Screening at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France) on 13 September 2017 Format: Cinema Director: Kinji Fukasaku Writers: Masahige Narusawa, Yukio Mishima Based on the story by: Edogawa Rampo Cast: Akihiro Maruyama, Isao Kimura, Kikko Matsuoka, Junya Usami Original tile:Kuro tokage Japan 1968
The delirious adventures of a queer criminal as seen by Yukio Mishima and Kinji Fukasaku.
Footsteps echo in the dark. A hand knocks on a door. A flap is lifted, a pair of eyes peeks out, the door opens. Footsteps lead down a corridor decorated with fluorescent drawings. Another door flings open and the psychedelic lights and music of a nightclub explode onto the screen, frenzied dancers wearing little aside from body paint gyrate to a wild groove while men gleefully grab handfuls of sequined breasts, the walls around them decorated with Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. In such a heady atmosphere of decadence and loose abandon, it does not seem unnatural that the mistress of the place, a femme fatale in slinky black dress and diamonds, should be played by a cross-dressing male actor (the celebrated Japanese transvestite Akihiro Miwa, here credited as Akihiro Maruyama). Mrs Midorigawa, aka the famous criminal Black Lizard, approaches Detective Akechi, sitting alone at the bar, who came ‘by chance’ to the secret club, and their encounter is the start of a sexually charged, fatal face-off where romantic tension is played out as the mind games of two people on opposing sides of the law.
Visconti’s savage 1960 epic about five impoverished brothers trying to make it in Milan and the woman who comes between them in its fully restored brutal beauty.
Visconti is one of those filmmakers you discover backwards, nowadays, usually starting with Death in Venice and The Leopard. Probably you know, going in, that the maker of these great decadent dramas of luxury and indulgence began as an associate of the neo-realists, dealing with working-class lives. Many find La Terra Trema, his first real effort at social documentation within drama, a touch unconvincing, as if the count from Lombardy was not really too familiar with the world of the poor.
But such doubts disappear in the masterpiece that is Rocco and His Brothers (1960), which brings the epic sweep and microscopic detail of The Leopard to a tale of a family migrating from the impoverished countryside to Milan, seeking their fortunes, and finding, variously, heartbreak, dissolution, enmity, and maybe in some cases, a chance of some kind of compromised happiness. Broken into chapters, each dedicated to one brother in particular, the film takes its time (newly restored, the runtime now reaches three hours) setting up the people and situations who will inexorably fall into the patterns of a tragedy. Chief characters are Simone (Renato Salvatori), the up-and-coming boxer who at first seems the family’s best hope of social mobility, the soft-spoken Rocco Alain Delon), and Nadia (Annie Girardot), their lover at different times. Major stars such as Claudia Cardinale and Paolo Stoppa are placed in relatively minor roles as these three drive events to a shocking conclusion.
This is a fiery male melodrama, in which Nadia, it seems to me, is the most sympathetic character. But as outsider to the close-knit masculine group, she represents in a way the threat of the city, of sophistication and decadent Italian civilisation, and the feminine other. The movie can be read as a warning against the corrupting influence of womanhood, sexual womanhood as opposed to the brothers’ rather stereotypical puritan mama (Katina Paxinou, kind of annoying). But Simone, as far as I can see, corrupts himself, and it’s the access to money and acclamation as well as sex that does it. He’s almost immediately revealed as an arrogant and dishonest character, somehow able to maintain a colossal lie in his head against all evidence: that he is the wronged party in every encounter.
Rocco, by contrast, is a saint, as everyone says. Unusual casting for Delon, who hasn’t flinched from playing some colossal shits in his long career (figures he may identify with to an uncomfortable degree, given his off-screen views and activities). But what good is saintliness, the film asks. Rocco’s attempts to right the wrongs he feels, incorrectly, he has done, result in some of the stupidest noble sacrifices the screen has ever depicted, and his plans take no account of the actual personalities involved. Result: tragedy.
