7 November 2010

A History of British Avant-Garde Film, part three: 1940-1964

Originally published in FILMWAVES magazine in 2006.


The period between the outbreak of war and the mid-Sixties is often characterised as an exceptionally lean time for the British avant-garde. Seventies and Eighties film theorists and historians have tended to largely ignore the Forties and Fifties, criticising the lack of theoretical debate and formal experimentation in post-war British film culture.

In literature, there was a strong reaction against Modernism. Osborne’s dramas, Larkin’s poetry and the novels of Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey and John Braine, all concerning upper-working-class or lower-middle-class males in contemporary England, were written as if Modernism never happened, being fiercely championed by critics who had resented Modernism’s stranglehold over inter-war literature.

However, British feature film enjoyed something of a ‘golden age’ immediately after the war, producing the Ealing comedies, Powell and Pressburger’s finest works and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. However, the most striking formal innovations during the Forties and early Fifties were made in Hollywood, most demonstrably with Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but also by Hitchcock, who adventurously allowed Salvador Dalí to design a sequence in Spellbound, and continued to take risks with narrative structure and cinematography.

The Fifties ended with the emergence of the French nouvelle vague, inspired by Jean Renoir, Abel Gance and Marcel Carné’s pre-war works, as well as the literary nouveau roman, leaving British critics searching for an equivalent domestic movement. Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson all filmed works of Fifties literature, including Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Storey’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which led to their being grouped under the label of ‘New British Cinema’. The New British Cinema directors were not avant-gardists, and never aspired to be, unlike members of the nouvelle vague, and one has to look elsewhere for avant-garde activity in this period, given the lack of any prominent organised filmmaking units or influential theoretical advances.

To investigate these absences, it is necessary to return to the outbreak of World War II, during which all but one of Britain’s film groups was dissolved. The war fragmented the movements and traditions established by the Thirties filmmakers, in geographical and intellectual terms, rather than extinguishing them. Three of the decade’s most influential figures, McLaren, Lye and Grierson, all went to work in Canada.

Norman McLaren and Len Lye continued making abstract films throughout the period, linking the Thirties avant-garde with that emerging in the Sixties. McLaren was considerably more prolific, scoring a success with Begone Dull Care (1949); the best known of Lye’s few films of this period was Free Radicals (1958), a simple abstract film utilising African rhythms to mesmerising effect.

Like McLaren and Lye, Grierson refined his style after the Thirties rather than radically altering it, writing numerous articles about film, education and the preservation of democracy. Passionately committed to the war effort, moving to Canada to operate away from the Blitz and the blackouts, Grierson believed film was central to the Allied campaign, boldly stating, ‘Even the issue of the war may turn on the skill and imagination with which we formulate our aims and maintain our spirit.’

Grierson, like McLaren, opted to work in Canada, away from the Blitz and the blackouts. Other prominent Thirties documentary makers preferred to remain in Britain. Paul Rotha made The World is Rich (1947) about post-war food policy, while Humphrey Jennings left Surrealism and Mass Observation behind to become Britain’s most celebrated wartime director, famously producing Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires were Started (1943). Listen to Britain was distinctive in that it did not provide a spoken commentary or superimposed soundtrack, instead presenting the viewer with the sounds made by its characters, particularly pianist Myra Hess., lending a captivating magic to Jennings’ idiosyncratic vision of ‘everyday life’.

Perhaps the most intriguing avant-garde films to emerge from wartime Britain were those by two Polish immigrants, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson. After filming Europa (1932) and Adventures of a Good Citizen (1937) in Poland, the couple moved to England, where they made The Eye and the Ear (1943) and Calling Mr. Smith (1944).

Both films sought to bring Polish culture to the attention of British audiences, for political reasons. The Eye and the Ear synchronised pieces by modern Polish composer Karel Szymanowski to ‘different methods of cinematographic interpretation’, while Calling Mr. Smith appealed directly to British intellectuals, pleading with them to drop notions of Nazi Germany as the land of Bach and Goethe, highlighting the massacre of Polish intellectuals and demonstrating the cultural paucity of Hitler’s regime.

