Free Cinema Review

Officially the Free Cinema movement only lasted between February of 1956 and March of 1959. During this time the National Film Theatre intermittently played host to six programmes under such a title, in total encompassing 22 films, most of them documentaries. And yet whilst these are to all intents and purposes the entire sum of Free Cinema in the strictest of terms, as a movement it was far more wide-reaching. Indeed, it didn’t simply concentrate on London, or even the UK for that matter, but was truly international: of the six programmes, only three were dedicated to British productions, the others taking in Canada, the US, France and Poland. Furthermore, the filmmakers of the British efforts came from all over: Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta were from Switzerland, Lorenza Mazzetti from Italy, and there were many more besides. This particular boxed set encompasses the British programmes only, but nonetheless this international flavour is readily discernible.

Equally important is the realisation that Free Cinema exists within a much larger cinematic melting pot. The movement had a whole string of influences, an even bigger network of films and filmmakers it would influence, and a number of similar waves working in parallel (in France, in Czechoslovakia, in New York). It’s impossible, for example, to look at these films – or at least the British contingent – without noting the presence, somewhere or other, of Jean Vigo, Humphrey Jennings, the GPO and Crown Film Units as a whole, those films which revealed great artistry despite being sponsored by the likes of the Shell Unit (Len Lye’s The Birth of a Robot) or the British Commercial Gas Association (Housing Problems), and the list goes on. Likewise, the credits reveal the fundamental role other areas of British cinema played in their creation, from the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund and the Realist Film Unit to Ealing Studios and various outside backers. And then of course there are the filmmakers involved who, in so many cases, would later go on to form an integral part in productions on both the big and small screens. Here we find key British New Wave directors Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, future acclaimed documentarians Robert Vas and Michael Grigsby, arthouse directors Tanner (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Messidor) and Goretta (The Lacemaker), and more relatively minor figures such as Michael Tuchner (Villain), Jack Gold (The Naked Civil Servant) and the celebrated cinematographer Walter Lassally, who would go on to shoot Zorba the Greek amongst many others. Plus it’s worth a brief mention of the various directors who were almost immediately influenced, amongst them Johns Irvin and Schlesinger.

In other words Free Cinema was a hugely important development in cinema and yet not simply as a mere precursor. François Truffaut’s Les Mistons may have featured in the fifth programme at the NFT, a film which is now generally viewed in light of the nouvelle vague, yet we’re not dealing with a movement which merely allows glimpses at tyro directors or should be taken solely from the perspective of what was to come. Certainly, when looking at the titles collated over these discs we can see that the British New Wave did follow and know that the likes of Richardson, Reisz and others were heavily involved, but that's not to deny that these shorts were in many ways their own major event…

Free Cinema 1

As an opening gambit, the first Free Cinema programme was clearly one to excite the imagination. Three shorts made irrespective of each other (despite, in some cases, sharing personnel), we can nonetheless see the connections. It’s there in the filmmaking syntax and, more importantly, in the attitude. Here are a trio of works which are laying down foundations, not only for other Free Cinema efforts, but for a much wider ranging breed of filmmaking to come. Look at O Dreamland’s portrait of Margate’s amusements, the jazz club from Momma Don’t Allow or the East End of Together still showing the ravages of the war and it’s hard not to picture a Rita Tushingham, Albert Finney or Tom Courtney interacting with their rough-hewn edges.

And whatever their cumulative qualities, it’s these rough edges which are most important. It’s here where we find the essence of Free Cinema and its reaction to the then-current cinematic norms. Together, for example, has two deaf-mutes as its central protagonists, a fact which places it alongside Alexander Mackendrick’s Mandy, a film which, having been made in 1952, would still have occupied recent memories. Of course, Mandy is an absolutely terrific film and arguably the best of Mackendrick’s British ventures primarily for its anti-sentimentalist stance, yet Together, despite this shared subject matter, is a different film altogether. It’s impressionistic, lyrical, melancholic perhaps, and really gets under the skin of its two leads as they attempt to find their way in an ordinary world of work, pubs and rude little children. It doesn’t play within a framework of rules as Mandy did, but finds its own way into the drama and asks us to do likewise. Much like O Dreamland and Momma Don’t Allow, it unfolds at its own pace and allows us to take up own our place as and when we wish.