Trapped between the vile Simone and the unworldly Rocco, poor Nadia stands no chance. In one of the film’s most stunning angles, Visconti serves up a Hitchcockian God-shot from the highest pinnacle of Milan Cathedral as Nadia flees her all-forgiving bastard of a boyfriend, running across the rooftop, a tiny speck, like Cary Grant fleeing the United Nations in North By Northwest.
So: if you follow the logic that the truly sympathetic figure is Nadia and it’s really her story, told through the viewpoint of the various brothers, certain scenes may come across as just padding, but you need feel no PC discomfort at the masculine viewpoint, only overwhelming horror and pity. Yes, the film is long, but when it ends, you may wish to start again from Chapter One to see the unspoiled characters once more as they were at the beginning.
The restoration by Gucci and the Film Foundation brings Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography to vibrant life and almost exhausting detail, with the itchy whorls of domestic wallpaper vying for attention with the busy throngs of moving characters. The artful use of light and shade creates b&w images of almost unbearable richness, and the more distressing the story becomes, the more beautiful the imagery. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series has done the movie proud, with an array of extras gathered from multiple rare sources, including documentary material on Visconti and interviews with his collaborators. My only complaint is the image on the menu, for reasons that will become clear when you watch the film.
Rocco and His Brothers is also available on DVD, released by Eureka Entertainment in 2008.
An uncritical documentary on the Italian porn industry from the 1960s to the 1980s.
‘Pornography should be entirely liberated!’ enthuses Bernardo Bertolucci in footage inserted into this documentary about the ‘tumescent’ rise of pornography in the Italian cinema of the 1960s–1980s. This period of counter-cultural aspiration has been the subject of several hagiographic and frequently mythologising accounts of the assorted social and political liberations – gay, straight, psychotropic – which bestrode the period. Indeed an entire nostalgic consumerist retro-movement in material and cultural matter revolves around it to this day. The very appellation attached to its origins, ‘The Swinging Sixties’, bears testimony to this.
Through the literal and metaphorical rose-coloured testimonial lens of the aptly named director, Carmine Amoroso (carmine indicating red and amoroso indicating amorous and loving; though in light of the present subject matter one might well ask, ‘What’s love got to do with it?’), this documentary traces the growth of Italy’s porn industry from the tentative ‘let’s push the boundaries’ spirit of the 1960s to the ‘let it all hang out’ zeitgeist of the 1970s onwards. It features interviews with pornographers such as Riccardo Schicchi (kicked out of high school, it is said, for spying on girls’ toilets, and having served a prison term for prostitution offences) and touches on issues such as censorship, sexual revolution and the popularisation of some of its stars, such as Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina, who was elected to the Italian parliament in 1987 and married to the ‘artist’ Jeff Koons for two years before embarking on a 14-year custody case over their son, Ludwig… these facts being germane in considering the documentary’s unproblematic thesis.
In matters sexual, Amoroso has previous form as the writer and director of Come mi vuoi (1996), considered to be the first Italian film delving into issues of the transgender community, and Cover Boy: Last Revolution (2006), a story of two male cultures clashing.
In Porno e Libertà, a voice-over narration accompanies and contexualises the account in an attempt to historicise and revise Italian porn history. But the main polemical aim is to celebrate and legitimise the enterprise by using techniques of narrative and visual persuasion to turn the porn business into a great carnivalesque affair, unconcerned with capital gain and pre-occupied with sexual liberation. It’s an erotic carnival where no one is exploited, no disease, suicide or drug habits are present and profits are not greedily grabbed by producers and distributors; an egalitarian universe where performers ‘do it’ largely for the cause of freedom and hey, just plain fun. It has to be noted that a brief feminist perspective is introduced into the film but serves little balancing purpose to the overall thesis.
This is a documentary that is made unproblematic with regard to the darker issues of pornography and as such is simply a lively romp through a particular cinematic history for which few visual essays have been made. Taking advantage of the contemporary retro taste for porn of an earlier age – vintage porn videos fetch good prices on online auction sites – this celebratory (certainly not masturbatory) documentary is a journey to a lost continent. A seemingly innocent and Arcadian continent where women actually have – can you believe it? – pubic hair! Never has so much hirsute pudenda been spotted since the late 1980s. Porno e Libertà, while historically irresistible, is critically irresponsible.
