Monday, May 11, 2009

We Are the Lambeth Boys/March to Aldermaston

Karel Reisz was, along with filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Michael Grigsby and others, one of the guiding intelligences behind the British Free Cinema movement of the late 1950s. The films produced and screened under the loose banner of this movement displayed a versatile surface realism coupled with an interest in inventive sound/image experiments, necessitated by the crude equipment then available for sound recording and sync sound. Indeed, Reisz's second film, the hour-long We Are the Lambeth Boys, produced as a television documentary for the BBC, was an early experiment in recording synchronized sound outside a studio setting for the first time in the UK. This film, a documentary about a group of working class kids of various ages, centered around a London youth club, lacks the ragged energy and vibrancy of Reisz's first film, the electric Momma Don't Allow, co-directed with Richardson.

Like that film, We Are the Lambeth Boys concerns itself with the young, with the ways in which they spend their time, with their nighttime escapes from the drudgery of work. The best moments of this second film are the ones that capture the same free-spirited vibe as its predecessor. Reisz loves to watch kids dancing, even if they do it awkwardly or badly, shuffling their feet and moving their arms pneumatically; they have no rhythm but they're having fun anyway, smiling and twirling, bodies coming together and then spinning apart again. The dancing sequences here are a blast, as they were in the earlier film. Reisz, like many of the Free Cinema filmmakers, also has a feel for faces, and he'll often pan across a row of gathered youths as they talk and chatter. His closeups have urgency and power, a sensitivity for people's faces and personalities, and he always seems to linger just long enough to capture the intricacies of a person's face, their tics and gestures and ways of expressing themselves. The documentary has a large cast of kids who drift in and out, none of them becoming recurring characters, none of them speaking directly to the camera. There are no interviews here, and the kids' names are tossed off in casual asides. Nevertheless, Reisz captures the personalities of several of his subjects, letting their faces and voices speak for themselves.

In this respect, this is a fine, admirable documentary, treating these working class kids, all of them taking on various tough jobs immediately after finishing high school, with respect and sympathy. But the film is also saddled with a rather generic and trite voiceover commentary by Jon Rollason, whose dulcet tones give the rather unfortunate impression of a public television nature documentary. His objective, distanced commentary makes it sound like he's commenting on some exotic phenomenon, observed carefully from arm's length, rather than the lives of ordinary British kids. One pictures him crouched in the bushes, whispering to a companion, "sssshhh, look, they're about to dance now." It's unintentionally funny to hear the awe with which he describes a simple night out after work, and his patronizing attitude is consistently at odds with the quiet dignity conveyed by Reisz's imagery.

This tendency is perhaps at its worst during the montage that attempts to convey a sense of what these kids, mostly seen at night at the club, do during the day. As Reisz's images capture the drudgery and boredom of jobs in factories and offices, doing repetitive and numbing tasks, the narration attempts to put a positive spin on things, to act as though these kids are doing jobs they enjoy or, at least, that the pleasures of nights at the youth club can compensate for the menial dullness of the working day. The narrator's jaunty attitude and distance from his subjects is distracting, especially considering the poetic verisimilitude of Reisz's depictions of working class life.

Free Cinema was always a particularly loose collective, with the filmmakers involved in the screenings insisting that they weren't really a movement but merely a group of unrelated filmmakers with similar aims and ideas about how to make movies. As a result, the actual organized Free Cinema screenings didn't last very long, but the movement inspired a great deal of subsequent British cinema, which picked up on the ideas advanced by these filmmakers. March to Aldermaston was one of the documentaries to come along in the wake of Free Cinema, obviously inspired by the naturalistic shooting and freewheeling approach of these filmmakers. Indeed, this anonymously made and produced film included, among its many technicians, cameramen, directors and editors, Free Cinema veterans like Anderson, Reisz and Elizabeth Russell.

It's a rather straightforward documentary account of a march for peace, a protest against the H-bomb. A large mass of people undertook a long walk from London to the town of Aldermaston, where British factories manufactured arms and nuclear weapons. The march, lasting several days over Easter weekend in 1958, was documented with a variety of cameras, some taking on a high vantage point above the crowds while others weave in among the lines of marchers, capturing expressive closeups or stopping for brief interviews with the participants. The style is loose and rowdy, and the music emanating from the crowd — most of it, surprisingly, bouncy Dixieland-style jazz, though there's also a smattering of the kind of dire, preachy folk songs one expects from a march like this — provides the soundtrack to the proceedings. The film is interesting as an historical document, but only sporadically successful as an actual work. Its voiceover (by Richard Burton) is overbearing and largely irrelevant, and because of the difficulty of capturing sync sound, the narration too often steps in to fill in the gaps; instead of hearing a speech, the audience hears the narrator say, "there was a speech."

The film is better when it sticks to simply documenting the march and spending time with the participants, some of whom explain in their own halting, unrehearsed words why they chose to take part. What's especially interesting here is the sheer variety of people who participate. The film definitively smashes any preconceptions of peace marches as hippie affairs, dominated by rebellious teens and slackers. This march is attended by a wide cross-section of British society, not only the young: parents, grandparents, laborers, teachers, conservative-looking ordinary people who are concerned about the future, for their kids and grandkids, in a nuclear age. It's moving to see these people protesting and to hear them express, in simple and direct terms, their feelings about nuclear weapons. It's fascinating to see so many people of different ages and classes coming together, and one struggles to imagine a similar variety of people at modern protests. This is pure democracy, with so many people willing to endure a long and grueling march to make their voices heard, to express their passionate feelings about an issue they all care about.

These powerful images are this documentary's most valuable asset, a glimpse into a past when all sorts of people engaged passionately in public political discourse, something sadly less common these days. Also interesting is the film's willingness to depict the fun, social aspect of this event, while refusing to judge the dancing, singing, merry young people seen here for actually having fun during a protest. The narration's best, most unpretentious moment comes as an answer to the criticisms of the young protesters as "unserious" and "frivolous." The narrator's rejoinder summarizes the most vibrant threads running through this interesting if inconsistent documentary: "There's no use being against death, if you don't know how to enjoy life while you've got it."


Mykal Banta said...

Ed: Very solid review, as always. After reading your blog for some time, I have a question. Do you ever take requests? If so, could you give the Only the Cinema treatment to Andrzej Wanjda's 1982 Danton? Criterion Collection has recently come out with this film, and it is a doozie. It's not appropriate for my blog, but would fit quite comfortably on yours, and I would love to see it get some of your expertise. -- Mykal

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment, Mykal. I haven't watched much Wajda, but I'd like to -- I'll have to try and track down Danton, maybe after I've watched at least some of his war trilogy first.