Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK).

Wednesday, 13 September 2023 08:51

A Driven Man: Review of ‘Kubrick and Control: Authority, Order and Independence in the Films and Working Life of Stanley Kubrick’ by Jeremy Carr

Published in Films

Like many eager teenagers who found themselves sleepless and cinephilic during the Gilded Age of VHS in the 1980s, you genuinely felt the presence of the director of The Shining at your shoulder as you sat alone in the living room and watched his vision of the unfamiliar, the unnerving and the uncanny ominously unfold.

The absolute exactness of everything on screen, in concert with the hypnotic electronic orchestration by Wendy Carlos, drenched with such doom and dread, overwhelmed and compelled you to return to its psychopathy again and again until, without knowing it, you had soon learned the dialogue verbatim as if it was a lyric from some obscure prog-rock album entitled ‘Grand Guignol’.

Jeremy Carr’s comprehensive hagiography of Stanley Kubrick’s career of creative compulsions and authorial control conjures up many, many youthful memories such as this and, as a consequence, it is a must-read for anyone who pines for the serious aesthetics of mainstream cinema to return.

Stanley Kubrick at Sadlers Wells Theatre in London 1949

Kubrick first began to learn to ‘direct his subjects, to control light and shade, to understand lenses, composition, exposure, and balance within the frame’ as a precocious 17-year-old staff photographer working for Look magazine in New York between 1946 and 1950. According to Dr James Fenwick:

[he] seems to have wanted to push the limits of the creative freedom he was offered at the magazine … [attempting] to broaden his autonomy … [and] invest his own personality into his work.

Onwards and this competitive attitude and approach to producing cinema with distinct authority was helped and honed throughout the 1950s by way of the chess matches he played against the regulars in Washington Square in the shade or under street lamps; a meticulous métier which he would introduce to the cast and crew on the movie sets he was later to govern. As the director himself explains in John Baxter’s Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (1998), if chess had any relationship to filmmaking ‘it would be in the way it helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive.’

Day of the Fight became Kubrick’s first motion picture at the age of 23, a 16 minute black-and-white documentary which follows Irish-American middleweight boxer, Walter Cartier, as he prepares to fight Bobby James on April 17, 1950. Here, in between the staging and the spit, the uppercuts and the close-ups, Carr identifies the shadow of a leitmotif which would eventually loom over the director’s entire oeuvre: the driven man.

In The Killing in 1956, for instance, his first proper studio picture for United Artists, veteran ex-con, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), strides across the screen as he confidently describes to his fiancée the herd of hoodlums he is about to corral with the sole purpose of pulling off a daring $2 million robbery at the racetrack.

In turn, in 1957 Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) can be seen in Paths of Glory to be a character cut from the same thick cloth, single-minded in his lofty and loquacious attempts to hold the French military command to account as he defends three soldiers who have been arbitrarily accused of cowardice during World War I.

Stanley Kubrick during the filming of Paths of Glory in 1957

Crucially, this incipient interpretation of the masculine desire to confront, combat and conquer – against the odds, against authority, against nature, against destiny – famously evolved into Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the titular militant messiah in Universal Pictures’ Spartacus in 1960. This sword and sandal saga about a humble gladiator rising up to lead the largest ever slave revolt against the imperious Roman Republic was the most expensive and prestigious film production Kubrick had helmed. Furthermore, its subsequent commercial and cultural success helped to solidify his own personal and professional ambitions to be recognised as a leading figure within the industry, a true American auteur.

As Carr explains:

He was at the mercy of an egotistical group of actors (heavyweights Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton bickering with each other and questioning the authority of this young filmmaker), an equally obsessive producer/lead performer (Kirk Douglas), and the constraints dictated by a film of this size and scope.

This said, as Peter Kramer continues:

[Spartacus] established him as an important player in Hollywood … [enabling] him to negotiate with financiers and distributors from a position of strength so that from then on he could produce medium- to big-budget films … yet made without much interference from them.

The male drive to succeed however is not enough in itself. Such a raw and potentially ruinous emotion needs discipline, direction and order if it is to achieve its aims effectively, reach its destination intact and claim its prize. As a consequence, iconographic tropes such as maps, plans and/or schematics, either handmade or technological, often feature prominently in Kubrick’s mise-en-scène as a visual connotation of the characters’ need for organisation, method and control.

In his first production shot in colour, for example, the 30 minute promotional documentary The Seafarers from 1953, he explores how the Seafarers International Union in Maryland recruits and regulates its mariners, fishermen and boatmen before they work the oceans. To illustrate the scope and influence of this huge endeavour Kubrick pans across a large world map as the narrator asserts: ‘Antwerp, Cape Town, London, Marseilles, Singapore … You name it: picking his destination is the right of every Seafarer.’