Cast: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill
‘Look out Haskell, it’s real!’ There is a moment towards the end of the relatively overlooked counterculture masterwork Medium Cool, newly released on DVD by Eureka Entertainment, where these urgent words shake filmmaker and viewer alike. The movie cameras themselves are quite literally shaking and flailing in front of a cloud of tear gas, as the film’s fictional narrative – a love story between a television news reporter and a poor, single mother from Appalachia living in Chicago’s ghetto – reaches its denouement against the very real backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest, where the National Guard is deploying tactics surreally seen rehearsed earlier in the film.
Influenced by directors of the French New Wave and the cinema vérité movement, which he was a part of, veteran filmmaker Haskell Wexler’s approach in Medium Cool is an unusual and electrifying one: by following and filming social and political ferment in Chicago and Washington D.C. throughout the tumult of 1968, he captured a sprawling patchwork of real events, onto which he hung a conventional scripted tale of romance and political awakening. Wexler, together with his small crew, was adept at gaining access to events that would most likely be highly controlled today. Hence, in the first half of the film, we see National Guard members practising their military drill on colleagues dressed up in whacked-out garb and aping hippie culture, as seen through the establishment’s eyes. Talcum powder ‘tear gas’ is fired while ludicrous lines are spewed out by a fake political figure: ‘We’ve given you everything we thought you wanted… We let you use our swimming pool, every 4th of July’.
The spoken warning at the demonstration – although sounding like a spontaneous cry – was in fact recorded after events and spoken by Wexler’s son as a voice-over; another example of the blurring of fact and fiction that makes Medium Cool such a compelling study on the nature of film. The words serve as a reminder to Wexler and his audience alike that the tear gas on screen is no longer the stuff of theatrical training exercises at Camp Ripley but a real physical threat in the city street; and, in doing so, the words underline the mollifying distance created by film, both in those creating and viewing footage. It is not only at this meta-moment that we are made aware of such things; John Cassellis (Robert Forster), the cameraman-protagonist of Medium Cool, acts as Wexler’s vehicle for a long meditation on the power and ethics of the moving image as a social force.
Indeed, Medium Cool is an overtly political film, which saw its release delayed while another counterculture landmark of 1969 – Easy Rider – faced fewer obstacles. Perhaps, as Wexler has later reflected, Dennis Hopper’s cultural revolution was more easily co-opted than his own vision of concurrent attempts at political revolution. Through footage of real-life events, improvised set-ups and straight-to-camera soliloquies, Wexler weaves a complex tapestry of voices, from African-American political radicals to the dirt-poor Appalachian community of Chicago’s Uptown, representing viewpoints and ideas found outside the freewheelin’ hippies or diffident heroes of New Hollywood.
A collage of competing words, sounds and images, Wexler’s feature is a chaotic, experimental mess of a film; and, because of that, it acts as a perfect artefact from, and record of, its time. The breadth and force of social and political unrest called for a special kind of film, one that reacted to and reflected the changing situation rather than trying to restrain or dictate its subject matter. And, while Medium Cool may be a perfect time capsule of America in 1968, it should also be seen as vital viewing for today, part of an ongoing conversation in which these very same questions surface time and time again.
Released in 1969, shortly after the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring, Fruit of Paradise is inevitably more sombre than Daisies, director Věra Chytilová’s most famous film, made in 1966 at the height of the Czech New Wave. Both Daisies and Fruit of Paradise centre on women who refuse to follow the rules. Yet in Daisies, two teenage girls giggle their way through their lives, refusing to take anything seriously, while Fruit of Paradise, with its biblical basis, addresses matters of life and death and is shot through with genuine threat.
