Reviewed by Richard Armstrong
Directed by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, Lorenza Mazzetti, et al. Plus Small is Beautiful documentary. DVD, B&W, total running time 475 mins. Released by British Film Institute Video, www.bfi.org.uk/video.
“There is plenty of natural drama in the everyday jobs of men with physical contact with reality.” Interviewed by Kinematograph Weekly in 1958, director Cy Endfield was hyping his own The Long Haul, a studio thriller then playing London’s West End and set amid the corruption of long-distance trucking. Unconsciously though fortuitously, Endfield also evokes the Free Cinema documentary shorts then playing about a mile away at London’s National Film Theatre (NFT). Free Cinema tends to be written about as if the impulse sprang from nowhere, a lurch toward verisimilitude after decades of studio escapism. But what many histories overlook is that these Free Cinema programs at the NFT between 1956 and 1959 were the culmination of several shifts in British audiovisual culture.
Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the first program, the British Film Institute has released a handsome box set of the Free Cinema shorts and some that fell under their influence. Made cheaply on the fringes of the industry and liberated from the constraints of commercialism and careful producers, these films had an immediacy and zest which now seem far ‘truer’ than the postures and propaganda of studio product. There is an unabashed love of sex and the night in Nice Time (1957), which to Truffaut and others has seemed decidedly un-English. Momma Don’t Allow (1956) lives up to its name, charting the release of pent-up workaday energies in a north London jazz club. Every Day Except Christmas (1957) catches the vernacular sensibilities of the London fruit and vegetable trade just as supermarkets were about to change everything. One Potato, Two Potato (1957) opened a window on an Edinburgh street full of children’s games before television eroded the lore and language of childhood in Britain. Intended partly to promote the careers of Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and others, this ‘jeune cinéma’ rebelled against the bourgeois mores and stale desires of postwar British filmmaking practice, its manifesto touting “a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday.”
Free Cinema was made to be free of box-office pressure and the demands of consensus. Rejecting the conservatism of the “A feature” and the didactic Griersonian documentary ethos alike, the Free Cinema people condemned patronizing representations of the working class. They were also against the metrocentric London-derived ‘Southern’ emphases of the mainstream. Famously regarded as a dry run for the British New Wave, Free Cinema focused on ordinary folk from slums and council estates, from Scotland, Lancashire and the East End, and collapsed esthetics and commitment together: “An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.”
It is a critical commonplace to call the 1950’s a dull moment in British film history. True, successful releases of those years included The Dam Busters (1955), A Night to Remember (1958), and Carry On, Sergeant (1958), none of which quicken the pulse the way genre movies of the day still do. For academic Steve Chibnall (British Crime Cinema, 1999), however, works like Violent Playground (1958), Tread Softly Stranger (1959), and Hell is a City (1960) had the locations, the natural light, and the assumption of crime as endemic to everyday life, which echo in Free Cinema efforts from Together (1956) to We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). Yield to the Night (1956) dramatizes the final hours of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and its adversarial temper and feeling for vernacular lives can be felt in Free Cinema works from Momma Don’t Allow, to that scene in We Are the Lambeth Boys in which the habitués of a south London youth club debate the then-topical issue of capital punishment. Britain was changing in the late-50’s. Kenneth Allsop noted a “dissentient mood” (The Angry Decade, 1958), which would find expression in genre movies, the new provincial tones of productions at the Royal Court Theatre, as well as in Free Cinema’s gritty rapprochement between society and art.
Unlike the French New Wave or the New American Cinema of the late-50’s, Free Cinema was less esthetically adventurous than it was bold at the level of content. Resources were skimpy. The films emerged out of the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund, set up under industry elder Michael Balcon in 1951 to foster new talent. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the emphasis tended away from the formal experimentation of Continental and other modernisms in favor of life on the British streets. Before 1959, filmmakers were stuck with the spring-wound 16mm Bolex with its twenty-two-second shot length. Synchronized sound was still not possible. The year 1959, so miraculous for cinéastes everywhere, would see the lightweight Coutant camera and the Nagra sound recorder extend unofficial cinemas’ negotiations with experience. Even watching the young people jiving to the ‘skiffle’ band in Reisz and Richardson’s wonderful Momma Don’t Allow, you feel a twinge of disappointment as the post-synching becomes obvious. Much Free Cinema footage had to be shot on rejected industry scraps. The Edinburgh cityscapes in The Singing Street (1952) are riven with scratches. And nobody was paid for their work.
