortunate as Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave (IB Tauris), rates The Sun in the Net (Slnko v sieti, 1962) and The Organ (Organ, 1965) more highly.

I’m sure I missed a number of references in the film; in the picture above do the threatening men represent fascists? Artists who attempt to break conventions are always seen as fair game by reactionaries as they offer new ways of seeing rather than the old. The artists, mostly visual but including a poet, are mostly portrayed as pathetic in their infatuation or is that the way I’m reading the film? I presume the ‘virgin’ is a reference to Catholicism but religion seemed to be absent from the film.

Nadrealizam

The surrealism is superbly presented: a character’s hand suddenly turns into an eagle’s talons; another jumps through a mirror and so on. I’d love to see more nadrealizam.

The Party and the Guests (O slavnosti a hostech, Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Communist-bourgeoisie at play

The western translation of O slavnosti a hostech, (also known as A Report on the Party and Guests) made Jan Němec’s film’s allegorical intention obvious; Němec co-wrote the story with Ester Krumbachová who wrote the screenplay. It’s likely that the satire of the film would have been obvious to the censors of the time anyway even if the original title is better translated as Of Celebration and Guests (according to Michael Brooke’s excellent notes in the Second Run DVD). The film was ‘banned forever’ in 1973 and not seen in Czechoslovakia until 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

The seven characters we meet having a picnic find themselves dragooned into joining a wedding party (although it was possible they were meant to be guests anyway otherwise why would the women change into smart dress?) after being interrogated by a bullying, and slightly unhinged, character with accompanying ‘heavies’.

Creepily slightly unhinged

The picnickers respond differently to the bullying ranging from resistance (he gets beaten up – see above) to appeasement; the woman tend to respond passively. They seem to be saved when the host insists they join the party but the banquet in the forest is an obvious manifestation of a world out of joint. Whilst Němec was no doubt satirising ‘communist’ Czechoslovakia, the dinner party is strikingly bourgeois with its fancy trimmings and Luis Buñuel’s influence is apparent. Buñuel saved his bile for capitalist bourgeoisie: Němec is likely to have been familiar with The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962); The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, France, 1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (Le fantôme de la liberté, France 1974), all featuring dinner parties, came later. Western critics usually viewed Cold War art as being critical of the ‘communist’ system (often accurately) but ignored the potential for critique of the west. There’s no doubt to me that Němec and Krumbachová were having a pop at the bourgeoisie in general. Krumbachová also co-wrote the brilliant Daisies and was a costume designer on the Němec directed Diamonds of the Night.

The comedy is based both on the surreal absurdity of the situation and bourgeois manners that seek to accommodate rather than challenge repressive forces. The latter is obvious in the UK at the moment in the BBC’s coverage of the resurgent right as it insists on giving a platform to deranged scumbags like Carl Benjamin and Stephan Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) in the belief that this is a public service; in reality platforming fascists isn’t funny.

The Party and the Guests is funny, it shows Němec’s brilliance and retrospectively we can mourn his inability to make the films he wanted after being ‘disgraced’ by this wonderful example of the Czech New Wave.

Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci, Czechoslovakia, 1964)

On the run

One of the few things you can be sure about in Jan Němec’s debut film, and contribution to the then nascent Czech new wave, is that the protagonists are on the run from the Nazis. Co-scripted by Němec and Arnošt Lustig, based on the latter’s novel, the film strips the source material almost bare. here’s very little dialogue and the film is littered with might be flashbacks but also might be dreams.

Němec was in his early 20s when he went to FAMU, the film school in Prague, and apparently hadn’t seen any western art cinema to that date. It’s clear from Diamonds of the Night that he left the school admiring Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Alain Robbe-Grillet. There’s even close-ups of ants on a hand, an obvious nod to Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (France, 1929), but there’s nothing in Němec’s film that feels derivative. The Robbe-Grillet influence is particularly from Last Year in Marienbad (France, 1961) where the same events are seen over and over again but with differences. It’s this play of memories that Němec draws on but in his film it seems to be about events that have just happened, or are about to happen, or maybe never happen. This ambiguity situates the film firmly in surrealism, a favourite of Czech cinema, though the dreamlike narrative is rooted in genuine fear of capture. In a bravura opening shot, the boys run from a train taking them to a concentration camp. The long take rushes up the hillside with them; the camerawork throughout is superb. The prime cinematographer is Jaroslav Kucera, who was married to Věra Chytilová; Miroslav Ondříček is also credited. Both went on to make significant contributions to the Czech New Wave.

You could read the boys’ (or is it just one of them?) dreamlike state as being a result of exhaustion. In one scene they spit out bread even though they are starving because it makes their dry mouths bleed. In another a farmer’s wife may be assaulted, sexually or otherwise, as different possibilities are shown. The stark black and white cinematography, sometimes over-exposed, adds a gritty feel to the dreamlike imagery. In one scene, the boys’ seem to spend an age clambering up a scree slope; in another, one of them seems to be chatting up a girl. As to their fate, I can’t spoil it because I don’t know.

Němec apparently ended up making wedding videos in California during the 1970s after being forced from Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Prague Spring; I doubt he brought his artistic sensibility to them but it was no surprise that he couldn’t find work in Hollywood as a director. He was a consultant on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Europe and has continued to make films that, unfortunately, don’t seem to be available in the UK.