Or at least we can do with Together and Momma Don’t Allow. O Dreamland on the other hand is the odd one out insofar as it lacks that sense of connection and compassion. Richardson and Reisz are clearly fascinated by their jazz club, whilst Mazzetti’s deaf-mute leads are clearly representative of her outsider status as an Italian woman working in a foreign county. Yet O Dreamland is extremely distanced; it seems to have an almost sneering attitude to its subject, the result being one of the most curious documentaries ever made by a major filmmaker and one which I’m not entirely sure as to whether I like it or not. Stylistically it bears many Free Cinema hallmarks, and in this respect has much to appreciate: the lack of narration; the succinct editing both aurally and visually; the ability to override its technical limitations inasmuch as it was shot on cheap 16mm film stock and without synchronised sound; and the manner in which it disobeys the rules when it comes to camera placement or the use of close-ups. And yet when it comes to its overall stance, O Dreamland becomes extremely difficult to stomach. Either Anderson doesn’t care for these working class Margate folk, or he simply doesn’t wish to – the mocking refrain from the ‘Laughing Policeman’ which punctuates the soundtrack would appear to be his own. Furthermore, this attitude seems especially odd in light of his later works. Think of the compassion he had for Mick Travis in If…., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, or – in contrast – the working class characters at the centre of the David Storey adaptations, or – in contrast again – the elderly sisters played by Bette Davis and Lillian Gish in The Whales of August. A diverse bunch, no doubt, yet in every single case he’s right there with his characters. Indeed, the only time we’ve witnessed this ironic detachment since came, intriguingly enough, with the BBC commissioned self-portrait documentary that was Is That All There Is?.

In contrast, Richardson and Reisz want to get close to their subject. There may be the occasional staged set-up in Momma Don’t Allow, but otherwise their camera is one with a constantly curious documentary eye. The music of the jazz club and the people who populate it are their cue and their guide, and as such theirs is a film of terrific intensity. Indeed, so intent is their focus that we never see the edges as it were; the jazz club becomes its entire world and encompasses each and every frame. In this respect it’s also no doubt the better of the three offerings, perhaps even the only one to truly consume us. And yet it’s the way in which each of the films sits together which is important, and as such we’re unable to dismiss O Dreamland quite so easily, or to quibble too much over Together’s unnecessarily dramatic finale. Rather in combination we find a group of filmmakers (and it’s important not to neglect the input of John Fletcher and Walter Lassally at this point) trying to find their way and, hopefully, forge something that is new. Certainly, nothing has been perfected just yet, but a voice is being aired and a fresher means of communication is being toyed with. Had Free Cinema stopped at the first programme and not continued on for another three years, then these three films would nonetheless have earned it its place in cinema history.

Free Cinema 3: Look at Britain

The second Free Cinema programme came seven months after the first, almost to the day, and focussed solely on voices from abroad. Retrospectively it’s hard not to see this as a proclamation of solidarity, especially as the three films chosen reflect the trio which had come before. Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes, an impersonal 20-minute glimpse at the workings of a French abbatoir could almost be a cousin to O Dreamland in its detached approach. Lionel Rogosin’s near feature-length On the Bowery may very well be an American Momma Don’t Allow in the manner in which it absorbs its surroundings. And as the solitary strange piece of fiction Norman McLaren’s Neighbours was perhaps the closest equivalent to Together.

However, with the third Free Cinema programme (from May 1957) we return firmly to the UK with a selection subtitled ‘Look at Britain’. Furthermore, and as this additional title suggests, we’re also dealing with a more defined programme; there are no works of fiction this time around, rather a quartet of documentaries, each of which professes to show us a glimpse of Britain’s everyday folk. Wakefield Express travels to Yorkshire to do so, Nice Time takes a look at London’s Piccadilly Circus by night, The Singing Street focuses on Scottish children at play, and Every Day Except Christmas spends 24 hours in the company of those at Covent Garden market.

