AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE BRITISH ARE COMING
MONTY PYTHON – AND YES, SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
by Harlan Kennedy
One of the most vexatious activities in the world is to stand on the cold and windy beach of British cinema waiting for a New Wave to break. The movie-goer takes up position, in inverse mimicry of King Canute, and waits with vain hope to get his feet wet while apostrophizing the ever-inert sea. The drain on his stamina and optimism is cruel.
Suddenly, however, British cinema is actually on the move. The shock of sea-water has hit the ankles and there are real signs that the tide is at last coming in.
From Monty Python's Life of Brian to Ken Loach's Black Jack, from Alien to Fame, from the gay-Eighties gallimaufry of Derek Jarman's The Tempest to the clean lines and quick cynicism of Quadrophenia, the new films from British directors have been twinning two qualities seldom ever united before in the same movie in Britain: exuberance and a subversive intelligence.
At the start of the Eighties it looks as if the Absurdist tradition in British art – fathered by Laurence Sterne and descending through such varied scions as Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce to today's Monty Python – has got into the bloodstream of British cinema: not to effect any absolute comic nihilism, but as the long-needed medication to rejuvenate a sluggish metabolism.
In the hunt for inspiration, the new British movies have been fanning out over a huge area of social and cultural terrain – from the New Testament to terror-in-space, from Shakespearean fantasy to Sixties gang warfare. Yet all alike have been motivated as if by a common ideal: that of de-structuring tradition, of shredding stereotypes, of bringing the flip-book wit and rapidity of movie expression to subjects prone by age and overuse to ossification.
In Loach's Black Jack, the pinpricks of Absurdism deflate the Masterpiece Theatre stateliness of filmed costume drama. In Ridley Scott's Alien, Absurdism's dream-logic allows a science-fiction fantasy to power full-steam-ahead with a hitherto unthinkable minimum of "scientific" exposition. In Jarman's The Tempest, the world of the Absurd transforms Shakespeare's moralistic fantasia into a contemporary punk parable.
Of the two prime ingredients of this shot-in-the-arm Absurdism, one is a new freedom with Surrealist elements – juxtaposing the incongruous and using anachronism, for instance, as a tool to unstiffen stereotypes – and the other is a transfiguring touch of satire. The new films take old cultural models and rejuvenate them by stretching their limbs into a loose but logical burlesque extremism.
If Sterne is the antique forefather of the new Absurdism, the modern training-ground is surely TV commercials. British commercials have an obliquity, a choppy wit, and an improvisational flair that make them seem almost a different genre from the brute-force promotionalism of their American cousins. As much as in selling products, British commercials seem interested in selling stylistic ingenuity and the crazy compactness of the "thirty-second movie."
The quirky fragmentation, the near-subliminal idea-association, the living-dangerously between trigger-response logic and total non-sequitur – the thirty-second commercial can make an Absurdist virtue from time-costs-money necessity. In Britain commercials have also been surprisingly bold in predicating their impact on a degree of cine-literate sophistication in their audiences. Parodies of old films or old film styles – from Stagecoach to Casablanca – flicker across the screen in mercurial paeans to this or that detergent, perfume, or chocolate bar.
Critical untouchability has been a huge advantage to filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, and Nicolas Roeg – all of whom came up through the commercials school. They have had the freedom of total anonymity and total critical neglect. If they had flexed their eccentricities in a signed and personal feature film, or even a signed and personal short, they would have had to run the gauntlet of British critical conservatism and public incomprehension. (What the public can take in a product-marketing context is surprisingly more adventurous than what it can take in an "artistic" or "realistic" context.)
Certainly Britain is a country which has long had a tendency to use the "too little" of documentary realism as a schoolmaster's cane to beat the "too much" of fantasy and the surreal. The career of Michael Powell, Britain's resident movie genius in the Forties and Fifties, was virtually a one-man paradigm of that warring dualism, gravitating now toward monochrome austerity, now toward bumpy and delirious flights of fancy. It's probable that only Powell, with his head for heady contrasts, could have survived and thrived as he did.
