Deep End

Deep End

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 May 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

Writers: Jerzy Skolimowski, Jerzy Gruza, Boleslaw Sulik

Cast: Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Diana Dors

West Germany/UK 1970

90 mins

Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made: particularly where working-class characters are concerned, the sexual liberation promised by the seismic cultural shifts of the 60s often translated in British film into an atmosphere of acute sexual tension, characterised by anxious promiscuity and voyeurism, casual misogyny played for comic value and a kind of nervous laughter that seems to signify fear more than pleasure. (The merriment generated by Rita Tushingham’s use of the word ‘rape!’ in Richard Lester’s 1965 The Knack… and How to Get It springs to mind, as does weirder fare like David Greene’s 1969 thriller I Start Counting, a claustrophobic murder story that doubles up as a slightly creepy study of suburban schoolgirl Jenny Agutter’s developing sexuality.)

But there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski‘s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. This might seem at first like a British film, but much of it is shot in Munich, and it’s a UK/German production by a Polish director whose previous credits included the script for Polanski’s sophisticated Knife in the Water. So, immediately, the setting doesn’t feel right; something is off-kilter - and I admit I wasted a good few minutes trying to work out ‘where’ in London the bath scenes were filmed, while knowing somehow they weren’t quite English-looking enough. Certain sequences, such as the film’s dénouement involving bin-bags full of snow and a lost diamond, have a touch of avant-garde European theatre about them, and the use of ‘Mother Sky’ by German band Can on the film’s soundtrack adds to the sense of displacement: instead of the lumpy late-60s grooves often flowed over party scenes of the time, we get Jaki Liebezeit’s metronomic drums and Damo Suzuki’s androgynous Japanese-English vocal. In addition, Skolimowski effects some neat shifts in perspective that feel very deliberate, initially inviting us to bond with his young lead (played with disarming fervour by John Moulder-Brown) and enjoy the initial friendship between him and Susan (an impressive, dispassionate Jane Asher) as they deal with the demands of their unappealing elders, in the form of sexually rapacious customers, Mike’s forlorn parents and the repulsive schoolteacher with whom Susan has an on-off affair. As Mike’s desires get more aggressive and delusional, and Susan attempts to move on and away from her mundane life via her proprietorial mod boyfriend, the viewer is left stranded in a quite nightmarish miasma of frustrated wants and needs, and can only dread the outcome.

Where Deep End really excels and discomfits - and this is one good reason to catch the cinema re-release - is when it homes in on the physicality of everyday life, the weirdness of existing in our bodies and environments. The camera pays forensic attention to both Mike and Susan’s bodies with an unusual equality - lingering as much over John Moulder-Brown’s skinny, downy adolescent limbs as Jane Asher’s slender body. Their natural, young beauty is sharply contrasted with the poverty of their surroundings and attitudes. Aside from the clammy coldness of the pool itself with its mouldy changing rooms and slippery sides and walls in need of repainting, Mike and Susan exist in a world of crap British weather, muddy grey snow, uncomfortable clothes, cheap shampoo and health education posters asking ‘What if a man could get pregnant?’ The brief exterior shots of London offer no escape, showing suburbs still ravaged by Second World War bomb damage, stuffy porno cinemas, overpriced clubs offering a sedated kind of fun, and a bland Soho where Mike meets a maternal prostitute with one leg in a plaster cast.

Of course, much of this is only apparent in retrospect - it’s almost half a century later and we are so used to cleaned-up, non-furtive depictions of bodies and sex and exercise, even when they’re supposed to be gritty and ‘real’, that the grubbiness of the 1960s and 70s comes as a shock. But even if something is the contemporary norm, it can still be commented upon, and Skolimowski’s choice of setting suggests that this is so. The pool itself is laden with meaning, even before you get to any Freudian water/sex interpretations. At the time, a public bath was not just a place to keep fit or have fun, as it is now: for poorer people in London, still living in pre-war housing, it was where you went to wash. (It was also one of the few places you’d actually see or be in proximity to other people’s almost-naked bodies.) Wryly bleak, Deep End suggests that not only are we in over our heads, but we will never quite get clean either.