Whereas the first Free Cinema collection (and indeed the second for that matter) blended a series of disparate filmmakers into a cumulative whole, this particular helping is more obviously governed by a single voice. With two of his own films serving as bookends, namely Wakefield Express and Every Day Except Christmas, it’s easy to see Free Cinema 3 as being Lindsay Anderson’s, especially as Nice Time appears to be very much influenced by O Dreamland and that The Singing Street arrives in an edited form overseen by Anderson himself. And yet we’re not simply getting an extra large helping of the filmmaker behind O Dreamland, but a far richer representation. Look at both Wakefield Express and Every Day and it’s clear that we’re not getting that distasteful sneer we’d previously witnessed, but a more readily acceptable compassion and a healthy intrigue. Indeed, this also appears to have made him far more comfortable as a filmmaker, with both efforts demonstrating a playful artfulness despite both being commissions: Wakefield Express being financed by the newspaper of the same name to celebrate its 100th anniversary; Every Day by the Ford Motoring Company, though it should be noted in this case that Karel Reisz was at this time in charge of such commissions.

Given their sponsorship it’s perhaps true that neither venture is quite as “free” as some of the other Free Cinema ventures. There are commentaries on each for a start, and then of course there are backers to satisfy. Thus Wakefield Express also needs to fill in some history from the past 100 years, name each of the editors and the like, whilst Every Day becomes more of a paean to hard work that you imagine it might have been had Anderson been given an entirely free rein. Yet neither proves to be a hindrance, nor indeed a distraction for their director. Both seem closer to Momma Don’t Allow than they do to O Dreamland in their attitudes and are composed and paced accordingly. Anderson, alongside (by now regular) cohorts John Fletcher and Walter Lassally, seem happy just to capture their films’ respective environments: the unassuming townsfolk of Wakefield as they go about their business or the undiluted language of the Covent Garden workers during the few instances of synchronised sound. (It seems agreeably strange to hear the words “buggered if I know” uttered, and in an authentic accent, in a film from 1957.)

For some of that O Dreamland detachment we must instead turn our attentions to Nice Time, though here it doesn’t feel quite as cynical or brittle as it once was. Co-directed by Swiss filmmakers Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta whilst they were in the UK working at the BFI, the short takes London’s nightlife with the curiosity of born outsiders. Indeed, the sense of dislocation isn’t a class issue as was the case with Anderson and Margate, but a national one and as such the mood is more one of bemusement than it is of bile. Tanner and Goretta paint a picture of pinball machines and pulp movies, a melting pot of young and old, a place of prostitutes, noseless newspaper vendors and very few black faces. It’s very much an honest picture and as such of great historical value. And yet as a piece of cinema it’s just as worthwhile: loose, rough edged, energetic and scored by skiffle - Nice Time is a perfect example of the Free Cinema aesthetic.

The Singing Street, however, comes across slightly as an odd one out. Though produced by the BFI, as the majority of Free Cinema efforts were, it can feel a little too crude on both a technical and conceptual level to fully merit its inclusion. Certainly, the patented rough edges are considerably rougher, as is the layered soundtrack, here made up (much like Wakefield Express’ in fact) of children singing, whilst the more artfully inclined touches feel a little too self-conscious (overhead shots, the use of shop window reflections, etc.). That said, its selection was most likely governed by the same ideas which brought together the Free Cinema 2 titles. Just as those saw Free Cinema in effect in France, Canada and the US, here we find it happening in Scotland, again irrespective of any deliberate movement. Made in 1952, before the phrase was even coined of course, it shows just how divergent the impulses were to head off into new cinematic territories and proclaim new voices.

Free Cinema 6: The Last Free Cinema

Free Cinema 6 was also the last, its subtitle even proclaiming as much. Having headed to Poland and France respectively for programmes four and five (the former totalling six shorts including early efforts by Roman Polanski and Walerian Borowczyk; the latter pairing Truffaut’s Les Mistons with Free Cinema’s only true feature, Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge), here we find a return to the UK for a final proclamation of the movement and its achievements. Indeed, the quartet of films which makes up Free Cinema 6 point in one of two directions: either they demonstrate how the past three years’ worth of foundation laying have been consolidated; or they hint at whole new areas into which these filmmakers could head. Robert Vas’ Refuge England seamlessly blends documentary and drama, a move which would be vital for the pending influx of post-Free Cinema feature film production. Enginemen, made by an independent group of Manchester based technicians, follows the “rules” of the movement to their fullest and as such is perhaps its most hardcore expression ever. We Are the Lambeth Boys, directed by Karel Reisz, can be seen as both a follow-up to either Momma Don’t Allow and Every Day Except Christmas and a pre-cursor for his soon to be made first feature, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. And finally Food for a Blluuusssshhhhh introduces us to Free Cinema avant-garde-style thereby opening up a whole new range of possibilities.