Orphée (France, 1950)

La grande mort

One of the key tenets of surrealism was to annoy the bourgeoisie who have to find profound meaning in their art. To provoke annoyance the surrealists relied upon dreams as the ‘legislators of truth’. Although Cocteau was part of the surrealist movement he was often supposed to be a dilettante; however, as  he said: “I have been accused of jumping from branch to branch. Well I have – but always in the same tree”. Hence although there are surrealist elements in Orphée its narrative has a logic that isn’t found in the classic surrealist films of the 1920s. In Orphée there’s no doubt that death lies beyond the mirror but it also seems to be a dream world that Cocteau brilliantly articulates through a variety of techniques.

One such is using back projection which includes a character engaged in conversation with another who is in the foreground. There’s also superb moment where Orpheus and Heurtebise, whilst in the realm of death, struggle along a wall to reach a corner where they appear to fly down the other side. The ‘underworld’ is accessed through mirrors and the transitions through them are done superbly using judicious angles and editing; there’s none of the plasticity of CGI.

Despite this brilliance I’ve never liked the film as Orpheus himself is a misogynist. However, I noticed this time (my third viewing) that he describes himself, toward the end, as ‘insufferably smug’, and early in the film he says that ‘we shouldn’t think to hard as it would become confusing’ (I paraphrase). In other words, it is typical surrealism playing with expectations that art should be meaningful and indicating that the ‘film’ knows Orpheus is pretty dislikable. On the other hand, unliked most surrealist films, it’s relatively easy to understand Orphée: it’s a commentary on the ‘agonies’ of the creative artist both socially (at the start Orpheus is ostracised by his peers because he is successful) and intellectually (the difficulty of creation).

María Casares’ ‘angel of death’ is particularly striking and in one moment of visual brilliance, when she is accused of loving Orphee, her dress suddenly turns from black to white. And it is such cinematic moments that stick in the mind from Orphée, not Jean Marais’ ‘insufferable’ Orpheus.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (US-France, 1992)

Happy families

I was lucky enough to receive the belated season three of Twin Peaks as a gift so embarked on re-watching series one; I never saw series two when it came out. Series one remains a milestone television series with its mix of the uncanny and humour, much of it derived from the genre mash-up of film noir and soap opera. Season two was more wayward, I found the ‘arch villain’ Windom Earl unconvincing though whether that’s due to Kenneth Welsh’s performance is uncertain. The bizarre Lynch-directed final episode almost redeemed it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s response to the prematurely-ended, due to low ratings, series (on episode 29, including both series one and two, and a pilot); Lynch apparently had shown little interest in the programme in its second season even though he appeared in a few episodes. As far as he was concerned as soon as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed, which the television company insisted on, the programme lost its raison d’etre. When Lynch directed he ignored the script, probably because it was trying to explain what was going on. Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to the first series and focused on Laura Palmer whose corpse, in the pilot, stimulates the investigation in the small town. Apparently those who were fans of the series found the film disappointing; when I saw it at the time I was ‘blown away’ by the portrayal of abuse and thought the film was at least as good as Blue Velvet (1986). 25 years later its power remains and I was particularly taken by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura; she superbly conveys the girl’s resignation to her fate even as she rails against the forces that have exploited her. It remains uncomfortable viewing.

Given Lynch is in love with surrealism, we can see the first 30 bonkers minutes of the film almost as a short to accompany the feature; unless I’m missing something…

I’ll now embark on the 19 episodes of series three that apparently take Fire Walk With Me as their starting point. I’m enthused enough, at the moment, to then revisit all Lynch’s films for they were all (I haven’t seen The Straight Story, 1999) designed to get us thinking.

The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod clepsydra, Poland, 1973)

Mental mise en scene

Mental mise en scene

I was musing to a friend recently that I fancied watching an arthouse film where I had no idea what was going on. Perspicaciously The Hourglass Sanatorium appeared, Wojciech Has’ adaptation of Bruno Schulz short stories, which has some of the most mental mise en scene I’ve ever seen. I use ‘mental’ advisedly as the events probably take place in the protagonist’s, Józef (Jan Nowicki), mind.

The film starts with Józef on a bizarre train with a dreamlike landscape. He arrives at a sanatorium where, apparently, his father is staying, although in Józef’s world he is dead. You might be getting the picture of the bizarre narrative but what I can’t convey is the intricate detail of the settings which reminded me of Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runnerthe whole film is crammed with clutter and paraphernalia.

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

But what is going on? The surrealist nature of the film suggests we shouldn’t try and make sense of the narrative; director Has often welds disparate scenes together with the logic of dream. On the other hand, if we are considering dreams then Freudian ideas are obviously present; Józef’s mother thinks he is still a child and the preponderance of women’s breasts, in some scenes, suggests infantilism. We are probably in Józef’s mind, maybe in the moments before death as he revisits his past, though not in any coherent order.  Jewish culture is clearly important but I don’t know why; this excellent article suggests it is a result of Schulz’s source material. However Has may have included Jewish iconography to upset the Polish authorities who were indulging in a bout of anti-semitism at the time of the film’s making. He succeeded and the film was banned; however it was smuggled to Cannes where it won a prize.

Jewish culture to the fore

Jewish culture to the fore

It’s difficult to sum up: it’s bonkers and brilliant.