Yet despite technical shortcomings, these films are steeped in music, both aural and visual. The commitment to proletarian leisure —“ordinary people with a point-of-view”—was already there in Free Cinema inspiration. Humphrey Jennings, whose Spare Time (1939) and Listen to Britain (1941) tempered Griersonian didacticism with poetic moods. Among other image cultures tapped by Free Cinema, Special Enquiry (1952-57) was a BBC television documentary series addressing such topics as racial discrimination, illiteracy, and slum housing, making extensive use of actuality footage.
But if Special Enquiry spoke from the audience’s point-of-view, typical British class disdain could still be felt in some Free Cinema shorts. O Dreamland (1953) surveys the crowds attending the mechanical gewgaws in Margate’s seafront amusement park, the director looking down on the bovine masses freed for a few hours from tenement hutches. There is too much of Anderson’s class resentment here. O Dreamland elaborates a recurring Free Cinema theme, Britons’ responses to a mechanized transatlantic pop culture. But the best of the trend sees a joyful consensus coalesce on the cusp of the modern. Momma Don’t Allow watches as a butcher’s boy, a dental assistant, and a railway auxiliary leave their labors for the camaraderie of a Friday night out. While comparisons are made between working-class patrons and a trio of Chelsea types who arrive in a Rolls Royce—a woman shown in close-up could be Kay Kendall—by the end of the evening beatnik, teddy boy, trade-school geezer, and finishing school starlet, all seem forged into a new nocturnal consensus. Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas is a fugue tribute to the preparations for Covent Garden’s fruit and vegetable day. As generational change overcomes them—Jenny, one of the market women, remembers when Victoria was queen and every gentleman wore a button hole—we witness a socioeconomic process unfold, lent emotion and velocity by their voices and songs.
In Robert Vas’s Refuge England (1959), a Hungarian refugee arrives for a new life in London. The story is told with poetic irony (a poster shows a displaced girl, head in hands) and a cinematic envy fueled by fringe status—a stock thriller pastiche shows rushing locomotive, dynamic credits. Nevertheless, the man’s search for a home revealed Britons to themselves. A number of these films were made by foreigners. Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together traced the melancholy progress of two deaf mutes through London’s docklands, cut off from yet part of the world around them. Shot by Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner, the charming Nice Time is a joyful odyssey through London’s Piccadilly Circus. Reveling in sensual comparisons between lovely poster showgirls and unexpected beauty in the cinema queues, Goretta and Tanner look forward to the liberations of the 1960’s. There is a cut from an ad for Robert Aldrich’s war movie Attack! to a badly scarred newspaper seller. The ultimate irony is that few of the movies playing the West End that night were as good as Nice Time.
Recording the nationwide protest against the development of Britain’s first H-bomb in 1958, March to Aldermaston (1959) marked the point at which the Free Cinema impulse moved into the mainstream. Young parents, old pacifists, students, beatniks, skiffle bands, and vicars, a generation came together to make music and protest on behalf of what they felt was good about their lives. Slicker than the Free Cinema shorts, March to Aldermaston sports a sometimes pompous voice-over by Richard Burton and incorporates Reuters images and zooms that make their points. One of the last productions of the Free Cinema era became one of the first British films of our media-saturated world.
In an era grown fractious over the tensions between globalization and local sensibilities, whilst documentary is offering fresh promise for representation, the release of this DVD of Free Cinema films comes as a breath of fresh air and renews our faith in British cinema. This worthy tribute is accompanied by useful, glossy historical notes, including the original Free Cinema manifestos, and also by filmed interviews with cinematographer Walter Lassally, Lorenza Mazzetti, and others who remember.
Copyright © 2006 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.