More memorably of course is the mesmeric overhead push-in on the scale model of the hedge maze in The Shining in 1980. Restless in the reception hall of the Overlook Hotel, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) leans over and into it like a disturbed divisional general surveying his battle plans for the next day as his wife and son appear superimposed like mere insects, happily oblivious that they are wandering through a metaphor for their patriarch’s decaying mind.

Indeed, Carr reiterates this recurring Kubrickian conceit in his epilogue when he cites the screenplay for Napoleon, the unrealised biographical epic which many critics agree would have proved to have been the director’s raison d'être, the totality of his cinematic aesthetic:

Scene 31: INT—NAPOLEON’S PARIS HQ—DAY

Pencil between his teeth, dividers in one hand, [Napoleon] creeps around on hands and knees on top of a very large map of Italy, laid out from wall to wall. Other large maps cover the table, the couch and any other available space.

In line with his increased production budgets, abilities and aspirations Kubrick advanced his ruminations on order, control and power considerably with Dr. Strangelove in 1964, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and A Clockwork Orange in 1971. On the one hand these three films can be seen to mirror the theoretical work carried out by one of his 1960s contemporaries, Marshall McLuhan, in terms of technology serving as an extension of man: his physicality, his consciousness, his ethics and his will. And, on the other, it could be argued that they also echo Karl Marx’s position in the 19th century with regards to technological determinism and the hegemonic role this plays in the socio-economic relations and cultural practices of wider society.

For example, the cockpit of the B-52 in Dr. Strangelove is heaving with ‘a smorgasbord of lights, switches, maps, gauges, radars, and guides’ as it transports a hydrogen bomb to its intended Soviet target. The message from the military to the body politic is very loud and clear: everything is under control. We have the technology. God bless America.

With the incomparable 2001: A Space Odyssey the audience, and cinema itself, are invited to take a giant leap forwards as Kubrick propels us from the prehistoric broken bones of homicidal hominids and into the nervous system of the spacecraft Discovery: its intricate network of hibernation pods and plasma pipes, scanners and closed-circuit cameras all interconnected and centralised within the mainframe brain of HAL, the supercomputer whose sole duty is to transport the crew to Jupiter to investigate an alien radio signal. We can only assume that, hypothetically, if this fully-funded, interplanetary mission is successful then it would surely herald the expansion of American political, economic and cultural imperialism out of this world and throughout the cosmos.

Returning to earth with A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick explicitly intertwines technology and hegemony by way of the Ludovico Technique, a state-sponsored behavioural aversion procedure which is tested on one desperate experimental subject: the untamed, ultra-violent rapist droog, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). Here scientific research, knowledge and needles are employed by the British Ministry of the Interior to physically inculcate self-control and conclusively cure him of his own destructive free will. The treatment leaves working-class Alex meek and defenceless and, against our better judgement, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for him. Prof. Philip Kuberski argues however that the film’s narrative should not be regarded as a defence of free will at all but instead as a reminder to the audience that we are also ‘conditioned in some way or another’ and the day-to-day freedoms we think we enjoy are just an ‘illusion’.

With this in mind we can thus posit that Kubrick’s driven men, whether they know it or not, are also suffering from a similar existential crisis. That is, their desire to confront, combat and conquer is just that, a desire, and not a logical decision which they are able to make. As a result, their attempts to control and direct their impulses with plans, maps or technology are ultimately unsustainable due to the impermanence and vicissitudes of the wider world, the people within it and the forces in between. Thus, their turbulent and tragic character arcs can only lead their sense of purpose, and their sense of self, to overexposure, disorder and defeat.

In Lolita in 1962, for instance, the upstanding university lecturer Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is ultimately undone by his illicit infatuation with the 14 year old Dolores Haze, deliriously dissolving into ‘a mere shell of himself, totally out of control and forcibly subdued by … hospital staff’.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of the 1975 film Barry Lyndonjpg

Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), the self-serving 18th century Irish scoundrel and gambler in Barry Lyndon in 1975, swears that he will never ‘fall from the rank of a gentleman’ but, inevitably, he comes tumbling down the social ladder following a messy duel against his stepson where he loses his leg and is banished from England forever.

