The Corporeally Despondent
Harold McMillan might have been telling everyone in Britain that they had never had it so good in 1957, but, between 1958 and 1963, numerous British films under the label Kitchen Sink Realism were saying the opposite. From Look Back in Anger and Room at the Top, to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner, from Billy Liar to A Kind of Loving, Britain didn’t seem quite so wonderful. Yet many of these films were also products of the Angry Young Men, a school of literature and theatre that asked whether things would ever have been that good anyway. Is there not in many of these films a sense of dissatisfaction that goes beyond the social problems and into personal, often belligerently oriented dilemmas? As Look Back in Anger playwright John Osborne says in the first volume of his autobiography, A Better Class of Person, “Existentialism was the macrobiotic food of the day”, and Osborne was ‘into’ “the impenetrable brown rice of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Jaspers and, of course, Sartre.” A Kind of Loving’s film’s director, John Schlesinger, once said, while making Midnight Cowboy, “I don’t set out to make films that will disturb people, but I think they should.” (The Eyes of the World). Alexander Walker, in Hollywood England, reckons the sort of disillusionment evident in A Kind of Loving would become a feature of much of his work: “the subjects which Schlesinger prefers are those that deal in lost illusions where heroes and heroines awaken to a reality which is always more painful than their self-induced fantasy that something better is just around the corner”. It is a comment pertinent certainly to Schlesinger’s Billy Liar, Darling and maybe Day of the Locust.
The subject of A Kind of Loving (adapted from Stan Barstow’s novel) could be seen as false hope in a hopeless environment, but that would be to exaggerate the hopelessness of the milieu and underestimate the feelings central character Vic has for the woman he will marry, Ingrid. Set in Lancashire, Vic is a draughtsman while Ingrid works in the secretary pool, and she represents not just the sex on legs that the others seem to see in her, but the possibility of a better life. However, can the better life be found in the north of England, in a working class environment that seems perennially a bleak midwinter? Take the film’s first shot, a sweeping pan and tilt across the town, the weather misty and the locale a non-place of houses, wide roads and spaces where buildings may have once been. The clothes hanging on the lines might be freshly washed, but it looks as if no amount of Persil will wash these sheets clean. Schlesinger presents the industrial north as a place of hard work and minimal pleasures; emphasising these aspects further with the wide-angled shots outside the church where inside Vic’s sister has just got married. When we see the married couple the pessimism is exacerbated: here are people well past their youth, coupling up we might assume to avoid loneliness. He is already bald, and she looks like she’s been dusted off the shelf. Schlesinger works a certain irony here however as we will find out later: Vic’s sister might look like she has taken what she can get, but in the second half of the film it will be Vic who comes running to her after his own marriage, in a registrar’s office, goes wrong, and there is nothing to suggest in her husband’s demeanour – warm, sympathetic and considerate – that she has chosen badly.
For all the despair of Schlesinger’s early scenes, we might look back and think not only that the sister is happily married; she also had a less prosaic ceremony than Vic’s. She at least had a church wedding; Vic and Ingrid a quickie in a registrar’s office after she becomes pregnant. Schlesinger may play down this aspect of the ceremony for narrative reasons; that the sister is peripheral to the story, but it is a church that we see them come out of even if it is a ceremony Schlesinger chooses not to witness. The church may of course inevitably conjure up images of religiosity that is intrinsic to the architectural grandeur but are there no traces in that grandeur of the romantic. Is a church not finally the lesser of two evils: a place of aesthetic beauty next to the dull registrar’s office?
At this early stage of the film, though, what we see might not be through the eyes of Vic Brown in the sense of an excess of point-of-view shots, a la Vertigo or Taxi Driver, but we might assume it is Vic’s perspective on the Lancashire that we are generally receiving. The life Schlesinger shows us is the life that Vic wants to escape, but that life we see at the beginning of the film is better than the life he will have during the course of it. One invokes Osborne and the angry young men because in many of the films this is northern England witnessed by men angry with the choices that seem laid out in front of them, and not always so sure of the direction in which to take. Osborne might say existentialism was the macrobiotic food of the day, and this was true for the writers, but the characters seemed to be getting by on the gruel of its absence. Whether it is Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, working each weekday in the factory, or the rugby player Frank in This Sporting Life, equally disdainful of the world and his place in it, existence appears option-light. The sister’s marriage seems like part of these limited options, and yet finally a better one than Vic’s shotgun wedding.
For Vic Brown quickly creates a life that is obligation heavy, and cannot expect much more than a kind of loving from the marriage he allows himself to fall into. Superficially Vic’s love for Ingrid would seem more real than his sister’s for her husband, but this is where cinema can play tricks on us, and that Schlesinger wants to show that aesthetics of form can dupe us into a set of assumptions not too unlike those that Vic falls for. If we think again of the beginning of A Kind of Loving, if we think of Vic and Ingrid amongst the gargoyles who have their hair in a scarf and speak in harsh, sharp, gossipy tones, and the wedding couple who will never be as beautiful as on the day of their wedding and still look thoroughly plain, then will Vic and Ingrid’s not be a marriage to be made in relative aesthetic heaven?
