08 April 2013

BFI Flipsides: John Krish and B. S. Johnson

Two new BFI Flipsides, both released on Monday 15 April, celebrate two unsung British talents working within and against the social currents of their time.

In the 35-minute interview included on the BFI Flipside release of Captured (1959), John Krish remarks how “lovely” it is that his short film The Finishing Line (1977, included as an extra) was banned for twenty-one years. This comment, alongside anecdotes about repeated conservatism and “endemic betrayal” within the film industry, gives some indication of his anti-establishment sensibilities.

Indeed, though the centrepiece of this BFI Dual Format Edition is the 1959 film from which it takes its title, the additional material is substantial enough to mark this as more than just a single-film volume; it is essentially a follow-up to the previously-released DVD/Blu-ray, A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Post-war Britain by John Krish. Said additional materials are Sewing Machine (1973) and Searching (1974), two one-minute advertisements commissioned by the Central Office of Information to warn the public about unattended children and playing with fire respectively; the aforementioned The Finishing Line, the British Railways Board-sponsored campaign film about the perils of vandalising our rail-lines (also released on 15 April is the eighth volume in the BFI's COI Collection); and H.M.P. (1976), a 55-minute documentary about prison officers made as part of the Home Office’s recruitment drive, which would be close to a crowning masterpiece in any director’s body of work.

Each of these films is compelling. They demonstrate a remarkably creative flair at work within the drab parameters of government-funded filmmaking. For sheer economy of film language, look no further than Sewing Machine and Searching: while the former interweaves three parallel spaces and packs a punch through combined editorial suggestion and hard-hitting narration (not to mention the then-controversial inclusion of black performers), the latter consists of three fluid takes that explore with panic and horror the burnt-out remains of a family home.

At twenty minutes, The Finishing Line’s brief not only allowed for a more lateral approach but in fact demanded it: Krish tells in the interview of how he was tasked with making a film about railway vandalism without actually filming any railway vandalism. After seeking advice from a colleague who worked in marketing, he devised what is an outrageous, Surrealist short not unlike the work of Lindsay Anderson. In it, a schoolboy allows his mind to wander during assembly to fantasise about a sports day by (and on) the railway tracks, with violent ends guaranteed. It doubles, legitimately, as an anarchist rebuke to the subtly violent pressures of a schooling system too keen on competition and, perhaps, gendered power.

H.M.P., though, could very well have been the selling point of this release. It sets up its investigation of Maidstone Prison by having three new recruits play devil’s advocate as they’re guided through the vicinity by various staff. Granted access to this all-too-rarely-documented terrain, Krish shows the men (and woman) whom his three inductees encounter to be full of humanity and everyday professionalism. One such staff member is the prison chaplain, whose negotiation of tricky questions provides ample space in which a discussion of what the punitive and rehabilitative responsibilities of imprisonment ought to be; as one person notes later in the film, “there are many grey areas”.

Captured itself is confinement personified. Produced for the Army Kinema Corporation, it concerns a troop of POWs in the then-recent Korean War, who at the hands of Chinese interrogators are subjected to a variety of techniques intended to elicit military information. Reverse psychology, coercion, sleep-deprivation, humiliation, group segmentation and – finally and horrifically – water-boarding, all feature. Krish shot in authentic interiors – small huts designed to house two or three men, but in which were kept up to twelve – and his 1.33:1 aspect ratio, combined with crammed compositions, accentuates the intimate conditions. Equally claustrophobic is a conversation between two prisoners locked in boxes barely big enough to accommodate them; shooting from one sustained angle, Krish denies his protagonists physical space and his audience visual space.

The film’s anti-communism is explicit – and James Piers Taylor’s introductory essay in the always-informative accompanying booklet almost agrees with it – while the hammed-up portrayals (by non-actors) of the Chinese interrogators may be problematic. Like the other films included on this release, though, Captured is evidence of a directorial talent too accomplished for a propagandistic brief such as this (it is to Krish’s credit that he continually pushed for more creative freedom on such projects). Ironically, in fulfilling the brief as well as it did, Krish’s film was consigned to the vaults of obscurity when it was given a “restricted” grade: not only unfit for theatrical release, but beyond the reach of rank-and-file servicemen without a senior officer. Consequently, Captured’s first public screening was at the NFT in 2004; it’s no wonder the filmmaker is so suspicious of the film industry and its higher politics.