Then there is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) who, in Full Metal Jacket in 1986, humiliates and belittles his squad of new recruits, stripping them, one by one, of their egos and their dignity in order to transform them into marines, into killing machines who are ‘ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds’. It is ironic that this brutal training regime proves to be more successful than anyone could of imagined when, during one sleepy evening, the maligned and malfunctioning Private Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) executes Hartman, his nemesis, with a bullet to the chest.

As can be seen nearly all of the male protagonists mentioned are leaders and/or patriarchs who, while memorably constructed and beautifully performed, are also narcissistic, naïve, deluded and alone. Consequently, one critical lesson we can learn from Stanley Kubrick’s exceptional oeuvre, as well as from Jeremy Carr’s fine book, it is that as audience members and as mindful citizens we should always be extremely careful about the kind of men we choose to bestow authority, control and power upon in political, corporate and cultural life.

This review was first broadcast on Arts Express by WBAI 99.5FM in New York, see here.‘Kubrick and Control: Authority, Order and Independence in the Films and Working Life of Stanley Kubrick’ by Jeremy Carris available here.

The Hollywood Renaissance and The Blacklist
Wednesday, 13 September 2023 08:22

The Hollywood Renaissance and The Blacklist

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford (UK), for Arts Express

Brett Gregory: Hi, this is the UK desk for Arts Express, and I'm Brett Gregory. My guest this evening is the curator of a unique season of controversial yet compelling Hollywood movies from the 1960s and seventies. In collaboration with National Film Festival organisers Cinema Rediscovered, global distribution company Park Circus, and the esteemed British Film Institute, will be touring cinemas in the UK and the Republic of Ireland over the next two weeks.

Andy Willis: Hi Brett, thanks for having me on the show. My name is Andy Willis. I'm a professor of film studies at the University of Salford in the UK. Alongside that, I'm also a senior visiting curator for film at HOME, which is a multi-arts centre in the middle of Manchester in the North West of England.

BG: And what is this curated film program, this creative project, about exactly?

AW: So, this project is on the Hollywood blacklist, but particularly on how those people who were involved in the Hollywood blacklist ended up going back into the American film industry in the 1960s. It's particularly focused on those who contributed in the broader sense to what's now known as the Hollywood Renaissance. It went really from the early stirrings of the Hollywood blacklist, which began at the end of the Second World War. In the trade papers within the film industry, such as the Hollywood Reporter, articles began to appear accusing people who worked in the Hollywood film industry of having communist sympathies. This is quite ironic, seeing as when the Soviet Union was an ally, many people were encouraged to make pro-Soviet films. But after the war, when they were now the enemy, suddenly those films were held against people when they were accused of being communists or communist sympathisers. This came to a peak in October 1947 when The House Committee on Un-American Activities Committee, often known as HUAC, subpoenaed 19 people to appear before them to be questioned about their loyalty and communist sympathies.

BG: Reds under the bed. So initially, you say 19?

AW: They actually called only 11 people, and one of those people was the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who did talk to the committee. But then, realising that the writing was on the wall, very soon after, he got a plane to East Germany and had one of the most legendary careers in European theatre. The 10 who were left were all held in contempt of the committee and were eventually sent to prison for a year. They became known as the Hollywood 10, which included mostly writers, but also a couple of directors and writer-producers. I think that reflects how influential and important writers were seen at the time within the Hollywood film industry. It was the writers who could put ideas within the films.

BG: And then what happened?

AW: Things got worse just after that. In 1947, there was a statement made by key people in the Hollywood film industry, known as the Waldorf Statement. They met at the Waldorf Hotel. People like Louis B. Mayer from Metro Golden Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn from Columbia Pictures were in attendance. They all came together and said that if they had anyone working for them under contract who was seen to be a communist sympathiser or a Communist Party member and didn't renounce that, then they would terminate their contract. That started the Hollywood blacklist.

BG: All very sinister. And there was some sort of in-your-face propaganda campaign going on as well, wasn't there?

AW: Very shortly afterwards, in June 1950, there was the publication of a pamphlet by Counterattack called 'Red Channels.' 'Red Channels' really stuck the boot in even more to progressive practitioners within the Hollywood film industry. It named 151 actors, writers, musicians, as well as broadcast journalists and other people working in the media. After they were named, they were effectively blacklisted and unable to work.

BG: And how long did this reign of terror go on for?

