Some time ago I acquired four copies of Monthly Film Bulletin (MFB) from 1969. MFB, published by the BFI, was incorporated into Sight and Sound (S&S) in May 1991. My own subscriptions to both MFB and S&S go back to 1971/2 and it is clear that both publications changed quite significantly at the start of the 1970s. Current digital subscribers can access archive copies of Sight & Sound and MFB going back to their origins in 1932 for an extra subscription fee.
This glimpse into the films reviewed in 1969 reveals several interesting changes in both distribution policies and critical attitudes. 1969 represents one of the last years in which the UK could still be described as a territory in which cinemagoing was a ‘mass media activity’ with 215 million admissions for the year. (In 1959 there had been 580 million and in 1949, 1.4 billion). The UK ‘studio system’ (Rank and ABPC/EMI) was on its last legs and the ‘inward investment’ of Hollywood money into the UK and elsewhere in Europe was beginning to dry up. Film studies was not yet established in UK universities but the first hints of a new generation of film scholars who would eventually challenge the rather cosy world of the 1950s/60s ‘critics circle’ were just beginning to appear. I want to try to explore what the most important changes might have been in both distribution and critical standpoints.
The number of titles
The first surprise is the relatively limited number of films released in the UK in 1969. MFB once prided itself on being a ‘journal of record’ – if a film was released in the UK it should be included in MFB. That hasn’t really been the case for several years now (e.g. most Indian and Turkish films released in the UK don’t appear in S&S) and in the July 2015 edition of S&S editor Nick James admits it is impossible to review everything. In 2014 there were 712 films released for a week or more in the UK and Republic of Ireland. In May this year in the UK there were between 15 and 20 films being released weekly. In four months in 1969 MFB reviewed a total of 160 films of which around 20 were ‘short films’ (fiction and non-fiction, including animations). MFB also published comprehensive listings of short films released, only some of which were in the reviews section. With only an average of 30 feature-length films released each month, 1969 saw fewer films on release than 2014 although there were more cinema sites and bigger audiences than in 2013:
Only a handful of cinemas had more than one screen in 1975 – but of course the average cinema auditorium was much bigger, often over 1,000 seats. Today the average screen has less than 400. (The programme of ‘twinning’ and ‘tripling’ existing cinemas began in the UK in earnest in 1969 and surviving circuit cinemas were mainly converted in the 1970s.)
I looked through all the reviews for February, April, May and August 1969. I classified each film as ‘Foreign Language’ (noting dubbed and subtitled releases as two separate categories), Hollywood, UK, ‘Other English language releases’ and shorts. Here are the totals across the four months:
Foreign language (subtitles) 35
Foreign language (dubbed) 19
‘Other’ English language 18
I think there are some interesting figures here that need explaining. In 1969 the ‘American independent cinema’ we know now did not exist in the same form. The figures for ‘other English language films’ refer generally to American exploitation films (mainly horror) not distributed via a Hollywood major. But the figures also include several European films (mainly French-Italian co-productions) released in English language versions. These films were often relatively big budget films with European stars made sometimes with Hollywood studio support. They were effectively multiple language versions and would be dubbed in the local language for release in the four big European markets (France, Italy, West Germany and Spain). There were no Australian or Canadian films in the sample (the Australian New Wave features came later in the 1970s). I haven’t analysed the shorts in detail but a significant number of these films were also foreign language productions. Overall, it is fair to say that nearly half of all the films reviewed were produced outside the UK or US.
I’m relieved that the figures confirm my personal memory of the number of dubbed films on release. In the sample these include thrillers, sex films, spaghetti Westerns, horror films etc. I was surprised to discover several subtitled films that were unknown to me. This was the period when Czech New Wave films were appearing in the UK alongside Swedish and Danish sex films (which were subtitled whereas German and Italian films were dubbed – perhaps reflecting the dubbing traditions of those countries?). This was also the period when auteurs such as Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard appeared alongside Buñuel and Miklós Jancsó.
It’s always difficult to distinguish between ‘British’ and ‘Hollywood’ films and the modern ‘UK/US’ identifier does not figure here so some films might be incorrectly included as ‘British’, but even so, there is evidence that what remained of the UK industry could still produce enough films to nearly match the Hollywood majors, at least in numbers of releases.
