Monday, December 3, 2007

Short Film Week, Day 2: Three Free Cinema shorts

[This entry is a contribution to the Short Film blog-a-thon being hosted right here at Only The Cinema, in association with Culture Snob.]

For my second night of short film viewing, I decided to watch a program of films related to Britain's Free Cinema movement of the mid- to late 50s. First up was The Vanishing Street by Robert Vas, not properly a Free Cinema film since it came too late in 1962, but then this "movement" was always pretty loose to begin with, more a collection of films made by friends and associates than a concerted effort to forge an aesthetic. This film documents the last days of a small one-street Jewish market, scheduled to be demolished very soon after the completion of filming. The film is the last testimonial of an entire way of life, a kind of ethnographic record from a small urban enclave that would soon disappear forever. In this brief film, less than 20 minutes long, Vas spends roughly the first half of the film documenting the daily life of the market. The only hint of its impending disappearance, other than the title, is a disquieting shot early on, the meaning of which will be recontextualized later in the film. After a few minutes of showing the people on the street, going about their business and buying goods, Vas switches to a shot with a target-like viewfinder matte around the image. He uses this shot initially without context, with no hint of who might be looking through this viewfinder, or what it is — it looks like someone is aiming a rifle scope at the people on the street, targeting them. Only after a few unsettling, disorienting moments of uncertainty does Vas reveal that the viewfinder is a surveyor's tool.

This surveyor initially appears somewhat incongruous amidst this bastion of old-time life, with its kosher butchers, Hebrew songs, and live chickens being gutted right in a shop window. But in the film's second half, Vas subtly introduces the idea that this street market has gone into obsolescence, and will soon exist only in memory. The idea is first communicated with a switch to a quieter, more restrained tone, with the noisy chatter, yelling, and singing of the market cut from the soundtrack. In an empty and ruined warehouse, two boys swing on a rope suspended from the ceiling, unknowingly swinging past graffiti that includes chalk swastikas, a reminder of the fascist threat to this way of life. Vas then shows ruined buildings elsewhere, looking like bombed-out war remnants, though they could just as easily be newly demolished to make way for the prefab housing developments that begin dotting the film's landscape in its last minutes.

This may not be the most formally adventurous of the Free Cinema films, but it does feature the characteristic disconnection of sound and image that came to define the movement's aesthetics. The early Free Cinema filmmakers were working on extremely small budgets and had no synchronized sound equipment, but they made a virtue of their limitations by radically breaking image and sound, treating each separately. Where the lack of sync sound in Italian cinema in the same period led to a relative disinterest in the soundtrack, and the consequent sloppy dubbing of most 50s Italian films, the same limits led these British filmmakers into a far greater engagement with sounds. Here, the soundtrack is largely composed of the chatter of voices from the streets, mingled with the nearly ever-present sound of traditional songs, blended into the street sounds to provide poetic cultural undertones. It's an approach that minimizes the sometimes radical disconnection inherent in other Free Cinema works. In fact, Vas' stylistic intervention with his material is relatively minimal on all fronts, and he clearly, concisely documents this market street's transition from bustling center of urban Jewish life to piles of rubble making way for new apartment blocs. The film has a clear narrative thrust, without any recourse to voiceover or, really, any words at all — a few women talking about the imminent market closing can be briefly heard in the babble of voices at one point, but otherwise the story is told entirely in images. It's a fine, largely straightforward short documentary, one in which the Free Cinema aesthetic is felt mainly through its minimalism and narrative subtlety.

John Irvin's Gala Day, from 1963, also came too late to be properly considered a Free Cinema film, but like Vas' film, this short is closely related in aesthetics and subject matter to the core of the movement. It's a documentary about the annual miner's festival that happens in Durham every summer. In true Free Cinema style, Irvin has arranged a loose, expressionistic collection of images that tell no concrete story about the day, but simply create an impression of what it might be like to be in the midst of this celebration. His roving camera gets right into the middle of the dense crowds, darting in for close-ups or isolating groups of friends embracing or dancing in a circle, then cuts back out to give a sense of the roaring waves of people pouring through the tightly packed streets.