Yet, of course, that is not how things turn out. Ingrid gets pregnant, the newly married couple move in with Ingrid’s widowed, thoroughly conservative mother, and the world is a trap. Ingrid is materialist and conventional, and too in thrall of her mother’s values to search out her own or give too much thought to what Vic’s might be. When later in the film Vic goes to visit his sister we are well aware that she and her husband might be on this particular morning disturbed by Vic, but they are not every day interrupted by the presence of Vic’s mother-in-law.
Kitchen Sink Realism coincided with another movement across the channel, none other than the French New Wave, and a series of films that could also one feels have been fed on a macrobiotic diet of existentialism. But if we notice that Kitchen Sink Realism was option light, were the new wave films not potentiality option rich? Obviously there were New Wave films without much hope, and the films often ended with deaths: A bout de souffle, Jules et Jim, Shoot the Piano Player, Les cousins, Le Beau Serge, Contempt – and often included killings or suicides – yet one still believes the New Wave was a more optimistic movement. Now, this undeniably lay partly in the form, with Godard, Truffaut and even Chabrol reacting against the cinematic conventions of the earlier generation to tell stories with, as Godard would say, a beginning, a middle, and an end but not necessarily in that order. Escaping from the demands of realism in terms of milieu, psychology, and social convention, the filmmakers created a sense of freedom no matter the apparent diegetic despair.
In the context of the British films, despair seems too strong, as if despondency is nearer the mark. Not only do many of the French films have formal innovation; they also possessed an energy evident in the bodies of the actors. Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, Jean-Paul Belmondo in A bout de souffle, Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie. Maybe only Julie Christie in Billy Liar showed evidence of this corporeal optimism, so that even if a character in a New Wave film ended up dead, they nevertheless lived. In Kitchen Sink cinema death is usually a living demise, a death of the soul (Room at The Top), the spirit (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), of love (A Kind of Loving) of false hope (Billy Liar). Even if the form is innovative (This Sporting Life) it doesn’t create corporeal optimism in the performance. Whether it is Alan Bates here, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the performance is contained by the oppressiveness of milieu, and the pessimism of the limited available options.
Vic’s living death is apparent in everything he does, so that even the seduction of Ingrid contains the prosaic sense of daily limitation. Whether it is the note he gives to an underling at the factory and asks to pass on to Ingrid, wrestling on the floor with a work colleague before the boss comes in and breaks it up, or coming back drunk one evening to be confronted by his mother-in-law, Vic’s life is heavy with authority, and with an authority he hasn’t the existential wherewithal to escape from under. Obviously the characters in the New Wave were no more versed in the macrobiotic diet than those in Kitchen Sink films, but the corporeal optimism suggested at least its presence in bodily form and led to this corporeal freedom. The covert presence in the British films resulted instead in a moral resentment, and so while Belmondo, Karina and others created in their bodies a freedom matched by the formal innovation, in Kitchen Sink the performances were contained by the gravitational pull of moral expectation. When Vic spends the night out and goes to see his sister first thing in the morning, she, one of the film’s most sympathetic characters, still reckons he can’t treat marriage lightly.
It is as though when we look at the bodies of many actors in Kitchen Sink, whether the actors are thick-set like Bates and Finney, gaunt and haunted like Tom Courtenay and Richard Harris, besuited, straight-backed and slick, like Laurence Harvey, the moral question that contains the body rather than frees it keeps coming up. In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Rachel Roberts’ characters says to Finney’s Arthur Seaton “You know the trouble with you? You don’t know the difference between right and wrong.” In Room at the Top we might think of the scene where Harvey’s Joe Lampton goes to visit his aunt and uncle who brought him up as a child, and the lecture he receives about class and ethical values. “Are you marrying the girl or are you marrying her money”, the aunt says. “Money marries money”, the uncle insists. The mother-in-law in A Kind of Loving is an old style Tory, believing everybody has their place and believes she can talk to the lower orders any way she wishes. When she lectures a window cleaner Vic says she can’t speak to people like that: but she knows she can in a country where there is a place for everyone and everyone in their place. In Billy Liar, Billy creates a fantasy life to escape the harsh predictability of his own – a life full of familial and work constraints. Written like A Kind of Loving by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, Billy Liar is the flipside of the Barstow adaptation (fantastic denial as opposed to grim realism), but the sense of a stunted existence is surprisingly similar, and helps us get close to the despondency of Kitchen Sink Realism against the despair of the New Wave. If they are both movements that absorbed the existential, one can see that an existential life towards death is better than an existential life towards conformity from an existential point of view, from the Sartrean position of man creating from existence his own essence, his own existential singularity. Michel in A bout de souffle and Catherine in Jules et Jim live full lives with early deaths; part of the tragic dimension to many of the characters in the Kitchen Sink films is that they will most likely live to a pensionable age but without much hope or energy.