The film opens with a lyrical rendition of the story of Adam and Eve. Composer Zdeněk Liška’s haunting, mysterious score combines with a mesmerising sequence of images, the slowly moving figures of Adam and Eve overlaid with close-ups of flowers and leaves. The shifting colours, absence of dialogue and emphasis on bodies in movement evoke early cinema’s hand-tinted shorts, such as Lumière’s Serpentine Dance (1896). The concern with visual innovation and pictorial composition, shared by Chytilová and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, is obvious, and links the film with Daisies, which Kučera also photographed. But the playful spirit of the earlier film has been supplanted, here, by a more sober and pensive form of experimentation.
After the opening sequence, the film takes an allegorical approach to the Adam and Eve theme. Key elements are still clearly identifiable: a central couple featuring a woman named Eva, an apple tree in a pastoral landscape, and a dangerous figure of temptation, here represented by Robert, a redhead in a maroon suit. Chytilová’s most obvious adjustment to the story is in the nature of the three protagonists, and the dynamics of their relationship. Josef, Eva’s husband, is a philanderer, so she is arguably within her rights to pursue a lover of her own, even if she seems ill-advised in her choice of the satanic Robert.
Eva observes, with delight, how playfully Robert interacts with other women. Having thus subjected him to the female gaze, she continues her investigation of him, making off with the key to his room. There, she finds a rubber stamp of the (appropriately demonic) number 6, which she imprints on her thigh, a scene reminiscent of Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966), where signalman Hubička stamps the secretary’s bottom. Josef Somr, who played Hubička, actually does the voice-over for Josef in Fruit of Paradise, while the voice of Robert is provided by Jan Klusák, who played the similarly sinister figures of the butterfly collector in Daisies and the bullying host in The Party and the Guests.
This new Second Run DVD release also includes Chytilová’s stylish graduation film, Ceiling, a cinéma vérité-style short about the life of a young model. It also features thorough liner notes by Czech New Wave expert Peter Hames, who provides all sorts of useful and intriguing insights into both films, their background and context.
There is a small scene in Elio Petri’s The Assassin (L’assassino), which is set on a grey, miserable day in Rome. Two police officers, drenched from the rain and their shoes splattered with mud, enter a house in search of a man who has become the main suspect in a murder case. As the two men walk up the staircase, the concierge shoots out of her flat and scolds them, ‘Hey you, where are going, you’re making everything dirty’. In 1961, shortly before the premiere of the film, the authorities insisted on having this particular scene removed on the grounds that it represented the police in a negative way – according to the censors, the police would never make a hallway dirty.
The scene, as minor and negligible as it might seem, not only nearly led to the banning of the film but perfectly illustrates the climate in which Petri shot his impressive and still potent feature debut. Airing his resentment of the moral decay of early 1960s youth and the corruption of Italian society, the film is riddled with a refreshing irony that bears comparison to Kafka and Camus.
Dazzlingly intercutting police interrogation scenes and flashbacks to the night of the crime, The Assassin follows the investigation concerning Alfredo Martelli, a cunning thirty-something Roman antiques dealer accused of having murdered his former business partner and long-term mistress, the wealthy socialite Adalgisa de Matteis (Micheline Presle). As unscrupulous as he may be, Martelli (played by the brilliant Marcello Mastroianni) doesn’t understand what is going on as he is taken to the police station, and any attempt to find out more is met with icy disdain by the officers on duty. When he eventually learns what he is suspected of, he desperately tries to prove his innocence to the equally corrupt inspector in charge (Salvo Randone). With the subtle noir style of its plot and music, combined with Petri’s assured direction, The Assassin plays out as a smartly paced, deftly twisted cat-and-mouse tale that sees Martelli progressively losing his dandy manners as the police’s unorthodox methods grind him down.
Luckily, the above mentioned scene was never cut from the film because Goffredo Lombardo, one of the producers – he remembers the circumstances of the release in the documentary Elio Petri: Notes about a Filmmaker (2005), an extra on the Criterion edition of Investigation – told the censors that he would remove it but then released the film in its original version under the assumption that ‘the authorities would never go to see the film in the cinema anyway.’
