Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Kind of Loving - John Schlesinger (1962)

Everything I love about film is on display here: its revelation of vanished historical milieu through location shooting, the intimacy of closely observed transactions, and top-notch acting by formidable and appealing actors. As an admirer of John Schlesinger, I was predisposed to love this, his first feature film, which I didn't see until I’d seen practically all his others. His ability to establish a social setting and a vibrant sense of the communal, his interest in individuals embedded in distinctive social hierarchies, a simultaneously satirical and bitter-sweet approach to dreams, ideals, and all-too-human failings--are already evident in his first feature film.

In distilling the ambient of Britain’s industrial north during the early sixties Schesinger has accomplished filmically what another homosexual Jew--Aaron Copeland--did for the American spirit musically by going back to the humbly folkish. Some might see an irony in this, but it seems only natural that an outsider would be in a privileged position to perceive the essential qualities of a time and place that remain invisible to those, living who inside the frame, know nothing else. Which is not to suggest Schlesinger was an innovator, as the genre of kitchen-sinkism had been around some time before he made A King of Loving. In any case, the period is one of the richest--historically and cinematically--to explore. The old class structures and prejudices were still very much in place, while the latest embodiment of the spirit of youth, always the driving wedge of transformation, was on the verge of a true cultural revolution. 1962 was still the pre-vernal period of that transformation, which probably makes A Kind of Loving so fascinating, less as a harbinger of things to come than as the equilibrium--or state of stasis--before the storm. These films do not show youth victorious so much as broken on their own barricades. The social-realist genre is through and through bourgeois, an endless saga of compromise, adaptation, and disillusionment.

The early scenes of courtship are delicately handled by Alan Bates and June Ritchie, eliciting genuine resonance. Their never-tried innocence and tentative-audacious dreaming of happiness was too much. I had to hit pause to attend to the accumulation of mucus in my nasal passages. From that point on the film had me in the palm of its hand.

As an example of social realism the film did raise the question of ultimate significance, or rather insignificance. That's inevitable when the plot revolves around the purely bourgeois, interpersonal concerns of two individuals, though it is probably not a query the poses itself to the average viewer, whose focus is on the people and story. The realization that there will be no incursion of a divine will or acts of grand violence but only quarreling, separation and rapprochement, induced a distinct sense of disappointment. The disappointment that comes with the territory of the quotidienne, in which the ubiquity of the question “is that all there is?” assumes existential moment.

The characters are no heroes, just people astride the karmic waves of their previous actions, attempting to find the most reasonable accommodation in life, to ‘get by’ and avoid failing too conspicuously. Individuals seeking to maintain their sense of dignity in the confining limitations of a social milieu still very much determined by class. Invariably they make a mess of life, nothing quite turns out as it might have in their second-rate northern province. That scenario pretty well sums up the gist of the social-realist genre. 

One could call this handful of films representatives of “British existentialism,” as they are all about individuals struggling, or failing to struggle, to make choices and steer their lives in a more promising direction. They are peopled by disaffected youth driven by the spirit of discontent. Socio-economically specified individuals concerned with the facticities of existence and engaging the freedom project. Billy Liar only fails to fit the mold in representing a retreat into fantasy and the ancestral. Billy is an idealist, if you will, for whom the counterfactual and imaginary are as real as any possible career or relationship. A man-child for whom essence most definitely precedes existence.

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