AW: It lasted for a good 10 to 15, for some people coming up to 20 years, where they were unable to work. They were unable to have their names on films or television programs they wrote. It's a very dark period for Hollywood and caused great rifts that lasted for decades after, with people not being happy with those who had named names. One of the things people may know is that as part of the HUAC trials, people would be invited to name names of Hollywood's communists or communist sympathisers. Famous people like Elia Kazan, the theatre and film director, did name names, which caused great disruption in their working relationships. For example, Kazan worked a lot with Arthur Miller, and after he named names, Miller refused to work with Kazan again. When Elia Kazan was given a lifetime achievement Oscar, people like Ed Harris and Nick Nolte were sitting on their hands, not clapping and looking stony-faced. Outside, people like Abraham Polonsky, the writer-director, and Walter Bernstein, the writer, were protesting about giving a lifetime achievement Oscar to someone who had named names and destroyed the careers of many of their friends and work associates.

BG: Yeah, I watched that ceremony with Ed Harris and Nick Nolte on YouTube years ago. Totally awkward. Anyway, let's move on to the films you selected for the program.

AW: One of the key films we chose for the season was 'Serpico' from 1973. It's directed by Sidney Lumet, with a stellar performance by Al Pacino. But what people may not know is that the first early drafts of the screenplay were written by Waldo Salt, who had been blacklisted. Another film we selected was 'Midnight Cowboy' from 1969. It's really the film that brought Waldo Salt back into focus. He had made a couple of other films after his blacklist, notably 'Taurus Bulba' from 1962. But he was unhappy with those kinds of adventure films and wanted to do something more weighty. When John Schlesinger and Jerome Hellman were looking for someone to adapt the novel, it was Waldo Salt who found a way to do that.

BG: Midnight Cowboy is a great film, but why is it a key film for this program?

AW: It is still the first X-rated film to win the Best Film Oscar. Waldo Salt was also rewarded with an Oscar for his work on the film. This seemed to be an important film, emblematic of the new Hollywood and its challenging ideas. I wanted to highlight that Waldo Salt, who suffered from the blacklist era, was able to contribute to the progressive politics of a film like 'Midnight Cowboy.'

BG: Tell us more about the movie 'Uptight.' I've never heard of it.

AW: 'Uptight' is an interesting example among the films in the season. It's much lesser known than 'Serpico' or 'Midnight Cowboy.' It's directed by Jules Dassin, who was also blacklisted in the early 1950s. He moved to Europe and rebuilt his career there, known for 'Rififi.' 'Uptight' was the first film he made back in America. It's an adaptation of the same novel that John Ford adapted for 'The Informer' in the 1930s. Jules Dassin, who suffered from the blacklist, I think was interested in this idea of the guilt at the core of this film.

BG: And there were political shenanigans going on behind the scenes, is that right?

AW: It's a fascinating film, but the making of the film is also really interesting. Shot in Cleveland, there was so much tension among the extras that they had to take the production back to Los Angeles. The FBI reportedly tried to get people working on the film to inform them about the politics of the film. Jules Dassin takes the setting from Ireland and the IRA of the original novel and places it into the Black Power movement in Cleveland in the late 1960s. It's a fascinating film.

BG: Black Power, the IRA. What else do you have lined up?

AW: Yes, another film that focused on the Black experience in America and had a contribution from someone blacklisted is 'Claudine.' It's a much smaller, quieter film set in Harlem around a single mother played by Diahann Carroll. She meets a well-meaning garbage man played by James Earl Jones, and they try to make a go of things in 1974. The film is directed by John Berry, who had been blacklisted and went on to work on this film. It's an important historical film, I think, and has been a little forgotten.

BG: A film that hasn't been forgotten, though, is Robert Altman's 'M*A*S*H.'

AW: 'M*A*S*H' is another familiar film in the season. It's remembered for breaking Robert Altman and introducing his filmmaking style, with sound and image combining in a unique way. For this season, 'Look Who's Back: The Hollywood Renaissance and the Blacklist,' I wanted to focus on the screenwriter of 'M*A*S*H,’ Ring Lardner Jr. He had been one of the Hollywood 10, one of the first victims of the blacklist.

BG: Why is Ring Lardner Jr.'s work on 'M*A*S*H’ so important?

AW: Ring Lardner Jr.'s contribution was vital to 'M*A*S*H.’ He brings progressive politics and attempts to portray the horrors of war. It also looks forward to the cynicism of the 1970s. 'M*A*S*H’ is one of the great anti-war movies. America was still in the thrall of Vietnam in 1970, and I don't think anybody needed any pushing to relate the film to the Vietnam reality that many Americans were experiencing.

BG: And you focus on a particular female actor in your program as well, don't you?