Frances Morgan

Outside the Law

Outside the Law

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 May 2011

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: ICO/Optimum Releasing

Director: Rachid Bouchareb

Writer: Rachid Bouchareb

Original title: Hors-la-loi

Cast: Roschdy Zem, Jamel Debbouze, Sami Bouajila

France 2010

137 mins

Rachid Bouchareb’s breathless epic starts in 1945 with an Algerian family being unceremoniously turfed off the land where they have lived for generations, and then half-murdered by the police and army in a horrific massacre following an attempted march for independence. Of the three sons remaining, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), ‘the best in the class’, has been incarcerated, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), the soldier, has been shipped off to fight in Indochina, and it is left to Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), the bandit, to drag his unwilling mother away from all this brutality to France in order to survive, vowing to return.

Outside the Law is a broad-brush history of the terrorist activities of the FLN in the struggle for Algerian independence, of their brutal repression by the French state, and the circle of escalating tit-for-tat depravities that followed. The opening half-hour or so detailed above has the audience sympathies firmly on the side of Abdelkader and Messaoud when they start their activities in 50s France, but those sympathies are increasingly questioned as the film progresses. Their inflexible revolutionary doctrine will require them to forego the comforts of normal life, finagle money from their brethren, kill and kill again, and ultimately to sacrifice their countrymen like pawns and make decisions that will destroy lives without deliberation. The state responds with intimidation, torture and outright murder, and its own brand of terrorism in the case of the activities of the ‘Red Hand’, whose members try to bomb and assassinate the FLN out of existence on French soil.

It is in this straightforward detailing of incident after incident that Outside the Law most resembles one of its clear models, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers (1966). Near the beginning, Bouchareb’s film has a march that recalls those of The Battle of Algiers, and a scene where an imprisoned Abdelkader witnesses a political execution of one of his cellmates strongly echoes a similar scene in the earlier film. But whereas The Battle of Algiers adheres to a heightened documentary-style approach, concerned mainly with the events, the facts of the case, Outside the Law builds the historical business around a fictional family drama. This becomes clearer after its relocation to France, when the brothers emerge as distinct personalities. Saïd is apolitical and amoral, happy to grasp the opportunities the new country offers, forced into joining the revolution by blood ties. Messaoud is the reluctant soldier, committed to the cause but appalled by his own capacity for murder and the gulf it is opening between him and any chance of a normal life with his new family. Abdelkader is probably the least sympathetic, and most fascinating of the three, an intellectual turned revolutionary firebrand by his time in prison; his adherence to the practice and rhetoric of the FLN barely conceals a physical distaste for what this entails, and chinks in his true believer status emerge throughout.

The film’s breakneck pace and sheer amount of incident have their victims, alas: the three main female roles are never fully fleshed out as characters, and ultimately disappear from the narrative. As the titles ‘one year later’, ‘eight months later’ flash up scene after scene you may wish, like Messaoud, for a little breathing room outside of the struggle. A brief conversation about the merits, or lack thereof, of Western pop music in the last hour makes the viewer aware of how little humour or actual family life there has been in the depiction of this family. It’s to the credit of the three central performances that the characters seem as human as they do. The story necessitates a fair few sketched-in characters, a lot of exposition and some clunky on-the-nose dialogue along the way, problematically so in the opening Algerian section, where the compressed cavalcade of human misery and story information delivered in such a short space of time borders upon parody. None of this would be a problem had Outside the Law adhered to The Battle of Algiers‘ austere journalistic blueprint, and a lively argument could be had over what each film has gained or lost through its approach to filming contentious history. Incidentally, the climax of Bouchareb’s film occurs during the events that lie at the heart of Michael Haneke’s Hidden, now there’s a triple bill waiting to happen…

Ultimately, Outside the Law bulldozes through most objections with its sure-footed pace and wealth of tense, well-mounted set-pieces, a series of battles, killings and escapes set to a brooding pulsing score that will have most viewers gripped, if slightly battered and exhausted by the end of its 137 minutes. It’s handsome, confident large-scale cinema, with a fascinating historical heart. Take no prisoners stuff.