The most striking aspect of these 1969 reviews for me is the distinction between the long reviews in the first half of each MFB issue and the ‘shorter reviews’ in the second half. These shorter reviews are deemed to be less important and each is graded according to a dismissive set of criteria: ‘I’ Good (of its type); ‘II’ Average and ‘III’ Poor (these are the exact words used). The shorter reviews are not credited – allowing the reviewer to be as negative as they wish. The longer reviews are reserved for mainstream ‘quality films’ from the US/UK and auteur films. These are not graded in the reviews themselves but each month a selection of films is graded by a group of nine critics from the ‘quality press’ titles (including Sight & Sound). These films are not necessarily the same as those in the MFB reviews for that month since the latter will be reviewed in advance of the release and the former published in the week of release and then collated retrospectively. Even so, it is noticeable that this selection (around 20 titles) includes titles featured in both longer and shorter MFB reviews. The nine critics rate the films using 1 to 4 stars or with a large black dot to represent ‘critical antipathy’. Exactly the same process is still used by Screen International in its collation of critics’ views of the films in competition at Cannes each year. Something similar appears in UK newspapers, although not in so much detail. I’ve made reference to Sight & Sound here and I should point out that at this time (my earliest copy is Autumn 1971), S&S appeared quarterly and included several substantial reviews in each issue plus a single page of thumbnail reviews of around 34 titles, some given 1 to 4 stars.
Most of these reviews in MFB and Sight & Sound are by the same handful of distinguished film journalists – professional film critics such as David Wilson (MFB editor), Jan Dawson (MFB assistant editor), Penelope Houston (Sight & Sound editor), Tom Milne, Richard Roud etc. At this point, few of these writers were themselves film academics or had necessarily engaged directly with the kinds of theoretical work just beginning in some educational contexts – though there was already some tension between them and the new writers in a journal like Movie, begun by Oxford graduates in 1962 (see Victor Perkins’ comments in this tribute to Ian Cameron, Movie‘s prime instigator). The MFB reviewers were not all the same and new names were beginning to appear. The real changes would start just a few years later, especially when new recruits to BFI Publishing and other departments then began to write for the Institute’s publications. Part of the change in personnel would also be linked to the range of film titles covered.
The 139 titles in 1969 referred to above had several glaring omissions when viewed from 2015. In the four issues sampled there are no films from Africa or the Middle East or Australia/NZ and only one from Latin America (Memories of Underdevelopment 1968, the first of several Cuban ‘New Cinema’ films to get a UK release). Besides a handful of Japanese art and exploitation films, the only Asian title is an Indian film by Tapan Sinha (Atithi/The Runaway, 1965). MFB does not give the language, but the director worked mainly in Bengali. European films are much more in evidence, including Czech and Polish as well as Swedish, Danish, German, Italian and, of course, French. One other oddity is that there are at least a couple of American ‘made for TV’ films given a UK cinema release. This practice carried on for several years into the 1970s when Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1972) and Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile (1980) got UK cinema releases despite being shown only on US television.
Overall it is clear from the distinction of long/short reviews that MFB’s editor felt more comfortable dealing with well-known auteurs or other directors connected to a ‘new wave’ already validated such as the Czech New Wave in 1969. BFI members and UK cinemagoers generally would have to wait a few years for exploitation films and popular genre pictures to be treated as worthwhile subjects for discussion. To give just a couple of examples, Mario Bava’s Diabolik is given a short review and graded ‘III’ (presumably as a dubbed film it was instantly relegated in this way). The UK comedy Till Death Us Do Part, an early entrant in the cycle of TV comedy spin-offs which kept British film studios working during the 1970s, was similarly dismissed (Category ‘II’) but the children’s epic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was given a long review. I haven’t seen either film but I believe both were popular with audiences and I suspect a certain kind of snobbery was involved in treating them differently. There is also some slippage in defining ‘short films’. Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert and Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story are respectively 45 and 60 minutes long. They went out together as a double bill in 1969 and are given separate ‘long reviews’. Chris Marker’s Cuba Si! is a 55 minute ‘personal documentary’ and is reviewed (unsigned) as a Non-fiction/Short Film. Yet Marker was also a celebrated auteur – but presumably not as much in favour as the other two.