Initially conceived as the third entry in Nikkatsu’s Rising Dragon series of films, Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (Kaidan nobori ryû, aka The Tattooed Swordswoman, 1970) ended up being a very different beast from its predecessors. What was to be a relatively straightforward and somewhat sexed-up ninkyo (yakuza chivalry) flick quickly turned into a kaidan eiga hybrid featuring a bakeneko (a supernatural cat), a change instigated at the behest of studio execs whilst filming was in progress. Not content to merely acquiesce, Ishii took things even further by including elements of ero-guro, the erotic grotesque, a pre-war art and literary movement focusing on sexual and corporeal corruption, destruction and decadence. As censorship continued to relax throughout the 1960s and 70s, ero-guro enjoyed something of a renaissance on the silver screen, as studios were needing new, sensationalist ways to keep people in theatres. This on the fly inclusion of seemingly unrelated elements, coupled with Ishii’s predilection towards an eccentric, iconoclastic filmmaking style, has meant that Blind Woman’s Curse has garnered a reputation for being the most nonsensical and outlandish offering by the Japanese ‘King of Cult’.
In her first major leading role, Meiko Kaji plays Akemi Tachibana, leader of the Tachibana gang. During an opening credits fight scene with an enemy gang, she zones in on the rival boss with sword unsheathed but, in the throes of combat, accidentally slashes the eyes of her target’s young sister (Hoki Tokuda), rendering the poor girl blind. Spending the next three years in prison, Akemi returns to the fold in time to take on a new threat, the Dobashi clan, who are intent on advancing on Tachibana turf. A third gang, led by the peculiar Aozora (Ryôhei Uchida) – wearing a curious combination of bowler hat, yellow waistcoat and red fundoshi (loincloth) – is introduced to further complicate the gangland politics of the story.
But in the background of all this, Akio, the blind girl from the opening scene, has also returned and is seeking revenge. She picks off members of Akemi’s retinue, flaying the dragon tattoos that distinguish the gang off their backs, with the aid of two unlikely accomplices: Ushimatsu (played by Butoh dance founder Tatsumi Hijikata), a hunchback companion from the travelling circus where she performs a knife-throwing act; and a black cat, which mysteriously appeared the day she lost her eyesight, keenly lapping up the blood from her wound. Ishii blends this all together into a volatile cocktail that is in part violent, spooky, irrational, intentionally humorous, unintentionally humorous, and borderline hallucinogenic.
Although the film makes more sense than it is often given credit for (but not by much), Blind Woman’s Curse is indeed a wildly uneven work, one that ebbs and flows depending on which mode it’s in, but therein lies a certain appeal. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the film lie in its ero-guro midsection. The circus entrance is adorned with semi-naked dancers and an old man cooking up a wok of wax limbs, and a performance inside involves simulated coitus between a young woman and a dog wrapped in a Japanese military flag. Delving further into the oneiric is a feverish butoh sequence performed by Hijikata, which plays more like an intermission segment than as a scene of any narrative purpose. But it’s when the film turns toward the grotesque and dreamlike that Ishii appears to be most at home. He had just that previous year helmed the delirious Edogawa Rampo mishmash Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), also featuring Hijikata, which possibly makes for a more appropriate companion piece to Blind Woman’s Curse than either of the other Rising Dragon films.
Ishii compensates for the film’s lack of coherence by conjuring a hodgepodge of gaudy yet stimulating visuals. The Fujicolor process lends a garish, funhouse quality to the cinematography, which is further embellished by some of the film’s production design. The Dobashi headquarters is fashioned from perspective-confounding mirrors, cages, trap doors, hidden rooms and torture chambers. The Tachibana, by contrast, operate from a more traditional abode, but this and the nearby market square, which forms part of their territory, offer plenty of design flourishes to feast upon. Ishii is also enterprising when it comes to camera technique. The rain-swept opening credits scene utilises slow motion to emphasise the tumbling of bodies and spurts of blood from blades (presumably) too quick for regular motion to do justice to them. Conversely, other parts of the same sequence are freeze-framed, presenting tableaux of death-in-progress that gleefully mingle the hanging blood sprays with the red kanji that lists the culprits behind this work of madness.