Mark Stafford

Dark Days

Dark Days
Dark Days

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 January 2014

Distributor: Dogwoof

Director: Marc Singer

Music by: DJ Shadow

Original UK release date: 9 March 2001

USA 2000

94 mins

Now over a decade old, the sole directorial credit of British expat Marc Singer, the multiple award-winning Dark Days is a powerful, illuminating and ultimately hopeful documentary exposé of a homeless community living under the streets of New York in part of the city’s disused subway tunnels. Focusing on one tight-knit group of underground squatters and their makeshift dwellings, part Depression-era tent city and part Third World shanty town, Dark Days candidly shines a light, both physical and metaphorical, on this extreme version of communal living, itself just one branch of an often forgotten or ignored section of society. Popularised in urban myth, and the focus of a factually disputed 1993 non-fiction book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels beneath New York City by Jennifer Toth, the subterranean community is revealed in Singer’s lyrical portrait to be much like any other, with only their desperate circumstances and hellish living environment to differentiate them from mainstream society. Borne of an altruistic urge to raise awareness of the plight of the community in order to bring about a positive change in their lives, Dark Days subsequently raises many questions about contemporary society, the human spirit, social problems and the documentary form itself.

Shot on a shoestring budget over a few years in the mid-90s (with loaned cameras, homemade dollies, patched-up lighting and donated, slightly damaged black and white film stock) by novice filmmaker Singer and a skeleton crew comprising various members of the community itself, the finished article is a provocative and in many ways timeless film given the historic and ongoing problem of homelessness, economic deprivation and growing urban populations. The decision to shoot the film in black and white, adding an extra layer of murkiness to the already nocturnal environment was, according to Singer, partly taken to avoid the costly difficulties of lighting such an environment, and eventually made for him when the film stock was donated.

Dark Days is released on DVD in the UK and available to download from 3 February 2014. For more information please go to the Dogwoof website.

Eschewing the overtly subjective documentary style utilised by the likes of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and The Yes Men, Singer’s admirably objective film marries traditional to-camera monologues with unforced vignettes of everyday life. Culled from over 50 hours of footage, Singer’s loosely constructed narrative highlights heartbreaking personal stories, unguarded moments of humour and despair, daily struggles and collective insights into living in an alternative community that exists within a much larger one. Familiar, but still depressing, tales of dysfunctional, abusive upbringings, unforeseen tragedy, relationship breakdowns, mental illness and alcohol and substance abuse are recounted by the troubled but remarkably self-sufficient subjects amid the rat-infested filth and shadowy, brutal concrete environment of the labyrinthine tunnel system. By keeping a relatively low profile, aside from positing a few off-camera questions, Singer’s approach allows for a candid and authentic view of life in the community to play out. What could have been a hectoring, emotionally manipulative or voyeuristic piece is instead a poetic, humane and visually arresting account of the inner workings, relationships, tensions, hopes and eventual break-up of the ‘family unit’ that some have been a part of for over 20 years.

With a soundtrack supplied by DJ Shadow, and typography designed especially for the film by NY street artist Jaylo, this compelling, collaborative project is a testament to its subjects’ indefatigable spirit and dignity. The mostly, but not all, male community members display all the traits of ‘normal’ domesticated life - cooking, shaving, showering, cleaning, caring for pets - and strict house rules apply. As with residential areas above ground, home security is also an issue underground, where more ad hoc alarm systems warn of potential intruders. Homeless but resolutely not helpless, the community’s ability to ‘scavenge’ (or freecycle as it’s called now), feed themselves and sell, recycle or make use of the endless supply of often perfectly edible food or products in good working order thrown away by mainstream society reflects well on them and poorly on the consumerist society in which they exist. The intimate, and at times humorous, domestic sequences, petty arguments and swapped anecdotes evoke traditional family life, demystify the ‘homeless’ and foster a sense of endearment devoid of condescension towards those portrayed onscreen.

Any notion that the squatters are happy to live in their subterranean world is quashed when an eviction notice is served by Amtrak, leading Singer to enlist the help of the city’s Coalition for the Homeless. In a hard-fought compromise between the respective parties, housing vouchers are secured and the squatters take to breaking down and cleaning up their habitat with unabashed relish before being relocated above ground in clean, safe accommodation. This isolated story may end on an uplifting note, much to Singer’s and the subjects’ credit, but Dark Days remains a vital documentation and representation of a continuing, widespread problem, the resonance of which is heightened in these fragile, economically troubled times.

Neil Mitchell

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