What does this mini-research study tell us? It does reveal the extent of dubbing in 1969 in the UK cinema market. Dubbing has remained important across the FIGS (France, Italy, Germany, Spain) countries but has virtually disappeared in the UK. Without it, European films in the UK get less exposure. The overall balance of UK/Hollywood/Europe that existed in 1969 has now gone but on the positive side we do now get a wide range of (mostly) subtitled South Asian films plus films from Latin America, East Asia and occasionally Africa. Shorts have disappeared from mainstream reviewing and programming.
Film reviewing has become more ‘democratic’ and less narrowly focused. Academic film studies has informed reviewers who now have a wider perspective on global cinema. Whether the reviews are now ‘better’ – better written, more entertaining, better informed – is a different question. It could be argued that the film exhibition sector in the UK now has a much wider range of venues and a much wider range of films on offer. In reality, however, the choice for most cinemagoers, especially outside London and a handful of big cities, is much more limited. The 2015 offer seems to me both more ‘bland’ in the mainstream and more ‘niche’ for the arthouse/specialised sector. Many people who want to watch films will find what they want online or on DVD rather than in cinemas. The UK exhibition has been relatively static in terms of admissions for several years now (despite a significant increase in the population over the last ten years). 2015 looks like pushing admissions up from last year’s 157.5 million but probably not over the 175.9 million of 2002, the highest total of recent years.
I hope that this will the first of several mini case studies of UK exhibition and distribution. What this sample wasn’t able to show is how admissions in 1969 were spread across all titles screened. My hypothesis is that in the 1960s, because films were released to two distinct ‘circuits’ (Odeon and ABC), each mainstream release received more or less the same promotion and that there was a much smaller gap between the most popular and least popular release in terms of admissions.
Nic Roeg was the subject of an interesting BBC 4 Arena documentary a few weeks ago and it seems like a good time to look at one of his films. Roeg is something of a forgotten auteur in the UK despite directing Don’t Look Now (1973), one of the most revered films in UK cinema history. He has several other significant titles in his list of directorial outings – as well as some very important credits as a cinematographer. However his films since 1980’s Bad Timing have not usually been well-received and his last success was probably The Witches (1990). Even so, I was shocked by the general response to Puffball, a film that isn’t perfect but certainly doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it. In several ways it resembles Don’t Look Now and also has qualities that link it to Roeg’s earlier success Walkabout (1971). I suspect that some of the antipathy towards Puffball (which currently scores 4.3 on IMDB) derives from the original story by Fay Weldon, a story first written in 1980 that does seem ‘out of time’ in some ways and possibly just too ‘female’ for some male audiences (the adaptation was, however, by Weldon’s son Dan).
A puffball is a type of mushroom which can grow into a football-sized white sphere. The spores of this mushroom are formed inside the sphere which then splits when the spores are ready to be released. The resemblance of the puffball to the swollen stomach of a pregnant woman is clear and this is what the film’s narrative utilises as its central visual image. Written originally for an English rural setting, the film adaptation moves to rural Ireland – presumably for funding reasons (the budget comes from soft money funds in the UK, Ireland and Canada). The move doesn’t alter the story in any way except that the sense of rural magic/mythology becomes even more pronounced and for some may be seen as pandering to easy typing of rural Ireland.
Liffey (Kelly Reilly) is an architect and she and her fiancé Richard (Oscar Pearce) have bought an abandoned cottage with the intention of rebuilding it and creating a modern designer house. The cottage originally belonged to a farming family who live close by. Mabs (Miranda Richardson) and Tucker (William Houston) have three daughters and Mabs’ mother Molly (Rita Tushingham) lives in a large caravan parked in the farmyard. The cottage was originally Molly’s home. It isn’t until some way into the narrative that we learn that Molly lost a son in the fire that gutted the cottage. Mabs and Tucker want a fourth child – a boy and Liffey has somehow careered into an emotional narrative. The inciting incident in the narrative is the moment when Liffey and Richard make love on an ancient stone monument close by the cottage (said to be associated with the Norse God, Odin – and, yes, the Vikings did get to Ireland). A puffball grows close by. Liffey becomes pregnant but by now Richard has had to return to work in his office in New York. Liffey is alone apart from the Polish builders who come to work on the house during the day. When Liffey visits the local doctor about the pregnancy, word gets out to Mabs via her sister Carol (Tina Kellegher), the receptionist at the surgery.