Given this range it is especially difficult to pick out an obvious highpoint; arguably, Free Cinema 6 was the strongest of all the NFT programmes. Yet whilst each piece is really quite different, Refuge England does perhaps standout as the most obviously “Free Cinema”. A docudrama account of a Hungarian refugee’s first day in London, it gives an unsung area of society its voice on the big screen just as the films Mazzetti et al had done over the past three years. Furthermore, its outsider portrait of London (co-writer and director Robert Vas himself being a refugee) recalls both Together and, more prominently, Nice Time; Walter Lassally once again earns a director of photography credit; and its more overt documentary elements thrive on the incidentals, the unexpected and the sharply observed. And, as already noted, its blend of fact and fiction clearly looks forward towards what was to come; made in 1959, Refuge England was on the cusp of the sudden reinvigoration which Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey and the rest would bring to British feature film production.

Of course, this also gives Vas’ short a certain kinship with We Are the Lambeth Boys, Reisz’ final film before Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It may be another of Free Cinema’s Ford sponsored efforts as per Every Day Except Christmas and return to the youthful milieu of Momma Don’t Allow, but it’s the connection to forthcoming Albert Finney-starring feature which is more immediately interesting. Both, for example, have a score courtesy of Johnny Dankworth and thus share the same swagger. Moreover, We Are the Lambeth Boys was the first British Free Cinema entry to come with synchronised sound and as such is able to get far closer to its subject than any of the previous ventures. Indeed, over their 48 minutes worth of screen time these youth club-goers are able to assume to dimensions of fully-rounded characters – Reisz captures them at work, at school and at play; on week nights and weekends. In other words, he takes his time with them, immerses himself in their little world and as a result they’re really not all that different to Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

In some respects the same is also true of Michael Grigsby’s Enginemen. Though much shorter it’s not afraid to get its hands dirty as it were and get as close as possible to its eponymous railworkers. Certainly, there’s none of the cynicism or disdain which characterised O Dreamland even as it shares many of its techniques. For in many ways Enginemen is the quintessential Free Cinema in strictly academic terms; it lacks the warmth, humour and energy which we associate with the more fondly remembered titles, but it also has no voice-over, no synchronised sound, no commercial concerns or backers to think of and no filmmaking constraints beyond its budget of course. If you’re after the rougher end of Free Cinema spectrum, then this is the film to head towards: it’s simply a stark, beautifully honest look at the enginemen of the title and nothing more.

And yet Free Cinema didn’t officially end on this ultimate expression of its aims or on a film which was paving the way for what was to come, but rather something completely and utterly different. The first short to be directed by a woman since Mazzetti’s Together in the first programme, Elizabeth Russell’s Food for a Blluuusssshhhhh is quite unlike any previous British entry. Instead of focussing on the working classes or even the documentary, here we find a piece which is more obviously in line with those deliciously eccentric short films which British cinema throws out from time to time: Ivor Montagu’s Bluebottles with a young Elsa Lanchester; the GPO Film Unit’s The Glorious Sixth of June; or The Pleasure Garden from 1952 (which, interestingly enough, counted Lindsay Anderson amongst its crew members). Indeed, there’s little here which is typically Free Cinema and in their stead we find a mocking attitude, a gentle irony, self-deprecation and perhaps even a dash or two of post-modernism. Had it not been made in 1955, i.e. before the first Free Cinema programme had been put together, then you would have sworn this was a cheeky little piss take of the movement as opposed to a genuine part. And yet on a technical level it shares much in common with Momma Don’t Allow, say, or Wakefield Express, whilst its narrative – of infidelity and a young marriage gone sour – if played straight could easily have formed the basis for a post-Free Cinema Rita Tushingham vehicle. That said, and surely this demonstrates yet again just how wide-ranging the movement could be, it’s much closer to Richard Lester’s The Knack… and how to get it than it is to Girl With Green Eyes.