As a whole, though, the film is rather dull, largely because the promised gala turns out to be a rather tame and overly managed affair, punctuated by political sloganeering and with dense crowds seemingly doing not much of anything. There are periodic moments of interest amidst the purposeless din and the crush of the crowds, like the unexpected appearance of a rubbery-faced Popeye look-alike, or the spectacle of lines of children skipping, arms linked, in an impromptu parade. There are also indications that Irvin is himself satirizing the dullness of this gala, as when he abruptly cuts away from a political speech to show children riding on a carousel and a merry-go-round, letting the noise of the playing children slowly drown out the politician's mumbling. There are also periodic shots in which Irvin pulls back from the action, taking an extreme long shot that situates the carnival in its placid surroundings, muting the noise and music to a distant murmur. These shots serve as a rest, in the sense of a musical rest, a few beats of quiet in between the film's noisier passages. Towards the end of the film, one of these interludes leads away from a church choir scene to the hills around the church, where young couples lie in the grass and make out, with the camera acting as a voyeur, peeping through bushes to watch surreptitiously. In one hilarious shot, the voyeuristic camera suddenly happens upon another voyeur, an old man craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the young lovers, and even taking out a pair of binoculars.

The film is at its best in these quieter moments and interludes, away from the rush of the crowds. When Irvin's camera gets lost in the crush and parades, the film often struggles to find much of interest. It's only when the camera pulls back and gets some distance and perspective on the event that the film really comes together, if only in brief increments.

The first few seconds of Michael Grigsby's Tomorrow's Saturday contain what might be thought of as a subtle sonic joke, which truly encapsulates the Free Cinema's inventive approach to the soundtrack. The first image is of an abandoned and quiet street, with a car pulling away into the distance, and hushed street sounds faintly heard. On the soundtrack, a whirring, rhythmic noise fades in, as though it's coming closer, and the camera pans to the right to reveal a hill and a car chugging up it, almost certainly the source of the sound. But then there's an edit, away from the street to the interior of a factory where women toil at massive looms, and the mechanical chugging noise is revealed to originate with these machines, not the car. It's a subtle moment, a disconnect of sound and image that's nearly invisible, though in its way this little joke is almost as radical as the famous Club Silencio sequence from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. It's a signifier, in the film's very opening moments, that sound will be of importance here, and that it won't always be what it seems to be at first.

Indeed, Grigsby's film is filled with subtle sonic transitions of this kind, the soundtrack a collage of noises that often signal the shift from one locale to another, as when the sound of a baby crying, seemingly inside a laundromat, actually serves to relocate the action to an outside location in the next shot, with a mother wheeling her child in a carriage. At another point, in a scene on the streets, the crowd noise slowly fades away to silence, to be replaced by a sad folksy song, sung a-cappella, about the emptiness of a working class life and its minimal pleasures. Throughout the song, Grigsby keeps cutting from one face to another, all in close-ups, allowing the song's gentle vocal rhythm and affecting lyrics to impart meaning into each expressive face. The film takes place at the end of the work week, but it has a surprisingly quiet, melancholic tone, presenting an image of the British working class living in the shadows of smoke-spewing industrial towers, with smog hanging low over the landscape. In one eerily gorgeous shot, a solitary man walks with his dogs through a dense fog, towards a group of four threatening towers that show up as only hazy outlines in the thick atmosphere. The film is filled with such shots, moments of quiet introspection as solitary figures (or couples, in a few cases) walk through a British industrial landscape where their homes are dwarfed by the hulking silhouettes of factories and smokestacks.

Grigsby's film is the best of the three I watched tonight, and it's also perhaps the most representative of the movement as a whole (though like the other two, it is part of the wave of films coming after Free Cinema, not a proper entry in the movement's canon). Grigsby's playful disconnection of image and sound, mostly happening on a near-subliminal level, elevates what might've been a generic documentary to the level of visual poetry. His fog-shrouded images of industrial Britain have a hazy beauty that nevertheless critiques the overpowering presence of the factories and their pollution in these people's lives. In Tomorrow's Saturday, Grigsby blends social realism and understated formal experimentation to create a powerful image of working class melancholy and isolation.

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