British cinema

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE SHOUT

1978, UK

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Much of what happens in The Shout is mysterious. There are odd snippets of disconnected dialogue and unexplained incidents. We are expected to surmise and wonder. The idea behind the film, though, is simple. A cricket match takes place in a lunatic asylum. Inside the scoreboard one of the inmates tells a story that may or may not be accurate. The storyteller admits that he changes the story every time he tells it to someone.  His tale concerns a man who has been taught by aborigines to create a shout that kills people. The man with the special tonsils invites himself into the home of an avant-garde musician. He persuades the wife of the musician to commit adultery. The husband resists and resorts to similar aboriginal sorcery.

If unreliable narrators and magical powers are not complicated enough, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowsky adds surreal invention. The Shout appeared in cinemas before the end of the 70s decade but it feels like a British film from the 60s.  Nothing in The Shout is as bizarre as the theatrics of cricket, and the surreal invention merges into a satire of British eccentricity.  The original story was written by Robert Graves.  His work ranged from the commercial but mechanical I, Claudius to the almost unreadable The White Goddess. Graves was gifted, clever, superior and original but he was also a historian whose head was full of not just the important myths of our culture but a fair amount of mumbo jumbo.  His claims often made interesting reading but the serious scholars tore his work apart.  Robert Graves would have welcomed the 60s.  The Shout was written in 1928.

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Both the 60s and the 20s were distinguished by know-all hedonism. This connection means that the original story and its purpose remain intact in the film. The Shout is a weird mix of domestic drama and strange musings about pagan sorcery and power. The additional invention by director Jerzy Skolimowsky can be a distraction. It weakens rather than strengthens the metaphor and drama.   There are viewers that find The Shout baffling but there is a simple explanation for what happens in the film. That explanation and the mystical mystery are not incompatible but they are obscured because of the additional invention and sly humour.

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In the tale within the tale the shout from the man who has been taught aboriginal powers kills people.  Sound is important to the film.  The musical score was created by Michael Rutherford and Tony Banks. These two gentlemen were in the pop group Genesis. There is nothing in the music that is either memorable or offensive. The rest of the soundtrack, though, is impressive.  Movie sound has declined in recent years. Booms, explosions and surround sound have defeated clarity. In 1978 the technicians understood the importance of the counterpoint of silence and individual highlights. We watch Anthony Fielding, the husband whose home is invaded, work in his studio and experiment with different sounds. He uses the microphone to add scale and mystery to mundane noise. All the scenes in the film, though, are distinguished by not just what we see but what we hear, falling rain hissing down, cricket bats hitting a ball, a motorbike engine roaring, isolated footsteps echoing inside a corridor, kettles boiling and murmuring, windows cracking and much more. All are important.   The Shout anticipates the recent horror classic The Berberian Sound Studio in which the sound technician on a cheap Italian movie loses his identity.   Fear and unease transform sounds into haunting echoes.

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Jerzy Skolimowsky contributed to the script of Knife In The Water the famous movie by Roman Polanski.   When the characters in The Shout are not discussing the transcendental, the dialogue is professional, authentic and accomplished. The stuff about the human soul is not that meaningful for modern audiences.  The digital age has reduced metaphysics to abstract numbers, and these days fewer people imagine death releasing beautiful butterflies to float around heaven.  For a while Skolimowsky looked as if he might be the missing misanthropic link between the brooding films of Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter and the edgy genius of Polanski.  Deep End and Moonlighting are impressive films and promised an oeuvre from Jerzy Skolimowsky that would contribute to a distinguished genre within British cinema. It did not happen. The more Skolimowsky learnt about the British the more they confused him. His attempts at pure British comedy were a disaster. The good news is that he recovered his form when he returned to Poland.

As in Knife In The Water, two men in The Shout become competitive and try to impress the woman caught between them. Susannah York is the woman who tempts Alan Bates, the intruder, and John Hurt, the husband.  Bates manages to be both threatening and sympathetic. Hurt is weak but vital, and York is mysterious and deceitful but not malevolent. The wife has needs that go beyond her marriage.   She may have been fed nonsense by her seducer but he has enabled her to think again about the rest of her life, and this is apparent at the end of the film. The final scene is very effective. It not only adds a common sense perspective but also serves as a rebuke to overheated imaginations.

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Meanwhile there is the shout that may or may not kill people. No one can deny it functions within the story and connects the world of myth and sorcery to the faith or hope that inspire creativity.  The shout also resonates as a symbol of masculine power. Bates is in an insane asylum when he tells his story. He imagines himself as the omnipotent male who can seduce women and reduce other men to impotency.  The shout also represents what may be possible if we resist the constraints of civilisation, the animal strength and mystical power available to the uninhibited rather than just the powerful. But if the shout defines a freedom that can offer fulfilment for the individual, it can destroy others. The shout has to be resisted, and that means invoking other mystical rituals.