It's notable, too, that the last time any kind of unity vaporously encircled British cinema was back in the Swinging Sixties, when regional realism spawned a series of hairshirt-and-homespun-philosophy adaptations of novels about the working class. Room At The Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, et al. burned dolefully on the screen, hymning the squalorous romance of abortion, football, and sausages-and-mash. It was less an example of triumphant artistic unity than a beleaguered, bandwagon homogeneity – a retreat-to-the-provinces rejection of slick commercialism, which, though it left Belgravla for Birmingham, did nothing to cure the British cinema's besetting diseases of literary dependence and literalistic realism. It's no coincidence that the movement happened when TV commercials were still a babe-in-arms, and the infinite possibilities they taught us for speed, compression, and visual literacy were still unexplored.
Now the picture is changing, the extremes are synthesizing, and though there are still dizzying contrasts in style – between Jarman's rococo The Tempest and Bí11 Forsyth's scat and idling That Sinking Feeling – there's a common balm of film-sense, and a belated but transforming realization that the movie image and the movie inspiration are more important than the source material. Reverent or "respectful" adaptations of non-filmic originals are justly discredited; and visually the British cinema is at last starting to slip gear, vary speeds, and change lanes and levels with ease.
The new spirit abroad in Britain is a kind of yea-saying iconoclasm. And the two recent films involving The Who are typical of this simultaneous putting-down and vamping-up of tradition. The Kids Are Alright is a docu-biography of the London group which hurls outrages-to-the-media at us at a lightning rate. It's a self-destruct, self-renewing documentary which burns the cliché skin off the genre and clothes it anew in insult, slapstick, and fertile comedy.
Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia (with music by The Who, who were also executive producers) performs the same service for the British youth-in-revolt movie. A genre that gave us films like The System and The Leather Boys is scarcely recognizable in this elegy to Sixties gang warfare. Dour monochrome thuggery is replaced by a picture – of gang culture that is spiky, funny, and fast-driving – and that cuts narrative corners more successfully, en route to a visionary ending, than any British "commercial" film in recent memory.
While these two films cheerfully duff up modern subjects, Monty Python's Life of Brian and Ken Loach's Black Jack roll up their sleeves to deal with History. Loach's film is perhaps the more startling revelation, coming as it does from the director who, a decade ago, brought you such stripped-down docu-dramas as Kes and Family Life. The albatross that hung around Loach's neck in the Sixties was an excessive, TV-schooled trust in cinéma vérité techniques. Because the locations were real, or the actors were improvising their own words, we were asked to believe that the story and theme had a greater Inner Truth.
In Black Jack, with its eighteenth-century tale of children, giants, and madhouses, Loach uses the same technique but has found a way to transform it virtually by satirizing it. He sets informality in a formal context, making his period characters extemporize and colloquialize and speak off the tops of their heads just like you and me. It's like watching a Sheridan play performed by players who have forgotten their lines and have to new-mint them as they go along. We aren't belabored with any assertion that this is a Holy Writ version of history; rather, it's a fresh, funny, spring-heeled, anachronous vision of the eighteenth century that delivers a powerful body-blow to the starched formulae of costume cinema.
Monty Python's Life of Brian does much the same with its portion of the British heritage-though broader is its way and more crooked its gait. What Black Jack does for stereotyped views of the Augustan Age, Life of Brian does for piously trusting schoolroom attitudes to the New Testament. It is the first Bible "epic" to make the simple point that, since the world has never been short of fools, charlatans, and bullies, nor of illogical and inconsequential events, why ever should it have been so during the first years of the Anno Domini era?
Monty Python's influences on British culture seems to me far more radical and momentous than anyone has yet reckoned. Its brand of British nonsense – sprung from the lineage of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll – has been brought to bruise on just about every sacred institution known to Western homo sapiens in the twentieth century. In the process of debunking traditions, the form of Python humor has mimicked the content. Out from their films and TV programs have gone the shibboleths of order, continuity, and narrative logic, and with them any pretense at the suspension of disbelief. Python have arrived – improbably, and by a logic of the heart not the head – at an authentic version of that à la mode ideal, Brechtun distanciation.
