By the end of the 1950s, British cultural production had fallen out of step with the realities of British life. Still in thrall to the drawing room comedies of Noel Coward and the well-made plays of Terrence Rattigan, British theatre was about to undergo a paradigm shift that would banish romanticism and replace it with a commitment to unflinching social realism. Though usually associated with the establishment of the National Theatre, the rise of Kenneth Tynan, and the emergence of the so-called Angry Young Men, Britain’s realist turn was also evident in cinemas as producers fell over themselves to turn realist plays and novels into films that held a mirror up to the realities of life in modern Britain.
Films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey took inspiration from Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays and focused their attentions on the hardships and tragedies of working class life. Confrontational and unapologetically left-wing, they critiqued a society in which the poor were left to rot while the rich enjoyed all the benefits of economic renewal. While this vogue for social realism manifestly did very little to slow the rising tide of social inequality, the belief that drama should project us into the world rather than help us escape it endured for generations. Even once the revolutionary energy began to drain from the British film industry, a commitment to ‘kitchen sink’ realism survived in TV strands such as Armchair Theatre, the Wednesday Play and Play for Today. Traces of it can even be detected in that very British tendency to produce dramas and soap operas about the lives of the working class rather than the upper-middle class families favoured by American TV dramas.
Hollywood has never shared Britain’s interest in chronicling the lives of the poor and desperate. Up until the Second World War, the studios made it their business to provide audiences with glimpses of lives more glamorous than their own. In fact, the 1930s actress Kay Francis was explicitly marketed as the best-dressed woman in the world and many of her films feel like little more than excuses for her to change into a series of expensive-looking outfits. However, while the studios may have been reluctant to shine a light on the lives of America’s dispossessed, they did regularly produce films that were critical of the status quo… you just needed to look beyond the big houses and glamorous wardrobes.
From the silent era all the way till the 1960s, Hollywood produced films with female audiences in mind. Usually built around a bankable female star, these so-called women’s films focused on the emotional realities of women’s lives including love-triangles, affairs, spousal estrangement, parenting problems and mental illness. For example films like Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed and Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool feature women who are driven insane by uncaring husbands and manipulative lovers. Many of these films are now quite difficult to find as the term ‘women’s film’ is itself somewhat problematic. Though still in use until the 1960s, many critics consider the genre to be little more than an expression of institutionalised sexism as saying that certain films are ‘for women’ seems to imply that men are the cinema’s natural audience. As a result of these problems, many women’s films are today referred to as melodramas.
Melodramas are often criticised for their political conservatism in that they introduce us to people whose lives are literally torn apart by the injustices of American society only for said people to either die or return to the roles allotted to them by virtue of their gender and social class. For example, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun features a working class Montgomery Clift who falls in love with wealthy society girl Elizabeth Taylor only to have his shot at social mobility destroyed by a combination of jealousy and unwanted pregnancy. Viewed in a certain light, the film is all about a man being brought down by his own hubris but, seen in a different light, it is also about social class and the difficulty of finding happiness in a capitalist society. Though ostensibly conservative, many melodramas and women’s films can be read as subtle critiques of an American society that would rather kill, immiserate and drive people insane than allow them to find happiness on their own terms.
While many great directors made films in the melodramatic style, the idea of the melodrama as subtle social criticism is most closely associated with the films of Douglas Sirk. Born in Germany in the late 19th Century, Sirk abandoned a successful theatrical and cinematic career in 1937 when his political convictions and Jewish wife forced him to leave Germany. Initially dismissed as a purveyor of commercially successful fluff who made films that were unimportant, dull and ludicrously over-stylised, Sirk is now understood to have been a fiercely principled intellectual who moved to America with a plan to make films that hid their social criticism beneath a veil of irony. The re-discovery of Sirk is said to have begun in the late 1950s when the fiercely leftist Cahiers du Cinema began defending his work but the use of irony in films like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life continue to pose something of a critical challenge. As the late Roger Ebert once put it:
To appreciate a film likeWritten on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.
Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven is a loving tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk. Shot in a style similar to Sirk’s using similar colour schemes, similar camera angles, similar compositions and similar sound-recording techniques that litter the soundtrack with echoing footsteps and rustling crinoline, Far from Heaven is a traditional Hollywood melodrama, right down to its brutal critique of American culture.