Although Churchill’s National Government questioned certain films (including Calling Mr. Smith), the government recognised the importance of film as both entertainment and propaganda, and were determined to keep cinemas open. As the government took greater interest in film, Leftist directors and unionists pushed for changes to the structures of the industry. Ivor Montagu and Ralph Bond founded the Association of Cine-Technicians (ACT) in 1933 to organise film workers; its journals published ‘A State Film Industry?’ in 1941, recommending nationalisation as a bulwark against anticipated post-war Hollywood aggression.

After the Soviet Union entered the war, Socialist and Communist politics received more favourable press, particularly in 1945 as Attlee’s Labour Party surged to power. As the government began its programme of nationalisation, the Documentary Movement, the Workers’ Film Association and the Tribune Group, allied to the Labour Party, lobbied for state control of the film industry, hoping to overturn corporate control of the medium. Stafford Cripps, the President of the Board of Trade, seriously considered Paul Rotha’s memorandum suggesting the establishment of a Film Corporation similar to the National Film Board of Canada.

For Socialist filmmakers, this was a time of optimism, despite serious concerns about Hollywood monopolisation, and lingering suspicions about the British Communist Party’s unwavering allegiance to Moscow. Many assumed, with little experience of state-funded culture or Labour rule, that the government would sponsor a more effective left-wing film service. However, Attlee’s Party had greater concerns, and its haphazard policy on film, particularly its failure to nationalise the industry, had negative repercussions. In 1948, an import duty of 75% was placed on all foreign films, leading to the Motion Picture Export Association boycotting Britain entirely; the inevitable climb-down by the government caused great embarrassment, and rendered any defensive further measures against the American export programme impossible.

For filmmakers allied (however awkwardly) with the British Communist Party, the changes in the political climate after 1948 were problematic. The Berlin Blockade, Churchill’s infamous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four all contributed to a growing distrust of Stalinist Russia at the start of the Cold War, making it more difficult for Communist filmmakers to secure funding, get their efforts distributed or sustain their organisations. The Workers’ Film Association, which became the National Film Association in 1946, supported by the Co-operative Wholesale Society, disbanded in 1953. Throughout the Fifties, the actions of the Communist Party and the Labour Party often proved difficult for British intellectuals and artists, particularly in 1956, when the Communist Party backed Khrushchev over the Hungarian Uprising, and in 1959, when Hugh Gaitskell proposed that Labour drop Clause Four from its manifesto.

However, there remained a vibrant culture of Left-wing filmmaking throughout the immediate post-war years, which never theorised its relationship with the mainstream in any depth, making films on limited budgets for pragmatic reasons. It was commonly understood that mainstream cinema was a tool of capitalism, and that operating outside it was inherently revolutionary; no further aesthetic or ideological reflection on this relationship was deemed immediately necessary. ACT established its own production company in 1950, primarily to provide work for its unemployed members; only one union film was made by its members (We are the Engineers, as late as 1969) but it did produce other films, most famously Green Grow the Rushes (1951), about a group of smugglers exploiting an ancient charter to sneak brandy into southern England.

Another Communist group, ‘New Era’, was more directly involved in filmmaking. New Era mostly made documentaries about Communist Party activities in the early Fifties, producing We Who are Young (1952) and One Great Vision (1953) on an amateur basis. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament produced March to Aldermaston (1959), with a soundtrack based on direct comment from marchers and speakers, sustaining interest with the rhythmic editing of expressive images.

Amateur production thrived in the late Forties and early Fifties, occasionally assisted by the establishment of the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund in 1952. These amateur filmmakers often worked within the documentary traditions inherited from pre-war film culture. Beverly Robinson’s film We Speak for Our Children (1952) intelligently rehabilitated the montage style of silent documentaries to construct a powerful, ideologically committed protest against the closure of nurseries in Kent.