AW: Yes, I didn't want to focus only on writers. I included Hal Ashby's 1975 film 'Shampoo,' which is set in the late 1960s and is about the excesses and vanity of America during that period. It features a standout performance by Lee Grant, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Lee Grant had been an actor who, in the 1950s, was on the cusp of real fame but was blacklisted. She reappeared in the 1960s in films like 'The Heat of the Night' and was nominated for an Oscar for 'The Landlord.' Lee Grant is a great example of how an actor can come back from the blacklist and re-establish themselves at the centre of the Hollywood film industry during the Hollywood Renaissance.

BG: Hollywood, the dream factory with nightmare working conditions.

AW: The Hollywood film industry sees itself as the dream factory, offering a particular version of society as the aspirational one we should seek out. The Hollywood blacklist era shows that when people were writing other versions of potential future societies or contemporary societies that weren't supported by the capitalist studios, they were quick to act and marginalise those people. Let's hope there are writers, directors, actors, and musicians willing to offer alternatives and challenge the status quo.

BG: Great stuff, Andy. It's always healthy to end with a clenched fist in the air. It's been a pleasure having you on the show, and I wish you the best of luck with 'Look Who's Back: The Hollywood Renaissance and the Blacklist.' This has been the UK desk for Arts Express, and I've been Brett Gregory. Cheers.

Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK). His critically acclaimed debut feature film,‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ is currently available in the US and UK here, on Amazon Prime.

Labyrinths of Austerity
Friday, 14 July 2023 09:12

Labyrinths of Austerity

Published in Life Writing

Writer-director Brett Gregory on his bleak, moving, semi-autobiographical feature film, Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’, which tackles austerity, class, and mental health. Images are taken from the film. An interview with Brett is here.

Although I was born on an RAF base in Buckinghamshire, I was raised on a run-down council estate in a Nottinghamshire mining town from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. After my alcoholic stepdad was arrested for assault for the umpteenth time, my mum became a single parent on benefits with three children. We had no money: we ate salad cream sandwiches, we used the local newspaper as toilet roll and I could only afford to go to the cinema once over this period, and that was to watch ‘Tron’ at the ABC Cinema in 1982 for my 11th birthday.

Film Still 1

Every other movie I watched was either on a black and white portable television in my bedroom or on pirated VHS tapes on the colour television in the living room downstairs.As a result, I have no spiritual affinity with cinema-going or any of its mystical rituals like many other filmmakers claim to have. With television however it’s a different story. For example, in 1982 I also grew aware of the power of the British State by following Newsnight reports about the Falklands Conflict throughout the spring. This was far removed from reading about World War I or World War II in history books; this was seemingly happening in the present tense right before my very eyes.

It was around this time as well when I became fascinated by a puzzle book called ‘Masquerade’. The author, Kit Williams, had buried a bejewelled golden pendant in the shape of a hare somewhere in England, and in the book – which told the story of Jack Hare – he’d hidden textual and pictorial clues to pinpoint the pendant’s exact location. I never solved the puzzle, and the treasure was discovered by way of fraud in 1988. The 2009 BBC documentary ‘The Man Behind the Masquerade’ tells the story.

In 1984 the Miners' Strike broke out and, as hundreds of working-class communities were torn apart across the Midlands and the North, I then became aware that the British State would attack its own citizens just as readily as it would foreign entities. Watch video footage of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ online and you’ll see what I mean.

Film Still 5

Such familicidal tendencies were further demonstrated in the mid-1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government launched a completely unhinged and homophobic public health campaign using the slogan: ‘AIDS: Don't Die of Ignorance’ which infected an entire generation of adolescents with paranoia, distrust and self-doubt. The original leaflet is archived by the Wellcome Trust.

Surrounded by all this new knowledge and real life horror, it’s no surprise that by this point I’d started to read Stephen King novels and Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’. In turn, I’d also begun to take the family’s Jack Russell, Shandy, on three hour long walks across farmers’ fields and to a nearby forest, as faraway from civilisation as possible.

I wasn’t a monk however, and would lead a double life by hanging around the front of the shops on the estate with older teenage lads in the evening: learning how to smoke, how to spit, how to swear, how to be angry and how to tell stories ‘that had better be fucking funny!’ When everyone eventually wandered home, I’d then return to my bedroom and switch on the Acorn Electron personal computer which my mum had bought on hire purchase to keep me quiet.

Film Still 2

Interestingly, if you wanted to play ‘free’ DIY games like ‘Tomb Hunter’ or ‘Spy Raider’ on a personal computer you had to type in hundreds of lines of BASIC code which were published in magazines like ‘Electron User’. However, if you made one single error – missed out a number or a letter or typed a colon instead of a semi-colon – then the game wouldn’t work. Little did I know at the time but this painstaking transcription process taught me extremely close reading skills and these would later prove very useful when I studied literary theory and literary criticism as a part of my BA and MA degrees in English Literature in the 1990s and, in turn, when I began to write, direct and edit short films in the 2000s.

