A Day in the Life Review
Dry British exoticism. There's the export version, wherein outsiders have a slight disadvantage while watching but can nonetheless catch up in due time. And there's also the more restricted sort intended to be consumed strictly by the natives. DVD, and now Blu-ray, has pulled the curtain away from much of the latter, allowing non-Britons the opportunity to sneak a glance inside a culture many of us fail to relate to or simply don't understand. The primary enabler of such viewing has been the BFI. Its generous dedication to British film, particularly documentaries, has allowed the entire world to have its eyes opened to material that was previously less than an afterthought. The current man of the hour? John Krish, a filmmaker now 87 years old as of this writing and the most recent recipient of Best Documentary from the Evening Standard film awards for the collection of short films being reviewed here.
The four films that headline this set, all written and directed by Krish, were made between 1953 and 1964 but, even with that gap, they manage to feel cohesive and timeless. They are, in my mind, very British without being at all alienating to those who reside under different flags. If anything, these shorts tend to provide shading and detail to a nation that can be as complicated, yet damningly predictable, as any other country in the world. The elegance and technical virtuosity Krish shows in displaying his subjects - and, with these films at least, it's the British society that seems to be most in focus - transcends time and place. They are all just so wonderfully well-made as to grip the viewer immediately and without hesitation or regret.
This collection earns its title of A Day in the Life by showing four separate works which all serve as snapshots of regular, daily lives in post-war Britain. They are halved between the young and the old, with two of the shorts concerning children and the other pair dealing more with the impact on the elderly. The first, "The Elephant Will Never Forget" (11:10), is primarily about the end of the trams in London but also seems to consciously use this change as a mournful farewell to the past. The lingering look at an older couple riding the tram on its last day is nothing if not a tribute to days gone by that are, at this point, being willfully forgotten by society. It's nostalgic and moving while placing the modern viewer perfectly inside its era. I've read that "The Elephant Will Never Forget" has retained a good deal of popularity over time and this is entirely understandable given how romantic it is. Krish brings humanity to these street cars. He offers the riders as souvenirs of an earlier London. And he even does it with song - a music hall number breaks out unexpectedly on the soundtrack.
The middle portion of the BFI's Krish program is devoted to the young ones, specifically a collection of underprivileged kids taken out for the day to an amusement park and a group of secondary school students, many of whom will be leaving school after their sixteenth birthday. "They Took Us to the Sea (26:09), from 1961, follows a group of children to the beach and its accompanying carnival as they experience a happy time while more or less tuning out the reality of what awaits them at home. Again, the technical sophistication is immediate from the start. The children seem to ignore the camera as Krish captures their natural exuberance. By slight contrast, "Our School" (28:23) gives its subjects a good deal of space, perhaps accomplished by the filmmaker's lengthy pre-production and production periods. Krish and his crew spent several weeks at the school in an effort to capture what appears to be just a single day in the students' lives. The result yields much conflict and seems to expose the education system as failing one of its primary goals. The kids are shown behaving as expected, and the teachers' methods are generally supported, but many still bear no loyalty to the institution and want out as soon as they reach the required age.
It's in the final Krish short included here that the filmmaker truly proves his versatility and eschews any hint of sentimentality. The 1964 entry "I Think They Call Him John" (27:29) is a handful or an eyeful or what have you. It's about an older man who's a war veteran, a retired miner and a widower. He lives alone and has no children. He's had this solitary existence for nine years. Krish's camera almost feels like too much at times, as though it's overly probing or exploring emotional territory where it should not tread. It lingers on the subject's face, on his home, on a portrait of his deceased wife. Try not to be moved. Try not to understand Krish's still-relevant point about how we view the elderly. There's a deep and emotional film here. It opens with John shaving and later shows him performing such rudimentary tasks as ironing, turning on the television as it plays an inane game show, and fixing himself a meal. No matter what John does it feels sad and real. Sad that he has no one and most likely will suffer this fate each day before his death, and real in the sense that there must be many, many Johns out there - decent men who've devoted their lives to a world that no longer cares.