This amateur practice was developed throughout the Fifties, often facilitating the entry of amateur directors into the professional industry. Occasionally, amateur projects became professional films. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s film It Happened Here (1963), which shrewdly mixed documentary and narrative styles, famously created a scenario in which Hitler’s attempted invasion of Britain succeeded, made all the more disturbing for its naturalistic use of British stereotypes and conventions. Aided by the availability of cheaper, lightweight 16mm cameras, Brownlow and Mollo spent eight years making the film, eventually securing distribution with United Artists after removing a controversial six-minute sequence in which genuine neo-Nazis expounded their views.

However, not all avant-garde filmmakers in Britain during this period were rigidly concerned with ideological politics, or interested in working within organisational frameworks. James Broughton, like Jennings a poet who took up directing, had been closely involved with a fledgling US avant-garde directly influenced by the work of Maya Deren, particularly Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). After making an impression on America’s West Coast with The Potted Psalm (1946) and Mother’s Day (1948), Broughton was invited to London to make a film, which he envisaged as his ‘valentine to the land of Edward Lear, Shakespeare and pantomimes.’

This ‘valentine’ became The Pleasure Garden, shot in the ruins of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Staunchly opposed to cinematic realism, the film betrayed the influence of Broughton’s contemporary Kenneth Anger, infusing the late-Modernist aesthetics developed by the Forties avant-garde with high camp, anticipating the works of Andy Warhol, Ron Rice and Jack Smith. Certainly, The Pleasure Garden was a playful, frivolous film, owing a debt to Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, in which a Free Spirit liberates an exuberant Folk Singer from an oppressive Park Keeper who attempts to halt his song.

The Pleasure Garden starred Hattie Jacques and John Le Mesurier, with Lindsay Anderson as its Production Manager. Anderson’s experience of working with an American avant-garde maverick on a British production proved invaluable as he became one of the most prominent, and certainly most persistently radical figures within the only ‘movement’ to catch the eye of more mainstream critics, the ‘Free Cinema’.

The output of the ‘Free Cinema’ directors – Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Anderson among them – was quite diverse, sharing only a Romantic emphasis upon personal expression and a common focus on working-class lives. The light qualities of their documentaries owed much to the Thirties tradition, particularly Jennings, who died prematurely in 1950, falling off a cliff while filming in Greece. However, the Free Cinema directors also evolved their techniques in response to the increasing popularity of television, cemented by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The advent of ITV and then BBC2 allowed for a greater variety of programming, challenging filmmakers to offer something through films that could not be achieved by television broadcasts.

The Free Cinema directors’ shared interest in working-class culture, or aspects of it, led the media to present them as political radicals. They were informed by the amateur filmmaking culture of the period, but their films suggested far less ideological commitment and had slick, professional production values, making their works far more acceptable to the mainstream. Crucially, the Free Cinema directors were expert publicists, writing provocative press releases and securing programmes at the NFT devoted to their work.

Perhaps for this reasons, they were perceived as spokesmen for the working classes, demanding greater representation for the proletariat in British film, and consequently some of their greatest films were denied a full national release. Anderson’s Thursday’s Children (1951), about a school for deaf children, won an Oscar nomination but not a circuit release, while Every Day Except Christmas (1957, sponsored by Ford), concerning a fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden, won the documentary prize at Venice but was rejected by the BBC.

However, as Margaret Dickinson stressed, their emphasis was always upon working-class consumption, as in Every Day Except Christmas, or Reisz’s We are the Lambeth Boys (1959, also sponsored by Ford), documenting a South London youth club. Working-class institutions never featured prominently in key Free Cinema works; neither, to any extent, did women, blacks, immigrants or foreign workers. Indeed, only Anderson remained persistently non-conformist; like the other Free Cinema directors, he took to producing full-length feature films, but his were the most incendiary, particularly his aggressive critique of the British public school system, If (1968) and the anti-capitalist O Lucky Man (1973).