In B. S. Johnson’s work too – collected on another BFI Flipside Dual Format Edition – there is a clear disdain for the status quo, tempered by a fascination with form and an appreciable wit. In Fat Man on a Beach (1974), which finished filming soon before Johnson killed himself aged 40, there is a quiet and healthy anarchy contained in a simple but ubiquitous bunch of bananas. A rambling celebration of accident, the forty-minute film features Johnson addressing the camera with anecdotes, poetry, snippets of self-deprecating wisdom, jokes, historical and literary quotations, confessions and incomplete ruminations on life’s incompleteness.

There seems to be something quintessentially English about the way Johnson meanders around whatever subject comes to him in Fat Man on a Beach, which is perhaps why as a film shot in and largely concerned with Porth Ceiriad – on the Lleyn peninsular in Gwyneth, North Wales – it’s such an effective circumnavigation of a place and subject whose meaning and purpose remain so elusive, so remote. “Why are we here?” asked early, quickly becomes “Where are we?” The simpler question, however, proves just as difficult to answer.

You get a sense in Johnson’s work that the man himself knew which side he was on, but that certain currents – social, political, historical – were at work to marginalise his allegiances. Included here are Unfair! (1970) and March! (1971), two shorts he was involved in as a member of the union Association of Cinematograph Television and allied Technicians (ACTT); both are fiercely anti-Tory agitprop films that ought to be in wider circulation today (credit to the BFI for including them here). In B. S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson (1971), meanwhile, which was made for the ITV series On Reflection, you sense a real admiration on the author’s part for the kind of linguistic precision and love/hate relationship with oneself, as both a natural writer and as someone therefore self-consigned to socioeconomic uncertainty, as evinced by Samuel Johnson – a literary figure who remains for his namesake somehow neglected despite having changed the English language to the degree that he did. In an otherwise dry half-hour programme with budgetary restrictions, Johnson infuses the kind of charm and energy displayed by the best film-essayists – there are aesthetic and thematic chimes, for instance, with Patrick Keiller’s London (1994).

The palpable anguish and disgust with certain social currents makes for a set of angry and suggestively violent films. Johnson’s directorial debut You’re Human Like the Rest of Them (1967), for instance, contains a unique editorial rhythm that seems to accentuate the mannerisms of lead performer William Hoyland at the same time as deny any sense of narrative harmony. There’s something deeply aggressive about the film, emphasised by its flash-cuts and complemented by a conclusive and liberating switch from black-and-white to colour. Disdain for officialdom and “the masses” (a term explicitly used in Fat Man on a Beach, but one which I take to be used in ironic half-jest) is epitomised when Hoyland’s uptight character turns the radio off mid-sentence: “We present The Archers, a story from the country” – though the last word is cut short by an unfortunate syllable, to which the protagonist remarks, “Yes, quite.”

It takes a certain talent to pull off a film whose central argument pertains to death and decay being life’s only certainties without seeming entirely downbeat, however. The angst demonstrated by You’re Human and other shorts included here, such as Paradigm and The Unfortunates (both 1969), is countered always by an instinctive reliance upon humour and warmth. This allows Johnson to be at the centre of his films and get at something serious without ever becoming preachy. In The Unfortunates, for example, the author-cum-filmmaker tells of how a routine journalistic assignment returned him to Nottingham (unnamed), where a close friend had in recent years died; a confessional essay seeped in tragedy, the film is also a fruitful exercise on memory and creativity and how the two happily converged for the author’s novel of the same name.

Johnson’s ongoing mental problems were no doubt conditioned, in part, and certainly exacerbated by the wider hostilities of the time – so perfectly summarised by Carmen Callil in one of the excellent introductory essays that comprise the 30-page booklet that accompanies this release. Such hostilities – the specific social fears and ignorance with which mental health is approached, but also the general injustices of a society governed by an abstract, inhumane social democracy – are still present today, of course, which makes Johnson’s work and its re-release as relevant as ever.