(For more thoughts on A Day in the Life, please read Anthony Nield's Cinema Review here at The Digital Fix.)
The BFI's Dual Format release of A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-war Britain by John Krish contains both a Blu-ray and DVD, plus a booklet, inside the case. The discs are region-free and dual-layered.
The main program is a collection of four shorts. These can be played either individually or back-to-back. They are matted to 1.33:1 on the Blu-ray and in that same full frame aspect ratio on the DVD. Some minor instances of speckles and debris remain in the prints, often most noticeable at the beginning and ending of a short, but they show little damage overall. The crisp black and white photography has been rendered amazingly well here, and this would seem to be the ideal, virtually impossible to improve upon presentation of these films. Everything we hope for in a transfer of older material is present and accounted for - superb contrast, strong detail, natural and filmlike grain. The films in question were made over a period of eleven years but show a consistency in the technical quality on this release, shared also by the pair of short films included in the bonus material. The restorations were obviously conducted with dedication and care.
Audio is the weakest component of the set, though still quite manageable. Narration plays an important role in most of the films and comes through cleanly enough in the two-channel PCM mono track. "The Elephant Will Never Forget" registered the best to my ears, with particularly proper-sounding narration. The small child's accented contribution to "They Took Us to the Sea" is not marred by technical issues but nonetheless had me activating the optional English language subtitles. Some hiss creeps in at times, also tending to be present most often as the films begin and close. "Our School," with its audio having been presumably recorded live, is the least clean listen. Similarly, "I Think The Call Him John" maintains a mild droning hiss alongside the many sounds of the subject's daily life. These imperfections are all worth mentioning but not problematic. They are sort of like the audio equivalent of the light scratches and speckles that sometimes pop up while viewing. Nothing to detract from the experience. The English subtitles for the hearing impaired are white in color.
Extras are substantial, consisting of two more John Krish shorts, a recent interview with the filmmaker, and one of the BFI's indispensable booklets. Both Krish films are in HD on the Blu-ray while the interview is just available on the DVD. "I Want to Go to School" (31:17) is the 1959 precursor to "Our School" and was sponsored by the National Union of Teachers. It finds Krish documenting what he portrays as a typical day at a primary school. The short was put together from footage shot over a six-week period and shows a variety of dedicated teachers patiently giving lessons to their pupils on a variety of subjects. For such a potentially staid topic, Krish makes his film almost stirring. He celebrates the teachers but does it in such a quiet, natural manner that there's not even a whiff of ingratiation.
Schools and education are again considered in "Mr Marsh Comes to School" (24:53). Made for the Youth Employment Service in 1961, the film is easily the least conventional of the shorts in this set and also a particularly brazen example of Krish's brand of documentary. It stars an actor (Reginald Marsh) playing the role of a youth employment officer and is clearly scripted, with frequent fantasy sequences. This stretching of how some might conventionally define a documentary does away with the false veneer of reality, instead preferring to aim for more practical considerations like appealing to its captive teenage audience. It also gives Krish a chance to show his sense of humor, aided mightily by the enthusiastic performance of Marsh.
Found only on the DVD is an onstage interview (19:20) with John Krish conducted in November of 2010 following the premiere screening of the A Day in the Life program at BFI Southbank. The filmmaker comes across as intelligent, feisty and opinionated, and it makes for an easy watch. A booklet running thirty-six pages gathers a good number of contextualizing writings on the disc contents. It begins with a piece by Patrick Russell, who was also the interviewer in the BFI Southbank video, that serves as an overview for this release. It runs for parts of five pages of text. An appreciation by Kevin Brownlow, who served as editor on "I Think They Call Him John," comes next and lasts three pages. Individual looks at all of Krish's included shorts follow in writings that typically run two pages each. Krish also provides single-page Introductions to the films included as extras.