The BFI’s new Flipside strand unearths overlooked and obscure British films, but the almost-swinging 1960s presented in London in the Raw (1964) and Primitive London (1965) is a version of the myth we know well already, whether from cult movies like Beat Girl (1959), The Knack (1965) and Smashing Time (1967) or the more mainstream retro fare of Austin Powers (1997-2002) and The Boat That Rocked (2009). Post-war London, its rapidly changing landscape an ideal metaphor for accelerated culture, marauding sexuality and the shock of the new, here becomes an exotic backdrop for Arnold Louis Miller and cinematographer Stanley Long to undertake their ‘anthropological’ study of the city’s moral habits – a quest that leads almost inevitably back to breasts and buttocks, jiggling in proto-gyms, dancehalls, beauty contests and strip joints.
Of course, Miller and Long (who went on to shoot The Wife Swappers and Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate in the 1970s) were not, in any respectable sense, documentarists – yet this mondo double bill, by its very transparency of intent, is a fascinating insight into not only the British exploitation genre, but also the preoccupations that were ripe for being exploited. It is no surprise that sex is chief among these, but it’s primarily sex as fantasy and performance, with the realities of the act itself still a taboo. The body is viewed repeatedly as grotesque theatre (exotic dancers of all sorts, not only striptease artists, punctuate the first film, while martial arts, beauty parlours and body-builders pop up in the second); and some awkward teenage, working-class beatniks are asked their opinions about ‘free love’, as if representative of a libertarian lifestyle that in fact they’re unlikely ever to experience.
As historical artefacts of a pre-permissive society, both films deserve their reissue, but there’s little to elevate London in the Raw above curio status. Too many long sequences of stolid couples enjoying a taste of the ‘exotic’ in Indian and Moroccan restaurants do little but drive home the grim parochialism of the era, although a scene in the Universal Health Club, in which women in tights blithely lift weights to a chugging brass soundtrack with clanging industrial percussion, is wonderfully perverse.
Follow-up Primitive London is more enjoyable, if questionably so, revelling in its mondo status and upping the shlock tactics and nipple count accordingly, a solemn voice-over bemoaning the ‘synthetic eroticism’ of the day as the camera pans to yet another nylon-clad crotch. Horror composer Basil Kirchin provides music, and in true mondo style, sexualised murder gets a look-in, with a Jack The Ripper sequence alongside reconstructions of a contemporaneous series of killings of young prostitutes. These eerie, titillating shots of bodies dumped on suburban waste ground are a jarring reminder of the era’s attitudes towards women in the sex industry, lest we burlesque-fanciers get too comfortable in our nostalgia for the retro lingerie, ‘real’ bodies, furtive punters and quaint routines of the film’s many strip sequences. The inherent, often unpleasant, truth in clumsily staged, exaggerated versions of reality is what really fascinates with the mondo genre, and even more so when set against the mutable, war-ravaged, but instantly recognisable streets of London.
Extras include the semi-fictionalisted stripper doc Carousella (1966) on the Primitive London DVD while London in the Raw has three documentary shorts from Peter Davis and Staffan Lamm, their soft black and white tones and unobtrusive direction a respite from the preceeding brashness. Pub (1962) observes an evening in the comfortable fug of a local boozer, the camera and microphone drifting between half-heard conversations. Strip (1965) and Chelsea Bridge Boys (1966) intersperse fly-on-the-wall footage with interviews which, at times, sail close to the prurience of Miller’s youth vox-pops. Perhaps Davis and Lamm were shooting exploitation films of a less overt sort, asetheticising and fetishising those disempowered by youth and poverty, but the visual compassion shown to these young subjects and their surroundings, not to mention the value of capturing the actual voices - the timbre, accents, vocabulary - of the era, invite sympathetic reappraisal.
Read our review of the third Flipside initial release, the demented satire The Bed Sitting Room, based on a play by Spike Milligan, directed by Richard Lester and starring Peter Cook, in the summer 09 issue of Electric Sheep. Substitute is the theme of the new issue, with articles on the fraught relationship between Takeshi Kitano and ‘Beat’ Takeshi, the various cinematic incarnations of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, interchanging identities in Joseph Losey’s films, the dangers of false impersonation in neo-noir Just Another Love Story, the paradoxes of black and white twins in offbeat lost classic Suture, not to mention cross-dressing criminals, androids and body snatchers. Also in this issue: interview with Marc Caro, profile of whiz-kid animator David OReilly, comic strip review of Hardware, and The Phantom Band’s favourite films.