In 1988, while writing a crappy ‘Twilight Zone’-style short story on a second-hand Olivetti typewriter in the kitchen, I noticed that Thatcher’s Tory government had now begun to mute all television broadcasts that featured representatives of Sinn Féin, a practice that would only end in 1994. It was at this very moment when it was confirmed for me that I didn’t live in a free society, and I probably never had.

Why was I was being denied access to this information? Why was I being denied the opportunity to make up my own mind about things, or gauge how I felt about such things? Or consider how I should or should not react to them? Or even learn from them? Furthermore, what other information was being withheld from me? What else didn’t I know? And why?

Naturally, as a young man desperate for answers which he was never going to receive, I grew frustrated and started searching out alternatives to the mainstream like I was on some sort of survival mission. I began to read the work of ‘troublemakers’ like George Orwell, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac and Oscar Wilde, as well as whatever biographies I could lay my hands on at the local library in town.

In turn, I also started watching Moviedrome on BBC 2. A late-night television series which started in 1988, it was basically film school for poor people. Subversive film director Alex Cox (‘Repo Man’, ‘Sid and Nancy’) was the presenter. He would enthusiastically discuss the origin, production, style and themes of films which I’d never heard of. These films would then be screened, and I’d suddenly feel my imagination expand, feeling a little less insane and a little less alone. Science fiction classics like ‘X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ or ‘The Fly’ (with Vincent Price), and newer experimental fare like ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. Rugged 1970s films like ‘Five Easy Pieces’, ‘Point Blank’, ‘Badlands’ and ‘The Parallax View’.

What this four-year study programme of ‘cult’ films taught me, as well as the literary books I was now rifling through on a regular basis, was that it wasn’t simply what you thought that mattered but, if you desired to feel vaguely like yourself on your own terms, then how you thought was just as necessary.

After finishing my BA and MA about eight years later I started claiming housing benefit for this damp, solitary bedsit I was confined to while I worked part-time at the library at the University of Derby for the next six years. The main reason for this was so I could have free access to all the books which I’d never had the opportunity to read while in formal education. I gorged myself on Jorge Luis Borges, Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Bukowski, Gustav Meyrink, Jean Genet, Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Primo Levi, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alasdair Gray and Franz Kafka.

After watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre on television on September 11, 2001, I realised that the human race and its leaders were never going to improve during my lifetime, and so I decided I might as well study to be a teacher, sharing what I’d learned, before it was too late. In 2003 I then managed to secure a job teaching A Level Film Studies and A Level Cultural Studies at a college in Manchester.

These recollections of my early personal and cultural life form the basis of my aesthetic approach in ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’. For example, as well as the myth of Sisyphus and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, the narrative structure is loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, and the Lacanian phallocentric ‘I’ - which is associated with this novel’s subtext. In the film, Young Jack even points to the Stoodley Pike monument at one stage and exclaims, “And that big tower looks like a lighthouse, dunnit?”

Film Still 4

In turn, different types of storytelling are addressed to try and understand how and why these represent, and even help to construct, who we think we are. For example, there are numerous ‘storytellers’ present throughout, but who is telling the truth? What about gossip, rumour, poor memory or falsehoods? Who should we trust? The dominant third-person narrator; the newsreaders on the mobile phone; Boris Johnson; the Granny’s voicemails; the female interviewees’ recollections; the protagonist as a boy, as a youth or as a man; Brett Gregory the screenwriter or Brett Gregory the director?

A copy of Kit Williams’ ‘Masquerade’ appears in one of the opening scenes as an intertextual prompt. The characters Young Jack, Jack and Old Jack each tell the audience that they’re looking for their missing dog, Shandy, who keeps getting lost while chasing rabbits. So all three ‘Jacks’ are chasing an invisible ‘Jack’ Russell who, in turn, is chasing the fictional ‘Jack’ Hare from ‘Masquerade’ in the hope that this will ultimately lead to… what? Treasure? The Truth? The Prelapsarian Past? This idea of losing oneself within oneself is also flagged up in the opening Borges’ quote from ‘Labyrinths’ and reiterated in the print of M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ which appears on one of the doors in the protagonist’s flat.

The monologues delivered throughout were written to function as the characters’ streams-of-consciousness, rather than spoken words, since what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is far too complicated to be deemed to be a part of the social realist genre.