Even though she is regularly sidelined to facilitate the film’s many strands, it was Kaji who perhaps saw the greatest dividend from her involvement (both as lead actress and singer of the film’s theme song), as she would quickly become the queen of this kind of exploitation-soaked cinema throughout the 1970s. Her iconic, murderous glare, would go on to emblemise cult hits such as the Female Prisoner series (1972-73) and, most famously, Lady Snowblood (1973) and its 1974 sequel. For Kaji and/or Ishii fans, or for admirers of this particularly sensationalist period of Japanese cinema, Blind Woman’s Curse will likely sate your thirst. Just prepare to be puzzled whilst you imbibe.
Writers: Truman Capote, William Archibald, John Mortimer
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens, Megs Jenkins, Peter Wyngarde, Clytie Jessop
UK, USA 1961
Adapted in 1961 from Henry James’s masterpiece of ambiguity The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is one of the finest ghost stories in British cinema. With an intelligent screenplay by Truman Capote, William Archibald and John Mortimer; radiant cinematography by Freddie Francis (who went on to direct films for Hammer and Amicus, as well as the brilliant 70s oddity Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly); an eerie score by Georges Auric; and an extraordinary performance by Deborah Kerr, the film is a superbly crafted, subtle gem that remains deeply disturbing.
Read Robert Barry’s feature on the score and Daphne Oram’s electronic sound effects for the film here.
Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a repressed minister’s daughter, who has left the shelter of her father’s parish to seek employment as a governess. She is hired by a wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave) to look after his orphaned niece and nephew on his country estate. On arrival at Bly House, she is charmed by the delightful Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), but a number of strange occurrences lead her to believe that the children are possessed by the spirits of the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and former disreputable servant Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who died violent, mysterious deaths after a scandalous love affair.
Whether Miss Giddens is right, or whether the ghosts are simply a manifestation of her growing derangement, is left carefully undecided in the perfectly poised original story. Clayton’s film, and Kerr’s performance, seem to lean more towards the thesis of the governess’s insanity, although both beautifully maintain enough layers of ambiguity. Flora and Miles’s angelic features and apparent sweet natures are marred by unexplained behaviour, suggestive silences and intimations of cruelty, which could corroborate Miss Giddens’s fears. As for Kerr, she is both heartbreaking and frightening in the intensity of her need for love and human attachment, and her passionate desire to ‘save’ the children may well cause their destruction instead.
At the heart of the film (and of the short story) lies a deep, dark, tortured anxiety about the innocence of children and the corruption of sex. Flora and Miles may know more than they should, and it is this terrible suspicion that so troubles the inexperienced, straight-laced Miss Giddens. Nature is the symbol of that corrupting force, of the carnal urges and predatory instincts that intrude upon the civilised, polite world of tea, corsets and lace at Bly House. The idyllic garden that surrounds the house is spoiled by defilement and savagery: a cockroach comes out of the mouth of a cherubic statue, a spider eats a butterfly on the terrace and the singing of birds sometimes sounds deafeningly menacing. The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel are feral presences that lurk outside the domesticated house, waiting to ‘contaminate’ the children. When Miss Giddens demands that the kindly housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), reveal what she knows, the latter wonderfully obliquely explains that Quint and Jessel used the rooms on the upper floor of the house ‘as if they were woods’, confirming that the lovers belong to the world of the wild, of filthy, depraved sexuality – to Miss Giddens’s horror.
So much is suggested, and so little shown. An atmospheric tour de force, with a tremendous sense of restraint that gives the film its evocative power, The Innocents is all about hints of shameful secrets and intimations of improper desires, set among arches and vaults, dark wooden panels and spectral candle glow, with Deborah Kerr’s anguished, moving face so often the only spot of light in the darkness. And how haunting that face and its unresolved torments are.