Once again, TV commercials have almost certainly been a formative influence. Their disjointed thirty-second bursts of imagination offered a blueprint for Python's success in switching TV comedy style from legato to staccato: from the smooth naturalistic runs of Situation Comedy to the anarchically stop-go notation of Python's And-Now-For-Something-Completely-Different.
Python have popularized in TV and cinema a (self-) consciousness about aesthetic form that structuralist critics, slaving over hot typewriters, and structuralist filmmakers, slaving over ice-cold moviolas, have been crusading for for years. But you can seldom do it with the head; it has to come from the heart. And it's no surprise that when one views the latest British structuralist film exercises, they are often dry, effortful movies, wheezing fitfully in the wake of Monty Python's bolder, more reckless essays in de-structuring.
Phil Mulloy's In The Forest, for example, which has been the most lauded British feature-length movie in the structurally self-conscious vein in the last two years, is a pedagogic pageant of English social history – from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution – whose chunky, tableau vivant style is a putative assault on all ideas of narrative streamlining. But far from dismantling cliché attitudes as it dismantles cliché forms, the film merely clears the ground for the erection of new doctrinaire stereotypes. Here march the Archetypal Peasant, the Archetypal Landowner, the Archetypal Priest, in a dire procession of Marxist's-Eye-View Every-men – units in an argument rather than living human beings.
Artistic "de-structuring" is clearly a bifurcal process. It can move towards a new-dogmas-for-old evangelism in which one set of stereotypes, formal or thematic, is shuffled out of the way to be substituted by another. Or it can move in the direction of a free-ranging iconoclasm, which makes no attempt to replace the discredited formulae with new-coined ones of its own.
Monty Python waves a flag for the second and freer tendency. Structuralist filmmaking in Britain, with shining exceptions like the ingeniously comic short-filmmaker Peter Greenaway, partakes of the first.
Greenaway's surrealist impromptus have done for the British short film what Monty Python has done for the feature: warping formulae with their non-sequiturs and disarming expectation with their heady collision between incongruous elements. In A Walk Through H, Greenaway's masterpiece, it's as if a TV art documentary had been involved in a smash-up with a Borgesian quest-thriller. Over weird abstract paintings that we are assured are maps a plummy voice narrates the last journey of a (now-dead) ornithologist. As with other products of the current renaissance, humor goes hand in hand with formal subversion, and de-structuring is given the kiss of comic and emotional life.
So too with Derek Jarman. Jarman broke into British consciousness as a director five years ago with Sebastian, an all-male, Latin-speaking account of the last days of the arrow-fated Roman saint. It was lush, bizarre, and resonantly inconsequential: not so much a deep-delving study in martyrdom as a giddily belated tribute to the homosexual tradition of dying-saint iconography. Nude centurions and skimpily-clad soldiers lay about in the Mediterranean sun, and Sebastian died in the gracefully voluptuous swoon of a Quattrocento model.
Jubilee followed, a determinedly (too determinedly) riotous piece of Warhol-Morrissey pastiche transposing Elizabeth I to Punk London. Then came his masterpiece to date, The Tempest. Jarman's Shakespeare movie is the apotheosis of Camp. Camp is Absurdist de-structuring with its hair let down, its shoes kicked off, and a general air of undoctrinal revelry. The machinery of dramatic illusion is exposed, the fictions freely confessed; but the purpose is not to hector us about the manipulative subterfuges of Art but to draw us joyfully into the creative process itself.
The Tempest begins by flouting credulity – why are Prospero and Miranda, supposedly marooned on a desert island, inhabiting a genteely decaying stately home? – and ends by virtually creating its own cosmogony to house Shakespeare's re-envisioned play.
With Jarman's earlier fantasias (notably Jubilee), one sometimes felt the truth of the adage: When Everything Is Possible, Nothing Is Interesting. But there are no diminishing returns in The Tempest's miracle-working, because the thing-being-transformed is familiar, intricate, and fascinating – Shakespeare's play – and the things-it-is-being-transformed-into have, for the first time in Jarman's work, a sort of poetic-demented harmony.