The Discs

The BFI’s Free Cinema collection arrives on three discs: the first houses the first and third programmes; the second contains the sixth; and the third plays host to the various extras. In presentation terms we’re probably getting the films in as good a condition as we’re ever likely to see. In most cases the shorts are coming from the BFI’s own National Film and Television Archive, plus we’re dealing efforts which in many cases they’d financed themselves. In other words, they own the definitive versions and this is what we’re getting here. Original ratios and soundtracks are adhered to, of course, which in every case means 1.33:1 and mono (here present as DD2.0). There is also various degrees of damage depending on which film you’re looking at, but then in every instance it would appear that this is inherent in their production or, perhaps, as with some of the earlier Anderson efforts for example, the fact that they sat on their filmmakers’ shelves for potentially indeterminate periods of time. The important thing is that the BFI haven’t made any mistakes in presenting them on DVD. On a technical level we’re not once faced with any problems, rather such issues as clarity and contrast are all handled exceptionally well. As for the soundtracks, these are in a similar condition. Of course, flaws are apparent and the crudeness of some of their productions readily discernible, but again we’re getting them as good as we can and as such should be especially grateful.

On the extras front, this is also a collection to be applauded. Many of us would no doubt have been perfectly happy with just the three British programmes, yet here we also find a third disc containing five post-Free Cinema short films and a 43-minute documentary recounting the period. If you wish to be churlish then it would be possible to bemoan the lack of two shorts which are also generally grouped together with the ones we find here. For whilst we’re getting One Potato, Two Potato, March to Aldermaston, The Vanishing Street, Tomorrow’s Saturday and Gala Day, both John Schlesinger’s Terminus and John Fletcher’s The Saturday Men are conspicuous by their absence. Admittedly, the former is already available on disc from DDVideo and will soon feature on the BFI’s third British Transport Films volume, but the lack of Fletcher’s effort is disappointing, especially in light of the fact that it appeared on the BFI’s earlier VHS Free Cinema release alongside Momma Don’t Allow and Every Day Except Christmas.

That said, the five films which we do get are more than welcome and all deserving of inclusion. Indeed, they could easily have formed a Free Cinema 7 programme had one existed given their various qualities. One Potato, Two Potato is effectively a remake of The Singing Street, relocated to London and less weighed down by more artistic pretensions. March to Alderson - which had input from Anderson, Reisz and Elizabeth Russell – is perhaps the missing link between Free Cinema and World in Action; it’s effectively a piece of straightforward reportage from a late fifties anti-nuclear march. The Vanishing Street and Tomorrow’s Saturday, meanwhile, see both Robert Vas and Michael Grigsby respectively continuing their previous Free Cinema contributions. And Gala Day, directed by John Irvin prior to his feature film work and such distinguished television credits as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is in many ways a continuation of O Dreamland and Nice Time in its portrait of the working class taking time off.

As for the documentary, it understandably suffers from the fact that many of the Free Cinema movement’s key players have since passed away. There’s no Anderson for example, no Tony Richardson, nor is there Robert Vas, John Fletcher or Karel Reisz. Archive footage does allow Reisz a few words, but for the most part we’re reliant on Walter Lassally to recount those few years. The approach is fairly simple and takes us through the various British films in chronological order, save for The Singing Street and Food for a Blluuusssshhhhh, both of which are ignored presumably because no one could be contacted to offer their reminiscences. Nonetheless, Lassally – as well as Michael Grigsby, Lorenza Mazzetti and Alain Tanner – are there and as such we’re still provided with a wealth of information. Furthermore, the disc also comes with a lovingly produced 40-page booklet packed full of production stills, liner notes and various snippets of archive material to further provide the relevant background and detail.

As a very final note, it’s also worth pointing out that each short, including those on the third disc, and the documentary come with optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.

Addendum. With regards to the non-British Free Cinema entries, the following can be found on DVD in various forms: Neighbours by Norman McLaren is available on the Region 0 Norman McLaren Collector’s Edition boxed set (and can be purchased via the BFI); Georges Franju’s Les Sang des bêtes can be found as an extra on Criterion’s edition of the director’s Eyes Without a Face; Roman Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe appears on Anchor Bay’s The Roman Polanksi Collection; and Truffaut’s Les Mistons is available on various editions of Les Quatres cents coups.

9 out of 10
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