British Cinema in the 1960s
February 7 to March 7, 2013
Film culture in the U.K. has always struggled with a certain inferiority complex, against the other (but much more powerful and influential) English-language cinema, as well as against the continental European art film tradition. Not without masochism, British critics and filmmakers still like to quote François Truffaut's dictum from his famous interview with Alfred Hitchcock, characterizing England as an "anti-cinematic" territory: "Isn’t there a certain incompatibility between the terms 'cinema' and 'Britain'?"
Aside from the blatant chauvinism shining through in Truffaut's words, the date of his comment – August 1962 – is highly interesting and paradoxical. At this very moment, British cinema-music-fashion-art was on the verge of taking over as the main cultural engine in Europe, and "Swinging London" would soon arrive as its shining global beacon.
By the early 1960s, the post-war "ethics of scarcity" in British society had evolved into an expansive consumer culture, as long-delayed dreams seemed to suddenly be fulfilled: rapidly rising prosperity coupled with growing individualism, the dissolution of rigid class and family structures, enormous technological advances, the globalization of communication (from television to air traffic), a liberalization in sexual and legal matters... All of which fed into a kind of real-life fantasy: the actual improvement of social and economic conditions for many citizens contained within itself a large-scale self-deception, strongly promoted by contemporary media – the illusion of unending growth. A decade later, around 1970, a deep feeling of exhaustion had settled in. Depending on one's ideological point of view, the pessimism of the day related either to the dismantling of the economic boom, to the canceled revolution, or to the depraved morality of youth. "The dream has come true," wrote Christopher Booker in 1969, "and the real fruit of the era lies in the fact that, as never before, its hollowness has been exposed."
Against this background – and in keeping with the general "look" of nightmares and dreams – the best picture of the era would have to be a highly fragmented one. (Cinematic) Britain in the 1960s is a multiple exposure or split-screen arrangement: Free Cinema and Beatlemania; James Bond and the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament; Ken Loach's socialist docudramas with mass appeal (Cathy Come Home) and, at the same time on the same telly, a series of absurdist Pop artifacts, The Avengers. Fantasies of upward mobility as those in John Schlesinger's Darling or Clive Donner’s sharp satire, Nothing But the Best, live side by side with unique (and uniquely different) visions of the apocalypse, such as The War Game and The Day the Earth Caught Fire. The sublime concentration of Joseph Losey's long directorial career finds a home in the same "impure" cinema as the stray genius represented by shooting stars like Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General) – somewhere between the horrors of Hammer and the highest ambitions for cinema art.
Modern fragmentation and genre-transcending impurity were key characteristics of British filmmaking in the Sixties. In works such as Losey's Accident (1967), Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1966), or Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell’s persona-switching parable, Performance (1968/70), the fracturing of time and narrative via interlaced memories and premonitions found its most unsettling and meaningful expression. Losey and Antonioni were not the only foreigners who contributed to this apex of Brit-modernism. There were also two Poles, Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski (Deep End, 1970), and another American, Richard Lester, who created an authentic pop variant of this trend (A Hard Day's Night and The Knack ...and how to get it).
The Knack was not the only essential British film of the decade to be released in June 1965 – Roman Polanski's Repulsion encapsulated the "impure" qualities of the British film industry even better. It was brought to life by Michael Klinger & Tony Tenser, two kings of exploitation cinema who had deep ties to the underworld (gangsters were an important factor in the British glamour and media world of the time, as the case of the Kray Brothers most famously showed). For their exploration of the new lower-middle class and its spiritual abyss, Klinger and Tenser didn’t pick one of their own B-movie clients, but the smartest young turk in Eastern European cinema – plus a genuine French movie goddess, Catherine Deneuve.
The Knack and Repulsion form the center of a canonical arc. It stretches from the Angry Young Men of the economic boom, striving to break their working-class ties – Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top (1959), Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), or Richard Harris in This Sporting Life (1963) – to a country in psychic ruin, painfully presented by Ken Loach in his R.D. Laing-inspired film about the family as battleground (Family Life, 1971). In between, however, lies a richly varied landscape of forgotten gems, which have only recently been rediscovered in the U.K. The proletarian theater artist, Joan Littlewood, for example, is considered an icon, yet the sole film she directed, Sparrows Can't Sing, has long stood on the sidelines, just like another film inspired by Littlewood's workshops, Bronco Bullfrog by Barney Platts-Mills. Around 1970, its improvisational naturalism was spoken of in the same breath as that of early works by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.
At the other end of the spectrum, in genre and 'B' cinema, a similar state of affairs can be detected; John Guillermin's Never Let Go (1960) and Wolf Rilla's major work, The World Ten Times Over (1963), serve as examples. Guillermin, a tough action movie realist, here proves to be a first-rate observer of working-class anxiety and the dream of a better life, which will be defended even through violent means. For the young "hostesses" in The World Ten Times Over, this dream is no longer within reach. The finely spun tale, with its direct approach, anti-patriarchal overtone and lesbian undertones, led to a small scandal which basically destroyed Wolf Rilla's career. Just like Val Guest or Terence Fisher, Guillermin and Rilla represent a long list of genre-pros with auteur ambitions – directors whose style-conscious (and critically underappreciated) work was a strong pillar of England’s cinematic glory during that era.
Hardly any of these directors made the leap to prestige productions, because at the end of the 60s American money – the Hollywood majors' large-scale investment, a key to the British cinema boom – withdrew from the market as quickly as it had appeared. The latest works in the series seem to anticipate the Sex Pistols' May 1977 mantra: "There is no future / in England's dreaming." Lindsay Anderson's if...., the cruelest and most desperate of all '68' films, is a case in point – and an exclamation mark. The face of this cultural moment belongs to the film's young lead, Malcolm McDowell, and it would soon reappear with a cynical twist. The scandal that was A Clockwork Orange strengthened a dark logic by which those who sow "revival" and "revolt" seem to always reap retrogression and repression.
"England's Dreaming" offers several Austrian premieres, including a new version of Peter Whitehead's early Rolling Stones documentary, Charlie Is My Darling – Ireland 1965. On four Fridays, thematic Double Features will be shown. On February 21 critic-curator Neil Young will present a lecture on changing representations of the law in 1960s British cinema. The program is supported by the British Embassy in Austria.