I don’t need to ‘spoil’ any more of the plot. Mabs, Molly and Carol are prepared to go to any lengths to bring a boy into the family, including magic. Liffey is alone, working on her architectural drawings. The plot elements strongly resemble Don’t Look Now in which Donald Sutherland is a church restorer separated from his wife by a job that takes him abroad and Julie Christie is the mother who meets a woman with ‘second sight’ when she is distraught after the death of her son. Sutherland even turns up in Puffball (a function of Canadian funding?) as Liffey’s one-time boss, offering her a partnership if she will come back to work.
The criticisms of the film seem to be that the performances of this strong cast are too much in melodrama mode, that the sex scenes are ‘too strong’ (18 Certificate) and that the cinematography is too obvious/too crude/too cheap. The DP is Nigel Willoughby (whose first major credit was on Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters) but the style is immediately recognisable as Roeg’s from the opening landscape shots. There is that palpable sense of the environment being a character in the story (as in Walkabout). None of these seem like reasons to denigrate the film. Perhaps the key for some critics is Roeg’s decision to use traditional camera ‘tricks’ to illustrate the magical elements in the film and to compound this with shots that link the foetus in Liffey’s uterus with the spores in the puffball and to ‘replay’ the sexual act with images of a penis entering a vagina as seen ‘internally’. Some have complained that the effects are ‘cheap’, others that the sex is gratuitous. The sex is not gratuitous and needs to be represented in the way it has been to work with the narrative. Personally I like traditional camera tricks more than CGI. Overall, the negative reactions seem to me to be part of a British distaste for fantasy cinema and the excess of melodrama – strengths of British Cinema I would argue.
The Wikipedia page for the film suggests an estimated budget for the film of £7 million. I would be surprised if it was half that and a quarter might be more realistic. There is a small cast and a limited number of locations. Roeg has clearly been marginalised and at 87 he is perhaps unlikely to get too many more chances to make films. I’m certainly now willing to go back and look at some of his films again as I’m sure that he deserves more attention. I’m going to look at the documentary by David Thompson again as well.
This documentary is about corruption in the governing bodies that control international cricket. It was released in July – ironically in the middle of one of the most exciting of recent test series between England and Australia. Ostensibly setting out to discover if test cricket was dying in the face of commercial exploitation of shorter forms of the game, the filmmakers discovered a bigger story about corruption along the way.
The film’s release prompted several newspaper articles that explored the content of the film’s argument, three on the Guardian‘s website alone. Rather than repeat these, I intend to focus more on the film as an example of documentary. I should say first that I found the film fascinating and I learned a great deal. Having said that, I have some doubts about its status as a cinema documentary.
My first quibble is with the title. The suggestion is clear – cricket is a game meant to be played in a ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The implication is that this means that test cricket played in the correct manner is what cricket is all about. To emphasise this the film begins with a long shot of a rural cricket ground with a team in whites slowly taking to the field. BBC Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew and West Indian legend Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’ and my hero) are wheeled out to explain this to camera. The film’s website even tells us that: “Death of a Gentleman is not a nostalgic look back at a sport that professionals played against amateurs while stopping for tea”. Fair enough, but the two main filmmakers don’t really see cricket in the way that I and many others do. Sam Collins is an Old Etonian and Jarrod Kimber describes himself as a “larrikin Aussie”. I’ve been watching/listening to cricket commentaries for a very long time and I know cricket is a game riven by conflicts between patrician public school boys (aka ‘gentlemen’), wealthy entrepreneurs and professional players and that for much of its history it has been cursed with colonial mentalities and the whiff of racist assumptions. The film rather glides over this and focuses on the dispute between the first two – between the public school ethos and the power of money. To be fair, however, the journalist Gideon Haigh’s contributions do slightly shift the argument.
As a film, I guess this is an ‘authored’ and therefore ‘performative’ documentary in the guise of investigative reporting. The two filmmakers are the central characters who travel between Australia, the UK, India, Sri Lanka and the UAE first looking for an answer to their question about test cricket and then investigating the murky goings-on of the International Cricket Council. As a ‘cinematic’ documentary there is not much to commend. The travels of our reporters are presented conventionally, intercut with talking heads of famous cricketers and administrators and archive footage of news reports and cricket coverage. Visually the film comes alive only when we get to India and the pair are suitably overawed by their experience of an IPL (Indian Premier League – 20:20) game. There wasn’t enough of this but I’m probably arguing for a different film that tries to understand cricket and its social history.