There were several other unique independent filmmakers operating during the period. Margaret Tait made beautiful, deeply personal films, such as the heart-warming Happy Bees (1955), evoking her childhood in Orkney, and A Portrait of Ga (1955), where Tait filmed her mother to ask how much the camera can reveal about an individual. Hugh MacDiarmid – A Portrait (1964) was a documentary about the Thirties poet, now aged 71, which featured MacDiarmid acting out Tait’s interpretations of his poems on screen.

One other genuinely innovative filmmaker worthy of mention was Geoffrey Jones, who, like Tait and Broughton, cannot be placed within any British trend or movement of the time. Jones took a very different approach to the documentary, radically challenging the conventions set during the Thirties. Jones, like the GPO directors of the inter-war period, was often backed by corporate sponsorship, attracting the attention of Sir Arthur Elton of the Shell Film Unit, for whom he made Shell Panorama (1959) and Shell Spirit (1962). The latter impressed Edgar Anstey of British Transport Films, whose Housing Problems (co-directed with Elton, 1935) set many of the conventions (particularly for television documentaries) that Jones was to explode.

Anstey commissioned Snow (1963), an impromptu account of the communal efforts to clear snow from the railways during the arduous winter of 1962-1963. Eschewing the voice-overs that characterised Thirties ‘poetic realism’, Jones replaced commentary with a musical score by guitarist Johnny Hawksworth, cutting the film to the rhythm of the music – a technique he perfected in his later films, particularly Locomotion (1975).

While, it seems, later historians of British film were not mistaken in failing to identify any major advances in film theory during this period, there were plenty of avant-garde filmmakers producing inventive works, individually and collectively, moving Thirties film culture in several contradictory directions. The cultural interchange of the Twenties and Thirties was not entirely stifled by the war and the resultant economic crises, with British directors such as McLaren and Grierson going to Canada and creating an important relationship between British and Canadian film culture, and foreign directors such as Broughton and the Themersons introduced new ideas into various avant-garde circles.

Political, rather than aesthetic concerns dominated the period, but it was not impossible for less ideologically motivated filmmakers to produce works and find an audience for them. The ultimate disappointment with Attlee’s Labour government, felt more acutely after their electoral defeat of 1951 heralded the return of Churchill and thirteen years of moderate Conservative rule, led to a change of tactics amongst the cinematic Left. Realising that their attempts to overturn corporate control of the industry through nationalisation, forcing massive changes upon mainstream film culture, were doomed due to the foreign and economic pressures upon the government, they spent the Fifties trying to open spaces beyond the reach of those corporations. Although some individual films made by Left-wing directors were aesthetically successful, they tended to fail in their aim of finding a wider audience, and Socialist film organisations were often short-lived.

However, by the mid-Sixties, several very different avant-gardes were defining principles, forming alliances and organising into units. The stifling conservation of post-war literature frustrated Stefan Themerson (a poet, philosopher and artist as well as a filmmaker), as well as younger writers such as Anthony Burgess, Ann Quin and B. S. Johnson, who resolved to pick up Modernist aesthetics where they had been left before the war. Johnson, the loudest voice in this loosely constituted neo-Modernist group, successfully branched into filmmaking in 1967 with You’re Human Like the Rest of Them.

Elsewhere, young experimental filmmakers followed developments in the United States closely, taking a keen interest in Warhol, Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas’ Cinemathèque and the New York avant-garde. Perhaps in reaction against the ideological focus of the Left-wing filmmakers and the individualistic, anti-theoretical practice of the period’s other counter-mainstream directors, a new movement, aggressively formalist, fiercely avant-garde appeared, one that strove to initiate a ceaseless dialectic between film theory and practice. This was to become the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, the most influential development in the history of the British avant-garde.