Horror fans or at least those fans that like The Shout have claimed the film for their favourite genre.  For that to be valid we have to give an awful lot of credence to the tale told by Alan Bates and neglect his presence inside an insane asylum. The old, cautious and staid will settle for a simple and mundane explanation of the plot. This may reduce the mysticism to inventions of the human imagination but it expands the mystery of human nature. The Shout has been defined by horror expert Kim Newman as a combination of Somerset Maugham and M R James. Newman has a point, and it is an elegant observation. When he was older, John Hurt played the haunted man in a BBC adaptation of the M R James story, Whistle And I’ll Come To You.   It would do no harm to watch The Shout after reading some M R James.

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Made in 1978 The Shout was preoccupied with an England that was avoiding the modern world. The village life is gentle but a little dull. The impressive coastal landscape and footpath still exist but despite the efforts to preserve the past the lives of rural Englanders have changed.  Now many of them juggle jobs in order to pay the bills. In the winter the picturesque villages they live in are emptied because the tourists and their money disappear. Disturbed by the people from the city the natives cling to tradition and pledge their faith to a political party that feels entitled to both use the title Conservatives and commit to the endless radical change of modern capitalism.  The more Britain changes the more the countryside has to be preserved for the tourists and their financial support. The Shout was filmed in six weeks of uninterrupted sunshine and good weather. The film may be concerned with complicated human impulses but the sunshine ensured that the dark prospects for rural life could be ignored.

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Since the referendum decision to leave the European Union there has been a debate about who will pay the substantial EU subsidy to farmers. The Conservative Party has promised that the British Government will make good the Brexit shortfall. Promises have been made before. The Cameron government pledged to reform the NHS and improve the service to patients. The deterioration within the NHS has been shocking and rapid. This winter patients have died in corridors, and cancer treatments have been postponed. Rural dwellers have ensured that in Britain right wing governments have outnumbered those of the left.   In The Shout the eccentricity of the British upper class was mocked. Today the privileged are groomed in ruthless and efficient public schools. No one thinks that they are eccentric any more.  Instead, we have neoliberal ideologues that talk about the invisible hand.  Such people have no regard for subsidies and will be reluctant to support the farmers to operate outside market economics. People change, and so does life in the villages.

 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE SERVANT

1963, UK

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Either word applies, iconic or milestone. Neither Britain nor British cinema was the same after The Servant appeared, not bad for a movie that cost less than £150,000.   Timing is everything, and in 1963 the Beatles released their first record and Harold MacMillan resigned as Prime Minister. The Servant was based on a 1948 novel by Robin Maugham but the movie caught the changing mood.   The culture needed freshening from untapped sources, and people wanted to talk about social class.   The contraceptive pill arrived in 1964, and after that people talked about sex. The successful talked to people who would have previously been ignored. And so it went.

Compared to what was being shown on screens in mainland Europe in the 60s the sex in The Servant is not explicit. There was nothing that troubled the British censors. The Servant, though, is the first British movie where the characters look as if they are in heat and possessed by desire. In British movies prior to The Servant there were seducers and the seduced, the calculating and the misguided, but all made an intellectual decision about what they would do next. There was desire but an absence of lust. In The Servant animal instincts prevail. Although it is not clearly audible The Servant has the first muttered obscenity in British cinema.

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In the original novel the servant who engineers the decline of his aristocrat master is foreign born and sinister. Joseph Losey directed the film, and Harold Pinter wrote the script. Between them changes were made to the story. The servant became English working class and he had a mother in Manchester. Modern readers of the novel by Maugham will be sensitive to the original descriptions of the servant, which have racist overtones. The relationship in the novel suggests a crisis in the British upper class caused by the loss of Empire. This is toned down in the film but it exists somewhere in the subtext along with notions of class and a changing social system.   Either way there are challenges for the British elite.

The upper class used to be called the ruling class. Both film and novel versions of The Servant make it clear that without the privilege of rule and domination, either over foreign lands or their own citizens, the members of the upper class will perish. Self-preservation is important, and the members of the upper class have no alternative but to oppress the rest of us. It is more than simple privilege. It is how they survive in the struggle between those who are supposedly sophisticated and those who are practical but perceived as mundane. In the last thirty years this message has been regarded as heresy but in 1963 it was almost accepted wisdom.

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In 1964 the Profumo affair confirmed the suspicions.  The Servant anticipates the future. The manservant has a role similar to the one Stephen Ward had in the Profumo affair. Ward provided both temptation and consolation to his upper class friends and customers. The temptation was booze and beautiful women. The consolation was a supposed supportive shoulder.   Tony the aristocrat calls his servant Barrett but his first name is Hugo, and not only is he going somewhere he will take some of his betters with him.

