Flickhead
DVD Review
By Richard Armstrong

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Secret People:

Free Cinema

A new DVD collection from the Bfi features

Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson’s Momma don’t Allow

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For more information visit the British Film Institute

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    Momma don’t Allow is a short film which appeared in the first program to be shown at London’s National Film Theatre (NFT) under the rubric ‘Free Cinema.’ That was in February 1956. Free Cinema is now regarded as a turning point in British filmmaking, a moment when a staid and safe postwar industry dedicated to entertainment and consensus, what the Free Cinema people called “propaganda,” began to give way to a new cinema based on vernacular British experience, the forthcoming British New Wave. “Implicit in this attitude is a belief in freedom, in the importance of people and in the significance of the everyday” ran the Free Cinema manifesto. On the 50th anniversary of the first Free Cinema program, and the release of the Bfi DVD box set Free Cinema, I am struck by certain moments in Momma don’t Allow.
    Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson’s actuality film records an evening in 1955 at Art and Viv Sanders’ Wood Green Jazz Club at the Fishmonger’s Arms in north London. It begins by introducing us to individuals leaving work and getting ready for a night at the club. The film will follow these people through the night. Reisz and Richardson were keen to capture life in the raw: “We did not need to take up the conventional class attitudes of British film-making, we felt free not to disapprove of teddy boys, not to patronize shop-girls, not to make sensational or hysterical a subject which is neither (but is almost always shown so)…It is the freedom, exuberance and vitality of this world that we set out to capture and to admire.”
    At one point a young dental assistant, let us call her Audrey, chastises her boyfriend and, incensed, rushes out of the club. Her boyfriend follows her and tries to talk to her, but she turns her face to the wall. Then we cut to another club-goer back inside. Watching this incident, I am reminded of a moment around twenty-two years later not three miles away in Finsbury Park. On an autumn afternoon in 1988 I was walking in the park when a man with a 16mm camera upset a woman who was having a row with what appeared to be her boyfriend. Deliberately approaching, the man pointed the camera. From a distance, I could see the woman standing alone with her face buried in her hands while her boyfriend walked resolutely away. The woman then lifted her face from her hands and shouted something I didn’t catch in his direction. From where I stood her cheeks seemed puffy and wet. The man approached… Suddenly she flew at the cameraman, stopping him, and me, in our tracks. She was shrieking: “DON’T YOU DARE POINT THAT FUCKIN’ THING AT ME!!!!” The cameraman stopped dead and walked briskly away. As he walked, his gait seemed to stiffen as if the effort to put as much distance between himself and the woman was making his legs seize up.
    What is striking about the lovers’ quarrel in Momma don’t Allow is the politesse accorded Audrey by the filmmakers. They don’t dwell. They come straight indoors when it looks as though they are prying. Yet I am struck too by the fact that when she goes outside there is a person out there ready to film her…

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Above: Dancing at the club in Momma don’t Allow. (Photo courtesy the British Film Institute.)
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    Beneath the random surface of all filmmaking which purports to be cinéma-vérité, there is a hidden history of manipulation, coercion and influence which, because we only occasionally hear the details from filmmakers, remains beneath the surface. I have seen Momma don’t Allow maybe eight times. If at first its events seemed random, miscellaneous, confused, experience with all its contingencies, loose ends and inconclusions showing, it has come to feel increasingly coherent, shaped.

“I had a pretty daddy as sweet as he could be.
He’s found another woman and now he don’t want me.
I think I hear him coming…
But it’s the breeze knocking at my door.”

    So runs the lyric of a blues the band play as we see Audrey watching her boyfriend dance with another woman. She looks angry. Clearly a narrative is being retrieved from the mess of experience. Or is it being contrived? We must suppose that the club’s patrons, like the band members, were aware that there was at least one person among the crowd filming them that night. But how much more can we conclude about this collusion? Was this a real lovers’ spat we were witnessing? If it was, did the lovers not mind being filmed? There are moments here when individuals seem to perform, such as the young man blowing smoke rings, the railway auxiliary jiving her socks off. Did that well-to-do girl pause in that way deliberately so as to afford the camera a generous close-up as she shows off her profile? When did actuality become acting? Would these people have behaved like this if the camera had not been there?
    The more I watched this film, the more shaped the experience became. There is an interesting scheme of pairing going on between Audrey and the well-to-do girl, let’s call her Kay, which adds to the growing sense of design. Following the shot of Kay showing off her profile, we cut to Audrey dancing. It appears as if Kay looks directly at Audrey. Later, as Audrey and her boy reconcile outside, Audrey looks up and we cut to Kay leaving with her friends. I have called the well-to-do girl Kay because she resembles Kay Kendall, a popular British star of the time who had been purveying middle class English hauteur since Genevieve (1953). I have called the dental assistant Audrey because she resembles the young Audrey Hepburn, a British star who went to Hollywood around 1953.
    By 1956 Kendall was doing the Mayfair drawing room comedy for which she is now best remembered. But she began the decade in more proletarian worlds. Dance Hall (1950) was an episodic story of factory girls and their romantic entanglements. Wrote Paul Taylor in Time Out: “perhaps the closest the British cinema of its period came to a neo-realist fresco: a matrix of low-key melodramatic narratives converging on the communal core of the local palais…even the domestic cliché situations communicate a lively sense of resistance to dominant social and economic austerity.” On levels of plot and characterization, the similarities between Dance Hall and Momma don’t Allow seem striking. The Free Cinema shorts were intended to be calling cards into the industry. It seems unsurprising then that a film made on the fringes by filmmakers with a demonstrable yen for movies would trade in the conventions and pleasures of the mainstream: Reisz wrote for Sequence magazine in the early-50s, and by the mid-50s was programming the NFT.
    The convergence of an industry potboiler like Dance Hall and a slice of experimental vérité over the question of Friday night also illustrates the endless conundrum of realism. When you take out a camera in a public place, what do you gain and what do you lose? What can the “significance of the everyday” mean in these circumstances? Nearly twenty years on, I still feel uncomfortable about the incident in Finsbury Park. Perhaps I shouldn’t. After all, the woman I was filming might have been an actor.

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For more information on other DVDs available from the Bfi, click here.

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Copyright © 2006 by Richard Armstrong