For film and media theorists/analysts what is most interesting about this film is that the filmmakers, perhaps accidentally, present us with a kind of perfect hero and two ‘over the top’ villains. I suspect a Hollywood scriptwriter might have struggled to invent these three. The ‘hero’ is Ed Cowan, a very personable young Australian who plays cricket in the ‘proper’ way and is consequently dropped by the Australian Cricket Authority because he doesn’t score fast enough for the one-day game. He is there at the beginning of the film to provide the story that illustrates why ‘faster’ versions of the game (20:20 and ODI) are damaging test cricket. He is soon overshadowed by the two super-villains – Giles Clarke, Chair of the (ECB) English Cricket Board and N Srinivasan President of the BCCI (Board of the Cricket Council of India) and later Chair of the ICC (International Cricket Council). I’m not going to go into the arguments presented in the film about how these two led international cricket down the ‘wrong road’ and in N. Srinivasan’s case became mired in corruption scandals. I’m more interested in how the institutional conventions of journalism and documentary practice ‘overdetermine’ the way in which the heroes and villains are represented, almost unconsciously. Collins and Kimber are shown arranging interviews with Clarke and Srinivasan. The two administrators, perhaps surprisingly, give interviews on camera and then act like politicians – spinning responses, refusing to answer certain questions etc. In the case of Srinivasan I’m not sure about how this has been edited but it gives the impression that Srinivasan is being deliberately evasive. He comes across, as the journalists say, as ‘inscrutable’. Clarke on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about being the bad guy. Some of the things he says are in themselves defensible – even if many would disagree with him – but he says them with such little grace and barely concealed contempt that some of the overall argument is lost. When a villain is so villainous in a documentary it does make you wonder if the whole thing is a set-up. Later Clarke will avoid the young men, calling them ‘idiots’.
The final confrontation – when Collins and Kimber travel to Dubai to try to discover what the International Cricket Council have got up to – is firmly within the ‘performative mode’. They themselves comment on this by introducing their ‘fake sheikh’ (a ruse often used to expose sporting scandals in the UK, where a reporter disguised as an Arab sheikh wears a microphone and camera beneath his robes to trap the bad guys. What is shocking is that despite the exposure of these senior administrators, nothing has really changed in world cricket, except that these two have kept their powerful roles with slightly different titles. Collins and Kimber have started a Campaign to Change Cricket with a public demonstration at the Oval Test on August 20th, a petition and more with details available on the website. The change is needed to stop the domination of world cricket by the representatives of India, England and Australia who have effectively marginalised the other seven Test Match countries and the larger group of associate members who need support to develop cricket in their countries. The three big players have the TV markets sewn up and they don’t want to share the spoils. As one of the interviewees points out, the real question is whether test cricket needs money to survive and grow or whether test cricket exists to make money for the interests who control it.
This film isn’t great cinema but it is a useful exposure of what is happening at the top of international cricket that raises important questions for all cricket lovers. You can still see it in selected cinemas (a list on the website) and once it is available on DVD it must surely be seen in every cricket clubhouse.
Another loss for the British Film Industry. Jack Gold did not have a high profile but he directed some fine cinema and television films. My first encounter was The Bofors Gun (1968), set in the era of National Service and with compelling performances from Nicol Williamson and David Warner. His following film The Reckoning (1970) also starred Williamson returning to Liverpool on the death of his father. Both were sharply made with complex characters and powerful plots. The Sailor’s Return (1978) dealt with racial prejudice before the issue acquired a sharper focus on film. Some of his later films lacked the subtlety of his earlier work. The Medusa Touch (also 1978) had a ludicrous plot: but the climatic disaster remains a must for subversives and republicans. There were also many fine films for television. The Lump (1967) was a Wednesday Play written by Jim Allen, dealing with casualised labour with a strong social consciousness. And Mad Jack (1970) was an effective treatment of the ordeal of Siegfried Sassoon during World War I. Then there was the better known The Naked Civil Servant (1975), splendidly led by John Hurt. Later there was The Praying Mantis (1983, in two parts) with an unsettling Cherie Lunghi in the lead. And later again one of the best of and the final Inspector Morse films, The Remorseful Day (2000). Jack Gold was a fairly prolific filmmaker, look at his list of productions on IMDB. Looking back, apart from his skills in film production what is clear is that he was also a fine director of actors: and he worked with some of the finest in British film and television.