Billy Liar (1963) stars Tom Courtney as Billy Fisher, a young man with an overactive imagination struggling to come of age in an industrial Northern city. He looks to escape his dead-end job at a funeral director’s, his tangled love life and his oppressively ordinary family by escaping to London to become a scriptwriter. But what makes Billy Liar a masterpiece of British Cinema is that it is not a classic Bildungsroman –a ‘how I became a writer/artist/filmmaker story’ – but a tragedy. It is the story of a flawed character striving to better himself, doomed to failure and to retreat into his imagination. It is also a painfully funny comedy.
Billy is a product of class confusion. Having passed his eleven-plus and received a grammar school education, he finds himself alienated from his working-class parents, even though they live in a semi-detached house. He has none of the work ethic of his father or the know-your-place-in-society of his mother. ‘I’m not ordinary folk, even if she is,’ claims Billy. The class conflict is internalised by Billy as he flits between accents, from a parody of well-spoken RP to a Yorkshire brogue full of thees and thous. His two fiancées also emphasise this conflict: Barbara is a nice but boring and unimaginative girl who Billy calls ‘Dwarling’ as they make plans for their cottage in Cornwall; Rita, a mouthy waitress who demands an engagement ring, claiming ‘You don’t handle the goods unless you intend to buy.’ Although he aspires to that classic middle-class dream – a job in the media – he is not prepared to work for it.
Whatever you call it, either the British New Wave or kitchen sink realism, the brief period from the late 1950s into the 1960s (from Jack Claytons’s 1959 film Room at the Top to 1969’s Kes, by my reckoning) produced some great moments in British cinema. The films are wonderfully written. A concurrent literary movement, especially in the theatre, brought a mix of social conscience, comic wit and a new urge to tackle difficult issues to film writing. Many of the films were based on current plays or books by Keith Waterhouse, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney and others. Yet despite their origins on the stage and page, kitchen sink films are very cinematic. Many of the directors had previously worked in documentaries and as part of the Free Cinema movement, which spawned Lyndsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Their films were strongly influenced by French poetic-realism and a particular love of Jean Vigo.
However, John Schlesinger was never really part of the Free Cinema movement. He had made documentaries, but had also worked in television directing episodes of Danger Man. Thus Billy Liar is less self-consciously ‘poetic’ and less gritty realist than A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1962) or This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963), and although a little slicker (at times looking like an Ealing comedy, with darker humour) and more openly ‘entertaining’, it is a brilliantly directed film. For a movie in which so little happens, the dramatic pacing is excellent – Hitchcock would struggle to put so much suspense into someone buying milk before catching a train. The performances are all exceptional, with Courtney’s distracted nervousness as Billy nothing short of brilliant.
From its opening travelling shots of British housing estates, from semi-detached to terraced houses, to rows of flats, the use of locations is stunning. Largely shot in Bradford, we see the city as it modernises, with wrecking balls bringing down the old and cranes building up the new. New supermarkets are opening – the world is changing. As the celebrity ribbon-cutter Danny Boone says, ’It’s all happenin.’ The fantasy scenes, however, were shot in Leeds, creating a somewhat lesser Kansas versus Oz dream/reality contrast.
Schlesinger’s reputation has suffered over the years, culminating in his Party Political Broadcast for John Major, a grammar school boy who dreamt of becoming Prime Minister. It is tempting to subsequently look for evidence of this conservatism in his earlier works. His outsiders and anti-establishment characters are rarely rewarded at the end of films (1965’s Darling, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and of course Billy Liar) and are all certainly flawed characters. Billy and Darling’s Diane are incredibly selfish – Billy stops to pull faces at himself in a mirror when he is supposed to be hurrying to fetch his grandmother’s medicine. ’You’re idle and you’re scruffy and you’ve no manners,’ Billy’s mum tells him. But Schlesinger should be applauded for allowing such flawed heroes, and certainly for allowing the heart-breaking ending, which is amongst the greatest in cinema. Dreams are for dreaming, it tells us, not achieving. Anyway, if Billy had made it to London he would have spent the next 20 years writing sit-coms for Leonard Rossiter.