While I have tried my best to stay out of the way of any essays or reviews that might have distorted my take on this collection, I had heard that the final eponymous story was something special. I imagine there’s an art to the ordering of short story collections, maybe you start strong in order to grab the attention, hide the weaker stories in the middle, and end with fireworks in an effort to ensure that readers walk away from the book with a good impression of the author. Art as cognitive psychology… you always remember the first things and the final things but the stuff in the middle fades quite quickly. Last Night certainly started strongly only to become stuck in a rut of photocopied themes and stock characters, did Salter have it in him to go out with a bang? Well… yes.
I can certainly see why “Last Night” would stick in some reviewers’ memories; it seems considerably more accessible than a lot of the stories in the collection and while it too revisits those themes of middle-aged regret and sexual yearning, it does so in a style more reminiscent of O. Henry or Roald Dahl than James Salter. Much like “Give”, “Last Night” is ostensibly all about the twist in the tale while the really interesting stuff lies buried in sub-text and the details of character psychology. Like many of the best stories in this collection “Last Night” appears to be about one thing but is actually about another.
It is now quite common to speak of a need for greater diversity in the media that we produce and consume, but where does this ‘diversity’ reside? Are we calling for a more representative creative class or media that speaks to the desires and interests of a more diverse population? Clearly, taking a monolithically straight, white and American cultural form such as the contemporary Superhero film and adding a few token non-whites and non-straights would do little to improve the situation. One diversity-container that frequently gets overlooked is the idea of ‘spaces’ and how those spaces help to shape experiences and build cultures. This is something of a pity as LGBT cinema does spaces better than almost any other form.
The unrivalled king of gay spaces is the French director Jacques Nolot. One-time lover of Roland Barthes and protégé of Andre Techine, Nolot has devoted his cinematic career to the marginal spaces around gay culture. His second film Glowing Eyes is set in a porn cinema and explores not only the fluid nature of the identities and relationships created by the space, but also the importance of such spaces as venues for experimentation and self-expression. While Glowing Eyes is all about a space that allows entrance to different forms of sexuality, his third film Before I Forget examines the end game and the almost post-apocalyptic spaces opened up by disease, death and the end of gay men’s lives. These is a lovely scene in Before I Forget where Nolot’s character lets himself into an old boyfriend’s house in order to secure something of value for all those years of companionship. What he finds is that the dead man’s family have swooped in to pick the place clean forming an unspoken case for gay marriage at least as powerful as the one buried in the subtext of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. Structured like a thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the lake is perhaps not quite as brave as Nolot’s thunderously un-commercial works but his desire to recreate and explore a gay space is no less fascinating.
Kim Longinotto is a documentarian whose time has finally come. Since the mid-1970s, Longinotto has been taking her cameras to corners of the world where women battle to survive cultures that are fundamentally hostile to their interests. Intersectional long before the term had been coined let alone entered the cultural mainstream; Kim Longinotto’s films explore the plight of women with a sensitivity to sexuality, race, class and culture that is never anything less thought-provoking. Though unabashedly moral, Longinotto’s films are never moralising… they forego easy villains and reductive narratives, focusing instead upon trying to understand the views of local women and placing those views within a broader cultural context. For example, Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway depict Iran as a country where every deck is stacked against women but the women who feature in the films all seem to be aware of the hands they have been dealt and play them as well as they possibly can whilst continuing to obey the rules. Conversely, Longinotto’s Shinjuku Boys and Gaea Girls depict the men of Japan as absentee landlords and women as bold experimentalists who relentlessly push at the limits of conventional gender roles in order to find a place they can be themselves. More confrontational and optimistic than either set of films, Sisters in Law travels to Cameroon where a small group of female judicial activists use commonly un-enforced laws to put pressure on traditional practices and raise awareness about the treatment of women and children. Focused on the Somali community living in Kenya, The Day I Will Never Forget takes a long, hard look at the practice of female circumcision and asks it works, what it means, why it continues to be practiced, and why that practice might eventually come to an end.
The film opens with what could almost be called a best-case scenario. A young Somali woman prepares for her marriage as the local Somali community bustle around her; we see the wedding dress being fitted, we see the application of henna to her skin, we see her hair being made up. Then we are transported to the Somali equivalent of a hen night where the young woman’s friends and female relatives dance and sing in front of a groom who is manifestly trying his best not to be intimidated. One woman sings that Somali woman are always mistreated by their men and the point of the exercise becomes clear: Mess with one of us, and you will regret it. The Day I Will Never Forget is about that bond of community… for good and ill.