However, this doesn’t mean that the films themselves were without a radical dimension; more that the radical dimension manifested itself in a very different way, existentially, from the New Wave works. Thus we wouldn’t agree with Peter Harcourt’s comment about the films creating homogenising characters without distinctive traits, but argue that this is a diegetic issue rather than a non-diegetic problem. “One of the great limitations,” Harcourt said in Sight and Sound, “of so many of the new British films can be seen in terms of this externality and uninventiveness…they have been less concerned with exploration of the intimacies of day-to-day living than with a pictorial representation of what is already known to be there.” It isn’t an aesthetic failing that the characters are not more singular in their ethos; more that the films reflect a sociological failing which doesn’t allow the characters this singularity. McMillan may have believed people had never had it so good; but what did that mean if people were still living stunted lives, lives without the opportunity for hope beyond the sort of materialism Ingrid’s mum practises?
We might be inclined to claim that the kind of loving Schlesinger addresses is the kind that entraps a character within a structure that limits their freedom, and thus leads to the anger so central to the movement many of the films came out of. Anger isn’t a word that one thinks of when musing over the New Wave films, and this is perhaps one reason why one of the biggest stars of French cinema in the sixties (Alan Delon) was not one of the New Wave actors, taking into account the static violence Gilles Deleuze talks about in a number of actors including the French icon. Here in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image Deleuze talks of a trapped form of violence, a type perhaps relevant to Chabrol’s later works (especially Les Biches, La Femme infidel and Le Boucher), but in the New Wave less pertinent than in Kitchen Sink cinema where much of the anger never becomes murderous but always threatens to become, and on occasion does become (This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), aggressive. Though Deleuze mentions Stanley Baker in the British context, Bates, Finney, Harris and even Tom Courtenay possess this quality of a violence not so much in motion as in emotion: an anger trapped within the body because it cannot find a justifiable outlet as it practises a moral constraint greater than its own impulses. In a number of scenes with his mother-in-law, Vic looks like he wants to throttle her, with Schlesinger offering wide-angle shots that function quite differently from their use early in the film, and yet serve a strangely similar purpose. The wide-angles at the beginning are indicative of a social milieu exaggeratedly presented. In the scenes with Vic and the mother-in-law the caricatural dimension is still there, but so also is the feeling Vic possesses that his life has become a joke, with Ingrid’s mum the horrible punch-line. Nothing would be likely to please him more than belting her one to release him from the miserable conformity she inflicts upon him. As he has a fly fag in his bedroom at a time when the semiotics of smoking was quite different from now (at a time when people smoked in cinemas, TV studios and obliviously in front of the children), Vic’s surreptitious smoking hardly seems worthy of the condemnation he will receive if she catches him out. Much of the anger in Kitchen Sink films comes from the characters not having it very good at all, and this is where the existential meets the sociological.
At the same time, McMillan was claiming British people were having it just fine, the French were going through what were known as the glorious years. But where often the New Wave characters and directors could be seen to ignore for one reason or another the sociological breadth for a ‘narrow’ and ‘egotistical’ focus, with Genevieve Sellier in Masculine Singular going so far as to claim “in fact their belonging to either the petite bourgeoisie or the cultivated grande bourgeoisie gives them a particular point of view on lived experience, one that [sociologist Pierre Bourdieu] has characterized as distanced”, Kitchen Sink was so often about the conflict between the personal and the socio-political. It was between individual desires and social expectations. It was here where the body became trapped, and could never practice the corporeal freedom that would have released that energy. If some critics might have believed the New Wave ignored the sociological and released a certain bodily freedom; the Kitchen Sink films did the opposite.
However, while the despondency required a specific type of contained anger within the body of the actors in Kitchen Sink, clearly it was present in other ways too. The wide-angled shots Schlesinger utilises give us a sense of people cramped within the frame, and the music, minimally used, is melancholic jazz, adopted especially well over the film’s closing credits after Vic and Ingrid return to the hut where years before they had made out. This latter scene of Vic and Ingrid going up the hill to the hut is the opposite of the wide-angled early scenes, and we might wonder how Schlesinger has moved from the caricatural wryness of the early moments to the reflective despondency of the film’s conclusion. At the beginning we see two people who look like they want more from life through the looks they possess that others do not. These might not be especially beautiful people, but they are attractive ones, and it isn’t only their looks, but also the looks they give each other that sets them apart from the rest of the people in the town. Yet it becomes clear that Ingrid is much more conservative than Vic, is controlled by her mother, and wants the conventions of married life. When Vic goes to visit his sister in that scene late in the film he expresses regret and says he wishes he had married a woman like his own sister: someone who would have made him better than he was and not worse. But by the end of the film, as Schlesinger’s camera follows the characters walking up the hill in a long take without music, with fog gathering in the background, Vic reckons he and Ingrid should get a place to themselves, and then if it goes wrong they have no one to blame but each other.
Schlesinger and his cameraman Denys Coop offer the discussion in just two lengthy shots before cutting to the pair of them walking up the final part of the hill. Here the camera is no longer in medium close-up as they walk, but holds to a fixed frame as Vic and Ingrid move further away from the camera. It is a painterly composition that inverts the panning dismay of the opening. If the beginning of the film framed the world as social; the end seems much more to frame it personally. Vic may be no nearer existential self-definition, but he is at least self-aware. It is perhaps here finally where the despondency resides: in an acceptance of one’s limitations; where everyone not so much has their place, but they at least need to know realistically where they are.