In these ways then the film is structured like a working-class modernist novella and, I suppose, this is why a general audience finds it difficult to understand. If my name was David Lynch, I presume people would be inclined to put more effort in.

This said, I have great faith that the film will find a wider audience over time. Co-producer, Jack Clarke, who’s around twenty-five years younger than me, has promised to make sure the film is still available to audiences long after I’m gone.

‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ is currently available here on Amazon Prime in the UK and the US.

This article originally appeared in Strange Exiles in June 2023.

Laurel Strip resized

A heartfelt exploration of one of the maestros of modern British cinema: Tracking Loach, by David Archibald
Sunday, 16 April 2023 08:59

A heartfelt exploration of one of the maestros of modern British cinema: Tracking Loach, by David Archibald

Published in Films

Brett Gregory reviews ‘Tracking Loach’ by David Archibald (Edinburgh University Press, 2023)

David Archibald’s book, ‘Tracking Loach’, is an academic celebration of Ken Loach’s 60 year career in socialist filmmaking and political activism. It is also an extremely timely publication in that Loach’s latest film, ‘The Old Oak’, will be receiving its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 2023.

The author’s unique approach is to prioritise the contextual mechanics of film production studies over the theoretical speculation of critical screen studies, arguing that the reflective observation of the methodologies and logistics involved in preparing, shooting and exhibiting a feature film should elicit a complementary understanding of a filmmaker’s aesthetic. This reminds me of a television interview with David Niven from the 1970s where he asks something along the lines of: ‘How can a critic write a decent review if he’s never actually made a movie himself?’

During Archibald’s ethnographic pursuit of Loach’s poetic and political process his primary sources of data are the annotations, interviews, shooting documents, digital footage and photographs he accrues while being physically present during the production and exhibition of Loach’s working-class comedy-drama set in Glasgow, ‘The Angel’s Share’ (2012).

It should be noted that to be granted access to such a complex and sensitive creative environment and its extremely busy and anxious workforce – its technicians and performers – and, in turn, to enjoy the company and trust of its leaders who have the weight of a major production bearing down on them – Ken Loach (Director), Paul Laverty (Screenwriter) and Rebecca O’Brien (Producer) – is a memorable achievement in itself.

To accompany him on his journey the author also draws on a wide variety of historical and theoretical secondary sources, including the BFI’s Ken Loach Archive, and, as a working-class filmmaker, postgraduate and former film studies lecturer, I found many of his scholarly citations to be just as illuminating as his on-set observations.

For example, when working alongside his early screenwriting partner, Jim Allen, Archibald highlights that Loach’s television productions in the late 1960s and early 1970s were influenced by the political ideas of Leon Trotsky in that the UK’s established democratic system was seen to be inadequate with regards to the economic interests of the proletariat.

Following on from this it is argued that Loach’s films generally aim to reveal to the audience, either explicitly or implicitly, the harsh realities, exploitation and despair of working-class experience and, in turn, that capitalism is not a natural, normal or inevitable way of ordering or governing society.

With this in mind the socialist concerns of Loach’s oeuvre have generally transitioned from addressing issues such as organised labour in ‘The Big Flame’ (1969) and ‘The Rank and File’ (1971), to unorganised labour in ‘Riff Raff’ (1991) and ‘The Navigators’ (2001), and then on to unemployed labour in ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (2002) and ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2016).

While such films could be viewed as a war artist’s mournful depiction of socio-economic casualties lying strewn across a neoliberal battlefield, Archibald posits with reference to the Italian historian, Enzo Traverso, that they can also be understood as evidential ‘open wounds’ which the Left need to nurse so the embers of possibility can once again be reignited.

Aware of Raymond Williams’ contention that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing’, the author proceeds to cite Newland and Hoyle’s view that in some ways Loach’s creative output in the 21st century has begun to move away from the wholly melancholic art cinema of, say, ‘My Name Is Joe’ (1998) and on towards the Ealing comedy tradition with films like ‘Looking for Eric’ (2009) and ‘The Angel’s Share’ (2012). Indeed, as Loach himself states in a footnote, ‘not every film has to end with a fist clenched in the air.’

Loach is a social realist director with the eye of a sympathetic documentarian, influenced by, amongst other things, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, the Free Cinema Movement and the 20th century current affairs programme, ‘World in Action’.

Moreover, similar to the generic conventions exhibited in films from the Italian neo-realist movement such as ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945) and ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), Archibald frequently underscores Loach’s overarching quest to, paradoxically, recreate spontaneity, authenticity and ‘truth’ in his fictional work by employing predominantly naturalistic filmmaking techniques.