The results of achieving your dreams can be seen in Schlesinger’s following film, Darling, which stars Julie Christie playing almost the same character as in Billy Liar. Liz, the free-spirited, handbag-swinging object of Billy’s desires, shows him the possibilities of escape and adventure. She has ’been all over’, even as far as a Butlin’s Holiday Camp and Doncaster, we learn. In Darling she makes her entrance (although now called Diane) swinging her handbag as in Billy Liar. She goes on to become the ‘Happiness Girl’ and an Italian princess, and thoroughly miserable.
In some ways Billy Liar is a film very much about the post-war period, the war still colouring Billy’s imagination. In his dreams he is Churchill, or a general leading the victorious marching armies of Ambrosia, or simply machine-gunning his boss. And yet the film’s appeal is timeless; Morrissey putting Tom Courtney on a record sleeve and air-machine-gunning the Top of the Pops audience helped another generation discover this classic, and I’m sure there are enough good-for-nothing daydreamers around now for it to continue to resonate with audiences.
I once watched Billy Liar with a girl I was trying to impress. ‘And you can relate to this loser!’ she exclaimed at the end. ‘It’s much worse than that,’ I told her, ‘this is the closest I’ve come to seeing myself in a film.’ It is a film for us underachievers, that shows what is means to grow up intelligent, imaginative, semi-educated and bone-idle.
Cinematic re-imaginings of 1968 have flooded our screens in recent years to mark the 40th anniversary of the global phenomenon of revolutionary action. Such films are often coloured in a dangerous hue of nostalgia or, even worse, attempt to market their subjects as seductive youths titillated by violence, cheapening the political vigour that drove them. Shane O’Sullivan’s documentary Children of the Revolution is certainly immersed in the same fascinations, yet comes from a different vantage point, offering a unique point of reference: the daughters of the revolution.
Children of the Revolution looks at the immediate aftermath of 1968 in Germany and Japan, from where revolutionary politics burst globally in the 1970s to have a long-lasting impact on our contemporary age. O’Sullivan positions Germany and Japan alongside each other for their shared histories as aggressors in the Second World War, as broken nations in its aftermath and, most importantly for this documentary, as countries that experienced large-scale civil revolt in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Both the Baader-Meinhof Group and the Japanese Red Army, leading activist groups of their respective nations, came up against limitations while operating within their own national borders and broke through internationally, ending up in Palestine to join its liberation movement. Both activist organisations involved women as central leading figures, namely Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu, and O’Sullivan details their personal histories through interviews with their daughters, Bettina Röhl and May Shigenobu, who were born and raised amid the chaos.
Addressing the daughters of the revolution is certainly an inspired choice. Our protagonists inherit the legacies of the revolutionary acts as if they’d been genetically bequeathed, an unavoidable part of their upbringing. Their appearance within the frame immediately elicits considerations of the aftermath of revolutionary action and whether we have a choice in the process of the past influencing our present. Moreover, O’Sullivan rebalances the often male-driven, testosterone-fuelled narratives of revolutionary action by focusing his attention on the female leaders who, in these cases, were not just participants, but leaders of the rebellion.
What is extraordinary about Children of the Revolution is the daughters’ differences of opinion about their mothers’ involvement in revolutionary politics. As journalists, both Bettina and May have a remarkable ability to critically observe a history so intertwined with their upbringing, yet have come to distinct conclusions. Although they don’t represent their respective nations’ standpoints, it hints at the fact that the way in which history enters the collective consciousness varies in each country. With both historical narratives fraught with factual complexity and incomplete chronicles, it was a brave decision for O’Sullivan to tackle both in one film; and, at least for this writer, a worthwhile choice if only for the revelations that emerge through comparative study.
The DVD release includes a re-edited version of Shane O’Sullivan’s previous documentary Under the Skin (2002), with an interview with revolutionary filmmaker Masao Adachi added to the impressive list of speakers, which includes Toshio Matsumoto, Kôji Wakamatsu, graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo and critic Donald Richie, to introduce Japan’s 1960s counterculture and the politics that bound it. Although less focused, it is a generous companion piece to Children of the Revolution and reveals O’Sullivan’s growth as a documentary filmmaker.