Situated somewhere between Punk and Python, and mixing destructive glee with ornate inconsequence, Jarman's films are the most fascinating and probably most central work of the New British Cinema. In style and attitudes the new British films are a complete about-face from the dogged, claustrophobic realism of the Sixties working-class movies. Where the latter reached back to recent cultural history, taking their social conscience and photographic austerity from the British documentary tradition, the new British cinema reaches back through the centuries into pre-cinematic culture.
Black Jack and Life of Brian and The Tempest are twentieth century offshoots of a surreal British tradition that began with Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and wound down through the ages with Carroll, Lear, Woolf, and Joyce. Sterne broke up the monolithic masonry of the English novel into a crazy paving of idea-association and pregnant inconsequence. By indirection he found a new direction for story-telling, in which the cause-and-effect logic of external events was refracted into broken, glittering, disordered shapes by the processes of individual mental response.
At one point as it descended through British cultural history, Sterne's heritage divided into two separate paths. One became the stream-of-consciousness fragmentation of Woolf and Joyce, evangelizing the darker possibilities of narrative disruption. (Their modern cinematic descendant is Nicolas Roeg.) The other became the "nonsense" tradition of Lear, Carroll and (via TV commercials?) Monty Python, delighting in the free and spontaneous vandalism to which they could subject notions of logic and artistic structure.
The Sterne tradition is really the art of filleting form. You take away the backbone of chronological narrative and watch what patterns the body collapses into. As with dreams, the de-structuring reduction to essentials often produces apparently nonsensical results. But the logic has been rearranged, not destroyed, and the new patterns have both a meaning and a beauty of their own.
Two shining recent examples of what happens when a British mind, exposed to and influenced by these chop-structure traditions, is applied to non-British material are Ridley Scott's Alien and Alan Parker's Fame. Scott's direction of Dan O'Bannon's screenplay produced what is probably the most vividly corner-cutting Sci-Fi shocker ever. A prodigious minimum of exposition and explanation and a prodigious maximum of swift action and abrupt, idiomatic character responses make Alien look like a comic-strip of the Subconscious.
Parker's handling of the musical and narrative elements in Fame shows a similar if more erratic flair for cutting through exposition and going for the essential. At its best (chiefly in the opening audition sequences), the movie springs from peak to peak of impromptu energy, leaving the plateaus to be sketched in and lightly traversed by the filmgoer's own imagination. It's like A Chorus Line re-shaped for the movies and for the audio-visually fleet of foot.
It's no surprise that Scott and Parker were both schooled in the time-squeezing discipline of TV commercials, and that both saw that form as a dry run for feature movies. Scott even calls commercials "thirty-second feature films." As a cinematic training-ground for taking short-cuts to the quintessential, commercials are without rival: and their influence has rubbed off not just on the men who made them but on all who have "grown up" with them. Neither Peter Greenaway nor the Monty Python team served an apprenticeship in commercials, but like the rest of us they have lived with and learned from these time-bombs of Instant Drama that explode across our screens each night in a dream-like staccato.
Clearly not every new British film – not even every one mentioned here – is a fully-fledged specimen of this oneiric corner-cutting. But each is tinged with the New Illogic. And any suspicion that it's merely a flash in the processing lab, or a chimera in the mind of an over-excited critic, is confounded by the continuity and depth-in-numbers of the new trend.
Last year's Edinburgh Film Festival, for example, unveiled the first Scottish contribution to the trend. Bí11 Forsyth's That Sinking Feeling has exactly the invertebrate comic grace, the profusion of missing narrative links, that Black Jack or Life of Brian boasts. A vestigial plot about a gang of jobless Glasgow teenagers planning and executing a heist (their target: sixty stainless-steel sinks from a warehouse) is there mainly to be picked up and put down at will – to provide a few action hiccoughs in the film's rivetingly funny sostenuto of anything-can-happen idleness.
Forsyth's film is Inconsequence raised to the level of high art. It moves from one surreal, laid-back cameo to another, flicking an impudent glove each time across the face of commercial cinema's narrative determinism. For all those who have been sitting on the beach so long waiting for the New British Wave to come in, Forsyth's movie – along with its English fellows – gives one the best possible kind of sinking feeling. The sea is coming in, the deck-chairs are getting wet, and it's time to retreat to higher ground and wonder panoramically from afar.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1980 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.