By shooting on a ‘real’ location instead of within an ‘artificial’ studio Loach’s objective is to not only encourage the actors to respond to their surrounding environment like recognisable, everyday human beings, but to also display the historical power relations which are inscribed into, for example, the municipal buildings which overshadow them.

Echoing John Grierson’s principle of ‘actuality’, Loach tends to shoot static medium long shots with the filming apparatus and its crew as far away from the ‘action’ as possible, a tactical attempt to motivate the audience to decide what is important and what to focus on, as if they themselves are simply observing matters from across the street.

In turn, this sense of things ‘really happening’ is often reinforced by natural lighting during a shoot via the sky for exteriors or windows for interiors, and by way of continuity editing in post-production so as not to ‘interfere’ with the actors’ onscreen performances and the linear story they are striving to tell.

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Of course, to achieve ‘the illusion of the first time’ casting is crucial, and Loach’s production team frequently enlist non-professional or amateur actors as a consequence. David Bradley as Billy Casper in ‘Kes’ (1969), Crissy Rock as Maggie Conlan in ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ (1994) and Martin Compston as Liam in ‘Sweet Sixteen’ (2002) are just three notable examples.

As well as providing a real world opportunity for a filmmaker to collaborate, explore and develop a character more or less from scratch, Jennifer Beth Spiegel points out that casting non-professional or amateur actors is also good for marketing in that it draws the attention of the popular press by way of the presumption that these ordinary individuals are pure and unsullied by the elbow grease of the film industry and the ego of show business.

An important factor in this process is that unlike most other independent British production companies, Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘Sixteen Films’ has become well-financed and self-sufficient over the decades and as a result they have the time to carry out lengthy scouting missions in order to locate and secure the right actor for the right role.

So to achieve a sense of verisimilitude on screen and in the minds of the audience, Loach et al seek out and cast performers who, besides their physical appearance, not only share similar personality traits with the characters they are pencilled in to play, but who also originate from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

This approach is exemplified by the casting of Paul Brannigan as Gareth O’Connor in ‘The Angel’s Share’ in that the film’s screenwriter, Paul Laverty, first encountered him while conducting research at Strathclyde Police’s Violence Reduction Unit. As Archibald relates, in line with his onscreen character, Brannigan, born in Glasgow’s East End, had been imprisoned for violent crimes and gangland feuding, but was also ‘attempting to go straight’.

Of course, critics will argue that the casting of non-professional actors undermines the history and craft of acting, the experience involved, the knowledge accumulated, the techniques learned, the talent nurtured. For example, in an interview with the author, the actor Roger Allam points out that amateur actors ‘would be at a loss in a Molière play’. While this may be true, a reasonable response would be: what other practical routes are there available in the UK for the working class to climb up on to the silver screen and represent their identities, communities and histories fairly?

In an industry predominantly based in London and owned, run and populated by the middle class and their superiors, the costs involved to train as an actor are astronomical to an ordinary person and the distance to travel, particularly for those in the North, preposterous. Indeed, the few British working-class actors who are lucky enough to enjoy a public platform have consistently highlighted this socio-cultural system of privilege, prejudice and exclusion over recent years.

While Christopher Eccleston asserts that the ‘working class … are not wanted in the arts anymore’, James McAvoy argues that the dominance of privately educated British actors in the 21st century is ‘damaging for society’. In turn, Gary Oldman has stated that he is unable to direct a follow-up to his incendiary ‘Nil by Mouth’ (1997) because ‘They don’t want another one. They want ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’.

In the light of these socio-economic and ideological realities, Loach’s casting of non-professional and amateur actors – together with the working-class stories he tells and the working-class worlds he creates – should be regarded not simply as an aesthetic choice or even socialist posturing. Under the stifling, reductive right-wing administration we are all currently enduring in the UK, enabled on a day-to-day basis by numerous obsequious and self-serving cultural institutions and organisations, it could be reasonably argued that such an approach is, in truth, a revolutionary act.

In his epilogue Archibald includes an apposite quote from the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel:

‘A writer or painter cannot change the world but they can keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them, the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts.’

In ‘Tracking Loach’ there is so much more to discover and learn from its unique, rigorous and genuinely heartfelt exploration of one of the maestros of modern British cinema and modern British politics, Ken Loach. It is highly recommended.

Brett Gregory is the writer/director of the critically acclaimed, self-funded working-class feature film, ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ (2022).

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