FROM THE ARCHIVES: The White Bus
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Lindsay Anderson and Oscar Lewenstein; directed by Lindsay Anderson; screenplay by Lindsay Anderson and Shelagh Delaney; adapted from Shelagh Delaney’s story in her collection, Sweetly Sings the Donkey; musical score by Misha Donat; cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek; edited by Kevin Brownlow; art direction by David Marshall; sound by Peter Handford and Lionel Strutt; starring Patricia Healey, Arthur Lowe, and John Sharp. DVD, B&W AND color, 47 min., 1967. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release.
At the beginning of his film career in the mid-Fifties, Lindsay Anderson participated in the documentary Free Cinema movement with Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, and Lorenza Mazzetti. When he made his first, and to my mind his best, feature film, This Sporting Life (1963), he was grouped again with directors like Reisz and Richardson as part of the British New Wave. This Sporting Life, however, was the one British New Wave film that went far beyond a fidelity and respect for the everyday, achieving, in its powerful vision of thwarted working- class passions and lives, a tragic dimension.
Even in his earliest films, such as the documentary Everyday Except Christmas (1957), depicting the daily routine of the Covent Garden fruit, vegetable, and flower market, Anderson’s commitment was less to verisimilitude than to, in his words, “the poetry of the everyday life.” (His directorial model then was the poetic-realist documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings.) Even in the essentially realist This Sporting Life there are scenes touched with expressionist elements (e.g., a nightmarish slow-motion scene of rugby players groping in the mud), and a use of associative editing to convey the feeling and thoughts—unconscious as well as conscious—of the primal, isolated protagonist, brilliantly played by Richard Harris.
The White Bus (1967), Anderson’s short, forty-seven-minute film, adapted by Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) from one of her short stories, prefigures his later surreal social satires about the state of Britain—If... (1968), O Lucky Man! (1972), and Britannia Hospital (1982). In these films Anderson chose a very different aesthetic route, and left the realism of the British New Wave behind.
The White Bus, which received a generally hostile reception from critics, was Anderson’s first concerted move away from realism. The world is seen from the point of view of a nameless, impassive, somewhat depressed London typist (Patricia Healey) working at a tedious job, who is also keenly observant and has a rich fantasy life. We glean no other information about her, however, except what she sees and fantasizes.
The film’s minimal narrative begins with an absurd encounter (one of several in the film). On the secretary’s way to the railway station, a well-dressed, bowler-hatted, umbrella-carrying young man with an upper-class accent tries to pick her up. Declaiming that he’s not class conscious, he nevertheless follows that contention with an unconscious send up of a whole range of values cherished by upper class toffs (e.g., asserting his prime passions are “sun, skiing, and water games”). The train she then boards for the commute back home to a Northern English city is filled with reveling football supporters, whom she observes, as is her wont, in silent but watchful disassociation. She is, however, capable at times of registering a faint smile, and at random moments sees the black-and-white world come alive in color (a formal strategy that Anderson used to powerful effect in If….).
Arriving in the city, she boards the eponymous white tour bus with an ethnically diverse group of tourists from Africa and Asia, as well as England. The city’s pompous Lord Mayor, Arthur Lowe, wearing a cocked hat and ceremonial gown, is used by Anderson to cleverly and subtly parody the bigotry, philistinism, and boosterism of a municipal politician. Leading the tour, he promotes the city’s progress and shows off its high spots, doing so with great self-satisfaction and without any hesitation or hint of irony. There is also a female tour guide, who recites a plethora of facts and figures about the city in an expressionless voice that renders them meaningless.
The tour moves past sterile housing estates, and makes visits to factories, libraries, museums, and a girl’s public school, before concluding at an extremely realistic civil-defense demonstration, filled with the sounds of explosions and sirens. The city is gray and unprepossessing, though far from squalid or nightmarish. In fact, it offers a rich variety of leisure activities, from pottery and cake making to listening to a young Anthony Hopkins sing a Brecht song in the public library. Anderson enlivens the trip with his understated satire, and some surreal moments, such as a visit to a park where Manet and Fragonard paintings come to life; or where the typist, in her imagination, joins the girls in her old school singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men.
In another fantasy image, all the bus passengers suddenly turn into dummies after the civil-defense drill. It’s a fitting image since the passengers have barely shown a sign of life throughout the tour. That image leads to the film’s most poetic and poignant sequence (its cinematographer was Miroslav Ondricek who worked with Milos Forman), as the typist leaves the tour and wanders alone at dusk through working-class, lamp-lit, shop-filled, melancholy streets, looking through lighted windows in terrace houses. She observes people whose lives seem touched with meaningful activity or human connection: a young girl playing piano, and an old woman lovingly shaving her husband. She then ends up in a chip shop where a worker speaks of the endlessness and repetitiveness of their work—just like her own.
The typist may be depressed, but she is more alive to the everyday than almost anybody else in the film. If Anderson sometimes strains for the absurd and the surreal, he is able in The White Bus to evoke a sense of the myriad possibilities that coexist with all that is parochial and alienating in the typist’s life.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the newly published fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).
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Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.