In The Servant the aristocrat Tony intends to marry his upper class fiancée, Susan. The woman has more sense than the boyfriend but it does not prevent her from being an unpleasant bully. Susan, of course, is fighting for survival. In the final scene in the film Susan walks into a debauched party.  In classic Pinter style Susan compromises herself and embraces Hugo before she runs away from the man in disgust.  Losey and Pinter created a moment that reminds us of the role of the aristocratic wives in the Profumo affair. The world of Stephen Ward and his aristocratic friends demanded capable well-bred women who for money and wealth were prepared to act like elegant whores.

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Joseph Losey had been driven out of the USA by McCarthyism.  In 1963 The Servant was regarded as a radical look at the corruption and the hopeless myopia within the British upper class. Today it can be interpreted as a conservative warning about the future and the permissiveness that will undermine the British stiff upper lip. Dirk Bogarde was more complicated than his left wing colleagues. He was not sympathetic to anyone that he regarded as uninspired or insufficiently gifted. His misanthropy helped him as an actor. His best performances are without pity.  Bogarde is great as Hugo Barrett. His Northern accent is reduced to nothing more than a hint, a consequence of good manners and aspiration. ‘I am a gentleman’s gentleman,’ says Hugo. This is how the class system operates, how ordinary people can use their oppressors as tools and weapons against others.

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We have moved on a little and today we use our proximity to celebrity and an awareness of gossip as weapons. In one of his more sensible moments Tony throws the scheming Hugo and his girlfriend Vera out of his house. Later Tony and Hugo meet by accident in the local pub. The scene is underwritten but Bogarde saves it with his presence. He pleads to Tony to let him return to his job as a manservant. Tony says nothing, and Hugo waits. The expression in the eyes of Bogarde reveals a man who is desperate, determined, wilful, vulnerable, threatening, different and dangerous.   The Servant is when Bogarde stopped being a movie star and became a serious actor.

The film is shaped like a three act play. Hugo arrives in the first act. In the second Vera joins the household. Tony is seduced by Vera but tries to re-establish his relationship with Susan. She discovers the truth about Tony and Vera.  Tony forces Hugo and Vera out of his house.   Between the second and third acts Tony and Hugo meet in the pub.  In the final act Tony and Hugo share decadence and the relationship has changed.

The script reveals the considerable talent of Pinter but his strengths can also be weaknesses. The script is pared down until there is minimal characterisation and a poor connection between the second and third acts. Perhaps Losey and Pinter felt that they were exposing universal truths. The movie can be interpreted as social criticism or a statement about the paradox of human relationships and our simultaneous need to depend and exploit. There are also religious overtones.  As he did in Our Mother’s House, Bogarde acts like he might be the Devil.

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The movie has plenty of directorial detail.  Some of the detail is style, and some adds content. Losey likes to see his characters reflected in mirrors, and there are plenty in The Servant. Mirrors reflect the difference between what we are and what we pretend to be. The impressive staircase is much used and becomes a battlefield where master and servant battle for status. Control of the castle is the prize. There is also snow which one evening disappears from the streets without trace. The snow is not just the oppressive weight of the British class system but also recognition of how the repressed British may have sex but somehow never lose their virginity.  Inevitably, the relationship between servant and master is examined. Susan regards Hugo as a threat. He is the controlling servant that she anticipates becoming after marriage. Hugo rejects the idea that he is a servant because he is the man who does everything in the house. This particular conversation finishes with the servant giving orders to the master.

Joseph Losey was interested in relationships that crossed boundaries. Before he arrived in the UK he made the film noir The Prowler in which a low-paid policeman seduces a rich housewife. In Britain the odd relationships continued. An agricultural labourer has a secret liaison with an aristocratic lady in The Go Between, and university lecturers obsess over a female student in the movie Accident. And there was The Servant. The three movies all had scripts written by Harold Pinter and depended on the British class system and its prejudices to make the subtle drama consequential. The real struggles in the life of Joseph Losey were left behind in the USA.  In the UK he was allowed to work and observe.  What he saw in Britain was a society defined by alliances and taboos.

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Losey died over thirty years ago. The world has changed but the struggle continues which is why Theresa May has appointed truculent bigot Toby Young as the Director of the Office for Students.   Days after he was appointed he deleted 54000 tweets from his account. Young has described these tweets as politically incorrect. Thanks to eagle eyed activists some of the missing tweets have been made available. The antics of the over-heated Toby transform Donald Trump into something polite and restrained.   Young was once expelled from the Groucho club.  He took cocaine and sold some to his friends. Cocaine usage and dealing are not breaches of club rules. Talking about it is.  Toby Young is supposed to make Universities accountable to the students they serve. Most expect him, like Jeremy Hunt in the NHS, to have a hidden agenda. Universities provide critical thinking, and that is a problem for the present Government and the people it represents. The new upper class warriors are pugnacious, aggressive and as twisted as Hugo Barrett.

 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.